Part 2 Chapter 3


This Afternote often draws, sometimes silently, on findings and phrasings in Boyd 1979, 1985/2001, 2004 (and a Nabokov-L note also in 2004), and 2011.

Other women

Van's relations with other lovers, principally Cordula, form half of the "other women" theme running through the periods of his separations from Ada; the other half of the theme concerns Van's relations with prostitutes. In one sense, as Van tells Ada, these encounters do not matter: “I’ve remained absolutely true to you because those were only ‘obmanipulations’ (sham, insignificant strokings by unremembered cold hands)” (195). In another sense he portrays his prostitutes as almost an act of homage to Ada, a pitiful search for the recapture of the bliss of the past he shared with her: “How I used to seek, with what tenacious anguish, traces and tokens of my unforgettable love in all the brothels of the world!” (104)  At the end of Pt. 2 Ch. 3, the most extravagant variation on the prostitution theme, Van writes: “The ruinous Villa no longer bore any resemblance to Eric’s ‘organized dream,’ but the soft little creature in Van’s desperate grasp was Ada” (358)—in dream, if not in waking reality.

Being with Ada defines the peaks of Van’s life; being without her, the troughs; and the rhythmic shifts from peak to trough shape his
story. In the troughs, the absences from Ada, he sounds his life’s subordinate themes, his meager compensations: his work; his other
women; the letters that span their separation. Since the collapse of Ardis the Second, that first, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to recapture
the bliss of Ardis the First, these counter-rhythms have sounded one after the other: other women, in the form of Cordula, in Pt. 1 Chs. 42-43;
the letters from Ada to Van that he refuses to reply to, in Pt. 2 Ch. 1; his work, Letters from Terra—his psychological and philosophical research,
sublimated into fiction, as Ada herself is sublimated into first Theresa, then Antilia, then Flora, and as her letters are sublimated in turn into
Theresa’s messages from a remote planet—in Pt. 2 Ch. 2. Pt. 2 Ch. 4 will return to Van’s work, to his lectures on dreams.

This chapter, Pt. 2 Ch. 3, focuses on the other women theme, in the prostitution variation, but it also presents the most extravagant imaginable divagation from the main Ada theme. Unprecedentedly and uniquely, the chapter even omits Van himself for more than the first six of its less than twelve pages.

The centrifugality of Van’s life when he is bereft of Ada reaches its apotheosis here in the Villa Venus chapter. Yet paradoxically we can also see the chapter as in some ways the origin and center of Ada.


Describing in his essay “Inspiration” how a new novel begins for him as a forefeeling and then a flash of inspiration, “a shimmer of exact details . . . a tumble of merging words” (SO 309) that he hurries, as an experienced writer, to set down on paper so long as the inspiration lasts, Nabokov cites the first surge of Ada, at the end of 1965:

Sea crashing, retreating with shuffle of pebbles, Juan and beloved young whore—is her name, as they say, Adora? is she Italian, Roumanian,
Irish?— asleep on his lap, his opera cloak pulled over her, candle messily burning in its tin cup, next to it a paper-wrapped bunch of long roses,
his silk hat on the stone floor near a patch of moonlight, all this in a corner of a decrepit, once palatial whorehouse, Villa Venus, on a rocky
Mediterranean coast, a door standing ajar gives on what seems to be a moonlit gallery but is really a half-demolished reception room with a
broken outer wall, through a great rip in it the naked sea is heard as a panting space separated from time, it dully booms, dully withdraws dragging
its platter of wet pebbles. (SO 310)

As I have noted, “Nabokov comments on the contrast between the coloration of this passage and the finished Ada but draws attention to the ‘pleasing neatness’ of the fact that it ‘now exists as an inset scene right in the middle of the novel (which was entitled at first Villa Venus, then The Veens, then Ardor, and finally Ada)’ (SO 310)” (Boyd 2011: 361). Neither by page count nor by chapter count does the passage in its final niche in fact occupy the middle of Ada, but in many ways Nabokov does position it at the center of the novel, not least, emotionally, by Van saying to Ada in the last chapter, around the time they decide to “die, as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb” (587): “And I know a girl called Adora, little thing in my last floramor. What makes me see that bit as the purest sanglot in the book? What is the worst part of dying?” (584).

Singularity and Repetition

For Nabokov, the tension between the singularity and the multiplicity of love is a central mystery in human feeling and action: 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. (Cf. Boyd 2011: 383.)
Pt. 2 Ch. 3 begins with the wild digression of Eric Veen’s “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream” (348). Eric Veen dies a virgin at fifteen, by which age Van has already been introduced to sex for pay (Riverlane’s fubsy pig-pink whorelet) and to sex as inexhaustible repetition and singular ardor (Ardis’s Ada). Eric has elaborated, in the throes of his adolescent desire, the fantasy of a worldwide chain of palatial brothels, a plan that his grandfather, his sole heir and surviving direct relative, the architect David van Veen, dedicates himself to realizing. Grandfather van Veen builds a hundred floramors of a planned 1,001 before death catches him, too, by surprise.
For Eric, sex is purely imitative, “derived from reading too many erotic works” (348). His Villa Venus floramors echo the “oldest profession” at its most flamboyant, and the extravagant ornateness of many a maison de plaisir, not least those of Paris (up to 1946), alluded to in various ways throughout the chapter (see 349.02n, 350.26-27n, 351.12-17n, 352.33-353.02n, 355.25-26n). Nabokov and his first readers at the end of the 1960s would also think of the worldwide success of the Playboy Clubs developed by Hugh Hefner, founded in 1960 and soon flourishing as venues and status symbols on both sides of the Atlantic, but tame indeed in contrast with the imaginative and sexual frenzy of Eric Veen’s “Organized Dream.”
The imitativeness of Eric’s ideas of sex are amplified by the immemorial imitativeness of the art of architecture, and by David van Veen’s eclecticism, his imitations not only of classical and neoclassical imitations of imitations, but also of breaks from classical monumentality toward apparent rustic simplicity and asymmetry, in the tradition of the renovated farmhouse or cottage orné, or even of the more radical ruptures of the avant-garde, his imitating E.L. Freud and Willem Dudok imitating Cubism and abstraction in their “ultra-utilitarian boxes of brick” (350).
Despite the imitativeness of architecture as an art and of David van Veen’s recombinations, and despite Eric Veen’s rules, each floramor aims to be unique, and the three sexual episodes Van reports in Pt. 2 Ch. 3 of his own experiences in Villa Venus are closely imitative neither of each other nor of Van’s experience of Ardis nor of sexual activity in general.

Architecture: The House of the Veens and the Villas Venus

David van Veen’s floramors, fulfilling grandson Eric Veen’s fantasies, are “parodies of paradise” (350).
That points at least two ways. Ardis itself offers its own parodies of paradise (like Ada’s fortunate fall from the Tree of Knowledge imported from Eden National Park (94-95)), and the eclectic architecture in David van Veen’s Villa Venuses matches aspects of the home of the Veens at Ardis, the hospitable hideout for Van and Ada’s ardors. Pt. 1 Ch. 6, which describes Ardis Manor and happens also to depict the first time Van and Ada are alone together (well before they are lovers, of course), ties particularly tightly to Villa Venus. The rooms and nooks little Ada shows Van include the rooms and nooks where they will soon make love: this chapter and this manor hold the whole amorous frenzy of Ardis in posse. Pt. 1 Ch. 6 begins: "Ada showed her shy guest the great library on the second floor, the pride of Ardis" (41), the room that will become the scene of their first love-making, on the Night of the Burning Barn. Ardis and its library form part of Van's last great dream-visit to his last Villa Venus: when Van says of the scene of his dream, purportedly "on a rocky Mediterranean peninsula," that "It was not Ardis, it was not the library" (358), he only confirms that the scene has evoked both manor and library. The variegated jumble of Ardis's architectural styles—

Owing to a mixture of overlapping styles and tiles (not easily explainable in non-technical terms to non-roof-lovers), as well as to a
haphazard continuum, so to speak, of renovations, the roof of Ardis Manor presented an indescribable confusion of angles and levels,
of tin-green and fin-gray surfaces, of scenic ridges and wind-proof nooks. You could clip and kiss . . . (45)

—is a less extreme form of the rampant and parodic eclecticism of Villa Venus. (There is a charming inconsistency between Van's claim here that he must limit himself to the "non-technical terms" available to the "non-roof-lovers" among his readers and his availing himself in the Villa Venus chapter of genuine but comical-sounding technical terms, "chimney breasts and hipped gables" (350).)

At the end of Pt. 1 Ch. 6, on Van's first evening at Ardis, an Andalusian architect arrives to inspect the site for "an 'artistic' swimming pool for Ardis Manor" (45). The architect speaks only Spanish, and Ada, Van, and Marina are all limited to a few useless words in that language: Marina, for instance, knows "an anatomical term with a 'j' hanging in the middle" (46: cojo, “testicle,” more likely in this novel and given this description than ojo, “eye”), and Ada "remembered, of course, mariposa, butterfly, and the names of two or three birds (listed in ornithological guides) such as paloma, pigeon" (46). But mariposon means "philanderer," and paloma has a colloquial sense of "prostitute." During Van's first night at a Villa Venus he chooses three whores at once and goes through “all three of them grimly and leisurely, ‘changing mounts in midstream’ (Eric's advice) before ending every time in the grip of the ardent Ardillusian, who said as we parted, after one last spasm (although non-erotic chitchat was against the rules), that her father had constructed the swimming pool on the estate of Demon Veen's cousin” (354).
Eric Veen’s conceptual and David van Veen’s architectural “parodies of paradise” also point another way: this Dutch family unwittingly follow their Dutch predecessor, Hieronymus Bosch, in his painting Garden of Earthly Delights, and anticipate their Veen counterparts, in Van and Ada’s sexual paradise at Ardis, which also alludes to and echoes Bosch’s masterpiece.
Years later “Van still rejoices in the happiness of his and Ada’s special destiny at Ardis: they had seemed charmed there, privileged to reenact not only myths of Edenic or Arcadian innocence but also—and only increasing the paradisal joy—myths of sexual experience, of Venus, Cupid, or Eros” (Boyd 1985/2001153). It is as if, in evoking Ardis, Van pretends to paint only two panels of Bosch’s triptych, the left-hand panel, pure paradise, and the central panel as an exuberant comic expansion of the first, although in fact, as we discover, he knows better: he knows and remembers the hellishness implied in Ardis (the central panel as ominous) and following on from Ardis (the Hell realized in the right panel).

As indicated in the dark hues and shades of his initial vision of the novel (the “Sea crashing . . . ” passage quoted above), Nabokov himself saw from the first the Hell that complicates the Heaven of love, the bog encircling the garden. The Dutchness that David van Veen and Eric Veen have in common with Bosch also reflects another point of origin for Ada: Nabokov’s reading, apparently in 1965, of Nicholas Freeling’s crime novel Double-Barrel, which had crossed his path because of its playful allusions to Lolita, and which isset in the Dutch province of Drenthe. In Double-Barrel Nabokov learned or was reminded that the word -veen in so many Drenthe place-names means “peat, bog,” and he found ways to undermine the apparent Garden of Eden at Ardis by associating it with bogs, peat, marsh (for details see Boyd 2004, reprinted in Boyd 2011).

Another source: Nabokov had been studying Bosch for his Butterflies in Art project in 1965, the year he seems to have read Freeling, and to have written the first dark flash of Ada. There are butterflies in both the Garden and the Hell panels of The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Nabokov would later refer, as if it were an emblem for the novel, to “the Garden of Delights in Ada” (SO 306). The most important clue Bosch’s painting gave him for Ada, I suspect, was that image of a pure paradise, on the left panel, a single couple together (Ardis the First); the Garden of Earthly Delights in the middle panel (from Ardis the Second on), with its endless exuberant repetitions of sexual and sensual pleasures, in pairs and groups and throngs, but with a moral ambiguity—is this the amplification of pleasure, or corrupt oversaturation?—that seems to be answered by the hellish third panel. That progression from paradise to ambiguous reprise to infernal consequence persists throughout Ada but replays in fast-forward form in the Villa Venus floramors, from their beginning as “parodies of paradise,” to their rise as an institution for the world’s most privileged males and a personal invitation to bliss for Van, to their hellish collapse in the last three pages of the chapter.


Nabokov declared the scene he constructed from his first lurid flash of the Villa Venus now fitted “right in the middle of the novel” (SO 310). Precisely how the whole chapter fits—as wild excursus or pointed distillation, as centrifugal or centripetal, as escapist dream or even underlying reality—becomes part of its special force.
The chapter’s opening sentence asserts that David van Veen and his family are “in no way related to the Veens of our rambling romance” (347). That very declaration, oddly, matches the opening paragraph of the whole “rambling romance,” with its declaration that the quotation “All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy families are more or less alike” “has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle” (3). Does Pt. 2 Ch. 3 remain “in no way related” to the rest, or does it, as here, echo the whole?
The latter seems likelier, given the names of the characters this digression foregrounds: David van Veen and Eric Veen. David, the architect and Eric Veen’s grandfather, recalls Dedalus Veen, Van Veen’s grandfather, named after the architect of legend, Daedalus. Just as the Veen surname of the heroes of “our rambling romance” occasions many plays on “Venus” (“Venus rose in the sky; Venus set in his flesh,” 72; “the mirror-of-Venus blossom,” 99; “all three Veens, the children of Venus,” 410; and many more), the name Eric Veen combines both Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Eros, the Greek god of love, son of Aphrodite/Venus, while also evoking Venus Erycina, the goddess from the Sicilian town of Eryx or Erice whose cult, when taken to Rome, formed the basis of the Roman conception of  Venus (see 347.13n2 for Nabokov’s longstanding familiarity with Venus Erycina). The religious prostitution associated with Venus Erycina in both Sicily and Rome makes a character named Eric Veen the perfect person to conjure up a dream of prostitution elevated to almost hallowed heights.
Thematically and verbally, the Villa Venus chapter and its Veen and van Veen characters seem less a flight from the rest of the novel than a concentration, a caricature, a miniature. Still stranger and more disturbing are the chronological, topographical and structural overlaps between Van Veen and Eric Veen.
In the first chapter of Ada, we learn from a herbarium of flowers collected in “Ex en Valais” at the end of 1869 that Van, born January 1, 1870, will be brought to mad Aqua in Ex as her child, in substitution for her stillborn son. In Pt. 1 Ch. 3 we learn further that Van was apparently born “during an exhausting, yet highly romantic blizzard, in a mountain refuge on Sex Rouge” (25-26). On the opening page of Pt. 2 Ch. 3 we learn that Eric Veen, after suffering from consumption, “was sent to Ex-en-Valais, whose crystal air was supposed at the time to strengthen young lungs; instead of which its worst hurricane hurled a roof tile at him, fatally fracturing his skull” 347-48). This occurs late in 1869, perhaps even in the blizzard during which Van is born: as the herbarium records, “Ex en Valais. Switzerland. ‘Snowing in Fate’s crystal ball’” (8). (Although as Stephen Blackwell notes (email, November 30, 2020), hurricanes are warm air masses and do not coincide with snow.) Note in that swift account of Eric’s death the phrase “Ex-en-Valais, whose crystal air”: not many years before their death, in the last phase of Ada, Van and Ada have set up their favorite home “at Ex, in the Swiss Alps,” partly because of its “famous glittering air, le cristal d’Ex” (567); and the strange paragraph that seems to announce Van and Ada’s death by morphine, as they die into the book that Van has been writing and Ada responding to, begins by locating the scene: “Their recently built castle in Ex was inset in a crystal winter” (587). Eric Veen’s death seems somehow coterminous with Van’s birth and collocated with Van and Ada’s deaths.


Eric Veen’s posthumous project is “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream” (348). But the whole chapter seems on a number of levels a dream, or a series of dreams within dreams.

Though Villa Venus is partly a parody of Ardis, it is also a dream, a sickeningly convoluted dream where death and life become eerily and unsettlingly entangled. The end of Pt. 2 Ch. 2, just before the Villa Venus chapter begins, is a fade-in to the dream that engulfs Van in the chapter’s last few lines; Pt. 2 Ch. 4, just after the Venus Villas, begins "What are dreams?" and continues as Van's lectures on the nature of dreams. The lavish brothels themselves are built according to the specifications of Eric Veen's "Villa Venus: an Organized Dream" (348), “his pubescent dream of ideal bordels" (345).
Van's first visit to a Villa Venus is invaded by the desperation of dreams:

I had frequented bordels since my sixteenth year, but although some of the better ones, especially in France and Ireland, rated a triple red symbol in Nugg's guidebook, nothing about them preannounced the luxury and mollitude of my first Villa Venus. It was the difference between a den and an Eden.

Three Egyptian squaws, dutifully keeping in profile (long ebony eye, lovely snub, braided black mane, honey-hued faro frock, thin amber arms,
Negro bangles, doughnut earring of gold bisected by a pleat of the mane, Red Indian hairband, ornamental bib), lovingly borrowed by Eric Veen
from a reproduction of a Theban fresco (no doubt pretty banal in 1420 b.c.), printed in Germany (Künstlerpostkarte Nr. 6034, says cynical
Dr. Lagosse), prepared me by means of what parched Eric called "exquisite manipulations of certain nerves whose position and power are known
only to a few ancient sexologists," accompanied by the no less exquisite application of certain ointments, not too specifically mentioned in the
pornolore of Eric’s Orientalia, for receiving a scared little virgin, the descendant of an Irish king, as Eric was told in his last dream in Ex, Switzerland,
by a master of funerary rather than fornicatory ceremonies. (353)

It is apparent that Eric's dream of ideal bordels arises from his acquaintance with the erotic art and lore of the past. Though the "Egyptian squaws" each with "Negro bangles" and a "Red Indian hairband" are meant to sound as wildly eclectic as the architecture of the Villas Venus, the passage in fact describes very accurately a particular portion of a fresco from the tomb of Nakht at Egyptian Thebes.

In the luxurious mollitude of his first Villa Venus, Van is within a kind of actualization of Eric's "Organized Dream," but he is also transported as it were to within the painting with which at least part of Eric's dream began. Dream and reality become disturbingly blurred so that it seems as if Van on his couch is within the tomb of Nakht or as if the picture within Eric's dream has suddenly sprung into animation around Van.

But still worse is the strange and sickening shift within the sentence ending the inset passage above, a shift whereby the "exquisite manipulation of certain nerves" in Van's body, preparing him for his voluptuary treats at his first Villa Venus, merges with what seems to be the “exquisite application of certain ointments,” the anointing of dying Eric in some rite of extreme unction or in some mortician’s preparation: Van's sexual luxuriations seem about to collapse him into the position of a dying boy.

Still more unsettling is the fact that Eric Veen dies at Ex, at some unspecified date late in 1869, in a "hurricane" (347) possibly synchronous with the birth of Van (at Ex, on January 1, 1870, "during an exhausting, yet highly romantic blizzard" (25-26)). The confusion of Eric's death-bed dream and what seems to be Van's throbbing reality combines with the fact that Van seems to have been born as Eric died, as if to suggest that Van's whole life is only the last imploding dot of light in the darkness of dying Eric's consciousness. When we recall that Van is officially born at Ex in Ada's first chapter and dies at Ex in its last, we may feel as if the whole book is being sucked into that dwindling vortex of Eric's collapsing consciousness.

The book's whole world, indeed, may be reduced to that same glint within the collapse of Eric's mind in death, for Van lives on Antiterra from perhaps the time of Eric's death, 1869, until 1967, and "a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths" (18). Are Van's life and his world no more than the dream through which Eric passes into black nothingness? Nowhere do Nabokov's powers of involuting his works become more vertiginous, nowhere are we plunged deeper into "the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time" (SM 296).

Eric Veen as he dies is "a scared little virgin, the descendant of an Irish king" (353) and an "eric," in old Irish law, is the fine exacted as compensation for causing death. The memorial floramors Eric’s grandfather erects are a sort of compensation for his passing, but they reek of the grave. Their paradises are ghastly, eerie, a reminder of death. Their attempts to create a momentary ecstasy only emphasize the momentaneousness of life. Van's struggle to escape the losses brought by time's advance merely demonstrates the pitifulness of a spatial means of transcending time and the horror of all the enigmas of "space versus time, . . . time as space—and space breaking away from time, in the final tragic triumph of human cogitation: I am because I die" (153). Van's prostitutes are no compensation for his losses; when they voluptuously anoint his body they seem only to allow a mocking skeleton to gleam through the skin, reminding him of the hopelessness of his separation from Ada, the solitude that death will bring.

Van's last visit to his last Villa Venus is even more haunting and melancholy than his account of that first visit so eerily synchronizing "Eric dying in his sleep and Van throbbing with foul life on a rococo couch" (353-54). This evocation of romantic decadence, one of the finest dream passages in literature, is rendered as factual narrative that is never quite revealed to be more dream than the memory of a waking scene. Only the transformation at the end, the inconsistency of "the shadows on the ceiling" and "the unwalled rooms" (357) and the wafting uncertainty of the events make it necessary to recognize that this is at least half a dream, at least as much a chronic oneiric ache as it is a lone confrontation with the night that encircles Van and the bed on which he lies with the young child-whore whom he dare not disturb.

Before we identify from what shards of Van's life the jagged sculpture of the dream passage (the last four paragraphs of Pt. 2 Ch. 3) has been assembled, readers might wish to reread the whole passage not only for its intrinsic beauty and its disquieting rhythms but also to establish its morbid and eerie self-sufficiency.
The whole dream scenario combines several distinct phases of Van's life at Ardis. The earliest of these is the phase of exploration, particularly those moments when Van is first alone with Ada on his first day at Ardis, "when she showed him the house—and those nooks in it where they were to make love so soon" (59). Pt.1 Ch.6 foreshadows the erotic pleasures of Ardis which Villa Venus can only parody and transform into an agonizing reminder of loss. In this early chapter, on this first tour of the manor, his first, innocent, time alone with her, Van notices the phantom candlesticks in the library window ledge ("A pair of candlesticks, mere phantoms of metal and tallow, stood, or seemed to stand, on the broad window ledge" (41)) and the "humble" candlestick in his room (42). These reappear in the dream's "cauliflowered candle . . . messily burning in its tin cup on the window ledge" (356). As Ada leads Van through the mansion on that day in June 1884, Lucette peers out at them: "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) When Van and Ada walk back along the third-floor corridor, a "dwarf Haydn again played a few bars" (44). These little details are strangely metamorphosed and melded in snatches of the dream: "one knee . . . a door standing ajar gave on . . . an abandoned . . . reception room with a broken outer wall . . . and the black ghost of a gaping grand piano, emitting, as if all by itself, spooky glissando twangs" (357). When young Ada shows her big cousin his room, Van finds it
more than modest, and . . . could not help regretting he was too young, apparently, to be assigned one of the two guest rooms next to the library.
He recalled nostalgically the luxuries of home as he considered the revolting objects that would close upon him in the solitude of summer nights.
Everything struck him as being intended for a cringing cretin. . . . (42)

Van's reaction to his room echoes in the bizarre phrasing of the dream: "It was not Ardis, it was not the library, it was not even a human room" (358).

This cramped bedroom at Ardis had been the scene of his first dreams and other bedtime evocations of Ada, which he now redreams. But if Van spent many of his nights in this squalid recess, he also spent even more memorable and disturbed nights outside in his hammock. It is partly because Van is reliving this phase of Ardis too that there is that dream-confusion between "ceiling" and "unwalled rooms."

Van's nights in the hammock are vigils disturbed by the whirling eeriness of black space and time around him, and by the residue in time of the even more distracted nights of his uncle Ivan Durmanov, the gifted and doomed young violinist who as a summer guest at Ardis some twenty-two years earlier had also slept in the hammock outdoors, to be woken by a cough ripping through his cancered lungs:
The hammock . . . between two tulip trees (where a former summer guest, with an opera cloak over his clammy nightshirt, had awoken once
because a stinkbomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart, and striking a match. Uncle Van had seen the bright blood blotching
his pillow).

. . . A breeze ruffled the hangings of his now infinite chamber. Venus rose in the sky; Venus set in his flesh.

. . . the fascinating fireflies, and the still more eerie pale cosmos coming through the dark foliage, balanced with new discomforts the nocturnal
ordeal, the harassments of sweat and sperm associated with his stuffy room. Night, of course, always remained an ordeal. . . . the intense life of
the star-haunted sky troubled the boy's night so much that, on the whole, he felt grateful when foul weather . . . drove him back to his bumpy bed.

. . . His nights in the hammock (where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and
a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra—as suggested to him by career physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of his desire for
Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time. . . . (72-73)

Uncle Ivan's opera cloak reappears simply as part of Van's attire at the Villa Venus ("he pulled his opera cloak over her" (358)); but the whole nights of the two young men outdoors, the metaphysical discomforts of the one and the other's dreams of "prowling black spumas"—the "naked sea . . . panting" of Villa Venus—are majestically fused in "in the middle of the night. Through a great rip in the marbleized brick and plaster, the naked sea, not seen but heard as a panting space separated from time, dully boomed, dully withdrew its platter of pebbles, and, with the crumbling sounds, indolent gusts of warm wind reached the unwalled rooms" (357). The overarching night, the hushed but insistent presence of an infinity of space and time, the natural link between night's vast blackness and death's black emptiness and the very personal link Van feels between his own nights and his uncle's early death build up a disquieting resonance.

Van is dreaming not only as if from within Ardis; he also knows he has left it. He recalls the excitement of his long first night of love with Ada, the Night of the Burning Barn. The candle on the window ledge, the disturbance of the candle's flame, the tickly couch during the Night of the Burning Barn all reappear in the dream: "A . . . candle was messily burning in its tin cup on the window ledge. . . . gusts of warm wind . . . disturbing . . . even the reflection of the candle in a cracked pane of the bluish casement. Beneath it, on a rump-tickling coarse couch, Van reclined . . .". (356-57).

But Van also recalls the early morning of his agonizing discovery of the names of Ada's lovers at Ardis the Second. His two rivals are present in his dream. At the picnic where he so openly challenges Van, Percy de Prey presents Ada with "a bouquet of longstemmed roses" (271) which Ada "ordered to be put back into the boot of the Count's car" (277). These flowers haunt Van again in the Villa Venus dream-visit in the "bunch of long roses for which nobody had troubled to find, or could have found, a vase" (356). Percy himself reappears (merged, as we shall see, with Rack) in the last paragraph of the dream: "merely the squalid recess where the bouncer had slept before going back to his Rugby-coaching job at a public school somewhere in England" (358). These lines recast the fact that Percy, a crack Rugby player, once Van's senior at the pseudo-English public school of Riverlane, leaves Ladore to serve as a soldier just before Van storms away from Ada.
When Van last sees Rack at Ardis, the musician is coming upstairs to see Ada before he leaves to return to Kalugano; while Rack asks for Ada, Lucette, whom he coaches on the piano, carries on playing downstairs: "Philip Rack was trudging up . . . while the music continued to play on its own as if by some mechanical device" (207-08). When Van sees Rack for the next (and last) time, Rack is already dying, and in a speech Van prepares to deliver to the dying musician he calls him a "rotting rat" (314). In the last paragraph of the dream, these two last sightings are grimly combined: "before going back to his Rugby-coaching job at a public school somewhere in England. The grand piano in the otherwise bare hall seemed to be playing all by itself but actually was being rippled by rats in quest of the succulent refuse . . ." (358).
Not only are Van's two rivals here; so too is his fey informant: Blanche, the maidservant, appears in the form of the "maidservant, Princess Kachurin" (357) "who fancied a bit of music when her cancered womb roused her before dawn with its first familiar stab" (358). Blanche does not have a cancered womb, but she does have gonorrhea, and she is up before dawn on Van's first morning at Ardis (where she mentions the infection that she thinks is only "the whites" (49)), and rouses Van well before dawn on that much more sinister last morning at Ardis, where again reference is made to her "infection" (293), but where, too, she discloses as the start of Ada’s infidelity her affair with Monsieur Rack (293), whose surname in Russian means “cancer” (as Stephen Blackwell reminded me).

With Rack, Percy de Prey, and Blanche all present, the end of the dream evokes obliquely but exactly the fatal morning when the unbearable separation began, and belies the wish-fulfilment of the dream's end, "but the soft little creature in Van's desperate grasp was Ada" (358). Even more painful is the fact that Van's separation from Ada is coupled in this paragraph with the awful death of his uncle: "The grand piano in the otherwise bare hall seemed to be playing all by itself but actually was being rippled by rats in quest of the succulent refuse placed there by the maid who fancied a bit of music when her cancered womb roused her before dawn with its first familiar stab." These lines blend Blanche the informant with dying uncle Ivan, who is a musician, and dreams of music ("the instruments in the horsecart," 72, "a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra, 73a"), who is "roused before dawn" ("had awoken," 72) by his cancer, whose blood cough ("a stinkbomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart," 72) is gruesomely recalled by the "succulent refuse" on the piano, whose "dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra" (73) awesomely prefigure the horrible image of the rats running along the piano's keyboard. Van's last visit to his last Villa Venus concludes not in the regaining of Ada but in the most harrowing reassertion of the agony of separation, a separation almost akin to and gloomily forewarning of that ultimate separation, not only from Ada, from the possibility of ever recapturing with her the joy of the past, but even from the mere memory of that joy.


The Villa Venus chapter has a clear three-part structure, reminiscent of Bosch, in (1) its “parodies of paradise,” (2) its rampant repetitions, and (3) its hellish decline. But there is also a more controlled structure under the apparent chaos of swarming sexual rampancy.
In Pt. 2 Ch.3 Van describes only three of his visits to the Villas Venus: his first (the one that begins by evoking the tomb of Nakht), his second (Cherry), and his last (the dream of Adora). All three are rather nightmarish, despite Van’s maintaining that none of his previous bordello experiences “pre-announced the luxury and mollitude of my first Villa Venus. It was the difference between a den and an Eden” (353). 

These three experiences, apart from being Van’s first, second, and last at Villa Venus floramors, also have their own submerged internal structure. One of Eric Veen’s more curious provisions for the terms of Villa Venus club participation is this:

at least two of the maximum number of fifty inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys, wearing frontlets and short smocks,
not older than fourteen if fair, and not more than twelve if dark. However, in order to exclude a regular flow of “inveterate pederasts,”
boy love could be dabbled in by the jaded guest only between two sequences of three girls each, all possessed in the course of the same
week—a somewhat comical, but not unshrewd, stipulation. (348)

In fact this exactly matches Van’s reports of his first, second and last Villa Venus visits. The first begins with the “Three Egyptian squaws” (353) evoking the tomb of Nakht, but although they stimulate him and “attempted to ease la gosse, trembling Adada, upon the terrible tool” of his engorged manhood, “Silly pity . . . caused my desire to droop” and Van chooses instead “a golden Gretchen, a pale Andalusian, and a black belle from New Orleans. . . . Only one of the girls stung me right in the soul, but I went through all three of them grimly and leisurely, ‘changing mounts in midstream’ (Eric’s advice) before ending every time in the grip of the ardent Ardillusian” (354).
This one sequence of three girls is followed in Van’s telling by “Cherry, the only lad in our next (American) floramor, a little Salopian of eleven or twelve,” who “looked so amusing with his copper curls, dreamy eyes and elfin cheekbones that two exceptionally sportive courtesans, entertaining Van, prevailed upon him one night to try the boy. . . . the little fellow could not disguise a state of acute indigestion, marked by unappetizing dysenteric symptoms that coated his lover’s shaft with mustard and blood, the result, no doubt, of eating too many green apples” (355).
After three girls on his first visit, and the boy Cherry on his second, there are three girls on Van’s last visit, the black-haired child Adora, the “much younger sister or cousin of the wretched florinda on the tumbled bed,” and “a third one (a maidservant, Princess Kachurin), who seemed to have been born in the faded bathing suit she never changed and would die in, no doubt” (357). Three girls, one boy, three girls, as per Eric’s bizarre stipulations.


As so often, the “other women” theme shows both Van’s promiscuity and his singular devotion to Ada, from the first girl he is offered at his first floramor, “trembling Adada” (354), to the last girl he has at his last, who may be called Adora: he “was not sure if her name was really Adora, as everybody maintained—she, and the other girl, and a third one. . . . And if the child really was called Adora, then what was she? . . . Was she eleven or fourteen, almost fifteen perhaps? Was it really her birthday—this twenty-first of July, nineteen-four or eight or even several years later, on a rocky Mediterranean peninsula?” (357-8). “Adora’s” birthday exactly matches Ada’s, as the digits of the possible birthdays mooted (1904, 1908) also match the digits of the years when Van is with Ada on her birthday (1884, 1888) in the region of Ladore. And the chapter ends with Van cognizant that “The ruinous Villa no longer bore any resemblance to Eric’s ‘organized dream,’ but the soft little creature in Van’s desperate grasp was Ada” (358).
Despite this explicit emphasis on Ada, Lucette is also covertly implicated throughout the whole Villa Venus chapter. The Villa Venus scheme, after all, is the sexual fixation of a virgin who dies young, just as Lucette’s sexual fixation on Van means she dies young, at twenty-five, and a virgin. The whole chapter of elegant whorehouses derives from the fantasy of one sexually innocent boy; and Lucette’s sexual innocence in relation to men persists throughout Ada, even if she behaves “as a cocotte” (379) and appears like a whore at a Paris bar (460-61), prefigured by two other whores similarly dressed whom Van has glimpsed at other bars (the “cocotte from Toulouse” in 1884 (169), the “graceful harlot in black” in Kalugano in 1888 (307)).
            Each of Van’s encounters on his three visits to floramors in this chapter pointedly implicates Lucette.

First visit: Andalusian and Ardillusian

The first girl who “stung me right in the soul” on his first visit is the “pale Andalusian . . . the ardent Ardillusian, who said as we parted, after one last spasm (although non-erotic chitchat was against the rules), that her father had constructed the swimming pool on the estate of Demon Veen’s cousin” (354). The paleness of this girl, and her province of origin, link her with pale Ada, who on her twelfth birthday can wear her “lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel . . . )” (77).

But Lucette too thinks of herself as like Lolita: “I’m like Dolores—when she says she’s ‘only a picture painted on air’” (464). Many years previously, when Van visits Ardis for the first time, he sees a child whom he decides “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), whose later role as an eavesdropper near the Tree of Knowledge links her with the “ardilla daintily leavesdropping” (98; see Pt. 1. Ch. 15 and Pt. 1 Ch. 16 Afternotes for the Lucette-Ardelia-ardilla links); and the “ardent Ardillusian” at Van’s first Villa Venus mentions that her father “had constructed the swimming pool” (354) at Ardis.

In 1888 the Ardis swimming pool becomes the impetus for Lucette’s deeper embroilment in Van and Ada’s affairs: after they walk from the poolside in their swimming trunks, “The two girls were now kissing him alternatively, then kissing each other, then getting busy upon him again” (205). This swimming pool also prefigures the swimming pool on the Tobakoff on Lucette’s fatal last voyage, which helps precipitate her tragedy (because Van, being eyed up by “Miss Condor” beside the pool, can use the excuse “Ya ne odin (I’m not alone)” (491)—with the implication that he is with “Miss Condor,” and therefore unable to see Lucette). Ardis’s swimming pool also prefigures Lucette’s death “as she swam like a dilettante Tobakoff in a circle of brief panic and merciful torpor” (494).

Second visit: Cherry

Van’s second visit to a Villa Venus floramor thrusts at us the most hellish of all the chapter’s images:

Cherry, the only lad in our next (American) floramor, a little Salopian of eleven or twelve, looked so amusing with his copper curls, dreamy
eyes and elfin cheekbones that two exceptionally sportive courtesans, entertaining Van, prevailed upon him one night to try the boy. Their joint
efforts failed, however, to arouse the pretty catamite, who had been exhausted by too many recent engagements. His girlish crupper proved sadly
defaced by the varicolored imprints of bestial clawings and flesh-twistings; but worst of all, the little fellow could not disguise a state of acute
indigestion, marked by unappetizing dysenteric symptoms that coated his lover’s shaft with mustard and blood, the result, no doubt, of eating
too many green apples. Eventually, he had to be destroyed or given away.  (355)

Cherry has eaten too many green apples. The “cherry” and “apples” recall the hundred or so fruits (including many cherries) in the central panel of Bosch’s triptych (Demon lingers on just one detail from the painting, a fruit: “the woman-sized strawberry that you embrace with” one of the figures in the foreground, 437). That central panel evokes a world of repetitive sensual and sexual pleasure that seems both paradisiac (a garden, like Eden in the left panel) and yet by its focus on the fruit—sweet and succulent but also reminding us of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from paradise for tasting it—also implying the consequences of sin, which become explicit in the Hell on earth of the right-hand panel. And there is good reason to think that the Villa Venus chapter comes as close to Bosch’s vision of Hell in The Garden of Earthly Delights or The Last Judgment (also evoked in detail by Demon) as Nabokov could without simply transposing what is on the canvas. The paragraph on Cherry alone can be read in conjunction with the right-hand (Hell) panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights: the shafts of various kinds penetrating many a rectum, the unsavory anal and oral discharges, the “bestial clawings.”
The horrifying casualness of Van’s “Eventually, he had to be destroyed or given away”—the smartness, the indifference, the disproportion between his unruffled self-concern and the damage that has been done—compound the hellishness even for a first-time reader. Is Nabokov as offhand about Cherry—admittedly only an incidental character, coming to life and facing a grisly death within the space of a paragraph—as his hero is?
Not at all. In fact Nabokov links Cherry repeatedly with others much more central to the novel who are wrecked by sex, especially Lucette.
The redness of a cherry (and the boy’s “copper curls”) and the greenness of the apples bring to mind the red-green combination associated with Lucette throughout the novel: her red hair, and the green clothes she wears to complement it and her green eyes. Indeed, Lucette too has “copper curls” (226) and the green-red combination recurs in reference to her in the one further “copper curl” in Ada (“a pair of green eyes and a copper curl,” 421).
Cherry is slang for “hymen” or “virginity,” and Lucette’s virginity is a key focus in the novel: her technical virginity (no “intromission of the male member”), but her actual initiation into sex in various ways by Van and Ada, from eight (visually), at twelve (her being fondled and kissed by Van as an ostensible sop to Lucette, and as a decoy for Marina and Mlle Larivière, but mostly as an escape route for Ada to meet Percy), and at fourteen, her lesbian relationship with Ada. Lucette describes her entanglements with Ada in intimate and gymnastic terms (374-76); it is the most detailed description of homosexual activity in the novel, and an Opheliac Lucette’s thrusting on Van such a description in such a way itself shows how unbalanced she has already become. The other most elaborate description of homosexual sex in the novel is here, in Van’s damaging encounter with Cherry.
Cherry has a “girlish crupper”; the noun occurs just once elsewhere in the novel, referring to Lucette’s “little crupper” (I.32: 198). Nabokov here focuses on another link. Van takes Ada repeatedly from behind, and Lucette, who has seen them love-making again and again, naively wonders, after sitting on his knee on the return from the 1888 picnic, if she has been impregnated by him. A “behind” motif is associated with sex and its dangers throughout Ardis (see Boyd 1985/2001: 134-44), and here in the Villa Venus it reaches its sickest form. Part of the “behind” motif is Lucette’s nickname “Pet” (from the French for “fart,” but with a play on the sexual petting used to appease and confuse Lucette); Cherry disappears from the novel exactly as if he had been no more than a pet (“had to be destroyed or given away”).
Cherry appears to have eaten “too many green apples”—unripe apples, as if the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge have been savored before they are ready. Cherry and Lucette both taste the fruits of sex too early, and to fatal effect. Ada may begin with Ardis’s “parodies of paradise,” but like the Garden of Earthly Delights, it grades into the hellish as we move from left to right.
Lucette’s suicide as a result of her being embroiled in the love of Van and Ada repeats Aqua’s suicide as a result of her being caught up in Demon and Marina’s amours. Cherry is “a little Salopian,” a little lad from Shropshire (Latin, Salopia), echoing A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, with its wistful songs in praise of dead “lads.” Nabokov also plays on the French salope, “slattern, slut”: and Van will reprove Lucette the next time he meets her of behaving “as a cocotte” (379); she herself admits to being “technically, a virgin, a kokotische virgin,” to being “half poule” as well as “half puella” (372). There is one other allusion to A Shropshire Lad in Ada, as part of Aqua’s decline into madness, as she hears water speak, echoing, perhaps, “a bit of poetry heard at a lecture, my lad, my pretty, my love, take pity” (23; A Shropshire Lad, V: “Be kind, have pity, my own, my pretty”). Before she sank into madness, Aqua believed in “sweet Terra” as a kind of heaven, unlike those who saw it as full of “vicious monsters, disgusting devils, with the black scrota of carnivora and the fangs of serpents, revilers and tormentors of female souls” (21). But she slips into her own private hell, and Nabokov keeps her in mind when he places the “pretty” “Salopian” in an infernal Villa Venus. Van may have pity for Aqua, but he seems to feel none for Cherry; Nabokov invites our pity for them both, and for all for whom the heaven of love becomes a personal hell.
The most disgusting details at the end of the Cherry paragraph—“unappetizing dysenteric symptoms that coated his lover’s shaft with mustard and blood, the result, no doubt, of eating too many green apples”—are echoed in a bizarre way, via Lucette’s compulsive verbal obscenities, in her proposal to Van that he marry her, her last desperate try before the final ploy of boarding the Tobakoff  to seduce Van there or die:

Everything is quite simple. You marry me. You get my Ardis. We live there, you write there. I keep melting into the background, never bothering you.
We invite Ada—alone, of course—to stay for a while on her estate, for I had always expected mother to leave Ardis to her. While she’s there, I go to
Aspen or Gstaad, or Schittau, and you live with her in solid crystal with snow falling as if forever all around pendant que je shee in Aspenis. Then I
come back like a shot, but she can stay on, she’s welcome, I'll around in case you two want me. (466)

Lucette’s “pendant que je shee” combines the German Schi (“ski”), as in the verbs schilaufen or schifahren (“to ski”), with the French pendant que je chie (“while I shit”)—her obscene punning is an Ophelian compulsion. The “shit” here in the French chie, a homophone of German Schi, is reinforced by “Schittau,” unlike Aspen or Gstaad an entirely invented skifield, somewhere in the Germanic-speaking Alps. And Lucette the Ophelian punster turns Aspen into Aspenis, the “pendant que je shee in Aspenis” thereby echoing grotesquely the reference to Cherry’s “unappetizing dysenteric symptoms that coated his lover’s shaft with mustard and blood” (355). The link is confirmed by the “cherries” a moment later, when it seems for a second that Van might succumb to Lucette’s sexual self-proffering: “They entered the hall of her suite. There, firmly resolved to leave in a moment, he removed his glasses and pressed his mouth to her mouth, and she tasted exactly as Ada at Ardis, in the early afternoon, sweet saliva, salty epithelium, cherries, coffee. Had he not sported so well and so recently, he might not have withstood the temptation, the impardonable thrill” (466-67).

Van’s final visit to a Villa Venus focuses on Adora, whose name at once evokes Ada and the Ladore near which he and Ada make love, and he ends the scene with the declaration that “the soft little creature in Van’s desperate grasp was Ada” (358). But the young girl Van has “fondled and fouled . . . many times in the course of the last ten days” is the “much younger sister or cousin of the wretched florinda on the tumbled bed” (357), as Lucette, of course, is the “much younger” (152) sister of Ada.

Van lies in the ruined Venus Villa “on a rump-tickling coarse couch” (357) that evokes the divan in the Ardis library on the Night of the Burning Barn, where “the shag of the couch was as tickly as the star-dusted sky” (121). That divan becomes a favored place for Van and Ada to make love while Lucette, locked up in a closet, watches agog through its keyhole, as she recalls to Van in 1893 (373), and by 1901 it has become an icon in her own life, via the scene evoking Toulouse-Lautrec’s Divan japonais poster (460-61; see Boyd 1985/2001: 129-31) and the dialogue following: “Immediately after lunch, we’ll go to my room, a numb twenty-five, my age. I have a fabulous Japanese divan. . . . I’ll stretch out upon the divan like a martyr, remember? . . . Oh, try me, Van! My divan is black with yellow cushions” (463-64). She refers here back to her one previous instance of stretching out like a martyr on the bed Van and Ada shared in Manhattan, at the start of the débauche à trois scene (“she lay back on the outer half of Ada’s pillow in a martyr’s pudibund swoon,” 418), in a scene that pointedly echoes Van’s last Villa Venus visit: Ada smoking in bed, like Adora’s older “sister or cousin” (357), in a scene described “from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams” (418-19).

The “sister or cousin” of “Adora,” on the other bed, Van refers to also as “the bawd on the bed” (358). Ada too acts as a kind of bawd to her younger sister:

Ada thought up a plan that was not simple, was not clever, and moreover worked the wrong way. Perhaps she did it on purpose. . . . The idea was to have Van fool
Lucette by petting her in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time, and by caressing and kissing Lucette when Ada was away in the woods (“in the woods,”
“botanizing”). This, Ada affirmed, would achieve two ends—assuage the pubescent child’s jealousy and act as an alibi in case she caught them in the middle of a more
ambiguous romp.

The three of them cuddled and cosseted so frequently and so thoroughly that at last one afternoon on the long-suffering black divan he and Ada could no longer restrain
their amorous excitement, and under the absurd pretext of a hide-and-seek game they locked up Lucette in a closet . . . and frantically made love, while the child knocked
and called and kicked until the key fell out and the keyhole turned an angry green. (213)

Ada acts a bawd in the bed later too, in the débauche à trois scene that Van imagines “as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams” (418-19): from bed, where she is “already . . . inhaling her first smoke of the day” (417), she orders Lucette: “Pop in pet.” When both Van and Lucette express their discomfort, audacious Ada cries: “‘Pet stays right here,’ . . .  and with one graceful swoop plucked her sister’s nightdress off. Involuntarily Lucette bent her head and frail spine; then she lay back on the outer half of Ada’s pillow in a martyr’s pudibund swoon” (418) before Ada leads Van’s “reasonably recalcitrant, pardonably yielding wrist out of the dim east to the bright russet west” (419), in other words, to Lucette’s pubic mound, where she and Van “caress their helpless bed pet” (420).
Less ghoulishly than in the Cherry scene, but more hauntingly, more romantically, Lucette as the “much younger” sister, in Van’s arms, of the smoking “bawd in the bed,” cannot help being evoked in the details of Van’s last scene at a last Villa Venus.
Van emphasizes the nostalgia, the longing, the loss, of this final scene, this last visit to a Villa Venus, as above all the loss of Ada. Nabokov demurs, focusing many of the Villa Venus chapter’s details on the most important of the other women in his life, Lucette, the one he does not fondle and foul but has caressed often enough, under Ada’s guidance, to inflame and fix a poor child’s love forever. And Lucette, like all the others damaged in the course of the Villa Venus chapter, from Cherry to other “younger victims” of “violent copulators” who “had to be hospitalized” (356), shows the hellish side of love, especially when it is pursued with the sense of entitlement exuded by Van and by all the other patrons of the Villas Venus, all the way up to King Victor.

The Rajah of Cachou

I have mentioned the ambiguous relationship between the Villa Venus chapter and the rest of “our rambling romance,” its extreme centrifugality, on the one hand, and on the other its eerie centrality to the story of the Veens.

One extreme sample of wild centrifugality features in the cascade of ruin that begins in the last third of the chapter, before Van’s own visit to one last ruinous Villa Venus: “the Rajah of Cachou (an impostor) was infected with a venereal disease by a (genuine) great-grandniece of Empress Josephine” (356). Who is the Rajah of Cachou—and where for that matter is Cachou: it is not a known Indian state—or at least who is the person claiming such a title, and why is he here, why is he identified thus? We do not know, because we learn nothing else about the Rajah or Cachou.

But the word “Rajah” does occur once more in Ada, when Mlle Larivière says of the Ardis coachman Ben Wright (another impostor, it seems) that she doubts strongly “he ever was in that Rajah’s service” (88). A word as singular and unexpected as “Rajah” does not recur accidentally in Ada—and the same could be said of the Empress Josephine.

Apparently, if obscurely, confirming the link between the two occurrences of the word is the fact that cachou is also known as catechu, specifically Bengal catechu, and that the coachman Ben Wright is called by the other Ardis
servants “Bengal Ben” (408). Between Ardis the First and Ardis the Second Bengal Ben is dismissed from Ardis for farting, especially after drinking, while on his job and around his passengers (140).

How does this relate at all to the Villa Venus chapter? Because of the discomfort Bengal Ben causes Lucette. At the end of the ride back from the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday,

A slight commotion took place on the [coach] box. Lucette turned around and spoke to Ada.
            “I want to sit with you. Mne tut neudobno, i ot nego nehorosho pakhnet (I’m uncomfortable
here, and he does not smell good).”
            “We’ll be there in a moment,” retorted Ada, “poterpi (have a little patience).”
            “What’s the matter?” asked Mlle Larivière.
            “Nothing. Il pue.
"Oh dear! I doubt strongly he ever was in that Rajah’s srvice.” (87-88)

That seems simply a comic deflation of the romantic, sensual and sexual inflation of Van’s experience on the way back from the picnic, with Ada on his lap (“With his entire being, the boiling and brimming lad relished her weight as he felt it responding to every bump of the road by softly parting in two and crushing beneath it the core of the longing which he knew he had to control lest a possible seep perplex her innocence,” 87).

But it is Lucette’s innocence that is at stake, for another reason connected with Bengal Ben. Just before the picnic ride, when Ada discovers she cannot ride her punctured bicycle home and has to mount the calèche, “Lucette refused to give up her perch (accepting with a bland little nod the advice of her drunken boxfellow who was seen to touch her bare knees with a good-natured paw)” (86). On the ride back from the picnic for Ada’s sixteenth birthday, when a footboy who had been left behind has to take Lucette’s usual perch on the box of the victoria, she has to sit on Van’s lap.

The gouts and glooms of the woodland passed across [Ada’s] book, her face and Lucette’s right arm, on which [Van] could
not help kissing a mosquito bite in pure tribute to the duplication [of the “cousin” obliged to ride on his lap]. Poor Lucette stole
a languorous look at him and looked away again—at the red neck of the coachman—of that other coachman who for several
months had haunted her dreams. (280)

Lucette looks at the red neck of Trofim Fartukov, the new Ardis coachman, but thinks also of the Bengal Ben “who for several months had haunted her dreams.” Recall that “drunken” Ben Wright, at the beginning of the ride back from the 1884 picnic, “was seen to touch her bare knees with a good-natured paw” (86). Her haunted dreams suggest that his paw was not so good-natured, when Van and Ada were otherwise preoccupied, on the ride home, and that she had more reason than Ben’s farts for saying “Mne tut neudobno” and wanting to shift places. Van confirms this when he discloses that he has heard Lucette’s complaints about Bengal Ben: “even coarse, smelly coachmen are known to have been driven insane by a pair of green eyes and a copper curl” (421.15-17). Lucette is also pawed (note the repetition of the word) by her own father, Dan: “Papa wore one [ring] like that on his hateful pink paw. He belonged to the silent-explorer type. Once he took me to a girls’ hockey match and I had to warn him I’d yell for help if he didn’t call off the search” (466).
Lucette is extremely sexually sensitive, and confusedly sexually innocent. Having spied on Van making love to Ada from behind, she is perturbed by what it means that she has been sitting on Van’s lap on the way back from the 1888 picnic:

all Lucette wanted to know, after her whimsical fashion, was: could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through
his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?
            “You know,” said Ada in a comic nasal voice, turning to Van, “you know, that child has the dirtiest mind imaginable and now
she is going to be mad at me for saying this and sob on the Larivière bosom, and complain she has been pollinated by sitting on your knee.”
            “But I can’t speak to Belle about dirty things,” said Lucette quite gently and reasonably. (289)

At this stage comically innocent Lucette is worried about the consequences of what she thinks might be some sort of sexual contact. But Nabokov links it with other muchless comic sexual consequences.
Trofim Fartukov, the new Ardis coachman, has a name that seems at first only an amusing echo of the kozahnïy fartuk, the “leathern apron,” used by Russian coachman. But if we connect it with the farts that get his predecessor dismissed, we can see that his name is also a play on “fart.” And there is more to his name than that. Trofim says just one sentence in the whole “rambling romance”: “Dázhe skvoz’ kózhanïy fártuk ne stal-bï ya trógat’ étu frantsúzskuyu dévku” (300). He is commenting on Blanche, who has just left the calèche he is driving: “Even through a leathern apron I would not think of touching this (that) French wench” (300). He knows about both Blanche’s sexual promiscuity with other Ardis servants and her venereal disease. Despite this knowledge, ironically, he will end up marrying Blanche, and they will have a child born blind as a result of her infection (408). The theme of venereal disease is gruesomely associated with the myths of love that romantic and promiscuous Blanche happily spins around Van and Ada (409). And the fact that the Rajah of Cachou has venereal disease is not unconnected with Blanche’s venereal disease: cachou or catechu is a dye used in tanning something like Fartukov’s kozahnïy fartuk, his “leathern apron.”
Lucette’s relationship to the other Ardis coachman seems minor, even if he has haunted her dreams for months. But Nabokov pairs them pointedly. “Bengal Ben” aka “Ben Wright was fired after letting winds go free while driving Marina and Mlle Larivière home from the Vendange Festival at Brantôme near Ladore” (140). Lucette has a nickname that, like Fartukov’s real surname, links her with farts: she is often called pet, French for “fart.” When Ada calls her that, Van’s narratorial bracket explains: “pet (it all started with the little one letting wee winds go free at table, circa 1882)” (418). Note the striking repetition of “letting winds go free” in both Bengal Ben’s case (140) and Lucette’s (418).
And despite the comedy, notice the darker context:

“Pop in, pet (it all started with the little one letting wee winds go free at table, circa 1882). And you, Garden God, ring up room service—three coffees,
half a dozen soft-boiled eggs, lots of buttered toast, loads of—”
            “Oh no!” interrupted Van. “Two coffees, four eggs, et cetera. I refuse to let the staff know that I have two girls in my bed, one (teste Flora)
is enough for my little needs.”
            “Little needs!” snorted Lucette. “Let me go, Ada. I need a bath, and he needs you.”
            “Pet stays right here,” cried audacious Ada, and with one graceful swoop plucked her sister’s nightdress off. Involuntarily Lucette bent her head and frail spine; then she lay back on the outer half of Ada’s pillow in a martyr’s pudibund swoon, her locks spreading their orange blaze against the black velvet of the padded headboard.
            “Uncross your arms, silly,” ordered Ada. (418)

Here begins the débauche à trois scene, so deliberately linked to the Villa Venus chapter (“Thus seen from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams,” 418-19), where Lucette is petted in such a way by her bossy big sister and compliant Van until the point of Van’s orgasm, when she can make her escape and leave a note: “Would go mad if remained one more night . . . . miserable” (421).
The comic theme of farts, and the concealed signs of Lucette’s having been petted by coachman Bengal Ben, and by her father, and having been disturbed by her picnic ride on Van’s knees behind coachman Fartukov, and by her being petted so freely by Ada in Arizona, and the psychological damage she gives voice to after this most flagrant scene of sexual petting by her two siblings, are linked subterraneanly to the venereal disease of both Fartukov’s wife Blanche (with whose damage in love Lucette’s own damage is compared in other ways: see Boyd 1985/2001: 152-58) and with the venereal disease caught by the Rajah of Cachou.
Recall that “the Rajah of Cachou (an impostor) was infected with a venereal disease by a (genuine) great-grandniece of Empress Josephine” (356). Like “Rajah,” “Josephine” occurs once elsewhere in the novel, at Van’s first meal at Ardis:

“I used to love history,” said Marina, “I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan.
Especially with famous beauties—Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.”
“Yes, I’ve noticed—it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.” (38)

This little exchange about a naturalistic motif painted on a plate precisely prepares for and anticipates the famous scene five chapters later:

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.” (63)

This launches into the discussion of the loss of the flower, the souci d’eau (“marsh marigold,” not “care of the water”), in a translation Ada berates, which, as has been discussed at length, anticipates Lucette’s suicide, her becoming “the care of the water” (see Boyd 1985/2011: 51-54 and Pt. 1 Ch. 10 Afternote) precisely because she can never be deflowered by Van, as she has pinned all her hopes on happening.
The Rajah of Cachou’s venereal disease caught from a descendant of the Empress Josephine forms part of the catastrophic decline of the Villa Venuses. Like Blanche’s venereal disease, it would seem to stand as a polar opposite to the damage caused to Lucette’s equilibrium and even her life by a virginity she cannot lose to the one man she is steadfastly, unshakeably in love with: the Rajah is infected by one of the many whores he has no doubt enjoyed, Blanche by perhaps one of the many servants at Ardis she has slept with. But the pattern of damage links all three.

The kinds of damage sex can cause are amply, rapidly, illustrated in the closing pages of the Villa Venus chapter, as in the protracted, expansive myths around the House of the Veens at Ardis. Blanche, and the incidental and perhaps impersonated Rajah of Cachou, and Lucette could hardly be more different. But that is part of Nabokov’s point. People are highly individual in what they gain and what they lose from love and sex: vulnerably sensitive, in Lucette’s case; unabashedly promiscuous but not immune, in Blanche’s, and presumably the Rajah’s; and rampantly and robustly sensual, in Ada’s case, as when she pulls her “pet” sister to bed to be petted.

Anxious to deny his interviewer’s claim that love and sex differ radically from era to era, Nabokov told the writer Alberto Ongaro

I have taught for a long time in universities. I know young people well, I have seen couples who loved each other, couples who broke up painfully,
others who broke up painlessly, as always, as always. The young people I’ve known were no different in love from the way I was nor from how
young people are today or will be like tomorrow. Love and sex, I repeat, are always the same. (TWS 347)

Always the same, in that in any age there’s always a great deal of individual variability. But also in that immemorial practices like prostitution are always the same: promising bliss, but for many, incurring severe costs. At the very time Nabokov was writing Ada he emphasized to Ongaro that

The visual depiction of the erotic has always been there. There was no dearth of paintings evoking love in the past. The examples are endless.
All the painted Venuses, Leda and the Swan, Susanna and the Elders, to say nothing of the Pompeian frescoes, some of which, in this so-called
libertine and shameless age, cannot be seen because they are considered too scandalous. (TWS 346)

He might have added The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its complication of desire and danger, and the architecture of the erotic in immemorial lupanars, bordellos, brothels, houses of pleasure, stews, and floramors, in Eric Veen’s and David van Veen’s schemes and blueprints, with their idealized entitled desires and their damaged realities. The Villa Venus chapter is an excursus, but it is also at the center of Ada.