Part One, Chapter 40


In I.40 we are just one chapter from Van’s fleeing Ardis forever. He returned to Ardis in the summer of 1888 hoping to recapture the magic of the summer of 1884. But from the first, from his arrival unannounced, from his seeing Percy de Prey kiss Ada’s hand, hold it, and kiss it again, things have irrevocably changed. Nevertheless, the magic of Ardis the First seems from time to time to return or to attain an unprecedented new force. The 1888 picnic on Ada’s birthday appears to typify the change from 1884, with not only the pathetic would-be rival Greg Erminin present, but drunk, hefty, leering Percy de Prey challenging Van and, though beaten once, assaulting him with full force from behind, a wounding encounter that sums up all the unpleasantness and threat of Ardis the Second so far. Nevertheless a combination of chances means that Van once again rides in the front of the carriage heading homeward, with a sister having to perch on his knees, allowing him to relive the enchantment of this almost perfect repetition of the return from the 1884 picnic: “that moment of total happiness, the complete eclipse of the piercing and preying ache, the logic of intoxication, the circular argument to the effect that the most eccentric girl cannot help being faithful if she loves as one loves her” (281).
But in fact, as I.40 shows, all has changed. The “piercing and preying ache” caused by Percy de Prey has not ended. The note of challenge and concession revives the threat in a way Van thinks he can dismiss (“now, at least, Ada would cease to be pestered by the fellow’s attentions,” 284). But Ada returns from her horseback ride, which even first-time readers may already think suspect, only for Van to announce promptly: “When lightning struck two days later” (284).
The chapter continues to ratchet up the tension as the end of Ardis the Second nears. Yet despite the ardis, the direction, of time (“When lightning struck,” and, the next paragraph, “On the morning of the day preceding the most miserable one in his life,” 285), the chapter yields surprises, some pleasant, as well as the advancing rumble of foreboding. Although already wounded by Percy, Van will not duel him, after all. Although Van meets Ada in the park alley after she has returned from Percy (as we can later confirm), they experience one of their most poignantly tender moments of communion together—even if this feels much less radiant in retrospect, in light of the very recent sex with Percy that Ada is concealing here. Although Van finds a warning note, Ada can dismiss it—for now. And in the next chapter, when Blanche begins to explain Ada’s infidelity, other surprises await: she will tell of Ada’s affair not with the expected Percy but with Rack, before Van confronts Ada with the knowledge of her infidelity, and she will reply, disclosing not the now expected Rack but her more recent affair with Percy. Van and Nabokov stress not only the patterns built into past and present that seem to point ominously toward what is to come, but simultaneously, the unpredictability of the future.
I.40 recapitulates Ardis themes with a consciousness that they cannot continue or that they will soon be seen only through the lens of loss. The fatidic flashforward to “When lightning struck two days later (an old image that is meant to intimate a flash-back to an old barn)” (284) recalls the flashbacks in Les Enfants Maudits discussed in I.32, which themselves seem like disclosures of the dilemmas Ada’s multiple lovers cause her (see 284.31-32n), and therefore like virtual flashforwards to what Van will discover about her infidelity. “When lightning struck” also leads into a discussion of Van’s dual consciousness “since the first day of his fateful return to Ardis” (285): that on the one hand Percy poses no threat, and that on the other “some nameless trouble was threatening the very sanity of Van’s pale, faithless mistress” (285). This in turn echoes Ada’s near-disclosure on their first morning at Ardis the Second: “her quandary might drive her insane if she did not know that her heart was pure. . . She was like the girl in a film he would see soon, who is in the triple throes of a tragedy” (192).
A film theme sounds repeatedly through the start of Ardis the Second: Van’s sense on arriving back at Ardis that he has entered “a scene out of some new life being rehearsed for an unknown picture, without him, not for him” (187); Ada’s description in the same chapter of her trilemma in terms of “the girl in a film he would see soon” (192); and the Les Enfants Maudits rewrites in I.32, with their flashbacks (201) that seem to be what Ada was referring forward to in the previous chapter. The film theme returns here in I.40, at the end of Ardis the Second, in the film-party dinner for which Van and Ada dress at the end of the chapter, and Mlle Larivière “reading with mixed feelings and furious annotations the third shooting script of Les Enfants Maudits” (288), between Van’s finding the “One must not berne you” note and seeing Ada in the diamond necklace that he broke when he first flared with jealousy at Percy.
In other ways, I. 40 both recapitulates Ardis and looks forward to what will end Van’s time there. Ardis has seemed a paradise for Van and Ada, and here in this chapter the alley where she once showed him her sun-and-shade games, and the scene of orchid-drawing, and the recollection of the night of the Burning Barn echo the pleasures of Ardis the First, while the pool, the Burnberry Brook, and the movie theme revive colorful aspects of Ardis the Second. Nothing is uniformly negative, but even the positives—like Van’s assertion that “All their passionate pump-joy exertions, from Burning Barn to Burnberry Brook, were nothing in comparison to this zaychik, this ‘sun blick’ of the smiling spirit” (286)—have their shade side. Ada, after all, we will discover, has just returned from her farewell tryst with Percy, and it is that that lifts her spirits and therefore Van’s. And the Burning Barn and Burnberry Brook will be echoed barely a page later with the warning “One must not berne you” (287): suddenly, the “burn” theme seems closer to the hell fire of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights than to the paradisiac ardors of Ardis the First.
A duel seems to have just been averted in the confrontation of Van and Percy in the previous chapter (“Is that a challenge, me faites-vous un duel?” 277), and in the challenge-cum-peace treaty at the beginning of this chapter. But Percy’s death, already signaled in the previous chapter by vindictive Van (“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,” 273), looms again over this chapter, especially in the multiple echoes of the song “Malbrough s’en va-t’en guerre,” from the pretty page in black bringing Percy’s challenge (and even Ada’s dressing in black on the day of her farewelling Percy), to Blanche’s repeated song and refrain. The narrative seems to challenge alert first-time readers: How does the foreknowledge of Percy’s death in the Crimea square with the duel theme, so closely and naturally associated with Percy, and pointedly resounded here again by way of the hairdresser “Monsieur Violette of Lyon and Ladore” who coifs Marina out of doors “so as to forestall the zephyrs (as a duelist steadies his hand by walking about with a poker)” (285). Two chapters hence we will discover that this “Monsieur Violette” prefigures the “pansies,” the homosexual characters with violet names and associations, who become, utterly unexpectedly, Van’s dueling opponent and the seconds in the duel that displaces Van’s rage at Percy and Philip Rack. The present foreshadows the future, once again, but the future still takes us by surprise. Only when it materializes does it disclose exactly how the past might be seen to have foreshadowed it.
The same with the “One must not berne you” note. It seems to suggest immediately that Van is being warned about his being duped by Ada and Percy. When Van seeks out Ada to confront her with the note, she is wearing both new clothes and the diamond necklace Van had brought to her at Ardis the Second, only to tear it apart when Ada, in unfamiliar new clothes, allowed Percy to kiss her hand, hold it, and kiss it again. This new clothes-new necklace echo of the start of Ardis the Second, and of the initial sudden flare of jealousy toward Percy, seems to bode ill of the note Van now thrusts before her, as if the preannounced finish of Ardis the Second is about to arrive. But Ada deflects the note, and when Blanche begins to explain it in the next chapter, she tells only of Ada’s affair with Rack, surprising us as much as Van.


When Van takes the warning note to thrust before Ada, he finds her with Lucette: “Lucette under Ada’s direction was trying to learn to draw flowers; several botanical atlases, large and small, were lying about. Everything appeared as it always used to be” (288). Once again, Van has a sense that Ardis the First is being replayed. But once again, everything has changed.
This will be the last time that Lucette appears in Ardis the Second, the last time she sees Van before she comes to visit him at Kingston, at sixteen, having already, by letter, declared her passionate love for him. Nabokov makes Lucette’s last scene at Ardis count, even though on a first reading it seems as light as other scenes involving Lucette have also feigned to be. Lucette, reluctant to draw live flowers, preferring to trace flower pictures from books, offers a comic contrast to Ada at the same age in 1884, the gifted botanist masterfully copying, recombining and inventing orchids. The gulf between precocious Ada and normal Lucette never seems wider. Then the scene becomes still more comic:

Casually, lightly, she went on to explain how the organs of orchids work—but all Lucette wanted to know, after her whimsical fashion, was: could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?
            “You know,” said Ada in a comic nasal voice, turning to Van, “you know, that child has the dirtiest mind imaginable and now she is going to be mad at me for saying this and sob on the Larivière bosom, and complain she has been pollinated by sitting on your knee.”
            “But I can’t speak to Belle about dirty things,” said Lucette quite gently and reasonably. (289)

Once again the contrast between Ada, richly sexually experienced at twelve, and Lucette, still naively innocent but fearing she has lost her innocence, could not be starker or more amusing—at first.
Lucette’s fears provide a delightful comic echo of the second picnic ride. But her concern about her innocence, her possible impregnation by Van, point forward, as rereaders know, to the irony that she will take her own life precisely because she has never been able to win the sexual favors of the man she loves, sexually promiscuous though he is; and because, ultimately, her introduction to sex, especially through seeing Van and Ada in action even in 1884, at eight, and through being involved as an amatory decoy, at twelve, has skewed her healthy sexual and emotional development. In Ardis the Second Van and Ada have taken advantage of her “always playing her part of the clinging, affectionately fussy lassy” (204-05) and follow Ada’s scheme “to have Van fool Lucette by petting her in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time, and by caressing and kissing Lucette when Ada was away in the woods (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’)” (213).
In the final scene of I.40, Lucette insists that “the easiest way to draw a flower was to place a sheet of transparent paper over the picture (in the present case a red-bearded pogonia, with indecent details of structure, a plant peculiar to the Ladoga bogs)” (288). That rather vulval plant (see 288.31-32n. above) foreshadows red-haired Lucette’s krestik: the next time Lucette sees Van, at Kingston in 1891, she will report how Ada initiated her into lesbian sex (“She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers,” 375). The copying of the “indecent” plant foreshadows another part of her Kingston report to Van: she “cop[ies] beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces” (376) in between her romps with Ada, as if unable not to fixate on sex.
The scene of Lucette’s copying flowers at Ardis also pointedly anticipates the most disturbing scene of the three Veen children engaged in sexual play, itself described as if it were “reproduced (in ‘Forbidden Masterpieces’)” (418). In the flower-copying scene in I.40 Ada is “wearing his diamonds for the first time” (288): she has a dinner party ahead but also wears the gems as if to celebrate the fact that Percy, whose attentions at the start of Ardis the Second caused Van to tear apart the necklace, has safely sailed out of her life. Ada tries to persuade Lucette not to trace flowers from a book but to copy “the Lady’s Slipper she had picked” and has placed in a “crystal vaselet” (289). In the débauche à trois scene, where Ada in 1892 pulls Lucette into bed with herself and Van and leads Van’s hand across her own body to fondle Lucette’s “firebird” (418), Ada, although otherwise naked, is “wearing, for ritual and fatidic reasons, his river of diamonds” (417), and on the bedside table stands “a Lurid Oncidium Orchid in an amethystine vaselet” (419). In both scenes, Ada wears Van’s diamonds and an orchid stands in a “vaselet,” as if to emphasize the distance between Lucette’s naively puzzled sense of compromised innocence in the flower-copying scene (“could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower,” 289) and her brief and unsettling entanglement in Van and Ada’s decadent romps four years later.
In the flower-copying scene Lucette as copyist seems cast as only a poor copy of Ada. At twelve, she cannot paint flowers as Ada could at that age, with deep botanical knowledge and the imagination even to invent plausible new orchids; she can only trace or copy. Lucette worries that “a boy bee” could “impregnate a girl flower,” as she recalls the ride back from the picnic where she sat on Van’s knee, an almost exact copy of Ada sitting on his knee exactly four years earlier on the first picnic ride. Van nearly swells to orgasm under Lucette, not because of her, but because he can almost replay the ecstasy of his first sustained contact with Ada four years earlier. And when Van hovered over Ada four years earlier, as she painted flowers, including flowers that invite pseudo-copulation by bees, he would slink to his room to bring himself all the way to orgasm as he called forth “the image he had just left behind” (100). Lucette as flower-copyist, by contrast, merely annoys him: he wants her away so he can challenge Ada with the warning note.
When Lucette visits Van next, at Kingston in 1892, she tries to rouse Van’s desire by copying Ada, but she fails: “‘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) When she makes her last attempt to arouse Van, aboard the Tobakoff, she succeeds, until as they watch a pre-release film they see Ada step on the screen in Don Juan’s Last Fling. Lucette tries to pull Van away from the image of Ada: “Let’s go, please, let’s go. You must not see her debasing herself. She’s terribly made up, every gesture is childish and wrong--” (489). But Van pleads “Just another minute” and comments, in narrational restrospect:

Terrible? Wrong? She was absolutely perfect, and strange, and poignantly familiar. By some stroke of art, by some enchantment of chance, the few brief scenes she was given formed a perfect compendium of her 1884 and 1888 and 1892 looks.
            The gitanilla bends her head over the live table of Leporello’s servile back to trace on a scrap of parchment a rough map of the way to the castle. Her neck shows white through her long black hair separated by the motion of her shoulder. It is no longer another man’s Dolores, but a little girl twisting an aquarelle brush in the paint of Van’s blood, and Donna Anna’s castle is now a bog flower. (489)

Watching the film, Van is engulfed in Ada’s ambience, and when “old bores of the family” (475) move to sit right next to them, Lucette turns to them with staunch courtesy while Van makes “a humorous bad-sailor excuse” (490) and leaves the shipboard cinema. To douse the flames Lucette has stoked, he masturbates, for the first time since he masturbated over Ada painting flowers, and calls up onto “the screen of his paroxysm” “not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush” (490).
Lucette imitates her big sister’s love for Van; a chain of contingencies after the picnic place her on Van’s knees, in accidental imitation of Ada; she now copies her sister as copyist, while showing only how far short of her brilliant sister she falls; she will imitate Ada, she will even succeed at last in arousing Van’s desire, only for the image of Ada, not her, as flower-painter to focus all his thoughts back on Ada and to end Lucette’s hopes of Van and of life itself. The comic scene of Lucette asking, instead of copying a flower, “could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower” (289), her last scene in Ardis, embodies the tragic ironies of her intact virginity: her entanglement too early in her siblings’ love, her inability to free herself from the role of Ada’s shadow, her dying still a virgin.
In I.40 Van seems fixated on Percy de Prey, on the note he sends, on the signals of Ada’s engagement with Percy that he suppresses, on the note that warns him. But as “the piercing and preying ache” (281) returns to haunt Van and threaten the end of Ardis, Nabokov signals another kind of damage the Veens have inflicted during Ardis the Second, on the Lucette who seems a mere obstacle to their private intensities. Indeed, she has been interwoven with Percy de Prey from her first appearance at Ardis the Second to the last. A moment after Van witnesses Percy impermissibly kissing Ada, and tears the diamond necklace into glittering hailstones, Ada rushes into the room, answers Van’s challenge (“was that Percy de Prey? . . . Was he her new beau?”) by affirming that she “had and have and shall always have only one beau, only one beast, only one sorrow, only one joy.” As they kiss, as he draws up her dress,

she flinched with a murmur of reluctant denial, because the door had come alive: two small fists could be heard drumming upon it from the outside, in a rhythm both knew well.
            “Hi, Lucette!” cried Van: “I’m changing, go away.”
            “Hi, Van! They want Ada, not you. They want you downstairs, Ada!” (190)

Lucette as comic obstacle returns with a rush in Ardis the Second, and she remains a comic obstacle to Van’s intensity—of jealousy against Percy, once more—as Ardis the Second draws to a close. But precisely because she has been embroiled in their kisses and caresses, “to have Van fool her by petting her in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time, and by caressing and kissing Lucette when Ada was away in the woods (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’)” (213)—her compromised innocence will prove much more tragic than Van’s mounting sense of himself as a man injured and betrayed.
Throughout I.40, indeed, Van’s injury at Percy’s hands, his sore knee, runs as an insistent motif. Lucette does not enter the chapter until its last quarter, yet the knee motif is covertly but very pointedly aligned with her. The injury is not mentioned at the time of Percy’s attack from behind, at 275. It earns its first mention only at the very moment Lucette sits down on Van’s knees for the carriage ride home: “‘Ouch!’ grunted Van as he received the rounded load—explaining wrily that he had hit his right patella against a rock” (279). Indulging in his sense of the magic retrieval of the past, as he sits under Lucette, he almost brings himself to orgasm, only for the twinge in his kneecap to save him:

Van closed his eyes in order better to concentrate on the golden flood of swelling joy. Many, oh many, many years later he recollected with wonder (how could one have endured such rapture?) that moment of total happiness, the complete eclipse of the piercing and preying ache. . . . He opened his eyes: the bracelet was indeed flashing but her lips had lost all trace of rouge, and the certainty that in another moment he would touch their hot pale pulp threatened to touch off a private crisis under the solemn load of another child. But the little proxy’s neck, glistening with sweat, was pathetic, her trustful immobility, sobering, and after all no furtive friction could compete with what awaited him in Ada’s bower. A twinge in his kneecap also came to the rescue, and honest Van chided himself for having attempted to use a little pauper instead of the princess in the fairy tale—“whose precious flesh must not blush with the impression of a chastising hand,” says Pierrot in Peterson’s version. (281-82)

The knee motif then sounds through I.40 from its opening paragraph (“His knee had troubled him all night,” 283), but the last time the word “knee” occurs in the chapter it seems at first purely comic, Ada’s comment on Lucette’s going to “sob on the Larivière bosom, and complain she has been pollinated by sitting on your knee” (289). That takes us back in a sense to the first mention of Van’s injured knee, as Lucette sits on him, and to the next mention, as the twinge in his kneecap helps call him back from orgasm under Lucette, from “having attempted to use a little pauper instead of the princess in the fairy tale” (281). Van, like the first-time reader, focuses the whole chapter on the injury and threat from Percy and the note. Nabokov also focuses the whole chapter on the much more lasting injury done to Lucette, through the seemingly only comic complaint about her loss of innocence.

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