Part One, Chapter 4


Through the pointed parallel and contrast that the two shop scenes establish between Miss Tapirov and the sluttish shopgirl, Nabokov invites us to ponder what will become major themes in the Ardis and Villa Venus sections of the novel: the conjunction and disjunction between love and sex, the gap between the originality, authenticity and tenderness possible in love and the imitativeness, repetitiveness and heartlessness that desire can also entail.

The opposition between true love and mere sex anticipates the opposition between Ada and the other women in Van's life after Ardis. Of these others, most are anonymous prostitutes, like the whorelet here. In this sense, Pt. 1 Ch. 4 prefigures first of all the contrast between Ada, especally in the idylls of Ardis, and all the whores in Van's life, especially the women of the Villa Venus chain that parodies the paradise of Ardis.

Several features of Pt. 1 Ch. 4 underscore this structural line. The account of Van's sexual relations with the fubsy whorelet glide into the train journey that takes Van to Ardis (33.21-23), just as Pt. 2 Ch. 2 ends with a long train image (345.13-346.07) that glides into the Villa Venus chapter, Pt. 2 Ch. 3.

The stress on exclusiveness and nobility at Riverlane School matches the conditions of membership in the Villa Venus clubs, as determined by Eric Veen just after "being removed from Note" (Eton, a school of note) "to a small private school in Vaud Canton" (347.16-17). The boarding-school homosexuality common to Riverlane and Note affects the Villas Venus: "One clause in the Rules of the Club seemed to indicate that Eric, though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect): at least two of the maximum number of inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys" (348.21-26). And just as it is "Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord" (33.04) who introduces Van to the charms of the "pig-pink whorelet," it is Cheshire's cousin, Lord "Dick" Cheshire, who offers in lieu of his gambling debt to Van "an introduction to the Villa Venus Club to which his whole clan belonged. Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain. It was a ticket to paradise." (176.14-16)


Of the Other Women in Van's sex life, by far the most important is Cordula de Prey.

At one jaded moment after leaving Ardis for the last time Van looks through a shop window "and recalled the schoolgirl whom he had longed for so keenly half a dozen years ago--Rose? Roza? Was that her name? Would he have been happier with her than with his pale fatal sister?" (307.09-11) At another, on leaving Ardis for the first time, he eyes Cordula and thinks that "the dumpy little Countess resembled his first whorelet." (168.29-30)

The contrast between Pt.1 Ch. 4's "first love" and "first whorelet" anticipates that between Ada and Cordula in a number of ways. As if to signal the relationship, Nabokov places both girls in Pt. 1 Ch. 4 in shops run by a lone older woman, then pairs off Ada and Cordula by giving them both overpraised aristocratic actresses for mothers.

As with Rose, Van at first dares not voice his love for Ada. After eleven chapters of mounting tension, he has progressed only to the point of lurking behind Ada in wordless excitement as she paints flowers, some real, some fakes. He barely brushes her bent neck with his parched lips before dashing off to his room to masturbate the tension away. "But nature is motion and growth": on one occasion when he steals up behind her, little Ada turns her head, "shut her eyes and pressed her lips to his in a fresh-rose kiss that entranced and baffled Van." (101.10-11) That moment begins the active, reciprocal phase of their love, and echoes Van's sole "contact" with the Rose whom he will never get to touch: "In passing, he touched a half-opened rose and was cheated of the sterile texture his fingertips had expected when cool life kissed them with pouting lips." (32.07-09)

Just as Van turns from the romantically distant Rose to the whorelet who has no more than availability to recommend her, so, after parting from Ada, he accosts Cordula. If he first approached Ada only warily, he treats Cordula as little more than a whore from the first day they meet ("How could I get in touch with you? . . . Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?" [165.23-24]) to the last, after which Cordula says: "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" (458.09-12).

Pt. 1 Ch. 4 also helps to frame Ardis. While the scenes at Van's school just before Ardis the First contrast the two girls, in two shops, and move from one to the other via a burst of homosexual eroticism that fascinates and repels Van, so the first school scene after Ardis the First, not at Van's Riverlane but at Ada's and Cordula's Brownhill, juxtaposes the two girls, in another shop, in a scene where Van is entranced and appalled at the thought that Ada and Cordula may have been lesbian lovers (Pt. 1 Ch. 27, 167-70).

Pt. 1 Ch. 4 frames not only Ardis the First but the whole Ardis section of the book. The chapter leads into Ardis for the first time via a train scene that evolves from Van's account of his sessions with the whorelet. As Van leaves Ardis for the last time, he takes a train on which he meets and accosts Cordula, who resembles that whorelet and soon happily offers herself to Van. As in Pt. 1 Ch. 4 itself, Van's whole story will lurch from high romance to hollow gratification.


Nabokov liked to stress that art and science meet. When he introduces Van's first love and first sex, he not only artfully foreshadows the essential love and the indispensable sex in Van's life, but he also presents the scientific side of the evolution of erotic sensation.

"Rose," her name perhaps no more than a memory of that flower Van feels, releases Van's first romantic yearnings. Nabokov makes her real roses amid the fake curiously anticipate Ada's flower-painting sessions. As Ada's brush blends spurious orchids with genuine ones, Van hovers behind her before retreating to the lone release of his private "pseudo-copulation" (as biologists call the process by which insects pollinate insect-mimicking orchids of the kind Ada likes to paint). Nabokov here touches on a theme much on his mind in the decade leading up to Ada, the idea of nature as a cheat and deceiver in luring us to sex: "the lust that Nature, the grand cheat, puts into us to inveigle us into propagation" (PF 253); "all art is deception and so is nature; all is deception in that good cheat, from the insect that mimics a leaf to the popular enticements of procreation" (SO 11); "Art is a magical deception, as all nature is magic and deception. To speak of a 'sincere' poem or picture is about the same thing as to call 'sincere' a bird's mating dance or a caterpillar's mimetic behavior" (EO 3.498)

But the stirrings of sex can derive from imitation as well as from instinct. Although Van refuses to follow his schoolmates--who happily follow each other--in availing himself of the "hysterical" (32.24) lad from Upsala, he imitates Cheshire's cool heartlessness with the whorelet (33.16-20). In his autobiography Nabokov describes how in amatory matters he too strove to emulate a more experienced male, his cousin Baron Yuri Rausch von Traubenberg (SM 198-99, 203-04). Imitativeness takes a more tragic turn for Lucette, as she mimics her big sister's passion for Van and is initiated by her into lesbian love-making. She will "have to pay" dearly for Ada's "rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon" (334.10) on the day when she offers her "hysterical virgin's body" (484.02) to the Van who refuses to take her.


Like Van, Nabokov organizes his autobiography on explicitly thematic lines, as he explains in Speak, Memory (see 31.01-08n.) Like Van, Nabokov makes love one of his themes.

Just as Van introduces Miss Tapirov and the shopgirl as precursors of Ada, so Nabokov presents Colette and Polenka as preparation for Tamara, and all his other loves as a long lead-up to Véra. Like Van, Nabokov reveals his readiness to fall in love before it first really happens: "Zina and Colette, my seaside playmates; Louise, the prancer; all the flushed, low-sashed, silky-haired little girls at festive parties; languorous Countess G., my cousin's lady; Polenka smiling in the agony of my new dreams--all would merge to form somebody I did not know but was bound to know soon" (SM 212-13); "as if Mother Nature were giving me mysterious advance notices of Tamara's existence" (SM 229).

But unlike Van, Nabokov stresses the romantic in his early loves, while allowing its natural conjunction with the sexual, once, at sixteen, he meets Tamara. Thinking back to his pre-Tamara phase, he recalls: "Our innocence seems to me now almost monstrous, in the light of various 'sexual confessions' (to be found in Havelock Ellis and elsewhere), which involve tiny tots mating like mad. The slums of sex were unknown to us." (SM 203) Van, by contrast, is initiated into sex before Ada, and not into the "slums of sex" but precisely into the pleasures accessible in his aristocratic world: the homosexual romps of an exclusive boys' school, the girl first procured by "the son of a thrifty lord."

In Speak, Memory, Nabokov meets his earliest loves either on trips with his family to southern beaches (Zina, Colette) or on the summer retreat to his family estate (Polenka, Tamara). As if in a kind of wish-fulfilment combination, Nabokov will fuse his childhood summers away and his summers at the family estate into Van's visit to his "aunt" and "cousins" at Ardis, but in Pt. 1 Ch. 4 he has love and sex begin for Van as disconcertingly disconnected and as part of the hostile, unhomelike world of school. For Nabokov, family love and romantic love were warmly linked. The concluding chapter of his autobiography, though a kind of love song to his wife, focuses on their child. For Van, love and sex begin without the warmth of family love that surrounded Nabokov. He will more than compensate, in a strangely twisted sense, when he falls in torrid love with his sister.

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