Part One, Chapter 10


After a chapter free of all but the most playfully obvious allusions, Nabokov here piles allusion on arcane allusion and implication on implication.

Ada’s and Van’s allusiveness is not a problem for the first-time reader; the excess and color of their intellectual exuberance and the comedy of their outclassing Marina seems meaning enough. But as so often in Ada, Nabokov uses allusion, external and internal, to diffuse and focus multiple themes, to circumvent Van and Ada’s narrative guard, to conceal and yet to reveal reserves of secret sense.

If this chapter records a meeting of true minds, only two people are permitted full speaking rights. Van and Ada happily exclude the woman Van will later call “dummy-mummy” (583) and talk to each other gleefully over her head. Where she fails to understand their allusions to Rimbaud and Marvell, Van and Ada will two years later draw on their perfect memory of “Mémoire” and “The Garden” to make these poems the key for a coded correspondence that will continue to shut out obstacles to their love like Marina. (Cf. Boyd 1985/2001: 58-59.)

As their love becomes sexual and secret during Ardis the First, Van and Ada find they have little to fear from the vague and inattentive Marina, too preoccupied with her own romantic affairs to notice her daughter and the boy she knows is her son. But they discover there is someone else they must shut out, their wide-eyed little half-sister Lucette. For all their attempt to exclude her, she will prove impossible to disengage from their passion.

Nabokov signals that here in complex and pointed ways. At eight, Lucette is too young to share dinner with Marina and the two older children, yet with her characteristically “spectacular handling of subordinate clauses, her parenthetic asides” (61), Ada brings her little sister perfectly naturally into the discussion of Fowlie’s mistranslation of Rimbaud--which was drawn to her attention by Mlle Larivière, who is upstairs tucking in Lucette, whose willow-green nightdress in turn allows Ada to glide over Marina’s interruption and straight back into a line of Rimbaud.

But Nabokov brings Lucette into the discussion in many ways neither Ada nor Van can realize.

Appropriately in a novel so haunted by memory, Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” may well be the most important single literary work alluded to in Ada (only the combined force of the Chateaubriand references might perhaps outweigh it), and as Cancogni comments on Ada’s reference to Lucette in her green nightgown, “in so far as Lucette habitually wears green, the line and the girl remain associated throughout the novel, and the poem” (218).

In I.23 Van and Ada record the threat to their new love-making posed by Lucette’s curiosity. In a scene beside a river reminiscent of the one that as it were becomes memory in “Mémoire,” and is full of echoes from the poem (a child reading on a flowery bank, a plaything, a willow: see Boyd 1985/2001: 122-23), Van strips to retrieve from the river Lucette’s rubber doll that has floated away; Ada, fired with desire, invents a pretext for tying Lucette up to a willow while she and Van run off to make love; but Lucette unties herself, peers on their interesting activity, and returns to her willow just in time to look as if she is struggling to untie herself when they return. After this vision, Lucette spies on them everywhere she can, and eventually becomes obsessed with Van in a way that will lead to her suicide by drowning, prefigured in the rubber doll swept away in the river.

The willow green nightgown however recurs only once more in the novel: on the last occasion when the three Veen children are all together. The morning after a drunken night at a restaurant in Manhattan, when Lucette has slept over with Van and Ada at their apartment, she is “still in her willow green nightie” (417) when pulled into bed by Ada, who then draws Van’s hand over herself to fondle Lucette. Van describes the decadent scene in great detail, “as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric [Veen] had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams” for his Villa Venuses (418-19). That “ciel mirror” pointedly echoes the “ciel de lit . . . ‘bed ceiler’ ” (64) of Ada’s interrupted sentence introducing the first reference to Lucette’s nightgown. Lucette rushes off distraught from the most dangerous of all Ada’s sexual pranks, and by the time she next meets Van, her sexuality has become direly disturbed.

Nabokov foreshadows Lucette’s fate by way of Ada’s commentary on the mistranslation of Rimbaud. In his translation, Fowlie “deflowers” the poem by translating the word for marsh marigold as “the care of the water”; Lucette, who is determined to lose her virginity to Van or no one, jumps to her death in the Atlantic in 1901 when she fails to seduce him, and becomes indeed the “care of the water.”

Nabokov points to the deflowering theme in two other still more oblique ways. “The forged louis d’or in that collection of fouled French is the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’ ” whispers in a kind of undercurrent--in the “gold” of “d’or” and “marigold,” and the “asinine” and “transformation”--the names of The Metamorphoses (or The Transformations), also known as The Golden Ass, of Lucius Apuleius (born c. A.D. 123), which Nabokov refers to in EO, II,137. “In that novel, of course, Lucius is transformed into an ass--and what it takes to make him whole again is to eat a rose. A flower in Fowlie’s translation, too, will turn the asinine transformation back to the original” (Boyd 1985/2001: 53).

Ada’s sentence on souci d’eau then carries on to suggest synonyms Fowlie could have used, such as “mollyblob, marybud, maybubble.” Marybud does mean “marigold,” and May blob “marsh marigold,” but the invented “mollyblob” and “maybubble” point instead to Molly Bloom’s famous musing on what a character in Ada will later term “popping the hymen” (523): “and they always want to see a stain on the bed to know youre a virgin for them all thats troubling them theyre such fools too you could be a widow or divorced 40 times over a daub of red ink would do or blackberry juice no thats too purply” (Ulysses 633, 18.1125-28). Nabokov confirms the allusion to this most celebrated of interior monologues by introducing as topics of Ada’s arcane disquisitions “a natural history wonder, a special belletristic device-- . . . monologue intérieur” (61).

These insistent multiple plays on deflowering in the souci d’eau passage, then, condense the tragic irony of Lucette’s fate, that although initiated into sex too young, ever since that afternoon near the bank of that Rimbaudian river, she will die a virgin because she cannot bear life without Van (see Boyd 1985/2001: 53-60).

Although absent, Lucette is implicated in other ways throughout the dinnertime conversation. Just when Ada first identifies the painted flower as a marsh marigold, Marina interrupts: “Yes, indeed, . . . when I was playing Ophelia, the fact that I had once collected flowers-- ” (63). Lucette’s instability and her fixation on Van first become apparent when at fifteen and sixteen she puns “in an Ophelian frenzy on the female glans” (394), and a host of Hamlet allusions in II.v “confirm Lucette’s role as Ophelia: painfully obsessed with the idea of her virginity, she will carry her obsession to a watery grave” (Boyd 1985/2001: 120); Van even comments (in a veiled way, knowing that Demon will read his letter to Ada): “As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not have drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. . . . ” (497)

After Ada denounces an anglophone mistranslation of Rimbaud, Van imagines an equivalent mistranslation into French, from, say, Marvell’s “The Garden.” Ada promptly offers a “transversion” she has already made of this famous lyric which happens to eliminate all the leafy garlands from Marvell’s opening lines and replace his oak with the Oka River, and his palm and bay with the Baie du Palmier: with, in other words, two bodies of water, just as the flower souci d’eau had been replaced with “care of the water.” Lucette, with her green eyes and attire and her red hair, will be repeatedly associated with leaves in spring green or fall red (cf. Mason 1974, 93-120).

Lucette, indeed, turns out to be central to Ada’s translation theme, from the mistranslation of Anna Karenin with which Ada starts (Van, trying to claim his was a happy family unlike all others, cites a revised and reversed version of the opening of a novel that is, nevertheless, about a woman who commits suicide: cf. 3.01-02n. and Boyd 1985/2001: 124) to the attempted translation of John Shade in Ada’s last chapter, which prompts Ada to cry out “Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married” (586), by way of Ada’s mistranslation of François Coppée (127-28) and Van’s silent revision of her lines (247), another case where Nabokov links Lucette with the loss of leaves in a translation (see Boyd 1985/2001: 56-57 and afternotes to I.20 and I.38).

As if to signal its special place in the architecture of Ada, I.10 has a curiously close alignment with the novel’s opening chapter. Van’s description of Ada’s “arch and grandiloquent” speech at the start of I.10 describes perfectly her one similar speech to date, her first speech in the novel, in the herbarium in the attic (8-9). There too she had mingled natural history--the Butterfly Orchis, the Bear-Foot, the Pied de Lion--and “a special belletristic device” (61): “Dr. Krolik, our local naturalist, to whom you, Van, have referred, as Jane Austen might have phrased it, for the sake of rapid narrative information (you recall Brown, don’t you, Smith?)” (8). Even naming Van, as she does in this line, anticipates for the reader or recalls for the rereader her first pronouncing his name in “that botanical lesson” about the marsh marigold (64), as the references to Krolik and to “your father, who according to Blanche, is also mine” (8) anticipate and recall Ada’s “our learned governess, who was also yours, Van” (64). Marina’s references to collecting flowers bracket Ada’s disquisition on the marsh marigold (63, 65) and point straight to the flowers Van and Ada will find in the herbarium in the attic. Directly after the herbarium scene, I.1 makes an awkward transition to an explanatory coda (“Re the ‘dark-blue’ allusion, left hanging,” 9) that identifies someone on the family tree and explicitly refers to Proust. In I.10, immediately after Marina says she cannot remember exactly when she collected flowers, this chapter too introduces an awkward transition to an explanatory coda (“The reference was to Ivan Durmanov,” 65) that identifies someone on the family tree and leads promptly to the Proustian character Gilberte Swann.

Why does Nabokov establish these powerful but circuitous links? In the first place, both chapters show Van and Ada proudly exclusive, excited by their own superiority of mind to any imaginable audience (cf. Boyd 1991: 548-51); but whereas in I.10 they happily exclude Marina from their elective affinity, in I.1 they discover that she is in fact mother to them both.

Above all it is Lucette who is excluded from the attic scene, as she is excluded from the dinner scene at Ardis, and yet is centrally implied in both. In the attic scene, Lucette is not even mentioned by name, but is referred to in only one dismissive sentence: “Another daughter, this time Dan’s very own, followed on January 3, 1876” (6). In the dinner scene, she has been sent to bed as too young, yet becomes an apparent distraction during, and a covert focus of, the discussion of the souci d’eau. On this occasion Marina is physically present, but Van and Ada float over her head with their references to the poems they remember so well. Prior to the attic scene, Van and Ada have freed themselves for love-making by Van’s offering Lucette his “collection of the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language” if, against Ada’s predictions, she can remember just one of the poems, a mere eight trimeter lines, in an hour (145).

Lucette does recall the poem, even seventeen years later, when she cites it in a letter to Van that he receives only after her suicide. A poem about communication between the dead and the living, it is one of the key elements in a pattern linking Lucette and letters, and messages from the beyond or as if through water (see Boyd 1985/2001: 202-28, 248-53, Boyd 1991: 555-61).

The scene where Lucette is enticed into memorizing the poem is the last of three mentioned in I.23, each illustrating one of the ploys Van and Ada resort to to keep their pesky sister at bay (the first of the three was the brookside scene with its ripples of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire”). Because of their superb memories, Van and Ada can use Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” and another of “the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language” in their coded letters to each other. Now, when they are translated in I.10, these very poems that supply the basis of Van and Ada’s code lose a succession of live natural objects as first souci d’eau, then palm, oak and bay all turn into various bodies of water. After Lucette too loses her life in another body of water, she seems to send from beyond death a kind of coded correspondence of her own to Van and Ada, a “mermaid’s message” (562) prefigured in an odd way by Letters from Terra, whose heroine sends messages from a planet that many on Antiterra have equated with “the ‘Next World’ ” (20) and turns up on Antiterra “swimming . . . like a micromermaid” (340); these watery messages also oddly echo the speech Aqua thinks she hears in water (22-24). (Cf. afternote to I.3 and Boyd 1991: 559-61.)

Ada’s brilliance in the “marsh marigold . . . souci d’eau” discussion marks her intellectual superiority to Marina and her equality with Van, but Nabokov diverts her confident flow of words towards the much more ordinary child whom Van and Ada abuse by trying to keep her out of their relationship yet engulfing her in it. Van and Ada’s memory of “Mémoire” and the garden of Ardis are amazingly vivid and bright, but underneath the surface Nabokov shows how charged their memories will become with Lucette; he implies a moral and a metaphysical as well as a purely memorial dimension to the shine and the shimmer of all we remember and distort.

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