Part One, Chapter 24
In one sense, this chapter sweeps up aspects of the past—especially Van and Ada’s overlappings in their remoter past—that could not be introduced earlier because of the forward pressure of narrative time, the accelerating rush toward the consummation of their love. In another, the chapter seems to prefigure, in its new centrifugal quality, its jumping from era to era (1878 to 1964) and place to place (Ardis to Mocuba), the centrifugal quality of the chapters that cover Van’s impending time apart from Ada.
To this point Ardis the First has been presented in a strongly linear fashion—as if in keeping with the Greek “point of an arrow” sense of “Ardis” (225) and what Van will later call the “direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time” (538)—as it tracks the advance of their love. Now this chapter offers intersecting angles on time, and Van’s troubled reflections, even as a youth, on his and Ada’s criss-crossing pasts, in a kind of prefiguration of his later ruminations on time and his challenges to the directionality of time.
The chapter begins with an elaborate introduction by way of the tape recorders that Van and Ada could not use to replay their past as they record it in writing in the 1960s. The changes in technology and mores over time, as well as the contrast between the fidelity of taping and the fickleness of memory, already introduce multiple perspectives on the past.
The chapter’s opening takes this much further, however, because the tape-recording theme also prefigures the last chapter of the novel, where Van and Ada write: “Recorded and replayed in their joint memory was their early preoccupation with the strange idea of death. . . . The talk about ‘double guarantee’ in eternity. Start just before that.” (583) In I.24, Ada declares confidently “this . . . is certain, this is reality, this is pure fact—this forest, this moss, your hand, the ladybird on my leg, this cannot be taken away, can it? (it will, it was).” In Ada’s last chapter, in a similar vein, the twelve-year-old Ada says: “As lovers and siblings . . . we have a double chance of being together in eternity, in terrarity” (583-84). Ada’s “this . . . is certain” comes in response to Van’s metaphysical musings, “space breaking away from time, in the final tragic triumph of human cogitation: I am because I die.” In their memoir’s last chapter, they write that “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” (584). Although death has already haunted Van’s nights outside, early in Ardis the First, it haunts the first love scenes especially through the bicycle scene in I.24, where this exchange takes place, between rounds six and seven of their lovemaking.
I.24 serves as a kind of belated exposition of Van and Ada’s partly intermeshing pasts. In this role, it also pointedly echoes the comically early exposition in the Prologue, the first three chapters.
In the first paragraph of I.24 Van writes: “Had our erudite lovers been allowed by common propriety and common law to knock into working order the mysterious box they had once discovered in their magic attic, they might have recorded (so as to replay, eight decades later) . . .Van Veen’s conversations with his sweetheart” (147). This harks back to “a reel box containing what turned out to be . . . a tremendous stretch of microfilm” that Van and Ada find in the attic (6), among other relics and testimonials of the past, in the novel’s opening chapter. The conversation that ensues between Van and Ada in I.24, chronologically before the discoveries in the attic, concerns their relationship, their sense that they are more than cousins, since as well as first cousins by their mothers they are also second cousins through their fathers. And, Ada adds: “Physically . . . we are more like twins than cousins.” (148) The explanation of their relationship here, “before they had come across the herbarium in the attic” (148-49), helps explain retrospectively the nature of their discoveries in the attic, their preparedness for making sense of their multiple finds, and their uncanny similarity of speech in that first dialogue in the novel. If any of us has missed in I.1, or in the rest of the Prologue, just what Van and Ada concluded in the attic about their relationship, Nabokov and Van invite us to return once more, with still more evidence at hand, to see what the precocious youngsters saw immediately.
Notice, however, that this exchange between Van and Ada in I.24 also undermines their exchange in the attic. Prefacing the dialogue in I.24, Van says that had they had a tape recorder “they might have recorded” a dialogue between them: “Here, for example, is what they might have heard today.” The dialogue that follows is impressive, for such youngsters; but it is nothing like the verbatim accounts of their bravura oratorical displays in the attic that Van regales us with in Ada’s first chapter, and that he here tacitly admits he has reconstructed for effect.
I.24 also echoes I.1 in its particular focus on Dan and the ignominiously comic role he plays. Dan is introduced in I.1 in terms of his rare “carefully shaded summer weekends” (5) at Ardis and his even rarer visits to his other estate, which he owns with Demon. It is one of Dan’s few trips to “Radugalet, the ‘other Ardis’” (149), that forms the central image of the past scenes that Van and Ada recall. For Ada, this affords the earliest glimpse she can recollect of Van, in 1878, a trip Dan had hoped to make on his own, perhaps to have some share in Demon’s enjoyment of “a lovely Irish wild rose” (150) called Rose who had briefly worked as a scullery maid at Ardis. But since he cannot stop Marina and Ada coming with him at the last minute, the visit is a comic disaster, with Dan frustrated and embarrassed and Marina indignant and imperious.
Three years later “a semi-divorced Dan” takes a consolation trip to “equatorial Africa to photograph tigers (which he was surprised not to see) and other notorious wild animals, trained to cross the motorist’s path” (149). In Ada’s opening chapter, he had consoled himself for Marina’s having rejected his offer of marriage with an equally ludicrous “triple trip” around the globe, only to be summoned back by Marina, who had discovered she was pregnant to Demon after Demon had already married Aqua. While Dan takes his would-be tiger trip in I.24, Marina is already traveling with her children and her new beau, Gran D. du Mont.
I.1 introduces Ada as “a family chronicle” (3). The Prologue to the novel, its first three chapters, shows what sort of a family chronicle this will be, in its entangled love-relationships. In I.24, the “family chronicle” motif returns, with Van under the care of his Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov, named in honor of the author of Semeynaya khronika (A Family Chronicle), Sergey Aksakov (see title page n.), at Radugalet and elsewhere. The “other Ardis,” with its absurd visit, proves a disappointment to Dan’s hopes of venery, but Ada, just as Marina whisks her away, catches a glimpse of tiny Van walking with “blond-bearded, white-bloused Aksakov” (151). When Van himself in turn visits Ardis, the family chronicle will become only more entangled.
Van, as ever, admires his father’s flair, especially his sexual and intellectual flair, and scorns Dan’s sexual and intellectual gaucherie. Dan tries to imitate his cousin’s style, but falls far short, like Dan’s daughter Lucette, at another level, trying to imitate her cousin, Demon’s son Van.
When Ada recounts for Van her trip with Dan and Marina to Demon and Rose at the “other Ardis,” Van responds that he “had not the slightest recollection of that visit or indeed of that particular summer, because his father’s life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time, and he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than once himself, which did not interest Ada” (151). He is referring to the younger sister of Demon’s beautiful secretary (and current mistress), her “eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess and milkmaid)” (149) who offered ten-year-old Van “those unforgettable, much too early initiations” when she “expertly petted him between milkshake and bed” (172.06-09). Later he will recall her “pensive half-smile” while “neatly reclosing her charge’s prepuce after the bedtime treat.” (545.32-33) If Dan cannot imitate Demon, Demon’s son Van, “strengthened by . . . his father’s demon blood” (20), readily learns from his father’s sexually supercharged world.
Van’s comment about “the other Ardis”—that “his father’s life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time”—amusingly illuminates Demon’s sexuality and his son’s vicarious pride. But at the end of Ardis the First, and yet only at the end of the Prologue, Van comments to Ada, “developing the metaphor” that Aqua had used in her suicide note “in the rose garden of Ardis Manor” (29). The link between the two rose gardens points to the cost of Demon’s sexual insatiability: it has driven Aqua to her suicide.
Aqua is a major focus of the Prologue, which shows not only how Demon’s and Marina’s passion prefigures and results in that of Van and Ada, but also how Aqua’s suicide prefigures Lucette’s. Aqua is never mentioned in I.24, yet she is evoked right at the start of the chapter. I.3, the chapter of the Prologue that focuses on Aqua and her suicide, introduces the L disaster as a way to account for her madness. The chapter begins: “The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated). . . . ” (17) But I.24 begins, as if to echo this, “Van regretted that because Lettrocalamity” (147): a play on the Italian for electromagnet, and on the “L” (electric) disaster, again in the first line of the chapter. Aqua proudly thinks, in her madness, that she hears water speaking, and that
she, poor Aqua, had accidentally hit upon such a simple method of recording and transmitting speech, while technologists . . . all over the world were trying to make publicly utile and commercially rewarding the extremely elaborate and still very expensive. hydrodynamic telephones and other miserable gadgets that were to replace those that had gone k chertyam sobach’im (Russian “to the devil”) with the banning of an unmentionable “lammer.” (23: italics added, except for “k chertyam sobach’im”)
Van begins I. 24 with a long sentence that curiously echoes Aqua in her madness, in subject (hydrodynamic surrogates for electrical devices) and in phrasing (note the words in added italics):
because Lettrocalamity . . . was banned all over the world . . . and had been replaced by elaborate surrogates only in those very important “utilities”--telephones, motors--what else?--well a number of gadgets for which plain folks hanker with lolling tongues, breathing faster than gundogs, such trifles as tape recorders . . . were not manufactured any more. (147)
Why this singular series of echoes (dogs echoes the Russian sobach’im, “dogs”), apart from the fact that this chapter will show us Radugalet as a “rose garden” whose thorns must have often pricked Aqua’s tender mind? In the Prologue to Ada, Lucette barely features, although in retrospect we can see how vividly Aqua’s fate foreshadows hers. In I.1 Lucette rates a single sentence in the scene in the attic. In I.24 she is again mentioned and dismissed in a single sentence: “ ‘Don’t jingle them,’ she said, ‘we are watched by Lucette, whom I’ll strangle some day.’ ” (148) Ada and Van walk away from Lucette into seclusion, and continue to discuss the topic of their close relationship, their cousinage and more, as a threat to their love affair. This is before they discover the herbarium in the attic, after they have once again managed to get rid of Lucette, and deduce they are full brother and sister—and by then, having become lovers, simply no longer care. Yet Lucette turns out to be central to Ada’s first chapter (see I.1, Afternote), and so she does again here in I.24.
Although Lucette is mentioned only once in I.24, she shapes the chapter. Van opens referring to “Lettrocalamity,” the L disaster so obliquely but insistently linked with Lucette herself (and “calamity” recurs only once elsewhere in Ada , referring to Lucette’s fate, in the chapter that introduces the L disaster). Then I.24’s one explicit reference to Lucette, introduced by way of the recorders they might have had if there had been no “Lettrocalamity,” contains Ada’s warning to Van: “we are watched by Lucette, whom I’ll strangle some day.” This is only at the kissing phase of Van and Ada’s affair. Evidently Lucette has been spying on their joint activities for some time already, even before the Night of the Burning Barn. Given this evidence of her curiosity, it is still more outrageous than it has seemed before that Ada, overcome with desire at the sight of naked Van trying to retrieve Lucette’s toy from the brook, should suggest tying Lucette up while she and Van dash off to make importunate love.
As they elude Lucette in the first scene of I.24, Ada and Van brood on their family closeness, even before they have discovered they are brother and sister. Although they see it only as a problem for themselves, there is someone else involved, and Nabokov incorporates Lucette before their discussion begins, precisely in order to suggest the other complication in their close relationship that they should already be aware of but choose to ignore: Lucette’s entanglement in their love.
If it was outrageous for Ada, in a rush of desire at the sight of naked Van, to suggest that they tie Lucette up as a damsel in distress, it is both more comical and still more outrageous when, during I.24’s bicycle ride, Ada comments to Van:
She was, cette Lucette, like the girl in Ah, cette Line (a popular novel), “a macédoine of intuition, stupidity, naïveté and cunning.” By the way, she had confessed, Ada had made her confess, that it was, as Van had suspected, the other way round--that when they returned to the damsel in distress, she was in all haste, not freeing herself, but actually trying to tie herself up again after breaking loose and spying on them through the larches. “Good Lord,” said Van, “that explains the angle of the soap!” (152)
When they return from the bicycle ride, having made love, we infer, seven times, Ada is still ready for more, though she has worn Van out. And she now craves rich food as keenly as she has craved sumptuous sex all afternoon.
When she returns, Nabokov counterpoints Mlle Larivière’s reading from her new story and Ada’s “invincible appetite” for the fruit cake that she festoons in butter. He has pointedly changed the phrasing of the Maupassant original, “La Petite Roque,” to have the protagonist kill his young victim by compressing “too hard the throat of the little girl he had raped in a moment of «gloutonnerie impardonnable».” (There is no gloutonnerie in Maupassant, whose metaphor is ivresse, drunkenness).
In fact Nabokov links the counterpointing of Ada and the mayor still further. Mlle Larivière has just begun to compose her new story when the scene by the river—Lucette’s toy swept away, Van stripping off his dungarees to retrieve it, Ada suggesting Lucette be tied up—takes place: “While the comfortably resting lady was describing the bank of a brook where little Rockette liked to frolic, Ada sat reading on a similar bank. . . . Lucette had abandoned her skipping rope to squat on the brink of the brook and float a fetus-sized rubber doll” (142-43).
During the bicycle ride in I.24, as she recalls her past, Ada observes that Lucette, although so much younger, “remembered heaps of bagatelles.” This introduces her comparison of “cette Lucette” to “the girl in Ah, cette Line” and her account of Lucette’s forced confession that at the brookside she had not been freeing but retying herself after spying on them.
The cette Lucette and the Ah, cette Line serve to emphasise the c-ette that “little Lucette,” as she is so often called, shares with another French fiction, the “little Rockette” (142) of Mlle Larivière’s story. Ada says, in her first reference to Lucette in I.24, “we are watched by Lucette, whom I’ll strangle some day” (148). Mlle Larivière’s story is “about a town mayor strangling a small girl called Rockette” (142). Nabokov makes the links unmistakeable. And just as the mayor is led to rape and strangle little Rockette through his “gloutonnerie impardonnable,” he suggests, Ada begins the debauching of Lucette through her own “unforgivable gluttony,” comically seen in the seven-pause bicycle ride, but less harmless when her sudden lust beside the brookside leads her to have Lucette, already so curious, tied up—albeit dangerously perfunctorily—while she and Van scamper off to make love. And it will be Ada’s sexual gloutonnerie in Ardis the Second and in Arizona in 1890 that fully embroil Lucette in the sexuality of the elder Veens.
Ada is perfectly aware that despite her youth Lucette has a retentive memory, and indeed the terms in which she expresses this (“Lucette, though so much younger, remembered heaps of bagatelles, little ‘turrets’ and little ‘barrels,’ biryul’ki proshlago,” 152) foreshadows Lucette’s by-then-obsessive recall of the details of their shared sexuality, in 1892: “ ‘One remembers those little things much too clearly, Lucette. Please, stop.’ ‘One remembers, Van, those little things much more clearly than the big fatal ones.’ ” (370) In this scene, the already emotionally unstable Lucette recalls “the summer Belle sprained her backside,” and focuses precisely, obsessively, on the little-turret, little-barrel like “little organ,” the “yielding roundlet” of the secrétaire in the library, which when groped for released a drawer to reveal only “a minuscule red pawn” that she kept and that she now sees as having “pre-emblematized” her clitoris (374), which insatiable Ada has made the most of, while without male company in Arizona, regardless of what the experience will do to her frail sister.
Van never misses a chance to mock or invite us to laugh at Mlle Larivière. Her story about “little Rockette” seems unsubtle, and her tragic emphasis on gloutonnerie impardonnable contrasts with the comic emphasis of Van and Ada’s story, of their sexual gluttony, and of Ada’s literal gluttony now as she coats the rich cake in butter. Mlle Larivière’s appalled reaction again seems comical, since it reflects her automatic anti-Englishness (it is somehow worse to her that it is an English fruit cake, cette pâte britannique, that Ada devours), and since she does not know, as we do, the evidence for Ada’s other appetite that would leave her far more flabbergasted.
Van has already labeled Mlle Larivière as “pathologically unobservant” (96) when he reports that after the brookside scene, Lucette “complained to her governess who, completely misconstruing the whole matter (which could also be said of her new composition), summoned Van and from her screened bed, through a reek of embrocation and sweat, told him to refrain from turning Lucette’s head by making of her a fairy-tale damsel in distress.” (143) While on a first reading we find this amusing confirmation of Mlle Larivière’s failure to observe her immediate world, her failure to see Van’s real romantic object, in fact she has seen that Lucette’s head is being turned by Van.
And somehow Mlle Larivière’s stories, absurd though they seem, do make more of a comment on the three young Veens than Van and Ada realize. Though she does not intend it, her story of a helpless girl strangled after a fit of glouttonerie impardonnable does indeed comment on Ada and her unforgivable sexual greed by the bank of another brook, and the damage it will cause to the girl that Ada says she will “strangle some day.”