Part Two, Chapter 2



Letters from Terra and Van’s Story

One way of approaching 2.2, although not the only one, is in terms of the ongoing story of Van and Ada’s love, even if, unusually, this chapter contains no single dramatized scene and no direct glimpse of Ada.

After the end of Ardis the Second, bitter Van tries not to think about Ada, and to focus on his work. Yet in Letters from Terra, conceived just weeks after leaving Ada and Ardis, he cannot help expressing the pain he feels at being emotionally unable to communicate with her. Both Theresa’s messages from another world and her microscopic size serve as comic objective correlatives of the distance Van feels from Ada and the incompatibility he feels toward her, given his outrage at her infidelity. Another comic measure of Van’s preoccupation with Ada, even as he tries to set her aside, is his erasure of the resemblance to Ada in each of the female leads in the fiction: Theresa, Antilia, and Flora. Van’s sense that “Terra cheated, that all was not paradise there” (341) also matches his horror that Ada cheated, that all was far from paradise at Ardis.
Mademoiselle Larivière’s Les Enfants Maudits had been a comic fictional counterpart of Van and Ada’s affair, a reflection distorted through the unobservant imagination of the Veen children’s governess. But Letters from Terra is Van’s attempt to focus on his work, on whatever in his life is not Ada. And just as Les Enfants Maudits becomes transfigured and capriciously deformed in its movie version—filmed promptly, after Larivière’s sudden “blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a great writer! A sensational Canadian bestselling author!” (194)—Letters from Terra will become a wildly successful film by grotesquely travestying Van’s researches into Terra, but only after the novel has lain in neglect for fifty years.
After Ardis the First, Van had had a rampantly glorious run as Mascodagama, continuing, as it were, the line of success that began with his walking on his hands during the picnic at Ada’s twelfth birthday, treating us “to the greatest performance we have ever seen a brachiambulant give” (82) and causing Ada to “burst into tears at the height of Van’s performance” (83). Now, after the bitter end of Ardis the Second, a duel has robbed Van of the power of walking on his hands, and his new pseudonymous display, as Voltemand, earns almost no attention, with only six copies of Letters from Terra sold, and two reviews, one written more or less in return for sexual favors. Van, usually so triumphant, sexually, physically, intellectually, fiscally, experiences as an author uncertainties akin to those he has now faced in amatory matters: in his ignorance of the need to send review copies out, in his “‘crooked little smile’ at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so badly neglected” (344), in his twitchiness at the two reviews his book does attract, and even in his fleeting readiness to duel reviewer Max Mispel, as he had hoped to duel Percy de Prey. Not to mention, as we discover later, that he has failed to copyright his novel (581), so cannot sue Victor Vitry for distorting it so thoroughly in his film.

Letters from Terra
:Away from Ada’s Story
In another way, 2.2 and Letters from Terra do not so much continue Van’s story as diverge from it. In the chapters between Ada’s desperate and unanswered letters to Van after he flees from Ardis the Second (2.1) and Lucette’s bringing Van a seventh letter from her to Kingston (2.5), Ada starts to emphasize its centrifugality, its escape from its usual center, when Van does not have Ada to revolve around.

2.2 (Letters from Terra), 2.3 (the Villa Venuses), and 2.4 (Van’s lectures on dreams) focus on the themes that counterpoint the Ada theme in Van’s life: his career, in 2.2 and in 2.4, and the theme of other women, in 2.3. Here in 2.2 after writing Letters from Terra Van becomes “painfully aware how little he knew his own planet while attempting to piece together another one from jagged bits filched from deranged brains” (345), and feels the urge to explore his own world by train, even with no Ada by his side. Anticipating such trips becomes a nightly prelude to sleep, to dreaming, and therefore a transition into Eric Veen’s “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream” (348) in the chapter that follows, as that in turn, with its closing semi-nightmare, leads into Van’s lectures on dreams in 2.4.

Letters from Terra has presented a whole world, as Van understands it by fitting together those “jagged bits filched from deranged brains” (345). And the chapter then sends itself in anticipation across this world, Antiterra, as Van’s imagination conjures up the trips he will make on the New World Express, running the length of the Americas, the African Express, extending from London to Cape Town, and the Orient Express, running and hopping across Europe, Asia, and all the way to Australia. These trips, rehearsed in late-evening reverie, lead directly into dreams, and thence, across the gap from Van Veen to Eric Veen, from 2.2 to 2.3, to another set of indulgent, world-crossing dreams, “a chain of palatial brothels that [Eric’s] inheritance would allow him to establish all over ‘both hemispheres of our callipygian globe’” (348). In another sense, both chapters offer and withdraw promises of paradise, as Ardis had once done for Van: although “the strain of sweet happiness could always be distinguished as an all-pervading note” in the work of other terrapists, Van’s novel suggests “that Terra cheated, that all was not paradise there” (341), just as Eric’s grandfather, architect David van Veen, in trying to realize his grandson’s vision, creates “parodies of paradise” (350) that by the end of the Villa Venus chapter have collapsed into squalid, hellish ruin, into nightmare.

While Letters from Terra itself exemplifies the disconcerting centrifugality of these next few chapters, the effect compounds itself in the flamboyant excurses we find in the descriptions of the two reviews that Van’s almost unsold book manages to elicit: one by “the First Clown in Elsinore” (343), another by “Max Mispel . . . Mr. Medlar . . . Max Mushmula” (344-45) which, like an old-fashioned jumping jack firework, hops about explosively from Osberg, Ben Sirine, Burton, The Perfumed Garden, to Melville and Marvell and more.

Letters from Terra
: Out of This World
Letters from Terra in 2.2 presents the unexpected middle of three unexpected and unexpectedly linked chapters about Terra: the first, 1.3, near the start of the novel, introducing the very idea of Terra, as a notion something to do with the “L disaster” in the “beau milieu” of the nineteenth century (17), and as believed in by minds as unsettled as Aqua’s; the second, 2.2, near the middle of the novel, introducing Van’s fictional attempt to embody his researches on the insane, inspired by Aqua (as indicated in Van’s deriving the name “Sig Leymanski” “partly . . . from that of Aqua’s last doctor” (340), “a Dr. Sig Heiler” (28)); the third, 5.5, near the close of the novel, showing Van’s barely noticed and since forgotten novel suddenly inspiring a blockbuster screen adaptation, and reconfiguring, yet again, the relationship between Terra and Antiterra, as its infidelities to Van’s story and the researches behind it somehow enable the film to approach closer to what we understand of Earth’s history, if the Terra suspected on Antiterra is indeed our Earth.
Ada’s relation to Bosch’s great triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights has often been remarked on, not least in these notes and Afternotes (and Boyd 2004, Boyd 2011). The “parodies of paradise” in the Villa Venus chapter will show the Boschean oscillation between paradisal initiation, earthly replication and hellish degeneration in particularly concentrated form, but here in Letters from Terra and in the Terra theme throughout the novel Nabokov seems to come close to the effect of Bosch’s triptych when its panels have been closed over: an out-of-this-world view of the Earth and even of God looking on at his creation.
In Bosch’s triptych, though, the panels are easily closed to allow this clear vision of Earth and God. In Ada, we cannot tell quite where we are. Is Antiterra a parallel Earth, with our history slightly askew, and is Terra our Earth as seen imperfectly through the visions of the Antiterran insane? Or is Terra not just another world, but a “Next World” (20), as it seems to some in 1.3, or a “paradise” (341), as it seems to Van’s fellow terrapists, but not to him? There are mixed signals in time: for Antiterran Van, “our annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents” (340-41). Does this confusion of time signals correspond in any way to Van’s becoming “pregnant” with the idea of Letters from Terra “in early September” 1888 (325), in other words not on receiving Ada’s first post-Ardis-the-Second letter to him, but perhaps simultaneously with her writing this first “early September, 1888” (332) letter? Do the madmen Van studies, and the imagination he applies to their visions, allow some glimpse beyond our world? Judging from the errors in history that Van records—errors, at least, if seen as attempts to glimpse our history—the prospects of getting outside our world or our state of consciousness are not good. Nabokov in his autobiography talks about the reluctance of “professional physicists to discuss the outside of the inside, the whereabouts of the curvature” (SM 301); summarising his epistemology and metaphysics, I have written: “What we are within is infinitely rich, but we soon cease to be within it. And what are we within? We could see only from outside. Can we ever see from outside?” (Boyd 1985/2001: 108).

Letters from Terra, as written and then disparaged by Van, seems to suggest that we cannot understand a next world in terms of this world; indeed, we cannot get outside of our world, to understand where we really are, yet we need to; and the margins of consciousness, such as madness or imagination, will not get us there. Letters from Terra, as designed by Nabokov, may offer more.

Letters from Terra:
Lucette and the Reviewers

Despite Van’s deprecation of his younger self’s achievement in Letters from Terra, Ada intervenes four times early in 2.2 to indicate her admiration for and her engagement with his novel, from “(I disagree, it’s a nice, nice little book! Ada’s note) (338, almost at the start of the chapter) to “(Had I happened to see a copy I would have recognized Chateaubriand’s lapochka and hence your little paw, at once)” (342), just past half way. Despite Letters from Terra focusing on an aspect of Van’s life without Ada; despite its inaugurating three chapters almost bare of scenic action and certainly without Ada present on stage; despite the sense these chapters create of Van living independently as well as emptily without Ada—despite all this, Ada’s later close involvement in his text, as Van writes his memoir of his love for her, seems to offer readers an emotional reassurance that the couple will be happy together again. Yet it turns out that these are the last editorial asides will Ada make in Van’s text, as the narrative focus increasingly shifts, for the third quarter of Ada, from Ada to Lucette, about to come into Van’s life as a ravishing sixteen-year-old desperately in love with him, and all too soon to exit abruptly from it as a twenty-five-year-old who can no longer see any reason to live, if she has to live without Van.

Lucette is not mentioned in 2.2, yet the chapter implicates her in central ways.

A theme of letters persists through the novel, letters both epistolary and alphabetic. Van takes as pseudonym for his Letters from Terra the name Voltemand, a messenger and letter-carrier in Hamlet. Lucette will carry with her to Van at Voltemand Hall, Kingston University, a letter from Ada that will overturn Van’s refusal to see her. That letter-carrying scene includes as part of its dialogue (see 378) extensive excerpts from a letter Lucette has previously written Van, “[p]unning in an Ophelian frenzy on the feminine glans” (394) and echoing Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia (379). The letter Lucette brings to Voltemand Hall reverses Van’s decision to spurn Ada, and when the lovers reunite in Manhattan, Ada begins to read his recent Letters from Terra, “Voltemand’s poor thriller” (419).At the early morning three-way debauch in their bed, Ada still has Van’s novel by her bedside table when Lucette, “their helpless bed pet,” breaks away from being caressed by “[t]en eager, evil, loving, long fingers belonging to two different young demons” (420) and leaves a farewell note, “Would go mad if remained one more night” (421), before rushing away. To apologize, Van writes the one letter he ever sends her. Nine years later, before she surprises Van by joining him on the Admiral Tobakoff in 1901, and determined to win his sexual favors or lose her life, Lucette sends him, “just in case” (146), a letter to his Kingston address that he does not read until after she dies, like Ophelia, by drowning.

Van’s Letters from Terra receives—“earns” would be too much—two reviews. The first is by the “First Clown in Elsinore” (343), the name of the gravedigger in Hamlet who guesses that Ophelia’s death is a suicide. The second is by a German scholar, Max Mispel, also called by the English equivalent of the German, “Mr. Medlar,” and by the Russian, “Max Mushmula” (344-45). Back at the start of Ardis the First, when Van first sights one of his cousins there, he decides “she must be ‘Ardelia,’ the eldest of the two little cousins he was supposed to get acquainted with. Actually it was Lucette, the younger one” (36). Ardelia means “busybody,” close to “meddler” (the medlar-meddler pun in English goes at least back to Shakespeare, Timon of Athens IV.iii.306-12) and busybody Lucette indeed proves a comically frustrating meddler in Van and Ada’s love affair at the end of Ardis the First and from the start of Ardis the Second.

At early Ardis lunches and dinners, “[a]rch and grandiloquent” Ada dominates the talk, seizing on, for instance, “some ludicrous blunder in the current column of Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine” (61), in order to stop her mother “from appropriating the conversation and transforming it into a lecture on the theater” (62). Note the echo of “Elsie de Nord,” a literary columnist and reviewer, in the London weekly Elsinore, where another literary reviewer or columnist will review Letters from Terra (343). As we have just seen, that reviewer’s nom de plume evokes the gravedigger who digs the grave for Ophelia and wonders at her suicide. But back in the discussions around the Ardis meal-table, Van realizes that Marina will, if she possibly can, turn the conversation to an opportunity for discoursing at length about the theater and her role in it. To prevent her, he feeds Ada cues to one of her fields of interest and expertise, botany:

“ Van: “That yellow thingum” (pointing at a floweret prettily depicted on an Eckercrown plate) “—is it a buttercup?”

“ Ada: “No. That yellow flower is the common Marsh Marigold, Caltha palustris. In this country, peasants
miscall it ‘Cowslip,’ though of course the true Cowslip, Primula veris, is a different plant altogether.”
“I see,” said Van.
“Yes, indeed,” began Marina, “when I was playing Ophelia, the fact that I had once collected flowers—”
“Helped, no doubt,” said Ada. “Now the Russian word for marsh marigold is Kuroslep (which muzhiks in
Tartary misapply, poor slaves, to the buttercup) or else Kaluzhnitsa, as used quite properly in Kaluga, U.S.A.”
“Ah,” said Van.
“As in the case of many flowers,” Ada went on, with a mad scholar’s quiet smile, “the unfortunate French
name of our plant,souci d’eau, has been traduced or shall we say transfigured—” (63-64)

Here Ada begins her diatribe on the mistranslation of souci d’eau “in a Mr. Fowlie’s soi-disant literal version—called ‘sensitive’ in a recent Elsian rave—sensitive!—of Mémoire, a poem by Rimbaud” (64) (notice how Nabokov here loops in Elsie de Nord as reviewer). As we have previously noted, Fowlie’s translation or “transformation of souci d’eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine ‘care of the water’—although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, marybud, maybubble” (64-65) points in numerous ways (see I.10 Afternote, and Boyd 1985/2001, 51-59, 291-96) to the “de-flowering” of Lucette, or rather to her being introduced too early to sex, as a witness of Van and Ada’s impatient romps, and to her consequent fixation on sex and on being deflowered only by Van. The very name souci d’eau, in this laden context, evokes “suicide.”
What does this have to do with the other review of Letters from Terra? Just as Nabokov links Elsie de Nord and her review of Fowlie’s “sensitive” translation with the Elsinore review of Letters from Terra, so he links the other review with this scene. The souci d’eau is the botanical term whose translation is most stressed anywhere in Ada, but Mispel-Medlar-Mushmula comes a close second. “Marsh Marigold” has an odd similarity to “Max Mispel (another botanical name—‘medlar’ in English”-Mr. Medlar-Max Mushmula” (344-45; two words beginning M_  M_, and with an l later in the second word). And Max Mushmula, the last of these transformations, promises to send Van “his next article, ‘The Weed Exiles the Flower’ (Melville & Marvell)” (345), two more surnames (as the Kyoto Reading Circle notes) with the M__l combination, and with, in the quote from Melville that provides the title of Mispel-Mushmula’s article, the idea of the loss of a flower that is central to the souci d’eau discussion—which, then, in fact, prompts Van to launch into inventing an imagined mistranslation of Marvell’s “The Garden” (65).
One of the central ironies highlighted by the emphasis on souci d’eau, by the loss of the flower in that translation, is that Lucette dies a virgin, dies because she has failed to be deflowered by Van, yet because she has also been initiated into sex much too early, at eight, then twelve, and fourteen, and sixteen, by Van and especially by over-eager Ada. Lucette has become disturbingly preoccupied with the sex she craves with Van and cannot have, for all the pleasurable physical intensity (“the delectations of clitorism,” 394) of her sexual experience with Ada. This complex of effects seems pointedly evoked in the image of the medlar: “you’ll be rotten ere you be half-ripe, and that’s the right virtue of the medlar” (As You Like It, 3.ii.117-8). In another Shakespearean sense, medlar is glossed as “whore” (Measure for Measure, IV.iii.167). Van tells Lucette “you behave as a cocotte”(379), and  the “slender lady in black velvet, wearing a beautiful black velvet picture hat” at a bar in Brown Hill, who seems to Van like “a cocotte from Toulouse” (169), and the “graceful harlot in . . . black gloves, black-velvet picture hat” (307) at the bar in Kalugano both prefigure Lucette in gloves and “picture hat” (461) at a bar of the sort “which decent women did not frequent” (460) in Paris. There, Lucette tells Van she’s still “A quarter [virgin] . . . Oh, try me, Van!” (464).

Letters from Terra
: Lucette and letters
Nabokov has gone to considerable lengths to link the two thoroughly incidental, seemingly entirely centrifugal, reviewers of Letters from Terra with Lucette and intimations of her suicide. But he has gone to still more trouble to link details of Letters from Terra itself with Lucette and her death.

Obviously, the novella’s plot, for Van, involves an oblique expression of his distance at the time from Ada. In his summary of the plot within Ada, a memoir completed almost eight decades later, after half a century of life together with Ada, Van can afford to offer a wry, detached, amused account of his then needing to “strictly separate from the image of Ada” (340) first Theresa, then Antilia, then Flora. But despite Van thinking of Theresa in terms of Ada, Nabokov thinks of her especially in terms of Lucette. Theresa is microscopic, too small for Professor Leyman to touch, despite her being his “minikin sweetheart”: placed “on a slide under a powerful microscope . . . a graceful microorganism. . . . swimming inside like a micromermaid” (340). Lucette in her own way is too small to touch: the phrases “little Lucette” and “little Lucile” recur eleven times in the novel. Leyman has to view Theresa through a microscope; Van commemorates Lucette after her death, when his “irreplaceable little palazzo” (336) burns down, by building, despite the greed of developers for the site, “his famous Lucinda Villa, a miniature museum just two stories high, with a still growing collection of microphotographed paintings from all public and private galleries in the world” (336; italics added). Leyman has a test tube “with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid” (340). There is a copy of Van’s Letters from Terra on Ada’s side of the bed when she pulls Lucette in to romp with herself and Van. But Lucette flees, penning a quick note, and Van, in his first and last letter to her calls her playfully, extravagantly, “our Esmeralda and mermaid” (421). Thirty years later, long after Lucette’s death, he will think and write of “Lucette, now a mermaid in the groves of Atlantis (and not Ada, now a stranger somewhere near Morges in a black limousine)” (559).

When he introduces Sig Leymanski and his “anagram-looking name” (340), Van primes us to wonder about the odd name, in the next sentence, of Sig’s “enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems)” (340). Her name forms an anagram of “Gitanilla Esm[eralda],” the gypsy (gitanilla)dancing girl in Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. Recall that Paris is sometimes named “Lute” in Ada, which as Darkbloom notes (173.18-20n) derives “from ‘Lutèce,’ ancient name of Paris,” a virtual anagram of “Lucette”; and that Lucette thinks herself as like the wistful heroine of Osberg’s novel, The Gitanilla (464); red-haired Lucette, who therefore likes to dress in green, has not just a green swimming helmet on her last afternoon alive but also an “emerald-studded cigarette case” (479; italics added). Without any anagrammatic reordering, “Antilia,” the name of Leyman’s wife, refers to An imaginary archipelago west of Atlantis” (W2), and therefore links, again, to “Lucette, now a mermaid in the groves of Atlantis” (559). But most graphic of all is that the test tube in Letters from Terra is “‘accidentally’ thrown away by” Leyman’s assistant, Flora (340), in a ghoulish prefiguration of the film Don Juan’s Last Fling. When Van and Lucette watch that pre-release film aboard the Tobakoff, Ada’s sudden appearance on screen quenches the amorous fires Lucette has stoked in Van, and soon leads her to fling herself from the ship’s deck to her death.

The letters theme in Ada involves alphabetic letters as well as epistolary ones. The bogus publishing houses Van uses for the imprint of Letters from Terra, “Abencerage” and “Zegris,” A and Z, emphasize the point. Max Mispel (whose very name seems misspelled, with a missing L), in his review of Letters from Terra, discerns the influence of Osberg (on Antiterra, the author of The Gitanilla, the equivalent of our Lolita) and of “an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine” (344). “Ben Sirine,” as noted above (344.11-16n), refers not only to the Arab dream-decoder but also to the writer who was “been Sirin” and then became still more famous as the author of Lolita,Vladimir Nabokov.

The most emphatic plays on alphabetic letters in Ada revolve around the Russian Flavita (Scrabble) game that the children play at Ardis, using a set given the family by “Baron Klim Avidov” (223), an anagram of “Vladimir Nabokov.” When Lucette brings Ada’s letter to Van at Voltemand Hall she recalls a Flavita game she played with Ada and Van in which she happened to have the Russian letters for clitoris and did not realize what word she could make with them:

One day in the library, kneeling on a yellow cushion placed on a Chippendale chair before an oval table on lion claws—”
[The epithetic tone strongly suggests that this speech has an epistolary source. Ed.]
“—I got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game. Mind you, I was eight and had not studied anatomy,
but was doing my poor little best to keep up with twoWunderkinder. You examined and fingered my groove and quickly
redistributed the haphazard sequence which made, say, LIKROT or ROTIKL and Ada flooded us both with her raven silks
as she looked over our heads, and when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously,
si je puis le mettre comme ça (Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merrient;
so finally I quietly composed ROTIK (“little mouth”) and was left with my own cheap initial. I hope I’ve thoroughly got you
mixed up, Van, because la plus laide fille du monde peut donner beaucoup
plus qu’elle n’a
, and now let us say adieu, yours ever.”

“Whilst the machine is to him,” murmured Van.

“Hamlet,” said the assistant lecturer’s brightest student. (378-9)

Notice here not only the sexual double entendre like “examined and fingered my groove” and “came simultaneously” on top of the implied “KLITOR,” but also, in the first two lines, the likelihood that this “speech” has been lifted by Van from Lucette’s “Ophelian frenzy” (394) letter to him. And her “speech” ends with “adieu, yours ever,” close to Hamlet’s sign-off in his letter to Ophelia, “Adieu, Thine evermore,” as Van emphasises by completing Hamlet’s farewell, “Whilst the machine is to him” (II.ii.123-5), and as Lucette instantly recognizes.

Letters from Terra
, The Texture of Time, Ada: Author and Author
Nabokov takes some trouble to connect Lucette, and especially Lucette as Ophelia or Voltemandish letter-carrier, to letters epistolary and alphabetic, and to Letters from Terra. Composing his novel, Van, on the other hand, thinks only that he is trying and not quite succeeding to keep Ada out of his thoughts, although he also knows that his novel is in part a tribute to Aqua and her deranged fixation on Terra and her suicide (he names his hero after Aqua’s last doctor) and the studies of the insane that she has inspired in him. Unbeknownst to Van as he composes Letters from Terra, Aqua’s end also prefigures the Lucette who will commit suicide in clothes whose colors match those Aqua wore when she took her life.

Why these insistent links that Nabokov rather than Van makes between Letters from Terra and Lucette?
Van writes Letters from Terra as a result of the research he has undertaken since his first year at Chose, in 1885-1886:

During his first summer vacation, Van worked under Tyomkin, at the Chose famous clinic, on an ambitious dissertation
he never completed, “Terra: Eremitic Reality or Collective Dream?” He interviewed numerous neurotics, among whom
there were variety artists, and literary men, and at least three intellectually lucid, but spiritually “lost,” cosmologists who
either were in telepathic collusion (they had never met and did not even know of one another’s existence) or had discovered,
none knew how or where, by means, maybe, of forbidden “ondulas” of some kind, a green world rotating in space and spiraling
in time, which in terms of matter-and-mind was like ours and which they described in the same specific details as three people
watching from three separate windows would a carnival show in the same street. (182)

This closely prefigures details in the Letters from Terra chapter, like the “banned, or burned, books of the three cosmologists” (339), the lag Antiterra’s annals have “by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time” (341) and the “ondulas” Theresa sends (342). As a student, Van had made rapid progress, even if he did not finish his dissertation: he was “the first American to have won (at seventeen!) the Dudley Prize (for an essay on Insanity and Eternal Life)” (186).

But although written between three and five years after his first work on Terra, Letters from Terra is still juvenilia. Much later in life, in his fifties rather than his precocious teens, Van undertakes another, much more mature work, an attempt to disentangle space and time: The Texture of Time. As memoirist, he disparages his youthful “philosophical novel” (338), but feels proud enough of The Texture of Time, “a kind of novella in the form of a treatise on the Texture of Time” (562-63), to include it in full as Part Four of Ada. In Letters from Terra he pays a kind of tribute to Aqua but tries to expunge Ada; in The Texture of Time he heads toward Ada, seems to regain her, loses her to the wide gap in time they have lived without each other, and at the last minute regains her for the rest of his and her lives. And he seems to pay a kind of tribute to now-dead Lucette for making that last-minute change possible.

Letters from Terra
concerns “messages. . . . communications” (340), “undissembling ondulas, now mostly going one way, our way, don’t ask Van by what method or principle” (342) sent by its heroine from her Terra, to some an “Other World” or “Next World” (20). In his novel, Van has misread time’s tracks on Terra, to judge by our sense of history, and by the fact that Vitry’s film based on the novel makes its reports of Terranean history, by controverting Van’s conclusions, more like ours. Despite Van’s hopes, Theresa’s messages are decidedly not clear insights into an “other World,” let alone a “Next World.”

In The Texture of Time,on the other hand, Van seems to hint that he thinks he and Ada may have been affected for the rest of their lives by a message from dead Lucette. In 1889 or 1890, writing Letters from Terra, Van describes “Theresa swimming . . . like a micromermaid” (340) inside a test tube; in 1892 he writes his one letter to Lucette, addressing her as “mermaid,” as well as “Poor L.,” “Esmeralda,” “darling firebird,” and “bird of paradise” (421). In The Texture of Time, knowing that Lucette has thrown herself to her death in the Atlantic, he muses on the gulf in time between himself and Ada that has scotched their initially promising reunion. She has given up, packed her bags, headed back to Geneva:

Does the ravage and outrage of age deplored by poets tell the naturalist of Time anything about Time’s essence? Very little. Only a novelist’s
fancy could be caught by this small oval box, once containing Duvet de Ninon (a face powder, with a bird of paradise on the lid), which has
been forgotten in a not-quite-closed drawer of the bureau’s arc of triumph—not, however, triumph over Time. The blue-green-orange thing
looked as if he were meant to be deceived into thinking it had been waiting there seventeen years for the bemused, smiling finder’s
dream-slow hand: a shabby trick of feigned restitution, a planted coincidence—and a bad blunder, since it had been Lucette, now a mermaid
in the groves of Atlantis (and not Ada, now a stranger somewhere near Morges in a black limousine) who had favored that powder. Throw it |
away lest it mislead a weaker philosopher; what I am concerned with is the delicate texture of Time, void of all embroidered events. (559)

Note the double echo of Letters from Terra (micromermaid, Antilia) in “a mermaid in the groves of Atlantis,” and, in “bird of paradise,” an echo of Van’s only letter to Lucette (421). The next morning, with his treatise on Time finished in first draft, Van nevertheless thinks of jumping to his death rather than facing a life without Ada, as Lucette had jumped to her death rather than face a life without Van.

But then he spies Ada on a balcony a floor below, gesturing to him triumphantly. After he rushes down to her and they make love, Ada explains that she had told her driver to turn back to Mont Roux “somewhere near Morzhey (‘morses’ or ‘walruses,’ a Russian pun on ‘Morges’—maybe a mermaid’s message)” (562). Morges is indeed a town between Montreux (or Mont Roux, as it is named on Antiterra) and Geneva, where Ada had been headed. But mispronounced as a disyllable, it calls up to a Russian ear the combination morzhoviy khui (“walrus penis”), a fixed Russian insult like the English “you prick.” Lucette had become verbally obsessive about sex (Van accuses her of using “the language of the proverbial gutter,” 379), and his and Ada’s signalling the obscenity here—Ada’s playfully distorted pronunciation, Van’s gloss—pays a tribute to her. “Morse” is a little-known English synonym for “walrus,” but in the light of what Van has written last night, synchronously with Ada’s nearing Morges—“it had been Lucette, now a mermaid in the groves of Atlantis (and not Ada, now a stranger somewhere near Morges in a black limousine)” (559)—
“[M]orse” code and “maybe a mermaid’s message” here seem to suggest his acknowledging a coded message from Lucette to Ada, to turn back to Van, to try to renew time, at the same moment that he too is inspired to think of Lucette (in the inset paragraph above) in a way that allows him to complete the first draft of his Texture of Time and to begin to recapitulate his argument.
(Nabokov, as Darkbloom, confirms the hint: he glosses mermaid as “allusion to Lucette.”)
Van, inspecting time at leisure as he writes his memoir of Ada over a decade, includes and highlights this hint of Lucette’s messages from beyond to Ada and him. It could mean nothing to a reader of The Texture of Time as Van had published it in 1924, but to readers closely attentive to the texture of Ada as a whole, it discloses Van’s grateful hint at a life-changing otherworldly message from generous dead Lucette. (Note that I have changed my mind since Boyd 1985/2001, 219 about Van’s awareness of Lucette’s possible influence.)

Of course Van had no inkling of her death when he was writing Letters from Terra by “Voltemand”—before he moves into Voltemand Hall and Lucette brings him a message, a letter, from Ada that also reunites the pair, thirty years earlier, despite Lucette’s own overwhelming and desperate love for Van. This generous intervention in life in 1892, restoring Ada and Van to each other, structurally prefigures her generous possible intervention from the beyond in 1922, the “mermaid’s message” that restores them to each other for life.

Van does not know when he makes “Theresa” a micromermaid “thrown away,” in 1889 or so, or when in 1892 he sends a letter to Lucette as “mermaid” that, like the Ophelia whom the gravedigger recognizes as suicide, she will die by drowning. But someone sees and plans this and the other patterns in time in advance.

Max Mispel discerns in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg—the author of The Gitanilla, the Antiterran equivalent of Earth’s Lolita—and of the “obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine” (344), whom we, outside Van’s book and world, can decode as the writer who has “been Sirin.” (See also Boyd 1985/2001: 228.) Nabokov has also signed himself not only into Letters from Terra but also into the novel’s other plays with letters, like the Flavita set given by “Baron Klim Avidov” or the dream Van has of someone saying “‘It’s one of the Vane sisters,’ and he awoke murmuring with professional appreciation the oneiric word-play combining his name and surname” (521). We, being outside the Veens’ world, not on Antiterra but on Nabokov’s Terra, can expound that anagrammatic dream, with the help of the former Sirin, as a reference to “The Vane Sisters,” the story that in its last paragraph acrostically discloses a message to the unaware narrator from two dead sisters, one a suicide.

Van, with his passion to understand time and Terra and “Eternal Life” (186), seems to intuit more than the cold sceptic of “The Vane Sisters,” who cannot see the message hidden in what he writes. Van can intuit or suppose “a mermaid’s message” from dead Lucette; but he cannot see the full extent of the patterns in time that have been woven into his world by the author of his very being, Nabokov, playing the role of some ultimate creator and designer of time.