Part One, Chapter 2


I.2 does much more than fill in background. Van designs the chapter as a celebration of his father's affair with Marina (which after all resulted in both his and Ada's being born) and a prefiguring of his own love for Ada. There are no "bitter little embryos spying . . . . upon the love life of their parents" (SM 20) in this novel.

The chapter falls into two distinct parts: first, the magical start of Demon's and Marina's affair, and, second, its abrupt early end in a rage of jealousy. That prefigures the division between the two parts of Van's and Ada's early story, which fills the remainder of Part 1 of the novel: first, the even more magical beginning to Van's and Ada's love, at Ardis the First, and second, the flaring of jealousy throughout Ardis the Second, ending, as in Demon's case, with a duel.

In psychological terms, Demon will pass on the dashing romanticism that characterizes him throughout this chapter to Van and Ada, his children by Marina. But "the complete collapse of the relationship between Demon and Marina, the distance between their present detachment and the intense past they once shared, [will stand] as a contrast to the persistent centrality of Van and Ada's past to their evolving present, whether they currently happen to be ecstatically reunited or bitterly apart" (Boyd 1985/2001: 308).

As throughout Ada, Nabokov connects one phase of the action with another in a way that does nothing to diminish the individuality of either. The wintry, urban, theater setting of Demon's first conquest of Marina contrasts with the summery, rural, natural setting of Van's and Ada's first amours; the speed of two adult cousins coming together contrasts with the hesitations of two young adolescent cousins; yet romance and enchantment suffuse both. And if Van could not be sure of Ada's response, we as readers have already witnessed the scene in the attic, and catch repeated glimpses of Ada's delight in Van and desire for him, so that his and Ada's falling in love also seems swift to us if not to him, even if without the dizzy speed of Demon and Marina's.

After his duel, Demon reconciles with Marina briefly but falls out with her again and writes her what he thinks a final farewell, dwelling on his unforgettable image of her betraying him. Van too will carry away from Ada after discovering her infidelity an image of her that he has never seen in life but that will continue to haunt him (296-98). He will feel too hurt even to respond to Ada's letters, let alone to write to her, yet his very bitterness will result in his Letters from Terra.

Ada presents Van and Ada's love through a prism of novelistic parody: it is not for nothing that when Van approaches Ardis for the first time, he turns a corner and "the romantic mansion appeared on the gentle eminence of old novels" (35). Ada as a whole explores the relationship between art and life, between the sense of the novelty of love and its imitativeness, between romance as a human experience, the romance as a genre, and Romanticism as a tradition, and it explores the relationship between art and art and work and work. These themes spin into a dizzying vortex here in I.2, where the art-saturated world of Marina the actress and Demon the art connoisseur set off what will appear by contrast the pristine and pure world of young Van and Ada.

There are two main ways Nabokov explores these relationships (art-life, romance-romance, art-art, work-work) in I.2: through the stage setting of the start of Demon's affair with Marina, and its relationship to the tradition of the novel, and through the pen-and-wash sketch of "Eve on the Clepsydrophone," and surprisingly enough its relationship to the tradition of the novel.

Marina's role as an actress, and its inspiring Demon to swoop from the audience to possess her before the end of the first act, parodies the novelistic tradition of the theater scene (see note 10.04-12.22), especially the kind of scene where the characters' feelings are inflamed by the on-stage action. The scene in the theater

evokes two distinguished novelistic traditions. In one, a character--like Pushkin's Tatiana, Cervantes's Quixote, Austen's Catherine Morland, Flaubert's Emma Bovary, Joyce's Gerty MacDowell--lives under the spell of romantic conceptions derived from fictive worlds. And indeed Nabokov throughout Ada explores--especially in the way Van and Ada Veen repeat and add to myths of love, from Adam and Eve to Venus and Cupid--what René Girard labels "mimetic desire," the imitative nature of erotic love (see Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965, and A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

The other novelistic tradition touched on here is the nineteenth-century set-piece of the theater scene. A perfect example occurs in War and Peace, where Natasha, at the opera, suddenly becomes infatuated with Anatoly Kuragin. At first, Natasha's incomprehension of the opera's artificiality is a damning Tolstoyan indictment of empty sophistication. Under her growing susceptibility to the contrived attention of Kuragin, however, she starts to enjoy the stage action and to see it as natural--a dire warning from Tolstoy that she has fallen for sham values and fake emotions.

Both traditions fuse in Madame Bovary. At the opera, where "elle se retrouvait dans les lectures de sa jeunesse, en plein Walter Scott" ("she found herself back again in the reading of her youth, in the midst of Walter Scott," II.xv), Emma is sighing and ready for passion even before Léon appears.

Nabokov upends these traditions. F.W. Bateson has pointed out that "the convention that the novel uses is different . . . from any other literary tradition: it is the convention of doing without conventions" ("The Novel's Original Sin," in Stanley Weintraub and Philip Young, eds., Directions in Literary Criticism, University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1973, 112-20, p. 115). From Ada's first sentence, Nabokov mocks the novel's habitual reluctance to admit that it is part of a novelistic tradition. He parodies the tradition of the character absorbed in a world of romance by doubling it: Marina aglow through playing the imagined Tatiana, who is herself aglow as she identifies with the extravagantly passionate heroines of sentimental romance. He parodies the theater tradition not simply by establishing a parallel between the amour in the audience and the passions represented on stage, but by having one cross with the other. Where Emma imagines loving Lagardy, Demon makes love to la Durmanska. (Boyd 1985/2001: 283-84)

But the particular role Marina plays, a stage version of Pushkin's Tatiana writing a declaration of love to Eugene Onegin, is itself as famous a literary example of the effect on "real" characters of the romantic passion of a "make-believe" world as the case of Emma Bovary. In the stage adaptation of a scene from Eugene Onegin that we watch with Demon, Tatiana writes passionately to Onegin (though she has met the young fop only once) under the influence of the novels she has read. Marina, portraying this girl inflamed by the romance of imagined worlds, is in turn set emotionally aquiver by the imagined world she evokes on stage, and Demon in turn finds himself aroused by her ardor. Unlike Onegin, who coolly resists Tatiana's youthful warmth, Demon has his way with Marina within minutes.

Nabokov toys with the relationship between art and life in another way by allowing Pushkin's imaginary world to spill over into what within Ada we accept as the real world. Demon, while watching Marina play the part of Eugene Onegin's Tatiana, makes a bet with his orchestra-seat neighbor-who is none other than Pushkin's character Prince N., Tatiana's husband-that he can seduce Marina/Tatiana. With great ease Demon passes beyond the curtain as if into Pushkin's world, and returns triumphant to the front of the house where there still sits (now "cuckolded") a character strayed from Pushkin (see Proffer 254 and 10.13-15n.).

Nabokov complicates matters still further by establishing another link between the on- and off-stage worlds in the name of "d'O." assigned to the lead male role, which also becomes an abbreviated form of the "d'Onsky" whom Demon must soon confront as his rival for Marina in the off-stage world. He then compounds the confusion of life and art or art and art once more by making the play in which Marina acts a hilarious travesty of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and an exploration of the betrayal of Pushkin in Chaikovsky's opera, and of the pitfalls of translating from one medium to another, from page to stage or picture, or of translating from one language to another (see note 10.11-12.20 and other notes within that range).

One of the triumphs of the chapter's first half is Nabokov's combining narrative speed and romantic atmosphere with complex allusiveness and satiric grotesquerie. The same combination continues into the second half.

The second half of I.2 shifts from the charms of falling in love to the pangs of jealousy. Demon first suspects Marina's infidelity in February 1869, when he rings her up long distance and she tells him she is "in Eve's state, hold the line, let me put on a penyuar." In a later letter to Marina he recalls this moment, speculating that "Instead, blocking my ear, you spoke, I suppose, to the man with whom you had spent the night." He is proved right.

Demon's role as an art collector provides his clue. He has acquired a pen-and wash sketch, a previously unknown sketch of Eve, "a naked girl with a peach-like apple cupped in her half-raised hand sitting sideways on a convolvulus-garlanded support," which has for him "the additional appeal of recalling Marina when, rung out of a hotel bathroom by the phone, and perched on the arm of a chair, she muffled the receiver while asking her lover something." He identifies the sketch as the work of Parmigianino, but to verify his attribution takes it to an art expert, Baron d'Onsky, who "had only to cast one glance at that raised shoulder and at certain vermiculated effects of delicate vegetation to confirm Demon's guess." The next day Demon finds out from a female friend of d'Onsky that he must have remarked to her on the similarity of the sketch to the naked Marina: when she says to Demon, "Curious how that appalling actress resembles 'Eve on the Clepsydrophone' in Parmigianino's famous picture," Demon retorts: "It is anything but famous." Since no one else could have seen the picture or known that it was by Parmigianino, it must have been d'Onsky himself who noticed the resemblance of the Eve to the undressed Marina. D'Onsky, Demon correctly concludes, must be his rival. He forces from Marina the truth of her infidelity, then chases d'Onsky across the Atlantic to challenge him to a duel (see Boyd 1985/2001: 284-85).

The "small pen-and-wash" that Demon has found is in fact a fusion of three Parmigianino works, the frescoes of Adam and of Eve in the vault of the church of Santa Maria della Steccata in Parma, and especially a small preparatory sketch, now in the Uffizi, for the figure of Adam. Adam's posture in the sketch corresponds exactly to the position Nabokov describes: someone sitting sideways on a support, with a peach-like apple cupped in his hand, and with a strikingly raised shoulder, a posture uncannily congruent with that of a person "perched on the arm of a chair," muffling the mouthpiece of a telephone and talking to someone else.

Art and life cross over in Demon's jealousy, as in his first falling in love with Marina. But just as the theater scene also raises questions about the relationship between one work of art and another, or between one mode of art and others, so too does the Parmigianino painting. Because Nabokov here surprisingly picks up and plays with a suggestion from Proust.

Ada repeatedly and explicitly alludes to A la Recherche du temps perdu. Just before the second chapter begins, and Van introduces the story of Marina and Demon, there is a detailed discussion of Proust; later, when Van's jealousy of Ada first echoes Demon's jealousy of Marina, there is a long, pointedly Proustian diatribe on jealousy.

Here, behind the Parmigianino drawing that brings to mind Marina on the phone, stands a passage from "La Prisonnière." (Boyd 1985/2001: 285).

See above 13.01-14.05n for the "Devant la téléphonne" suggestion Nabokov lifts from Proust.

At the same time, Nabokov, who in Ada often couples Proust and Joyce (see I.1: 8-9, I.27: 169.33), echoes the painting of The Bath of the Nymph which Joyce associates with Molly's infidelity to Bloom in Ulysses (see 13.25n.)

The relationship with Proust is particularly significant. First, the link between one of the novel's women and an old master work is also an echo of Proust. Like Demon, Swann (alluded to explicitly later in Ada) is a connoisseur of the visual arts. Like Marina, Odette is an actress, and both are explicitly associated later by Marina's revulsion from the obscene and invented Cattleya Hawkmoth, a playful echo of the Cattleya orchid that becomes a symbol of passion and (as "faire cattleya") a code-word for lovemaking for Odette and Swann. (Indeed Nabokov drew a Cattleya orchid for the cover of the original Penguin paperback of Ada.) Just as Demon sees his Marina in terms of a Parmigianino sketch, so Swann sees his Odette in terms of a Botticelli fresco in the Sistine Chapel. (Boyd 1985/2001: 286; see also 13.04-14.05n. above)
Second, through "the Demon-Marina-Parmigianino parallel to Swann-Odette-Botticelli, Nabokov acknowledges a significant debt: the love of Demon and Marina in Part 1 Chapter 2 foreshadows Van and Ada's love affair in Ardis the First and Ardis the Second in the main body of the novel, just as Swann and Odette's affair in Un Amour de Swann foreshadows Marcel's affair with Albertine" (Boyd 1985/2001: 286).

In Proust, the passionate but tormented love of Swann, an art connoisseur, for Odette, something of an actress, though rather more a coquette, prefigures the passionate torments of the love between the narrator Marcel and Albertine, a generation later ("mon amour pour Albertine avait répété, avec de grandes variations, l'amour de Swann pour Odette" [A la recherche, III, 1015]: "my love for Albertine had repeated, with great variations, Swann's love for Odette"). In Ada Van and Nabokov take over the same structure, with the unexpected and parodic added complication that Demon and Marina are not only a generation older than Van and Ada, but also happen to be their parents.

Proust's In Search of Lost Time is one long meditation on the relationships between art and life. Nabokov compounds those relationships still further by making Van echo Proust's prologue structure, and within that, Swann's sense of the resemblance between Odette and an old master work, and within that, Marcel's sense of the possibilities of incorporating modern life into art in a painting like "At the Telephone."

But I.2 also could not be more unlike Proust. In place of Proust's meditative languor and torpid narrative speed, Nabokov hurtles the action along at a preposterous pace. Whereas in Proust Un Amour de Swann occupies the space of an ordinary novel, in Ada the breakneck narrative of Demon's and Marina's affair takes only six pages. And whereas in Proust the love between Swann and Odette, for all its strains, has an enchantment about it that rarely recurs in the protracted agonies of Marcel's love for Albertine, in Ada the contrast works the other way around. The brevity and the retrospective meaninglessness of Demon's affair with Marina contrasts sharply with the extraordinary durability--over eighty years!--of Van's and Ada's love. And whereas Demon's and Marina's affair takes place in a world supersaturated with art, Van's and Ada's evolves at Ardis, a parody of "the gentle eminence of old novels" but also a paradise, an Arcadia of green-and-gold naturalness, strikingly innocent, for all its incestuousness, by contrast with the artifice and the cynical sophistication of the world of I.2.

In I.2 Van celebrates his own love for Ada by celebrating the romance of its prefigurement by Demon's love for Marina. But Nabokov has other designs: the chapter also prefigures Lucette's death, the consequence of Van and Ada's love.

Demon's rushing from the auditorium to make love to the Marina he has just seen on stage anticipates Van's rushing from Don Juan's Last Fling on the night of Lucette's death as soon as he sees Ada appear as an actress on screen. Tearing himself away from the cinema and the mood of sexual excitement Lucette has established in him, he masturbates twice to drain himself of any further sexual susceptibility, as he projects "upon the screen of his paroxysm" (490) an image of Ada. Lucette, sure that she now can never succeed in seducing Van, takes her own life.

To reinforce the link between I.ii and III.v, Nabokov makes the movie in which Ada stars another travesty of another famous tale (actually, two tales, Don Quixote and the Don Juan story, especially in Pushkin's version, The Stone Guest), and links the corruption of Onegin into "d'O." with the decay of Don Quixote and Don Juan into the muddled "Don."

As so often in Ada, Nabokov connects one scene with another, despite all the differences here between Demon and Marina at the theater and Van and Lucette at the cinema (film rather than play, mid-Atlantic summer rather than Manhattan winter, masturbation rather than consummation): in both scenes an actress stepping into the performance, a travesty of a major classic, overthrows the feelings of the man watching her, who breaks from his seat before the show is over and rushes to sexual release.

Van cuts abruptly from the scene of Demon's first making love to Marina to Demon's discovering her infidelity in order to prefigure the disjunction between the harmony of Ardis the First and the justified suspicions of Ardis the Second. But again, Nabokov also has Lucette in mind.

Marina's resemblance to a drawing of Eve is the first example of a theme of women in pictures that culminates in the scene of Lucette at the bar of the Divan Japonais (a scene that replicates a Toulouse-Lautrec poster and a Barton and Guestier wine advertisement that itself copies the poster), when she first conceives of her desperate final attempt to win Van, and in Ada's "coming into the picture" on the night of Lucette's death a week later. For more on the picture motif and its bearing on Lucette, see Boyd 1985/2001: 129-44.

There is still another level of significance to explore in I.2. We first glimpse Marina here playing the part of Tatiana writing her letter to Onegin, or in this version, "Lara" writing to "d'O." Lucette will send Van “from California a rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter, which shall not be discussed in this memoir. [See, however, a little farther. Ed.]” (366.12-14). Van in fact incorporates much of Lucette’s letter into the dialogue of the scene in his rooms at Kingston. Where Demon in I.2 instantly responds to Marina playing the role of the writer of a love-letter, Van resists Lucette in II.5 when she follows her own “savage declaration of love” by bringing to him at Voltemand Hall (named after the letter-carrier in Hamlet) a letter from Ada. Like Onegin, who resists Tatiana’s declaration, Van at Voltemand resists Lucette’s passion for him. Thus again, although the scene of Marina and Demon at the theater seems especially to prefigure Van and Ada, and their swift falling in love, the letter scene on stage particularly prefigures Lucette’s doomed attempt to win Van over through a passionate love letter, as Demon’s breaking from his seat to make love with Marina prefigures Van breaking from his seat at the vision of Ada on screen, on the night of Lucette’s death, to ejaculate by masturbating to ensure he continues to resist Lucette’s amatory pressure on him. Not only does the chapter begin with Marina in I.2 playing the part of Tatiana writing her letter to Onegin; but the chapter ends with Demon writing a letter to Marina that rules out their ever marrying. As will already be apparent, a theme of letters and messages pervades Ada, and its central focus is the letter that Lucette writes to Van before joining him on the Tobakoff, that he receives only after she drowns herself, and that ends with a poem about communication between a ghost and a mortal. This theme links with the Letters from Terra theme in the novel, which also involves communication between this world and a possible "Next World," and with a theme of messages somehow made through water, as in Marina's "clepsydrophone," her water-powered telephone. Notice how Demon's letter to Marina, about a call on a hydraulic telephone, from a "roadside booth of pure crystal still tear-stained after a tremendous thunderstorm," to a nymph called Marina, who has just stepped from her bath, and turns to a lover named d'O. (a homophone of d'eau, "of water"), and who first inspired Demon with irresistible passion as she wrote a letter to another d'O., links so pointedly to the theme of water-messages that torment Aqua (22.32-24.15) and that anticipate Lucette's death, which is itself prefigured by the pointed souci d'eau pattern of I.10 (see I.10, Afternote).

As I suggest (Boyd 1985/2001: 202-36, 248-53, 274-77, 301) the novel seems to suggest that Lucette somehow communicates to Van from the beyond, from her watery grave, somehow inspires him to write the account of his life with Ada, somehow resolves the relationship between art and life by confirming an art beyond and behind life. But as usual Nabokov ensures that readers cannot jump to these general conclusions without immersing themselves in the complex artistry of the particular.

Marijeta Bozovic comments on the extension of the Eugene Onegin theme introduced into Demon and Marina’s love affair in the story of Van and Ada:
“another variation on the Onegin theme opens Ada’s central narrative, this time as Van and Ada’s love story. [n: See again Johnson’s “Nabokov’s Ada,” 317-18] A cynical young aristocrat self-modeled on books moves to the country and meets two sisters, the older dark-haired and bookish, the younger fair and ‘normal.’ Pale Ada could be Tatiana’s great-granddaughter: the fact that her mother had been cast as Tatiana underscores the physical resemblance. Van tells Ada that she resembles “the young soprano Maria Kuznetsova in the letter scene of Tschchaikow’s opera Onegin and Olga” (158).” (“From Onegin to Ada: Nabokov and the Transnational Imperative,” in Brian Boyd and Marijeta Bozovic, eds.. Nabokov Upside-Down, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2017).



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