Part One, Chapter 25
Pt. 1 Ch. 25 ends Ardis the First, sums it up, anticipates Van and Ada’s first separation, and foreshadows their next summer together at Ardis, and its difficulties, and further partings.
Throughout Ardis the First, Van and Ada’s story combines a sense of unforgettable newness and the eventual realization that love also repeats and imitates itself. It is as if the Edenic left panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights meets the central panel, with its innumerable echoes of the fruit of the fall and its parodies of the paradise of the flesh. One part of the experience of love for almost all of us is that after the joy of first love something starts to go wrong, perhaps in the pang of parting or the loss of trust or both. Nabokov felt this strongly in his own first love, as we shall see, and he heightens the combination for Van and Ada at the end of Ardis the First. Another part of growing up is that in childhood the end of summer always seems a loss, and for Nabokov in particular a forfeit of “the very essence of summer freedom—schoolless untownishness” (SM 183). If that coincides with the end of the first phase of first love, the shock will be even greater—as it was for Nabokov, as it is for Van.
I.25 shows Van leaving Ardis on the Veen family motorcar without even having seen Ada off, then the half-surprise, relief, comic joy of his last embraces with Ada, and his parting from her to where “Morio, his favorite black horse, stood waiting for him, held by young Moore. He thanked the groom with a handful of stellas and galloped off, his glove wet with tears” (159). Van, and Nabokov, here toy with the reader’s attentiveness and stress Van’s romanticization of his story, his extravagant self-projection. Suddenly the motorcar and old bald Bouteillan have been transformed into a horse and a young groom, and Van’s heavy baggage—trunk, suitcase and dumbbells—has been wished away so that he can gallop off in dashing romantic dudgeon.
This metamorphic journey from manor to station at the end of Ardis the First helps bracket Van’s whole summer here, which begins with another metamorphic journey from station to manor. On his arrival at the station in June Van had in “a miniature of the imagination . . . seen a saddled horse prepared for him; there was not even a trap” (34). He jumps in a hackney coach, successively redescribed and perhaps reconfigured as the old calèche, the sensitive runabout, the old clockwork taxi, before arriving at Ardis where “A servant in waiting took his horse” (35). Van toys with the interplay between expectation and reality, at the start of Ardis the First, and reality and memory, at the end of the summer. Most of all, he frames Ardis at beginning and end, to stress how much a unity it seemed in his mind—and how much that unity shapes the rest of his life, by its absence, or the promise of its restoration, or its irreparable loss. (For a more detailed discussion, see Boyd 1985/2001: 21-27, and Afternote to I.5.)
While alert first-time readers arriving at the final paragraph of I.25 will notice the metamorphic journey, and perhaps recall its counterpart on the other flank of Ardis the First, there will be more that they cannot yet see. “Morio” and “Moore” are a puzzle. They appear nowhere else in the novel, yet Van alludes to them as if they were familiar. If we look beyond the Morio-Moore sound play, we will see that the young groom Moore is an anagram of a different kind of groom, Romeo (see 159.09: in his next novel, TT, Nabokov will create a pattern involving Julia Moore, Giulia Romeo, and many many mores; and on Van and Ada’s next meeting, we find the phrase “moribund Romeo” ). And with that Shakespearean hint, the black horse Morio
points towards Othello, the blackamoor Iago calls “a Barbary horse” (Othello I.i.112).
This pair of simple but oblique allusions encapsulates the whole of Part I of Ada. Van, the allusions hint, leaves the young Romeo behind and charges off on a black steed reminiscent of Othello: “Ardis the First” is comparable in the freshness and lyric radiance of its young love only to Romeo and Juliet, while the chapters between “Ardis the First” and “Ardis the Second” and that second idyll itself are marked by the ever-deepening shadow of potentially violent jealousy, hinted at for the very first time in Van’s words to Ada just before their last embrace of 1884 and Van’s tear-blinded departure. (Boyd 1985/2001: 24)
The last paragraph of the chapter begins with a pair of allusions to famous poems by Marvell and Rimbaud that we learned in I.10 both Van and Ada know by heart. Why does Van start the last paragraph of Ardis the First this way? His farewell to Ada at Ardis in 1884 takes place at Forest Fork.
It is this spot (mentioned only these two times) that is the locale for Van and Ada’s next meeting after the Brownhill fiasco, just before 8 a.m. on July 25, 1886. This later tryst is a recurrence staged by the characters, . . . a deliberate reliving of their last previous embraces.
It is at this meeting that Van and Ada change the code for their correspondence. Between 1884 and 1886 they had used a simple alphabetic code, but “In the second period of separation, beginning in 1886”—after the reunion at Forest Fork—“the code was radically altered” (161), becoming now a numerical cipher geared to the lines and letters of “The Garden” and “Mémoire.” . . .
But why is the code foreshadowed in the account of Van’s departure from Ada at Forest Fork? Because as Van stumbles along, flailing wildly at the undergrowth, he is in vehement despair at the possibility of Ada’s unfaithfulness—“it’s the fellows I’ll kill if they come near you,” (158–59)—and it is during the new, post-1886 phase of the coded correspondence that Ada’s letters become less frequent and Van’s jealousy more inflamed. He is right to be hurt, for Ada now writes so seldom precisely because she is entangled in affairs with Philip Rack and Percy de Prey. Through the pairing of the Marvell and Rimbaud allusions in our paragraph, then, Nabokov anticipates the breakdown of Van and Ada’s correspondence and so prepares for the jealousy theme that becomes dominant in Ardis the Second. (Boyd 1985/2001: 25-26)
Still in that last paragraph, “the explosive tumult of Van’s emotions is romantically thrilling in his ‘fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop,’ but the riding crop will make a transmuted appearance in less attractive form” (Boyd 1985/2001: 26). Its presence here prefigures the real danger of Van’s romantic violence (see Boyd 1985/2001: 26-27, 47-49, 164-65; and for more on the relationship between this and Van and Ada’s next tryst at Forest Fork, see I.29 and Afternote.)
Nabokov was no Van Veen. But his own strong sense of the shock of parting from his first love informs the end of Ardis the First—and he signals as much. When he records his love for Valentina Shulgina in the fictional guise of Mary (in Mary) and behind the memoirist’s mask of Tamara (in Speak, Memory), he pays particular attention to the end and the irretrievability of the rapturous summer of 1915, when they met near his country home. Their parting at the end of the summer was briefer than Van and Ada’s, but Nabokov’s sense that their relationship somehow irrevocably changed when they met again in Petrograd, without the freedoms of summer, and that even the next summer together was somehow tainted with dissatisfactions and jealousies, helped him shape Van and Ada’s first glorious summer together, the pang of parting, and Van’s vain hope of reenacting the spell the next time he and Ada spend summer together, at Ardis in 1888.
Nabokov signals this relationship between Van and Ada’s love and his own for Valentina with comic obliqueness in the “accursed insect” that Ada points out, “the newly described, fantastically rare vanessian, Nymphalis danaus Nab., orange-brown, with black-and-white foretips, mimicking, as its discoverer Professor Nabonidus of Babylon College, Nebraska, realized, not the Monarch butterfly directly, but the Monarch through the Viceroy, one of the Monarch’s best known imitators” (158).
In both his first novel and his autobiography Nabokov associates Valentina-Mary-Tamara and his love for her with the butterfly Nymphalis (Vanessa) antiopa, the Camberwell beauty:
For a moment Ganin stopped recollecting and wondered how he had been able to live for so many years without thinking about Mary—and then he caught up with her again: she was running along a dark, rustling, path, her black bow looking in flight like a huge Camberwell Beauty. (Mary 60)
Autumn came early that year . Layers of fallen leaves piled up ankle-deep by the end of August. Velvet-black Camberwell Beauties with creamy borders sailed through the glades. . . . I took my adorable girl to all those secret spots in the woods. . . . (SM 231-32)
That spring of 1916 is the one I see as the very type of a St. Petersburg spring, when I recall such specific images as Tamara, wearing an unfamiliar white hat . . . and a Camberwell Beauty, exactly as old as our romance, sunning its bruised black wings, their borders now bleached by hibernation. (SM 239)
In Ada, again thinking about the onset of autumn and the difficulties of Van and Ada’s relationship once summer ends, and the resumption of their love in another summer, Nabokov invents another butterfly in the same genus as the Camberwell Beauty and attributes its discovery to someone playfully and multiply associated with himself: “Nab.” as the abbreviation of a well-known lepidopterist’s name; “Nabonidus” of Babylon College (with an implied Nebuchadnezzar or Nabucco); and “Nebraska” (see above, 158.13-15n.). The name of the describer itself mimics a monarch: Nabonidus was a king of Babylon, and Babylon College calls to mind the city’s most famous king, Nebuchadnezzar (if our minds are triggered by “ Nebraska”) or in Verdi’s version, Nabucco (if we are primed instead by “Nab.”). And Nabokov also plays not only with his initials, VN, in “vanessian,” and with his name as lepidopterist (Nabokov, Nab.), but with the supposed origins of his family name, believed to have derived from “Nabok Murza (floreat 1380), a Russianized Tatar prince in Muscovy” (SM 52), the nabok, in family legend, having perhaps indicated “prince.”
Nymphalis danaus is “fantastically rare” because invented and fantastically interesting because it mimics a model by way of another mimic. Nabokov may here be playing on the relationship between the summers of love, and the separations between them, in his own life (and therefore his autobiography) and in his first novel, and in the mimicry of that pattern in Lolita, where Lolita’s and Humbert’s first motel tour seems to Humbert, troubled though it is at the time, a phase of holiday heaven that he wants to repeat on their second motel trip across America—where he finds everything hellish, and where suspicion and jealousy give him no rest.
Ada exclaims at the butterfly she spies on a tree-trunk just after Van has commented that she resembles a soprano in the letter scene in Onegin and Olga. Nabokov has pointedly associated letters and butterflies with the end of his relationship with Valentina. In Mary, Ganin recalls his separation from Mary by the Russian revolution and civil war: “There was something touching and wonderful about the way their letters managed to pass across the terrible Russia of that time—like a cabbage white butterfly flying over the trenches” (91). In his autobiography Nabokov ends his chapter on Tamara with his departure from Sebastopol and Russia, never to return, but “the sense of leaving Russia was totally eclipsed by the agonizing thought that Reds or no Reds, letters from Tamara would still be coming, miraculously and needlessly, to southern Crimea, and would search there for a fugitive addressee, and weakly flap about like bewildered butterflies set loose in an alien zone, at the wrong altitude, among an unfamiliar flora” (SM 251). Here in Ada the first mention of the code the lovers will use in their letters and the image of Ada evoking Pushkin’s famous letter scene flow into Ada’s exclamation over a Nymphalis, the butterfly genus that Nabokov linked with his live love for Valentina, whose end he thought of in terms of lepidoptera-like letters.
Nabokov plays with imitation upon imitation in the danaus-Viceroy-Monarch and Nab-Neb complex, and with his sense that his own parting from Valentina Shulgina imitated an immemorial pattern where love finds that the future cannot sufficiently mimic the bliss of the past. He suggests that imitation and repetition run inevitably through our experience of love. And Van and Ada indeed reflect not only their creator’s experience, but whole traditions of love.
Their tryst at Forest Fork, a first miniature “reunion” after Van’s formal farewell from Ardis, echoes the tryst of Tristan and Iseult, an iconic tale of forbidden love (see 157.18-34n.). In Marie de France’s elaboration of the story the lovers, like Van and Ada, feel they cannot live apart and yet cannot be seen together, and have to resort to secret communications when they have a chance to reunite.
At Forest Fork Van sees Ada as resembling a soprano playing Tatiana in the letter scene in an opera version of Eugene Onegin. Tatiana herself in Pushkin’s original story becomes inflamed with passion for Eugene through the example of her romantic reading. Nabokov in turns parodies that in the scene of Marina playing the part of Tatiana, and inflaming Demon’s desire for her (see I.2 and Afternote). Ada’s frock “flimsy as a nightgown” as she spells out the code that she and Van should use for their letters matches not so much Maria Kuznetsova as Marina Durmanova in her “flimsy and fetching nightgown” (11) the night she and Demon became lovers.
Van and Ada’s romance itself unwittingly mimics their parents’, especially as featured in I.2, in the headlong passionate beginning, echoed in Ardis the First, and in its continuation marred by jealousy, matched in Ardis the Second, and in the tragic complication of a sister who becomes entangled in their love and ends up committing suicide. The confusion of sisters, initially comic, both in Aqua and Marina and in different ways in Ada and Lucette, also has its echo here in the comic distortion of Pushkin in Onegin and Olga, as if Olga were the story’s heroine, not Tatiana. But Eugene’s dancing all night with Olga, with the wrong sister, will in fact lead to tragedy when Olga’s fiancé Lensky calls him out to a duel that ends in Lensky’s death.
But the pattern of imitation reaches its complex climax in the Nymphalis butterfly that mimics the Monarch via its mimic the Viceroy (or Mimic, as it was also known). Its combination of “orange-brown, with black-and-white foretips” and the sequence of monarchical names foreshadows Lucette, with her russet hair, and her black fur over a white frilly blouse, visiting Van at Kingston, bringing Van a letter from Ada, after she has herself sent Van a passionate, Tatiana-like letter declaring her love. Lucette has for years imitated her big sister’s passion for Van, to no effect on Van, and here, visiting him in Kingston, looking radiant and at sixteen “considerably more dissolute than her sister had seemed at that fatal age” (367), makes him squirm “by reproducing with diabolical accuracy Ada’s demure little whimper of ultimate bliss” (376). As she says to Van on leaving, “I knew it was hopeless. . . . I did my best. I imitated all her shtuchki (little stunts). I’m a better actress than she but that’s not enough, I know.” (386) Van and Ada acclaim themselves “a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta” (71). For all her gifts as an imitatrix, Lucette can never become enough of a mimic to match their monarchical magnificence in love.
The butterfly Ada spots is to Van just “some accursed insect.” Ada challenges this: “Accursed? Accursed?” Here at the end of Ardis the First, this exchange inadvertently prefigures Ardis the Second, where a film adaptation of Mlle Larivière’s novel Les Enfants Maudits, “the ‘accursed children’” (199), is being discussed, and where Lucette, brought in by Ada to snuggle with Van while she herself escapes to wind up her affair with Percy de Prey, will indeed end being accursed by her unflagging but unrequited love for Van.
The metamorphic voyage that dominates I.25 and ends Ardis the First not only echoes the metamorphic voyage that begins Ardis the First and frames the whole experience, but it also reflects the relationship between the two trips back from Ada’s birthdays on Ardis the First and Ardis the Second, the most striking single repetition or mimicry in the two summers of Van and Ada’s young love. The second return picnic ride is itself a kind of metamorphic voyage, as Lucette sits on Van’s lap in 1888 where Ada had in 1884, and yet where Van transmutes Lucette in his mind back to an image of Ada four years earlier—a scene that itself fatally anticipates Van’s projecting Ada onto the screen of his imagination, despite the sexual arousal Lucette has caused in him, on the night she commits suicide. After the picnic in 1884, Greg had ridden over to offer Ada his new black pony, only for Ada’s heartless dismissal of him to confirm Van’s sense of her preference for him and his confidence that he had no rival. But in the return ride from the picnic at 1888, Van writes a note saying that he does not wish to see Percy de Prey again: he senses, quite rightly, that, unlike Greg, Percy may be a real rival for Ada’s attentions.
Greg had arrived at the 1888 picnic, not on his new black pony of 1884 but on “his splendid new black Silentium motorcycle” (268) and Van “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). But then Percy glides in, in his “steel-gray convertible” (270), and Van’s confident condescension to Greg turns to jarring jealousy of Percy. The “favorite black horse” that Van rides off on at the end of Ardis the First echoes Greg’s black pony, and seems to confirm that for all his spluttering jealousy, Van has no real rival to fear for Ada’s love. But in its relation to Greg and to Percy at the 1888 picnic, and to the whole changed world summed up in that second picnic ride, the horse that ends Van’s second metamorphic journey points to a tangle of troubles ahead even as it triumphantly rounds off Ardis the First