Part One, Chapter 32


When in I.31 Van returns to Ardis after four years absence, “unexpected, unbidden, unneeded” (187), he arrives at the end of a large party and feels witness to “a scene out of some new life being rehearsed for an unknown picture, without him, not for him”(187). But despite the initial crowd between himself and Ada, he ends up spending the night alone with her in fervent ardor, only for Ada to explain her being out of sorts the next morning “by a parable. She was like the girl in a film which he would see soon, who is in the triple throes of a tragedy which she must conceal lest she lose her only true love. . . . ” (192)

Now, in the next chapter, later the same day, having slept through much of it, Van finds himself indeed at the edge of that “unknown picture, without him,” or of the film Ada’s words evoke. The scene of working through the shooting script of Mlle Larivière’s Les Enfants Maudits beside Ardis’s newish pool, like the scene of Van’s return to Ardis, emphasizes the changes at Ardis since his departure in 1884, when the pool was only a proposal, but prepares for much more.

The poolside scene offers multiple comedies of anachronism. Ardis in 1884 was already anachronistic by Earth standards, with its runabouts and banned tape recorders, but Ardis in 1888 seems much more obviously and comically out of alignment with Earth time, with its swimming pool and skimpy bathing costumes, its Hollywood director, its Book of the Fortnight adaptation, and “Coke” as a long-familiar drink.

The swimming pool marks a continuity with Ardis the First—indeed the visit of inspection by the Andalusian architect Alonso took place in the second chapter of Ardis the First, as this chapter around the now constructed pool itself takes place in the second chapter of Ardis the Second, with a visit this time from a Russian film director in place of the Spanish architect. But it also marks the changes: the pool built, Marina now a movie actress, Mlle Larivière a famous author, Van jealous of other males, Lucette a participant in Van and Ada’s bodily play.

The comedy of the high-handed and low-standard adaptation of Les Enfants Maudits echoes the comedy of the grotesque adaptation of Pushkins Eugene Onegin in 1.2, where Marina’s affair with Demon began. There, Demon’s sense that Marina’s likeness could be seen in a Parmigianino drawing led to his discovering her infidelity with a Baron d’Onsky. Marina’s infidelity, despite her passion for Demon, anticipates that of her daughter (as the Baron’s title prefigures that of Ada’s lover Count de Prey), despite her passion for Van. Here in I.32, Marina blithely conducts an affair with young Pedro, despite her marriage to Dan, and will soon have a brief fling (see 249) with Vronsky, named after Tolstoy’s arch-adulterer. As in the stage adaptation of Eugene Onegin, the inset drama reflects the outer setting, but if Marina seems again the woman in the picture, as lead actress and with three males in her life, her daughterseems even more “the girl in a film” that she had seen herself as in I.31 (192): see 201.08-11.

In Ardis the First, Van and Ada had often seemed Edenically alone, like Adam and Eve in the left panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. In Ardis the Second, Van and Ada often feel the presence of far too many others, like the lovers in the comic overload of Bosch’s central panel. There is a lake in Bosch’s left-hand panel, but also, in the central panel, an artificial pool crowded with naked bathers, like the pool whose skimpily-clad admirers of skimpily-clad Ada rouse Van’s temper in I.32.

The governess-cum-authoress Mlle Larivière, “platonically and irrevocably in love” with Marina for many years (194), dozes beside Marina as the latter works through a script adapted by married Marina’s future (or is it past?) lover G.A. Vronsky, while her current lover Pedro displays his eagerness for Van’s lover Ada, whom married Rack also hopelessly yearns for. Just as Bosch overloads his central panel visually and erotically, Nabokov playfully overloads I.32 for the first-time reader both narratively and erotically: he offers the comedy of the misadaptation of Les Enfants Maudits; the comedy of the erotic tension around the pool, reflecting Hollywood, as he had seen it (see Forenote); Ada’s new sexual availability at all but sixteen, and Van’s jealousy at the excitement her body arouses in other males new to the story, the “repulsively handsome” Pedro and the seemingly harmless and gormless Philip Rack; and the tangled relationship between Les Enfants Maudits, original and revised, and the action at Ardis.

Even the characters are confused. Not for the first time, Marina seems amusingly out of her depth when she wonders  “if it is a flashback . . . Renny, or what’s his name, René, should not know what he seems to know.” Her director G.A. Vronsky answers: “He does not, . . . it’s only a half-hearted flashback. Anyway, this Renny, this lover number one, does not know, of course, that she is trying to get rid of lover number two, while she’s wondering all the time if she can dare go on dating number three, the gentleman farmer, see?” (201) Nabokov teases the first-time reader: are these hints about Van as Ada’s lover number one? Do the retrospective glances by Van as narrator indicate he discovered reasons to have been jealous of Ada, or does the comedy of his jealousy of Pedro, in whom Ada seems not to have the least interest, indicate only, not for the first time, his capacity for causeless jealousy? And the one apparent confirmation of his later discovering a reason for jealousy here—“an exhalation of glorious relief, the cause of which was to torture Van only much later. . . . (Torture, my poor love! Torture! Yes! But it’s all sunk and dead. Ada’s late note)” (204) would seem to indicate to the astute first-time reader that Ada feared his jealousy of the ridiculously harmless, comically gormless, droopy and improbable Philip Rack.

Nabokov’s tactics mimic to some extent those he set up in the second motel journey in Lolita. There too, Humbert as narrator and betrayed lover, like Van here, leaves the first-time reader as uncertain as he was at the time, although he drops hints, offers alternative readings, and shows Lolita’s possible complicity and her professions of innocence, that add rich ironies to re-readings. Both novels make the unforeseeability of time, despite the narrator’s persistent attempts as jealous lover to disentangle its weave, passionately personal.

The film folk present in I.32 do not linger at Ardis, but return only on what will prove to be Van’s last night there. Their very presence here therefore anticipates I.41, the night when Van receives the note warning that he is being betrayed and confronts Blanche as its likely author. Van assumes the note refers to a relationship between Ada and Percy de Prey, only to find from Blanche that Ada has had an affair with the by then almost forgotten Philip Rack. Just as the presence of the “repulsively handsome” Pedro here in I.32 makes Van overlook the unlikely threat in Philip Rack, so the thrusting masculinity of Percy de Prey, on Van’s first day back at Ardis and even more ominously on Ada’s birthday, will make him blind to the threat of the barely masculine Rack and to the breadth of Ada’s responsiveness to male “needs.”

Yet the same late July night, when an angry Van confronts Ada, she misconstrues his accusation and discloses that she has been having an affair with Percy de Prey. Percy, the focus of Van’s seething jealousy on his first day back at Ardis, seems forgotten when the next day he refastens his jealousy onto Pedro. But in the poolside scene with Pedro Van records his squeamishness about the pool in a way that foreshadows his rivalrous confrontation with Percy at Ada’s birthday picnic. He looks at the pool and remembers,

with shudders of revulsion, the indoor pool of his prep school, the running noses, the pimpled chests, the chance contacts with odious male flesh, the suspicious bubble bursting like a small stink bomb, and especially, especially, the bland, sly, triumphant and absolutely revolting wretch who stood in shoulder-high water and secretly urinated (and, God, how he had beaten him up, though that Vere de Vere was three years older than he). (200)

Vere de Vere’s name, and his being at Riverlane and three years older than Van, link him with Percy de Prey, also a one-time Riverlane schoolmate and three years older (275) than Van. Vere de Vere urinates stealthily in the school swimming pool; at Ada’s picnic, the uninvited and already drunk Percy urinates spectacularly into the brook (“nor had either of the fascinated, fastidious boys ever witnessed the like of its sustained, strongly arched, practically everlasting stream,” 274) in whose downstream reaches Van has so often played with Ada and Lucette. A moment later, when a scuffle starts, Van soon has Percy trapped under him, and inflicts such pain he swiftly reduces him to surrender. Shortly after, with the fight supposedly over, Percy attacks him from behind, and Van swiftly swings him over his head, “hoping for a pretext to inflict a certain special device of exotic torture that he had not yet had the opportunity to use in a real flight.” (275)

Van often emulates his father, in his seigneurial advances toward serving girls, in his sexual double standards, in his violent sexual jealousy. So too Ada echoes her mother. Marina happily brings her current flame, the young actor Pedro, to her husband’s estate, and the director Vronsky, a past or future lover, whose very name, after Anna Karenina, spells adultery. Four years later Van will learn from Lucette about Ada’s “rather sad little affair with Johnny, a young star from Fuerteventura, c’est dans la famille” (380)—what is in the family being precisely women actors’ affairs with males in their cast. In response to Lucette’s disclosure, Van erupts into one of his oblique jealous tirades, on the pretext of her calling Ada and Johnny practically twins. Lucette reflects that she “only meant . . . that he was a handsome Hispano-Irish boy”—like the “repulsively handsome” Hispanic actor Pedro—“dark and pale, and people mistook them for twins. I did not say they were really twins. Or ‘driblets.’” Van muses: “Driblets? Driplets? Now who pronounced it that way?” (381)—again pointing back to the poolside scene, with not only Pedro but Rack whose wife, her doctor has said, “would present him with driplets in dry weeks” (202). So although at the pool Pedro is not a rival and Rack is not perceived as one, they mark what Van will retrospectively see as the pattern of Ada’s “infidelities,” whether with the unlikely (Rack, or later, Vinelander) or the all too likely (Percy, the “cracker of country girls” (273), or handsome Johnny).

In the second part of I.32, Van strides angrily away from Pedro’s attentions to Ada at the pool, with Ada behind, eager to appease him, and Lucette, trotting behind her, anxious to follow the two of them as at the end of Ardis the First and to see the cousin she has barely seen since his return.

In order to build toward the tragedy of Lucette’s involvement in Van and Ada’s love, and their responsibility for embroiling her in it, Nabokov needs to establish the gradualness of her participation in the intimacies of the other two, and to show how it arises from the behaviour and attitudes of all three. The recent pool scene, with its charged erotic field, make the lightly clad threesome’s romp under the sealyham cedar natural, intimate and dangerous: as Van notes at the start of the next chapter but one: “That frolic under the sealyham cedar proved to be a mistake” (211). Again, the atmosphere of the central panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights seems close to that of the Veens’ garden of venery. Lucette, so curious about Van and Ada together four years ago, wants to tag along now, and to imitate her big sister, and be close to the cousin she adores, and to play “her part of the clinging, affectionately fussy lassy” (204-05). Lucette’s playful kiss on Van’s hand when he tells her “I’m not cross with you” leads to Ada’s kissing him on the mouth, to the “two girls . . . now kissing him alternatively, then kissing each other, then betting busy upon him again—Ada in perilous silence, Lucette with soft squeals of delight.” (205)

Immediately, Van refers to Les Enfants Maudits in terms of Chateaubriand: “I do not remember what Les Enfants Maudits did or said in Monparnasse’s novelette—they lived in Bryant’s château,”—a play on Chateau-briand—“I think, and it began with bats flying one by one out of a turret’s oeil-de-boeuf into the sunset, but these children (whom the novelettist did not really know—a delicious point) might also have been filmed rather entertainingly” (205). Chateaubriand’s René has already been associated with the film adaptation (“Renny, or what’s his name, René,” 201), in close conjunction with Ada’s predicament, but as I have suggested elsewhere, the Chateaubriand allusions that seem to playfully highlight the brother-sister love in Chateaubriand, and therefore to focus on Van and Ada, actually indicate much more centrally the involvement of Lucette in their love (see Boyd 2001: 125-28 and I.17 Afternote).

Nabokov makes the escalating scene convincing and risky:

Lucette’s dewy little contributions augmented rather than dampened Van’s invariable reaction to the only and main girl’s lightest touch, actual or imagined. Ada, her silky mane sweeping over his nipples and navel, seemed to enjoy doing everything to jolt my present pencil and make, in that ridiculously remote past, her innocent little sister notice and register what Van could not control. The crushed flower was now being merrily crammed under the rubber belt of his black trunks by twenty tickly fingers. As an ornament it had not much value; as a game it was inept and dangerous. He shook off his pretty tormentors, and walked away on his hands, a black mask over his carnival nose. Just then, the governess, panting and shouting, arrived on the scene. “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il t’a fait, ton cousin?” she kept anxiously asking, as Lucette, shedding the same completely unwarranted tears that Ada had once shed, rushed into the mauve-winged arms. (205-06)

Ada, an indiscriminate and exuberant sensualist, happily arouses Van and Lucette in response to Van’s arousal. Van, with his weak capacity for self-denial, allows Lucette’s presence to augment his excitement, but breaks off to handwalk away, but only thereby to flip his erect penis closer to eye level.

In multiple ways the scene anticipates the débauche à trios scene in Van’s Manhattan bedroom in 1892 (II.8), the last, and the most dangerous, time the three Veen children are together. Again, Ada will lead the way. Again Lucette, here in “willow-green shorts” (198), will wear her favorite color, “her willow green nightie” (417). “Lucette’s dewy little contributions” (205) in 1888 anticipate the trip “up the youngest Miss Veen’s pried-open legs. A dewdrop on russet moss” (419) in 1892. Again Lucette will rush away in distress. Van had noted Ada at the 1888 poolside scene as smelling of “damp cotton, axillary tufts, and nenuphars, like mad Ophelia” (199), but Lucette’s “willow-green” attire in the same scene and her ultimate suicide by drowning link her much more meaningfully with Ophelia.

The pool with which I.32 begins also prefigures Lucette’s last day with Van. Twelve-year-old Lucette’s kisses and touches under the sealyham cedar in 1888 add to Van’s arousal. By the side of the pool on the Tobakoff, indifferent to the advances of the Titianesque Titaness in a lamé loincloth, but lying beside the twenty-five-year-old Lucette, Van, “[j]oylessly, . . . felt the stout snake of desire weightily unwind” (478). The Spanish elements in the Ardis pool—designed by the Andalusian architect Alonso, enjoyed by the distressingly good-looking Pedro—anticipate the movie Don Juan’s Last Fling (another misadapted classic), in which Ada as the gitanilla (489), or as Van calls her, “Spanish orange-tip” (500-01), destroys or redirects the arousal that the by-now-desperate Lucette has built up in Van.

The comedy of Van’s misplaced jealousy by the pool and of Ada’s and Lucette’s misplaced hands under the sealyham cedar again anticipate the separate tragedies ahead: Van’s discoveries of those who should really arouse his agonies of jealousy, and Lucette’s recognition of the hopelessness even of her ability to arouse Van, since Ada can always displace her from his thoughts.

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