Part One, Chapter 28
Part of Ada’s peculiar charm lies in the tension between the centripetal force of Van’s love for Ada and the wild centrifugality of the story. In one sense, Van’s life is Ada. In another, even a life so intensely shared for so many decades, from such youth to such age, remains one person’s story. In this chapter Van does not mention Ada once, but fills in one colorful patch of his backstory, implying many more such patches on the richly quilted robe of his past, and one colorful scene of the ongoing story, a winter night at Chose, which in its unexpectedness implies many more such surprises in Van’s life or anyone’s.
Van in 1880, in the first paragraph of I.28, as in the winter of 1886-87 in the bulk of the chapter, inhabits a world steeped in art and displays prodigious gifts and aptitudes but never quite becomes an artist himself. In the opening paragraph the combination of Pushkin, Lermontov and Tolstoy comically saturates his experience of the American West, as does the high drama of Shakespeare, Racine and Wagner. Van can “learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes” (171), but the chapter focuses not on high art, but on a decidedly sub-artistic pursuit, card-playing, which Van nevertheless sees as imbued with elements of art, from Mr. Plunkett’s poetry to his gifts of preparation, strategic combination and deception.
Nabokov writes of Martin in Glory: “among the many gifts I showered on Martin, I was careful not to include talent. How easy it would have been to make him an artist, a writer; how hard not to let him be one, while bestowing on him the keen sensitivity that one generally associates with the creative creature” (xiii). He showers gifts on Van in a comic deluge—Van can also at ten “solve an Euler-type problem . . . in less than twenty minutes” (171)—including the unexpected gift of being an ace card-sharper: “He was an apprentice who learned fast, and kept his labeled phials in a cool place” (173). Yet Van too, like the chess-player Luzhin, both is and is not quite an artist.
In one sense Nabokov here reflects the surprises in every person’s life and education, the peculiar sequence of their experiences and of enthusiasms that may or may not endure. Nabokov himself recalled being a storyteller in early childhood, a mathematical prodigy until the age of 8, a lepidopterist, a would-be painter (with Mstislav Dobuzhinsky as his drawing-master), a boxer (under the tutelage of his father’s boxing coach), and a magician, all before his teenage years. Van has a bosomy French governess, a chaste and enthusiastic Russian tutor with a reverence for famous writers in many languages, and a beautiful and lewd English governess, but derives especial enjoyment from King Wing, Demon’s wrestling master, who teaches him to hand-walk (the subject of the next chapter at Chose, I.30) and Demon’s “casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser” Mr. Plunkett, who to Van “was even more fascinating than King Wing” (172).
Before we reach the card-sharping, we encounter another variation on this chapter’s peculiar “education” theme rather more central to Ada: Van’s initiation to sex, at the hands, literally, of his lovely eighteen-year-old English governess, Miss Fortune, who seems to masturbate him as she puts him to bed (172.06-08 and n.). As a consequence of out-cheating Dick Cheshire at cards later in the chapter, Van is owed thousands by the young lord, who cannot repay, and proposes instead securing Van an introduction to the Villa Venus Club, for which Van, at sixteen, seventeen or eighteen (see 176.15-16n.) cannot refuse. Almost two years later, he is still “the youngest Venutian” (244).
In the same sentence in which Lord Cheshire makes this offer, pointedly, he is identified as “a cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane schoolmates” (176). The first mention of Riverlane is also the first mention of this other Cheshire, and (in the order in which we read) Van’s first initiation into sex:
Less mysterious and considerably more grotesque were the passions which several generations of schoolmasters had failed to eradicate, and which as late as 1883 still enjoyed an unparalleled vogue at Riverlane. Every dormitory had its catamite. One hysterical lad from Upsala, cross-eyed, loose-lipped, with almost abnormally awkward limbs, but with a wonderfully tender skin texture and the round creamy charms of Bronzino’s Cupid (the big one, whom a delighted satyr discovers in a lady’s bower), was much prized and tortured by a group of foreign boys, mostly Greek and English, led by Cheshire, the rugby ace; and partly out of bravado, partly out of curiosity, Van surmounted his disgust and coldly watched their rough orgies. (32)
Following the example of “ Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord” Van enjoys for a Russian green dollar the favors of a “fat little wench,” the “fubsy pig-pink whorelet” in the Riverlane corner store, whom he possesses “some forty” times before reaching Ardis and Ada (33).
Van seems undamaged by his early initiation into sex, at 10, by his governess, at 13, at Riverlane, and seems positively to thrive on the heady dose of sex the Villa Venus Club affords him despite his youth. But Nabokov links Van’s Fortunate Fall into sex with Lucette’s ultimately tragic initiation into sex from the age of eight, through the seemingly only comic name of “Miss Fortune” the “milkmaid” to ten-year-old Van (149), and through the “pet” motif so strongly associated with Lucette: “those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party” (172). Someone as robust and precocious as the Euler-solving, Pushkin-quoting, Plunkett-mimicking Van happens to be able to withstand these “too early initiations,” where the much more normal Lucette cannot. Or as Van himself phrases it, in his Byronic, Romantic-gothic way: “for no sooner did all the fond, all the frail, come into close contact with him (as later Lucette did, to give another example) than they were bound to know anguish and calamity, unless strengthened by his father’s demon blood” (20).
Resilient, resourceful Van coolly defeats the cousin of the Riverlane Cheshire at Chose by cheating at cards to win back what Dick has tricked out of these incidental French twins, and finds that his success wins him the unexpected bounty of early introduction to Villa Venus. In Van’s tussle with Dick, Nabokov incorporates anticipations of his hero’s later combinations of indignation and moral confusion.
Van sneers at Dick, having defeated him and allowed him to see a second joker in his palm: “I have often wondered why the Russian for it”—cheating, he means by that provokingly opaque pronoun—“is the same as the German for ‘schoolboy,’ minus the umlaut” (175). He hurls cards and chips at Dick, making his eye bleed, and as narrator promptly pictures the dawn scene via an echo of Nabokov’s favorite line in Baudelaire: “Rosy aurora was shivering in green Serenity Court. Laborious old Chose.” (176) Ada in an aside asks Van why he “could accept the offer of a rogue who no doubt continued to ‘flash and twinkle’ after that fiasco. I think you should explain, primo, that you were dreadfully overworked, and secundo, that you could not bear the thought that the rogue knew, that he being a rogue, you could not call him out.” (176)
Several details here recur in odd conjunction in a later passage where Ada tells Van of her first stage performance, in the Yakima Academy of Drama’s production of Chekhov’s Four Sisters. An actor called Altshuler (427)—note the name and its echo of shuler, “card-sharper”—plays the Baron, who will be killed in a duel at the end of the play (assuming the Antiterran version, despite the title change, remains basically the same as its earthly Three Sisters counterpart). Van, glancing at the program, notes “two amusing details”: “the role of Fedotik, an artillery officer (whose comedy organ consists of a constantly clicking camera), had been assigned to a ‘Kim’ (short for Yakim) Eskimossoff”—“amusing” because the Ardis “photo-fiend” and blackmailer is also called Kim—“and somebody called ‘John Starling’ had been cast as Skvortsov (a sekundant in the rather amateurish duel of the last act) whose name comes from skvorets, starling.” (430) Casting his eye further down the list of players, Van sees the name “Dawn de Laire,” playing the role of Natasha, then fusing his memories of the play and of Baudelaire, mutters “Dawn en robe rose et verte, at the end of Act One.”
Notice the odd but exact links between these two remote scenes: shuler, Altshuler; secundo, sekundant; the echo in both “Rosy aurora was shivering in green Serenity County” and “Dawn en robe rose et verte” of Baudelaire’s “L’aurore / grelottante en robe rose et verte.” Finding two more links might complete the chain: first, the link between the obtrusively “Kimian” Yakima’s Yakim (“Kim”) Eskimossoff, who plays the photographer in Four Sisters, and Ardis’s “snoopy Kim, the kitchen photo-fiend” (205), and second, the link between photographer Kim and Dick Cheshire. Kim Beauharnais as photographer naturally uses a flash, especially at night (258: “photographer’s flash. . . . A second flash”) and indoors (a photograph of Van behind Ada which Van, “at the moment of the hooded click,” swore to himself he would remember with “the flavor, the flash, the flesh of the present,” 402). Cheshire, using mirrors to sight cards, is what Mr. Plunkett calls a “twinkler”; when Van starts to out-cheat him, we see him “desperately flashing and twinkling” (175). Ada, in her note to Van, asks why he “could accept the offer of a rogue who no doubt continued to ‘flash and twinkle’ after that fiasco” and then explains her “secundo, that you could not bear the thought that the rogue knew, that he being a rogue, you could not call him out.”
Ada begins her note: “I think, Van, you should make it clearer why you, Van, the proudest and cleanest of men . . . could accept the offer of a rogue who no doubt continued to ‘flash and twinkle.’” Assuming Van’s integrity and honor, she implies that some punishment closer, apparently, to a duel, would have been more appropriate. Yet when Van hurls chips and cards into Dick’s face and wounds him, Ada does not complain, but responds to Van’s distracting way of ending the paragraph—“Rosy aurora was shivering in green Serenity Court, Laborious old Chose”—with the further distraction: “(There should be a sign denoting applause. Ada’s note”) (176): she is more moved by the elegance of his artistry than the roughness of his behavior.
Yet in her second note she implicitly reproaches Van for allowing Dick to continue to “flash and twinkle.” After Kim Beauharnais provides Ada with an album of photos depicting her lovers of 1884 (Van) and 1888 (Philip Rack, Percy de Prey, and Van), she pays Kim off, thinking she has quashed the threat of further blackmail. Van sneers: “Peeking Kim has kept all the negatives plus lots of pictures he will paste or post later” (398). To ensure that Kim does not continue to “flash” and cheat, Van blinds him. Even as he looks through the 1884 album, he suggests he might “horsewhip his eyes out” (406), though we hear nothing further until Ada’s complaint: “But, you know, there’s one thing I regret: . . . Your use of an alpenstock to release a brute’s fury—not yours, not my Van’s.” (445)
The chips and cards that Van hurls at Dick’s face smash his spectacles and cut him about one eye. They therefore pointedly prefigure Van’s worst deed in the entire novel. In the scene with Dick at Chose, Van has been moved by something like a sense of honor, by his indignation at Dick’s cheating the French twins, just as he sees his attack on Kim as indignation at the moral squalor of blackmail, as well as a means of ensuring that this cheat will never cheat in this way again.
But Van’s sense of honor, like that of the Ada who can call him “the proudest and cleanest of men,” is hopelessly compromised. Ada thinks a duel would almost have been a preferable way of dealing with Dick Cheshire, and Van is not averse to duels. Indeed in the cast list for Four Sisters “somebody called ‘John Starling’ had been cast as Skvortsov (a sekundant in the rather amateurish duel of the last act) whose name comes from skvorets, starling.” Ada tells him that “All poor Starling had to do in the play was to hollo off stage from a rowboat on the Kama River to give the signal for my fiancé to come to the dueling ground.” (430) In fact, as Van can deduce from Ada’s blush at the mention of his name, and as he can recall from Lucette’s tittle-tattle (380), Ada has had an affair with Johnny Starling, who shot himself after Ada left (381)—sparing Van the need to rush after him, as he does after other rivals for Ada’s love he plans to duel or destroy, Philip Rack and Percy de Prey, only to be delayed in his pursuit when he vents his pent-up anger by calling a duel with an innocent bystander and finds himself hospitalized as a result.
Van has learned his code of honor from Demon, who has also pursued and wounded in a duel a rival for Marina’s love and has been a second in other love-tangle duels (like that between Major de Prey and his wife’s lover, Moses de Vere, 242 and 163). Van has learnt much from Demon and his entourage, including sex from his father’s governess and his father’s example (“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,” 151), card-sharping from Mr. Plunkett, wrestling from King Wing. Van uses the skills he has acquired from Mr. Plunkett to defeat the shuler Cheshire, the cousin of Riverlane’s “rugby ace” (32); he uses the skills he has acquired from King Wing to throw Percy de Prey (275), the former Riverlane Schüler and “crack Rugger player” (273) whose interest in Ada riles Van and would inevitably have led to the duel Percy offers, had Van known before Percy leaves for war that his old schoolmate had more than lusted after Ada. Van injures Percy in wrestling as he wounds Dick at cards—and Nabokov comically links both targets of Van’s ire through first names that are slang terms for “penis.”
Both Demon and Van try to uphold their sense of honor. Demon, seeing Van’s card tricks, “disapproved of their poker slant” (174) despite being a famous gambler himself. Much more momentously he will later forbid Van and Ada to resume their affair, despite having ruined Aqua’s life with his infidelities and having set a demonic example of sexual insatiability. Van here at Chose cheats to overcome a cheater, and flares with indignant anger at Dick, as he will at actual or possible rivals for Ada, despite his own succession of prostitutes at the Villa Venus Club that Dick introduces him to, or at those who thwart his will, like Kim Beauharnais, whom he ensures will never “flash” again. And most terribly of all, Van insists on a certain kind of honor toward Ada and Lucette, despite his many other infidelities to Ada and his unthinking earlier emotional entanglement of Lucette, when he now refuses to sleep with his half-sister, when he backs off that fatal night aboard the Tobakoff.
I.28 seems a comic extravaganza on Van’s education: it centers on his time at Chose University—where Demon, not coincidentally, has studied (244)—but ignores anything like conventional studies to demonstrate Van’s prodigious capacity to learn even the strangest of skills. But even Van’s altruistic concern here for the French twins—a rare impulse indeed in his long life—shows a hopeless moral confusion, as do Ada’s response and Demon’s example. Nabokov wrote: “I prefer to use the term ‘responsibility’ in its proper sense, linked with moral tradition, with principles of decency and personal honor deliberately passed from father to son” (1973 interview with Mati Laansoo, Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter 10 [Spring 1983], 41). For all the color and brio of Demon and his associates and liaisons, Van has learned from his father only the unsoundest of lessons and the most compromised notions of principle.