Part One, Chapter 14


This scene not only follows but seems also both to continue and to echo the picnic on Ada’s birthday. It is linked to the picnic thematically and spatially (another outdoors scene of group refreshments), temporally (the next day, or the day after), and causally (Greg returns the cigarette lighter, Lucette hand-walks in childish imitation of Van’s bravura performance at the picnic). But not just to the 1884 picnic. Since the key role of repetition in Ardis—which in part repeats the endless repetition of Paradise and the Fall in the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights—reaches its climax in the two picnics for Ada’s birthday in 1884 and 1888, especially in the rides back to the manor, I.14 stands in a complex relation to both occasions.

One way in which the 1888 picnic will be emphatically different from its 1884 counterpart is the presence of Percy de Prey, a presence oppressive to both Ada (who fears a revelation of their affair) and Van (who seethes with jealousy yet cannot tell whether Ada has responded or not to Percy’s advances). In the 1884 picnic there is no hint of any sexual rivalry; Greg is there, but his “plain features” (80) and his party trick (“Greg put on his sister’s blue skirt, hat and glasses, all of which transformed him into a very sick, mentally retarded Grace,” 81), only offset Van and his triumphant performance as a brachiambulant.

But immediately after Van and Ada have been physically together for the first time, on the ride back from the picnic, we see Van facing a first potential rival. For fourteen-year-old Greg’s day at the picnic has turned him into a worshipper of Ada, as becomes plain when he now offers her his pony “for a ride any time. For any amount of time.” Ada shakes her head without even looking up at him, and when he then bids her goodbye, and to keep the conversation going, helplessly adds “I guess it’s your father under that oak, isn’t it?,” she rebuffs him with her rude “No, it’s an elm.” To Van, Ada’s pointed dismissal of Greg gloriously confirms his own ascendancy and leads to his cocky outburst at the end of the chapter.

When Van leaves Ada at the end of Ardis the First, after she has considerably more physical contact with him than a mere ride home in his lap, Van asks her “Will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me,” and, quivering with jealous fears, rides off in “Morio, his favorite black horse,” in pointed echo of the black pony that Greg offers Ada in I.14, the first advance of a first rival, promptly dismissed then, but no reassurance now (158-59).

At the 1888 picnic, still doting on Ada, Greg again turns up as a guest, the “new black Silentium motorcycle” he arrives on naturally recalling the new black horse he rode in upon in I.14 and his sorry status there:

Van did not err in believing that Ada remained unaffected by Greg’s devotion. He now met him again with pleasure--the kind of pleasure, immoral in its very purity, which adds its icy tang to the friendly feelings a successful rival bears toward a thoroughly decent fellow. (268)

Greg’s black motorcycle seems to offer a comforting reprise of the black-horse theme, to promise Van pure gloating security at having no rivals, only for Percy de Prey soon to glide up uninvited, in a steel-grey convertible, in a silent but much more dangerous echo of the theme. Suspicious of Percy’s attentions to Ada ever since he arrived at Ardis the Second, Van soon finds himself locked in fierce combat with his old schoolmate, even before Ada confirms his suspicions three days later and he storms off from Ardis to hunt his rival down.

In fact Percy de Prey is not only prefigured in the black horse Greg so helplessly offers to Ada but is implied almost from first to last in I.14. If Greg stands as Van’s first and reassuringly unrequited rival, Percy looms as his shadow, as the successful rival whose very possibility Van dreads. Almost as soon as he rides up, Greg announces that he cannot stay, for he is “on his way to a party at the Countess de Prey’s” (90). Marina responds: “ ‘Rather soon (skorovato) she consoled herself,’ . . . alluding to the death of the Count killed in a pistol duel on Boston Common a couple of years ago.” (90) The recollection of the Count’s death anticipates Van’s deadly intentions after the 1888 picnic toward his son, Count Percy de Prey, and also echoes Demon’s duel with his rival for Marina’s affections, Baron d’Onsky, who dies “at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston” (15). Just as Greg departs the scene in I.14, after Ada’s rebuff, Van crows with confidence, but his boyish show-off (“I was supposed to play for my school in yesterday’s cricket game. Veen sick, unable to bat, Riverlane humbled”) in fact anticipates the much more serious rival he will have to square off with at the second picnic, since Percy de Prey has also been a star sportsman at Riverlane, “a crack Rugger player”—and “a cracker of country girls” (273).

Not only does I.14 introduce the theme of Van’s rivals; for the first time, too, Lucette steps—or rather hand-walks—onto center stage. The comic scene of Van’s “ploughing around” with her lets us see and enjoy her childishness, her imitative admiration of her big cousin, and especially the gap between his extraordinariness (“the greatest performance we have ever seen a brachiambulant give,” 82) and her beguiling normalcy. Just after Van and Ada’s intense first bodily contact, so intimate and so deliciously protracted, as they ride back from the picnic, we see Van and Lucette for the first time in sustained contact. Knowing of the picnic ride and of Van’s swelling ecstasy while it lasted, we see how innocently he now plays the role of big cousin to Lucette, and Mlle Larivière’s typically misplaced misapprehension in overlooking Ada and worrying about the “indecency” of Van’s behavior toward Lucette only compounds the comedy.

But in fact Ada riding in front of Van on the way back from the picnic and Lucette riding in front of Van now, despite the striking differences, introduce a pattern of repetitions and substitutions that will reach a climax in the ride back from the 1888 picnic. When Van and Ada’s ride back from the earlier picnic is replayed with uncanny closeness in the later one, it will be Lucette who sits on Van’s lap, not Ada.

Here on the Ardis lawn, Van stands behind Lucette as he “ploughs around” with her; her panties show, “yet she still urged the ploughboy on.” In all his lovemaking with Ada, in sitting with Lucette on his lap on the 1888 picnic ride, in encountering her again for the first time in many years, just days before her death, Van will be emphatically behind his sisters. The “behind” motif in the life of the Veen girls begins when Ada is about nine and is regularly visited by an elderly gentleman, an eminent painter, a “celebrated old rascal who drew his diminutive nudes invariably from behind—fig-picking, peach-buttocked nymphets straining upward, or else rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting shorts” (111). This is Ada’s first “sexual” encounter, the first infringement on her innocence: every time the painter visited, she recalls, “she cowered when hearing him trudge and snort and pant upstairs, ever nearer like the Marmoreal Guest, that immemorial ghost, seeking her, crying for her in a thin, querulous voice not in keeping with marble.” (111) On the night Van and Ada first make love, Van bestows on him the name “old Mr. Nymphobottomus . . . my only predecessor.” (117) The evocation of the Stone Guest out of the Don Juan story of course anticipates the movie Don Juan’s Last Fling that precipitates Lucette’s suicide in III.5, while the name “Nymphobottomus” recalls Lucette’s question to Van on the lawn in I.14, “Are we Mesopotamians?” and Van’s reply “We are Hippopotamians. . . . Come, . . . we have not yet ploughed today.” Van’s holding Lucette by the legs, as her bottom waggles before him, and her panties show, would have been ecstasy for “Mr. Nymphobottomus.” Even confident Ada had been disturbed by Nymphobottomus’s sexual interest in her; frail Lucett e will be far more unsettled by her much earlier and much more complete initiation into sex by her older siblings. (See Boyd 1985/2001: 133-44.)

Although Mlle Larivière’s disapproval of these “indecent gymnastics” seems only absurd, the real indecency of Van’s and Ada’s treatment of Lucette later, as they play with her affections and entangle her in their love to the point where she seeks an escape in death, is already signaled in other patterns that pervade this first scene of Van and Lucette close together.

One developing pattern will associate Lucette more and more insistently with martyrdom, until Van meets her in 1901, a few days before her suicide, in the rue des Jeunes Martyres. Here in I.14 Lucette asks “What are Jews?” and “Why is Greg a Jew?” in response to Mlle Larivière’s observing at the picnic “that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches, because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.” Greg replies: “The Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do.” When Lucette asks what “crucified” means, Van illustrates it for her: he “joined his ankles, spread both arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.” Ten lines later, he has already suggested to Lucette they should plough around again, and “gripped her by the ankles.” The echo of the joined “ankles” is no accident: Lucette will be consistently associated not only with motifs of persecution, torture, and martyrdom, but also with the cross, via her term (krestik, “little cross,” 375, 377-79) for the clitoris, her own having been targeted by Ada and later by Van under Ada’s guidance as Lucette “lay back on the outer half of Ada’s pillow in a martyr’s pudibund swoon” (418).

The pervasive “deflower” motif focuses still more intently on the irony of Lucette’s early initiation into sex yet dying a virgin (see Boyd 1985/2001: 51-62 and Afternote I.10 above). Here in I.14 as Lucette hand-walks she sometimes pauses “to nibble a daisy,” a detail that at first seems only a vivid token of her childishness. But that the detail forms part of the “deflower” theme, at its most intense in Ada’s discussion of the flower dropped from Fowlie’s translation of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire,” becomes clear when five lines later the surprising twists of the conversation lead Ada to comment that Lucette

also knows my revised monologue of his mad king . . . .

Ce beau jardin fleurit en mai,
Mais en hiver
Jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais
N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert .

Ada’s perverse “translation” turns Lear’s “Never” into “flowers” or “blooms” in May that are “never” there in winter, when the garden is “not green” (green being a color emphatically associated with Lucette, who rarely wears any other shade, as Ada indeed observes in the very midst of discussing Fowlie’s Rimbaud: “Lucette, our darling copperhead who by now should be in her green nightgown . . . ,” 64). And the translation motif itself, from the twisting of Tolstoy’s lines about family happiness in the novel’s first sentence to the echo of the drowned plaything in Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” in its last, also focuses again and again on Lucette (see Afternote I.10).

The first time Lucette becomes prominent in the action and speech of the novel, in her hand-walking and her nibbling the daisy, in the unforgettable callowness of her questions (“What are Jews?” “Why is Greg a Jew?” “And Belle, is she also a dizzy Christian?” “What’s ‘crucified’?” “Are we Mesopotamians?”), we see the charm of her innocence and her attachment to Van. But for the rereader the scene is saturated with patterns like the “behind,” “martyr,” “deflower” and translation motifs that point to the tragedy to which that innocence and attachment will lead.

The picnic had seemed a triumph for Van and Ada, for Van in his handwalking, for Ada in her brilliant anagrams, for both in the ride home with one perched on the other. But in this scene that seems an extension of the picnic, and an anticipation of Ada’s birthday picnic in 1888, Nabokov introduces within the comic twists of the conversation and action Greg as the first of Van’s rivals and Lucette in a sense as the first of Ada’s. Both, the scene stresses, are hopelessly outclassed.

Van writes his story in retrospect, but in prospect, from the perspective of 1884, Lucette might indeed have become a rival for Ada: after all, Demon, such a model for Van, left Marina for her sister Aqua, and then Aqua for Marina. But instead she becomes a contrast, an affirmation by her ordinary childishness of Ada’s specialness and precocity. And indeed Ada, far from discouraging Lucette’s love of Van, feels so secure in his affections, so sure that Lucette could be no rival to her, that throughout Ardis the Second she uses Lucette’s clinging fondness as a means of keeping Van preoccupied while she herself assuages Van’s rival, Percy de Prey, and so succeeds in keeping Percy at bay until he arrives uninvited at the second picnic.

It is natural, therefore, however unexpected, that Greg and Lucette should be prominent and paired in this scene on the lawn that extends and echoes the 1884 picnic. But this pointed juxtaposition of Greg and Lucette also anticipates a time far beyond the summer of 1888, when Greg and Lucette are again paired in Paris just before Lucette’s suicide. At the end of I.14, Greg gets up:

“I must be going. Good-bye, everybody. Good-bye, Ada. I guess it’s your father under that oak, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s an elm,” said Ada.
Van looked across the lawn and said as if musing--perhaps with just a faint touch of boyish show-off:
“I’d like to see that Two-Lice sheet too when Uncle is through with it. I was supposed to play for my school in yesterday’s cricket game. Veen sick, unable to bat, Riverlane humbled.”

In Paris in 1901, Van meets Greg again by chance for the first time in thirteen years, and hears him recall “Those lovely, lovely agonies in lovely Ardis! Oh, I was absolyutno bezumno (madly) in love with your cousin!” (454). Van responds bitterly, imagining for a moment that perhaps here sits another of Ada’s former lovers, until Greg makes it plain she had been oblivious to him. The presence of Van’s furled umbrella—in echo of the series of canes that mark his furious pursuit of his rivals after Ardis the Second—indicates how his jealousy might have manifested itself had it not been instantly dispelled (see Boyd 1985/2001: 161-74.) As they are about to part, Greg mentions to Van “that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four. I haven’t asked you about your father. He’s in good health?” (456) In the next chapter Van looks up Lucette’s hotel, finds she is not in, and crosses the road—the rue des Jeunes Martyres—for a drink. Entering the bar, he sees Lucette from behind, wearing a picture-hat, and as narrator he evokes the scene as if it were modeled on and in competition with a famous Toulouse-Lautrec poster for the Divan Japonais on Paris’s rue des Martyrs (see Boyd 1985/2001:128-131). That meeting seals Lucette’s fate.

Here in I.14 the end of the scene prefigures Van’s final encounters with Greg and Lucette. At Ardis in 1884 Greg’s question in parting about Ada’s nominal father, Dan, anticipates his question to Van, as they part in Paris in 1901, about Van’s (and of course Ada’s) father, Demon. In the 1901 scene Van follows up Greg’s information, and calls on Lucette, finding her in an echo of a Toulouse-Lautrec poster anticipated in 1884 by Van’s show-off pun on “ Toulouse” that splits it up into a hyphenated “T-L” combination.

Just why does Nabokov pair Greg and Lucette at this late point, and prefigure it so early? And if he does intend to pair the two, Van’s non-rival for Ada and Ada’s non-rival for Van, why does he have Van meet Cordula and make love to Cordula just after leaving Greg and just before he searches out Lucette and finds her in that picture hat at a bar?

The image of Lucette at the bar in a picture hat is itself twice prefigured, when shortly after Ardis the First Van enters a tearoom near Ada’s and Cordula de Prey’s school (and the thought brushes his mind that the woman seated at the bar is “a cocotte from Toulouse,” 169), and again when he enters a bar in Kalugano just after he has met and fondled Cordula while in murderous pursuit of his rivals after Ardis the Second (307). Then in 1901, many years later, moments after he hears from Greg the name of Lucette’s hotel, Van runs unexpectedly into Cordula, at once pressures her into stepping with him to a hotel across the street, and after they make love, hears her confirm that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four. He heads for Lucette’s hotel, and finds her at the bar across the street.

Why does this pointed coupling of the rival and Lucette themes in 1901 also incorporate Cordula, and why should this 1901 conjunction be foreshadowed in the 1884 scene, long before Cordula appears in the novel?

Van refers at the end of the 1884 scene to Riverlane. The one chapter set in Riverlane, immediately before Van travels to Ardis, contrasts Van’s “love” there, Rose or Roza Tapirov, whom he never even talks to, with the “fubsy pink-pig whorelet” he and other Riverlane boys avail themselves of (31-33). That contrast prefigures the recurrent contrast between Van’s true love, Ada, and her Brownhill classmate, Cordula, whom Van asks, the day he meets her, “How could I get in touch with you? . . . . Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?” (165). In fact throughout Ada there will be a matrix of comparisons between fulfilled sexual love (Van and Ada), fulfilled loveless sex (especially Van and Cordula), unfulfilled sexual love (Lucette’s love for Van), and sexual jealousy (especially Van’s for Ada’s partners): between lover, whore, virgin, and rival.

The first time he parts from Ada, at the end of Ardis the First, Van cries out to her imploringly: “Will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?” She says she doesn’t know, she will never love anybody as she loves him, but she is physical, and “there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me” (158). Van says “The girls don’t matter, . . . it’s the fellows I’ll kill,” and storms off, “fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop” before riding away on “Morio, his favorite black horse” (158-59), in that echo of the black horse Greg hopelessly offers Ada in I.14.

When Van next meets Ada, at Brownhill school, in the early autumn of 1884, she has to be chaperoned by an older girl, who turns out to be Cordula de Prey. In this first scene with a woman in a picture hat at the “tonic bar,” Van proves almost rabidly suspicious that Cordula is Ada’s female lover—although he himself has already propositioned Cordula soon after leaving Ada and Ardis, inviting her to Riverlane, and has treated her as a virtual whore, like, in other words, this “cocotte from Toulouse” at the bar (the Toulouse-Riverlane conjunction is pointedly anticipated here at the end of I.14). The next time Van meets Cordula, in 1888, he again makes abrupt sexual overtures to her (merely postponed, not resisted, this time), even as he flees Ardis in deadly pursuit of his rivals. When he leaves Cordula and the train at Kalugano to settle scores with the first of them, Philip Rack, he buys a second walking stick (itself an echo of the“riding crop” wielded so fiercely at imagined rivals at the end of Ardis the First), “a rude, stout article with a convenient grip and an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305) and enters a bar where he encounters another woman in a picture hat.

The last time he meets a “rival,” it is Greg, in Paris, where the furled umbrella in Van’s hand indicates the violence he might have inflicted on a genuine rival. He then meets Cordula, takes her off to a hotel, happily treating her as a whore; heading off in pursuit of Lucette, he finds her in a picture hat at a bar, and as if indeed in a picture, like a lady of the night in a Toulouse-Lautrec poster. Van had once brutally asked Cordula if she was a virgin; now he asks Lucette if she is still “half-a-virgin” (464). Lucette answers “A quarter” and implores Van to come to her in her hotel room. Unhesitatingly, he turns her down.

That odd comparison and contrast between Lucette and Cordula, virtual virgin and virtual whore, begins at the beginning of I.14. While Ada tries to make an anadem of marguerites for the dog, Lucette looks on, “munching a crumpet.” The word “crumpet” occurs twice more in Ada, when Van rushing by train from Ardis after his rivals runs into Cordula, takes her into the railway tea-car, “the very roomy and rococo ‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it” (302), exclaims “Cordula is no longer a virgin!” and to her question “How was Ada?” replies “Lucette. . . . Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let’s dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones,” before starting to caress Cordula under the table (303). For Lucette at high tea in the garden, “crumpet” is the kind of soft, warm, sweet food treat children love. For V an in the tea car with Cordula, “crumpet” has lost that innocence to become imbued with the slang sense of “bit of crumpet”: an attractive, sexually available woman.

In I.14, just after the picnic where Ada has ridden home on Van, Greg surfaces as a rival for Van’s love for Ada just after Van and Lucette finish their romp together:

Van gently let her legs down and straightened her dress. She lay for a moment, panting.
“I mean, I would love lending him to you for a ride any time. For any amount of time. Will you? Besides, I have another black.”

Greg’s comment oddly jars with Van riding as ploughboy behind Lucette as ploughhorse, and with Van and Ada’s recent memories of Ada riding Van home from the picnic. But Ada refuses Greg’s offer, rejecting him utterly as a rival to the boy she rode home with, and Lucette—although she and Van too have just been riding in tandem, although her panties have been showing, although she has been urging him on—is also doomed to be no rival to Ada. For all Van’s cousinly or big-brotherly attentions to Lucette, for all the doting admiration she already feels for him, he will resist her sexual invitations. Except when with Ada, he will always remain chaste toward Lucette, just as by contrast he will always be sexually importunate with Cordula, who becomes entangled with his jealousy of Ada’s lovers but who herself never becomes Ada’s rival. In one of the many ironies of love in Ada, Cordula is perfectly unharmed by Van’s brusque sexual advances toward her, by his treating her like a whore, and she happily “rides” him twice (457) in their last encounter in Paris, with no ill after-effects, while Lucette, who appears before Van at the bar, like a Toulouse-Lautrec whore, and propositions him, urges him on, will die a virgin and a martyr.

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