Part One, Chapter 41


From the start Ardis the Second has seemed fraught with foreboding, as Van oscillates between jealous fears and the joy of his reconnection with Ada. The threats to Van’s love for Ada become louder and closer, until a crisis not only seems imminent but even appears to be announced: “When lightning struck two days later (an old image that is meant to intimate a flash-back to an old barn” (284). What Van will later call “The direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time” (538) seems inexorably set.

In I.41 disaster does indeed come, and on the day announced, but in ways that continually take Van and us by surprise, challenging the apparently arrow-like flight of time to its target. Marina’s dinner for her film friends introduces new characters, named and unnamed, but the change of cast changes nothing as the dinner party quickly collapses. Brooding afterwards in his hammock on who could have sent that “One must not berne you” note (287), Van drifts into sleep, to be awoken by the approach of Blanche. She offers herself to him, assuming virile Van will want her as much as she wants him. He does not. He wants answers: Did she leave the note? Yes.  Then “tell me the whole story in every detail, at once” (293). She starts at the beginning, last August, as Ada yielded to mournful Rack—although Van, like us, had been expecting a disclosure about Ada and Percy.

Van breaks off and prepares to storm away from Ardis forever, in immediate pursuit of Rack. When Ada steps out to meet him, he charges her with infidelity. She admits to the charge, but assumes he refers to Percy, since that relationship has continued until the young count’s departure for war three days ago. Again, Van and we do a double-take, Van with merciless presence of mind: “I think . . . we’ve got hold of the wrong lover. I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums and also adores you to the point of insanity” (296).

He turns his back on Ada, apparently for the last time, but retains an indelible impression of her standing where he leaves her, although he never turns around to see her. What he retains in haunting memory is a compendium of “such random images and expressions of hers that had affected him with a pang of intolerable remorse at various moments in the past” (297)—all vivid and strained and, except for one, quite unknown to us, and surprising us in different ways.

Blanche left the note and offered herself to Van only because she had handed in her resignation. Coincidentally, therefore, and most unexpectedly, Van leaves Ardis with Blanche: “I’m not eloping with your maid, Marina. It’s an optical illusion” (298). Sharing the carriage with him, gossipy Blanche excitedly spills more about Ada’s affairs with Rack and Percy: more surprises.

Van farewells Blanche at her family’s poor shack in Tourbière: he “kissed Cendrillon’s shy hand and resumed his seat in the carriage, clearing his throat and plucking at his trousers before crossing his legs. Vain Van Veen” (299). But that comic distraction quickly dissipates, and when Van reaches the train station, his thoughts echo Anna Karenin’s stream of consciousness before she threw herself under a train. His gloomy, perhaps suicidal, musings, steeped in Ada, are suddenly interrupted when coachman Trofim speaks to Van in Russian. His sentence, opaque to most readers, turns into jarring comedy as the text offers a phrase-by-phrase translation—Trofim warns he would not touch that French wench even through a leathern apron—only to segue into tragedy as Van’s despair continues the alternation of Russian and English, in the darkest tones: “Úzhas, otcháyanie: horror, despair. Zhálost’: pity. Kóncheno, zagázheno, rastérzano: finished, fouled, torn to shreds.”

There ends Ardis the Second, its last chapter surprising us in events, memories, thoughts, speech, and even in modes of narration and mood. Ardis has ended for Van, but the ardis of time, the unavoidable discovery of Ada’s infideliy, has happened and been reported in ways neither Van nor we could have foreseen.

But despite the surprise, the end of Ardis the Second matches significant aspects of the start and end of Ardis the First and the start of Ardis the Second. Both Trofim’s reluctance to touch Blanche “even through a leathern apron” (300) and Van’s “fear of infection (Bout had hinted at some of the poor girl’s troubles” (293) when Blanche offers herself to him echo obliquely both (1) Van’s fear, on the train to Ardis in 1884, that he may have been infected by the “fubsy pig-pink whorelet” (33) he and his schoolmates had availed themselves of near Riverlane, and (2) Van’s first meeting with Blanche, on his first morning at Ardis, when she resists Van in a romantic way but refers to leukorrhoea which probably proves instead to be gonorrhoea: “quant à moi, je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut. . . . I might add that I have the whites and must see le Docteur . . . Crolique, on my next day off” (49).  Leaving Ardis in 1888, Van rides with Blanche in a calèche that drops her off in Tourbière, before her “poor shack smothered in climbing roses” (299) on the way to the train station; arriving at Ardis in 1884, he had driven on a calèche from the train station to Ardis via “Torfyanka” (35), another name for Tourbière (both mean “peat” or “peaty”) and “a smithy smothered in jasmine” (35).

On Van’s first morning at Ardis, he had been “aroused by a clamorous caroling—bright warbles, sweet whistles, chirps, trills, twitters, rasping caws and tender chew-chews” (47) and then by a “savage sense of opportune license” (48) when he encounters Blanche before others are up, and accosts her, his loose attire revealing his desire. She resists, but in off-puttingly romantic and tragic tones: “Monsieur is a nobleman; I am a poor peat-digger’s daughter. Monsieur a tâté, sans doute, des filles de la ville; quant à moi, je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut. De plus, were I to fall in love with you—I mean really in love—and I might, alas, if you possessed me rien qu’une petite fois—it would be, for me, only grief, and infernal fire, and despair, and even death, Monsieur.” (49) On his last morning at Ardis, Blanche comes to him, now she is about to quit Ardis: “‘C’est ma dernière nuit au château,’ she said softly, and rephrased it in her quaint English, elegiac and stilted, as spoken only in obsolete novels. ‘’Tis my last night with thee.’ . . . She loved him, he was her ‘folly and fever,’ she wished to spend a few secret moments with him” (292). This time Van, troubled by doubts about Ada’s infidelity and by “the fear of infection,” lacks “the urge which [Blanche] took for granted and whose total absence he carefully concealed under his tartan cloak” (293). As he leaves her, he walks aimlessly “among the trees of the coppice where thrushes were singing so richly, with such sonorous force, such fluty fioriture” (294), reminiscent of the dawn chorus of his first morning at Ardis.

On the last morning of Ardis the First, Van is driven away by the butler Bouteillan, a past lover of Blanche, and on the last morning of Ardis the Second, he is driven away by the coachman Trofim Fartukov, a future lover of Blanche. Blanche features on both occasions in advice from servant to young master. To stop Bouteillan’s giving him advice about Ada, Van brutally feigns ignorance of whom the butler means by the “demoiselle” and pretends it could only be the young woman Van knows to be no longer Bouteillan’s lover: “‘If,’ said Van, ‘you’re thinking of little Blanche, then you’d better quote Delille not to me, but to your son, who’ll knock her up any day now.’// The old Frenchman glanced at Van askance, pozheval gubami (chewed his lips), but said nothing” (157). At the end of Ardis the Second, Van, who has already resisted Blanche’s sexual invitation earlier that morning partly because Bouteillan’s son has passed on to him “the fear of infection,” hears Trofim announce: “master, even through a leathern apron, I would not think of touching that French wench” (300), little knowing that the next time Van hears of him, it will be as Blanche’s husband (334).

On his last morning at Ardis the First, Van is explosively jealous of the males who might interest Ada in his absence; he warns “it’s the fellows I’ll kill” (158) and stumbles off “fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop” (159). On his last morning at Ardis the Second, he seethes with jealous rage at the men Ada has taken as lovers in his absence, and storms off with a cane to thrash the only rival with reach, Rack.

On the first night of Ardis the Second, Van arrives in the midst of a party, “a scene out of some new life being rehearsed for an unknown picture, without him, not for him” (187), “in a house rented for a motion picture” (188). Van explodes with jealousy as he spies Percy de Prey farewelling Ada, kissing her hand twice and holding it in between the two kisses, but once together Van and Ada reconcile and make love in the toolroom, “still fiercely engaged” (191) when Blanche glides in, “back from a rendezvous with old Sore the Burgundian nightwatchman” (191). Over breakfast that morning Ada explains her quandary as a supposed “parable. She was like the girl in a film he would see soon, who is in the triple throes of a tragedy which she must conceal lest she lose her only true love, the head of the arrow, the point of the pain. In secret, she is simultaneously struggling with three torments—trying to get rid of a dreary dragging affair with a married man, whom she pities; trying to nip in the bud—in the sticky red bud—a crazy adventure with an attractive young fool” (192). On the last night of Ardis the Second, after another party of movie people, Blanche offers herself to Van and lures him into that toolroom. Van wears the tartan plaid on which she had seen him and Ada making love on their first night of Ardis the Second. Now, she discloses Ada’s “dreary dragging affair with a married man” (192), Rack, only for Van to stumble out, then find Ada inadvertently disclose she has another lover, the “young fool” (192), Percy de Prey. The “parable” has proved to be plain fact.


Blanche stands as an ironic shadow of emphatically white-skinned Ada through both Ardis the First and Ardis the Second, not least through the night and morning that bracket both the first, 1884, idyll and the second, 1888, anti-idyll. Ada Veen is one of “the children of Venus” (410), her insatiable and energetic appetite for venery and for multiple lovers being echoed in comically stark form by Blanche, with her different lovers on the first and last nights and mornings of Ardis the First (Bouteillan, almost Van; Bout) and Ardis the Second (Sore; almost Van, and the professedly repulsed but soon seduced Trofim). Venus provides one set of erotic myths, ironically linked by Nabokov with Veen, the Dutch for “peat” or “bog,” as a sinking substratum to Ada and Van’s Garden of Ardis (see Boyd 2004). Eros or Cupid provides another, ironically linked by Nabokov with Blanche, the infected lover of “old Sore” (191), whose name returns in that pointed counterpart to the “Ardors and Arbors of Ardis” (588) refrain, “the rose sore of Eros” (431); her child with Trofim Fartukov, who swears he will not touch her through a leathern apron, will be born blind and trigger Van’s callous quip “Love is blind” (408).

Matching the Veen-peat/bog links, Blanche is “a poor peat-digger’s daughter” (49), as she tells Van on his first morning at Ardis, and she comes from La Tourbière or Torfyanka (from “peaty” in French and Russian). Ada refers to Blanche after her marriage as “Cinderella de Torf (now Madame Trofim Fartukov)”(334) and Trofim’s name itself seems to embody both the leathern apron (fartuk) that would not be enough to keep her at bay and the “Torf” of her home hamlet, “Torfyanka.” The first words we hear Trofim speak to Van, after Van “kissed Cendrillon’s shy hand” in Tourbière, and his question to Trofim “The express does not stop at Torfyanka, does it, Trofim?” are “I’ll take you five versts across the bog, . . . the nearest is Volosyanka,” and then his reaction to Van’s kissing “Cendrillon”: “even through a leathern apron I would not think of touching this French wench” (300). The bog of “all three Veens, the children of Venus” (410) matches the peatbog of Blanche de la Tourberie, marked by her “rose sore of Eros.”


Lucette is central to Ada and to the complications Van and Ada face in Ardis the Second. Nevertheless she does not appear in the final chapter of Ardis the Second, and she rates only one mention there, as Blanche tells Van about Ada and Rack: “and in April when he began to give piano lessons to Lucette the affair was resumed” (294). Van makes his farewells to Ada, Marina, Bouteillan, Bout, and, most warmly, Blanche, but he makes none to Lucette. Does she not matter in Van’s last taste of Ardis?

She does, indeed she does. Blanche is explicitly central to this last chapter of Ardis the Second, Lucette implicitly. Blanche and Lucette have repeatedly been cast as Cinderellas, Blanche because she is the maid abused (especially by Mlle Larivière) for her messiness, but who nevertheless turns men’s heads, and Lucette because she is the youngest of three siblings, the half-sister always left out of and yet dangerously brought into the erotic triumphs and tenderness of the older two. Crucially, Blanche and Lucette are both in love with Van; both offer themselves to Van, one far from virginal, despite her claim “je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut” (49), when she first registers his arousal at the opportunity that she presents, the other determinedly virginal, unless she can have Van. One has been damaged in consequence of her sexual licentiousness; the innocent other has been damaged by her too-early exposure to and involvement in Van and Ada’s sexual frolics. And both are the principal witnesses of those “passionate pump-joy exertions” (286), Lucette in the daytime, Blanche especially on the night shift.

Lucette and Blanche are linked in two particular ways at the end of Ardis the Second. Near the end of the second-to-last Ardis chapter, while Ada is showing Lucette how to draw flowers, “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?” (289). She has been on the front seat of the victoria, beside Trofim and seated on the lap of Van, who comes to near-orgasm under this near-repetition of his 1884 picnic ride home with Ada on his lap. Ada mocks Lucette’s concern: ““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” (289). And at the end of the last chapter of Ardis the Second, Trofim says to Van that even through a leathern apron he would not think of touching “this (that). Frantsúzskuyu: French (adj., accus.). Dévku: wench.” (300) The idea of sexual contact and sexual consequences (pregnancy, venereal disease) transmitted, through some kind of material, to someone seated on a carriage links the innocent but troubled Lucette and the knowing and already damaged Blanche. Trofim’s warning about Blanche also curiously echoes an earlier moment at Ardis the Second, where Lucette protests that her sister’s Flavita (Scrabble) find, TORFYaNUYu, is illegitimate because it is a place name. Ada crows:


“Oh, pet, you are so right! Yes, Torfyanaya, or as Blanche says, La Tourbière, is, indeed, the pretty but rather damp village where our cendrillon’s family lives. But, mon petit, in our mother’s tongue—que dis-je, in the tongue of a maternal grandmother we all share—a rich beautiful tongue which my pet should not neglect for the sake of a Canadian brand of French—this quite ordinary adjective means ‘peaty,’ feminine gender, accusative case.” (228)


This foreshadows Van’s final departure from Ardis, his dropping off Blanche at Tourbière (299) or Torfyanka (299) and his kissing “Cendrillon’s shy hand and resum[ing] his seat in the carriage, clearing his throat and plucking at his trousers before crossing his legs. Vain Van Veen,” thereby prompting Trofim’s “leathern apron” warning—which he will not heed himself—with its “French (adj., accus.)” echoing Ada’s comment in the Flavita game: “French . . . ‘peaty,’ feminine gender, accusative case” (228).

Why such a tight link between Blanche bearing the damage of her venery on the one hand and on the other Lucette outclassed by Ada at the Flavita game, Lucette on the ride home from the picnic on Van’s lap, Lucette’s naïve concerns that she might suffer consequences for her indirect contact with Van?

During the last chapter of Ardis the Second, Blanche offers herself to Van: “She loved him, he was her ‘folly and fever,’ she wished to spend a few secret moments with him” (292) and she starts to lift “her skimpy skirt” (293). Van resists her, in part because he fears infection, but mostly because the question of Ada’s infidelity completely dominates his consciousness. When Ada’s double infidelity is doubly confirmed, by Blanche and by Ada herself, Van leaves Ardis with Blanche. In the carriage and as he farewells her, he feels the arousal toward her now that he did not feel in the toolroom, as he “kissed Cendrillon’s shy hand” and adjusts the front of his trousers.

This scene oddly and eerily anticipates Lucette’s last night alive. Lucette, the story’s other Cinderella, has also declared her love to Van, she too offers herself to Van, aboard the Admiral Tobakoff, and although he resists, he and she feel he is succumbing, when Ada’s appearance onscreen as they watch together the film Don Juan’s Last Fling dispels his mood in a flash, because “the few brief scenes she was given formed a perfect compendium of her 1884 and 1888 and 1892 looks” (489). With Van’s head suddenly full again of Ada, Lucette does not stand a chance. Failing to win Vans’ sexual favors, once again outdone by her sister, as in that Flavita game, Lucette follows her ready-made resolution and takes her own life.

Both Blanche and Lucette repeatedly witness Van and Ada in flagrante. For Blanche this seems only the stuff of high romance (see the lyrical outburst at the end of II.7), although as she emphasizes in her disclosures in I.41, she is distressed for Van’s sake also to be the witness, during her own escapades, of Ada’s affairs with Rack and Percy. For Lucette, eight years old when she first spies on Van and Ada’s embraces, twelve when she is embroiled in their petting game—partly Ada’s way of tying Van up so she can see Percy (213)—the effect is much more unsettling. Seeing Ada and Van in full ardor arouses an imitative desire in both Blanche and Lucette. But the sexually experienced and hyperactive Blanche easily copes with Van’s rejection of her passion for him, and will soon move on to Trofim, despite his initially emphatic recoil. Lucette’s desire, on the other hand, has been fixed and twisted by her repeated exposure to Van and Ada’s ardor. Knowing her carefully calibrated plan, her best possible chance to win Van, has come to nothing, she chooses not to live. She dies, a virgin damaged by the sex she has been thoughtlessly entangled in.


Between kissing “Cendrillon” Blanche’s hand and hearing Trofim’s warning about touching her, Van arrives at Maidenhair station. The station, and Van’s mood, send him into a dark stream of consciousness. His thoughts swirl around the ginkgo tree at the end of the platform—in a way pointedly and explicitly reminiscent of Anna Karenin’s interior monologue before she throws herself under a train at the end of another platform—and what Ada in full botanical flight has said about the ginkgo’s species name. Like Anna, Van seems to feel a suicidal despair as he obsesses about the woman he seems to have forever lost.

But another strain can be detected here. After Van rejects Lucette, and before she commits suicide, Van will render her thoughts in a stream-of-consciousness style (493), as an expression of her turbulent feelings, a homage to Anna Karenin’s final turmoil, and perhaps an echo of Van’s most troubled mood here in I.41. And indeed the thoughts surging through Van at Maidenhair station seem pointedly to connect to Lucette’s past and future, even if Ada is his present focus.

The Maidenhair tree confused with the Venus’-hair fern seems to single out the one among “all three Veens, the children of Venus” (410), who dies a maiden. The identification of Tolstoy as the “First exponent of the inner monologue, later exploited by the French” (300) echoes the report of Ada’s “arch and grandiloquent” discussions at Ardis in I.10, including her reference to “Paul Bourget’s ‘monologue intérieur’ borrowed from old Leo” (61) and especially to her discussion of botanical names and translation, most pointedly in what she calls Wallace Fowlie’s “transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’” (64-65). As I have explained many times, Nabokov makes this souci d’eau a pointed prefiguration of Lucette’s suicide, her becoming the “care of the water” (see I.10 afternote; Boyd 1979; Boyd 1985/2001: 55-59, 291-96). Ada calls this particular souci d’eau blunder the “forged louis d’or in that collected of fouled French” (64); the “d’or” recurs in Van’s inner monologue in the name for the ginkgo that he must have learned from Ada, “L’arbre aux quarante écus d’or.”

N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert” in Van’s inner monologue expresses his sense that he will never, never, never hear Ada’s voice again, or want to hear it; but it echoes an absurd “botanical” translation Ada makes of King Lear’s last speech, over the dead Cordelia, who will “never, never, never” come to life again. But vert or green is a color associated strongly with Lucette, the color of her eyes, and, as a red-head, the color she regularly wears. In the middle of Ada’s discussion of the souci d’eau, when Van triumphantly quotes a line he can remember from Rimbaud’s “Mémoire,” “les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes,” Ada echoes it in one of “her parenthetic asides” (61), referring to “Lucette, our darling copperhead who by now should be in her green nightgown— . . . the nuance of willows . . . ” (64).

Van’s inner monologue toys with the letters of “Ginkgo,” turning it into “inkog”—foreshadowing Van’s fatal meeting with Lucette at a bar in Paris, “the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita” (460). Van’s mind continues to replay Ada’s florid riff on the nomenclature of Ginkgo biloba, up to the taxonomic sinking of the invalid junior synonym Salisbury: “poor Salisburia: sunk; poor Stream of Consciousness, marée noire by now.” But “sunk” and “stream” and “marée noire”(“black tide”) all seem to point to the girl who, on the night Van rejects her advances, dives and sinks into the black tide of the Atlantic, as prefigured in both the “stream” running through Rimbaud’s poem with its souci d’eau (63-65) and in the Ardis stream with the rubber doll, perforated at the vulva, that gets swept away as Lucette plays with it, in a scene that occurs the very first time impatient Van and Ada inadvertently let her see them in flagrante (142-43).

In other words, even as Van’s Kareninian stream-of-consciousness seems to express his almost suicidal regrets at the loss of Ada and Ardis, the n’est vert/never of a life without Ada, it also, somehow, seems to embed Lucette’s suicide. That, Nabokov seems to suggest, should be Van’s greatest reason for regret at leaving Ardis. Although Van has not thought about Lucette at all as he leaves Ardis, he and Ada have played with her there in a way that ensures she will not stop thinking about him. Blanche, inspired by shallow romance, may offer herself to Van, but she easily moves on. Lucette will never stop her fixation on Van, and when she offers herself to him, when she is spurned, she will see suicide as the only option in the face of her “never, never, never” having a chance of fulfilment with Van.

This Afternote began by stressing the unpredictability of the details of I.41, despite the ardis of time, the inexorability of Van’s discovery of Ada’s infidelity, and his irreversible departure from Ada at Ardis. But although they will remain apart—forever, as Van thinks—their dreams on Van’s last night at Ardis seem to mark their uncanny affinity: Van’s dream of “himself on a mountain smothered in snow, with people, trees, and a cow carried down by an avalanche” (292), and the dream Ada eagerly tells him, “You and I were high up in the Alps” (296), just before he discloses that he knows of her infidelity. Moments before telling him of her dream, Ada stands on a third-floor balcony and signals to him “telegraphically, with expansive linear gestures, indicating the cloudless sky (what a cloudless sky!), the jacaranda summit in bloom (blue! bloom!)” (295). That morning exhilaration, soon to be shattered, will be repeated and recouped in another key, much later, in 1922: after their attempted reunion in Mont Roux seems to have failed, Van wakes in the morning to see Ada on another balcony, “under the cloudless turquoise of the sky” (561), turning up to him, beaming, and making “the royal-grant gesture of lifting and offering him the mountains” (562). This time their reunion succeeds, once again despite the apparently inexorable direction of time. Only a page of text later but after another fifty-five years have elapsed, Van and Ada are still together, in the favorite “Of all their many houses, in Europe and in the Tropics, the château recently built at Ex, in the Swiss Alps, with its pillared front and crenelated turrets . . . especially in midwinter” (567). On Van’s last night and morning at Ardis, the twinned alpine dreams seem only ironic, just before his most bitter separation from Ada, but retrospectively they can be seen to anticipate the triumph of their final, enduring, reunion.

Lucette’s death may prove irretrievable, but Van and Ada’s impending separation, for all its apparent irreversibility, can be reversed. Though the past cannot be changed, the future remains open.



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