Part One, Chapter 20


After their accidental conjunction in the library the night before, while they knelt in an otherwise empty manor to watch the Barn burn, Van and Ada now have to discover how to behave in the aftermath of their open passion, both when in the presence of others and when alone. Despite Van’s waking into exhilaration, the morning begins badly, but he and Ada arrange to meet, and from now on it seems that nothing will obstruct their love.

The whole chapter plays comically with ideas of deflowering, with the prominent baguenaudier flowers, like bursts of sunshine, lighting up the dining room they have to share with others and the bower where they meet before they withdraw into deeper seclusion and a closing conundrum: “Neither could establish in retrospect, nor, indeed, persisted in trying to do so, how, when and where he actually ‘deflowered’ her.” But as Ada makes clear with her comically apt “marginal note in red ink,” sex is soon working smoothly.

Just as Van waits for Ada in the Baguenaudier Bower, he notes that “Blue butterflies nearly the size of Small Whites, and likewise of European origin, were flitting swiftly around the shrubs and settling on the drooping clusters of yellow flowers” (128) before gliding ahead in the next sentence to his and Ada’s seeing “with wonder and joy, the same insect and the same bladder-senna along a forest trail near Susten in the Valais.” This refers forward to their first visit to the first house they share, in 1922, after their last reunion (Van buys the house in 1905, but immediately discovers Ada will not leave with him but feels she must return to her husband, just diagnosed with tuberculosis), and the yellow-blue combination in both 1884 and 1922 echoes the Russian ya lyublyu (“I love”) on which Nabokov had punned when teaching Wellesley students in the 1940s (VNAY 122) and which forms a motif in Ada (see for in stance the “yellow-blue Vass frocks” of 187.06-07, punning on ya lyublyu Vas, “I love you”). In other words, Van uses these yellow flowers to stress his love for Ada, and to stress how strongly it endures, as he awaits her for the tryst where he more or less deflowers her. The baguenaudier seedpods, which pop open explosively to discharge seeds, are comically apt in other ways.


Van and Ada’s first morning together after their first attempt at making love contrasts with their first morning together alone, the balcony breakfast of the “hammock and honey” chapter, I.12. In that lyrical scene, their being alone together was precious and new. Things have advanced unimaginably in the three weeks or so since then, but now having to share breakfast with Dan dampens their mood and manner. Then, Ada had registered her “bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar” (75) as the first “Real Thing” in her tripartite Tower; a wasp was the second: “We shall try to eat one later . . . but it must be gorged to taste good.” But then Ada, although she could look squarely at Van, could not tell him what “the third Real Thing” was, could not admit that it was he. Now, as soon as she leaves breakfast, Van can waylay Ada, “gorged with sweet butter” (127), and arrange for a tryst together, where there will be no constraint on their feelings. Then, she “wore the striped tee shirt which in his lone fantasies he especially liked to peel off her twisting torso” (75); now, she herself will discard her dress soon after they reach the larchwood (405).


On Van’s very first morning at Ardis, he accosted Blanche, but his lust was soon dispelled by her romanesque response. Now, after his first night of love with Ada, he wakes from a dream of Blanche. On his first morning, he had descended the grand staircase, noticing General Durmanov’s father, Prince Zemski, and other ancestors looking down on him; now, he sees the “pleased-looking Prince Zemski and a grim Vincent Veen.” Then, Blanche had gushed that Mlle Larivière called her “ ‘Cendrillon’ because . . . she broke and mislaid things, and confused flowers” (49); now, she seems to reenact Cinderella when she calls for the miniver-trimmed slipper she has lost on the grand staircase, Ada says she has seen it “dans une des corbeilles de la bibliothèque,” and Van, who hears only the answer, assumes it’s in reference to “some geranium or violet or slipper orchid.” But Blanche has not mislaid a flower, anymore than she has just been deflowered. On Van’s first morning at Ardis, Blanche declares she is a virgin, or almost one; but the irony is that she is long past deflowering, and already engaged with her second lover of the summer. Van consciously and comically counterpoints this all-too-experienced Cinderella’s lost “flower” and Ada’s imminent deflowering.


Amid the baguenaudier flowers of the dining room, Van finds not the Ada he had hoped for but the Uncle Dan he can barely stand, especially when Dan appears to combine his morning ablutions with his morning feed. “Red” Veen sits in “a candy-striped suit,” whose colors seem displaced, as if he were one of the cartoon characters in the Sunday supplement of the newspapers he is waiting for. And indeed he is a comic character, with his hopeless vagueness about past, present and future. Van seems particularly irritated by his uncle’s “(rotating) red ‘tashy’ ” and “his chinless profile with its curly red sideburn.” This stress on Dan’s red coloration is another reminder that he is not the father of the black-haired, white-skinned Ada who walks in dressed in black shorts and a white jersey. And the “Sunday supplements of the papers from Balticomore, and Kaluga, and Luga” (128) that Dan is awaiting so keenly foreshadow in story time or recall in reading time “the Sunday supplement of a newspaper” (5)—the Kaluga Gazette (6)—that Van and Ada will soon discover in Ardis’s attic and that will disclose that Dan married Marina too late to be Ada’s father.

Ada as she enters the dining room “slapped lightly Mr. Veen’s bald head with her book in passing” (126): she treats familiarly the man she has grown up calling father, but he is pointedly referred to her not as “her father,” but as “Mr. Veen.” As Ada has perhaps already discovered from Blanche, another Mr. Veen, Demon, is her real father. Ada responds to Dan’s confused question, what she was doing while Van and he “were taking care of the fire,” with an embarrassed “something about having been fast ablaze in her bedroom” when Van interrupts her harshly: “You were not, . . . you were with me looking at the blaze from the library window. Uncle Dan is all wet.” Dan responds “ ‘Ménagez vos américanismes’ . . . —and then opened his arms wide in paternal welcome as guileless Lucette trotted into the room.” He knows that he is the father of “foxy red” (126) Lucette.

This meal-time scene links not only with Ada’s breakfast on the balcony but with two other key meals at Ardis. One, the most elaborate meal in this novel of many rich servings, takes place in I.38, where Demon visits Ardis and dines with Marina, his former lover, and their two children, Van and Ada. That dinner in 1888 may seem to have little to do with a breakfast in 1884, but Nabokov pointedly links them. In I.20 Dan seems to recall little of even the previous evening; in I.38 Demon’s mind is ablaze with the vividness of the distant past. Van and Ada have pointedly nothing in common with Dan at the 1884 breakfast; each of them at the 1888 dinner shows signs of taking after Demon, from the moment they meet: “ ‘Hullo, Dad.’ ‘Oh, hullo, Van.’ Tres américain. . . . he [Demon], too, remembered every detail of those father-and-son dinners at Riverlane” (238), in pointed contrast to Dan’s “Ménagez vos américanismes” reflecting the distance between him and Van.

Here in I.21, when Van sees Ada’s translation from Coppée, he immediately recalls the French original: “ ‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard . . . ’ ” In I.38, Demon quotes Coppée, Van mentions Ada’s translation of another Coppée poem, and is about to recite “her” translation (actually Van’s own revised version): “Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ’em . . . ” when Demon interrupts, “Oh, I know ’em,” and recites the whole stanza (247).

Red Veen’s emotional and intellectual distance from Demon’s two children in this breakfast scene, and Van’s contempt for his uncle, as character and narrator, in other words, prepare for the contrast with Van’s and Ada’s attunement to Demon in I.38, and Van’s awe for him there, again as both character and narrator.

And the links to the Kaluga newspaper in the attic that records the true date of Dan’s marriage and that with other details the children find there establishes that he cannot have fathered Ada, and the pointed contrast of Dan’s distance from Demon’s children and his paternal closeness to Lucette in her brief moment in the breakfast scene, make Dan more than just the figure of fun and the object of contempt Van portrays him as. Dan’s lasting hurt at the entanglement of his fate with Demon’s, at his being belatedly accepted by Marina only because she is pregnant with Demon’s child, Ada, can be felt in that one moment that Lucette enters the scene and Dan opens “his arms wide in paternal welcome.”


But I.20 connects still more closely with another mealtime scene, the central dinner scene of I.10, where Ada dominates the conversation to leave as little room as possible for Marina to air her interests. A “yellow thingum” painted on the crockery, which Van mistakes for a buttercup, starts Ada’s most astonishing performance, as she identifies it as a marsh marigold and segues into a denunciation of Wallace Fowlie’s mistranslating, in a Rimbaud poem that Mlle Larivière has made her learn by heart (“though I suspect she prefers Musset and Coppée”), the French term for this flower, souci d’eau, as “care of the water” (see Afternote I.10 and Boyd 1985/2001: 51-59, 291-96).

At the breakfast scene in I.20, yellow baguenaudier flowers fill the dining-room, and as soon as Ada leaves the room, and Van waylays her, she explains she has to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière: “François Coppée? Yes.”

In I.10, the mistranslation Ada heaps scorn upon focuses on the loss of the flower in the English version, and by pointedly involving Lucette at this very moment, although she is absent from the room, indicates the irony of her fate, that in failing to be deflowered by Van she herself becomes “the care of the water,” as has already been discussed at length in Afternote I.10 and Boyd 1985/2001. I.21 seems to focus on Ada’s deflowering, and to contrast her situation ironically with Blanche, the Cinderella who has lost not a flower in the wastepaper basket—the “flower” of her virginity has long since been lost—but a slipper another lover has taken off to kiss her feet. But another Cinderella is also in focus, the youngest sister of three children, the half-sister. In I.10’s dinner scene, Lucette is not present at all, but is referred to at crucial moments of Ada’s discussion of Rimbaud’s “Memoire.” Now in I.20, she enters the scene belatedly, carrying “a child’s pink, stiff-bagged butterfly net in her little fist, like an oriflamme” (127), in pointed echo of “Mémoire”: “des oriflammes / sous les murs dont quelque pucelle eut la défense” (“oriflammes under the walls that some virgin had to defend”).

Ada’s mistranslations of Coppée, singled out deftly by Van, replay in a louder variation the theme of Fowlie’s mistranslation of Rimbaud. Fowlie had as it were deflowered Rimbaud’s poem; Ada’s “woodchopper” threatens almost to deforest Coppée’s scene. In 1888, at the dinner for Demon, Van will offer his own version, although presenting it as Ada’s, and will replace her most destructive word with “leavesdropper” (247)—which however is a word already strongly associated with Lucette, the eavesdropper on Van and Ada, the girl whom Van first misidentifies as “Ardelia” on arriving at Ardis (36), and who overhears Van and Ada fall in the shattal tree and so merges with “that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping” (98: see Afternotes I.15 and I.16).

I.20, with its prominent baguenaudier flowers and bower, and its play on Blanche’s lost “geranium or violet or slipper orchid,” ends with an explicit discussion of “how, when and where he [Van] actually ‘deflowered’ ” Ada (129), and Ada’s closing “Marginal note in red ink.” Yet Nabokov’s concern is as much for the Lucette whose innocence will also be placed at risk by Ada’s being deflowered. Even Ada’s “note in red ink,” by recalling the “red ink” Molly Bloom thinks of as a woman’s way to fool a man into believing he has deflowered a virgin, itself connects with the echo of Molly’s name and these thoughts when Ada denounces as Fowlie’s foulest mistake “the transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’—although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, marybud, maybubble” (see 129.30-31n and Afternote to I.10).


Van wakes up in a mood of exhilarated anticipation, but discovers life is still mixed (he finds not Ada but Dan at breakfast) and complicated (his first encounter with Ada after their first night of love combines aloofness, embarrassment, and irritation). Yet the chapter nevertheless ends on a note of sexual fulfillment and triumph: for all their sense of the absurdity of the notion of his “deflowering” her, the chapter celebrates that very fact.

But Nabokov complicates the situation in other ways. Dan seems only risible to Van, who senses only his superiority to him, just as Ada at dinner with Marina in I.10 finds she can cope with her mother only by excluding her, and just as Lucette will seem to them only a harmless and at times amusing nuisance. But Dan has been embroiled in the loves of Demon and Marina, and in consequence feels the pain of rearing the Ada he knows cannot be his child. In the next generation, Dan’s daughter Lucette will be embroiled in the amours of Van and Ada, which here in I.20 shift to a new physical and therefore potentially observable level (and indeed from the first are actually observed: Kim’s camera is there) when Van “deflowers” Ada. That amatory triumph will also entail tragedy, as Lucette’s innocence will soon be compromised in a far more damaging way when she too begins to watch the “smooth workings” of Van and Ada’s tireless sex “machine.”

I.20 marks the transition, as it were, from the left-hand panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, from Eden before the Fall, to the central panel, to the Fall into sexuality as a Fortunate Fall, as it seemed to Van and Ada both at the time and in retrospect: a frenzy of sexual repetition, that in Bosch as in Nabokov nevertheless also introduces elements of unease and danger that prefigure the panel of earthly Hell on the right as much as they recapitulate the Eden on the left.

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