Part One, Chapter 13
The picnics on Ada’s twelfth and sixteenth birthdays stand as cornerstones of Ada’s structure. Both the enchantment and disenchantment of Ardis owe much to the uncanny replay of Ardis the First in Ardis the Second, and to the disconcerting differences between the two summers, despite the unexpected, dream-vivid repetition of details. Never are these repetitions and differences more pointed than in the two picnics.
During the account of this first picnic, we are conscious of the speckled variety of detail, from Ada tumbling like a hoopoe out of her favorite tree, or Mlle Larivière’s slight crouch to release her “concealed downpour,” to Van walking on his hands or Ben Wright flatulent after quaffing almost half a gallon of white port. Moment jostles moment with an innocent aimlessness, with the openness Nabokov found in life and sought in narrative art. A succession of chances turns out to lead to what for Van and Ada is the charged situation of their first bodily contact, which becomes all the more surprising four years later when on his return from a second picnic for Ada’s birthday Van again has a twelve-year-old cousin on his knee.
Although we glimpse Van and Ada frequently throughout Part 1 Chapter 13 glancing back together at their past, they allow no explicit hint of the second picnic ride to impinge on the first. Despite the extraordinary repetition of the two picnic rides, in other words, despite the sense of design that the repetition awakens in retrospect, Nabokov and Van both stress the independence of each occasion.
When another loose chain of accidents leads to Lucette’s sitting on Van’s lap on the ride back from the 1888 picnic, with Ada beside him, Van sinks “deeper and deeper in the quicksand of the dream-like, dream-rephrased, legend-distorted past,” concentrates “on the golden flood of swelling joy,” feels the repetition as “that moment of total happiness” (280-81). But the rankling differences between the two picnics outweigh the radiant similarities.
Despite the large cast of servants at Ardis Manor, events at Ardis are largely self-enclosed, but Ada’s birthday draws others from around the neighborhood—on this occasion, the Erminin family and their entourage. In this chapter it is not yet apparent that Greg silently dotes on Ada: his timid devotion becomes visible only a day or so later, when he returns to mooch around Ada--and is coolly rebuffed for his pains. But in 1888 he will turn up again for Ada’s birthday picnic, a hopelessly outclassed observer of the real and intense rivalry between Van and another, quite uninvited, guest, Percy de Prey.
Although Percy is never mentioned directly in the course of the 1884 picnic, his presence saturates the occasion for the rereader. The handwalking that Van demonstrates with such triumphant ease in the 1884 picnic is something he had decided to learn in order to give himself “an immediate and brilliant ascendancy” at his “fashionable and brutal boarding school” (81), where burly Percy is a senior pupil. In 1888, the tension between Percy and Van quickly escalates from Percy’s opening salvo: “I’m told you like abnormal positions. . . . that walking-on-your-hands trick. . . . legend has it that you do it all day long, in every corner, congratulations!” (271). When verbal push comes to physical shove, the lessons of King Wing, the wrestling master who taught him to hand-walk, still stand Van in good stead, and once more enable him to gain a quick ascendancy—but not without leaving him throughly rattled.
The day after the picnic, he will receive a note from Percy that he is invited to construe as a challenge; the following day, he finds an anonymous note hinting at Ada’s infidelities, and when he storms from Ardis, in pursuit of his rivals, he walks into the duel that will indeed cause the wound that makes it impossible for him to walk on his hands again or to “shrug” off the loss of his past (see 83.01-03).
“A strange pale butterfly” crosses as the Erminins arrive and the first mention is made of Mlle Larivière’s forthcoming “La Rivière de Diamants.” The butterfly and the diamonds prefigure Van’s reactions to Percy de Prey throughout Ardis the Second: the diamond necklace that Van buys for Ada but tears asunder--on the very day of his return, after watching Percy kiss Ada’s hand, hold it, kiss it again--with a bitter echo of “Mlle Larivière’s famous story: ‘Mais, ma pauvre amie, elle était fausse’ ” (190); the butterfly tie that he tears apart, on the eve of his departure, when he receives the anonymous note with its veiled warning of Ada’s infidelity, and assumes that the Percy he has just fought with at the picnic is his foe (287-88).
Another butterfly seems to presage to Van his own death in the duel that his anger at his rivals precipitates (“At the moment his foot touched the pine-needle strewn earth of the forest road, a transparent white butterfly floated past, and with utter certainty Van knew that he had only a few minutes to live,” 310), but his premonition of death is eighty years too soon. But he makes no mistake when he casts his fight with Percy at the picnic as a harbinger of Percy’s imminent doom, as a surrogate for the death he wishes he himself had had a chance to inflict in a duel: “Percy, you were to die very soon . . . you were to die very soon, Percy; but that July day in Ladore County . . . ” (273).
Although in recounting the 1884 picnic, with its bravura handwalking display and its closing picnic ride, Van seems to stress the note of triumph, and to prepare for what seems the even greater “triumph . . . over the ardis of time” (185) in the second picnic ride, he already conceals in his account of the first picnic the signs of the irreversible changes Percy de Prey’s affair with Ada will introduce into Ardis the Second, and anticipates, not without pleasure, Percy’s death.
Van incorporates another death even more directly into this first picnic, not a death to come, but a death not all that long ago. In Ada’s concluding chapter, he muses: “One great difficulty. The strange mirage-shimmer standing in for death should not appear too soon in the chronicle and yet it should permeate the first amorous scenes. Hard but not insurmountable (I can do anything, I can tango and tap-dance on my fantastic hands)” (584). In the picnic chapter, where Van and Ada’s amour reaches the new milestone of bodily contact, and where Van first shows how he can dance on his hands, he evokes in tribute the death of the woman he had mourned as a mother.
Ada wears a black lolita to her picnic in a pinewood; Aqua thinks with a laugh of the novel we know as Lolita when she sets aside a purple pill for her suicide, and wears a black bolero when she breaks from the picnic in a pinewood to write her suicide note and ingest that and all the other pills she has gathered. A succession of details in Aqua’s saccadic suicide note recurs in Van’s description of his hand-walking. She calls herself “I, this eye-rolling toy”; Van describes himself “opening his mouth the wrong way, and blinking in the odd bilboquet fashion peculiar to eyelids in his abnormal position.” In the paragraph that first introduces his hand-walking, Van reports the arrival of the Erminin children with their Aunt Ruth; their mother, Lady Erminin, has committed suicide, apparently because of the affair between her husband and her sister, just as Aqua commits suicide, ultimately, as a result of the affair between her husband, Demon, and her sister, Marina.
Aqua in her suicide note pictures the scene of her death, a “landparty” (German for “picnic”), in a “piney wood” with exactly the same squirrels, “Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park.” She also stresses the uncertainty of her stance: “chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know. . . . I . . . do not know where I stand. Hence I must fall.” Reporting his supreme performance as a brachiambulant, Van recalls the professional handwalker Vekchelo (a chelovek upside down), celebrates “the effortlessness of his [own] stance,” even when his body is reversed, “veering and sidestepping”—“one wondered if this dreamy indolence of levitation was not a result of the earth’s canceling its pull in a fit of absentminded benevolence”—and imagines the whole scene as laid out “under Lady Erminin’s blue eye,” as she looks “from the Persian blue of her abode of bliss” (81-2).
Van learns handwalking from King Wing, his father’s wrestling master. Demon, winged Demon, lends as it were his name to King Wing, and through him imparts to Van some of his “demonic” resistance to gravity. Writing of Aqua and others, Van comments that “no sooner did all the fond, all the frail, come into close contact with him . . . than they were bound to know anguish and calamity, unless strengthened by a strain of his father’s demon blood” (20). Aqua, certainly, comes to calamity, and does not know where she stands, so feels she must fall; confident Van, by contrast, knows just where he stands, even when he stands on his head.
In describing the 1884 picnic, Van allows no advance gleam of the new light the 1888 picnic will cast on Ada and Ardis. Even in describing the 1888 picnic, disconcerted though he is by Percy’s intrusion and challenge, Van does not yet know anything more than that Percy regards him with envy, and the repetition of the picnic ride induces “that moment of total happiness, the complete eclipse of the piercing and preying ache, the logic of intoxication, the circular argument to the effect that the most eccentric girl cannot help being faithful if she loves one as one loves her” (281).
Yet if at this point Van feels something magically potent in this repetition of the 1884 picnic, he will soon be disabused, he will soon have in his hands the note that leads to his flight from Ada and in pursuit of her lovers. And thirteen years later, he will again have to take stock of the picnic ride in a different way, when Lucette commits suicide. For all the “golden flood of swelling joy” he feels with his cousin on his lap again on the ride back from the 1888 picnic, it is Lucette this time, not Ada, on his knees, and it is Lucette’s entanglement in the pattern of Van and Ada’s love that will lead to her doom.
The 1884 picnic offers the earliest sign of Lucette’s nascent and ultimately fatal attachment to Van: “while puzzled Lucette tugged at the sleeve of Van, of Vanichka, who could explain everything” (83). It occurs in the midst of a discussion of the electricity that seems weirdly linked with the “L disaster” (see I.3, Afternote) and with the “water-messages” akin to those Aqua thinks she hears in her madness. Although the incest motif in the novel, and the Chateaubriand motif associated with it, seem at first to point to the relationship of Van and Ada, Lucette turns out to be inextricably and even centrally involved in both (see Boyd 1985/2001: 125-28). Since Part 1 Chapter 13 contains the first indication of Lucette’s developing attachment to Van, it is appropriate that even before the first quite explicit instance of the Chateaubriand motif, Van reading “Ada’s copy of Atala” (89) at the start of the next chapter, the picnic chapter introduces it here, in a way that involves only Lucette: “Lucette, one fist on her hips, sang a St. Malô fisher-song” (as if in honor of Chateaubriand’s birth-place, and in premonition of her dying a suicide, like Chateaubriand’s beloved sister Lucile: see 81.14n.). As his equivalent performance, Van then walks on his hands, and nibbles at some pine starworts (401)—and we learn in the next chapter, which takes place the “next day, or the day after the next,” Lucette has demanded “a day or two before . . . that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy” (91). Her ultimately fatal imitation of her powerful big siblings has begun.
The incest motif seems to point directly toward Ada, for when Grace Erminin suggests they play anagrams, and offers “insect,” it is Ada who ends the game with “incest”—only for the narrative to resume, however: “But the glow of the afternoon had entered its most oppressive phase, and the first bad mosquito of the season was resonantly slain on Ada’s shin by alert Lucette” (85). This is Chateaubriand’s mosquito (106), and during the 1888 picnic Lucette will be bitten and Van will kiss her bite “in pure tribute to the duplication” (280). By this picnic, four years later, Lucette is indeed badly bitten by Van’s attentions, and has developed her own insatiable itch. But without the strength that allows Van to defy gravity, without the genius that lets twelve-year-old Ada to twist “insect” in a flash into “scient” or “incest,” without their strain of their “father’s demon blood,” Lucette, like her aunt Aqua, is bound for anguish and calamity.
Yet that lies many years ahead. Time in Nabokov and Veen may be replete with patterns that poignant retrospection makes visible, but it is not fated. For the moment the day is all surprise, the surprise of comedy and the surprise of romance, pantyless Ada yelping as she sits on the hot seat of Van’s bicycle and bursts the bicycle’s rear tire, Van boiling and brimming as he then relishes her weight upon him all the way back from pinewood to manor.
At the picnic, each character has an artistic “turn”: Ada’s and Grace’s dance, Lucette’s song, Greg’s sorry impersonation of his sister, Van’s hand-walking, Mlle Larivière’s new story, Marina’s modest “contribution,” the history of the pineside telephone. But two performances stand out: Van’s walking on his hands, and Mlle Larivière’s “La Rivière de Diamants.” After Van’s eerie strut, “questions for study and discussion” treat it as if it had been a literary text (“Was Van’s adult incapacity to ‘shrug’ things off only physical or did it ‘correspond’ to some archetypal character of his ‘undersoul’?”), while Mlle Larivière asks Van and Ada for a reaction to her story, and receives a polite evasion from Van the character, a dismal dismissal from Ada, and a retrospective literary critique from Van the narrator. Van will later compare his Mascodagama performances, only a slight extension of his hand-walking at the picnic, to the
self-imposed, extravagantly difficult, seemingly absurd tasks when V.V. sought to express something, which until expressed had only a twilight being (or even none at all--nothing but the illusion of the backward shadow of its imminent expression). . . . It was the standing of a metaphor on its head not for the sake of the trick’s difficulty, but in order to perceive an ascending waterfall or a sunrise in reverse: a triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time. Thus the rapture young Mascodagama derived from overcoming gravity was akin to that of artistic revelation in the sense utterly and naturally unknown to the innocents of critical appraisal, the social-scene commentators, the moralists, the ideamongers and so forth. Van on the stage was performing organically what his figures of speech were to perform later in life--acrobatic wonders that had never been expected from them and which frightened children. (184-85)
Mlle Larivière, with her strained story and exegesis (“We have here the drama of the petty bourgeois, with all his class cares and class dreams, and class pride”), and her ponderous observations (“I can never get used . . . to the contrast between the opulence of nature and the squalor of human life. See that old moujik décharné with that rent in his shirt, see his miserable cabane. And see that agile swallow! How happy, nature, how unhappy, man!”), seems to represent exactly “the innocents of critical appraisal” that Van (and another “V.V.”) resist.
She insists “every detail is realistic” in the story that Van and Ada class as a fairy tale, but the very chapter she appears in seems far from realistic in her terms: Ada’s tumbling out of the Shattal apple tree, with its overtones of Eden and a famous fall, or Van’s walking on his hands, as if he has been granted a reprieve from gravity, and his recalling the Magicarpets of recent Antiterran history and timeless more-or-less earthbound tales. Mlle Larivière’s story, by focussing only on what leads inexorably to the predetermined irony of the story’s conclusion, actually rules out the life that she thinks she can sum up in such stolid generalizations. Van’s story and VN’s, by contrast, seems all capricious detail, from the comedy of Ada’s and Ida’s personal hygiene, or Blanche’s chagrin at being confined to keeping Dack locked up, or a cat that comes looking for the remains of the turkey “and, despite a chorus of ‘kitty-kitty,’ vanished,” to a father’s clumsy present and his daughter’s gracelessly rejecting it. But through the apparent caprice of its detail the chapter not only incorporates much more of the surprise of life, but leads to its conclusion, the return journey from the picnic, with no sense of false inevitability, despite all that Van now realizes that the picnic scene prefigures in his and his sisters’ lives and loves.