Part One, Chapter 38
As the one family reunion in Ada . . . : A Family Chronicle, Part I Chapter 38 is in a sense the scène à faire, the obligatory scene in a story of a given type, and marked out in importance here by its sheer length. In another sense, I.1 was the scène à faire, the scene in a story of incestuous love where the lovers discover their true relationship and therefore that their love amounts to incest. But just as that scene overturned the convention by having the lovers discover themselves brother and sister, only to resume their lovemaking, quite unconcerned, so this dinner scene challenges the notion of the scène à faire and the convention of determinism. The family meets, the secrets and who has access to them remain as before, and Van and Ada once again end the scene by resuming their lovemaking.
Nabokov was always fiercely anti-deterministic. Deploring the relentlessly inescapable causal chains that he thought vitiated drama and especially tragedy, he wrote in “The Tragedy of Tragedy” that in plays any promises of future developments, “being links in the iron chain of tragic causation, are inevitably kept. The so-called scène à faire, the obligatory scene, is not, as most critics seem to think, one scene in the play—it is really every next scene in the play” (MUSSR 335). The dinner scene, the family reunion, places the four core Veens together for what could be a climax, but Nabokov takes care that it leads nowhere: no disclosure occurs, no argument erupts, no inevitable consequence ensues. Yet despite the protracted meal, not a moment is wasted.
The scene lingers over fine (if not overfine) food and drink. Nabokov in an interview commented of himself and his wife: "We do not attach too much importance to food or wine" (interview with James Salter, “An Old Magician Named Nabokov Writes and Lives in Splendid Exile,” People, 17 March 1975, 64). Nevertheless he felt food, drink and mealtime rituals and talk, like any other part of the natural and social world, invaluable for a storyteller to observe and reimagine in his own terms, and within the uniquely tinted terms of a particular work.
Lara Delage-Toriel notes that in the context of the rest of Nabokov’s work, “Ada is remarkable for the number of meals it features, including breakfasts (I.12, I.20, I.31, II.6, II.10), lunches (I.10, II.7, III.3, III.5), dinners (I.6, I.10, I.38, III.8), evening tea (I.7), high tea (I.14), and birthday picnics (I.13, I.39). Perhaps the most interesting are the lunch in Part I, chapter 10 and the dinner in Part I, chapter 38, both elaborate scenes in which Nabokov highlights the theatrical quality of the meal as social, and more particularly, family ritual” (paper at Nabokov Upside Down conference, University of Auckland, January 2012, forthcoming in Nabokov Upside Down, ed. Brian Boyd and Marijeta Bozovic).
Though it does much else, Ada also transplants to America and preserves there some of Nabokov’s Russian past. How much so can be seen in the author’s response to Andrew Field’s 1970 questions about family meals in his Russian youth: “Vodka appeared only on the hors-d’oeuvres sidetable, and hors-d’oeuvres appeared only when there were guests. There was always claret and port wine on the dining table, and a furtive boy would find some way to take a forbidden sip of one or the other. A typical dinner menu would start with a Russian soup or a French potage, invariably accompanied by hot pirozhki, fish would follow (trout, sole or zander), the meat course might consist of beef steak or veal, or chicken or game (such as hazel-hen or duck) and then there would be icecream or a soufflet or stewed fruit. My father (a non-smoker but a great lover of good wine) frowned on my smoking and drinking even at fifteen, but my mother was more lenient. See ADA, ch. 38 for other gastronomic items shared by Ardis and Vyra” (unpublished interview with Andrew Field, 6 June 1970). I.38 has “variously flavored vodochki” (249) on a tray beside the hors-d’oeuvres table, a Russian soup, shchi, with pirozhki, zander (here, “sander (sudak),” 254), hazel-hen, and, the only slight variation from the routine of his personal past, profiteroles for dessert.
Although Ada at times pays homage to Nabokov’s youth, it often does so through the perverse prism of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (see many previous discussions in AdaOnline and in Boyd 2011, ch. 25). If Ada is “a novel about appetite, mostly sexual, but also literal,” to cite the forenote above, so is Bosch’s Garden, from the fatal apple in the paradisal panel to the lush berries and cherries in the earthly one, to the foul ingestion and excretion in the hell panel. In Bosch’s earthly panel, eating parallels and accompanies sex. At Ardis, where Ada has exhibited an insatiable literal as well as sexual appetite, the fare becomes more diverse than in Bosch: the lingonberries come with hazel hen, and arrive only after the sumptuous hors-d’oeuvres (caviar, boletes, chaudfroids, foie gras,truffles, salmon, ham) and a soup-and-pirozhki and then a fish course. The food also becomes even more sexual than in Bosch, in the asparagus that Demon and Ada distort “their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height”; they hold “the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers” (259) that matches the emphatic repetitions of poses in Bosch’s central panel. But these voluptuous “heavenly” earthly pleasures easily tip or flow, Bosch-like, into the hellish: Veen father and daughter hold the asparagus shafts “with an identical bunching of the fingers, not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which . . . so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians . . . on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves” (259). More of that later.
I.38’s dinner scene is part remembered, and realistic (the meals of an old Russian aristocratic home), part reflected through art, and fantastic (the Boschean indulgence and ambivalence), and part literary homage and reworking. Many writers have rendered dinners and feasts, from Homer and Petronius through Rabelais and Dickens, but none has done so at more length and more often than Proust.
J.E. Rivers observes that the chapter’s explicit allusion to Proust’s After-effect (254) “takes on a special resonance when we realize that this dinner at Ardis is filled with other, more significant kinds of Proustian after-effects. One of the most important of these is the description of the reaction of Demon and Marina when they meet again many years after their love has died. Their meeting poses, in miniature, the essential question of Ada, which is also the essential question of A la recherche: How can the destructive action of time be halted or reversed?” (“Proust, Nabokov, and Ada,” in Phyllis A. Roth, ed., Critical Essays on Vladimir Nabokov, Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984, 134-57, p. 146). Marijeta Bozovic, examining intertextuality in Nabokov, cites a three-page long passage from the dinner scene to indicate the “ways that Nabokov manipulates Proust’s presence in his text. Nabokov borrows his precursor’s style, embellishes and expands on it, and uses it to enchant and snare his reader” (From Onegin to Ada: Nabokov’s Canon, forthcoming, Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2014).
As noted in the Forenote, I.38 provides a more leisurely revisiting of the themes and facts of the Demonically swift exposition in Ada’s de facto Prologue, Pt. I Chs. 1-3. That too, has its Proustian side, because Nabokov has borrowed the Proustian pattern of love in an older generation (Swan and Odette) which prefigures the main love story (the narrator and Albertine) when he makes Demon and Marina’s passion prefigure that of Van and Ada (see Afternote to I.2). Nabokov also adds the considerable complication of incest, of course. In the showpiece of I.38, an extended dinner uniting just the two sets of lovers, a scene quite without precedent in Proust, incest makes the conjunction of the two sets of lovers hyper-Proustian in its entanglements, concealments and undercurrents: one set of lovers from an affair long ended and supposed not known to the other set, the other set still in the complicated throes of their jealousy-troubled passion and knowing that they must at all cost keep it hidden from their parents.
Even in setting up the scene so that Demon, Marina, Van and Ada can all dine just à quatre at Ardis, Nabokov signals the chapter’s tight links with Ada’s Prologue. Dan intends to bring a lawyer from Kaluga to Ardis for a discussion with Demon about selling “some ‘blue’ (peat-bog) land which belonged to both cousins,” but “As usually happened with Dan’s most carefully worked-out plans, something misfired, the lawyer could not promise to come till late in the evening, and just before Demon arrived, his cousin aerogrammed a message asking Marina to ‘dine Demon’ without waiting for Dan and Miller” (236: italics added). That echoes Pt. 1 Ch. 1, where we learn of Ardis, Dan’s “magnificent manor near Ladore” and of “another estate he had . . . near Luga, comprising, and practically consisting of, that large, oddly rectangular though quite natural body of water which a perch he had once clocked took half an hour to cross diagonally and which he owned jointly with his cousin, a great fisherman in his youth” (5). As previously noted (Afternote to I.1), that strange sentence flow wrily reflects Demon’s fishing in Dan’s marital waters, landing his Marina; and it also echoes the next paragraph, which shows Dan setting off on “a triple trip round the globe” to assuage his feelings after Marina rejects his marriage proposal, only for this trip, like his later carefully-worked out plan to meet Demon at Ardis, to be disrupted, in this case with an “aerocable from Marina . . . telling him she would marry him upon his return to America” (5: italics added) but not telling him the reason: that she is pregnant by Demon, now married to Aqua.
The next sentence in Pt. 1 Ch. 1 begins Van and Ada’s discovery in Ardis’s attic that they are full brother and sister, the children of Demon and Marina; their rapidity of thought and swiftness of deduction in that scene will be matched by Demon’s rapidity of thought and pride (if not success) in deduction on his visit to Ardis in I.38, as if in proof of his paternity. And just as after discovering their true relationship to Demon and Marina, the children in the attic causally plan to resume love-making at once, right there, so in I.38 after Demon leaves they casually agree to resume love-making at once, right where they are (both are naked in the attic; Ada has been pantyless during the dinner, as Van’s probing hand discovers once Demon drives off). As if to highlight the connection, Ada’s noting in the attic that they “still have an hour before tea” segues into a passage where Van discloses that “In later years he had never been able to reread Proust . . . without a roll-wave of surfeit and a rasp of gravelly heartburn” (9), while in the dinner scene Marina has decided that to accompany the meat course there will be “that special asparagus . . . which does not produce Proust’s After-effect, as the cookbooks say” (254)
In Proust, dinners and parties disclose characters, relationships, and modes of interaction. So too here. In the grand scheme of Ada Nabokov needs to make plausible Demon’s “last judgment” on Van and Ada’s relationship in Pt. II Chs. 10-11, his expelling his incestuous children, seemingly forever, from the paradise of their love for each other. (Demon comes to Manhattan to tell Van about Dan’s death—which his drug-speeded brain describes in terms of Bosch’s Last Judgment, a gross detail from which has haunted Dan for some time before his death—only to find his son and daughter are lovers, and then to issue his final judgment on their affair.) Nabokov needs therefore to establish the character of Demon, little seen after the Prologue, since Van’s memoir of his love for Ada naturally focuses on his own time at Ardis, where Demon has never been during Van’s summer stays. In order to make plausible Van and Ada’s obeying Demon’s decree, Nabokov also needs to establish the emotional relationship between Demon and Van—so far glimpsed only fleetingly together, given the narrative focus on Ardis—and between Demon and Ada, never previously seen together by Van apart from one blurry childhood memory. The chapter therefore begins with Van greeting and talking to Demon as his father downs his “‘prebrandial’ brandy” (238), before Ada joins them, and ends with Van and Ada discussing together Demon and the awkward tone of the dinner.
Elsewhere in the novel Van and Demon meet intermittently, affording glimpses of a much more sustained relationship between father and son. Both being male, they share a great deal. Van has inherited from his father, by nature or nurture, a passionately romantic side (directed toward two Veen women, Marina and Ada) and a fiercely jealous side (their jealousy of these women leads to a duel for both), a taste for affairs (with two de Prey women, for instance) and whores and the Villa Venus Club; a gift for rapid thought and speech and retentive memory; a flair for gambling, fencing, shooting, wrestling, and dueling. Iridescent-winged “Raven” Veen becomes the gravity-defying black-cloaked Van-as-Mascodagama.
But I.38, uniquely, shows father and son in sustained intimate interaction. Eagerly anticipating Demon’s visit to Ardis, Van voices the intensity of his admiration for his father, while seeing his faults: despite “a tinge of repulsion (the same repulsion he felt in regard to his own immorality)” and his full knowledge of his father’s excessive drink, women, and gambling, he vouches that “the older he grew the more firmly he felt that he would give his life for his father, at a moment’s notice, with pride and pleasure, in any circumstance imaginable” (237). The second section of the chapter, their meeting, reveals Van’s sense of kinship with Demon’s hyper and retentive mind, and their shared past and present: the same high school, the same college, the same tailor, a host of overlapping memories and attitudes and familiar family quips, even in the smallest things (like their amusement at American modes and mores: “D’you want to go to the ‘bathroom’?”; “God save their poor little American tastebuds,” 238).
Unlike Van and his father, Ada and Demon interact together on stage only in this chapter. (Apart from Ada’s blurted “Bozhe moy!” when, in her peignoir, she sees Demon in the Manhattan apartment she shares with Van, before “darting back into the dusk of the bedroom” (438), we do not see father and daughter together even there, in their most serious confrontation.) Nabokov has to make the most of Demon and Ada together at Ardis as Van watches closely, for the first time, the two people he loves most.
In planning Ada Nabokov has posed himself a tricky problem that he perhaps solves less than perfectly: how to make Demon both a demon throughout, a monster of irresponsibility, on the one hand, and in II.10-11 the stern godlike Father invoking what is proper as he expels his children from their private paradise of love. With his passion for ever-younger women already in train, lecherous Demon on arriving at Ardis eyes up Blanche, and has to suppress the urge to plunge his hands down her bosom (in this showing how much he has passed on to Van, who had lusted after Blanche on his first night and morning at Ardis). Compulsive womanizer that he is, Demon also leers at the almost sixteen-year-old Ada, enveloping her, as soon as she enters, “with one arm, holding his glass in the other hand, kissing the girl in the neck, in the hair, burrowing in her sweetness with more than an uncle’s fervor” (245) not just because he is more than her uncle, but because he is an incorrigible lecher. “The last time I enjoyed you” are his first words to her (245). Here, in the third section of the chapter, as Ada arrives to join “cousin” and “uncle,” we see Demon’s delight and pride in his daughter, and her rapport with him: their both knowing and being able to recite Coppée, for instance. His pride in her translation of Coppée, nevertheless, finds a very Demonian expression: “He pulled the girl to him . . . and glued himself with thick moist lips to her hot red ear through the rich black strands” (247). After the “perfunctory enthusiasm” of his cry “Marina!” as his former mistress enters, he confides to Ada’s mother at once, with much more feeling, “She’s a jeune fille fatale, a pale, heart-breaking beauty” (248).
Yet despite the Demonically unsavory erotic tinge to his appreciation of the daughter he cannot acknowledge, Demon also presumes to claim an intimacy “more than an uncle’s” (“what would my silent love like for her birthday?,” 257) and a right to advise her, before her mother arrives (“Now to business, my darling. I accept . . . I tolerate . . . I abhor and reject . . . ,” 245; “That’s also provincial. You should . . . , ” 246; “Van’s quite right to look after your morals,” 260). And while he does leer at Ada, he never lusts after her. Instead, snobbish socialite that he is, he gets a charge from imagining her well married to someone of the right set. The thought that the son of Countess Praskovia de Prey may be involved with Ada excites him (242), and despite Van’s attempt to deny anything between Ada and Percy, Demon returns to the possibility again, twice invoking Coppée’s Irène de Grandfief and her fiancé headed for war (246, 257). Later Demon will feel the same snobbish excitement and respect for social convention at the interest shown in Ada by Andrey Vinelander or in Cordula by someone from Boston’s élite Backbay area (“I remember Ada’s fiancé telling me—he and young Tobak worked for a while in the same Phoenix bank. Of course. Splendid broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond chap. Backbay Tobakovich!” 436).
After Demon’s departure, Ada tells Van that although she too of course noticed there was something off-key about the whole dinner, “yet I adore him. I think he’s quite crazy, and with no place or occupation in life, and far from happy, and philosophically irresponsible—and there is absolutely nobody like him” (263). But the most vivid, memorable and revealing image of Ada’s special relationship with her father occurs in the strangest paragraph in the chapter, showing them both eating asparagus stalks as Van watches on, entranced. Ada’s voluptuary nature, and its debt to Demon, could not be clearer, even if the implications—via the careening, recondite, disturbing references in the rest of the paragraph to religious schism and persection, slavery, cannibalism and khans—could hardly be, on first glance, more opaque. We will return to it later.
Apart from deploying Demon’s visit for dinner in order to define character and relationships, Nabokov also shows a keen interest here in the sheer flow of conversation, on an occasion when he needs to have four key characters interacting. He famously thought little of fiction that relied heavily on dialogue, but Ada has more dialogue than any of his other novels, and the dinner scene of I.38 lasts longer than any other stretch of talk in his fiction. The dialogue, as always in Nabokov’s fiction, remains interspersed with narration that records present events, past memories and images and ideas unlimited to any specific moment. But despite the high stylization of the scene, a sumptuousness of talk to match the sumptuousness of the fare, Nabokov has acutely observed, and relishes rendering, the unpredictable flow of conversation, as it picks up on shared knowledge or introduces new gossip, lingers over some subjects and shifts rapidly through others, picks up dropped threads, interlards probes, disclosures and concealments, mixes “family quips and bright banalities” (250), familiar routines and unexpected turns. I suspect that Nabokov deliberately tried to propose alternative ways of rendering the course of conversation, to challenge Proust’s handling of dialogue even while he paid homage to it.
Proust of course famously interleaves present and past, immediate experience and memory. So too does Nabokov, and in this chapter in richly Proustian ways. Bozovic notes that “Marina, Demon, and their two biological children dine together, but deceits run between them like fault lines” (Bozovic, forthcoming). While Proust often focuses on the recurrent, as does much of Ada, especially in Part I, this dinner shared just by Van and Ada and their parents in I.38 is a one-off occurrence. There is not therefore the rich overlay of patterns within Van and Ada’s overlapping lives at Ardis that has become so familiar in Ardis the Second and that will be present with more force than ever in the next chapter, when Ada’s sixteenth birthday picnic recalls and contrasts with her twelfth. In its place in the dinner scene is another overlay of patterns of the past, but from different eras, and with the shared and the unshared apportioned differently: Van’s meeting his father after separations, as at Riverlane, for instance, or Demon’s favorite dishes, as reconstituted by Marina. The “fault lines” Bozovic refers to reflect that Van and Ada have so much to hide, that patterns of inheritance between Demon and Ada cannot quite be acknowledged, that Marina has forgotten so much (or so Van thinks) of her past with Demon, and that Demon, who can remember (“with that special concussion of instant detail that also plagued his children,” 239), has no wish to do so, no sense whatever of any emotional connection to the woman he once loved so passionately.
Bozovic comments that “Demon experiences ‘that complete collapse of the past,’ when the ‘human part of one’s affection’ for an old lover vanishes with ‘the dust of the inhuman passion.’ How similarly Marcel mourns the collapse of his memories, his past selves, and the vanished house of Combray; how exaggeratedly Proustian too is Demon’s ardor—an inhuman or inhumane passion” (Bozovic, forthcoming). Proust’s narrator eavesdrops on others with extraordinary ease, but Van almost seems to eavesdrop on—or project onto, or extrapolate from speech or perception into—memories in the minds of the father he adores and the mother he recoils from. As he does so, he emphasizes and laments the meagerness of Marina’s memories and Demon’s inner remoteness from his past with Marina and almost jitterily excitable attention to the present and to Ada—or as Van interprets it for him, “the logical impossibility to relate the dubious reality of [Marina in] the present to the unquestionable one of remembrance” (251).
I.38 offers an implicit contrast: on the one hand Van and Ada’s sharing their rich memories of their past from the moment they begin to accumulate, even within Ardis the First, and into Ardis the Second, and all the way unto their deaths, as they revisit together and recount their shared past; on the other Marina’s threadbare and stereotyped memories and Demon’s vivid memories that he no longer wants to share even with his present self, let alone with the virtual stranger sitting at the opposite end of the table. Just as the jealousy that destroyed Demon and Marina’s passionate love in the Prologue threatens to be repeated, over the next few chapters, when rivals disrupt Van’s love for Ada, Demon’s sense of the “complete collapse of the past” (251) in I.38 almost prefigures the sense of physical and emotional distance from Ada that Van intends to maintain after he flees from her infidelities and Ardis.
In a novel as tightly interlinked as Ada, a chapter as long as I.38 has many ties with other parts of the book. Most immediate is the looming threat of Percy de Prey. If I.38 pointedly leads nowherein plot terms, it nevertheless points to a painful disclosure that cannot be withheld for much longer.
Demon’s love of social (and sexual: “a woman I preyed upon years ago”) connectedness makes him eager to pass on that Countess de Prey “tells me her boy and Ada see a lot of each other, et cetera” (242). Van, for the moment confident, denies that there is any “et cetera, that’s out of the question,” but Demon reintroduces the theme when he cites Coppée’s “La Veillée” (246), with its heroine loyal to a man who has gone off to war (he knows from Praskovia that Percy has enlisted, 245-46), then returns to the poem again (257). In a discussion of a possible car for Van, the interleaving of a Silentium motorcycle, Demon’s reprise of lines supposedly from “La Veillée,” and a mention of the elegant car Praskovia de Prey has, for instance (257), anticipate the Silentium the besotted but unrequited Greg Erminin will bring to Ada’s picnic and the “steel-gray convertible” that uninvited but not unrequited Percy drives into the glade (270). Although Van has believed Ada’s denial of any relationship with Percy, he still harbors suspicions of her fidelity with an unknown other, and makes an intentional slip, calling the postprandial Albany cigarette that she takes from a box of Turkish cigarettes an Alibi, only for Ada to challenge him: “Please note, everybody, . . . how voulu that slip was! I like a smoke when I go mushrooming, but when I’m back, this horrid tease insists I smell of some romantic Turk or Albanian met in the woods” (260). But Percy de Prey also smokes Turkish cigarettes and, when Van confronts her with his knowledge of her infidelity, she declares that his rival has “left yesterday for some Greek or Turkish port” (296)—only for Van to disclose that the rival he had been informed about and was asking about had been Philip Rack, not Percy.
(This leads to the subject of Ada’s blushing embarrassment at being discovered to have left a handkerchief on the piano, which becomes part of Demon’s prurient-paternal probing of her love-life. She does lose handkerchiefs (231), and she has had an affair with Rack, and does not play the piano herself. Her response when Demon comments “there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre / Irène de Grandfief . . . “ (246) would, within Ada’s usual web of implications, seem to link Rack here to de Prey as another of Ada’s lovers—as indeed he has been. But the affair with Rack ended months before, and he has not been at Ardis for weeks, and the Ardis maids would not leave a handkerchief on a piano all that time. What do I not understand? Or has Nabokov made a slip?)
While Percy poses an almost immediate threat to Van’s happiness with Ada at Ardis, a much longer-term threat to their happiness together lies ahead: Demon’s ban, almost five years hence, on their seeing or communicating with each other, which will darken their lives for almost thirty years. At the start of I.38, meeting Van, Demon declares: “We waste life in separations! We are the fools of fate!” (239)—not yet knowing that he himself will cause Van and Ada to waste, as they can only see it, a long stretch of their life in separation (from 1893 to 1922, in effect).
Demon’s visit in I.38 prepares us for his later driving Van and Ada out of their paradise together, as we see his conventional attitudes to high-society marriages coexisting with his rakehell ways. After he leaves, Ada points out to Van what was so uncomfortable and false about the dinner: ““My love, my love, as if you don’t know! We’ll manage, perhaps, to wear our masks always, till dee do us part, but we shall never be able to marry—while they’re both alive. We simply can’t swing it, because he’s more conventional in his own way than even the law and the social lice” (263-64). “Till dee do us part” contains an irony Ada cannot foresee: her euphemism to avoid “death” can stand for both Demon, who does part them, and for death, or Dan’s death, since it is to announce Dan’s death that Demon will call on Van in Manhattan, only to find him living with Ada.
In I.38 a curious double report that Demon makes on meeting Dan in Manhattan, first to Van, then to Marina, itself anticipates Dan’s death and Demon’s report on it to Van in Manhattan, and therefore his discovery that his children are lovers. To Van, Demon says, after another mouthful of cognac, that Dan should not drink so much gin. He adds: “I met him in town recently, near Mad Avenue, saw him walking towards me quite normally, but then as he caught sight of me, a block away, the clockwork began slowing down and he stopped—oh, helplessly! before he reached me. That’s hardly normal” (243). To Marina he volunteers: ““I was telling Van a moment ago . . . about your husband. My dear, he overdoes the juniper vodka stuff, he’s getting, in fact, a mite fuzzy and odd. The other day I chanced to walk through Pat Lane on the Fourth Avenue side, and there he was coming, at quite a spin, in his horrid town car, that primordial petrol two-seater he’s got, with the tiller. Well, he saw me, from quite a distance, and waved, and the whole contraption began to shake down, and finally stopped half a block away, and there he sat trying to budge it with little jerks of his haunches, you know, like a child who can’t get his tricycle unstuck, and as I walked up to him I had the definite impression that it was his mechanism that had stalled, not the Hardpan’s” (255-56). The paragraph concludes with Van noting that Demon does not mention to Marina the fake Correggios Dan had recently bought, while Marina refrains from telling Demon about the young hospital nurse, Bess, Dan has “been monkeying with” (256).
All these details anticipate II.10, where Demon calls on Van to tell him Dan has died. Dan had developed shortly before his death a passion “for the paintings, and faked paintings, associated with the name of Hieronymus Bosch” (433). As Demon tells Van when he finds him, “According to Bess (which is ‘fiend’ in Russian), Dan’s buxom but otherwise disgusting nurse . . . he had been complaining for some time, even before Ada’s sudden departure, that a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent desired to straddle him and ride him to the torture house of eternity” (435): a detail from Bosch’s Last Judgment. In the curious doubled encounters with Dan that Demon reports in I.38, the incidents seem similar, the locations could be the same (on earth, Madison Avenue and Park Lane, along with Lexington Avenue, occupy the expected place of Fourth Avenue in midtown Manhattan and the upper East side), but in the first incident Dan is walking, in the second driving. The incidents seem oddly replayed in II.10. There Demon notices “—just as he was about to cross Alexis Avenue, an ancient but insignificant acquaintance, Mrs. Arfour, advancing towards him” (433). Here is a third variation on the New York thoroughfares between Third and Fifth Avenues (Antiterran “Alexis” for the actual Lexington here in II.10, like “Mad” for Madison and “Pat” for Park in I.38), and a match for Demon’s encounters with Dan’s stalling mechanism. Stopping to talk to Mrs Arfour, Demon could have learned from her where Van now lives in Manhattan. But unlike Dan, whose mechanism he reports almost stalled near this spot, Demon is propelled faster than ever by “a very exotic and potent pill to face the day’s ordeal” (433) and slips past Mrs Arfour. “But precisely in regard to such a contingency, Fate had prepared an alternate continuation. As Demon rushed (or, in terms of the pill, sauntered) by the Monaco, . . . it occurred to him that his son (whom he had been unable to ‘contact’) might still be living with dull little Cordula de Prey in the penthouse apartment of that fine building” (434). He ascends, finds Van, and fuelled by the pill, launches into the circumstantial account of Dan’s death, then an even more elaborate disquisition on Bosch, that keeps him there until Ada emerges in a pink peignoir and with a “Bozhe moy!” (“My God!,” 438) gives the game away. In I.38 Demon’s gossip about encountering Dan’s mechanism stalling anticipates both Dan’s death, five years later, and his own anything-but-stalled mechanism reporting on Dan’s death with such volubility that Ada will emerge, disclose to him that she and Van are living as lovers, and precipitate his last judgment on them, decreeing they must part.
Even more pointed as forewarnings of Demon’s ban on Van and Ada’s affair lurk in what we can later discern as signs of blackmail. They begin with the playful references to Kim Beauharnais’s photographing the family group at the dinner table from out in the garden. Even if he is, as Marina says, “a regular snap-shooting fiend,” he seems to her “otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy” (255), but his indefatigable snapshots around Ardis will later prove the basis of his attempted blackmail. At the dinner scene, a flash outside bothers Marina. Van suggests “Sheet lightning” but Demon guesses it is “a photographer’s flash,” and indeed Ada looks out at “a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids” (258). This closely echoes the first unofficial photographs Kim has been known to take, in 1884, on the Night of the Burning Barn, when “remote sheet lightning” (115) comes closer to Ardis until it strikes a barn and sets it alight. While others rush to watch the fire, Van and Ada join one another on the library divan—and generate their own first sexual fire. As later at the 1888 dinner scene, Kim photographs them from out in the dark garden (and perhaps, with the help of the ladder, from much closer to the library window). On this earlier occasion too Ada looks out to see “three shadowy forms—two men, one with a ladder, and a child or dwarf—circumspectly moving across the gray lawn. They saw the candle-lit window and decamped, the smaller one walking à reculons as if taking pictures (117). On the night of the 1888 dinner, Van reports Ada’s seeing “a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids . . . aiming a camera at the harmless, gay family group.” “But,” he continues, “it was a nocturnal mirage, not unusual in July, nobody was taking pictures except Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder” (258). We trust Ada’s perception rather than Van’s deflection: it surely is Kim taking pictures, flanked by the gossipy maids. But the mention of “Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder” evokes both the punitive thundergods of European myth and the unmentionable Yahweh of the Hebrew Bible, who expels Adam and Eve from Eden, and prefigures Demon as the implacable Father expelling Van and Ada from their Manhattan paradise.
Kim may be photographing the Ardis the Second dinner, but his blackmail threats lie several years in the future. Yet the blackmail theme will be subtly sounded again at the dinner, a couple of pages after the flash outside, when Marina refers to “that dislikable Norbert von Miller,” whom she has confused with Dan’s lawyer, Norman Miller. As Demon notes, the two men are quite distinct and Norbert von Miller “an unmentionable blackguard” (261). Over four years later, after he discovers Van and Ada together in Manhattan, Demon prepares to forbid his children from seeing one another by starting to tell Van about his true relationship with Ada, and especially about Marina’s having substituted newborn Van for Aqua’s still-born boy. Half aside, he mutters “Some other time I’ll tell you about the Black Miller; not now; too trivial” (440)—but Van in a long parenthesis both explains how Norbert von Miller learned what Marina had done, and how he blackmailed Demon for almost twenty years. In the same “useful parenthesis” Van more obliquely reports on Kim, as a less successful blackmailer, “who would have bothered Ada again had he not been carried out of his cottage with one eye hanging on a red thread and the other drowned in its blood” (441).
The need for secrecy secretly shapes the dinner scene. Marina and Demon have much to conceal from their children, Van and Ada even more to keep from their parents. No wonder the evening seems “faintly off-key” (263) even to the passionate siblings who already know what their parents think they have hidden from them. But the advance introduction of the blackmailers, Miller, in action already, and Kim, yet to make his move, compounds the discord, and anticipates the end of Part II, when Demon discovers Van and Ada’s secret and moves from blackmail victim to judging father, ordering his children to part, while Van brutally ensures Kim at least cannot disclose their secret to a wider world.
Lucette is away from Ardis throughout this long chapter, and pointedly so. Demon does ask “By the way, how’s Lucette?” (249) (a polite inquiry from a family member: she is, after all, having “a series of ‘tests’ at the Tarus Hospital,” 236), only for an answer to be forestalled by Bouteillan’s grandly flinging open the double door for the Veens to go into dinner. He asks the same question, in the very same words, after the last sip of dinner, and when Marina begins to answer, “Oh, we had quite a scare, quite a nasty scare. But now, apparently—” (262), Demon himself interrupts to ask after his gloves.
Lucette had also been pointedly physically absent, and yet thematically powerfully present, at the one dinnertime recorded in detail prior to this, in I.10, when Ada focuses on Fowlie’s mistranslation of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” in a way that richly anticipates both Lucette’s too-early “deflowering” by exposure to Van and Ada’s sexual antics and her suicide, still a virgin, because she can never have Van (see especially Afternote to I.10, and Boyd 2001: 51-59 and 291-96). The mistranslation-over-dinner theme recurs in I.38, where Van cites Ada’s own version of another French poet, Coppée, in his own corrected form that highlights her mistranslation. Ada’s 1884 translation “Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper / Can tell, before they reach the mud” (127) destroys Coppée’s invocation of the quiet fall of leaves in an autumn garden; Van’s revised version, quoted to Demon as if it were Ada’s, brilliantly solves the problem: “Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper / Can follow each of them . . . ” (247). The two examples of mistranslation of French verse and correction, at two different meals with Lucette absent, are linked further by the loss of a flower in one and leaves in another. Nabokov orchestrates the first so it points to the ironies of Lucette’s “deflowering,” her too-early initiation into Van and Ada’s sexual hyperactivity, and the second so that it echoes the first raw sexual contact of Van and Ada, Van’s falling on pantyless Ada’s crotch in the shattal tree, that parody Tree of Knowledge. For Lucette is within earshot, and covertly equated with “that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping” near the shattal tree (98: see Afternotes I.15, I.16, and I.20)—as if this were also her fall into knowledge—which implicates her in turn in Van’s “leavesdropper.”
All through the dinner chapter Marina, Demon, Van and Ada have much to hide from one another. What Demon and Marina have to hide leads to Miller’s blackmail; the family links uniting the four captured on film by Kim will lead to his blackmail of Ada for what she and Van have to hide; and Van’s and Ada’s emotional blackmail of Lucette, as they try to stop her seeing what they wish to hide from her—but often fail to do, in the throes of their ardor—drive this “leavesdropper” to her far from “gentle” fall to her death.
Much of the special spikiness of Ada, I suspect, comes from Nabokov’s trying to find literary equivalents for Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. In the central, earthly, panel, endless naked humans seem to have gone forth and multiplied and to be eating endless fruits in a replay of the fruit of the fall. Their delight seems harmless, but the hell panel looms to the right. In Ada’s dinner scene, one particularly memorable and puzzling paragraph, although it pays homage to the asparaguses in Proust, may owe even more to Bosch.
Many of the characters in the central panel of Bosch’s triptych match the actions of those close by. So too do Ada and Demon at this most visually vivid moment of the dinner scene. As they devour the asparagus, the shared sensual avidity of father and daughter, and the sexual overtones of their actions, the almost comically visual analogy to fellatio, could not be plainer: “It almost awed one to see the pleasure with which she and Demon distorted their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley, holding the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers” (259). But then the paragraph begins to veer wildly, sentence after sentence.
First, Van explains that “identical bunching of the fingers” as “not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which (a ridiculous little schism measuring an inch or so from thumb to index) so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians only two centuries earlier on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves” (259). As the annotations suggest, this seems to link Ada’s and Demon’s actions somehow with religious persecution in Russia’s Great Schism and with Stalin’s exploiting slave labor in the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal project. But how, why?
When Lucette visits Van at Kingston in 1892, she tells him (as she has earlier, by letter) about insatiable Ada’s initiating her into lesbian love-making. Lucette leads up to it gingerly but at last tells her story: “‘She taught me practices I had never imagined,’ confessed Lucette in rerun wonder. ‘We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas. She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers, our heads clamped in such odd combinations . . . ” (375). Van professes not to know what she means by krestik (“Come, come, Lucette, it means ‘little cross’ in Russian, that’s all, what else?,” 378), although he plainly intuits that she intends the word to stand for “clitoris.” Stung by jealousy at the thought of Ada’s ardor directed elsewhere, Van continues in an outburst typical of his moments of anger:
“Oh, I know,” cried Van (quivering with evil sarcasm, boiling with mysterious rage, taking it out on the redhaired scape-goatling, naive Lucette, whose only crime was to be suffused with the phantasmata of the other’s innumerable lips). “Of course, I remember now. A foul taint in the singular [stigma—BB] can be a sacred mark in the plural. You are referring of course to the stigmata between the eyebrows of pure sickly young nuns whom priests had over-anointed there and elsewhere with cross-like strokes of the myrrherabol brush.” (378)
Here Van refers to a part of the Russian Orthodox liturgy, a section of the vigil before a festival or a Sunday, in which the priest, with a brush dipped in myrrh, marks the sign of the cross on the forehead of each member of the congregation who has come up to kiss the icon or gospel of the day.
Lucette then explains further what she means by krestik, coyly recalling a game of Russian Scrabble where the letters LIKROT or ROTIKL turned up in her tray. Van torments her, still feigning not to know what she means, with variants on the English clitoris:
“Okay, okay,” replied her and his tormentor, “but, you know, a medically minded English Scrabbler, having two more letters to cope with, could make, for example, STIRCOIL, a well-known sweat-gland stimulant, or CITROILS, which grooms use for rubbing fillies.” (379)
The “sign of the cross” links one instance of Ada’s oral voraciousness, her eating asparagus—as if in a replay of the fellatio she has treated Van to (140-41)—with another, with her feasting on Lucette’s “little cross.” Her Demonically insatiable craving for sensual pleasure, so brightly rendered as her lips close around the asparagus, segues only bafflingly into the persecution after Russia’s Great Schism, until we connect her insatiability with Lucette and the “martyr” Lucette becomes to Ada’s appetite (see Boyd 200: 129-31 for the martyr motif).
The next sentence of the asparagus paragraph swerves immediately to another example of extreme oral gratification: a Pushkin passage purportedly evoking “the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin.” (259) In fact there is nothing cannibal about the image in Pushkin (although the oysters are called (female) “recluses”—the Russian for “oyster” being female), but the combination of the idea of eating human flesh present in “cannibal joy,” and the slippery mouth-feel of oysters, and the near-anagram of “clitoris” in “cloisters,” seem to link again with the “pure sickly young nuns” and the krestik-“sign of the cross,” clitoris and cunnilingus elements of the Kingston passage.
The next sentence in the asparagus paragraph lurches sharply aside again, while continuing the idea of cannibalism—“everyone has his own taste,” a purported mistranslation from a “novel about a certain Crimean Khan” by “the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill” (259). The sentence fuses what Sir Winston Churchill actually said about Stalin with Churchill’s one early novel, Savrola—whose heroine’s name is Lucile.
All through these hellish images pairing Demon and his daughter—whose very name in Russian means “of hell”— “introducing orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley” (259), Nabokov seems to be linking the individual pain of Lucette, as martyr to Ada’s roving desire, as Aqua had been to Demon’s, to the victims of mass persecution and terror: the Russian schism, Soviet forced labor, Stalinism in the decades that followed. (Aqua, committing suicide a generation before Lucette, had been driven mad by a combination of Demon’s incessant infidelity and her belief in Terra: as a “New Believer” (20), an Antiterran schismatic, Van comments, “she might have been just another consumable witch” two or three centuries earlier (21).)
All that Nabokov means to imply in this challenging paragraph and its connections with human history and Lucette’s personal story may not be fully legible for some time. But we can at least see the strong link between Demon and Ada, the craving for sensual pleasure that seems to attain a “heavenly height” at one level but discloses its connections with the hellish in human life, not least, in Ada’s case, through the sexual insatiability that leads her to avail herself of Lucette and to compound the sexual fragility of a girl already disturbed by being so embroiled in her elder siblings’ desire.
Nabokov also seems to suggest more generally that the search for a heaven on earth, whether a sensual heaven, or a religious or social one, has often led to the hellish. In any case, he seems to bring in both the obvious but distorted references to historical hells and the oblique but pointed references to Lucette’s fate, and before her, of Aqua’s, in order to emphasize the failure of Demon and of Ada to accept responsibility for the kind of indulgence that helps drive Aqua and Lucette to take their own lives.
The last sentence of the weirdly disconcerting asparagus paragraph ends with “Ada . . . dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl” as she recounts local gossip to “Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion” (259). Another “rite,” then, links Ada and Demon: not just their voluptuously eating the asparagus, in a parody of the “sign of the cross,” but washing their hands after handling it, as they wash their hands of so much of the responsibility for their untrammelled desire. Nabokov has talked of the “proper sense” of “the term ‘responsibility’ . . . , linked with moral tradition, with principles of decency and personal honor deliberately passed from father to son” (interview with Mati Laansoo, 1973, The Nabokovian 10 (1983)). Demon has passed on a good deal to Ada, but perhaps above all an absence of any sense of responsibility in the face of desire. When eventually he finds out the secret Ada and Van have been able to hide from him throughout the dinner scene, he will try at last to impose on them some sense of responsibility—at least to social propriety. And if it’s too late by then to save Lucette, what’s that to him?
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