Part One, Chapter 42


After Van’s discovery of Ada’s infidelity at the end of I.41, we expect ire and anguish in the next chapter, but despite Van’s rage and despair, despite a duel and two deaths, comedy is I.42’s key note. As narrator, Van relives his youthful rage, but also keeps an ironic distance from his behavior then: from his anger erupting non-trivially at trivial provocations; from his self-dramatization before the duel, in the letter to his father that he discards; from his theatrical revenge, in the speech to the dying Rack that he also abandons.

But despite the comedy, other qualities also saturate the chapter. As narrator, Van states outright at the beginning of I.42 that “for him to survive on this terrible Antiterra, in the multicolored and evil world into which he was born, he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men” (301), the Philip Rack he had never suspected as a rival, but has just discovered has been a lover of Ada’s, and the Percy de Prey he has been jealous of since the beginning of Ardis the Second, and who he has already been needled by and fought with.

Van sees his total commitment to destroy these rivals as romantic intensity, as the absolute entitlement his feelings give him. Were he not to do his utmost to dispose of these men, he would not be the Byronic hero we know. But Nabokov allows Van to keep vestiges of heroism and a superficial attractiveness because he neither kills his rivals nor relents on his drive for vengeance: Rack proves to be already on his deathbed (because of his wife’s murderous jealousy) and Percy has already died at war.

And despite Van’s anguish at Ada’s unfaithfulness and his singlemindedness in pursuit of his rivals, the chapter is in fact dominated first and last by his relations with Cordula de Prey, from rapid flirting to quick consummation, and in the middle by the duel he starts with a thoroughly incidental Captain Tapper.

Van, seemingly fixated at the start of the chapter by the loss, that morning, of the love of his life, and seething with jealousy of his rivals, flirts unhesitatingly with Cordula, sizes up a harlot that night, harasses a hospital nurse over the next few days, and makes gleeful love with Cordula the next time they meet. Van, seemingly fixated at the start of the chapter on revenge against Rack and de Prey, lashes out in a challenge against a man whose homosexuality only proves his irrelevance to Van’s furious sexual jealousy.



We can see these ironies another way: I.42 has something of a dream logic, a comic nightmare dream logic, of substitution.

Van wants to face off against two men, but he cannot reach Percy, the rival he most wants to fight, the beastly beau he has been explosively jealous of since his return to Ardis, the swaggering swain he has been on the verge of duelling ever since their unnerving fight at the picnic. Rack will have to do, a substitute close to hand, even if beneath disdain as a rival and, probably, not even duelable.

But instead, in his anger, Van finds himself in a duel with a Captain Tapper, someone whose very existence he has just, literally, bumped into, and whose homosexuality shows he has nothing in common with Van’s reason for wanting to attack his rivals. Yet Van sees Tapper as an “invigorating” substitute for Rack and Percy, despite his being so irrelevant, such an “incidental clown” (307).

Just in case he does not survive the duel, Van writes an elaborate, exuberant, and frank testament to his father, only to tear it up and substitute another, much terser note.

He does not die in the duel, but his wound sends him to hospital, where he demands to be “transferred to the best private palata in the place” (311): “His new quarters . . . proved to be a replica in white of his hotel apartment—white furniture, white carpet, white sparver” (312).

Van begins the chapter intent on killing Rack and Percy, or at least maiming them “for life” (301). But he finds surrogate executioners at work on his behalf: in the Kalugano hospital he learns that Rack’s wife Elsie has been plying her husband with enough poison to cast him to his deathbed, and as he flies the hospital Van hears a Tartar tribesman has stepped forward to shoot Percy.

As he departed Ardis, Van selected a cane for pummelling Rack, but he somehow left it at the Maidenhair station café. He buys a second cane in Kalugano. After his wound in the duel he is taken to hospital and learns Rack is there, the hospital supplies him with a Third Cane.

When he learns that Rack is already in the ward for hopeless cases, he seems to deliver a long metaphysical speech crowding the afterlife with as many terrors as he can imagine for a dying man, but “With a not unfamiliar gesture, Van tore up his prepared speech and said: ‘Mr. Rack, open your eyes. I’m Van Veen. A visitor.’” (315)

Above all, Van has lost Ada, and nothing can ever replace her. Yet Cordula will do very well as temporary substitute—or, since her train has swept on past Kalugano, the harlot in a bar there will do, or the Tatiana in hospital, or, once again, the Cordula who, when he writes to her, eagerly rushes back to gruesome Kalugano and into Van’s arms. Even after having the satisfaction of hearing from her of cousin Percy’s death, this “one-track man in matters of soft passion . . .  was at the moment much more anxious to enjoy Cordula as soon as humanly and humanely possible . . . than to keep deploring the fate of a fellow he hardly knew” (320).

Too impatient to sort out his belongings on leaving Ardis, Van has ordered them to be sent to his father’s address. In Kalugano, therefore, he buys replacement clothes and a suitcase, but when he escapes from the hospital with Cordula on the spur of the moment, before his discharge date, he leaves these replacements behind. In Luga, Cordula buys him new clothes so he can change from his hospital pajamas, and in a secluded spot there Van transfers “Cordula to his lap and had her very comfortably, with such howls of enjoyment that she felt touched and flattered” (321): no permanent substitute for Ada, of course, but plainly a very satisfying temporary one.



Van’s rapid advances on Cordula de Prey, just hours after leaving Ada, when he feels particularly uncontainable anger toward his rival Percy de Prey, highlight his hypocrisy (for more on this theme, see Boyd 2001: 163). Indeed he had made boorish advances to Cordula on first meeting her (“How could I get in touch with you? . . . Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?” 165), just after his idyll with Ada at Ardis the First, as he now makes even more direct advances, caressing her under the railway tearoom table, even sooner after the end of Ardis the Second.

When he next met Ada after Ardis the First, at Brownhill, with Cordula as chaperone (167-70), Van had been lividly jealous of the older girl, despite his own unsubtle advances on her on their one previous meeting. At Brownhill he mistakes her for the lesbian lover Ada implies when she farewells him at the end of Ardis the First and he asks for her to “be faithful to me” (“my love, my Van, I’m physical, horribly physical, I don’t know, I’m frank, qu’y puis-je? Oh dear, don’t ask me, there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me,” 158). But now in I.42, without hesitation, he fondles Cordula,“no longer a virgin” (303) and much lovelier than she had been, in a tearoom on the train, a “‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ’Eighties and ’Nineties” (302), an aside that pointedly evokes the railway station café near Brownhill College where Van had seethed with misplaced jealousy of Cordula. By the end of the chapter Van makes love to Cordula despite his wound.

Van had been furious that Ada had accepted as a lover Percy de Prey, though she and Van had not seen one another for four years, apart from one furtive half-hour tryst two years previously. In I.42 Van has last seen Ada just that morning when, despite thoughts of implacable revenge against his rivals, he allows himself to be distracted by the sexual availability of Cordula de Prey. The echoing names, the cousinage of the two de Preys, only highlight Van’s double standards.

Van talks to Cordula on the train taking him to Kalugano precisely to pry out of her her cousin Percy’s address, so that he can hunt his rival down, and when Cordula helps him flee from hospital at the end of the chapter, she informs him not of Percy’s address but of his death. Van had virtually ignored Cordula at the party he arrives in the midst of at the start of Ardis the Second, where he first flares with jealousy at Percy’s overfamiliar farewell to Ada. But now he not only notices Cordula, and strikes up a conversation with her, he also makes immediate sexual advances. Then, at the party at the start of Van’s Ardis the Second, he told Cordula his “horse caught a hoof in a hole in the rotting planks of Ladore Bridge and had to be shot. I have walked eight miles”—and a moment later he expanded the story to a new valet: “His train had broken down in the fields between Ladoga and Ladore, he had walked twenty miles” (189). Now, he leaves Ladore on a “crack express tearing north at a hundred miles per hour” (301). Although the jealousy of Percy de Prey that suddenly spiked on his first night at Ardis the Second has become a throbbing rage by his last morning there, his immediate sexual gratification with Cordula quickly distracts him from the quest to learn Percy’s address. Swiftly responding to his letter from hospital, Cordula arrives in a “pale-gray four-door sedan” that “glided in”  in front of Van, on the point of returning to “his deckchair” (318), as at Ada’s sixteenth birthday picnic Percy’s “steel-gray convertible glided into the glade” and he “strode up to Marina’s deckchair” (270-71). Recounting that picnic, and the fight and near-duel (“‘Is that a challenge, me faites-vous un duel?’ inquired Van. . . . ‘Quand tu voudras, mon gars,’ said Van, slapping the fender and using the terrible second person singular of duelists in old France,” 277), Van as narrator pre-announced Percy’s death, which Cordula first announces now, in live story time, as she jumps out of the sedan that “glided in” to the hospital grounds. When he gloatingly pre-announced Percy’s death, Van as narrator mockingly addressed Percy as “old sport” (273); now in I.42, as he absconds from the hospital with Cordula, who is about to tell him of Percy’s death, he describes her as “a good sport” (318).

Nabokov in other words structures the evidence of Van’s hypocrisy—absolute murderous jealousy of Ada’s lovers, yet an absolute sense of entitlement to pursue whatever other women cross his path—through the linking of the two not very closely related, and at first puzzlingly echoing, de Preys, and the linking of wildly different settings (the party opening Ardis the Second and the train taking him from there; the picnic and the hospital) in ways that are tightly controlled and elegantly designed, always thematic but never schematic.



Pumped with anger, Van has been brusquely rude to the harmless Dr. Platonov and then, distracted by Cordula’s talk, to the man he crashes into as he rushes to get off the train at Kalugano in pursuit of Rack. Captain Tapper’s outburst, “On n’est pas goujat à ce point" (304), provokes angry Van to challenge him to a duel. Van has wanted to attack Rack in Kalugano, but has felt conscious that he could probably not duel him (“The code, he reflected, did not allow to challenge a person who was not born a gentleman . . . ” 294). Now the duel with Tapper allows him an outlet for his rage and makes him feel “if not happier, at least more buoyant” (305) than he has since Blanche’s disclosure about Ada’s infidelity: “Nothing more invigorating could have been imagined” (307).

Tapper’s obvious homosexuality, like that of his friends, the two seconds for the duel, emphasises that Van’s duel with this “incidental clown” (307) is utterly irrelevant to the root cause of his anger. He could feel no sexual jealousy of this man, no reason to regard him as a rival for Ada or any other woman. Instead, Van’s anger spills over into contempt for Tapper’s, Birdfoot’s, and Raffin’s homosexuality. Van had thought of venting his emotion on Rack and de Prey; now, someone completely unconnected with his love for Ada will suffice to vent at least some of his anger.

Yet despite his irrelevance, Tapper also links in pointed ways with Van’s current rivals and targets. Like Rack, Tapper lives in Kalugano, where Van has come to find his nearest foe. Their duel takes place in a clearing in the Kalugano pine-forest, led up to by the Dorofey Road (310) where Rack had recently lived (313), and after Van’s wound sends him to hospital, he is wheeled by a nurse called Dorofey to Rack’s bedside, where he intends perhaps to thrash him, perhaps “merely” to terrorize his imagination.

Rack is no homosexual, but he is effeminate, like Tapper’s milieu. Like Percy, Tapper is an officer, Captain to Percy’s Lieutenant. Unlike the limp Rack (Van has “never clasped a . . . limper . . . forelimb,” 208), both Percy and Tapper are “burly” (273, 304). Percy too is no homosexual, yet had been involved in a “homosexual or rather pseudo-homosexual row at his school (an upper-form boy, Cordula’s cousin, had been caught with a lass disguised as a lad in the rooms of an eclectic prefect)” (168). Despite the irrelevance of Tapper to Van, his duel with him is also a pointed compensation for the deadly duels he would have liked with Rack, had he been duelable, and Percy, had he been accessible.

Van had thought of telling Ada and Cordula that story about Percy and the “homosexual or rather pseudo-homosexual row” on his visit to Ada at Brownhill, precisely because he was seething with a  jealousy that he did not want to admit to, jealousy of Ada for a homosexual relationship with, as he wrongly suspected, Cordula. So once again, the homosexuality that had seemed proof of irrelevance to Van’s jealousy of Ada actually links with the first sustained manifestation of that jealousy, at Brownhill.

Despite Tapper’s comically foregrounded homosexuality, and therefore the foregrounded irrelevance of the duel, in some ways the duel seems almost an enactment of the duel Van all but had with Percy.

The duel with Tapper, and the bullet wound Van receives in it, seem virtually synchronized with the fatal shooting of Percy. Percy dies “on the second day of the invasion, less than a week after they had left Goodson airport” (319); Van is alerted to Ada’s infidelity on the day Percy departs, he hears the details the next day, and on the second day after Percy’s departure, he has the duel.

The weapons also match. Percy is killed by his own gun, by an American army “automatic pistol” (320); Captain Tapper, it seems, provides Van and himself for the duel with “an army ‘bruger’” (307) apiece (Nabokov in his own copy glosses this for translators as: “automatic”).

After showing Percy’s needling hostility to Van when he arrives uninvited at the 1888 picnic for Ada’s birthday, but before recounting their two-phase fight, Van preannounces Percy’s death:

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. . . . Burly, handsome, indolent and ferocious, a crack Rugger player, a cracker of country girls, you combined the charm of the
off-duty athlete with the engaging drawl of a fashionable ass. I think what I hated most about your handsome moon face was that baby
complexion, the smooth-skinned jaws of the easy shaver. I had begun to bleed every time, and was going to do so for seven decades. (273)

 Percy’s fight—and near-duel—with Van takes place in a pine glade (266), like the clearing in a pine forest (310) where the duel with Tapper takes place. The morning of Van’s duel, “He shaved, disposed of two blood-stained safety blades by leaving them in a massive bronze ashtray” (309), as if in echo of the comment above about his hatred for Percy’s “smooth-skinned jaws of the easy shaver,” as if Van has drawn blood in the duel he all but had with Percy.  Just as he enters the Kalugano pine forest for the duel with Tapper, “Van felt a twinge in his knee where he had hit it against a stone when attacked from behind [by Percy] a week ago, in another wood” (310), minutes before he is shot near the heart. A week or so later, as Van flies from hospital with Cordula, she tells him of Percy’s death and Van as narrator gloatingly conjures up the scene:  

He had immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. . . . When a couple
of minutes later, Percy—still Count Percy de Prey—regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and
grass. A smiling old Tartar . . . picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, . . .  examined it with naive pleasure and then
shot him in the temple. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual’s brief, rapid series of impressions . . .
feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone . . . ). (319-20)

 Van as character was denied a duel with Percy, but now as narrator relishes the control he has over the scene of his death.


Handwalking, Wrestling, Duel, and Wound

Given both Van’s immodesty and his narratorial role, his account of the aftermath of Ardis is naturally Van-centric, but despite the comic note that retrospection allows him to inject, he suffers more than the “superficial muscle wound” (312) and the tone suggests. 

Percy is shot dead, but although Van feels “the jolt of the bullet ripping off, or so it felt, the entire left side of his torso” (311), he is told by his doctor that he “escaped with a superficial muscle wound, the bullet having lightly grooved or, if he might say so, grazed the greater serratus” (312-13). Lucette sees it differently: “your heart was almost ripped out, my poor dushen’ka (‘darling,’ more than ‘darling’), [the scar] looked to me at least eight inches long” (411). The greater serratus on the left side does indeed almost wrap around the ribs over the heart. And Van learns the next month that he can no longer handwalk (see 323).

In the album of Kim Beauharnais photographs which he and Ada examine together in 1892, Van comes across  

several shots of the 1884 picnic, such as Ada and Grace dancing a Lyaskan fling and reversed Van nibbling at pine starworts
(conjectural identification).
            “That’s finished,” said Van, “a precious sinistral sinew has stopped functioning. I can still fence and deliver a fine punch
but hand-walking is out. You shall not sniffle, Ada. Ada is not going to sniffle and wail. King Wing says that the great Vekchelo
turned back into an ordinary chelovek at the age I’m now, so everything is perfectly normal.” (401)

 Van’s handwalking has particularly strong links with the Ardis picnics and with the theme of male rivalry and aggression. Note Van’s assertion here that he “can still fence and deliver a fine punch”: for him, the handwalking is associated with duels and male competition.

To generalize for a moment: I.42 seems, among much else, an inquiry into modes of maleness. The male-male competition building in Van’s and Percy’s bristling hostility at the picnic in I.39, in the semi-challenge Percy offers in I.40, in Van’s reaction in I.41 after he hears of his successful rivals for Ada’s favors, primes the explosive hostility Van directs first at the mild Dr. Platonov and then at the much less mild Captain Tapper, who nevertheless proves to be homosexual. The less than virile Rack has had his meager vitality completely drained by his wife, while the priapic Percy is shot point blank by a seemingly friendly Tartar. And Van’s behavior to Cordula, his intentions toward the harlot in Kalugano, and his treatment of nurse Tatiana, reveal another side of Demonic maleness.

But to return to specifics. Both the handwalking and the male competition themes are introduced forcefully at the 1884 picnic, and, from the start, in terms that link with both the 1888 picnic, with its near-duel, and the 1888 duel in Kalugano itself:  

Two years earlier, when about to begin his first prison term at the fashionable and brutal boarding school, to which other Veens
had gone before him (as far back as the days “when Washingtonias were Wellingtonias”), Van had resolved to study some striking
stunt that would give him an immediate and brilliant ascendancy. (81)

 Notice that by this stage adolescent Van already thinks in terms of male rivalry; that he does so in connection with Riverlane, where he will first meet Percy de Prey; that the theme of male military competition is woven in via the connection between the generals George Washington and the Duke of Wellington; and that the Wellington theme will come in again when Van hears the full details of Lieutenant de Prey’s death in the Crimean War from “Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington” (319)—and Van also imagines his lost second alpenstockish cane, which he had intended using on his other rival, Philip Rack, “climbing nowadays Wellington Mountain” (312).

To resume the inset quotation above, and the 1884 picnic:  

Accordingly, after a conference with Demon, King Wing, the latter’s wrestling master, taught the strong lad to walk on his hands by
means of a special play of the shoulder muscles. . . . Van peeled off his polo shirt. . . . The slenderness of his torso . . . contrasted with
the handsome boy’s abnormally developed deltoids and sinewy forearms. Four years later Van could stun a man with one blow of either
. . . . Van gripped with splayed hands the brow of gravity, and moved to and fro, veering and sidestepping, opening his mouth the
wrong way, and blinking in the odd bilboquet fashion peculiar to eyelids in his abnormal position. Even more extraordinary than the variety
and velocity of the movements he made in imitation of animal hind legs was the effortlessness of his stance; King Wing warned him that
Vekchelo, a Yukon professional, lost it by the time he was twenty-two
; but that summer afternoon, on the silky ground of the pineglade, in
the magical heart of Ardis, under Lady Erminin’s blue eye, fourteen-year-old Van treated us to the greatest performance we have ever seen a
brachiambulant give. (81-82: italics added)

Here in 1884 Van’s “greatest performance” seems to reflect his new confidence in love, “the original joy [of] his falling in love with Ada” (70).  His performance is a bravura display of cocky virility, like the strut of successful lekking birds, and a comic contrast to Greg Erminin, also, unbeknownst to young Van, in love with Ada, but able to do no better than this for his picnic party trick: “Greg put on his sister’s blue skirt, hat and glasses, all of which transformed him into a very sick, mentally retarded Grace; and Van walked on his hands” (81). Nabokov, as an admirer of Darwin, must have been perfectly conscious he was echoing Darwin’s emphasis on male-male competition and female choice in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).

But notice, in the inset quotation above, the “Four years later Van could stun a man with one blow of either elbow,” anticipating very precisely Van’s “‘piston blow’ delivered by the left elbow” (304) to the porter trying to restrain him from responding to Captain Tapper’s attack after he has challenged him to a duel.

Notice also that at the 1888 picnic the uninvited and drunk Percy tries to disconcert Van with his challenging and envious double-entendres: “‘I’m told you like abnormal positions? . . . that walking-on-your-hands trick. . . . The legend has it that you do it all day long, in every corner, congratulations!” (271) (compare his “abnormal positions” provocation with the “abnormal position” in the long 1884 picnic quote above). Nabokov’s attention to the process of sexual selection, and its role in shaping male competitiveness and, in many species including humans, male aggressiveness, becomes still clearer here in the 1888 picnic, as two would-be alpha males square off—even if Van does not yet know how much of a claim to Ada Percy already has—and are reported to the young woman over whom they are fighting by lambda male Greg. Of course by the time Van narrates this episode he knows full well that Percy has had an affair with Ada, and gleefully, vindictively introduces the foreglimpse of his rival’s death (“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 . . . but that July day in Ladore County . . . ,” 273).

Not that he does not triumph over his rival even at the picnic. There, when the two testosterone-charged young men quickly find themselves unable not to fight, Van instantly puts Percy “‘on his omoplates,’ na lopatki, as King Wing used to say in his carpet jargon” (275), pointedly recalling the introduction of King Wing as Van’s handwalking instructor as well as his wrestling master in the 1884 picnic. Van then pushes further:              

Percy lay panting like a dying gladiator, both shoulder blades pressed to the ground by his tormentor, whose thumbs now started to
manipulate horribly that heaving thorax. Percy with a sudden bellow of pain intimated he had had enough. Van requested a more
articulate expression of surrender, and got it. (275)

Van starts to walk back to the picnic glade “when a mountain fell upon him from behind. With one violent heave he swung his attacker over his head. Percy crashed and lay supine for a moment or two. Van, his crab claws on the ready, contemplated him, hoping for a pretext to inflict a certain special device of exotic torture that he had not yet had the opportunity to use in a real fight” (275). Percy says to Van as he leaves:

  “Hope to play with you again soon. I wonder,” he added in a lower voice, “if you shoot as straight as you wrestle.”         
            Van followed him to the convertible. . . .
            “Is that a challenge, me faites-vous un duel?” inquired Van. (277)

Percy only smiles and slits his eyes, but the next morning sends a messenger to clarify that there has been no challenge yet, and yet no avoiding of a challenge, in view of the fact that

In a couple of days I must leave for a spell of military service abroad. If you desire to see me before I go I shall be glad to
entertain you (and any other gentleman you might wish to bring along) at dawn tomorrow where the Maidenhair road
crosses Tourbière Lane. If not, I beg you to confirm in a brief note that you bear me no grudge.
. . . (283-84).

Van tells the messenger he does not desire to see the Count, because he does not yet know that Percy’s attention to Ada has been thoroughly reciprocated. Once he does, by the beginning of I.42, a duel seems to him utterly necessary and imperative, and had he found Percy alive he would have shot to kill.

The morning of the seemingly irrelevant duel with Captain Tapper, as Van steps out of the car to the duelling-ground, he  

felt a faint twinge in his knee where he had hit it against a stone when attacked from behind a week ago, in another wood.
At the moment his foot touched the pine-needle strewn earth of the forest road, a transparent white butterfly floated past,
and with utter certainty Van knew that he had only a few minutes to live. (310)

In other words, he feels a twinge of the pain Percy caused in that earlier confrontation, and a false premonition of death. Notice the pine needles of the duelling ground linking up with the pine needles at the site of that picnic fight (279).

Although the premonition is quite false, Van does receive more than “a superficial muscle wound” (312). It is as if his “heart was almost ripped out” (411), and his inability to handwalk again marks an irrevocable loss of his trust in Ada. As Mascodagama, in the most exuberant display of his handwalking prowess, early in 1888, Van had felt it “the standing of a metaphor on its head not for the sake of the trick’s difficulty, but in order to perceive an ascending waterfall or a sunrise in reverse: a triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time” (184-85). He had come to Ardis the Second in the summer of 1888 hoping to recapture the joy of Ardis the First, and at times during that stay he feels he has. But by the end of Ardis the Second, he knows for sure, after the disclosure of Ada’s infidelity, and the blow to near his heart, and the loss of his ability to walk on his hands, that he cannot triumph over the direction of time: time will inevitably mean loss, including of anything like “the young pang of the original joy [of] his falling in love with Ada” (70). Things have irrevocably changed, and, as he now sees it, his love for Ada, “the greatest event in my life” (309), as he writes to his father, is over forever. Van himself emphasises the wound, in a way that seems mostly to foreground its physical slightness and its psychological sting:

With the return of health the image of Ada kept rising within him like a bitter and brilliant wave, ready to swallow him. His bandages had
been removed; nothing but a special vest-like affair of flannel enveloped his torso, and though it was tight and thick it did not protect him
any longer from the poisoned point of Ardis. Arrowhead Manor. Le Château de la Flèche, Flesh Hall. (318)

 Van here chooses the metaphor of the “poisoned point” of the wound that he receives to link the shot that hits him in the duel—an indirect and even irrelevant consequence of his searing rage at Ada’s infidelity—with both the poison that kills Rack and the “stab of Ardis” (320) that he imagines crossing Percy’s mind at the last instant between bullet and death.  And in his comment on both Rack’s death and Percy’s, Van remarks: “What a strange coincidence! Either Ada’s lethal shafts were at work, or he, Van, had somehow managed to dispatch her two wretched lovers in a duel with a dummy.” (320) This again returns to what seems to Van to be the comic side of recent events—“the comically exaggerated zeal Fate was to display” (301) in helping him dispatch his two rivals. The imagery of “Ada’s lethal shafts,” too, shows that both he and Nabokov are playing with myths of love, with the arrow of Cupid, the child of Venus (Van will later refer to himself, Ada, and Lucette as “the children of Venus,” 410).

Van’s being shot in the duel with the irrelevant Tapper seems comically incidental. Yet its near synchronization with the death of Percy and the matching of weapons stress its role as an extremely close surrogate of the duel that Van and Percy prefigured in their fight at the picnic, and even considered escalating to, and all but played out just after.

Of course the double asides announcing Percy’s death, before the fight at the picnic (273) and then again after Van’s escape from the hospital where his wound in the duel has confined him (319-20), express Van’s vindictive hostility overtly, even to a first-time reader. But his “superficial muscle wound” (312) in the actual duel seems an easy escape, given both Van’s preparation for possible death (in the “when-you-receive-this” note to his father, 308) and his premonition of his death when he arrives at the forest where the duel will take place, even if the wound comes as a surprise after Van’s confidence he can try some “artistic and tricky” (308) marksmanship against Tapper.

And even when we recognize the implications of Van’s wound, the loss of his ability to handwalk, not disclosed until the next chapter, and not confirmed as a permanent change until much later, it still seems comically slight. Handwalking, after all, even if for Van a sign of his “brilliant ascendancy” (81), is hardly an essential human activity.

But when we see the pattern of handwalking woven through the two Ardis picnics, and King Wing’s influence on Van’s wrestling as well as his handwalking, and therefore on his vying with Percy, the loss of Van’s ability indicates an emotional scarring, a permanent wound in his love-life, that is not altogether trivial. In one sense the wound, the ardis-arrowhead pattern, the myth of Venus’s child, is parodic, on the part of both Nabokov and Van. In another sense it is psychologically pointed: after the loss of his trust in Ada, of the security of his love for her, Van will never be the same: he will never again be able to express in physical or in psychological form that “triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time” (185) that brought him back to Ardis in 1888 to relive his first summer with Ada.



Although Nabokov pays attention to Van’s emotional scarring in the duel, it is others who suffer or might have suffered or later suffer whom he especially has in mind.

In the opening paragraph of the chapter Van makes plain enough his viciously violent intentions to others: “he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men. He had to find them immediately” (301). In fact, he ends up harming neither of them, nor the man he duels in compensation for the duels he might have had with them, and indeed only he suffers harm in the duel. In that light Van’s violent intentions may seem almost comic, an irate but harmless display rather than repellently egocentric brutishness. But Nabokov signals the persistence of Van’s violence, his brutality and indifference to others, through patterns connecting the two rivals who are his targets here and the duel with someone who is not at all his target but an “invigorating” (307) compensation.

As we have seen, we discover in the account of the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday, as a prelude to Van’s impressive demonstration of handwalking, that he learned this skill from Demon’s wrestling master precisely to shine—“to give him an immediate and brilliant ascendancy”—in the fierce male competition he knows to expect at “the fashionable and brutal boarding school,” Riverlane (81). At the picnic he strips off his shirt to display his prowess, revealing his “abnormally developed deltoids and sinewy forearms. Four years later Van could stun a man with one blow of either elbow” (82). At the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday, the drunk and hostile Percy de Prey provokes Van about his handwalking and embroils him in a fight that anticipates the duel they never have. Here in I.42, just after Van slaps Captain Tapper with his glove, to challenge him, and Tapper lunges at him, someone holds Van from behind, and “Not bothering to turn his head he abolished the invisible busybody with a light ‘piston blow’ delivered by the left elbow, while he sent the captain staggering back into his own luggage with one crack of the right hand” (304). The porter who had intervened has “a copiously bleeding nose” (304); Van, son of privilege that he is, “chose a twenty dollar piece from a palmful of gold, and gave it with a grin to the damaged old porter. ‘Yellow cotton,’ Van added: ‘Up each nostril. Sorry, chum’” (305).

Van had fumed with jealousy at Percy from his first evening back at Ardis the Second. Ada managed to allay his misgivings then, but Percy as threat looms still larger at the picnic. There, Van still supposes Percy simply enamored of Ada and envious of his own ready access to her. But in retrospect Van knows better, and as narrator he takes full advantage of hindsight to gloat over Percy’s imminent death even as, as a character within the scene, he is about to find himself the target of drunk Percy’s reckless aggression. He preannounces the death, gloating over the details: “Percy, you were to die very soon—and not from that pellet in your fat leg. . .. ” (273). When the fighting starts, Van relishes his ascendancy, putting Percy instantly

“on his omoplates,” na lopatki, as King Wing used to say in his carpet jargon. Percy lay panting like a dying gladiator, both shoulder
blades pressed to the ground by his tormentor, whose thumbs now started to manipulate horribly that heaving thorax. Percy with a
sudden bellow of pain intimated he had had enough. Van requested a more articulate expression of surrender, and got it. (275)

When Percy on the way back to the glade attacks him from behind, Van “with one violent heave”  

swung his attacker over his head. Percy crashed and lay supine for a moment or two. Van, his crab claws on the ready, contemplated him,
hoping for a pretext to inflict a certain special device of exotic torture that he had not yet had the opportunity to use in a real fight. (275)

 Despite talk of a duel between them, it does not happen. But Van’s anger lands him in a duel with Tapper. After he escapes from the hospital where his wound has brought him, Cordula informs him Percy has been shot, and Van elaborates on her bare report with information later gleaned from eyewitness Bill Fraser, as if savoring what he would have wished to do to his foe, as if reenacting it in his prose.

Van feels anxious about Percy at the start of Ardis the Second and as its end looms closer. But the first rival he hears about from Blanche is not the Percy he half expects but the woebegone Philip Rack, whom he had always dismissed and recoiled from as thoroughly as he thought Ada had. Although Van will never lay a harsh hand on Rack, the melancholy musician proves central to a pattern of violence extending throughout the novel.

Near Forest Fork, as he parts from Ada at the end of Ardis the First, Van implores Ada to be faithful, waving aside her confession that she is “physical, horribly physical. . . .  Oh dear, don’t ask me, there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me”: “ The girls don’t matter,’ said Van, ‘it’s the fellows I’ll kill if they come near you. . . . ’ . . . fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop, Van returned to the Forest Fork” (158-59). That seems just boyish bravado. It has deepened in tone by the opening of I.42, “he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men” (301). Even this still seems bluster, despite his imminent outburst at Dr. Platonov, his challenge to Captain Tapper, his “piston blow” in the porter’s face, and his prepared but unused speech for the dying Rack. But the riding crop at the end of Ardis the First prefigures the pattern of canes and alpenstocks that sounds loudly in the three canes of I.42 and that will result in unqualified and repellent violence.

Van’s early threat to kill “the fellows . . . if they come near you” (158-59), now hardened into his sense that “he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men” (301), still seems like mere emotional venting, despite Van’s thinking he might “thrash [Rack] with a strong cane”(294). The tension mounts when he replaces the cane he has left behind with “a rude, stout article with . . . an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305) and anticipates that “Rack would no doubt accept a plain thrashing in lieu of combat” (307). Even Van sees he need hardly kill someone about to die, but he finds an active outlet for his hostility by preparing ghoulish psychological torture in a speech priming Rack to anticipate an eternity of anguish. But the tension dissipates comically as Van discards this prepared speech and when he merely extends “the end of his cane” to Rack in his hospital bed. Rack took it in his weak hand and “palpated politely, thinking it was a well-meant offer of support. . . . Van drew in his useless weapon” (315-16). But Van will use one alpenstock viciously on someone who crosses him, in a way that Nabokov carefully links to Rack and de Prey in I.42.

At the end of Ardis the Second, Van rushes in jealous fury after his two rivals, lashes out at the incidental and irrelevant Captain Tapper, and thinks of thrashing Rack. At the end of his next stay with Ada, in Manhattan, Van has been barred from seeing Ada by Demon, who has discovered his son and previously unacknowledged daughter as lovers. Van knows Ada has been proposed to by Andrey Vinelander, whose suit Demon favors, and feels his usual instant hostility to this new rival, which, at the end of his next (and gleefully adulterous) spell with Ada, in Mont Roux in 1905, when she has long been married to Vinelander, results in fantasies of duelling him (531)—except that Vinelander, like Rack here in I.42, seems already doomed to death, in his case by advanced tuberculosis. But in 1892, after agreeing to Demon’s edict not to see Ada, Van has no outlet for his rage, except by attacking Kim Beauharnais, the Ardis “kitchen photo-fiend” (205) who has tried to blackmail Ada with photos of her sexual romps with Van in 1884. We learn that Kim “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); note that the event that caused the damage is unmentioned, and the agent, if any, unstated. Part 2 ends with Ada’s later recalling the damage Van’s rage—for it was no accident, but Van’s calculated “damage limitation”—has caused Kim: “‘But, you know, there’s one thing I regret,’ she added: ‘Your use of an alpenstock to release a brute’s fury—not yours, not my Van’s. I should never have told you about the Ladore policeman. You should never have taken him into your confidence, never connived with him to burn those files—and most of Kalugano’s pine forest” (445-46).

“Kalugano’s pine forest,” in Ada’s reference here to the attack on Kim, is of course also the scene of the duel in I.42. The alpenstock with which Van assaults Kim also harks back to the chapter of the duel, to his savage intentions toward Rack: his buying the second cane, “with . . . an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305), and his fuller fantasy, as he thinks ahead to the duel as diversion:  

He looked forward to the encounter with keen exhilaration. Nothing more invigorating could have been imagined. Shooting it out with that
incidental clown furnished unhoped-for relief, particularly since Rack would no doubt accept a plain thrashing in lieu of combat. Designing
and re-designing various contingencies pertaining to that little duel might be compared to those helpful hobbies which polio patients, lunatics
and convicts are taught by generous institutions, by enlightened administrators, by ingenious psychiatrists—such as bookbinding, or putting
blue beads into the orbits of dolls made by other criminals, cripples and madmen. (307)

The callously ghoulish fantasies here match Van’s attitude to blinding Kim:  

“Amends have been made,” replied fat Van with a fat man’s chuckle. “I’m keeping Kim safe and snug in a nice Home for Disabled
Professional People, where he gets from me loads of nicely brailled books on new processes in chromophotography.” (446)

 So although the violence of Van’s intentions almost comically comes to naught in I.42, and though he ends up, in a wry irony, being the only one wounded, the viciousness of his attitude to others, evident in his intentions as a character and in his reporting as narrator, is a genuine and deep-grained element of his character and will find its gruesome outlet.

The cane and the duel also link with patterns encompassing other actual or even momentarily suspected rivals for Ada: the actor Johnny Starling,  Andrey Vinelander, and Greg Erminin, as we will see in future chapters and their afternotes (II.5, II.10, III.3).


Demonic models

Van’s sense of utter entitlement in love and hatred are not only his own. They are also his father’s, in even starker form. Although Demon does not appear in the chapter, his presence, his example, his influence pervade it from the start, indeed from the very first sentence:  

Aqua used to say that only a very cruel or very stupid person, or innocent infants, could be happy on Demonia, our splendid planet.
Van felt that for him to survive on this terrible Antiterra, in the multicolored and evil world into which he was born, he had to destroy,
or at least to maim for life, two men. He had to find them immediately; delay itself might impair his power of survival. (301)

 The word “Demonia,” as an alternative name to Antiterra, has never been used before in the novel. It primes us for the turn from Ardis’s paradise to what we expect to be Van’s new hell—and what turns out to be, for Van, almost comically rewarding.

As evoked by Aqua, “Demonia” of course calls to mind the husband whose flagrant infidelities helped drive her to suicide. The second sentence, expressing Van’s utter determination to kill his rivals or at least maim them for life, cannot help evoking, after the prompt of “Demonia,” the Demon who dashes across the Atlantic in pursuit of the man with whom Marina has been unfaithful to him, in the hope of “killing his man in Europe” (14): the paternal example of outraged male pride and jealousy.

The Demonic signs keep coming. (They have also been in evidence, as we have seen, in the lead-up to Van’s fierce encounters with Percy, in Van’s debt to Demon’s wrestling master.) Van stops to talk with Cordula and her mother, on the train from Ladoga, in pursuit of the exact whereabouts of Percy de Prey. He first met mother and daughter through Demon, who, when he invites Van to accompany him to the party at Cordula’s mother’s, explains that it is “given by the excellent widow of an obscure Major de Prey—obscurely related to our late neighbor, a fine shot but the light was bad on the Common, and a meddlesome garbage collector hollered at the wrong moment” (163). On his flight from Ardis, Van takes Cordula to the “crumpeter” and with Demonian swiftness, and Demonian double standards,  

started to caress her under the table, but she gently removed his hand, whispering “womenses,” as whimsically as another
girl had done in some other dream. He cleared his throat loudly and ordered half-a-bottle of cognac, having the waiter open
it in his presenceas Demon advised. (303)

 The explicit marker of Demonic “style” is no accident. Before Van can savor much of the cognac, he rushes off the train at Kalugano, crashing into Captain Tapper, and, unable to tolerate the Captain’s annoyed response, “glove-slapped him smartly across the face” (304), as Demon, after catching up with the Baron d’Onsky in Nice, “back-slapped the astonished Baron across the face with a lavender glove. The challenge was accepted” (14). So too is Van’s challenge accepted by Captain Tapper: “Visiting cards were exchanged. ‘Demon’s son?’ grunted Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge, Kalugano. ‘Correct,’ said Van” (304). When Van, still in eager pursuit of Rack, realizes he has to get back to his hotel to arrange matters with the seconds, “He found them sitting in the lounge and requested them to settle matters rapidly—he had more important business than that. ‘Ne grubit’ sekundantam’ (never be rude to seconds), said Demon’s voice in his mind” (306). Like the advice about opening expensive drink, this is the kind of fatherly advice Demon has given his son, rather than Nabokov’s esteem for personal “‘responsibility,’ in its proper sense, linked with moral tradition, with principles of decency and personal honor deliberately passed from father to son” (interview with Mati Laansoo, Vladimir Nabokov Research Newsletter, 10 (Spring 1983), 39-48, p. 40).

Not that, it turns out, Demon thinks Van should even have bothered with duelling Tapper. When Lucette reports to Van how Ada took the news of his duel, she says that

“Ada supposed, at first, that Tapper was an invented name—that you fought your duel with another person—but that was
before anybody heard of the other person’s death in Kalugano. Demon said you should have simply cudgeled him.”

            “I could not,” said Van, “the rat was rotting away in a hospital bed."
            “I meant the real Tapper,” cried Lucette . . . , “not my poor, betrayed, poisoned, innocent teacher of music.” (383)
The casual violence meted out to those who get in one’s way is not Van’s alone.

Of course Demon does not know Van’s emotional circumstances when this “angry young demon” (302) issued his challenge to Tapper. But he might almost have learned them from Van, had his son died in the duel. Before he goes to bed on the eve of the duel, Van writes a letter to his father, to be handed him in case the shootout ends in his death. There he explains his love affair with Ada, his parting with her because of her unfaithfulness, and the lack of connection between that parting and the duel, even if “the manner of my end can be regarded as a kind of easy suicide” (309). He then tears up the note and writes a much shorter note to “Dad” from “Van.” In his sleep, he dreams of “Demon’s former valet” (309). Distracted like the Count de Prey in the duel that Demon mentions as soon as he introduces the de Preys, Van is shot by Tapper. In hospital, he pursues a nurse called Tatiana with Demonic persistence, and her writing him a letter afterwards (312) confirms that her name links with Eugene Onegin’s heroine, the Tatiana who writes a letter to Eugene, in a famous scene enacted on stage by Marina on the night Demon first falls in love with her and swiftly “proceeded to possess her between two scenes (Chapter Three and Four of the martyred novel)” (10-11).

On the Monday after the duel Dr. Fitzbishop tells Van that Rack “was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong” (317), recalling not only Aqua’s reference to Demonia, at the beginning of I.42, but also her obsession with Terra, “sweet Terra . . . with rearrangement for melodeon of all the cacophonies of all the divinities” (21), and the “ha-ha of a doubled ocean” (18) in I.3, the chapter that sets out her madness, and the strain of Demon’s infidelities, and the strain she feels at not being sure that Van is her son, and the suicide she feels driven to. In Kalugano that same Monday Cordula comes to visit Van at the hospital. He asks her to take him back with her, right away. Even as Cordula, in the back of the chauffeur-driven sedan, tells Van of Percy’s death, after he has just heard of Rack’s predicted death, Van seems to have temporarily forgotten his hatred of his rivals in his eagerness for his next conquest: “A one-track man in matters of soft passion, strange Van, strange Demon’s son, was at the moment much more anxious to enjoy Cordula as soon as humanly and humanely possible, as soon as satanically and viatically feasible, than to keep deploring the fate of a fellow he hardly knew” (320). Despite his wound, Van possesses her in the back of the car with Demonian swiftness.

            The Demonian hypocrisy of furious jealousy toward the man with whom Marina has been “unfaithful,” while availing himself of the next attractive woman who crosses his path, and the vicious Demonian indifference to others, have been amply inherited by Van. No wonder the chapter begins by calling the Veens’ world “Demonia.” In a 1974 interview, Helga Chudacoff quoted Nabokov’s earlier declaration “I loathe Van Veen” (SO 120) and asked him what he hated most about Van. Nabokov answer was succinct: “The demonic strain in him” (TWS 431).



If Demon saturates I.42, Lucette receives only a single mention, when Van, wondering if he can get a lead not only on Percy’s address but also on Rack’s, asks Cordula: “Do you know Kalugano? Dentist? Best Hotel? Concert hall? My cousin’s music teacher?” She shakes her head: “No—she went there very seldom. . . . She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?” Van quickly cuts off any further mention of the woman he wants to think about as little as possible: “‘Lucette,’ he said, ‘Lucette takes or took music lessons. Okay. Let’s dismiss Kalugano” (303). Years later, when Lucette reports to Van that “Demon said you should simply have cudgeled him,” Van, thinking Demon meant the man he did intend cudgeling with his cane, replies “I could not . . . the rat was rotting away in a hospital bed,” Lucette explains “I meant the real Tapper, . . . not my poor, betrayed, poisoned, innocent teacher of music” (383). The gulf between her attitude to Van’s victims, and Demon’s and Van’s attitudes, is vast, even before she too becomes another of his victims.

         I have written elsewhere:  

Van eulogizes his father as the personification of fiery-eyed romance. Nabokov on the other hand also sees Demon as romantic selfishness
incarnate. Provided his own feelings have full sweep, Demon remains indifferent to what happens to others. To pique Marina he marries her
frail twin Aqua—and then ignores her as his passion and vanity impel him from woman to woman. Aqua, meanwhile, must jolt her way down
through madness to suicide. In his refusal to heed anything but the pressure of his own impulse, Demon stands as the antithesis of Lucette and
the source and model for . . . the romantic
egotism in Van. (Boyd 2001: 146)

Although Lucette receives only one explicit mention in I.42, Nabokov has her in mind again and again during the chapter. That might seem prima facie unlikely, but the chapter begins with Aqua, whose suicide so strongly prefigures hers, features a duel which Van writes to his father could be seen “as a kind of easy suicide” (309), and depicts Van’s imagining of the death of Percy de Prey at war, who, Ada has told Van, “was going to do everything to get killed” (296). But the details and the designs are far more elaborate.


Lucette and Aqua: the picnic pattern

Aqua’s unhappiness on Demonia, announced at the start of the chapter, anticipates Lucette’s, always, in her troubled and ultimately suicidal relations with her sister and her dashing “cousin.”

Before his duel, Van writes a “when-you-receive-this note” (308) to Demon, in case he does not survive the duel, and admits that “the manner of my end can be regarded as a kind of easy suicide” (309). Just before writing it he thinks of the duel as a “partie de plaisir” (308: as Darkbloom notes, a “picnic”), no doubt thinking of the picnic Percy interrupted so aggressively, as well as the pleasure he, Van, anticipates from tomorrow’s duel. But since the duel-“picnic” takes place in a pine forest, Van’s note to Demon also forms an odd connection with Aqua’s suicide note to Demon and Van. Aqua in her sanitorium has propitiated the psychiatrists so as to be allowed “to participate in normal activities such as picnics” (28): on a “landparty” (29) in “a little pinewood” (28) she escapes to write her suicide note and take the deadly combination of pills she has accumulated.

Lucette too links to this pattern. Three days before her suicide, she will mail to Van a note “just in case” (146) she fails to seduce him aboard the Tobakoff. She does fail, and takes her own accumulation of drink and pills before trying “to think up something amusing, harmless, and scintillating to say in a suicide note. But she had planned everything except that note, so she tore her blank life in two and disposed of the pieces in the W.C.” (492)—as Van tears up his note to Demon in which he concedes that his death could “be regarded as a kind of easy suicide” (309). Already befuddled, Lucette thinks, in a stream of consciousness, as she makes her way to the deck from where she will jump to her watery death, of a picnic scene in a painter’s diary she is reading: “Six, seven—no, more than that, about ten steps up. Dix marches. Legs and arms. Dimanche. Déjeuner sur l’herbe. . . . Sa petite chienne, after too much exercise, gulps twice and quietly vomits, a pink pudding onto the picnic nappe” (493). Again the “when-you-receive-this” or “just in case” note, the picnic, and the suicide.


Lucette and Rack

I.42 makes a still more direct association between Lucette and Rack. Rack had been Ada’s lover, before Percy de Prey appeared on her scene, but he had become so via his role as Lucette’s piano teacher.

The last time Van sees Rack before being wheeled to the dying man’s hospital bed is in I.33, where the associations between Lucette and Rack are pointedly counterpointed. Lucette’s “repetitive tinkle-thump-tinkle reached Van and Ada during a reconnaissance in a second-floor passage,” and Van suggests “they take advantage of Lucette’s being ‘audibly absent’ by taking refuge in an upstairs dressing room” (207). Van has just begun to nuzzle Ada when she hears Rack’s “Heavy slow steps . . .  coming up the grand staircase” (207). Ada tells Van “Send him away.” As seen through the thick lenses of Van’s distaste,

Philip Rack was trudging up, Adam’s apple bobbing, ill-shaven, livid, gums exposed, one hand on his chest, the other clutching
a roll of pink paper while the music continued to play on its own as if by some mechanical device.

            “There’s one downstairs in the hall,” said Van, assuming, or feigning to assume, that the unfortunate fellow had stomach
cramps or nausea. But Mr. Rack only wanted “to make his farewells”—to Ivan Demonovich (accented miserably on the second “o”),
to Fraülein Ada, to Mademoiselle Ida, and of course to Madame. Alas, Van’s cousin and aunt were in town, but Phil might certainly
find his friend Ida writing in the rose garden. Was Van sure? Van was damned well sure. Mr. Rack shook Van’s hand with a deep sigh,
looked up, looked down, tapped the banisters with his mysterious pink-paper tube, and went back to the music room, where Mozart
had begun to falter. (207-208)

Rack is trying to say his farewell to Ada, especially, and to give her the new flute melody he has composed, presumably as a memento for her (and perhaps a pointedly subvirile, non-priapic, phallic symbol: the “roll of pink paper,” “his mysterious pink-paper tube”?). (See also I.33 afternote: “a final flute melody for Ada (316), which he has wanted to present to her in person, in a farewell that he could have hoped would allow him to stake a lasting emotional claim on her. Van indeed did have good cause to feel jealousy even of the improbable Rack.”) No wonder, apart from their being on the brink of making love, Ada tells Van: “Send him away”: she has reason to fear that Rack, at a pitch of distress because he has to leave Ardis and Ada, may disclose more of his feelings for her than would be prudent in Van’s vicinity.

Notice the music, Lucette’s “repetitive tinkle-thump-tinkle” (207) as an apparently safe sign for Van and Ada, and its continuing “to play on its own as if by some mechanical device” (208) as Rack mounts the stairs with his composition, and his re-descent with it to “the music room, where Mozart had begun to falter.” In one way Rack here plays Lucette’s habitual role, interrupting Van and Ada about to make love. Notice also the signs of Rack’s unattractive appearance (“gums exposed”) and his association with illness and toilets: “one hand on his chest” as he climbs (207), Van’s feigning to assume that Rack is seeking a toilet because he has “stomach cramps or nausea” (208), Van’s disgust at having his hand shaken by Rack (“‘I must wash my right hand before I touch you or anything. . . . I have never clasped a wetter, limper, nastier forelimb in all my life,’ said Van, and cursing (the music downstairs had stopped), went to the nursery W.C. where there was a tap” (208), Van’s glimpse of “the sick or drunken musician” (208-09) crashing into a privet hedge below, and his reaction: “a surge of obscure disgust made Van spit into the toilet bowl” (209). Both the music and the signs of illness prefigure Rack in I.42.

To take the latter first: Rack is already in hospital by the time Van finds him in Kalugano, in a ward, Dr. Fitzbishop tells him, “where hopeless cases were kept. The poor guy had always had a bad liver and a very indifferent heart, but on top of that a poison had seeped into his system; the local ‘lab’ could not identify it and they were now waiting for a report, on those curiously frog-green faeces” (313). When Van sees Rack, Rack asks him: “Have they all gone to Hollywood already? Please, tell me, Baron von Wien. . . . Because I sent my last flute melody, and a letter for all the family, and no answer has come. I must vomit now” (316). On Monday, Dr. Fitzbishop tells Van that “the unfortunate music teacher, and composer, was not expected to spend another night on Demonia, and would be on Terra, ha-ha, in time for evensong” (317).

“Evensong” concludes the musical theme throughout I.42. That theme also carries a Lucette note. Lucette has been associated with music from the start. On Van’s first afternoon at Ardis, Ada takes him on a tour of the manor:

They went back to the corridor, she tossing her hair, he clearing his throat. Further down, a door of some playroom or
nursery stood ajar and stirred to and fro as little Lucette peeped out, one russet knee showing. Then the doorleaf flew
open—but she darted inside and away. . . . as her sister and he passed by that open door a toy barrel organ invitingly
went into action with a stumbling little minuet. (42)

  The music references in I.42 begin with Van in conversation with Cordula on the train:

            “Just now I’m going to Kalugano.”
            “That’s a gruesome place. Girl?
            “Man. Do you know Kalugano? Dentist? Best hotel? Concert hall? My cousin’s music teacher?”
             She shook her short curls. No—she went there very seldom. Twice to a concert, in a pine forest.
She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?
            “Lucette,” he said, “Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let’s dismiss Kalugano. . . . ” (303).
Van rushes out for his stop, crashes into Captain Tapper, calls him out to a duel, checks in at the Majestic, gets a “passable suite of three rooms with . . . a mechanical piano” (305). This unexpected detail recalls Van’s last meeting with Rack, coming to wish Ada farewell in I.33, in the midst of Lucette’s music lesson, “while the music continued to play on its own as if by some mechanical device” (208), when of course it is Lucette continuing her piece without her teacher.

Because of Rack, I.42 continues to swarm with musical references. Still in urgent pursuit of Rack, Van follows a suggestion to “ask at a music store on Main Street” (305). After picking up “his second walking stick, . . . a rude, stout article with a convenient grip and an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305) he realizes he has to return to the hotel, where the seconds are waiting: one in “blue suede shoes” (for the apt musical reference, see 306.10n), who tells him that “The Captain was a first-rate shot . . .  and member of the Do-Re-La country club” (306), a name combining the do-re-la of the musical sol-fah scale and the potentially fatidic song “The Streets of Laredo” (“I'm shot in the chest, and today I must die”: see 306.15 and n.). Van heads out again for the music shop, now locked, and stares at its harps and guitars (307).

Shot in the chest, indeed, but not dead, Van meets his doctor:

Did Van like music? Sportsmen usually did, didn’t they? Would he care to have a Sonorola by his bed? No, he disliked music,
but did the doctor, being a concert-goer, know perhaps where a musician called Rack could be found? “Ward Five,” answered
the doctor promptly. Van misunderstood this as the title of some piece of music and repeated his question. Would he find Rack’s
address at Harper’s music shop? (313)
But no, Rack is indeed in Ward Five in the hospital, “where hopeless cases were kept” (313). When Van visits the dying musician, Rack asks if all the Veen family have gone to Hollywood already, “Because I sent my last flute melody, and a letter for all the family, and no answer has come” (316). I.42 pointedly keeps returning to I.33, to Rack and his music student, Lucette.

The most musical scene in the whole novel occurs when, four years later, Van takes Ada and Lucette to the Ursus restaurant (named after St. Petersburg’s Medved’, “Bear,” as Cordula’s lover mentioned on the train heading through Kalugano, Marquis Quizz Quisana, is named after the St. Petersburg restaurant Kvisisana, 304). When “the long sobs of the violins” in the Russian floor shows force “tearful Ada to go and ‘powder her nose’” (411), Van returns

to whatever he was eating, and cruelly stroked Lucette’s apricot-bloomed forearm, and she said in Russian “I’m drunk, and all that,
but I adore (obozhayu), I adore, I adore, I adore more than life you, you (tebya, tebya), I ache for you unbearably (ya toskuyu po tebe
), and, please, don’t let me swill (hlestat’) champagne any more, not only because I will jump into Goodson River if I can’t
hope to have you, and not only because of the physical red thing—your heart was almost ripped out, my poor dushen’ka (‘darling,’
more than ‘darling’), it looked to me at least eight inches long—”
            “Seven and a half,” murmured modest Van, whose hearing the music impaired.
Despite the comedy of Van’s thinking Lucette is referring to his penis, when she is actually referring to the wound near his heart from the duel, what Lucette says, over the background music, is her most direct and helpless expression yet of her love for Van, and, for the first time, her readiness to “jump into Goodson River if I can’t hope to have you.”

Like Lucette, Rack too has a helpless love, in his case for Ada. That earns him his death by a poison his apparently jealous wife Elsie had administered, “the not always lethal ‘arethusoides’” (317). Arethusa is the name for a bog orchid—an orchid type associated with Ada, who collects them, or feigns to, when she is actually trysting with Percy de Prey, and Lucette, who tries to trace the picture of a bog orchid, on Van’s last evening at Ardis (288-89). Arethusa bulbosa, the only American representative of the genus, is not itself poisonous, but grows “often dangerously near the Poison Sumac,” perhaps the most poisonous of American plants: see 317.17n.

For other associations of Lucette and bogs, see “Ada, The Bog and the Garden,” in Boyd 2011, ch. 25. But Arethusa in classical mythology is also the name of a sea-nymph who bathes in a stream that turns out to be the river-god Alpheus, who pursues her; copiously perspiring with fear, she herself turns into a stream that Artemis helps run under the sea, and emerges as a spring in Ortygia, where the pursuing Alpheus nevertheless mingles his waters with hers.

Through the Arethusa allusion, Nabokov makes a bizarre connection between Lucette and the poison that kills Rack. (For the “water” motif associated with Lucette, see Boyd 2001: 52-54, 117-18, 278-79, 293-95.) Lucette first sees Van and Ada make impatient love as she plays with a doll in a brook that gets swept away by the current; “Van shed his pants under a willow and retrieved the fugitive” (143), firing Ada’s lust and their flimsy attempts to tie Lucette up so they can make love out of her sight—except that Lucette escapes to watch. Arethusa first steps into the stream that proves to be Alpheus once she has “removed my robes, and hanging the soft garments on a drooping willow, naked I plunged into the waters” (Ovid, Metamorphoses V.593-95: “recingor / molliaque inpono salici velamina curvae / nudaque mergor aquis”). Eight-year-old Lucette’s  first fall into sexual knowledge by the brook helps confuse her about sexuality and trigger her adoring infatuation with Van and her eventual jumping not into the Goodson but into the Atlantic. Quite why Nabokov links her fate and death so obliquely, allusively and tightly with the very different death of Rack I must confess I do not understand: but that he does, seems clear. Both die because of a hopeless love for one of the Veens, “the children of Venus” (410), but what else does Nabokov suggest?

One possibility is that Elsie poisons her husband and that the syllables of her name could be heard as L C, or the initial sounds of the syllables of Lu Cette’s name. Elsie poisons her husband; to ensure her death Lucette not only jumps into the Atlantic but poisons herself with pills, as her aunt Aqua had.

Nabokov makes one other indubitable and much more overt connection between Lucette and I.42. After walking to the “music store on Main Street” (305), heading back to the hotel to the seconds, and heading back to the music shop, which he now finds closed, Van walks

for a while along Main Street . . . and then, with a surge of healthy hunger, entered a passably attractive restaurant. . . . At the far end of the
room, on one of the red stools of the burning bar, a graceful harlot in black—tight bodice, wide skirt, long black gloves, black-velvet
picture hat
—was sucking a golden drink through a straw. In the mirror behind the bar, amid colored glints, he caught a blurred glimpse of her
russety blond beauty; he thought he might sample her later on, but when he glanced again she had gone. (307, emphasis added)

This is a clear prefiguration of Van’s finding Lucette in the bar of the hotel in Paris where Cordula has told him his “cousin” is now staying, at the Alphonse Four:

Upon entering, he stopped for a moment to surrender his coat; but he kept his black fedora and stick-slim umbrella as he had seen his father do in
that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent
—at least, unescorted. He headed for the bar, and as he was in the
act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he
recalled having seen now and then
(much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone. . . . It was a queer feeling—as of something replayed by mistake, part of a sentence misplaced on the proof sheet, a scene run prematurely, a repeated blemish, a wrong turn of time. . . . For a minute he stood behind her, sideways to remembrance and reader (as she, too, was in regard to us and the bar), the crook of his silk-swathed cane lifted in profile almost up to his mouth. There she was, against the aureate backcloth of a sakarama screen next to the bar, toward which she was sliding, still upright, about to be seated, having already placed one white-gloved hand on the counter. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved romantic black dress with an ample skirt, fitted bodice and ruffy collar, from the black soft corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose. . . . her floppy hat of black faille, with a great black bow surmounting it, a spiral of intentionally disarranged, expertly curled bright copper descends her flaming cheek, and the light of the bar’s “gem bulbs” plays on her bouffant front hair, which, as seen laterally, convexes from beneath the extravagant brim of the picture hat right down to her long thin eyebrow. (460-61, emphasis added)

Notice the revealing element of Demonic style, in “kept his . . . stick-slim umbrella as he had seen his father do” (compare Demon’s “slim umbrella,” 433), and the connections between Van’s first glimpse of Lucette in Paris and his three canes at the end of Ardis the Second—the “strong cane” to “thrash” Rack (294) that Van takes from Ardis; the “rude, stout article with a convenient grip and an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” that he acquires in Kalugano (305); and “the Third Cane, a rather nice, knotty, cherry-dark thing with a crook and a solid black-rubber heel” (312) that he acquires in the hospital but does not use, after all, to thrash Rack. The connection of the cane motif with the hint of Demonic style and the Demon who opines that Van “should have simply cudgeled” Tapper (383)—he does not even know about Rack—should be clear, as should be the utter contrast between Demon’s and Van’s brutal thoughts and actions and Lucette’s pity for her “poor, betrayed, poisoned, innocent teacher of music” (383).

Perhaps the most gruesome connection of all is between the second walking stick Van acquires at Kalugano, with its “alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305), and Lucette’s lament as she dines with Van in Paris, the evening he appears behind her holding that “stick-slim” Demonic umbrella, “as she poked with a fork at her blue trout which, to judge by its contorted shape and bulging eyes, had boiled alive, convulsed by awful agonies.’” (464) She loves a great deal in life and art, she concedes, “but somehow all of it . . . form[s] only a kind of tonen’kiy-tonen’kiy (thin little) layer, under which there is absolutely nothing, except, of course, your image, and that only adds depth and a trout’s agonies to the emptiness” (464). (And compare, perhaps, the repeated “agonies” here with Van’s speech intended to terrorize Rack with the pain of death, “the ‘agony of agony’—Professor Lamort’s felicitous pleonasm,” 314, and his intended deployment on Rack of the Third Cane?)

The canes—including the riding crop and pickax that Lucette and Van see, aboard the Tobakoff, on the night she commits suicide (486)—and these damaged “bulging eyes” link Rack’s despair and Lucette’s; and Van’s unrestrained violence, intended but not executed (Rack, Percy), or intended and executed (Kim Beauharnais), and the repeated, causal thoughtlessness that has allowed Van to exploit Lucette’s passion for him to the point where it drives her, just six days after that meeting in Paris, to suicide.


Lucette and Percy

Lucette has no natural immediate connection with Percy as she does with Rack, even if Percy has told Ada that in going off to war he “was going to do everything to get killed” (296)—presumably because of his sense of the hopelessness of competing with Van, as Lucette kills herself when she realizes the finality of the hopelessness of her competing with Ada.

But Nabokov goes out of his way to forge a connection between Lucette and the death Percy finds all too soon in the Crimea. Percy dies in a ravine near Chufutkale (319). For the tango, his final number on his last tour as Mascodagama, Van is given as his partner “a Crimean dancer in a very short scintillating frock. . . . Fragile, red-haired ‘Rita’ (he never learned her real name), a pretty Karaite from Chufut Kale, where, she nostalgically said, the Crimean cornel, kizil’, bloomed yellow among the arid rocks, bore an odd resemblance to Lucette as she was to look ten years later” (185). There are no other references in the novel to Chufutkale, so remote from the rest of the action, and there is no fictional need to have Van’s partner hail from there or to have Percy die there. To emphasize the connection, Nabokov echoes Rita’s recollection of the Crimean cornel by having Bill Fraser watch Percy’s death “from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar” (319).

Like “Rita,” Lucette, will, four years later (and like Ada too on this occasion) wear “the very short and open evening gowns that Vass ‘miraged’ that evening” (410), and thirteen years after the Mascodagama dance, on the last night of her life, she will look “even more naked in her short evening frock than she had in her ‘bickny’” (484). Like Rita, Lucette is emphatically red-haired and fragile.

And like Rita, Lucette is in her own way part of Van’s handwalking routine. “A day or two before” the day after the 1884 picnic on Ada’s birthday, when Van’s handwalking is so memorably introduced to us,

Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms,
sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. . .

            “Not so energichno, children!” cried Marina in Van- and-Lucette’s direction
            Elle devient pourpre, she is getting crimson,” commented the governess. “I sustain that these indecent gymnastics are no good for her.”
            Van, his eyes smiling, his angel-strong hands holding the child’s cold-carrot-soup legs just above the insteps, was ‘ploughing around’
with Lucette acting the sullow. Her bright hair hung over her face, her panties showed from under the hem of her skirt, yet she still urged the
ploughboy on.
            "Budet, budet, that’ll do,” said Marina to the plough team.
            Van gently let her legs down and straightened her dress. She lay for a moment, panting. (91-92)

This is the first strong sign of Lucette’s attachment to and imitativeness of Van (cf. Boyd 2001: 140). Here it is Lucette’s hands walking in front of Van’s feet, rather than Van’s hands in front of “Rita’s,” but it strengthens considerably the odd link between Van’s Mascodagama partner from Chufut Kale and Lucette. But why, apart from the fragility of this red-haired, short-frocked dancer?

An apparently unrelated page from Kim Beauharnais’s blackmail photograph album shows

several shots of the 1884 picnic, such as Ada and Grace dancing a Lyaskan fling and reversed Van nibbling at pine starworts
(conjectural identification).
            “That’s finished,” said Van, “a precious sinistral sinew has stopped functioning. I can still fence and deliver a fine punch but
hand-walking is out. You shall not sniffle, Ada. Ada is not going to sniffle and wail. King Wing says that the great Vekchelo
turned back into an ordinary chelovek at the age I’m now, so everything is perfectly normal.” (401)

 This is the only occasion on which we see Van “nibbling” at flowers while in his handwalking mode. “Pine starwort” is an old common name for Ionactis linariifolia, “a North American species of plants in the daisy family” (Wikipedia, Ionactis linariifolia).The passage clearly links with Lucette handwalking with Van’s help a day or two after Ada’s 1884 picnic: even her nibbling daisies there, in I.14, which seemed so characteristic of her cute childishness, seems to have been imitative of Van. But through the daisy-nibbling link with the photograph in the album, and Van’s comment on it, her handwalking becomes associated with Van’s losing his ability to handwalk after being shot in the duel.

Although the duel itself has ridiculously little to do with Van’s rivals, the murderous rage he feels against them has everything to do with his calling Tapper out to a duel. Van has already, before the duel, been deeply wounded in love; the long scar that to Lucette shows “your heart was almost ripped out” (411) only outwardly emblematizes the damage love can cause, in one sense, or the terrible loss of Van’s innocence, his knowledge that he cannot trust Ada, a knowledge that expels him from the paradise of Ardis forever.

“Rita” from Chufutkale, as Van’s partner in his last dance in his last-ever routine as Mascodagama, anticipates the ultimate end of his handwalking, caused by the wound he receives in a duel that seems comically irrelevant to the wound of love Ada has already inflicted. As we have seen, the King Wing-taught handwalking itself links the 1884 picnic, Van’s first display of male cockiness, and the 1888 picnic, with Van triumphant over Percy because of his King Wing-taught wrestling moves, and the strong foreboding of a duel between Van and Percy that never happens except through an improbable proxy who destroys forever Van’s capacity to brachiambulate. Earlier in 1888 Van had still seen his Mascodagama routine as “the standing of a metaphor on its head . . . a triumph, in a sense, over the ardis of time” (184-85), and he had returned to Ardis in the hope that a second summer with Ada would itself allow a triumph over the ardis of time. But that 1888 summer shows the reverse: Van has to flee Ardis forever, and in the duel that almost serves as the impossible encounter with Percy, he loses his ability to handwalk forever, almost at the same time as Percy is shot in Chufutkale.

“Rita” from Chufutkale, Van’s fragile, red-haired, short-frocked partner, also links with Lucette, his “frail” (487), red-haired, short-frocked sister, still more desperately doting on him on her last night on the Tobakoff than she had when being taught by him to handwalk just after the 1884 picnic.  From the swimming pool diving board on the Tobakoff, that afternoon, she would “ardis into the amber” (479), in grim prefiguration of her diving from the ship itself to her death that night: a much sadder proof of the irreversible ardis of time than Van’s wound of love in Ardis and the duel that follows. Van can merely no longer handwalk; Lucette can simply no longer bear to live without the one partner she wants and cannot have.

For Van the duel with a burly military surrogate for Percy results in a wound that means he can no longer handwalk, a loss that emblematizes the apparently permanent wound of love that Ada’s relationship with Percy has inflicted on him. For Percy the competition with Van is as fatal as a direct duel might have proved. For Lucette, her desperate attempted competition with Ada will prove equally fatal.


Lucette and Cordula

Cordula de Prey dominates Van’s live interactions with others in I.42. Although we never see Lucette with Cordula, they too are surprisingly linked.

Both girls stand in Ada’s shadow, but in strongly contrasting ways. Cordula is sexually confident and sexually free, and almost always sexually available—and even eager and excited—to engage to the hilt with Van, though with no great emotional attachment. By the end of I.42, Van may have lost his capacity to handwalk, he may still be wrapped in “a special vest-like affair of flannel” enveloping his torso but not protecting him “from the poisoned point of Ardis” (318), but he  can emit “such howls of enjoyment” in his first lovemaking with Cordula “that she felt touched and flattered” (321). Sexually, at least, Van has recovered rather well from his wound.

Unlike Cordula, Lucette is sexually neurotic and sexually fixated. She stresses to Van that she is  always “available” (377) for him, but despite her all-consuming passion for him, despite, even, his sexual attraction to her, when she is sixteen, at Kingston, or twenty-one, aboard the Tobakoff, she can never consummate the love of her life. She can compete with Ada, she can try to imitate her, but she can never attain the sexual satisfaction with Van that comes so quickly and unproblematically to Cordula.

The question of virginity—and indeed Van’s famous question about virginity—links both Cordula and Lucette. Cordula at fifteen rebuffs Van’s first crass approaches:  

“How could I get in touch with you?” he asked. “Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?”
            “I don’t date hoodlums,” she replied calmly, “but you can always ‘contact’ me through Ada.
We are not in the same class, in more ways than one” (laughing); “she’s a little genius, I’m a plain
American ambivert.” (165)

On board the train passing through Kalugano, Cordula—not realizing his motive of tracking down her cousin Percy—is surprised Van takes note of her:  

“Another queer thing . . . is that you actually noticed me today. Two months ago you snubbed me.”
            “You had changed. You had grown lovely and languorous. You are even lovelier now. Cordula
is no longer a virgin!” (303)

Within minutes, he begins to caress her under the table, she relaxedly puts him off:
She was not a bright little girl. But she was a loquacious and really quite exciting little girl. He
started to caress her under the table, but she gently removed his hand, whispering “womenses,” . . . (303)

 And when Van writes to her from hospital after the duel, she has her chauffeur bring her immediately at high speed from Manhattan, she helps Van escape the hospital, offers him space in her flat, and has buoyant sex with him in the car on the return journey. When Van meets her by chance in Paris thirteen years later, in 1901, he quickly propositions her, she withholds—she is now happily married to Ivan Tobak—but soon capitulates with pleasure, engaging in the “brisk nub and its repetition” (457). Her amatory relations with Van are simple in the extreme.

Lucette, per contra, is initiated into sex too early but remains a virgin until her death. Writing to Van “a rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter” (366) in 1891, she observes, in a phrase he draws on to construct what she says on her visit to him the next year in Kingston:

“Van,” said Lucette, “it will make you smile” (it did not: that prediction is seldom fulfilled), “but if you posed the
famous Van Question, I would answer in the affirmative."
            What he had asked little Cordula. In that bookshop behind the revolving paperbacks’ stand. . . . He was known in
the beau monde for asking that question the very first time he met a young lady. (371)

In 1901 in Paris, mere hours after his two pleasurable rounds with Cordula, Van asks Lucette: “‘Are you still half-a-martyr—I mean half a virgin?’ ‘A quarter,’ she answered. ‘Oh, try me, Van!’” (464)

Cordula forms a pendant to Ada precisely because she is so readily available. She is no nymphomaniac: she resists Van at fifteen, in that bookshop; four years later she pushes his hand away gently on the train; another thirteen years later she turns indignantly when he strokes her tight scarlet skirt as she bends to two poodlets in Paris, “indignation instantly replaced by gay recognition” (456), and she rejects his immediate proposition (“‘Really, Van!’ exclaimed angry Cordula. ‘You go a bit far. I’m a happy wife. My Tobachok adores me. We’d have ten children by now if I’d not been careful with him and others,’ ” 456-57) but soon acquiesces, and “Astraddle, she resembled a child braving her first merry-go-round. . . . She rode it twice. . . . ‘You’re a very bad boy and I’m a very bad girl. But it was fun—even though you’ve been speaking to me not as you would to a lady friend but as you probably do to little whores’” (457-58).

Cordula’s ironic role in I.42 is to point up Van’s double standards: his rage at Ada’s infidelity, his eager advances on the Cordula whom he at first approaches only for the address of his rival for Ada, whom he intends to kill.

The irony is all the more striking because of the scene that occurred in the railway station café at Brownhill, pointedly evoked here in Van’s gloss on the train tea-car, where he promptly fondles Cordula under the table: “the very roomy and rococo ‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ’Eighties and ’Nineties” (302). At the end of  Ardis the First, Van has implored Ada “will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?” When she replies “I’m physical, horribly physical, I don’t know. . . . Oh dear, don’t ask me, there’s a girl in my school who is in love with me, I don’t know what I’m saying—” he cuts her off: “The girls don’t matter . . . it’s the fellows I’ll kill if they come near you” (158-59). But despite saying and thinking that, Van is lividly jealous of Cordula when he sees her as Ada’s chaperone on his single visit to his “cousin” at Brownhill College. Fifteen-year-old Cordula’s rebuff to him a few weeks earlier, and her now being with Ada at the railway station café, are enough to make Van jump to the false conclusion that she is the girl in Ada’s school in love with her, and to become furiously jealous:

What exactly—not that it mattered but one’s pride and curiosity were at stake—what exactly had they been up to, those
two ill-groomed girls, last term, this term, last night, every night, in their pajama-tops, amid the murmurs and moans of
their abnormal dormitory? Should he ask? Could he find the right words: not to hurt Ada, while making her bed-filly
know he despised her for kindling a child, so dark-haired and pale, coal and coral, leggy and limp, whimpering at the
melting peak? (168)

 He launches into a diatribe against the treatment of ostensibly heterosexual love in Proust, where Marcel becomes fanatically jealous of Albertine’s lesbian dalliances: “there is a grave philosophical, and hence artistic, flaw in the entire treatment of the Marcel and Albertine affair. It makes sense if the reader knows that the narrator is a pansy, and that the good fat cheeks of Albertine are the good fat buttocks of Albert . . . ” (168-69).

Now, on the train taking him to Kalugano and to vengeance against the more available of his two rivals, Van recognizes Cordula as no lesbian, as available, indeed, for his sexual pleasure. That heightens the comedy and satire of his hypocrisy, but it also prepares for the further irony of his venting his rage against Captain Tapper, his getting into a duel with a man overtly homosexual and therefore utterly irrelevant to his sexual jealousy of Ada’s two male lovers.

But that in turn leads to a further irony. Because the one female lover Ada has whom we hear about in detail is Lucette. Visiting Van at Kingston in 1892, Lucette will make him squirm “by reproducing with diabolical accuracy Ada’s demure little whimper of ultimate bliss” (376: notice the echo of the “whimper” Van at Brownhill imagines Cordula producing in Ada, above) and by telling him how “She taught me practices I had never imagined. . . . We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas. She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers” (375). Van will soon be “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” (378).

Van’s quivering jealousy of Ada’s lesbian activities with Lucette—though he never intends harming either of them (“it’s the fellows I’ll kill,” remember)—and its echo of his jealousy of Cordula when he thinks her Ada’s schoolgirl lover casts a new light on the sequence from his fondling Cordula under the table aboard the train to his calling out to a duel a captain who proves to be homosexual and therefore irrelevant to his principal jealousy against Ada’s male lovers. The homosexuality of Captain Tapper not only echoes Van’s mistaken jealousy of Cordula as Ada’s supposed schoolgirl lover, it oddly anticipates Van’s future jealousy of Lucette as Ada’s lover.

Ada initiates Lucette at fourteen into more sex than she had known: “She taught me practices I had never imagined” (375). But Lucette has also been initiated at a much earlier age as an observer, at greater or lesser distances, of the sexual practices of Van and Ada, and she always sees Van making love to Ada from behind: for the “behind” motif in Van and Ada’s lovemaking, and Lucette’s involvement, see Boyd 2001: 134-44. As I write there: “As the ‘behind’ motif suggests, they have buggered up her life.” (Boyd 2001: 144). The homosexual duelist who supplies Van with a “bruger” (307) for his duel (surely, in the context of the exuberantly abundant toying with homosexuality, a play on “bugger”) is not nearly as irrelevant as he had seemed. In the duel, it is Van who receives the wound of love, more psychological than physical, but Lucette’s psychological scarring lasts right up until the moment when she takes her own life.

Cordula and Lucette are opposites throughout Ada. Cordula is confident in her sexuality, and though she is attracted by Van’s virility and energy, she is also responsive to many other men: she is eventually happily married and from time to time happily adulterous. Lucette on the other hand is fragile and unhappy in her sexuality, still a virgin and determined to yield her virginity to no one but Van, who, although he finds her sexually arousing, will not have her.

After Van parts from Ada at Ardis, thinking it will be forever, he finds quick consolation and consummation with Cordula. Before he will see Ada again, before he will deign to reply to her desperate last letter informing him she is about to marry if he does not respond, it takes Lucette’s visit to Van at Kingston in 1892, bearing that letter on her sister’s behalf. Lucette has already sent him her own passionate declaration of love, and now, at sixteen, informs him both of her torrid relations with Ada, imitates all Ada’s shtuchki, and declares herself available for him, but despite his arousal at her beauty, her ardor, her intelligence, her imitation of Ada, he resists—and agrees to meet Ada at what had been Cordula’s apartment.

A few hours after he parts from Cordula at Kalugano, four years earlier, Van sees “a graceful harlot in black—tight bodice, wide skirt, long black gloves, black-velvet picture hat. . . .  he caught a blurred glimpse of her russety blond beauty; he thought he might sample her later on, but when he glanced again she had gone” 307). In 1901, a few hours after he parts from Cordula in Paris, after making love with her twice, he finds Lucette “in that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent” (460), in matching clothes and pose, but despite Lucette’s urging him to “try me, Van!” (464) he will not have her,  and she resorts to another stratagem, calling Cordula to wangle a cabin on the ship on which Van will sail, in one last desperate and doomed attempt to win him.

I began this Afternote stressing the role of substitutions in this comic nightmare of a chapter. Against all expectations, Cordula proves Van’s quick and easy substitute for Ada, even if without any of the emotional depth of that lasting passion. In that, Cordula contrasts with Lucette, the one person he has known too well to make her simply a substitute for Ada, however much Lucette has imitated her sister and has been initiated by her and has sought to compete with her for Van’s affections.

Let me conclude that contrast between Cordula, the girl Van asks is she a virgin, and soon possesses, and Lucette, the girl Van asks if she is still a virgin, and never possesses, by quoting an old comment of mine on Ada.

For Nabokov the tension between the singularity and the multiplicity of love is a central mystery: the singularity of love,
love at its best, the passionate conviction that no one else will do, and the multiplicity of love, its repeatability with the
same person or others. A single overwhelming love allows Van and Ada to transcend the isolation of their selves, and the
rampant repeatability of the act of love only adds to the enchantment. Yet because we and others are ultimately on our own,
we and they can wish to overcome our solitude: we can be aroused by many, as Van and Ada certainly are, in ways that
cause each other intense pain. . . . Or, conversely, Lucette, unable to have the one love she yearns for, despite her repeated
lovemaking with Ada, feels only her ultimate emptiness. (Boyd 2011: 383-84)

 Cordula epitomizes the multiplicity of love, Lucette, its singularity, as Van and Ada complicate Ada and their lives by epitomizing both love’s singularity and its multiplicity.


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