Part One, Chapter 26


This is the shortest chapter in Ada, and has the least to offer. But that seems to be Nabokov’s intention. After the color and passion of Ardis, Van and Ada are drained and empty without each other, frustrated at their separation but able to do nothing about the constraints that keep them apart. They have to subject their passion to the humiliating encumbrances of a sequence of codes, which become almost as frustrating and dampening for us as they were for Van and Ada.

The chapter establishes, in other words, the contrast between the radiance of Van and Ada’s times together and the sullenness of their times apart that will shape the whole rhythm of their long lives. Van’s discovery of Ada had made Ardis seem a paradise. Now he has to take his first solitary steps out of Eden.

The one comic and amatory consolation is that the first of the codes allows us to flip back a couple of pages to the encoded passage describing Van and Ada’s last tryst at Forest Fork, which we can now decipher. I will never forget the delight when as an easily aroused 17-year-old I first read ADA and wondered what steamy sexual practice in I.25 had to be encoded in a novel that had otherwise been mounting steadily in erotic fulfillment and frankness. In I.26 I could discover how to crack the code, savor the satisfaction of turning back to apply it to solve the riddle, and enjoy the surprise and amusement of Nabokov’s deft undercutting of pornography and his training in reading actively, with curiosity, memory, imagination and awareness of our own and the genre’s expectations.


160.01-162.16: For their correspondence . . . . destroyed in 1889: MOTIF: letters.

160.01-05: first period of separation . . . to June, 1888: The “first period of separation” appears to refer here to the first half, 1884-1886 (to the Forest Fork meeting, I.29) of the “separation” as a whole, the time between Ardis the First (summer 1884) and Ardis the Second (summer 1888). See 161.23: “In the second period of separation, beginning in 1886,” and 162.10-11: “in their third period of separation, from January, 1887, to June, 1888.” “During the next fifteen months after Van left Ardis”: that is, until December 1885. Why this date? Does their code reach perfection by then, or is this another muddle in the chronology? See Afternote.

160.02: code: Van and Ada need to keep their correspondence, like their relationship, private: cf. the semantic encoding of the hydrogram from Ada to Van in 1886, 178.07-179.01. Among famous codes in fiction are Poe’s in “The Gold Bug,” or the initial-letter “code” of Lyovin’s proposal to Kitty in Anna Karenin, Bk. 4 ch. 13.

Cf. Uncle Ruka’s simple code, mentioned in SM 70.

160.04-05: our black rainbow: MOTIF: alphabet-rainbow; rainbow.

160.05: June, 1888: When Van returns unannounced to Ardis, 187.01.

160.06-08: two brief interludes of intolerable bliss (in August, 1885 and June, 1886) and a couple of chance meetings (“through a grille of rain”): These details seem inconsistent with the rest of the novel. No meeting between Van and Ada, of intolerable bliss or any other kind, is elsewhere recorded as taking place in August 1885, and it would seem odd for such a meeting not to be detailed in a work whose structure is founded so firmly on Van and Ada’s unions and separations. “June, 1886” seems a mistake for July 25, 1886, when Van meets Ada at Forest Fork near Ardis (179-80). The “chance meetings” are also not further detailed, yet this list omits the non-chance meeting at Brownhill College some time in the fall of 1884 (167-70), which is certainly “through a grille of rain,” and the apparently non-chance meeting of January, 1887, “after a very long long-distance call,” 162.10-11. Van tells his father early in 1893: “I seduced her in the summer of eighteen eighty-four. Except for a single occasion, we did not make love again until the summer of eighteen eighty-eight” (440.06-09). The “single occasion” is presumably the Forest Fork meeting of 1886. It is hard to imagine that Van would consider another meeting with Ada “of intolerable bliss” if they did not even make love. See Afternote.

161.07-08: If he approaches the description of our lovers’ code . . . : Corrected from 1969: “If the description of our lovers’ code.” Ardeur 137: “le plus ingénu de nos lecteurs, pour peu qu’il veuille bien considerer” (“the naivest of our readers, provided he considers. . . . ”). The emendation, proposed by BB and accepted by DN, is without Nabokovian warrant other than the French, but to be meaningful the sentence needs some such correction. The flaw could have been deliberate if Nabokov were endeavoring to show Van’s disenchantment at the boring duty of explaining the code and his consequent inattention, although the other mistakes in dating, of a kind Van would hardly make even if distracted, seem to indicate Nabokov’s own distractedness here.

161.07-08: our lovers’ code (the “our” may constitute a source of irritation . . . : Cf. 212.31-32: “When our lovers (you like the authorial possessive, don’t you, Van”) . . . ” MOTIF: our lovers.

161.12-22: complications arose . . . overcomplicating its cryptogram: Cf. the difficulties Kinbote has in deciphering the message in the Haunted Barn, PF 215.

161.22: cryptogram: Cf. 390.16-17: “the famous, recently decorated cryptogrammatist, Mr. Dean.”

161.24-26: Both . . . still knew by heart . . . Marvell’s “The Garden” and . . . Rimbaud’s “Mémoire”: Each discovered that the other knew these poems over dinner with Marina early in the summer, 64-65 (I.10): cf. 64.17-18: “Mémoire, a poem by Rimbaud (which she fortunately—and farsightedly—made me learn by heart . . . )” (Ada at the time she says this cannot know that the poem will prove valuable as it now does, so the speech appears to transfer later knowledge illegitimately into what she “actually” might have said at that time). Mason 19 notes: “Literally, their separation leaves them with memories of the garden” of Ardis.

161.28-29: l2.11. l.1.2.20 l2.8 meant “love,” with “l” and the number following it denoting the line in the Marvell poem: These are the two lines quoted (in Ada’s French translation, and in Van’s partial citation of the English) at 65.11-13. L2.11: the l in “palm”; l1.2.20: the o in “How” and the v in “themselves”; l2.8: the e in the first “the”: “How vainly men themselves amaze / To win the palm, the oak or bays!”

161.31: line.”: Corrected from 1969’s “‘line’” (without stop).

162.09-12: curiously enough, in their third period of separation, from January 1887, to June, 1888 . . . their letters grew scarcer: Despite the “curiously enough,” Van as narrator knows quite clearly why Ada’s letters become scarcer: her affair with Philip Rack begins in August 1887 (293.20) and her affair with Percy de Prey in the spring of 1888.

162.10-11: to June 1888: When Van returns to Ardis, 187.01-02.

162.15-16: all the letters were destroyed in 1889: After Van flees from Ada and Ardis in jealous fury at the end of July 1888. Another inconsistency: cf. 336.20-24: “he had kept there only the innocent sixth letter . . . which had perished, together with her coded notes (of 1884-88) when the irreplaceable little palazzo burnt down in 1919.”

162.17: (I suggest omitting this little chapter. . . . Ada’s note.): MOTIF: Composition: Ada.

Afternote to Part One, Chapter 26

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