Van and Ada part in September 1884 after a summer of bliss. We see them next in I.26, reduced from vividly impassioned togetherness to the pallor of summary and the strain of distance and coded correspondence. In I.27 Van feels tormented by jealousy at Ada’s absence and frustrated at being in her presence only under Brownhill’s strict terms. He reveals his easy attitude to other women, such as Cordula, yet his jealousy of Ada, even in her possible relations with other women, such as Cordula—about whom his suspicions will prove comically unjustified.
Now in I.28 Van introduces us to his post-Ardis life, not only without Ada but without any other women, in a single colorful scene from his years as a student at Chose. He places the scene slightly out of sequence, for it occurs in the winter of 1886-87, after his next reunion with Ada, in July 1886—not recounted until the next chapter, I.29. Van apparently advances I.28 to stress the duration of his time at Chose, on the other side of the Atlantic, and hence the necessity of his absence from Ada.
Although he wants to evoke the hollowness of his life without Ada, he does not do so in terms of moody brooding or drab emptiness. Far from it. He shows us the fullness of one thin slice of his past, in 1880—his experiences, his travels, his bizarre “education” in all sorts of pursuits—and the fullness even of his present, in his aristocratic, rakish, decadent set, in a scene whose crisp comic detail nevertheless smacks of futility.
171.01-02: The year 1880 . . . was to prove to the most retentive . . . in his . . . long life: As Alexey Sklyarenko notes, Nabokv-L, 14 April 2010, this echoes the second paragraph of Chapter 3 of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” (“Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha,” written 1884-1886, pub. 1886: "It was in 1880. This year was the hardest one in Ivan Ilyich's life” ("Eto bylo v 1880 godu. Etot god byl samiy tyazholiy v zhizni Ivana Ilyicha”) (L. N. Tolstoy, Sobranie sochineniy, Moscow: Khudostvennaya Literatura, 1975,v. 10, 142).
171.01-172.11: The year 1880 . . . He was ten. His father had lingered in the West. . . . Andrey Andreevich . . . . AAA . . . his lovely young English governess expertly petted him . . . her sister . . . guardian angel . . . reformed card-sharper: Cf. 149.08-23: “In 1880, Van, aged ten, h1.03-172.04ad traveled in silver trains . . . accompanied by his father, his father’s beautiful secretary, the secretary’s eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess . . . ) . . . angelic . . . Andrey Andreevich Aksakov (‘AAA’), to gay resorts in Louisiana and Nevada. . . . ‘gambler’).”
171.01: Aqua was still alive—somehow, somewhere!: She dies in 1883; “somehow,” despite the strain of Demon’s infidelities, including his “beautiful secretary” of 1880 (149.09-10).
171.03-172.04: His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius . . . defecating white horse: Nabokov comically conflates earth’s nineteenth-century Russia and Wild West America in this Antiterran blend, mixing obvious dissimilarities and unsuspected similarities: 1) the colored mountainous landscapes of the Caucasus, celebrated by Lermontov, and the colored mountainous landscapes of the American Rockies; 2) the expansion eastward and southward of the Russian empire in the nineteenth century and the imperialist expansion westward of the United States, as reflected in the conflicts between central power and rebellious, horse-riding tribesmen, in Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and Navajo and other Native Americans in real nineteenth-century America; 3) via tutor Andrey Andreevich Aksakov, and the evident allusion to Sergey Aksakov’s A Family Chronicle (also the subtitle of Ada: see title page n. and 150.19-20n.), the image of unrefined life on the eastern edge of Russian expansion in Aksakov’s saga, a match in some sense to the pioneer roughness of the American Wild West in earthly history, but a contrast to the European sophistication and the cultural tourism of Antiterra’s American not-so-wild West in 1880.
MOTIF: transatlantic doubling.
171.04: lingered in the West: Perhaps especially at one or more “gay resorts” in Nevada (149.13), apparently Reno rather than Las Vegas (588.12: “that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure”).
171.04-05: in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius: Cf. VN to Edmund Wilson, August 14, 1956: “We collected butterflies in the Grand Canyon, Arizona, and in other national parks in the vicinity. Pink, terra-cotta and lilac mountains formed a sympathetic background to the Caucasus of Lermontov in A Hero of Our Time which is now ready to be mailed to Doubleday” (DBDV 333).
VN himself was acted upon as a young Russian of genius both by the romanticism of Pushkin’s, Lermontov’s and Tolstoy’s descriptions of the many-colored mountains of the Caucasus and of Mayne Reid’s accounts of the Wild West (for the latter, see SM ch 10), and as an older Russian of genius, by the enchantments of the Rockies landscapes in which he pursued butterflies in the 1940s and 1950s, and by their evocation for him of elements of Russia.
171.05: young Russians of genius: MOTIF: of genius.
171.06-07: could solve an Euler-type problem . . . in less than twenty minutes: Leonhard Euler (1707-1783), Swiss mathematician, the leading mathematician of the eighteenth century and the second most prolific of all time, lived in St. Petersburg from 1727 to 1741 and from 1766 to his death.
The Basel problem, first posed by Pietro Mengoli in 1644, asks for the precise sum of the reciprocals of the squares of the positive integers. Euler’s 1735 solution ( π 2/6) and proof for a problem that had defeated the leading mathematicians of his day brought him renown at 28.
The most famous problem associated with Euler is the mathematical problem of the Seven Bridges of Königsberg (Is it possible to walk a route that crosses all its bridges just once and return to the starting point?), which he solved in 1736 (answer: No).
In view of Van’s capacities here, it may be relevant that Euler was also famous for his photographic memory, and could cite Virgil’s Aeneid from start to finish without hesitation.
VN was himself mathematically precocious in childhood but lost his gift after an illness in early 1907 (SM 36-37).
Ada/Ardeur 145: “un problème sur les intégrantes d’Euler” (“a problem in Euler integrals”). Among Euler’s most famous books were two influential textbooks on calculus: Institutiones calculi differentialis (1755) and Institutiones calculi integralis (1768–1770).
171.06-07: could . . . learn by heart Pushkin’s “Headless Horseman” poem in less than twenty minutes: Darkbloom: “Mayn[e] Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.” VN describes his boyhood enthusiasm for “The Wild West fiction of Captain [Thomas] Mayne Reid (1818-1883)” in SM, ch. 10 (195ff.); see also Glory 34; PP 140-41. VN himself as a boy of 11 translated Reid’s The Headless Horseman (1866), a novel in prose, into French alexandrines (VNRY 81).
After noting that Pushkin has Eugene Onegin “sleep through” the calamitous St. Petersburg flood of November 7, 1824, VN adds: “Another Eugene, however, is in the meantime losing his betrothed to the raging waters and being driven mad by the fancied gallop of an equestrian statue in the poem Pushkin devoted to that flood, The Bronze Horseman (composed 1833)” (EO 3.232).
Pushkin’s poem is 481 lines long, Reid’s novel 470 pages in its first edition.
171.08: Andrey Andreevich: Van’s Russian tutor, surnamed Aksakov (149.12).
171.09: violet shade of pink cliffs: Cf. Lolita 15: “violet shadow of some red rocks”; Pnin 90, “the colors of shadows.”
171.10-13: exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters: Darkbloom: “Lermontov: author of The Demon.” See 4.22n. Lermontov’s Demon is in iambic tetrameter; Pt. I, Stanza 3, lines 1-4 read: “I nad vershinami Kavkaza / Izgnannik raya proletal: / Pod nim Kazbek, kak gran’ almaza, / Snegami vechnymi siyal” (“And o’er the peaks of the Caucasus / The exile from paradise flew: / Beneath him Kazbek, like a diamond’s facet, / Shone with its eternal snows”; see the parody-translation at 502.13-16: “ And o’er the summits of the Tacit / He, banned from Paradise, flew on: / Beneath him, like a brilliant’s facet, / Mount Peck with snows eternal shone”).
MOTIF: demon; Demon’s wings; diamond facet; gravity.
171.12: volitations: W2: “Act or power of flying; flight; volation.”
171.13-18: struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool: Darkbloom: “Tolstoy’s hero, Hadji Murad (a Caucasian chieftain), is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.” See following nn. for more detail.
AAA likes to take his charge to visit the relics of great writers: cf. 152.31-33: “Van with his tutor going first to Gardone . . . where Aksakov reverently pointed out Goethe’s and d’Annunzio’s marble footprints.”
171.15: peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay: In his later life, after his religious crisis in the 1870s, Tolstoy, though a nobleman, famously wore peasant clothes in his revolt against the idea of property-owning (see echo of this at 61.11-14).
Nabokov combines here two features of the American West. First, the footprints (and sometimes handprints) of Hollywood stars registered in cement since 1927 in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, 6925 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, the world’s best-known movie theatre. Prints of film-stars Nabokov refers to include Douglas Fairbanks, the Marx brothers, John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Tolstoy’s novels have often been filmed in and outside Hollywood.
Second: Utah has many preserved dinosaur tracks, including at the Quarry, Dinosaur National Monument; the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price; the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail; the Copper Ridge Sauropod Dinosaur Tracks, near Moab; the Potash Road Dinosaur Tracks.
Cf. SM 269: “I do not know if anyone will ever go to Cambridge in search of the imprints which the teat-cleats on my soccer boots have left in the black mud before a gaping goal”; Lolita 159-60: “R.L. Stevenson’s footprint on an extinct volcano.”
171.15-16: clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat: Combines Tolstoy’s writing of “his marvelous story” (EO 3.52) or short historical novel Hadji Murad (sometimes transliterated Hadji Murat) between 1896 and 1904 (in his estate of Yasnaya Polyana and at Gaspra in the Crimea, where Nabokov himself lived from November 1917 until September 1918), with Nabokov’s own composition of Lolita in motor courts in the American West in the summers of 1951 (Colorado, Wyoming, Montana), 1952 (Wyoming), and 1953 (Arizona, Oregon). He had spent stretches of the summers of 1943 and 1949 in Utah.
171.16-17: the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard: Hadji Murat (c. 1796-1852), an Avar, was a real Tatar chieftain or rebel commander. In external details Tolstoy follows documented and eyewitness historical truth as closely as he can.
Tolstoy’s story itself makes explicit the similarity of Hadji Murad’s name and that of General Murat’s: “ ‘Esli by on rodilsya v Evrope, eto, mozhet byt’, byl by novyy Napoleon,’ skazal glupïy gruzinskiy knyaz’, imeyushchiy dar lesti. On znal, chto vsyakoe upominanoe o Napoleone, za pobedu nad kotorym Vorontsov nosil belïy krest na shee, bylo priyatno knyazyu. ‘Nu, khot’ ne Napoleon, no likhoy kavalerskiy general—da,’ skazal Vorontsov. ‘Esli ne Napoleon, to Myurat.’ ‘I imya ego—Khadji-Murat” (ch. 9: “’If he had been born in Europe he might have been a new Napoleon,’ said the stupid Georgian prince, who knew how to flatter. He knew that any mention of Napoleon pleased the prince, who wore the white cross around his neck for his victory against him. ‘Well, if not Napoleon, then some dashing cavalry general, yes,’ said Vorontsov. ‘If not Napoleon, then Murat.’ ‘His name after all is Hadji Murat’ ”).
171.16-18: Murat . . . a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool: General Joachim Murat (1767-1815) was a brilliant French cavalry leader, whom Napoleon rewarded by making him the husband of his youngest sister, Caroline, in 1800, and King of Naples in 1808. He was court-martialed and shot in 1815 for aiding Napoleon after his return to France from Elba.
Jean Paul Marat (1743-1793), fiery and uncompromising radical journalist and politician in the years following the French Revolution, was stabbed to death in his bath by Charlotte Corday (1768-1793). After three tries, she was admitted into his home, where he was taking his bath. “When she named persons connected with the dissidence in Normandy, he noted them and assured her they would be guillotined in a few days. She then drew a knife from under her dress and stabbed him through the heart” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed.). Corday was herself guillotined for killing Marat. The murder is the subject of a famous 1793 painting by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Murat features as a character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Bk 2 Ch. 7 and ff.) (see Pekka Tammi, Russian Subtexts in Nabokov’s Fiction: Four Essays [Tampere: Tampere University Press, 1999], 40; Charlotte Corday in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Bk 5, Ch. 9)).
Nabokov notes that “Pushkin’s teacher of French literature and history at the Lyceum was one of the three brothers of Jean Paul Mara, alias Marat (1743-93), celebrated headman of the French regime of Terror” (EO 3.136). This link and Marat’s heading those who made so many headless may have helped inspire “Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’” at 171.06-07.
Cf. SM 205: “Marat, who died in a shoe”; Lolita 28, “a shoe-shaped bath tub, within which I felt like Marat but with no white-necked maiden to stab me”; PF 66: “Sit like a king there, and like Marat bleed.”
171.17-20: shot by Cora Day. . . . What a soprano Cora had been! . . . Telluride: Significance unknown, apart from the play on the surname Corday and perhaps a pun on “chord.” Cf. VN’s story “Time and Ebb”: “Richard Sinatra remained, while he lived, an anonymous ‘ranger’ dreaming under a Telluride pine” (SoVN 577).
171.19-20: world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado: Telluride, in San Miguel County, south-west Colorado, had been a town of more than 5000 at the height of gold-mining about 1890, but had shrunk to a population of about 1000 when VN stopped with his family in this “damp, unfrequented, defunct mining town 9,000 feet up in a breathtaking cul-de-sac at the end of two atrocious roads” (VNAY 201) in July 1952. There Nabokov found not only what he was looking for, the first known female of Lycaeides sublivens Nabokov, which he caught on July 15, but much more, the setting for the last scene described in Lolita, Humbert’s epiphany as he looks down into the valley from where he can hear the sounds of children at play. See Lolita 314; Alfred Appel, Jr., ed., Annotated Lolita, rev. ed. (New York: Vintage, 1991), 333; SO 315.
“World-famous . . . in Telluride”: in part a pun on telluric, “Of or pertaining to the earth” (W2).
Writing in the 1960s, VN was not to know that Telluride would become a ski center in 1972, the first base for the Telluride Film Festival (now regarded as one of the world’s most prestigious) in 1974, and famous by the 1980s as “Colorado’s best kept secret.”
171.19-20: Telluride: Cf. 24.22: “decapitated Tellurians.”
172.01-04: greatest international shows—English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse: The English blank-verse plays of Shakespeare, and perhaps Ben Jonson (1572-1637), whom Nabokov also held in high regard, but probably not those of their contemporaries like Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) and John Webster (c. 1580-c.1634), partly because of these only Shakespeare has often been staged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the French tragedies of Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) and Jean Racine (1639-99), neither of whom VN cared for (see SM 108, 113); and the Ring cycle music dramas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883).
Cf. 322.11-12: “He often took Cordula to French restaurants, English movies, and Varangian tragedies.”
172.02-04: thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), “Ein Bühnenfestspiel für drei Tage und einen Vorabend” (“A stage festival play for three days and a preliminary evening”), composed between 1848 and 1874, first performed entire in 1876, consists of Das Rheingold (The Rhine Gold, 1869), Die Walküre (The Valkyrie, 1870), Siegfried (1876) and Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods, 1876). From the late 1840s and in his books Die Kunst der Zukunft (The Art of the Future, 1850) and Oper und Drama (Opera and Drama, 1852) Wagner had argued for a new form of opera, “music drama,” in which the dramatic and musical elements would be fully fused, and in which all the arts would combine. He realized his plans in Der Ring des Nibelungen.
In Scene i of Das Rheingold the Nibelung (dwarf, gnome) Alberich, by forswearing love, can steal the Rhine gold to make a ring from it that will offer untold power. In Scene ii the giants Fasolt and Fafner appear, to claim Freia, the Goddess of Youth and Beauty, whom Wotan, chief of the gods, has promised them in return for their building Valhalla. Hearing of Alberich’s theft of the Rhine gold and the power of his ring, the giants ask Wotan to secure the gold for them as ransom for Freia, whom they drag away. Scene iii brings to the fore the magic that pervades the Ring Cycle. The treasure Alberich has stolen from the Rhine maidens includes the Tarn helmet, which allows its wearer to assume any shape or become invisible. To demonstrate its power, Alberich becomes an invisible column of vapor, a huge serpent, and a toad—in which form he loses the helmet, the gold and even the ring to Wotan, but only after placing a curse on the ring and its possessors. In Scene iv, the last, the giants return for a ransom for Freia. They measure out Rhine gold to Freia’s height and depth, but demand the ring to fill up a crevice. Once they have it, the curse begins to work: the giants dispute among themselves for the spoils, and Fafner slays Fasolt, snatching the ring from his fellow giant.
With the goddess Erda, Wotan begets the Valkyries, including Brünnhilde, to help protect Valhalla from the assaults of the Nibelungs; and with a mortal woman he begets the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde, whom he hopes will help him win the ring back so he can restore it to the Rhine maidens. Split asunder as children, Siegmund and Sieglinde reunite in love as adults, but the curse of the ring ensures Siegmund’s death. Act III of Die Walküre begins with the famous “Ride of the Valkyries,” where the wild maidens of Valhalla surge on their winged steeds through storm-clouds to meet upon the Valkyrie rock. There Brünnhilde joins her sisters, with Sieglinde, whom she has just managed to rescue, on her pommel. For defying him by trying to save Siegmund and Sieglinde, Wotan punishes Brünnhilde, pinning her in slumber to Valkyrie rock.
Sieglinde dies giving birth to Siegfried. This fearless youth, in Act II of Siegfried, confronts the giant Fafner, now in the form of a dragon guarding his cave and its treasure. Killing the serpent, Siegfried retrieves ring and helmet. In Act III he plunges through the flames magically encircling Brünnhilde. He first espies her charger, Grane, then sees Brünnhilde herself slumbering in the grove. He awakens her to love. She agrees to become a mortal for the sake of their new passion.
In the Prologue to Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde and Siegfried plight their troth. Siegfried gives her the fatal ring, she gives him her steed Grane. Siegfried, setting off on new adventures, disappears on the horse. In Act I magic returns to play a key role: Alberich’s son Hagen administers to Siegfried a love potion to make him fall in love with his half-sister Gutrune and forget Brünnhilde. Siegfried can marry Gutrune if he delivers Brünnhilde to Hagen’s half-brother Gunther. He does, and marries Gutrune, only to be murdered by Hagen. In the final scene of the play and the cycle, Brünnhilde has learned that it was only the love potion that caused Siegfried to desert her for Gutrune. She asks for his body to be placed on a funeral pyre, takes the cursed ring from his finger, lights the pyre, mounts her charger, Grane, and astride him leaps into the blazing pyre. Her love and sacrifice end the curse of the ring and the era of the gods gives way to the new era of human love.
Although no lover of music himself, Nabokov was taken as a child to the St. Petersburg theater by his father, a passionate music lover. VN alludes to Wagner (Lohengrin) in LD 147-48).
172.04-05: He passed through various little passions—parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs: Nabokov as a child had had a passion for magic at about the age of 11 and 12; an early taste for chess, especially for chess problems; and was having private boxing lessons by the time he reached school (VNRY 100).
172.05: fluff-weight boxing matches: An imagined super-light category of boxers, on the model of flyweight (boxers under 112 lbs) and featherweight (from 118 up to 126 lbs).
172.06-08: those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed: Miss Fortune: cf. 149.10-18: “the secretary’s eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess and milkmaid) . . . the younger of the Misses Fortune”; 151.21-22: “he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than once himself”; 545.32-33: “the pensive half-smile of a young English governess, in 1880, neatly closing her charge’s prepuce after the bedtime treat.”
172.06: unforgettable, much too early initiations: Cf. 73.15-16: “Van Veen’s early, too early love, for Ada Veen.”
172.07: lovely young English governess expertly petted him: Cf. 151:21: “caressed by ungloved lovely hands.”
172.07-08: petted him . . . petticoated, petititted: MOTIF: pet.
172.09-11: Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion . . . a reformed card-sharper: Cf. 149.19-23: “He also recalled hearing a cummerbunded Dutchman in the hotel hall [of a resort in Louisiana or Nevada] telling another that Van’s father . . . was a famous . . . ‘gambler’ “; 588.11-12: “Baron ‘Demon’ Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure.”MOTIF: Demon-gambler.
172.09-10: Demon and Demon’s . . . guardian angel: Cf. Van’s “chaste, angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov” (149.12). MOTIF: angel; demon.
172.11: Mr. Plunkett: A genuine English surname, but also a pun on plunk, which as a transitive verb can mean (W2, 2): “To throw, push, drive, pull, drop, etc. (something) so as to make it plunk; as, to plunk down a dollar”; and as a noun (W2, 2): “Slang a Obs. A large sum of money. b U.S. A dollar.” Perhaps also an echo of Mr. Bucket, later Inspector Bucket, in Dickens’s Bleak House (see title page n.)
172.11-177.09: card-sharper . . . “Mark em!”: In part a stylized parody of the card theme in nineteenth-century Russian literature, from Pushkin’s “Pikovaya dama” (“The Queen of Spades,” 1834) and Evgeny Onegin, Lermontov’s play Maskarad (Masquerade, 1835), through Tolstoy’s “Dva gusarya” (“Two Hussars,” 1856), Dostoevsky and Chekhov. VN’s mother “loved all games of skill and gambling. . . . At one time, she was very fond of poker, which had reached St. Petersburg society via diplomatic circles, so that some of the combinations came with pretty French names—brelan for ‘three of a kind,’ couleur for ‘flush,’ and so on. The game in use was the regular ‘draw poker,’ with, occasionally, the additional tingle of jackpots and an omnivicarious joker. In town, she often played poker at the houses of friends until three in the morning, a society recreation in the last years before World War One” (SM 42).
172.13: shuler’s: Shuler (Russian): card-sharper, cheat. Cf. 175.26-28 and n.
172.15: draw-poker: The usual form of poker: poker (W2): “In draw poker, the principal game, each player, after contributing his ante, may discard any of his cards and receive (draw) from the dealer an equal number.”
172.16: of cardiac origin: With pun on “cards”? And perhaps on the suit of hearts in cards?
172.18: had become reconverted to the Roman faith of his forefathers: Oliver Plunket (1629-1681), “Roman Catholic primate of all Ireland and martyr, who was the last man to suffer martyrdom for the Catholic faith in England,” and William Conyngham Plunket, 1st Baron Plunket (1764-1854), “Irish lawyer, orator and statesman. . . . a leading advocate of the cause of Catholic emancipation” (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1972 edition, 18:66). Cf. 174.11.
172.20: handbook on conjuring: pun; cf. 7.02-03: “elusive or misleading bookmarks in the several guidebooks.”
172.22-23: The outrageous ravages of time: Cf. 559.05, “the ravage and outrage of age.”
172.27: King Wing: Demon’s wrestling master, who taught Van to walk on his hands (81.24-26).
173.01-02: “Xmas tree” or “twinkler”: For the poetry Mr. Plunkett injects into his trade, see also 173.26-27: “that ‘crystal cretin’ of Plunkett’s vocabulary”; 174.22-23: “to ‘doctor the deck,’ as old Plunkett used to call the process”; 175.22-23: “the ‘rainbow ivory’—Plunkett was full of poetry.”
Cf. “Shock, the conjuror. . . . He resembled a poet more than a stage magician” (“The Potato Elf,” SoVN 229).
173.02: “twinkler”: Cf. 175.10-11: “desperately flashing and twinkling young lord”; 176.23: “continued to ‘flash and twinkle’”; 176. 29: “he did not ‘twinkle’ long after that.”
173.04: secret pockets were useful: Cf. 330.10-11: “some secret pit or pouch within the young detective’s attire or anatomy.”
173.05-11: Most essential was the “feel” of a card . . . : Plunkett’s sense of the art of card-sharping (and Van’s admiration for his poetry, 175.22-23, and for his artistry, 174.12) transposes VN’s own sense of the analogy between chess and art (especially the art of literature) in SM chapter 14. Cf. also Despair 121: “Let us discuss crime, crime as an art; and card tricks.”
173.16-17: went up to Chose: British idiom for “study at Chose.” Cf. 244.01: “as we used to say, up at Chose.”
173.17: Chose University: Apparently the Antiterran equivalent of Cambridge University, England: see 18.24n.
173.17: where his fathers had gone: Presumably in the sense of “fore-fathers.”
173.18-20: Lute . . . that lovely pearl-gray sad city on the other side of the Channel: Darkbloom : “from ‘Lutèce,’ ancient name of Paris.” “Lutetia (Latin lutum, ‘mud’). The ancient name of Paris, which, in Roman times, was a collection of mud hovels. Caesar called it Lutetia Parisiorum (‘mud town of the Parisii’), which gives the present name Paris” (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable). Other sources translate the Latin as “midwater-dwelling” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutetia). The Lutetia, built in 1907 at 45 Boulevard Raspail, 6e, is the most beautiful luxury hotel on Paris’s Left Bank. It has two restaurants, “ Paris” and the Brasserie “Lutetia,” and a piano-bar, “Lutèce.”
VN’s attitude to Paris was consistent: Lolita 29: “dull dingy Paris”; SM 258: “My bleakest recollections are associated with Paris.”
173.21-22: dismally cold Chose: For VN’s account of the cold in Cambridge, see SM 260: “I suffered a good deal from the cold, but it is quite untrue, as some have it, that the polar temperature in Cambridge bedrooms caused the water to freeze solid in one’s washstand jug. As a matter of fact, there would be hardly more than a thin layer of ice on the surface.”
173.23: Dick: Lord “Dick” Cheshire (see 464.18-19).
173.24: rooms in Serenity Court: Echo of Great Court, Trinity College, Cambridge, the largest college quadrangle in either Cambridge or Oxford, where Nabokov had rooms in 1919-20. Possibly, as Jane Grayson suggests (private communication), a play on “Sirin,” the nom de plume VN adopted for his Russian work while a student at Trinity.
173.25: twins: MOTIF: twin.
173.26-32: “crystal cretin” . . . man of many mirrors . . . shifting: MOTIF: mirror.
173.26: milord: The French twins’ way of addressing him. Cf. 174.29: “Van felt pretty sure of his skill—and of milord’s stupidity.”
173.29-30: like female fireflies in the undergrowth: Cf. 71.26-27: “The males of the firefly.” MOTIF: firefly.
173.34: lost several thousands: MOTIF: riches.
174.03: unfortunate twins: MOTIF: twin.
174.03-04: passing to each other a fountain pen, thumb-pressing and re-pressing it: They are so drunk they cannot tell the difference between a fountain pen and a ball-pen.
174.07: his mighty shoulders: Cf. 82.06-07: “the handsome boy’s abnormally developed deltoids.”
174.10-11: Was he the one who turned priest or something?: Cf. 172.18.
174.22-25: Van retired to the W.C. and started to “doctor the deck” . . . when showing some tricks to Demon—who disapproved of their poker slant: Ironic in view of Demon’s own reputation as a “memorable Manhattan and Reno figure,” 588.12, his loose morals—and his capacity for emphatic disapproval in Pt. 2. Ch. 11.
Cf., for both the paternal disapproval and the strategy of cheating a card-sharp to save others’ losses, a fragment about his uncle Vasily Ivanovich Rukavishnikov (“Uncle Ruka”) in VN’s Russian autobiography but absent from its English counterpart: “Ego iz’yany i strannosti razdrazhali moego polnokrovnogo i pryamolineynogo ottsa, kotoryy byl ochen’ serdit, naprimer, kogda uznal, chto v kakom-to inostrannom pritone, gde molodogo G., neopytnogo i nebogatogo priyatelya Vasil’ya Ivanovicha obygral shuler, Vasily Ivanovich, znavshiy tolk v fosukakh, sel s shulerom igrat’ i prespokoyno peredernul, chtoby vyruchit’ priyatelya” (DB 57: “His flaws and peculiarities annoyed my red-blooded and straight-up-and-down father, who was very angry, for instance, when he learned that in some foreign haunt, where a card-sharper was winning off the young G., an inexperienced and not-well-off friend of Vasily Ivanovich’s, Vasily Ivanovich, a dab hand at card-tricks, sat down with the card-sharper and coolly cheated, to hand it back to his friend”).
174.33: you could knock him down with a feather: Ironically novel use of the expression “you could knock me down with a feather,” usually meaning “I’m utterly surprised.”
174.34-175.01: if his people kept refusing to pay his (huge and trite) debts: Dick is a cousin (see 176.12-13) of Van’s Riverlane schoolmate, “ Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord” (33.04).
175.01-02: he would have to move to Australia to make new ones there: Dickens’s character Mr. Wilkins Micawber, in David Copperfield, escapes an ingrained incapacity to live within his means, which leads to his being thrown into debtors’ prison, by emigrating to Australia, where he becomes successful.
175.03: constatait avec plaisir: Darkbloom : “noted with pleasure.”
175.06: poor Jean and Jacques: MOTIF: twin.
175.07-09: three honest aces . . . four nines: In poker four of a kind always beats three of a kind. The odds against three of a kind are 46:1 (and of three aces, 598:1), against four of a kind 4164:1.
175.10-11: desperately flashing and twinkling: Cf. 176.23: “continued to ‘flash and twinkle.’ ” MOTIF: mirror.
175.12-13: London tailors wringing their hands in the fog: The aristocrat or arriviste who would run up but not pay off a tailor’s bill was a cliché of English life and of literature from at least the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Among Dickens characters who get into debt partly or wholly because of unpaid tailors’ bills are Pip in Great Expectations (1860-61).
175.13-14: a moneylender, the famous St. Priest of Chose: VN writes of Count Emmanuil Sen-Pri [Saint-Priest] (1806-28), mentioned in Pushkin’s Evgeniy Onegin, VIII.xxvi.4: “This young artist shot himself . . . according to [some] in the presence of an eccentric Englishman who had promised to pay his gambling debts if guaranteed the spectacle of self-murder” (EO 3.197-98).
175.16: couleur: Flush, five cards of one suit (see 172.11-177.09n.) The odds against a flush are 508:1.
175.17-18: straight flush . . . royal one: The odds against a straight flush (five consecutively numbered cards of the same suit) are 72,192:1, against a royal flush (a straight flush with the ace the highest card), the highest possible hand, 649,739:1.
175.22: “rainbow ivory”: Betting chips: cf. 175.31. See 173.01n. MOTIF: rainbow.
175.23: twins: MOTIF: twin.
175.25-26: Dick . . . crystal balls: Punning conjunction on slang terms for “penis” and “testes,” respectively.
175.26: crystal balls: Cf. 8.03-04: “Snowing in Fate’s crystal ball.”
175.26-28: why the Russian for it . . . is the same as the German for ‘schoolboy,’ minus the umlaut: Russian shuler, “card-sharper, cheat,” German Schüler, “schoolboy.” Cf. 172.13.
175.30-31: collected a handful of cards and chips and hurled them into Dick’s face: Cf. VN’s ironic comment on an English visitor to London who had recorded his impressions of Pushkin (who “avowed openly his predilection for gambling”) in his A Visit to St. Petersburgin the Winter of 1829-30 (London, 1838): “Tom Raikes (1777-1848) was, of course, an expert in gaming-table matters:
Upon one occasion [1814, in a London club], Jack Bouverie, brother of Lady Heytesbury, was losing large sums [at macao], and became very irritable: Raikes, with bad taste, laughed at Bouverie, and attempted to amuse us with some of his stale jokes; upon which, Bouverie threw his play-bowl, with the few counters it contained, at Raikes’s head; unfortunately it struck him, and made the City dandy angry, but no serious results followed this open insult.
—Captain (Rees Howell) Gronow, a stale joker in his own right, in Reminiscences (London, 1862, p. 80)
(EO 2.264-65; brackets in original)
175.33: bewgest: Not spelled thus in W2, W3, OED; beau geste, “A display of magnanimity” (OED), “1: a graceful pleasing fine or magnanimous gesture 2: a gracious conciliatory insubstantial or ineffectual gesture” (W3). Perhaps, in the spelling, a hint of gewgaw, “A showy trifle; a toy; a pretty but worthless bauble” (W2).
176.02: the French twins: MOTIF: twin.
176.04-05: Rosy aurora was shivering in green Serenity Court. Laborious old Chose: Darkbloom: “a touch of Baudelaire.” From “Le Crépuscule du Matin” (“Morning Twilight,” 1852), ll. 24-28:
Les débauchés rentraient, brisés par leurs travaux.
L’aurore grelottante en robe rose et verte
S’avançait lentement sur la Seine déserte,
Et le sombre Paris, en se frottant les yeux,
Empoignait ses outils, vieillard laborieux.
(Debauchees returned, shattered by their work.
Shivering dawn, in pink and green dress,
Advanced slowly over the deserted Seine,
And dingy Paris, an old laborer,
rubbing its eyes, grabbed its tools.)
Cf. 430.23, “Dawn en robe rose et verte.” VN also alludes to these lines in BS 115: “l’aurore grelottante en robe rose et verte,” and to earlier lines in the poem in Lolita 164: “a brun adolescent whom her russet beauty and the quicksilver in the baby folds of her stomach were sure to cause to se tordre—oh Baudelaire!—in recurrent dreams for months to come.”
176.06: (There should be . . . Ada’s note): MOTIF: Composition— Ada.
176.07-09: a long soak in a hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and inspirer in the world, except, of course, the W.C. seat): In Pale Fire 66-67, Shade composes while shaving in his bath. Luther, Swift, and Freud are said to have drawn inspiration from the toilet: see Norman Brown’s Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959).
176.10: to pen—pen is the word: Pun on penis. (Why? Because he is about to write to “Dick”? Because Dick has just sent him an offer of an introduction to the Villa Venus Club in lieu of the debt?) Cf. EO 2, 368: “the disgusting sustained pun running through a whole line in the last stanza of the much less innocent Lord Byron’s Beppo” (Beppo, st. 99, l. 789: “My pen is at the bottom of a page”).
176.12-13: from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane schoolmates), in which generous Dick: “Dick,” Lord Cheshire (see 464.18), is the cousin of “ Cheshire, the rugby ace” (32.30), “the son of a thrifty lord” (33.04), under whose leadership and following whose example Van has his first sex for pay (33.01-27).
176.13-14: generous Dick proposed to substitute for his debt an introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his whole clan belonged: It seems appropriate that Van should have an introduction to the Villa Venus Club and its sex on demand from Dick (common slang for “penis”) at Chose (French slang for “sex”).
176.14: Venus Villa Club: MOTIF: Villa Venus.
176.15-16: Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain: This seems to imply that Van is an eighteen-year-old being offered a special treat. In fact since this scene occurs “during the winter of 1886-87” (173.21) Van would be sixteen (until the end of 1886) or seventeen (from the start of 1887).
176.16: a ticket to paradise: Cf. the Villa Venus clubs as “parodies of paradise” (350.21). MOTIF: paradise.
176.19-28: (I think, Van, . . . . I think—.): MOTIF: Composition— Ada.
176.20-21: I’m not speaking of abject physicalities, we are all organized that way: Ada’s misgivings about Van’s conduct concern not his accepting the Villa Venus invitation but what she sees as his compromised resolution with Dick Cheshire. Cf. 158.30-31: “But, my love, my Van, I’m physical, horribly physical, I don’t know, I’m frank. . . . ”
176.23: to “flash and twinkle”: Cf. 175.10-11: “the desperately flashing and twinkling young lord.”
176.23: twinkle: Cf. 173.02, 175.11, 176.29. MOTIF: mirror.
176.25-26: secundo . . . could not call him out: Pun on second (Russian, sekundant) in duel; cf. 430.06: “a sekundant in the rather amateurish duel.” MOTIF: duel.
176.25-26: the rogue knew, that he being a rogue, you could not call him out: Cf. VN’s father’s difficulties in calling out a journalist who had insulted him: “the most powerful of the Rightist newspapers employed a shady journalist to concoct a scurrilous piece containing insinuations that my father could not let pass. Since the well-known rascality of the actual author of the article made him ‘non-duelable’ (neduelesposobnïy, as the Russian duelling code had it), my father called out the somewhat less disreputable editor of the paper in which the article had appeared” (SM 188).
176.27: were safe: Should be “was safe”: Ada’s conversational or VN’s compositional slip?
176.29: did not “twinkle”: Cf. 173.02, 175.11, 176.23.
176.30: Monte Carlo: Famous for its casinos.
177.02-03: microscopic—and I mean microscopic: MOTIF: micro-.
177.03: euphorion: Invented element or mineral (causing euphoria in the card-sharper who uses it?). Ada/Ardeur 149: “euphorion, un metal précieux” (“euphorion, a precious metal”). The name of a Greek poet-scholar, Euphorion of Chalcis, b. c. 275 BCE, and of a character, the offspring of Faust and Helen of Troy, in Goethe’s Faust, Part 2, Act III. There is also a butterfly, Troides euphorion, the Cairns Birdwing.
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 28