Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 2, Chapter 9 (annotations forthcoming)

After some exploration, they tracked down a rerun of The
Young and the Doomed (1890) to a tiny theater that spe-
cialized in Painted Westerns (as those deserts of nonart used
to be called). Thus had Mlle Larivière's Enfants Maudits (1887)
424.05 finally degenerated! She had had two adolescents, in a French
castle, poison their widowed mother who had seduced a
young neighbor, the lover of one of her twins. The author
had made many concessions to the freedom of the times, and
the foul fancy of scriptwriters; but both she and the leading
424.10 lady disavowed the final result of multiple tamperings with the
plot that had now become the story of a murder in Arizona,
the victim being a widower about to marry an alcoholic prosti-
tute, whom Marina, quite sensibly, refused to impersonate. But
poor little Ada had clung to her bit part, a two-minute scene
424.15 in a traktir (roadside tavern). During the rehearsals she felt
she was doing not badly as a serpentine barmaid—until the
director blamed her for moving like an angular "backfish."
She had not deigned to see the final product and was not
overeager to have Van see it now, but he reminded her that
424.20 the same director, G.A. Vronsky, had told her she was always

[ 424 ]

pretty enough to serve one day as a stand-in for Lenore Colline,
who at twenty had been as attractively gauche as she, raising
and tensing forward her shoulders in the same way, when cross-
ing a room. Having sat through a preliminary P.W. short, they
425.05 finally got to The Young and the Doomed only to discover that
the barmaid scene of the barroom sequence had been cut out—
except for a perfectly distinct shadow of Ada's elbow, as Van
kindly maintained.
Next day, in their little drawing room, with its black divan,
425.10 yellow cushions, and draftproof bay whose new window seemed
to magnify the slow steady straight-falling snowflakes (coinci-
dentally stylized on the cover of the current issue of The Beau
& the Butterfly which lay on the window ledge), Ada discussed
her "dramatic career." The whole matter secretly nauseated
425.15 Van (so that, by contrast, her Natural History passion ac-
quired a nostalgic splendor). For him the written word existed
only in its abstract purity, in its unrepeatable appeal to an
equally ideal mind. It belonged solely to its creator and could
not be spoken or enacted by a mime (as Ada insisted) without
425.20 letting the deadly stab of another's mind destroy the artist in the
very lair of his art. A written play was intrinsically superior to
the best performance of it, even if directed by the author him-
self. Otherwise, Van agreed with Ada that the talking screen
was certainly preferable to the live theater for the simple reason
425.25 that with the former a director could attain, and maintain, his
own standards of perfection throughout an unlimited number
of performances.
Neither of them could imagine the partings that her profess-
sional existence "on location" might necessitate, and neither
425.30 could imagine their traveling together to Argus-eyed destina-
tions and living together in Hollywood, U.S.A., or Ivydell,
England, or the sugar-white Cohnritz Hotel in Cairo. To tell
the truth they did not imagine any other life at all beyond their
present tableau vivant in the lovely dove-blue Manhattan sky.

[ 425 ]

At fourteen, Ada had firmly believed she would shoot to
stardom and there, with a grand bang, break into prismatic
tears of triumph. She studied at special schools. Unsuccessful
but gifted actresses, as well as Stan Slavsky (no relation, and
426.05 not a stage name), gave her private lessons of drama, despair,
hope. Her debut was a quiet little disaster; her subsequent ap-
pearances were sincerely applauded only by close friends.
"One's first love," she told Van, "is one's first standing ova-
tion, and that is what makes great artists—so Stan and his girl
426.10 friend, who played Miss Spangle Triangle in Flying Rings,
assured me. Actual recognition may come only with the last
"Bosh!" said Van.
"Precisely—he too was hooted by hack hoods in much older
426.15 Amsterdams, and look how three hundred years later every
Poppy Group pup copies him! I still think I have talent, but
then maybe I'm confusing the right podhod (approach) with
talent, which does not give a dry fig for rules deduced from
past art."
426.20 "Well, at least you know that," said Van; "and you've dwelt
at length upon it in one of your letters."
"I seem to have always felt, for example, that acting should
be focused not on 'characters,' not on 'types' of something
or other, not on the fokus-pokus of a social theme, but exclu-
426.25 sively on the subjective and unique poetry of the author, be-
cause playwrights, as the greatest among them has shown, are
closer to poets than to novelists. In 'real' life we are creatures
of chance in an absolute void—unless we be artists ourselves,
naturally; but in a good play I feel authored, I feel passed by
426.30 the board of censors, I feel secure, with only a breathing black-
ness before me (instead of our Fourth-Wall Time), I feel
cuddled in the embrace of puzzled Will (he thought I was you)
or in that of the much more normal Anton Pavlovich, who was
always passionately fond of long dark hair."

[ 426 ]

"That you also wrote to me once."
The beginning of Ada's limelife in 1891 happened to coin-
cide with the end of her mother's twenty-five-year-long career.
What is more, both appeared in Chekhov's Four Sisters. Ada
427.05 played Irina on the modest stage of the Yakima Academy of
Drama in a somewhat abridged version which, for example, kept
only the references to Sister Varvara, the garrulous originalka
("odd female"—as Marsha calls her) but eliminated her actual
scenes, so that the title of the play might have been The Three
427.10 Sisters, as indeed it appeared in the wittier of the local notices.
It was the (somewhat expanded) part of the nun that Marina
acted in an elaborate film version of the play; and the picture
and she received a goodly amount of undeserved praise.
"Ever since I planned to go on the stage," said Ada (we are
427.15 using her notes), "I was haunted by Marina's mediocrity, au
au dire de la critique, which either ignored her or lumped her in
the common grave with other 'adequate sustainers'; or, if the
role had sufficient magnitude, the gamut went from 'wooden'
to 'sensitive' (the highest compliment her accomplishments
427.20 had ever received). And here she was, at the most delicate
moment of my career, multiplying and sending out to friends
and foes such exasperating comments as 'Durmanova is superb
as the neurotic nun, having transferred an essentially static and
episodical part into et cetera, et cetera, et cetera."
427.25 "Of course, the cinema has no language problems," continued
Ada (while Van swallowed, rather than stifled, a yawn). "Ma-
rina and three of the men did not need the excellent dubbing
which the other members of the cast, who lacked the lingo,
were provided with; but our wretched Yakima production
427.30 could rely on only two Russians, Stan's protégé Altshuler in
the role of Baron Nikolay Lvovich Tuzenbach-Krone-
Altschauer, and myself as Irina, la pauvre et noble enfant, who
is a telegraph operator in one act, a town-council employee in
another, and a schoolteacher in the end. All the rest had a

[ 427 ]

macedoine of accents—English, French, Italian—by the way
what's the Italian for 'window'?"
"Finestra, sestra," said Van, mimicking a mad prompter.
"Irina (sobbing): 'Where, where has it all gone? Oh, dear,
428.05 oh, dear! All is forgotten, forgotten, muddled up in my head—
I don't remember the Italian for "ceiling" or, say, "window." ' "
"No, 'window' comes first in that speech," said Van, "be-
cause she looks around, and then up; in the natural movement
of thought."
428.10 "Yes, of course: still wrestling with 'window,' she looks up
and is confronted by the equally enigmatic 'ceiling.' In fact,
I'm sure I played it your psychological way, but what does it
matter, what did it matter?—the performance was perfectly
odious, my baron kept fluffing every other line—but Marina,
428.15 Marina was marvelous in her world of shadows! 'Ten years
and one have gone by-abye since I left Moscow' "—(Ada, now
playing Varvara, copied the nun's "singsongy devotional tone"
(pevuchiy ton bogomolki, as indicated by Chekhov and as ren-
dered so irritatingly well by Marina). " 'Nowadays, Old Bas-
428.20 mannaya Street, where you (turning to Irina) were born a
score of yearkins (godkov) ago, is Busman Road, lined on both
sides with workshops and garages (Irina tries to control her
tears). Why, then, should you want to go back, Arinushka?
(Irina sobs in reply).' Naturally, as would-every fine player,
428.25 mother improvised quite a bit, bless her soul. And moreover
her voice—in young tuneful Russian!—is substituted for Le-
nore's corny brogue."
Van had seen the picture and had liked it. An Irish girl, the
infinitely graceful and melancholy Lenore Colline—
428.30 Oh! qui me rendra ma colline
Et le grand chêne and my colleen!
—harrowingly resembled Ada Ardis as photographed with her
mother in Belladonna, a movie magazine which Greg Erminin

[ 428 ]

had sent him, thinking it would delight him to see aunt and
cousin, together, on a California patio just before the film was
released. Varvara, the late General Sergey Prozorov's eldest
daughter, comes in Act One from her remote nunnery, Tsitsikar
429.05 Convent, to Perm (also called Permwail), in the backwoods of
Akimsk Bay, North Canady, to have tea with Olga, Marsha,
and Irina on the latter's name day. Much to the nun's dismay,
her three sisters dream only of one thing—leaving cool, damp,
mosquito-infested but otherwise nice and peaceful "Permanent"
429.10 as Irina mockingly dubs it, for high life in remote and sinful
Moscow, Id., the former capital of Estotiland. In the first edition
of his play, which never quite manages to heave the soft sigh
of a masterpiece, Tchechoff (as he spelled his name when living
that year at the execrable Pension Russe, 9, rue Gounod, Nice)
429.15 crammed into the two pages of a ludicrous expository scene all
the information he wished to get rid of, great lumps of recol-
lections and calendar dates—an impossible burden to place on
the fragile shoulders of three unhappy Estotiwomen. Later he
redistributed that information through a considerably longer
429.20 scene in which the arrival of the monashka Varvara provides
all the speeches needed to satisfy the restless curiosity of the
audience. This was a neat stroke of stagecraft, but unfortunately
(as so often occurs in the case of characters brought in for
disingenuous purposes) the nun stayed on, and not until the
429.25 third, penultimate, act was the author able to bundle her off,
back to her convent.
"I assume," said Van (knowing his girl), "that you did not
want any tips from Marina for your Irina?"
"It would have only resulted in a row. I always resented her
429.30 suggestions because they were made in a sarcastic, insulting
manner. I've heard mother birds going into neurotic paroxysms
of fury and mockery when their poor little tailless ones (bezkh-
vostïe bednyachkí) were slow in learning to fly. I've had enough
of that. By the way, here's the program of my flop."

[ 429 ]

Van glanced through the list of players and D.P.'s and noticed
two amusing details: the role of Fedotik, an artillery officer
(whose comedy organ consists of a constantly clicking camera),
had been assigned to a "Kim (short for Yakim) Eskimossoff"
430.05 and somebody called "John Starling" had been cast as Skvortsov
(a sekundant in the rather amateurish duel of the last act) whose
name comes from skvorets, starling. When he communicated the
latter observation to Ada, she blushed as was her Old World
430.10 "Yes," she said, "he was quite a lovely lad and I sort of
flirted with him, but the strain and the split were too much
for him—he had been, since pubescence, the puerulus of a fat
ballet master, Dangleleaf, and he finally committed suicide. You
see ('the blush now replaced by a matovaya pallor') I'm not
430.15 hiding one stain of what rhymes with Perm."
"I see. And Yakim—"
"Oh, he was nothing."
"No, I mean, Yakim, at least, did not, as his rhymesake did,
take a picture of your brother embracing his girl. Played by
430.20 Dawn de Laire."
"I'm not sure. I seem to recall that our director did not mind
some comic relief."
"Dawn en robe rose et verte, at the end of Act One."
"I think there was a click in the wings and some healthy
430.25 mirth in the house. All poor Starling had to do in the play was
to hollo off stage from a rowboat on the Kama River to give
the signal for my fiancé to come to the dueling ground."
But let us shift to the didactic metaphorism of Chekhov's
friend, Count Tolstoy.
430.30 We all know those old wardrobes in old hotels in the Old
World subalpine zone. At first one opens them with the utmost
care, very slowly, in the vain hope of hushing the excruciating
creak, the growing groan that the door emits midway. Before
long one discovers, however, that if it is opened or closed with

[ 430 ]

celerity, in one resolute sweep, the hellish hinge is taken by
surprise, and triumphant silence achieved. Van and Ada, for
all the exquisite and powerful bliss that engulfed and repleted
them (and we do not mean here the rose sore of Eros alone),
431.05 knew that certain memories had to be left closed, lest they
wrench every nerve of the soul with their monstrous moan.
But if the operation is performed swiftly, if indelible evils are
mentioned between two quick quips, there is a chance that the
anesthetic of life itself may allay unforgettable agony in the
431.10 process of swinging its door.
Now and then she poked fun at his sexual peccadilloes, though
generally she tended to ignore them as if demanding, by tacit
implication, a similar kind of leniency in regard to her frailty.
He was more inquisitive than she but hardly managed to learn
431.15 more from her lips than he had from her letters. To her past
admirers Ada attributed all the features and faults we have
already been informed of: incompetence of performance, inanity
and nonentity, and to her own self nothing beyond easy fem-
inine compassion and such considerations of hygiene and sanity
431.20 as hurt Van more than would a defiant avowal of passionate
betrayal. Ada had made up her mind to transcend his and her
sensual sins: the adjective being a near synonym of "senseless"
and "soulless"; therefore not represented in the ineffable here-
after that both our young people mutely and shyly believed in.
431.25 Van endeavored to follow the same line of logic but could not
forget the shame and the agony even while reaching heights
of happiness he had not known at his brightest hour before his
darkest one in the past.

[ 431 ]

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