Part One, Chapter Four


After his prologue traces the complicated love-life of Aqua, Demon and Marina, and the resulting tangle of the Veen family tree, Van now moves to his own life.

For the first time he discloses that this is his own life, despite the third person narration. And since his memoir centers on his love for Ada, he explains, he will start not with a comprehensive account of his childhood but only with his one look at love and his one sampling of sex before he meets Ada at Ardis.

He will structure his whole autobiography around the alternating glow and chill of Ada's presence or absence. Although this first instalment of his personal past prefigures Ada, it also suffers, already, from the chill of her absence.

Whenever Ada stays off-stage, Van brings on her understudies: the other women in his life, and the various roles of his own career: his other women as poor surrogates for Ada, his career as a sorry consolation for their separation. Here, as he introduces the love and sex themes--and their unsatisfactoriness without Ada--he simultaneously introduces the start of his academic career, his first school. But his boys' school seems a mere backdrop for his education in girls.

In Pt. 1 Ch. 4 Van establishes that Ada is not the first he has loved, or the first he has made love to, but he does so in such a way as to magnify the magic of his and Ada's ardor, just as Romeo's adoration for Rosalind offsets by contrast his and Juliet's passion for each other. At thirteen, Van loves Mrs. Tapirov's daughter, but he never speaks to her and later cannot even recall her name; his love for Ada lasts from the age of fourteen to his death at ninety-seven, they will speak to each other with a freedom and fullness they find with no one else, and her name will provide the title of the memoir he composes with her help. At fourteen, Van pays a dollar to lose his virginity to Mrs. Gimber's fubsy assistant "among crates and sacks at the back of the shop" (33); that summer, he will discover with Ada in the paradise of Ardis the true delights of love, something that "raised the animal act to a level higher than even that of the most exact arts or the wildest flights of pure science." (219) His first love and his first whorelet are not so much forerunners as foils to his sister and sweetheart.


31.01-08: When . . . bad dream: Until now, our only indication of Ada's authorship have been the queries and comments Ada has addressed to Van (9.31-32, 15.19-23, 18.27-29, 21.09-10). Now, although he continues to write in the third person, Van makes explicit that this is his autobiography, begun "in the middle of the twentieth century" (31.01) and thematically organized around his love. He will, therefore, open with "his first love" rather than "his first bad hurt or bad dream."

When Van in The Texture of Time defines the past as "a constant accumulation of images," he will offer a sample bouquet of a few of the most vivid images from his romantic life, including "a humid red rose among artificial ones in 1883" (545.24-32), the focus of the first half of this chapter (see 31.17-32.12).

Cf. Nabokov on the thematic nature of autobiography: "one of those repetitions, one of those thematic `voices' with which, according to all the rules of harmony, destiny enriches the life of observant men" (Gift 211); "The following of such thematic designs through one's life should be, I think, the true purpose of autobiography" (SM 27); "I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another" (SM 139: cf. especially the "superimpose . . . part" here with Van's "juxtapositions . . . part").

This preface to Van's life, with its meditations on the art of autobiography, parodies Henry James and his style: the meditations on the art of fiction in James's prefaces to his novels and stories, and especially the repetitions, qualifications, negations, parentheses and italics of lines like "such details of his infancy as really mattered (for the special purpose the reconstruction pursued) could be best treated, could not seldom be only treated. . . . " For another parody of James's style, this time marked as "Dr. Henry's oil of Atlantic prose," see 485.11-14. MOTIF: Composition--Van.

31.01: in the middle of the twentieth century: Van decides to write his memoirs in 1957 (578).

31.06: boyhood and youth: perhaps an allusion to Tolstoy's Childhood, Boyhood and Youth (see 3.07-08n.).

31.07: first love: possibly an allusion to the short story Pervaya lyubov' (First Love) (1860) by Ivan Turgenev (1818-83), or, less improbably, to Nabokov's memoir, published as "Colette" in 1948, reprinted as Chapter 7 of his autobiography, and published again, as "First Love," in Nabokov's Dozen in 1957. "First Love" is to "Tamara," Chapter 12 of the autobiography, as the story of Van's "first love" is to his account of Ada in Ardis the First (see Afternote).

31.08: or bad dream: MOTIF: dream.

31.14-15: Mrs. Tapirov, who was French but spoke English with a Russian accent: The Fr. verb tapir means "to ensconce oneself, nestle, settle in snug concealment," like Miss Tapirov "curled up with her schoolbooks in an armchair--a domestic item among those for sale" (32.16-18). (As a noun, it means "tapir" or "private lesson, pupil who takes private lessons.") Russ. tapirov means "of tapirs."

Alexey Sklyarenko (Nab-L, 30 June 2015), suggests the name anticipates that of Captain Tapper at 304.32ff. He also notes in this post that the Russian poet Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) mentions a tapir in his 1911 poem "Vesyoliy zov vesenney zeleni . . . " ("The merry call of the spring green…" 1911) (“Ot tyazhkoy postupi tapira / Do lyogkikh trepetov strekoz,” “From a tapir's heavy gait / to the light flickers of dragon-flies”) and that, in the devastating essay on Bryusov in his famous Siluety russkikh pisateley (Silhouettes of Russian Writers, 1906-1913 and later editions) Nabokov’s friend the critic Yuli Ayhenvald (1872-1928) “quotes these lines and points out that this tapir, artificially brought from such a distant land for the rhyme's sake alone, tramples down the whole poem, and more generally, prefers herbaria to live flowers.” These connections may help explain the association of “Mrs. Tapirov” and the live and artificial flowers in her shop.

31.15-32.19: shop of objets d'art . . . . Crystal vases with crimson roses . . . console . . . singular company of harps. . . . He loved her madly: Van recollects this in Kalugano: "When Van arrived in front of the music shop, he found it locked. He stared for a moment at the harps and the guitars and the flowers in silver vases on consoles . . . and recalled the schoolgirl whom he had longed for so keenly half a dozen years ago--Rose? Roza? Was that her name?" (307.05-10)

31.15-32.01: shop of objets d'art and more or less antique furniture. . . . the next floor where great wardrobes and flashy dressers semi-encircled a singular company of harps: cf. 21.11-15: "a minor hymnist's paradise, a future America of alabaster buildings one hundred stories high, resembling a beautiful furniture store crammed with tall white-washed wardrobes and shorter fridges."

31.17-32.12: Crystal vases with crimson roses and golden-brown asters. . . . He satisfied himself that those flowers were artificial . . . "My daughter . . always puts a bunch of real ones among the fake": Here, ironically, the real roses imitate the fake rather than vice versa. Cf. the recollection at 545.31-32, and the flowers, insect-mimicking orchids, that Ada paints, some real, some invented but possible, at 99.11-101.20. Unlike "Rose," Ada dislikes roses (271.13, 554.14). MOTIF: artificial flowers; flowers; rose.

31.21-32.01: great wardrobes and flashy dressers semi-encircled a singular company: Notices the puns on "Great War," people as "flashy dressers," and "singular" vs "company." (Earl Sampson to BB, 23 v 96).

32.04-09: damp fat feel of live petal . . . cool life kissed them with pouting lips: Visiting Ardis in 1888, Demon plucks a carnation from a vase carried by Blanche (252.33-253.01) and later deduces that he must already have left his gloves behind, "because I recall the cold of this flower" (262.10).

32.05-06: (unremembered now, eighty years later): MOTIF: Composition--Van.

32.09: with pouting lips: MOTIF: lip.

32.10-11: a bunch of real ones among the fake: cf. 32.16-18: "he saw her curled up with her schoolbooks in an armchair--a domestic item among those for sale."

32.11: pour attraper le client: Darkbloom: "to fool the customer."

32.21-32: the passions . . . Every dormitory had its catamite. . . . rough orgies: cf. 348.23-26: "some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect)." Cf. also "On a Book Entitled Lolita," Lolita 318: "after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions."

MOTIF: homosexual.

32.23: Riverlane: the school is located in Luga, Mayne (156.04-05). Its name has a curious relationship to that of the French governess, Mademoiselle Larivière, whom Van had as his teacher before being sent to school.

32.24-29: Every dormitory had its catamite. One hysterical lad from Upsala . . . wonderfully tender skin texture . . . prized and tortured by a group of foreign boys: This seems to be the classmate nicknamed "Fancytart" whose profile Van draws at 146.10-11.

Cf. 355.03-15: "Cherry, the only lad in our next (American) floramor . . . . pretty catamite. . . . His girlish crupper proved sadly defaced by the varicolored imprints of bestial clawings. . . . he had to be destroyed or given away."

Perhaps an echo of Joyce's Ulysses, ch. 3: "The froeken, bonne à tout faire, who rubs male nakedness in the bath at Upsala. Moi faire, she said, tous les messieurs. Not this monsieur, I said." (36; 3.234-36: fröken: Sw., "unmarried woman"; bonne à tout faire: Fr., "maid of all work"; Moi faire . . . tous les messieurs: incorrect Fr.: "Me to do . . . all the gentlemen").

32.27-28: : the round creamy charms of Bronzino's Cupid (the big one, whom a delighted satyr discovers in a lady's bower): The painting "Venus, Satyr and Cupid," by Angelo di Cosimo di Mariano, called il Bronzino (1503-1572), dated 1550-55, now in Rome's Galleria Colonna, measures 120 x 250 cm. The Cupid is not an infantine cherub but a chubby-faced lad of eleven or more; his buttocks are brightly lit and compositionally the center of attention. The satyr is indeed delighted, though possibly also with the lady's buttocks, which are exposed towards him, though not to the viewer.

Van specifies "the big one . . . " presumably to clarify that he does not have in mind Bronzino's most famous painting, "Allegory of Venus, Love and Time" (National Gallery, London, 147 x 117cm.), where the Cupid is also an oldish boy, perhaps thirteen, sticking his buttocks out with an almost comic obtrusiveness.

MOTIF: behind; [woman in picture].

32.29: much prized and tortured: MOTIF: torture.

32.29-30: mostly Greek and English: including Zographos and Cheshire (33.14). Alluding to the traditional association of Greeks and homosexuality and to the mores of English public schools (cf. 32.21-32n). Cf. 238.26: "titled Britisher and Greek grandee"; 464.15: "a Greek and an Englishman." MOTIF: Greek and English.

32.30: Cheshire, the rugby ace: suggests the World War II air ace Group Captain (later Viscount) Geoffrey Leonard Cheshire (1917-1992), bomber pilot and founder of orphanages and homes for the sick and incurable.

Later this year (1884), Percy de Prey, "a crack Rugger player" (273.25) will be "kicked out of Riverlane" (190.09) after "the latest 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)" (168.15-18).

33.01: Lucky Louse: an Antiterran transatlantic fusion of American Mickey Mouse and Belgian Lucky Luke. Walt Disney (1901-1966) created Mickey Mouse as an animated cartoon character in 1927-28 (animation by Ub Iwerks, 1901-1971); a newspaper comic strip and by 1931 a comic book version followed. Maurice ("Morris") de Bevère (??-??) created the cowboy Lucky Luke for the Belgian comic Spirou in 1946; Lucky Luke is now as familiar in the Francophone world as Mickey Mouse in the Anglophone. Cf. Ardeur 27: "Mikiki."

33.04: Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord: Named after Philip Dormer Stanhope, fourth Earl of Chesterfield (1694-1773) (Chester is the capital of Cheshire county), famous for his Letters to His Son (his bastard son, also Philip Stanhope), of which Samuel Johnson famously remarked that “they teach the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master” (cited in James Boswell, Life of Johnson, ed. R.W. Chapman, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970, 188; year 1754). [Sklyarenko xii 01]

If Cheshire is the son of a thrifty lord, his cousin, Lord "Dick" Cheshire, by contrast, follows the aristocratic cliche of accruing gambling and tailors' debts, then evading them (174.33-175.02, 175.11-15, 176.11-15).

33.10: hell-raker: Given the context, probably an echo of a traditional misogynist association of "hel" with the vagina, as in Lear's deranged "Let copulation thrive" speech ("Down from the waist they are Centaurs, / Though women all above; / But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiends': there's hell, there's darkness, / There is the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, / Stench, consumption," King Lear 4.7.114, 124-29), or Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 ("Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action . . . . / All this the world well knows, yet none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell") and Sonnet 144 ("Two loves I have, of comfort and despair, / Which, like two spirits, do suggest me still: / The better angel is a man right fair, / The worser spirit a woman coloured ill. . . . / being both from me both to each friend, / I guess one angel in another's hell."

Cf. 233.30-31: "The Zemskis were terrible rakes (razvratniki)"; 250.23: "thick-set rake-hells." MOTIF: hell.

33.12: welcome mat: a pun on "come" (W.W. Rowe, in Russian Literature Triquarterly, 14 [19??], 50).

33.13-14: Things went better six minutes later, after Cheshire and Zographos were through: although they are all surprisingly quick, quickest and most surprising of all is Van's resurrection time. But for him, this will prove normal: to Ada's "I've never seen a man make such a speedy recovery," he replies: "Hundreds of whores and scores of cuties more experienced than the future Mrs. Vinelander have told me that" (420.19-22).

33.14: Zographos: genuine Greek surname, meaning "artist, painter"; the character is nicknamed "Zogdog" and sketched by Van (146.11).

33.17: fubsy: Cf. 201.31-32: "she knows she is fubsy and frumpy."

33.17: whorelet: cf. 168. 28-30: "the dumpy little Countess resembled his first whorelet." MOTIF: -let; whore.

33.22: the ordinary course of collapsing time: MOTIF: time.

33.22-29: his train . . . to Ardis . . . velvet side-loop . . .: cf. 470.20-22: "Rocking along softly, . . . his arm in an armloop, he recalled his first railway journey to Ardis. . . . "

33.27: Gimber: Perhaps a fusion of English "ginger" and Russian imbir’ ("ginger"). [Sklyarenko xii 01]

33.29-30: one feels very much a man of the world: cf. 36.13: "Who cared, now that he was a man?"; 189.10-11 [four years later]: "as a child four years ago"; 410.19-20: "As a 'man of the world,' Van . . . . " MOTIF: man.

33.30-31: the capable landscape capably skimming by: Alludes to the leading English landscape architect of his day, Lancelot ("Capability") Brown (1716-83), so-called "because he was reputed to say, when consulted on the landscaping of an estate, that it had capabilities" (Oxford Companion to English Literature, 4th. ed.). Nabokov alludes to his successor, Humphrey Repton, in LL 22 and in PF 93: "a landscaper of genius (Repburg)." Kyoto Reading Circle, Krug 2.

33.32-34: nether itch . . . only a minor irritation of the epithelium: in other words, it is not, as he fears for a moment, a venereal disease caught from his "first whorelet." MOTIF: itch; venereal disease.

33.33: thank Log: an Antiterran version of "thank God" (or “Thank the Lord”) via Bog, Russ. "God" (cf. Levinton 328) and logos, Gk., "word," especially as in John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." If God divided the heavens from the earth (Genesis 1.1-10), it seems to have been Log, the Word, Who has divided Antiterra from Terra. MOTIF: Log.

Afternote to Part One, Chapter 4

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