Part One, Chapter 18


Ada investigates memory more richly than Speak, Memory, and perhaps as richly as any twentieth-century novel. Joyce, Woolf and Faulkner portray memory unfolding within the present, Proust folds it over in complex solitary retrospect. Despite its lightness of touch, Ada explores memory as it builds in layer upon layer in the course of a life, as it is delved into from near the end of a life, as recollection overlaps with anticipation, as the solitary interacts with the shared, as the personal hoard confronts the interpersonal record.

As both psychologist and stylist, Van muses on the operations of memory; as lovers, he and Ada relive its romance. After the chapter’s opening reflections, Van and Ada in 1888 focus on vivid particulars of their past eccentric enough to catch our imagination. But these details, which provide for Ada the kind of erotic retrospective we glimpsed of Van in I.4, at the same time evoke Lucette.


Ada’s awkward initiations into the surprise of sex need not in themselves reflect on Lucette and the tragedy of her initiation into and ultimate failure to experience sex, yet Nabokov has pointedly patterned his particulars in order to implicate and anticipate the youngest Veen.

Retracing the course of her initations Ada recalls for Van that, although curious, she could not find the key to the cabinet of erotic prints in Dan’s library, which Van however found for her “in a twinkle” (111.04). Retracing for Van, in a much more fraught encounter, the course of her own initiation at Ada’s hands, Lucette at Kingston reminds him how she and Ada once challenged him to find the secret lever that would “release the orgasm or whatever it is called” of a top-secret drawer in the secretaire in the library, which he did, only to disclose that all the drawer contained was a “minuscule red pawn” like a clitoris, “the entire incident,” in Lucette’s words, “pre-emblematiz[ing] . . . the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen” at Ada’s hands (374). Ada “taught me practices I had never imagined” (375), Lucette confesses, to the point where at fourteen she had alread y become obsessed with erotica, “copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces” (376).

The painter who paints and paws at the bottoms of nymphets, “Nymphobottomus” in Van’s apt nickname (117), and paws Ada in particular in her nymphet years, is chronologically the earliest element of the “behind” motif that will far more seriously entangle Lucette (I.14 Afternote, above; Boyd 1985/2001: 134-44). Textually if not chronologically the motif begins on the ride home from the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday; a day or two later, Van declares to Lucette they are “Hippopotamians,” and gets her to act the plough to his ploughboy. She handwalks across the lawn, “sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. . . . Van . . . was ‘ploughing around’ with Lucette acting the sullow. Her bright hair hung over her face, her panties showed from under the hem of her skirt, yet she still urged the ploughboy on” (91-92), in a scene that would have been Nymphobottomus’s dream.

Gigment “drew his diminutive nudes invariably from behind—fig-picking, peach-buttocked nymphets straining upward, or else rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting shorts” (111). Lucette is insistently associated with peaches, especially in Ardis the Second. The first instance recalls the motifs of I.18:

“ ‘My sister, do you still recall . . . ’
“Oh shut up!” said Ada. “I’ve given up all that stuff--petits vers, vers de soie . . . “
“ Come, come,” cried Van, “some of the rhymes were magnificent acrobatics on the part of the child’s mind: ‘Oh! qui me rendra, ma Lucile, et le grand chêne and zee big hill.’ Little Lucile,” he added in an effort to dissipate her frowns with a joke, “little Lucile has become so peachy that I think I’ll switch over to her if you keep losing your temper like that.” (192.04-12)

Other examples: “Lucette remained topless. Her tight smooth skin was the color of thick peach syrup” (198.10); her skin “Cold as two halves of a canned peach” (205.08); “She sat in his lap, heavily, dreamily, full of foie gras and peach punch” (280.05-06).

Gigment also depicts “rock-climbing girl scouts in bursting shorts.” At the picnic for Ada’s sixteenth birthday, Lucette in shorts climbs rocks to spy on her sister and “cousin”: “Among the rugged rocks they found and consoled poor little Lucette, whose foot had slipped on a granite slab in a tangle of bushes” (267.18-20); on the journey back from the picnic, she sits down in her “remarkably well-filled green shorts” (280) on Van’s lap in a key instance of the behind motif (she wonders the next day “could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something,” 289) that prefigures the night of her death (Boyd 1985/2001: 142, 208-09).

Even the subject of Gigment’s painting young females links with Lucette, who becomes an art student and herself merges into a painting, in the scene at Ovenman’s bar in Paris (III.3; Boyd 1985/2001: 129-31), and feels herself “only a picture painted on air” (464).

At eleven, Ada finds herself the object of painter Paul Gigment’s flustered fondlings. The comparison of him to “the Marmoreal Guest, that immemorial gost’,” anticipates the quirky reworking of the ending of Mozart’s and Pushkin’s versions of the Don Juan story in Don Juan’s Last Fling, where “what seemed an incidental embrace constituted the Stone Cuckold’s revenge” (490) and prompts Van to flee from the cinema and hence from Lucette on the night she will take her life. Gigment’s fumblings are few and harmless—at the most they bring Ada’s bottom in contact with his shirtfront—but the prospect of his renewed attentions is enough to make robust Ada cower. She seems to have forgotten that entirely when she orchestrates Van’s “caressing and kissing” the far frailer Lucette in 1888 (213), and in her own nightly and often daily grapples with Lucette in 1890.

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