Part One, Chapter 39


Van structures the whole first part of Ada around his two summers with Ada at Ardis. He returns to Ardis in 1888, hoping to repeat the magic of his first summer with her. He certainly does, in terms of sexual ardor. The most magical of the repetitions, repeating a moment that seemed had magical in itself the first time around, is the picnic on Ada’s birthday, and especially the return from the picnic, where Van in 1884 had almost reached orgasm as he sat under Ada. In 1888, Van finds himself again sitting with a sister on his lap, and again comes near to orgasm. Yet as with the whole of Ardis the Second, almost everything is subtly and worryingly different, and never more concentratedly so than here.
Nabokov provides a naturalistic explanation for the overall repetition within Part 1 (Van wants to spend a second summer of freedom with Ada at Ardis) and within the two picnics (an annual birthday rite). Indeed, he has placed Ada’s birthday on July 21, the day of his own father’s birthday, and has commemorated, as well as stylized, “the festive picnics” of his country summers before the family fled St. Petersburg at the end of 1917 (interview with Andrew Field, 1970).
Although both picnic rides end with either Van’s twelve-year-old sister (in 1884) or his twelve-year-old half-sister (in 1888), sitting on his lap, Nabokov makes the repetition seem comic, both times, and unforcedly natural. (These rearrangements also parodically echo the role of the pointed assignment of carriage companions for plot purposes in nineteenth-century novels, perhaps most famously, in Mr Elton’s proposal to Emma in the carriage returning from a party in Chapter 15 of Austen’s Emma, 1815.) Marina leaves early both times, in response to a message brought to her, Dan’s letter in 1884 (his absurd cry for her help with the directions for the grotesque doll he has bought Ada), Pedro’s aerogram in 1888 (flipping Marina from sad old lady to giggly girl), thus disordering the apportionment of people to vehicles on the way to the picnic site. Chance further compounds the disrupted travel arrangements. In 1884 Ada’s bicycle, left in the sun, bursts a tire, and she has to sit on Van’s lap on the calèche. In 1888 the discovery of an overlooked footboy, engrossed in his horseracing guide and therefore not taken back with the rest of the servants, means Lucette has to sit on Van’s lap on the victoria. Nabokov creates his designs in time through the artful interplay of contingencies.
During each of the picnics Van displays his prowess under the tutelage of King Wing, Demon’s wrestling master: his sublime brachiambulation, in 1884 (81-83), and his expert disposal of the aggressive and heavier Percy de Prey at wrestling, in 1888 (275-76). As a grace note on the repetitions, we witness Mlle Larivière almost discreetly urinating in 1884, and Percy spectacularly pissing in 1888.
But the contrasts between the two picnic scenes outweigh the similarities. Time revolves (the years and the birthdays they bring; the seasons) but marches on. In 1884, Van had had no prolonged physical contact with Ada at the time of the return picnic ride. In 1888, they are experienced lovers, quick to seize the opportunity to make love, even with Ada’s husked-corn trousers. By now, too, Lucette is an experienced spy, ogling them on the brink of a brook, before slipping into the burnberry bush and giving away her presence.
That contrast between the early innocence of Ardis the First and the immediate resumption of ardor in Ardis the Second has become familiar by now, of course. More specifically salient in this chapter is the contrast between Greg, a low-key and hopelessly outclassed rival in 1884, on Ada’s birthday and the following day, and Greg, much the same in 1888 (after having contrived to be invited) but hopelessly outclassed as Ada’s would-be suitor by Percy, who thrusts his way into the occasion and repeatedly challenges Van. Greg’s “splendid new” black Silentium motorcycle in 1888 updates the black pony he was ready to offer Ada in 1884, but its implicit silence and elegance barely resonate in comparison with Percy’s “steel-grey convertible” that glides into the glade (270) but leaves with a burst of thunder, after Percy has all but offered Van a duel (277). The motorcycle and the car surrounded by the reverent admiration of the possibly “gipsy politicians” (268) have been prefigured by the motorcycle Van takes to his first near-Ardis reunion with Ada, their swift tryst at Forest Fork in 1886, and feverish Ada’s near-delirious remark “about gipsies stealing their jeeps” (180), which in anticipating the 1888 picnic anticipates the dangers hanging over their full reunion then, another two years after their last love-making (see I.29 Afternote).
Van does not have to challenge Greg in 1884, for Ada herself rudely dismisses her neighbor’s puppy-like devotion. But drunkenly boorish Percy challenges Van in 1888: first by the cat-and-mouse game of “I’m told you like abnormal positions” (271), ostensibly referring to Van’s handwalking, but threateningly intimating that he knows, and others know, of Van’s preferred rear-entry lovemaking with Ada; then by the pissing display; then by the direct grapple—the sequence almost a summary of male-male rivalry for females in the biological world: vocal challenge, ritualized displaced aggression (the pebble-throwing, 274), bodily display, bodily assault. Van easily overcomes him, only for Percy to assail him from behind—and once again be overcome by Van.
Percy hints at a duel, as he is about to leave, and when Van asks “Is that a challenge, me faites-vous un duel?” the older youth merely smiles and drives away, Van offering to accept whenever he is ready (277). Nevertheless when an official challenge arrives the next day, he dismisses it, reassured that Ada is his. But as narrator of the picnic scene, now knowing beyond doubt that Percy had already possessed Ada and would do so again even after the picnic, Van exacts the revenge he forfeited by declining a duel. He gleefully flashes forward to Percy’s imminent death, as if, at least narratively, causing it himself, his direct address, contemptuous tone and overt animosity compounding the fatal injury: “Percy, you were to die very soon—and not from that pellet in your fat leg, on the turf of a Crimean ravine, but a couple of minutes later when you . . . felt relieved and secure. . . . I think what I hated most about your handsome moon face . . . ” (273). Van’s two-fold defeat of Percy, first when he traps Percy “panting like a dying gladiator” (275), then minutes later when he swings him over his head and contemplates inflicting “a certain special device of exotic torture” itself seems to anticipate Percy’s sense that he has escaped the worst, in the Crimea, before death takes him by surprise.
When Van and Percy throw stones “at the remnants of an old, rusty, indecipherable signboard” (274), just before they face off directly, the action both expresses their overflowing male testiness and displaces the real threat of their hostility, resurrects a harmless past moment that Van uses, as narrator, to prefigure Percy’s death, and touches on the role of the “mysterious pastors” who intrude in the picnic glade. Earlier in Ardis the Second Van has encountered a notice-board bluntly warning that “trespassers might get shot by sportsmen from Ardis Hall” (216—this just after a hint that Van as narrator knows by now that Ada herself has been trespassed on: she has “a deep scratch caused last August by an erratic hatpin—or rather by a thorny twig in the inviting hay”). Percy himself, whom Van as narrator calls “old sport” in his advance disclosure of Percy’s actually being shot in the Crimea (273), is all but a trespasser, an uninvited guest at Ada’s party—Ada, of course, wanting to keep her two current rivals far apart.
Percy and Van’s throwing pebbles at the signboard also harks back to a much earlier but then oblique anticipation of Percy’s death: Van’s throwing a cone (which Ada does not see properly and calls a stone) “at a woman of marble bending over a stamnos” (50). Van later characterizes a photograph of the incident as recording himself “aiming a conical missile at the marble fore-image of a Crimean girl doomed to offer an everlasting draught of marble water to a dying marine from her bullet-chipped jar” (399), thereby recalling the details of Percy’s being shot by a smiling old Tatar, with perhaps a “daughter with pitcher” (320) offering to quench his thirst just before her father pulls the fatal trigger. The “everlasting draught” of the description of the 1884 photograph seen in 1892 recalls also the “practically everlasting stream” of Percy’s urine, mentioned on the page between Van’s “Percy, you were to die very soon . . . on the turf of a Crimean ravine” and Van having Percy pinned to the ground “like a dying gladiator” (274, 273, 275).
The fact that the boys throw pebbles at what is presumably a trespass notice links them with the “mysterious pastors” (276) to whom Van issues the notice, “Please go away, this is private property,” in as many languages and dialects as he can muster (269). They cannot understand, and do not respond.  Van loads the challenge of interpreting the significance of these strangers—perhaps his own addition, as narrator, to the events of the scene. For ten pages he describes them in teasing fashion: “a dozen elderly townsmen, in dark clothes, shabby and uncouth . . . sat down there to a modest colazione of cheese, buns, salami, sardines and Chianti. . . . ritually . . . . sad apostolic hands. . . . receded like a fishing boat . . . a most melancholy and meaningful picture—but meaning what, what? . . . convertible . . . . was surrounded by the same group of townsmen . . . collation of shepherds. . .  A canvas from Cardinal Carlo de Medici’s collection, author unknown. . . . the mysterious pastors . . . stiff collar and reptilian tie left hanging from a locust branch” (268-77). The strong suggestion that these dozen men somehow echo Christ’s disciples (apostolic, fishermen, shepherds, pastors) or a painting of them, and the terms of their meal, suggest the Last Supper—a  favorite theme for Renaissance painting—where Christ announced to the disciples that one of them would betray him. An echo of Judas Iscariot’s hanging himself after his betrayal seems present in “stiff collar and reptilian tie left hanging from a locust branch” (277). The final part of the puzzle is surely Judas’s kissing Christ in the garden to identify him to the mob who swoop in to arrest him (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-50), which, like the Last Supper, was often represented in Renaissance art, from Giotto (in 1304-06) to Caravaggio (in 1602). The strangers arrive just as Greg does, and “reverently” inspect his motorbike (268); when Percy’s car arrives, “No sooner had it stopped than it was surrounded by the same group of townsmen”  (270) They have just left, with the emblem evocative of Judas’s suicide as the last detail, as Percy is about to leave and tries to kiss Ada’s hand, only to be given her cold fist. The strangers seem indeed to evoke the disciples, surrounding Judas the betrayer, as an analogy to Percy, kissing Ada in the glade, and anticipating, perhaps, Van’s sense that he is about to be crucified?

After Percy leaves, and then Greg, Van, Ada and Lucette discover the young footboy who will also have to be accommodated on the waiting victoria, meaning that Lucette will have to be seated on Van’s knee. In the afterword to the Penguin Ada edition of 1999, I quoted the core of the account of the 1888 picnic ride home (280-81), and commented:

Van’s usual third-person narration slides easily to first-person, to a “We” that Ada soon joins: “We do not care to follow the thoughts troubling Ada.” He does not follow her thoughts, not because of the perfectly plausible generalization about memories that he advances, but because—as we discover on a rereading, if we cannot yet guess—she is all apprehension that Van will find out about her recent relationship with Percy de Prey and challenge him to a duel. Van as narrator does not yet want to disclose what Van as character, despite all his rankling unease, does not yet know.
The overlay of novelty and repetition, reminiscence and anticipation so striking in this scene is characteristic of Ada—and in fact of all our experience. Van recalls Ada on his knees four years before, the differences as well as the similarities: her loose skirt then, Lucette’s tight shorts now, and Ada’s “husked-corn” trousers. A sudden side-swerve (“In the fatal course of the most painful ailments . . . . ”) discloses a glimpse of Van in what he calls his “dot-dot-dotage,” thinking up an image for the momentary reprieve his 18-year-old self has won from his ultimately unallayable misgivings.
Van on the victoria closes his eyes to concentrate on the bliss of the recollection and the magical recapitulation, only for Van the narrator to glide ahead again to his recollecting this moment still later, a glide whose rhetoric (“Many, oh many, many years later . . . ”) augments rather than diminishes the bliss. On the picnic ride he experiences the “complete eclipse of the piercing and preying ache,” the dismissal of his qualms about Percy de Prey, but since these qualms will soon prove well-founded, his later self tries to think back into that surge of confidence, which had it been justified would have spared him years of bitterness.
As so often in Ada the passage basks in bliss yet seethes with tension as it overlays time upon time. In 1888 Van recollects the bliss of 1884 as he relives something like it, consciously willing himself back into the past, in a triumphant reversal of time, even as he registers the difference between then and now. But Van as narrator, eight decades later, recalls this 1888 triumph and the dire disclosure ahead that he keeps half-hidden from the first-time reader as it was hidden from his young self, the bitter discovery that as it were pointedly insists that time’s direction can never be reversed.

Even before Percy de Prey’s affair with Ada darkens the picture, Van’s sense in 1888 that the repeated picnic ride is a kind of magical replay of the past, a triumph over time, already depends on his awareness of the complex tension between past and present. Part of the bliss of the original 1884 experience had been the thrill of enforced contact with Ada in a protracted present, and the sudden promise of future intimacy. Now in 1888 his intimacy with Ada seems an immemorial, ever-renewable fact, as in that brisk throb on the brink of the brook earlier in the afternoon. Then Ada at twelve had seemed innocent and unattainable; now Lucette, herself twelve, is even more innocent and untouchable. Now Ada is his; then he could not imagine an Ada so blissfully familiar; but it is the very distance he must keep from Lucette, the very resistance to lapsing back into that earlier temptation to melt “in animal laxity,” the very change from Ada to Lucette, that re-animates the thrill of the past.
But here once again comes a different kind of tension, a further complexity in the overlay of time. When in 1901 Van breaks away from Lucette in the cinema that fatal night on the Tobakoff and retreats to his cabin, he again projects “upon the screen of his paroxysm” not the Lucette he has been sitting with, but the Ada he has seen on the cinema screen, “a perfect compendium of her 1884 and 1888 and 1892 looks,” just as here he sits beneath Lucette but projects onto his private screen the image of Ada in 1884. The overlapping and interlacing of images of Ada and Lucette on the picnic ride point forward to the tragic entanglement of the two Veen girls that reaches its climax on the night of Lucette’s death. The moment of past bliss, the moment of the present bliss of recollection and apparent triumph over time, the moment of the dire discovery about Percy that three days later will refute this bliss, the moment of the future paroxysm that will seal Lucette’s doom—all meet here as Ada explores how the present overlaps and builds on the past and yet leads to the multiple surprises of the future. (Boyd 1985/2001: 314-15)

For the more expert audience of these annotations, I will add a few more details. Lucette sees Van and Ada at the brook making love from behind. She then slips and falls into a burnberry bush, so that the crupper she settles onto Van’s crutch is “stained with burnberry purple” (280). She is now virtually in the same position relative to Van, her buttock pressed to his crotch, as she has seen Ada and Van adopt on the many occasions during Ardis the First when she has spied on them in flagrante. In Boyd 1985/2001, especially 134-44, I discuss the “behind” motif, Van and Ada’s love-making from behind, and the two picnic rides with first Ada in Van’s lap in 1884, then Lucette in 1888. Here the motif reaches something of a climax as far as Lucette is concerned: no wonder she asks in the next chapter “could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?” (289). That seems delightfully comic at the time, but changes in tone when we discover Lucette sexually damaged, and even driven to suicide, by her too-early initiation into sex, and her entanglement in Van and Ada’s lovemaking. The burnberry stain adds an additional note: the invented “burnberry” itself evokes the night of the Burning Barn, when the fires of Van and Ada’s ardor first set each other fully sexually alight (cf. in I.40: “All their passionate pump-joy exertions, from Burning Barn to Burnberry Brook,” 286). The berry surely suggests also the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, in both Genesis and in Ada, in the shattal tree where Lucette for the first time overhears Van and Ada in sexual, even if accidental, contact, in that Fortunate Fall (see I.15 Afternote). In Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the constant pictorial subtext of Ada, the berries dominant in the Garden of Earthly Delights in the central panel give way to images of hellfire in the right-hand panel, Hell. Nabokov’s ironies and ambiguities are perhaps lighter than Bosch’s, but Lucette’s half-sister’s name does mean in Russian “of hell,” and her half-brother, like her half-sister, is the child of Demon.
The scene at Burnberry Brook and Lucette’s fall into the burnberry bush form part of another pattern that also has Boschean overtones. The “burn” so striking here (and so closely associated with the “ardor” of Ada’s subtitle) joins all the other anticipations of the impending disclosure that Percy has been having an affair with Ada. In the next chapter, a page after what Van thinks a sweetness in Ada’s smile that made all “their passionate pump-joy exertions, from the Burning Barn to Burnberry Brook, . . . nothing in comparison to this zaychik, this ‘sun blick’ of the smiling spirit” (286), Van finds a note in the heart pocket of his dinner jacket, “One must not berne you,” and immediately recognizes that “Only a French-speaking person would use that word for ‘dupe’” (287), and that he cannot interrogate all the fifteen or more servants of French descent at Ardis. Only later that night does Blanche, who had left the note, penned in her sister’s hand, disclose enough to Van that he knows of Ada’s affairs with both Rack and Percy by the next morning. The burning associated with desire—the “passionate pump-joy exertions,” the ardor of Ada and Ardis—and also associated with Lucette through the burnberry stain, as if she were scorched by Van and Ada’s ardor, also links with the searing pain of Van’s jealousy. Lucette spies secretly at the picnic site not only on Van and Ada making love, but also on Van and Percy making all but war, and Lucette will in many other ways be linked with Van’s rivals (see Boyd 1985/2001: 168-74). Echoing Bosch’s juxtaposition of berries and flames, Nabokov juxtaposes the berry in the Burnberry Brook with the repeated pleasures of Van and Ada’s repeated love-makings, and the hell-flames associated with the pains of love, as felt by Lucette, in her skewed sexuality, and by Van and his rivals, in their experience of the jealousy and despair that shadow the triumph of love.
Ada’s Chateaubriand allusions also appear lighter and more playful than Bosch’s darker ironies—at first. Van and Ada seem merely to toy, with parodic glee, with the incestuous notes in the French writer’s novellas and his life. But the allusions change in tone in view of Lucette’s suicide and the fact that Chateaubriand’s sister Lucile, with whom he seems to have been virtually enamoured, herself committed suicide. Nabokov has good reason to have Ada read “Ombres et couleurs, an 1820 edition of Chateaubriand’s short stories” (280), as she rides home from the picnic, with Lucette beside her on Van’s lap, in the first major confusion of sister and sister. The same entanglement, the same confusion, the same projection of an image of Ada in Van’s mind, will occur on the night of Lucette’s suicide. Then, while Van and Lucette watch the film Don Juan’s Last Fling, Ada will step into the picture, in the part of “Dolores, a dancing girl (lifted from Osberg’s novella . . . )” (488), disrupting the mood Lucette has aroused in Van. In the 1884 picnic, Ada wore her “lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel . . . “) (77), while she sat on Van’s lap on the return picnic ride. In the 1888 picnic ride, Lucette sits on Van’s lap, with her burnberry-stained shorts, while Van evokes Ada on his lap in her lolita in 1884. In the 1901 shipboard movie theater, Lucette sits beside Van, having aroused in him the excitement of her presence, only for Ada to appear on screen as Osberg’s Dolores, in “a perfect compendium of her 1884 and 1888 and 1892 looks” (489), and at once turn Lucette’s last chance to win Van into no chance at all.

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