Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Part 1, Chapter 3 (view annotations)

The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in
the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of
both causing and cursing the notion of "Terra," are too well-
known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at
17.05 length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans—and
not to grave men or gravemen.
Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary de-
lusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little ma-
chines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they
17.10 did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geo-
aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side,
like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and
the ormolu horrors that meant "art" to our humorless fore-
fathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something
17.15 highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly
purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved' ("it
is, isn't it") sidesplitting to imagine that "Russia," instead of
being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province ex-
extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United
17.20 States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred

[ 17 ]

as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean
to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today's
Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more ab-
surdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abra-
18.05 ham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water
and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of
"America" and "Russia," a more complicated and even more
preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time—not only be-
cause the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite
18.10 match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition,
but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another
existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre con-
confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with
not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-
18.15 yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this
"scientifically ungraspable" concourse of divergences that minds
bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra
a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into
any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irra-
18.20 tionality.
As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his
passionate research in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry)
even the deepest thinkers, the purest philosophers, Paar of
Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally divided in
18.25 their attitude toward the possibility that there existed "a dis-
tortive glass of our distorted glebe" as a scholar who desires to
remain unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm!
Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle L. used to say to Gavronsky. In
Ada's hand.)
18.30 There were those who maintained that the discrepancies and
"false overlappings" between the two worlds were too numer-
ous, and too deeply woven into the skein of successive events,
not to taint with trite fancy the theory of essential sameness;
and there were those who retorted that the dissimilarities only

[ 18 ]

confirmed the live organic reality pertaining to the other world;
that a perfect likeness would rather suggest a specular, and
hence speculatory, phenomenon; and that two chess games with
identical openings and identical end moves might ramify in an
19.05 infinite number of variations, on one board and in two brains,
at any middle stage of their irrevocably converging develop-
The modest narrator has to remind the rereader of all this,
because in April (my favorite month), 1869 (by no means a
19.10 mirabilic year), on St George's Day (according to Mlle La-
rivière's maudlin memoirs) Demon Veen married Aqua Dur-
manov—out of spite and pity, a not unusual blend.
Was there some additional spice? Marina, with perverse
vainglory, used to affirm in bed that Demon's senses must have
19.15 been influenced by a queer sort of "incestuous" (whatever that
term means) pleasure (in the sense of the French plaisir, which
works up a lot of supplementary spinal vibrato), when he
fondled, and savored, and delicately parted and defiled, in un-
mentionable but fascinating ways, flesh (une chair) that was
19.20 both that of his wife and that of his mistress, the blended and
brightened charms of twin peris, an Aquamarina both single and
double, a mirage in an emirate, a geminate gem, an orgy of
epithelial alliterations.
Actually, Aqua was less pretty, and far more dotty, than
19.25 Marina. During her fourteen years of miserable marriage she
spent a broken series of steadily increasing sojourns in sana-
toriums. A small map of the European part of the British Com-
monwealth—say, from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar
and Palermontovia—as well as most of the U.S.A., from Estoty
19.30 and Canady to Argentina, might be quite thickly prickled with
enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the
Worlds, Aqua's bivouacs. She had plans at one time to seek a
modicum of health ("just a little grayishness, please, instead of
the solid black") in such Anglo-American protectorates as the

[ 19 ]

Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern
Continents that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course,
Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from
the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically
20.05 unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely
attractive... But her real destination was Terra the Fair and
thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when
she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to
her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-
20.10 Zvukov ("Heart rending-Sounds").
After her first battle with insanity at Ex en Valais she re-
turned to America, and suffered a bad defeat, in the days when
Van was still being suckled by a very young wet nurse, almost
a child, Ruby Black, born Black, who was to go mad too: for
20.15 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 strength-
ened by a strain of his father's demon blood.
Aqua was not quite twenty when the exaltation of her nature
20.20 had begun to reveal a morbid trend. Chronologically, the initial
stage of her mental illness coincided with the first decade of
the Great Revelation, and although she might have found just
as easily another theme for her delusion, statistics show that
the Great, and to some Intolerable, Revelation caused more
20.25 insanity in the world than even an over-preoccupation with
religion had in medieval times.
Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. Sick minds
identified the notion of a Terra planet with that of another
world and this "Other World" got confused not only with the
20.30 "Next World" but with the Real World in us and beyond us
Our enchanters, our demons, are noble iridescent creatures with
translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eight-
een-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere
where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had be-

[ 20 ]

come nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils, with the
black scrota of carnivora and the fangs of serpents, revilers and
tormentors of female souls; while on the opposite side of the
cosmic lane a rainbow mist of angelic spirits, inhabitants of
21.05 sweet Terra, restored all the stalest but still potent myths of old
creeds, with rearrangement for melodeon of all the cacophonies
of all the divinities and divines ever spawned in the marshes of
this our sufficient world.
Sufficient for your purpose, Van, entendons-nous. (Note in
21.10 the margin.)
Poor Aqua, whose fancies were apt to fall for all the fangles
of cranks and Christians, envisaged vividly a minor hymnist's
paradise, a future America of alabaster buildings one hundred
stories high, resembling a beautiful furniture store crammed
21.15 with tall white-washed wardrobes and shorter fridges; she saw
giant flying sharks with lateral eyes taking barely one night to
carry pilgrims through black ether across an entire continent
from dark to shining sea, before booming back to Seattle or
Wark. She heard magic-music boxes talking and singing, drown-
20.20 ing the terror of thought, uplifting the lift girl, riding down
with the miner, praising beauty and godliness, the Virgin and
Venus in the dwellings of the lonely and the poor. The un-
mentionable magnetic power denounced by evil lawmakers in
this our shabby country—oh, everywhere, in Estoty and Can-
21.25 ady, in "German" Mark Kennensie, as well as in "Swedish"
Manitobogan, in the workshop of the red-shirted Yukonets as
well as in the kitchen of the red-kerchiefed Lyaskanka, and in
"French" Estoty, from Bras d'Or to Ladore—and very soon
throughout both our Americas, and all over the other stunned
21.30 continents—was used on Terra as freely as water and air, as
bibles and brooms. Two or three centuries earlier she might
have been just another consumable witch.
In her erratic student years Aqua had left fashionable Brown
Hill College, founded by one of her less reputable ancestors, to

[ 21 ]

participate (as was also fashionable) in some Social Improve-
ment project or another in the Severnïya Territorii. She or-
ganized with Milton Abraham's invaluable help a Phree Pharm-
acy in Belokonsk, and fell grievously in love there with a mar-
22.05 ried man, who after one summer of parvenu passion dispensed
to her in his Camping Ford garçonnière preferred to give her up
rather than run the risk of endangering his social situation in a
philistine town where businessmen played "golf" on Sundays
and belonged to "lodges." The dreadful sickness, roughly diag-
22.10 nosed in her case, and in that of other unfortunate people, as
an "extreme form of mystical mania combined with existaliena-
tion" (otherwise plain madness), crept over her by degrees,
with intervals of ecstatic peace, with skipped areas of precarious
sanity, with sudden dreams of eternity-certainty, which grew
22.15 ever rarer and briefer.
After her death in 1883, Van computed that in the course of
thirteen years, counting every presumed moment of presence,
counting the dismal visits to her various hospitals, as well as
her sudden tumultuous appearances in the middle of the night
22.20 (wrestling with her husband or the frail but agile English
governess all the way upstairs, wildly welcomed by the old
appenzeller—and finally making the nursery, wigless, slipper-
less, with bloodied fingernails), he had actually seen her, or been
near her, all in all, for a length of time hardly exceeding that of
22.25 human gestation.
The rosy remoteness of Terra was soon veiled for her by
direful mists. Her disintegration went down a shaft of phases,
every one more racking than the last; for the human brain can
become the best torture house of all those it has invented, estab-
22.30 lished and used in millions of years, in millions of lands, on
millions of howling creatures.
She developed a morbid sensitivity to the language of tap
water—which echoes sometimes (much as the bloodstream does
predormitarily) a fragment of human speech lingering in one's

[ 22 ]

ears while one washes one's hands after cocktails with strangers.
Upon first noticing this immediate, sustained, and in her case
rather eager and mocking but really quite harmless replay of
this or that recent discourse, she felt tickled at the thought that
23.05 she, poor Aqua, had accidentally hit upon such a simple method
of recording and transmitting speech, while technologists (the
so-called Eggheads) all over the world were trying to make
publicly utile and commercially rewarding the extremely elab-
orate and still very expensive hydrodynamic telephones and
23.10 miserable gadgets that were to replace those that had
gone k chertyam sobach'im (Russian "to the devil") with the
banning of an unmentionable "lammer." Soon, however, the
rhythmically perfect, but verbally rather blurred volubility of
faucets began to acquire too much pertinent sense. The purity
23.15 of the running water's enunciation grew in proportion to the
nuisance it made of itself. It spoke soon after she had listened,
or been exposed, to somebody talking—not necessarily to her—
forcibly and expressively, a person with a rapid characteristic
voice, and very individual or very foreign phrasal intonations,
23.20 some compulsive narrator's patter at a horrible party, or a liquid
soliloquy in a tedious play, or Van's lovely voice, or a bit of
poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love, take pity,
but especially the more fluid and flou Italian verse, for instance
that ditty recited between knee-knocking and palpebra-lifting,
23.25 by a half-Russian, half-dotty old doctor, doc, toc, ditty, dotty,
ballatetta, deboletta...tu, voce sbigottita...spigotty e diavo- lo cor dolente...con ballatetta
strutta, destruttamente...mente...mente...stop that record,
or the guide will go on demonstrating as he did this very
23.30 morning in Florence a silly pillar commemorating, he said, the
"elmo" that broke into leaf when they carried stone-heavy-dead
St. Zeus by it through the gradual, gradual shade; or the
Arlington harridan talking incessantly to her silent husband as
the vineyards sped by, and even in the tunnel (they can't do

[ 23 ]

this to you, you tell them, Jack Black, you just tell them...).
Bathwater (or shower) was too much of a Caliban to speak dis-
tinctly—or perhaps was too brutally anxious to emit the hot
torrent and get rid of the infernal ardor to bother about small
24.05 talk; but the burbly flowlets grew more and more ambitious and
odious, and when at her first "home" she heard one of the most
hateful of the visiting doctors (the Cavalcanti quoter) gar-
rulously pour hateful instructions in Russian-lapped German
into her hateful bidet, she decided to stop turning on tap water
24.10 altogether.
But that phase elapsed too. Other excruciations replaced her
namesake's loquacious quells so completely that when, during a
lucid interval, she happened to open with her weak little hand a
lavabo cock for a drink of water, the tepid lymph replied in its
24.15 own lingo, without a trace of trickery or mimicry: Finito! It
was now the forming of soft black pits (yamï, yamishchi) in
her mind, between the dimming sculptures of thought and recol-
lection, that tormented her phenomenally; mental panic and
physical pain joined black-ruby hands, one making her pray for
24.20 sanity, the other, plead for death. Man-made objects lost their
significance or grew monstrous connotations; clothes hangers
were really the shoulders of decapitated Tellurians, the folds of
a blanket she had kicked off her bed looked back at her mourn-
fully with a stye on one drooping eyelid and dreary reproof in
24.25 the limp twist of a livid lip. The effort to comprehend the
information conveyed somehow to people of genius by the
hands of a timepiece, or piece of time, became as hopeless as
trying to make out the sign language of a secret society or the
Chinese chant of that young student with a non-Chinese guitar
24.30 whom she had known at the time she or her sister had given birth
to a mauve baby. But her madness, the majesty of her madness,
still retained a mad queen's pathetic coquetry: "You know,
Doctor, I think I'll need glasses soon, I don't know" (lofty

[ 24 ]

laugh), "I just can't make out what my wrist watch says...For
heaven's sake, tell me what it says! Ah! Half-past for—for what?
Never mind, never mind, 'never' and 'mind' are twins, I have
a twin sister and a twin son. I know you want to examine my
25.05 pudendron, the Hairy Alpine Rose in her album, collected ten
years ago" (showing her ten fingers gleefully, proudly, ten is
Then the anguish increased to unendurable massivity and
nightmare dimensions, making her scream and vomit. She
25.10 wanted (and was allowed, bless the hospital barber, Bob Bean)
to have her dark curls shaved to an aquamarine prickle, because
they grew into her porous skull and curled inside. Jigsaw pieces
of sky or wall came apart, no matter how delicately put to-
gether, but a careless jolt or a nurse's elbow can disturb so
25.15 easily those lightweight fragments which became incompre-
hensible blancs of anonymous objects, or the blank backs of
"Scrabble" counters, which she could not turn over sunny side
up, because her hands had been tied by a male nurse with
Demon's black eyes. But presently panic and pain, like a pair of
25.20 children in a boisterous game, emitted one last shriek of laughter
and ran away to manipulate each other behind a bush as in
Count Tolstoy's Anna Karenin, a novel, and again, for a while,
a little while, all was quiet in the house, and their mother had
the same first name as hers had.
25.25 At one time Aqua believed that a stillborn male infant half a
year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had
produced in her bath, in a lieu de naissance plainly marked X
in her dreams, after skiing at full pulver into a larch stump, had
somehow been saved and brought to her at the Nusshaus, with
25.30 her sister's compliments, wrapped up in blood-soaked cotton
wool, but perfectly alive and healthy, to be registered as her
son Ivan Veen. At other moments she felt convinced that the
child was her sister's, born out of wedlock, during an exhausting,

[ 25 ]

yet highly romantic blizzard, in a mountain refuge on Sex
Rouge, where a Dr Alpiner, general practitioner and gentian-
lover, sat providentially waiting near a rude red stove for his
boots to dry. Some confusion ensued less than two years later
26.05 (September, 1871—her proud brain still retained dozens of
dates) when upon escaping from her next refuge and somehow
reaching her husband's unforgettable country house (imitate a
foreigner: "Signor Konduktor, ay vant go Lago di Luga, hier
geld") she took advantage of his being massaged in the solarium,
26.10 tiptoed into their former bedroom—and experienced a delicious
shock: her talc powder in a half-full glass container marked
colorfully Quelques Fleurs still stood on her bedside table; her
favorite flame-colored nightgown lay rumpled on the bedrug;
to her it meant that only a brief black nightmare had obliterated
26.15 the radiant fact of her having slept with her husband all along—
ever since Shakespeare's birthday on a green rainy day, but for
most other people, alas, it meant that Marina (after G.A. Vron-
sky, the movie man, had left Marina for another long-lashed
Khristosik as he called all pretty starlets) had conceived, c'est
26.20 bien le cas de le dire, the brilliant idea of having Demon divorce
mad Aqua and marry Marina who thought (happily and cor-
rectly) she was pregnant again. Marina had spent a rukuliruyu-
shchiy month with him at Kitezh but when she smugly divulged
her intentions (just before Aqua's arrival) he threw her out of
26.25 the house. Still later, on the last short lap of a useless existence,
Aqua scrapped all those ambiguous recollections and found her-
self reading and rereading busily, blissfully, her son's letters in
a luxurious "sanastoria" at Centaur, Arizona. He invariably
wrote in French calling her petite maman and describing the
26.30 amusing school he would be living at after his thirteenth birth-
day. She heard his voice through the nightly tinnitus of her
new, planful, last, last insomnias and it consoled her. He called
her usually mummy, or mama, accenting the last syllable in

[ 26 ]

English, the first, in Russian; somebody had said that triplets
and heraldic dracunculi often occurred in trilingual families;
but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever now (except,
perhaps, in hateful long-dead Marina's hell-dwelling mind) that
27.05 Van was her, her, Aqua's, beloved son.
Being unwilling to suffer another relapse after this blessed
state of perfect mental repose, but knowing it could not last,
she did what another patient had done in distant France, at a
much less radiant and easygoing "home." A Dr Froid, one of
27.10 the administerial centaurs, who may have been an émigré brother
with a passport-changed name of the Dr Froit of Signy-
Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes or, more likely, the same
man, because they both came from Vienne, Isère, and were
only sons (as her son was), evolved, or rather revived, the
27.15 therapistic device, aimed at establishing a "group" feeling, of
having the finest patients help the staff if "thusly inclined."
Aqua, in her turn, repeated exactly clever Eleonore Bonvard's
trick, namely, opting for the making of beds and the cleaning
of glass shelves. The astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was
27.20 called (who cares—one forgets little things very fast, when
afloat in infinite non-thingness) was, perhaps, more modern,
with a more refined desertic view, than the Mondefroid bleak-
house horsepittle, but in both places a demented patient could
outwit in one snap an imbecile pedant.
27.25 In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two
hundred tablets of different potency. She knew most of them—
the jejune sedatives, and the ones that knocked you out from
eight p.m. till midnight, and several varieties of superior sopo-
rifics that left you with limpid limbs and a leaden head after
27.30 eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself de-
lightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the
cleansing fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump
purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which

[ 27 ]

the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore
schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their blood-
hounds at the opening of the hunting season. Lest some busy-
body resurrect her in the middle of the float-away process, Aqua
28.05 reckoned she must procure for herself a maximum period of
undisturbed stupor elsewhere than in a glass house, and the
carrying out of that second part of the project was simplified
and encouraged by another agent or double of the Isère Pro-
fessor, a Dr. Sig Heiler whom everybody venerated as a great
28.10 guy and near-genius in the usual sense of near-beer. Such pa-
tients who proved by certain twitchings of the eyelids and
other semiprivate parts under the control of medical students
that Sig (a slightly deformed but not unhandsome old boy) was
in the process of being dreamt of as a "papa Fig," spanker of
28.15 girl bottoms and spunky spittoon-user, were assumed to be on
the way to haleness and permitted, upon awakening, to partici-
pate in normal outdoor activities such as picnics. Sly Aqua
twitched, simulated a yawn, opened her light-blue eyes (with
startlingly contrasty jet-black pupils that Dolly, her
28.20 mother, also had), put on yellow slacks and a black bolero,
walked through a little pinewood, thumbed a ride with a
Mexican truck, found a suitable gulch in the chaparral and
there, after writing a short note, began placidly eating from
her cupped palm the multicolored contents of her handbag,
28.25 like any Russian country girl lakomyashchayasya yagodami
(feasting on berries) that she had just picked in the woods.
She smiled, dreamily enjoying the thought (rather "Kareninian"
in tone) that her extinction would affect people about as deeply
as the abrupt, mysterious, never explained demise of a comic
28.30 in a Sunday paper one had been taking for years. It was
her last smile. She was discovered much sooner, but had also
died much faster than expected, and the observant Siggy, still
in his baggy khaki shorts, reported that Sister Aqua (as for
some reason they all called her) lay, as if buried prehistorically,

[ 28 ]

in a fetus-in-utero position, a comment that seemed relevant to
his students, as it may be to mine.
Her last note, found on her and addressed to her husband and
son, might have come from the sanest person on this or that
29.05 earth.

Aujourd'hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have
earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with
Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several
"patients," in the neighboring bor (piney wood) where
29.10 I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that
your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where
you will ramble one day, no doubt. The hands of a
clock, even when out of order, must know and let the
dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise
29.15 neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mus-
tache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know
where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not
even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she,
but "a tit of it" as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to
29.20 say of her scanty right breast. I, poor Princesse Loin-
taine, très lointaine by now, do not know where I stand.
Hence I must fall. So adieu, my dear, dear son, and fare-
well, poor Demon, I do not know the date or the season,
but it is a reasonably, and no doubt seasonably, fair day,
29.25 with a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at my pretty

[Signed] My sister's sister who teper'

iz ada ("now is out of hell")

"If we want life's sundial to show its hand," commented
29.30 Van, developing the metaphor in the rose garden of Ardis
Manor at the end of August, 1884, "we must always remember

[ 29 ]

that the strength, the dignity, the delight of man is to spite and
despise the shadows and stars that hide their secrets from us.
Only the ridiculous power of pain made her surrender. And I
often think it would have been so much more plausible, esthet-
30.05 esthetically, ecstatically, Estotially speakingif she were really my

[ 30 ]

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