Part One, Chapter 37
Like the preceding chapter, Pt. 1 Ch. 37 continues to prepare for the revelation to Van that Percy de Prey (who, by the time Van hears this, has left to serve in the Crimean War) has been Ada’s lover. I.37 also prepares for the encounter in the following chapter, I.38, of Van and Ada with their parents, Marina and Demon, for the one time in the novel after the children have become lovers. Provoked by Ada’s behavior, Van’s suspicions of her here grow darker, although he can still find no clear target for his jealous misgivings.
The dull rainy day sets Van’s mood. Matching the mood, Ada’s absence from him at Ardis allows space to reintroduce the theme of Van’s career, which surfaces whenever Ada drops out of his life. Here, he reads Rattner on Terra. Although at Chose the previous year he began a dissertation on Terra, reading the “difficult and depressing” (230) Rattner on Terra now offers poor compensation for Ada’s absence, just as, after Van’s furious departure from Ardis when he learns of Ada’s infidelities, he composes Letters from Terra, rather than resuming his dissertation, in a way that displaces his anger at Ada but offers a meager palliative for losing her.
Ada’s careers without Van, too, are perhaps evoked here: in the reference to Dr. Krolik, with whom she begins her serious biological work, and in the focus on the theater, from Mlle Larivière and Lucette reading Bérénice, to Marina recalling episodes of her theatrical past and now playing the stage mother, to Van citing Chekhov’s Tuzenbakh in response to Ada’s bad acting in her attempt to deceive him.
Tension mounts in an obscure way through the chapter: the danger that Ada may be pregnant; the danger that Mlle Larivière may have seen Van kissing in corners with Ada—a danger quickly swatted aside when we and Van hear she had Lucette in mind, not Ada; and the new tension that mounts at the end of the chapter, in Van’s and Ada’s conversation and Van’s rankling narration, just as the tension about Ada’s delayed period is dispelled.
I.37 prepares especially for the Percy de Prey theme. The rain, and Ada’s “unfashionable belted mackintosh” (230), recall Cordula de Prey’s “‘garbotosh’ (belted mackintosh)” (165) on Van’s rainy visit to Ada at Brownhill, and Van’s jealous fury—misplaced then—at another de Prey, rather than the de Prey he knows from his own boarding school, Cordula’s cousin, Percy.
Ada, ostensibly Van’s cousin, now visits, or says she is visiting, Dr. Krolik’s cousin, Dr. Seitz. In a further expansion of the record of Ada’s infidelity, Krolik too will prove to have been a lover of Ada’s, perhaps in the summer of 1886 (cf. 219, 404).
I.37 introduces the theme of the Crimean War. Van, we discover, has half-thought of enlisting to join the allies fighting with Turkey against Russia in the Crimean War (231-32). Ada will have seen the headlines about the war; indeed maybe it was she who left “the Ladore newspaper spread-eagled on the library table” (231) and dashed off to see Percy, knowing that he planned to enlist (as Demon announces in I.38 that Percy has done, 244-45); by the time she tells Van of her affair with him, she can disclose that Percy has left “for some Greek or Turkish port . . . to do everything to get killed” (296).
Van begins I.37 “reading Rattner on Terra” (230) and ends the chapter uttering Tuzenbakh’s last words before he is killed in a duel. These details prefigure, although neither Van nor we can yet know this, more of Van’s rivalry with Percy: after Van and drunken Percy’s fight at Ada’s birthday picnic, in effect over Ada, Van begins the next chapter, I.40, “reading Antiterrenus on Rattner” (283), when a message comes from Percy that he will be happy to duel him the next morning at Tourbière Lane. Not yet knowing of Ada’s infidelity, he declines.
In I.37 after bringing Van a kerosene lamp and an invitation from Marina, Bout wipes the dust off Crimea on the library globe and complains that Blanche deserves to be sent back to Tourbière. At this point Van lapses into a dream that mingles Bout, Blanche, and Marina, and Tourbière and the Crimea. In part, the dream’s context and details recall the previous chapter, and Blanche bringing in a kerosene lamp during a Scrabble game the children play, and the proleptic hints of Blanche’s later disclosure to Van about Ada’s infidelities, which seem as if encoded in the “Torfyanaya . . . Tourbière” of the children’s last Scrabble game (see I.36, Afternote). Just as the recent reality (Bout’s fingering the dust on the globe) blends into his dream (Blanche wiping Crimea clean), so (to repeat the note at 231.23-28) Blanche’s real activity (her opening of the toolroom door) will mingle with Van’s nightmare (“recognized the slight creak (that had been a scream in his confused nightmare),” 292) just before she discloses Ada’s infidelity to Van, on his and her last night at Ardis.
Van’s dream here indicates in a new way where the danger lies, although neither he nor we can yet read the warning. His dream transforms Bout’s complaint that Blanche should be sent back to her native village into the image of Blanche coming “in to ask him to complain to Marina that Mlle Ada had again refused to give her a lift to ‘Beer Tower’” (231). This oneirically anticipates Blanche’s last night at Ardis, and her disclosing to Van, because she is about to leave and return to her village, the fact of Ada’s infidelity, and Van’s giving her a lift there on his flight from Ardis later that morning (I.41).
In his dream Van’s mind deforms Bout’s finger on the dusty globe: “he still clearly saw Blanche wiping Crimea clean with one of Ada’s lost handkerchiefs” (231). Here the theme of Ada’s infidelities takes another twist. The lost handkerchief recalls a lost garter, rediscovered on the islet in the Ladore River where she has apparently had a tryst with Rack (218). On his visit in the next chapter, Demon sees a handkerchief left on the piano (243) and when he sees Ada’s handkerchief in her bosom a little later deduces that the handkerchief on the piano too had been hers and that, therefore, she dreams of becoming a pianist. She blushes at his poor guess, because, as Van points out, she can’t play a note and, presumably, because she left her handkerchief at the piano while talking with piano teacher Rack (246). And when Blanche begins to disclose Ada’s infidelities, in I.41, Van’s question “When and how had it started?” (293) makes her report first not on Percy as she had intended but on Rack—only for Van to stop her before she can take the story as far as Percy’s arrival on the scene.
On Ada’s return from Kaluga, the theme of smoking begins, with Ada proffering reasons for her smelling of tobacco, and Van offering an alternative: “or else because (and this she did not say) her unknown lover was a heavy smoker, his open red mouth full of rolling blue fog” (234). The theme of Turkish tobacco—associated with Percy and his departure to fight on behalf of the Turks—will emerge more distinctly in I.38.
I.37 concludes with Van’s echo of Tuzenbakh as he heads off to his fatal duel. That allusion foreshadows Van’s hand-to-hand combat with Percy at Ada’s birthday picnic in I.39, Percy’s near-challenge to a duel in I.40, Van’s thoughts of challenging Philip Rack (before he has heard of Percy as Ada’s lover) in I.41 (294), and the irrelevant duel his raging jealousy incites him to in I.42. But the lines echoing Tuzenbakh heading for his duel also anticipate still another facet of Ada’s infidelity: her “rather sad little affair with Johnny” (380) Starling, a very incidental actor in her run of Four Sisters: “All poor Starling had to do in the play was to hollo off stage from a rowboat on the Kama River to give the signal for my fiancé”—that is, Tuzenbakh—“to come to the dueling ground” (430).
When Van responds to Marina’s invitation to chat, he hears her report Mlle Larivière’s anxiety about “cousinage-dangereux-voisinage” and her warning “qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins”(232),” he thinks the governess and his “aunt” are talking about him and Ada, not him and Lucette. That itself anticipates in another key Blanche’s disclosure about Ada’s infidelities. When he asks Blanche to tell him all, he expects, as we do, that she will report on Ada and Percy, but she starts with Ada and Rack. He stops her and prepares to flee Ardis, but when Ada notices him in town clothes and asks why, he informs her: “I have just learned qu’on vous culbute behind every hedge. Where can I find your tumbler?” (296). She replies in terms of Percy, assuming that Van has referred to her current relationship and not her past one with Rack, in a misidentification much less comic than Van’s supposition that Mlle Larivière and Marina have him and Ada in mind rather than him and Lucette. Note the French informant in both cases (Larivière, Blanche), quoted by another (Marina, Van) in echoing phrases: “qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins”(232) and “qu’on vous culbute behind every hedge” (296).
Marina’s misplaced concern about Van and Lucette would of course be much fiercer if she thought Van was kissing not his half-sister Lucette but Ada, his full sister. Her concern prepares for Demon’s visit in I.38, and the family awkwardnesses arising from the unacknowledged relationships between the four dinner-table companions, Marina, Demon, Van and Ada. Her anxiety also prepares in a more general way for Demon’s discovery, early in 1893, that Van and Ada have actually become lovers, and his implacable edict that they must separate. More pointedly, the pattern at the end of I.37, Marina’s theatrical reminiscences and Van’s reference to Tuzenbakh leaving for his duel, which leads in to Demon’s visit in I.38, will recur in II.9 and II.10. In II.9 Ada’s theatrical reminiscences to Van in their New York apartment (which irk Van almost as much as his mother’s similar recollections), will also end with a reference to Tuzenbakh being called to his duel, which then leads in to the surprise visit by Demon in II.10, his discovery that his children are lovers, and his banning them from all further fraternization.
Marina’s volubility in I.37 comically refreshes and deepens her characterization. Van’s lack of interest in his mother and her theatrical reminiscences and behavior (“How very amusing” is his unamused comment, 233), prepares for the contrast in I.38 between his contempt for his “dummy-mummy,” as he will call her (583), and his adoration for Demon, whose volubility will easily outdo Marina’s.
Van’s assumption that Mlle Larivière’s warning “qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins”(232) refers to him and Ada throws him into alarm that quickly flips into relief when he learns that the governess had only Lucette in mind. That seems to us, as to Van, more proof of Mlle Larivière’s ridiculous inability to observe the world around her, despite her being a writer, and even despite her reflecting Ardis’s goings-on, or at least her confused sense of them, in her Les Enfants Maudits.
But in fact in retrospect we can see that Van has been just as unobservant. He has failed to see or consider that “those soft games” (232) with Lucette that her governess has observed, and that Ada suggested as a ploy to confuse Lucette in case she witnessed Van’s intimacies with Ada (213-14), have confused his little sister emotionally. Not for the first time, Lucette’s absence within a chapter carries its own weight of significance. She does not appear in person (Van merely hears her “completely expressionless little voice,” 231) and she rates a mention only to be dismissed as absurdly irrelevant. But that very dismissal of attention from Lucette, despite her involvement in Van and Ada’s intimate games, will lead to disastrous consequences. Her whole sexual development will be thrown off course, and she will feel driven either to succeed in seducing Van or to commit suicide if she fails. Although attention is on her here only for a moment before she is dismissed as comically beside the mark, a few details in the chapter point ahead to her fate. Van in black clothes on yellow cushions in the library bay recalls the black-and-yellow combination that Aqua wore when she committed suicide (28), and that Lucette will in turn wear when she plunges into the aqua (492), in honor of the black divan and its yellow cushions where she has seen Van and Ada make love from the closet where they have locked her up (373).
Van “reading Rattner on Terra” here (230) resurfaces for Lucette when she visits Van at Kingston University. He warns her he has to see Rattner, now his departmental colleague, at six-thirty, to which Lucette responds: “‘Rattner on Terra!’ ejaculated Lucette. ‘Van is reading Rattner on Terra. Pet must never, never disturb him and me when we are reading Rattner!’” Van immediately reacts to Lucette’s mimicry of Ada: “I implore, my dear, no impersonations. Let us not transform a pleasant reunion into mutual torture” (370). In I.37, saturated with acting and references to acting (Mlle Larivière, Lucette, Marina (and, via her, Kachalov and Stanislavsky), Van playing Tuzenbakh, and Ada very badly enacting indignation and then reassurance), Lucette features only as “a completely expressionless little voice” (231) trying to recite Racine. But four years later, at Kingston, she has caught up to Ada in many ways, in maturity, looks, and intelligence, and in her determined drive to have Van. She has even overtaken her sister as an actress, in the field where Ada now wants so much to shine. But to no avail, Lucette recognizes: “‘I knew it was hopeless,’ she said, looking away. ‘I did my best. I imitated all her shtuchki (little stunts). I’m a better actress than she but that’s not enough, I know’” (386). She almost wins Van, aboard the Tobakoff, only for to Ada step into the picture, as an actress in Don Juan’s Last Fling, and dispel instantly the desire Lucette has at last stoked in Van. Spurned one last time, Lucette feels she has no choice but to dress herself in black and yellow and fling herself into the dark waters of death. What in I.37 seems Mlle Larivière’s comic failure to observe Van and Ada together, in other words, proves to be a tragically percipient observation of the dangerous effects, even in 1888, of the “soft games” in which Van thoughtlessly embroils Lucette.
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