Part One, Chapter 9
After the deliberately riddling and rococo references to the larvae in Ada’s larvarium in the previous chapter, Nabokov changes rhythm and tone in this short, straightforward chapter. As Van’s interest in Ada turns to desire, narrative cedes place to lyric for the first time--but not the last.
Sensing Ada’s animated attention to him, Van’s fascination for his cousin grows. A vividly immediate evocation of his recollected urgencies plays against the apparently impersonal summary of third person narration: “Was she really pretty, at twelve? Did he want--would he ever want to caress her, to really caress her?” At a time when they do not yet know they are more than cousins, Van is tantalized by their resemblance (“Her plain Irish nose was Van’s in miniature”) and by all her differences. He dwells on her looks; his gaze and his solitary replays progress from her face to her hands, the one part he can touch freely, and then to the forbidden zones (her pubic floss, her bud-breasts) that obliging chance allows him to glimpse. These sneak previews of Ada promise more but for the moment appear only to affirm her inaccessibility.
Yet the very fact that Van lingers so on Ada’s charms--and it will not be the last loving catalogue he makes (see especially the 1888 inventory of her body and brain parts, in Part 1 Chapter 35)--evidently implies, even if we did not know already, that she will become the love of his life. In fact this chapter itself, like so much of Ardis the First, anticipates both the imminent future of their affair and its later course even as it takes us just one stage further in the unfolding present: “Later, when he was so fond of kissing her cold hands . . . . (But, oh my, oh, the long, languid, rose-and-silver, painted and pointed, delicately stinging onyxes of her adolescent and adult years!)”
Lyricism and the erotic comedy of his advance peeks at Ada combine with parodic echoes of Eden to anticipate that Ardis will become a paradise of passion.
In Part 1 Chapter 15, Van and Ada will climb a tree Ada calls “the Tree of Knowledge,” and as her foot slips they tumble together, in a scene that Robert Alter rightly notes “clearly enacts a Happy Fall” (“Nabokov’s Ardor,” Commentary, August 1969, p. 49). Here in Part 1 Chapter 9 they climb to the roof, and Van’s stumble after seeing Ada’s short skirt hitched up, and the fall of the mulberry soap after he catches sight of her bud-breasts, anticipate Part 1 Chapter 15’s more explicit Fall, in a way reminiscent of the multiple replays of the Fall and its fruits in the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, “that other triptych,” as Demon calls it, “that tremendous garden of tongue-in-cheek delights” (436). Bosch’s painting is much more than an incidental reference: summarizing the difference in atmosphere between his two most erotic novels, Nabokov sets “the lawns in Lolita” against “the Garden of Delights in Ada.” (SO 306)
58.01: Was she really pretty, at twelve?: Cf. 199.17: “Was she really beautiful?” (at sixteen).
58.02-06: Her black hair cascaded . . . shaking it back . . . pale cheek. . . . Her pallor shone, her blackness blazed: Cf. 140.26-28: “the Cascade in the larch plantation . . . Her long straight hair” and 141.22-23: “stepping into a pool under the little cascade to wash her tresses.”
Cancogni 268 suggests that Ada’s hair and skin color (and serious eyes, 58.10) echo those of Chateaubriand’s sister Lucile, as he describes them in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (1849-50): “Lucile était grande et d’une beauté remarquable, mais sérieuse. Son visage pâle était accompagné de longs cheveux noirs. . . . ” (“Lucile was tall and remarkably beautiful, but serious. Her pale face went with her long black hair . . . ,” Mémoires d’outre-tombe, III.6, ed. Maurice Levaillant and Georges Moulinier [Paris: Gallimard], I, 86).
MOTIF: black-white; Chateaubriand; tossing hair [Ada].
58.08-10: one’s gaze, stroking her white shins and forearms, could follow upon them the regular slants of fine dark hairs . . . : Cf. 105.03-04: “he caressed the parallel strokes of the delicate down shading the brunette’s forearm.”
58.10-12: The iridal dark-brown of her serious eyes had the enigmatic opacity of an oriental hypnotist’s look (in a magazine’s back-page advertisement): Quite possibly a genuine advertisement, like the Talon Trouser Fastener and Hanes Brief advertisements in Life referred to in Pale Fire 114-15 (see Alfred Appel, Jr., Nabokov’s Dark Cinema [New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1974], pp. 32-33), and the Barton and Guestier wine advertisement in the New Yorker more obliquely referred to in Ada 460-61 (see Boyd 1985/2001: 130 and cover), but if so, not yet identified. (Perhaps in Look magazine?)
Cf. 215.18-216.06: “the raised iris [had kept] its Hindu-hypnotic position . . . but those eyes’ expression . . . had changed, as if new layers of reticence and sadness had accumulated, half-veiling the pupil, while the glossy eyeballs shifted in their lovely long sockets with a more restless motion than of yore: Mlle Hypnokush, ‘whose eyes never dwell on you and yet pierce you.’ ”
58.10: The iridal dark brown of her serious eyes: Cf. 58.02-06n. and 104.22-23: “The iris: black brown with amber specks or spokes placed around the serious pupil in a dial arrangement. . . . ”
58.15: Her long lashes seemed blackened, and in fact were: Cf. 215.17: “the lashes [had kept] their semblance of jet-dust incrustation.”
58.16-18: the thickish shape of her parched lips. Her plain Irish nose was Van’s in miniature: Cf. 102.11-16: “Their [Van’s and Ada’s] lips were absurdly similar in style, tint and tissue. . . . in the case of Ada’s lips . . . the largeness of the lower one” and 59.33-34 (“her . . . fat pale lips”), 75.09 (“Her plump, stickily glistening lips”), 100.03 (“his parched lips”) and 402.18 (“her practically Moorish lips”). MOTIF: Ada-Van similarity; family resemblance; lips.
58.17-18: Her plain Irish nose . . . Van’s in miniature: From their great-grandmother, Mary O’Reilly. Cf. 216.07-08: “Her nose had not followed Van’s in the latter’s thickening of Hibernian outline.” MOTIF: Irish.
58.19-59.10: Her poor pretty hands . . . adult years!): MOTIF: fingernails.
59.02-10: she bit them so thoroughly . . . the long, languid, rose-and-silver, painted and pointed . . . onyxes of her adolescent and adult years: Ada stops biting her nails on her twelfth birthday (105.29-30), apparently about a week into the kissing phase of her relationship with Van (102.19-103.01, 114.07).
59.04: with the tightness of wire: In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy twice (V.xxxi, Anna’s baby; VIII.vii, Kitty’s) compares the line between folds of fat on a baby’s wrist to the effects of tying with thread. In the second instance Kitty tenderly squeezes “the plump little arm, which looked as if a thread had been tied around the wrist.”
59.06: cold hands: MOTIF: cold hand(s).
59.09-10: painted and pointed . . . onyxes of her adolescent and adult years: Cf. 419.12: “Ada’s red-lacquered talons.”
59.10: onyxes: W2: “onyx[L., fr. Gr. onyx a claw, fingernail, hoof, a veined gem, onyx . . . ] 1. a Chalcedony in parallel layers of different shades of color. It is used for making cameos.”
59.12-13: those nooks in it where they were to make love so soon: Pun on slang nooky, “sexual intercourse” (OED, first recorded 1928).
59.17-21: because between him . . . and that . . . child there extended a void of light and a veil of shade that no force could overcome and pierce: Cf. 73.15-74.10 and 98.18: “a veil drawn between him and her.”
59.18: an awkward schoolboy of genius: MOTIF: of genius.
59.25: illuminator: A skylight (see 60.03).
59.25-27: (even the dog had once gone there) and a bracket or something wrenched up her skirt: Cancogni 147 suggests that “bracket” puns on the preceding parenthesis.
59.28-60.02: miracle in a Biblical fable or a moth’s shocking metamorphosis--that the child was darkly flossed . . . he, big Van, slipped: Their joint climb and Van’s fall seem to anticipate especially Van’s falling onto Ada’s naked crotch, a “foretaste of knowledge” (95.33) during another climb in which Eden, Ada’s not wearing panties, a “silk thread of larva web” and Ada’s floss all feature together (94.17-95.32). MOTIF: Eden.
59.28: moth’s shocking metamorphosis: Mason 55 suggests the Puss Moth (cf. 55.18-23 and n.). MOTIF: butterflies (and moths); metamorphosis.
59.34: fat pale lips: Cf. 102.13 (“nether lip, fat and sullen”) and 104.04-05 (“In both sisters, . . . the nether lip too fat”). MOTIF: lips.
60.01-04: big Van . . . small Van: MOTIF: Van.
60.03-06: . . . the mousy charms of his first harlot: see 33.01-27. MOTIF: whore.
60.07: sentimental education: Echoes the title of Flaubert’s novel, L’Éducation sentimentale (1869), whose intonations Nabokov mimics in Part 2 Chapter 1 of Lolita and whose title he echoes in EO, I, 28: “her [Tatiana’s] mother’s sentimental education.”
60.11-12: her slim back, rib-shaded on the near side: Cf. Van’s dream, 520.30-33, of “looking through dark glasses at the symmetrical shading on either side of a shining spine with fainter shading between the ribs belonging to Lucette or Ada.”
60.12-14: A fat snake of porcelain . . . the reptile . . . Eve: Cf. 42.20-22: “a satanic snake encircled the porcelain basin (twin of the one in the girls’ washroom across the passage).” The Eve in the bathroom also recalls the Parmigianino Eve that for Demon brings to mind Marina in the bathroom (12.29-16.23). MOTIF: Eden; Eve; snake.
60.15: a big mulberry-colored cake of soap: In this comic echo of the Fall, Nabokov seems to be echoing Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, with its echoes of different fruits, replaying the fruit that led to the Fall, in its central panel. For Bosch, see especially 436.18-437.16.
Cf. 144.15: “ ‘I’m Van,’ said Lucette, standing in the tub with the mulberry soap between her legs. . . . ”
60.17-18: more the echo of the soap’s crashing against the marble board: Cf. nature’s echo of another more resonant fall involving not a fruit-colored soap but the most famous of fruits: Paradise Lost, IX.780-84: “So saying, her rash hand in evil hour / Forth reaching to the fruit, she plucked, she ate: / Earth felt the wound, and nature from her seat / Sighing through all her works gave signs of woe, / That all was lost.”
60.18: pudic: W2: “1. Modest; chaste. Obs.”
Afternote to Part One, Chapter 9