Part One, Chapter 16


As the Forenote suggests, a well-informed or even a merely curious reader can detect, even on a first reading, the analogy between Van’s masturbation over the image of Ada painting orchids and the pseudo-copulation of male insects with insect-mimicking orchids. Demon will later exclaim “how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously—c’est le mot—art and science meet in an insect, in a thrush, in a thistle” of one of Bosch’s paintings (436). Never perhaps have art and science met in fiction more passionately and incandescently than in this scene where Ada paints orchids and Van masturbates as he evokes the mental image of his sister—and never, certainly, more incestuously.


Ada often focuses on the problem of relationship, of similarity and difference, a problem that fascinated Nabokov both as a scientist (a taxonomist), and as an artist (a writer with an eye for unexpected likenesses and distinctions). In Ada the intricate relationships of the Veen family tree, the mirroring and mimicking of Van and Ada, the shimmering mirage-reflections of Antiterra and Terra or of Earth and Venus, the entangled interconnections of one work of art with another in allusion or parody, and of one work of nature with another in mimicry, and of art and nature with each other, and of original and imitation in art, life and nature, are just some of the strands of the novel’s orbed web of relationships. Nowhere do relationships between the novel’s characters reflect more accurately the artful relationships of nature than in the orchid-painting scenes, themselves related in turn to other patterns pervading Ada: patterns of flowers and females, of pictures and fictive scenes.

Orchids are particularly appropriate to Ada’s “relationship” theme because of the sheer variety of species and complexity of relationship among them—the tangled Veen family tree writ large, as it were—and, closely linked to this, the variety of ways in which they are fertilized. As Ashenden observes, “Orchidaceae represents a vast, complex, highly evolved and rapidly evolving plant family. It is the largest family of flowering plants and occupies an enormous range of habitats across the world, with more than 800 genera, 25,000 species and 100,000 hybrids. Orchids are hybridized easily by cross-fertilization to create new species and varieties”—a fact Ada consciously exploits in her invented crosses—“not only between species but between genera.” (70) And as Ashenden also notes, scientists attest to the extraordinary variety and complexity of methods of orchid pollination: “Darwin wrote that ‘the contrivances by which Orchids are fertilised, are as varied and almost as perfect as any of the most beautiful adaptations in the Animal Kingdom’ ([The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, 1862, 2nd ed., London: John Murray, 1904,] 1).” Darwin’s full original title of the first (1862) edition, incidentally, has interesting implications for Ada (especially in view of the fact that Nabokov’s cover design for the Penguin edition of the novel was an orchid—see next paragraph), and for the incestuousness of the Veens in this chapter: On The Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing. Ashenden continues: “Modern commentators tend to agree. ‘In their pollination, orchids reach a degree of complexity seldom rivalled elsewhere in the Plant Kingdom’ (Bechtel 17).”

The intricate inventiveness of orchid pollination reflects another way in which orchids are particularly apt for a novel whose focus on relationship concentrates most obviously on sexual relationships. As N.A. Van der Cingel notes in An Atlas of Orchid Pollination: European Orchids, “orchids are inextricably linked with sex and eroticism, first in human imagination and then through the facts of their often bizarre lifestyles” (1, cited Ashenden 70). Their very name derives from the Greek orchis, testicle, following Theophrastus’s observation of “the similarity between the paired tubers of terrestrial orchids and the male organs” (van der Cingel 2, cited Ashenden 69), a connection pointedly echoed in the summary of Van’s Letters from Terra: “the testibulus (test tube—never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is ‘accidentally’ thrown away by . . . Flora” (340). The flower of the orchid, especially its labellum, evokes human female genitalia, and nowhere more so than in the most widely cultivated orchid, the Cattleya. Proust used Cattleya labiata as Swann and Odette’s symbol for lovemaking, Nabokov drew a Cattleya for the cover of the first Penguin edition of Ada (see 56.06-10 and n.), and orchids associated with female sexuality saturate the novel, as when, on the night of the Burning Barn, Van’s “impatient young passion . . . did not survive the first few blind thrusts; it burst at the lip of the orchid” (121).

But the most insistent, and the most scientifically and artistically complex, of the novel’s orchid images occurs here in I.16, where Van’s masturbation before the image he carries away of Ada at her flower-painting echoes the pseudo-copulation of the three named orchids she paints. All three belong to the genus Ophrys (O. speculum, scolopax and the invented veenae), each species of which bears flowers resembling females of a particular insect species, whose males pollinate the flowers in their attempt to copulate with them. For Nabokov, mimicry was a deeply mysterious phenomenon, inexplicable by natural selection (see Gift 110: “He told me about the incredible artistic wit of mimetic disguise, which was not explainable by the struggle for existence . . . ”; “Father’s Butterflies,” Nabokov’s Butterflies, 221-225; SM 124-25: “The mysteries of mimicry had a special attraction for me . . . ”, and Speak, Memory, Everyman ed., 250), and a subject that at the peak of his literary energies he was ready to devote years of his life to, in writing a comprehensive treatise on the subject (see SL 134-35 and Nabokov’s Butterflies 485). Nowhere is mimicry more convoluted than in orchid pollination, especially when Nabokov heightens it so that Van masturbating over Ada’s image imitates the male insect pollinator of the orchid painted by “the fantastic, black-blue-brown-haired child [who] seemed in her turn to mimic the mirror-of-Venus blossom” (99) which mimics a female insect, or, in another scene, “the marvelous flower that simulated a bright moth that in turn simulated a scarab” (100).

That pattern of imitation upon imitation echoes in turn the pattern of imitation we saw in I.15, where the Fortunate Fall in the Shattal Tree, with its ironic echo of Eden, seems also to echo Bosch’s ironic echoes of Eden in the Garden of Earthly Delights, and its pattern of endless recapitulations of Edenic delights (see I.15, Afternote). In I.16 Van repeatedly refers back to “that dappled tree” (98.11-12) and anticipates with dread that if he is too forward towards Ada he will be “expelled from Ardis” (97.18) as if from paradise. The flower-painting scenes themselves lead into what will be a triptych in Ada’s album of Kim Beauharnais’s photos (401-402). And from the mirror-of-Venus blossom that opens the series to the Ophrys veenae that closes it, they also anticipate the Villa Venus “floramors” (themselves in one sense a replay of the repetitions of lovemaking in Bosch’s Garden), where “artful” imitations of “natural” human sexuality offer male release, and offer Van in particular a poor imitation of love-making with Ada.


But the true focus of the theme of imitation in Ada may be Lucette, “a wonderful imitatrix,” as Van notes (395.13), who imitates her big sister and especially her sister’s passion for Van, with disastrous results. Although the sexual sap rising in Van as he stealthily lurks behind Ada while she paints her orchids would never threaten to brim over were a third party present, although, therefore, Lucette has to be absent throughout these scenes, she and her fate inform the whole chapter.

Early in I.16 Van refers to the snatched kiss in the shattal tree, “with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping” (98.11-12). Overtly he alludes here to the squirrel nearby, but his phrasing indicates to us that the girl whom he thought on first arriving at Ardis must be “Ardelia” but was in fact Lucette was not only, as the previous chapter notes, “just within earshot,” but was actually eavesdropping intently throughout the scene. In retrospect we can see this as the beginning of her fascination with the strange goings-on between her passionate siblings, and of her at first merely comical imitation of big Ada and big Van, as when, in the bath, she stands up and sticks the soap between her legs and proclaims “I’m Van” and they discover later she has seen them making love. “Good Lord, . . . that explains the angle of the soap!” (144, 152).

In I.16, Van remains “indecently close behind” Ada (99.05-06) as she concentrates on her paintings, and brings himself to a state of sexual arousal that for him requires release in a way that will not impinge on her innocence. That itself oddly echoes the situation on the return from the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday, as she sits on his lap in the calèche, so that his whole body is just behind hers, and his tingling crotch presses against her behind: “With his entire being, the boiling and brimming lad relished her weight as he felt it responding to every bump of the road by softly parting in two and crushing beneath it the core of the longing which he knew he had to control lest a possible seep perplex her innocence. He would have yielded and melted in animal laxity had not the girl’s governess saved the situation by addressing him.” (87) But this situation itself is still more surprisingly echoed on the return from Ada’s birthday party on Van’s second visit to Ardis, when it is Lucette who has to sit on his lap: “the certainty that in another moment he would touch their hot pale pulp threatened to touch off a private crisis under the solemn load of another child. But the little proxy’s neck, glistening with sweat, was pathetic, her trustful immobility, sobering, and after all no furtive friction could compete with what awaited him in Ada’s bower” (281).

Ada’s orchid-painting series begins with the mirror-of-Venus blossom (Ophrys speculum) and ends with a cross between Ophrys scolopax and Ophrys veenae. As Liana Ashenden points out (pp. 84-85; see 101.16-17n. above), at the time Nabokov was writing Ada, the speculum at the start of the series and the scolopax at the finish were regarded as taxonomic synonyms, although since then, in the late 1980s, they have been differentiated (although some comprehensive plant guides still treat them as synonymous). Given the nomenclature of his time, it seems that Nabokov intended a covert repetition in these ostensibly different orchids. Why?

As will become clear, he designs the disguised repetition of the mirror-of-Venus blossom to prefigure the whole repetition or reflection of Ardis the First and Ardis the Second, seen at its most striking in the two picnic rides. The repetition of Ardis the First in Ardis the Second had itself been previously prefigured in Van’s initial journey to Ardis in I.5. The vehicle taking him from railway station to manor passes first through Torfyanka (where the driver waves to someone Van does not see) and then through Gamlet (where again the driver waves to someone unseen). From some angles the two villages seem to be not distinct in space but repetitions of each other in time: not only in the repeated wave, but in that “Torfyanka, a hamlet” is succeeded by “Gamlet, a half-Russian village” (35), and “Hamlet” in Russian becomes “Gamlet” (see I.5, Afternote). When the carriages return from the two picnics they pass through “Gamlet” just after Van, seated under Ada or Lucette, manages to avert an orgasm that might trouble a twelve-year-old’s innocence (87, 282).

Ada begins her orchid series with a mirror-of-Venus Ophrys and ends it crossing what Nabokov would have thought the same orchid with Ophrys veenae, whose very name itself seems to mirror the “mirror-of-Venus” and the Veens. The Veen name derives from “peat” in Dutch, veen, just as the names of the half-Russian, half-French hamlet of Torfyanka or La Tourbière derive from the Russian and French for “peat.” Just as the drive first through Torfyanka and then through Gamlet seems to reflect two different points in time, yet with the second uncannily overlapping the first, so too do the two different orchid-painting sessions, and the two rides back from picnics on Ada’s birthday. And the orchid-painting sessions, like the picnic rides, are characterized by Van’s attempt not to disturb a child whom he is “indecently close behind” by letting her sense his erection or orgasm.

The orchid-painting scenes, like the picnic rides, form part of the whole “behind” motif that interlaces the two Veen girls (see Boyd 1985/2001:134-44). But if Lucette’s place on Van’s lap after the 1888 picnic strikingly imitates Ada’s place on his lap after the 1884 picnic, it also leads straight into her imitating her sister’s flower-painting. Days after the second picnic we see Lucette trying to draw flowers, under Ada’s tutelage, and very pointedly without her sister’s brilliance. For she insists “that the easiest way to draw a flower was to place a sheet of transparent paper over the picture (in this case a red-bearded pogonia, with indecent details of structure, a plant peculiar to the Ladoga bogs) and trace the outline of the thing in colored inks” (288.29-33). When Ada tries to explain to her “how the organs of orchids work . . . all Lucette wanted to know, after her whimsical fashion, was: could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?” (289.06-09). Scornful Ada comments to Van that Lucette “has the dirtiest mind imaginable and now she is going to be mad at me for saying this and sob on the Larivière bosom, and complain she has been pollinated by sitting on your knee.” (289.12-15)

When she unwittingly mimics Ada’s afternoon orchid-painting sessions, themselves so steeped in mimicry, and just days after she mimics Ada’s role atop Van in the earlier picnic ride, Lucette nevertheless shows only how different she is from Ada. In the first picnic ride and then in the orchid-painting afternoons in I.16, Van had worried somewhat needlessly about Ada’s innocence, even though he knew she was “not an easily frightened or overfastidious little girl” (97). Asking her question about boy bees and girl flowers, Lucette unconsciously echoes the pseudo-copulation of orchids by insects in Ada’s afternoon sessions (and the Ophrys scolopax Ada paints is indeed pollinated by bees). But where Ada’s sophistication in her painting of the orchids was matched by her poise in handling Van, little Lucette reveals an innocence and vulnerability that will, tragically, remain with her to death. In her naïve way she has been disturbed by the proximity of Van’s sexual organs and hers as they returned from the picnic. But that will be as close as they ever get, no matter how desperately, at sixteen and again at twenty-five, she tries to seduce Van.

Between the 1888 of the picnic ride and her first meeting with Van since Ardis, in Kingston in 1892, Lucette becomes more and more fixated on her dashing “cousin.” After Ada, meanwhile, begins to introduce her to lesbian lovemaking, she also becomes more and more ominously, almost hysterically, preoccupied with sexual organs, in a way foreshadowed so apparently harmlessly in her question about bees and flowers. Arriving in Kingston in 1892, besotted with Van and knowing he has severed contact with Ada because of her infidelities, sixteen-year-old Lucette tries to seduce him by imitating the big sister she knows he still loves. “I imitated all her stuchki (little stunts)” (386), she says at the end of the scene, in sad admission of defeat.

In Kingston Lucette explains to Van about her remarkable sexual relations with Ada, but observes that at other times they were usually “just ordinary sisters, exchanging routine nothings, having little in common, she collecting cactuses or running through her lines for the next audition in Sterva, and I reading a lot, or copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces” (376). Her copying erotic paintings rather than the orchids whose sexuality Ada manipulates with such cool poise anticipates the troubled obsession with genitalia that Lucette shows throughout the Kingston scene.

At the end of the last orchid-painting scene in I.16, Ada surprises Van by surfacing from her painting, planting a kiss on his lips, and, as he “lagged like an idiot, . . . anointed his flushed forehead with her paintbrush in the semblance of an ancient Estotian ‘sign of the cross” (101.13-14; italics added). The “sign of the cross” will be associated with Lucette’s krestik, her “little cross,” her clitoris, which she refers to in her letter and visit to Van at Kingston, as she puns “in an Ophelian frenzy on the feminine glans” (394.17-18; and see Johnson 1985, II.i). Van feigns ignorance of what she intends by krestik: “Come, come, Lucette, it means ‘little cross’ in Russian, that’s all, what else?,” and as if in echo of Ada’s painting the “sign of the cross” on him in I.16, adds: “You are referring of course to the stigmata between the eyebrows of pure sickly young nuns whom priests had over-anointed there and elsewhere with cross-like strokes of the myrrherabol brush”(378; italics added).

In Lucette’s case, though, the “sign of the cross” becomes associated with images of martyrdom, and with Ada’s and Van’s dangerous games with her, culminating in Ada’s leading Van’s hand over to caress Lucette’s clitoris, in his Manhattan apartment, in a bed with a Lurid Oncidium Orchid on one bedside table (419). After Van reaches orgasm and Lucette dashes away in distress, Ada comments “She’s terribly nervous, the poor kid. . . . You can order that breakfast now—unless . . . Oh, what a good sight! Orchids. I’ve never seen a man make such a speedy recovery.” (420.18-20)

Although desperate to lose her virginity to Van, Lucette has never known anything except manual or oral stimulation of her sexual organs, not the male penetration she craves, and craves only from Van. Van, on the other hand, has made love to hundreds of women, but never to Lucette. Despite resisting for so long, despite not wanting to further complicate his relationship with Ada, he is at last about to succumb to her ardor and adoration as he sits down with her in 1901 aboard the Admiral Tobakoff to watch a new film—when Ada literally enters the picture, as an actress in Don Juan’s Last Fling. Stung and suddenly distanced from Lucette by Ada’s presence on screen, Van breaks away from the shipboard cinema, returning to his room to masturbate, for the first time since the summer of 1884. He “vigorously got rid of the prurient pressure as he had done the last time seventeen years ago. And how sad, how significant that the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm . . . was not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush. Then, for the sake of safety, he repeated the disgusting but necessary act.” (490-91)

Even the image Van projects “upon the screen of his paroxysm,” in order to wake himself from Lucette’s dream of being possessed by her beloved Van, only imitates the images of Ada painting orchids that Van had projected as he masturbated in the days before he could dream of possessing his beloved Ada. Lucette, convinced now that she can never win Van and sure she cannot live without his love, jumps from the Tobakoff to her death.


Ada “seemed in her turn to mimic” an orchid herself as she sits painting a mimetic orchid (99) and as Van as it were pseudocopulates over her image. At the end of I.16, when she paints the “sign of the cross” on Van’s forehead, she takes the mimicry a step further, since the pollinia of Ophrys speculum or scolopax brush the forehead and stick between the eyes of the wasp or bee that pseudocopulates with the flower (and Van compares Lucette’s word krestik to “little cross” or the “stigmata between the eyebrows of pure sickly young nuns,” 378). But that pollen plays its role in fertilization only when the insect visits another Ophrys and pseudocopulates with it in turn. Despite Lucette’s apparently merely comic anxiety about a boy bee impregnating a girl flower, as she draws orchids after the second picnic ride, despite Ada’s sarcastic comment that Lucette will complain about Van pollinating her, Lucette finds that Van will never pass on from Ada to her, to that other veenae: no matter how desperately she imitates Ada, Lucette will never get him to pollinate her. Ada, meanwhile, has introduced fourteen-year-old Lucette to a different kind of pseudocopulation, which helps to lead the frail youngster—already introduced too early into sex by Van and Ada’s ardent antics—to her preoccupation with her krestik, a sign of the cross that in her case seems a mark of martyrdom.

From the “stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping,” through Van’s masturbation over the image of Ada painting orchids, to Ada’s anointing his forehead in a “sign of the cross” in the last of these scenes, then, I.16 not only marks a new stage in Van and Ada’s love, and a curious passing imitation, in Van’s behavior, of Ada’s artistic imitation of imitative nature, but also a foreshadowing of the little sister who will be condemned to imitation and a sexual life that never progresses beyond what she finds a distressingly empty and unfulfilling pseudo-copulation.

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