Part Two, Chapter4




Ada is Van’s love story, but it alternates the triumphant spells of his life with Ada with the long stretches of his life without her—filled, even as he still feels empty, with the work that offers him whatever meager compensation he can eke out without her.

Here in Pt. 2 Ch. 4 we are plunged more fully than we have yet been into Van’s work, at least into his paid work (Letters from Terra two chapters ago cost him more than it earned). The pattern of love and work that structures his memoir now finds its reflection at another level, in the division of his dreams into two main subject categories, “the professional dreams and . . . the erotic ones” (359). But despite the separation of his life and his dreams into these two strands, Van’s work and his dreams are inevitably shot through with the pangs of Ada’s absence. His dreams are preceded by “insomnias conditioned either by the overflow of ten hours of vocational work or by the memory of Ardis that a thorn in my day had maddeningly revived” (359), and to reach sleep he has to lock up his brain “by an act of self-hypnosis (plain will, or pill, could no longer help) within some other image or meditation—but not Ardis, not Ada, for that would mean drowning in a cataract of worse wakefulness, with rage and regret, desire and despair sweeping me into an abyss where sheer physical extenuation stunned me at last with sleep” (359-60: italics added, and to be explained shortly). Even then he may find himself in one of “the agonizing dreams of regret when series of receding Adas faded away in silent reproach; and tears, even hotter than those I would shed in waking life, shook and scalded poor Van, and were remembered at odd moments for days and weeks” (361).

For some reason there are pointed textual links between this chapter and Pt. 1 Ch. 43, the chapter set in Cordula’s apartment after she springs Van from the hospital where he has been treated for the wound inflicted on him in his duel. Both chapters focus on Van’s compensations for the loss of Ada: in Pt. 1 Ch. 43, the erotic (Cordula) and the professional (his research in Manhattan’s “great granite-pillared Public Library” (324) and the inspiration for his Letters from Terra); here in Pt. 2 Ch. 4, after the erotic would-be compensations of Villa Venus in Pt. 2 Ch. 3, the professional consolation of his work as a psychologist of dreams. Both chapters address Van’s inability to sleep after intense concentration. In the earlier chapter: “When he could not sleep, as now often happened, he retired to the sitting room and sat there annotating his authors or else he would walk up and down the open terrace, under a haze of stars, in severely restricted meditation, till the first tramcar jangled and screeched in the dawning abyss of the city” (325; italics added). Note the “meditation . . . abyss” here as in the corresponding reference to his insomnias in Pt. 2 Ch. 4, cited in the paragraph above. Van’s meditation  is “severely restricted” in that he must not allow himself to think of Ada or Ardis, although it is hard to keep such thoughts at bay: “But a butterfly in the Park, an orchid in a shop window, would revive everything with a dazzling inward shock of despair” (324; italics added); in the later chapter: “the memory of Ardis that a thorn in my day had maddeningly revived” (359; italics added). In the earlier chapter, Cordula “instinctively realized very soon that she should never mention Ada or Ardis” (324); in the later chapter, Van tries to lock his brain for sleep “within some other image or meditation—but not Ardis, not Ada, for that would mean drowning in a cataract of worse wakefulness” (359-60). In the earlier chapter, Van writes of “the afterglow and afterthought of the accomplished task” (324) in his researches; in the later chapter, it is “the overflow of ten hours of vocational work” (359) that impedes his sleep. “In no sense,” Van writes, “could Cordula be compared to a writer’s muse” (324), even if the idea for Letters from Terra does come to him here; “In the professional dreams that especially obsessed me when I worked on my earliest fiction,” he writes in the later chapter, he “pleaded abjectly with a very frail muse” (360).

The pattern is emphatic; its purport seems less clear. Is it simply structural, that these two chapters mark the beginning and end of Van’s most distressing separation from Ada, since the chapter that follows this, Pt. 2 Ch. 5, breaks his resolve to maintain his bitter, proud, unforgiving distance from Ada?

In the late nineteenth century on Earth psychology and philosophy were less disciplinarily distinct than they have since become. Academic departments that would later split into Philosophy and Psychology then bore names like “Mental and Moral Sciences”; the Dewey decimal system, devised in the 1870s, placed philosophy and psychology adjacently within the 100 to 199 range; a scholar like William James could be a philosopher and a psychologist (and, like Van, a stylist as well). Here in Pt. 2 Ch. 4 we meet Van very much as psychologist, before in the next chapter we see Lucette visiting Van as psychologist and philosopher at Kingston University. Pt. 2 Ch. 4 also anticipates on a small scale Pt. 4, “The Texture of Time,” Van writing as philosopher, in another sustained, self-contained discussion that also contains multiple frames—essay, lecture, memoir. In the second of the two adjacent Kingston chapters, Lucette brings the letter from Ada that will lead to Van and Ada’s reunion. And in a quiet parallel, the end of the essay-lecture-story of Part 4, not in a new chapter, as in the case of Pt. 2 Chs. 4-5, but in a kind of coda, dead Lucette’s spirit, perhaps, passes “a mermaid’s message” (562) to Ada, as she is about to leave Van for good, to prompt her return to Van and Mont Roux and to a reunion that will last unto death (see Boyd 1985/2001, 202-06).

A number of textural details support the structural linkage of the two chapters of Van’s essays on dreams and on time. In The Texture of Time, as in Pt. 2 Ch. 4, Van attacks Freud in the form of Signy-Mondieu: “familiar dreams (attributed by Dr. Froid of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu to the dreamer’s having read in infancy his adulterous parents’ love letters)” (549); Van’s “insomnias” and the “pill” he needs to try to induce sleep after “the stream of composition, the force of the phrase demanding to be formed” (359) return in the later chapter: “His Work-in-Progress, a sheaf of notes tangling with his pajamas, came to the rescue as it had done at Sorcière. Van swallowed a favodorm tablet and, while waiting for it to relieve him of himself, a matter of forty minutes or so, sat down at a lady’s bureau to his ‘lucubratiuncula’” (558-59). He discusses “the curious tricks of an agent of Chronos” (362) in dreams, and in his discussion of Time dismisses the future as “but a quack at the court of Chronos” (560). And like the essay on dreams, Van’s essay on Time is also both highly personal in its involvement of Ada and yet, somehow, also a lecture: at its very beginning, “Here a heckler asked, with the arrogant air of one wanting to see a gentleman’s driving license, how did the ‘Prof’ reconcile his refusal to grant the future the status of Time with the fact that it, the future, could hardly be considered nonexistent” (535), and after “the pill had really stated to work” Van “dreamed that he was speaking in the lecturing hall of a transatlantic liner and that a bum resembling the hitch-hiker from Hilden was asking sneeringly how did the lecturer explain that in our dreams we know we shall awake, is not that analogous to the certainty of death and if so, the future—” (561).

The two most elaborate of his dreams that Van discusses in Pt. 2 Ch. 4 are sexual. The first condenses details of his birth with his incestuous relationship with Ada taken one grotesque step further, as “Aqua impersonating Marina or Marina made-up to look like Aqua, arrives to inform Van, joyfully, that Ada has just been delivered of a girl-child whom he is about to know carnally on a hard garden bench” (361). The second, “recurring in its basic, unmentionable form, since 1888 and well into this century” (361), involves another side of the novel’s incest theme: “Bad Ada and lewd Lucette had found a ripe, very ripe ear of Indian corn. Ada held it at both ends as if it were a mouth organ and now it was an organ, and she moved her parted lips along it, varnishing its shaft, and while she was making it trill and moan, Lucette’s mouth engulfed its extremity. The two sisters’ avid lovely young faces were now close together, doleful and wistful in their slow, almost languid play, their tongues meeting in flicks of fire and curling back again, their tumbled hair, red-bronze and black-bronze, delightfully commingling and their sleek hindquarters lifted high as they slaked their thirst in the pool of his blood” (362).

As I have argued elsewhere (Boyd 1985/2001: 125-28), the incest in Ada, which Van and Ada invite us to take lightly, to enjoy as an extra frisson for their passion, changes force in Nabokov’s handling of the subject, to focus on the damage done to Lucette in being entangled in her siblings’ love for each other. Both of the sexual dreams reported in Pt. 2 Ch. 4 anticipate Lucette’s deeper involvement in Van and Ada’s love. The first, with Aqua or Marina arriving “to inform Van, joyfully, that Ada has just been delivered of a girl-child whom he is about to know carnally” anticipates the next chapter, where Lucette arrives at Kingston partly to inform Van about her own sexual relationship with Ada: “We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas. She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers, our heads clamped in such odd combinations that Brigitte, a little chambermaid who blundered in with her candle, thought for a moment, though naughty herself, that we were giving birth simultaneously to baby girls, your Ada bringing out une rousse, and no one’s Lucette, une brune” (375: some italics added). The second dream, with Ada’s and Lucette’s mouths along or around a shaft that is both corncob and Van’s penis, seems surprising at this point in the novel, when Lucette has not featured prominently for some time and when her entanglement in Van and Ada’s amours has so far seemed only comically innocent. It will appear to a first-time reader a wild oneiric exaggeration of the “frolic under the Sealyham cedar” (211, referring to the scene at 204-206: Van notes that this dream recurred in “in its basic, unmentionable form since 1888” (361), in other words, presumably, since Lucette’s physical entanglement in Van and Ada’s caresses in that scene). But in Pt. 2 Ch. 5, the chapter that follows the dream-essay, Lucette’s sexual relationship with Ada and her intense and desperate desire for Van change the tone, especially for rereaders who know that her thwarted desperation leads to her suicide.

The second dream anticipates both Ada’s and Lucette’s sexual romps in Arizona—their “tumbled hair, red-bronze and black-bronze, delightfully commingling and their sleek hindquarters” in the dream echoing in advance Lucette’s report of her and Ada’s sobbing “like pumas” and cavorting like “tumblers” and their interlacement and hair color (“une rousse . . . une brune,” 375)—and the débauche à trois scene involving all three of the Veen children, itself revisited in a still later dream, which also echoes the “shaft” (362) of the “corn” dream:

That night, in a post-Moët dream, he sat on the talc of a tropical beach full of sun-baskers, and one moment was rubbing the red, irritated shaft of a writhing boy,
and the next was looking through dark glasses at the symmetrical shading on either side of a shining spine with fainter shading between the ribs belonging to
Lucette or Ada sitting on a towel at some distance from him. Presently, she turned and lay prone, and she, too, wore sunglasses, and neither he nor she could
perceive the exact direction of each other’s gaze through the black amber, yet he knew by the dimple of a faint smile that she was looking at his (it had been
his all the time) raw scarlet.

Pt. 2 Ch. 4 has links with Pt. 1 Ch. 43 and with Part 4; connections with the Lucette theme about to return, amplified and foregrounded, in the next chapter, Lucette as desperate victim and as generous messenger; and painful echoes of Van’s sense of loss for Ada, both before he can get to sleep and in his dreams. It is also a deeply personal, inward-looking counterweight to the far-flung architectural extravaganzas of Eric Veen’s “organized dream” of Villa Venuses in the previous chapter, and preparation for Van in the next chapter as professor at Kingston and future author of The Texture of Time.

And after the imaginative “professional” dream of Letters from Terra, and the erotic dreams-within-dreams of Villa Venus, we move on in Pt. 2 Ch. 4 to waking mode, but still focused on dreams, and to Van’s division of his dreams especially into two main types, the professional and the erotic—as if reflecting back, without his quite realizing, on the two previous chapters. There is order behind the semblance of centrifugal chaos early in Part 2: as VN wrote in the midst of composing Ada, “in art, as in nature, a glaring disadvantage may turn out to be a subtle protective device” (KQK viii).

Yet more than any other chapter, Pt. 2 Ch. 4 also stands remarkably aside from Ada as a whole. It was always important for Nabokov to demonstrate that his distinguished writers and thinkers—Fyodor, Sebastian, Krug, Shade, Van—actually merited the acclaim they are accorded within their fictional worlds. He put in long hours in Berlin libraries to be able to show Fyodor’s painstaking research and artistic boldness in his life of his father and his life of Chernyshevsky. He put all his imaginative effort into the creative concentration of Shade’s “Pale Fire.”

And in Van’s excursus on dreams, we can see how thoroughly Nabokov based Van’s essay-cum-lecture on his own probing researches into his own dreams in 1964-65 and on his own lifelong rejection of Freud’s claims that he could interpret the dreams of others. This excursus is passionate, thoughtful, and playful, a public performance about elusive private experience, and evidence: evidence of Van’s public and private mental capacities, evidence of Van at work.

In this chapter Nabokov gives Van some of his own most recognizable signatures, his gift for phonic word-frolics and his contempt for Freud, and some of his subtlest, his combination of passion, reason, and imagination, and his mental independence. He even gave him, unknown to generations of readers, the result of his own researches into his own dreams.

magazine, interviewing Nabokov at the time of Ada’s publication, opened the questioning: “There seem to be similarities in the rhythm and tone of Speak, Memory and Ada, and in the way you and Van retrieve the past in images. Do you both work along similar lines?” Nabokov began his reply: “The more gifted and talkative one’s characters are, the greater the chances of their resembling the author in tone or tint of mind” (SO 120). He did not add that he had actually given Van so many ideas and expressions from his own attempts to probe his dreams before he even conceived of Van and Ada.

To present the evidence of Van’s self-sufficient “genius” (360), Nabokov simply gifted him his own research. But he did so also to catch readers off guard, to make it even harder for them to judge Van, more likely that they would mistakenly align the character with the author, until confronted with the consequences of Van’s actions and the error of their own indulgence. Nabokov ended his first answer to Time: “I loathe Van Veen” (SO 120).  The story to come, even more than the story so far, shows why.

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