Part Two, Chapter 5


Lucette has barely featured in Ada for seven chapters. Even before the focus of the novel shifts in I.41 to Van’s rivals for Ada and his bitterness toward them and Ada, and to his subsequent compensations for Ada’s absence from his life, Lucette has seemed only a marginal presence: amusingly and enchantingly naïve in a way that set off Ada’s precociousness, and a comic hindrance to Van and Ada’s desire. Now she becomes the focus of one of Ada’s longest chapters, in a way that promises a series of new twists and prepares for her slide towards death.
The first twist is Lucette’s passionate declaration of love for Van, at fifteen, in a long letter she wrote him in the fall of 1891, a year before this Kingston scene, but summarized and apparently incorporated to some extent into the dialogue of this scene; the second, her new adult poise and accomplishment, bringing her up to the level of her former Wunderkind siblings; the third, Van’s strong sexual arousal by his half-sister: will this lead him to the sexual consummation with Lucette that she so desperately craves?; the fourth, Lucette’s disclosure of her intense sexual relationship with Ada, off and on since she was fourteen, in 1890, which fires both Van’s arousal and his jealousy; the fifth, Lucette’s revelation about Ada’s recent partner, an actor named Johnny; the sixth, in the letter Lucette has brought, Ada’s announcement that she will accept the proposal of marriage she has had from an unnamed Arizonian Russian (Andrey Vinelander) unless she hears that Van will have her back; the seventh, Van’s prompt decision not only to accept Ada again but to begin an adult life with her in Manhattan, and his firm, albeit erect, repudiation of Lucette. The love story of “all three Veens, the children of Venus” (410) has lost none of its heat as more sexual fuel piles on to the fire.

The New Lucette
From this point, Lucette will become increasingly prominent in the novel—while she lasts: in a comic reprise of her Ardis interruptions of Van and Ada, in the next chapter, II.6, in Manhattan, the morning after the Kingston scene; in the shocking scene of the three Veens’ drunken evening at the Ursus restaurant, a week later, where Lucette tells Van she “will jump into the Goodson River if I can’t hope to have you” (411), and their débauche à trois the next morning, until Lucette flees in distress, in II.8; Van’s finding her in Paris, at 25, in 1901, in III.3; and her final desperate attempt, three days later, to seduce Van aboard the Tobakoff and her dive to her watery death when she fails, in III.5.
The Kingston scene prepares for these later developments by introducing a surprisingly new Lucette: elegant, chic, poised, no longer sexually naïve and no longer intellectually outclassed by Van and Ada: indeed, “At sixteen she looked considerably more dissolute than her sister had seemed at that fatal age” (367), during Ardis the Second.
Ever since 1884 Lucette has doted on big cousin Van, in his own right and as the lover of her sister. But she enters Van’s rooms at Kingston a year after penning her “rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter” (366), and with her love, desire, and hope as resolute as ever. She has said on the phone she will be “bringing him an important message” which Van suspected “would be yet another instalment of her unrequited passion, but he also felt that her visit would touch off infernal fires” (366).

Seeing her for the first time since Ardis in 1888, Van, “the irresistible rake” (588), admires and is aroused by her looks, indeed is unable not to luxuriate in envisaging her naked, but gives her no more greeting than a light kiss on her cheekbone, not the “unfolding caress—the aurora, who knows (she knew) of a new life for both” (367) that she had hoped for from their meeting. As she turns away for a handkerchief to dry her tears of disappointment, Van catches sight of Ada’s notepaper protruding from her bag: a revelation, a resolution, hanging over the scene but deferred until its last thrust.

Lucette and Ada: A Minuscule Red Pawn

Early in the scene, Lucette declares that she is still a virgin (“‘Van, . . . if you posed the famous Van Question, I would answer in the affirmative,’” 371). She discloses the frailty of her sexuality: “Oh, to be sure, it was not easy! In parked automobiles and at rowdy parties, thrusts had to be parried, advances fought off!” For “almost three months, every blessed afternoon,” she had “an awfully precocious but terribly shy and neurotic young violinist” touch her and she “reciprocated, and after that I could sleep at last without pills, but otherwise I haven’t once kissed male epithelia in all my love—I mean, life” (371). And then she gradually leads up to her disclosure that sexually avid Ada has introduced her to passionate lesbian love-making: “‘She taught me practices I had never imagined,’ confessed Lucette in rerun wonder. ‘We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas. She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers’” (375).
Lucette leads to her disclosure about Ada’s “depraving” her by reminding Van of a minuscule clitoris-like red pawn that he found during Ardis the First in the secret recesses of a scrutoir in the Ardis library. In one way, this offers Nabokov a means, firstly, of demonstrating Lucette’s newly acquired expertise in art, ornament, and furnishings, which often leaves Van floundering at her knowledge (the word “scrutoir” itself, for instance), and secondly, of demonstrating Lucette’s troubled obsessiveness over “the feminine glans” (394). In another way, Lucette’s slow disclosure via the pawn in the library echoes, first, the scene of Van and Ada’s first imperfect love-making, beginning on the divan in the library window on the night of the Burning Barn (I.19); second, their perusal in the Ardis library of erotic prints and the lore of incest (I.21); and third, four years later, their imprisoning Lucette in a closet in the library while they make love and she covertly spies on them (I.34).
To follow these in chronological order: The Burning Barn scene both provides an occasion for Van and Ada to meet alone when others have left the house to deal with the fire, and presents a comic analogy for the fires of Van and Ada’s mounting desire as they look in the direction of the blaze. In the Kingston scene, Van fears that Lucette’s visit “would touch off infernal fires” (366); the setting sun lights up the “emblazed trees” (366), and Van as he beholds Lucette cannot help thinking of her red body hair under her furs: “the flame of her Little Larousse. . . . The cross (krest) of the best-groomed redhead (rousse). Its four burning ends. Because one can’t stroke (as he did now) the upper copper without imagining at once the lower fox cub and the paired embers” (368). Van stands there “in his charcoal suit, spontaneous combustion” (368). Could Van’s desire for Lucette, coupled with her eagerness, actually lead to sexual ignition?
In the weeks following the Burning Barn, Van and Ada’s eager practice ensures that by midsummer 1884 “the machine which our forefathers called ‘sex’ was working as smoothly as later, in 1888, etc., darling” (129). But not only do they explore the physicality of sex, they also explore its lore, in the Ardis library, in tomes like “Sex and Lex” (133), a History of Mating Habits (135), On Contraceptive Devices (136), Uncle Dan’s Oriental Erotica prints (137) and “Forbidden Masterpieces” (140). In the same way, after Ada initiates Lucette into lesbian lovemaking, Lucette tells Van at Kingston, she would spend her days “reading a lot, or copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces . . . and I can assure you, they were far more realistic than the scroll-painting by Mong Mong, very active in 888, a millennium before Ada said it illustrated Oriental calisthenics when I found it by chance in the corner of one of my ambuscades” (376).
In August and early September 1884, when Van and Ada have become thoroughly at home in the practice and theory of sex, Mlle Larivière sprains her back and Lucette avoids a servant’s surrogate surveillance “in favour of her cousin’s and sister’s company” (142). It is some time during these weeks that Van feels for and finds the pawn that for Lucette “pre-emblematized . . . the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen in Arizona” (374): as Lucette recounts it to Van at Kingston, “It was the summer Belle sprained her backside, and we were left to our own devices, which had long lost the particule in your case and Ada’s, but were touchingly pure in mine. You groped around, and felt, and felt for the little organ . . . ” (374). These are the weeks too when Lucette gets caught up in spying on Van and Ada in their insatiable lovemaking: when they tie her up by the river and run off, only for her to untie herself and watch on, agog (142-43); when they imprison her in the bath and make love around the corner of “the L-shaped bathroom” (143-45); when they cajole and bribe her into memorizing a poem while they retreat to the attic (145-46) (see I.23, Afternote). Nabokov pointedly pairs, in other words, Lucette’s rather dangerous too-early first initiation into sex, as a partial witness of Van and Ada’s activities, with the clitoris-like pawn in the library that prefigures her clitoris becoming the focus of Ada’s eager attentions at Arizona in 1890 “when boyless and boiling” (375).
At Kingston Lucette evokes the scene of the discovery of the pawn for Van by orienting his imagination back to the Ardis library, and especially its focal point, “the Vaniada divan,” “at the other end” of which “there was only the closet in which you two locked me up at least ten times” (373). Van disputes the “at least ten,” insisting that it was “Once—and never more” (373), but whatever the truth, it looms large in Lucette’s memory.
The scene that haunts Lucette occurs not in 1884, like the scenes by the river, in the bathroom, and her bedroom while they are in the attic, but in 1888, when Ada proposes

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 used for storing bound volumes
of The Kaluga Waters and The Lugano Sun, 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)

Thus begins a still more dangerous phase of initiation, playing on Lucette’s feelings and her confused comprehension of the cuddles and cosseting entangling her.

And it is recalled pointedly in Lucette’s account at Kingston of Ada’s initiating her still further into sexual activity, by way of that pawn in the scrutoir: not just because the pawn, for Lucette, pre-emblematizes Ada’s focus on her clitoris in Arizona, but also because for Nabokov it serves to stress how much Lucette becomes a mere pawn for Ada’s uncontainable desires. The little pawn Van finds is red, like an engorged clitoris; it is red, also, like little Lucette, their Little Larousse (368), and herself very much a pawn at her sister’s hands.

Lucette and Van

When Lucette at Kingston tells Van of her romps with Ada—“She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers” (375)—Van feigns not to understand what she means. But between Lucette’s account of the pawn and her evocation of the KLITOR Flavita game to spell out her special sense of krestik, a phone call from his typist interrupts, and Lucette takes advantage of the interruption to rush to the toilet. When she comes back, Van is writhing to contain an erection, even a mammoth erection, described with comic obliqueness via Pompier’s (on Earth, Malraux’s) novel La Condition Humaine—an erection caused by his inability not to imagine Lucette naked, and amplified by her account of her sexual highjinks with Ada. “Kick her out before it is too late,” Van thinks (377), and a first-time reader wonders, where will his arousal lead? After all, Van has never before shown sexual restraint.

But the whole chapter in a sense operates on a contrast between Ada’s lack of restraint (as far back as the night of the Burning Barn, Van later recalls, “how disconcerted I was—by your—how shall I put it?—lack of restraint,” 122), even toward the sister she has grown up with, and her brother’s uncharacteristic restraint toward Lucette, because he knows how much it would complicate his already overfull feelings for Ada.
Back from the toilet, Lucette overhears Van mentioning “la durée” on the phone to his typist, and shows she knows he has been discussing Bergson. Van comments: “Spotting Bergson . . . rates a B minus dans ton petit cas, hardly more. Or shall I reward you with a kiss on your krestik—whatever that is?” (377). Unsure whether or not Van really does not understand the word, she spells out, literally, what she means, by recalling the last round of a Flavita game where Van, as usual, helped her:

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
(Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment. . . . (379)

In other words Van “fingers Lucette’s groove” to rearrange the letters as KLITOR, meaningless to eight-year-old Lucette but hilarious to her sexually knowing elders.
This Flavita game, where Lucette reports in Kingston that she had “got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game” (379), links closely with the main discussion of Flavita and the last game the three children ever play together, where Lucette, now twelve, wails “Je ne peux rien faire . . . mais rien—with my idiotic Buchstaben” (227). The emphasis in this game is not on obscenity but on the gap between Ada (who scores nearly 400 with her final word) and Lucette. Van notes: “As to ambitious, incompetent and temperamental Lucette, she had to be, even at twelve, discreetly advised by Van who did so chiefly because it saved time and brought a little closer the blessed moment when she could be bundled off to the nursery, leaving Ada available for the third or fourth little flourish of the sweet summer day” (225). In this game he does help Lucette in her last word, then Ada swoops with her triumphant TORFYaNUYu. Van sums up:

The poor child’s final score for the fifteen rounds or so of the game was less than half of her sister’s last
masterstroke, and Van had hardly fared better, but who cared! The bloom streaking Ada’s arm, the pale blue
of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade’s parchment
(a translucent lakescape with Japanese dragons), scored infinitely more points than those tensed fingers bunched
on the pencil stub could ever add up in the past, present or future. (228)

Van extols his love for Ada partly by dismissing Lucette, except as a foil for Ada’s brilliance, but he also manipulates her through his show of affection, so that he and Ada can head off for another “flourish.” When he tries to get rid of her after the game by bundling her off to bed, she declares “I’m not going anywhere. . . . First, because it is only half-past eight, and, second, because I know perfectly well why you want to get rid of me” (228). Ada and Van act surprised, affronted, indignantly dismissive. They put pressure on her in different ways, Ada by threats and scorn, Van by exploiting and feeding her affection:


“Van,” said Ada, after a slight pause, “will you please summon Mademoiselle; she’s working with
Mother over a script which cannot be more stupid than this nasty child is.”
            “I would like to know,” said Van, “the meaning of her interesting observation. Ask her, Ada dear.”
            “She thinks we are going to play Scrabble without her,” said Ada, “or, go through those Oriental
gymnastics which, you remember, Van, you began teaching me, as you remember.”
            “Oh, I remember! You remember I showed you what my teacher of athletics, you remember his
name, King Wing, taught me.”
            “You remember a lot, ha-ha,” said Lucette, standing in front of them in her green pajamas, sun-tanned
chest bare, legs parted, arms akimbo.
            “Perhaps the simplest—” began Ada.
            “The simplest answer,” said Lucette, “is that you two can’t tell me why exactly you want to get rid of me.”
            “Perhaps the simplest answer,” continued Ada, “is for you, Van, to give her a vigorous, resounding spanking.”
            “I dare you!” cried Lucette, and veered invitingly.
            Very gently Van stroked the silky top of her head and kissed her behind the ear; and, bursting into a hideous
storm of sobs, Lucette rushed out of the room. Ada locked the door after her.
            “She’s an utterly mad and depraved gipsy nymphet, of course,” said Ada, “yet we must be more careful than
ever . . . oh terribly, terribly, terribly . . . oh, careful, my darling.” (229)

Now at Kingston Lucette has closed the gap between herself and Ada so visible during that Flavita game, and her affections, stoked by her big cousin in that earlier scene and throughout Ardis the Second, have only become more tightly bound to Van’s stake. And the Ada who was so callous toward Lucette in that earlier scene has simply used Lucette for her own sexual release.
Early in the Kingston scene, Van warns Lucette that he cannot see her for long, he has “to see Rattner at six-thirty” (370). Lucette immediately bursts out with an imitation of threatening Ada: ““Rattner on Terra! . . . Van is reading Rattner on Terra. Pet must never, never disturb him and me when we are reading Rattner!” (370). Lucette in Kingston tells Van to “Tell Rattner” “that when in the old days you and Ada . . . left me for him, and then came back, I knew every time that you vsyo sdelali (had appeased your lust, had allayed your fire)” (370). In fact there is only one scene in Ardis the Second where “Van lay reading Rattner on Terra, a difficult and depressing work” (230), and it follows immediately after that Flavita game. Lying on the divan, Van drifts toward sleep as he pores over Rattner, and receives a message from Bout, who as he passes by the globe “touched it and looked with disapproval at his smudged finger. ‘The world is dusty,’ he said. ‘Blanche should be sent back to her native village. Elle est folle et mauvaise, cette fille’” (231). He tells Van that Marina would like to talk with him in her room, but Van drifts off again over Rattner. As he wakes, “For a few moments the brief dim dream was so closely fused with the real event that even when he recalled Bout’s putting his finger on the rhomboid peninsula where the Allies had just landed (as proclaimed by the Ladore newspaper spread-eagled on the library table), he still clearly saw Blanche wiping Crimea clean with one of Ada’s lost handkerchiefs” (231). At Kingston, trying to bring to Van’s mind the library’s scrutoir with the red pawn, Lucette responds to his “I don’t even know what a scrutoir is” by asking him “But you remember the globe?” (372), whereupon Van has a memory flash: “Dusty Tartary with Cinderella’s finger rubbing the place where the invader would fall” (373).

When Van does respond to Marina’s summons, back in the 1888 scene, Marina reports that Belle “has cited to me the cousinage-dangereux-voisinage adage—I mean ‘adage,’ . . . and complained qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins. Is that true?” (232) Guilty Van can only assume that Lucette’s governess has Ada and him in mind, and blurts out an excuse along those lines. Marina responds:

I do not mean Ada, silly. . . . Ada is a big girl, and big girls, alas, have their own worries. Mlle Larivière meant
Lucette, of course. Van, those soft games must stop. Lucette is twelve, and naive, and I know it’s all clean fun,
yet (odnako) one can never behave too delikatno in regard to a budding little woman. (232)
First-time readers and even rereaders can think, with Van, that the joke is only on Mlle Larivière, the unobservant novelist. But impercipient as she may be in some matters, Mlle Larivière seems to understand the emotions of her little pupil in a way that Van and Ada, for all their brilliance, fail to consider.
From “Rattner on Terra! . . . Van is reading Rattner on Terra” through to the KLITOR Flavita game, Lucette’s recollections at Kingston of her involvement in Van and Ada’s lovemaking at Ardis, and her own and Ada’s in Arizona and after, point to the emotional damage her half-siblings have inflicted on her. Lucette is aware of the damage herself (“her fragile shoulders shaking unbearably. . . . ‘you said something about a busy day over the phone. One can’t help being dreadfully busy after four absolutely blank years. . . . very unhappy people, such as this available rousse. . . a rejected cocotte, Van,’” 369, 377, 379), but she lays no blame. But by constructing connections like those between the two Buchstaben Flavita games, or Rattner, the divan, the globe, and the early signs of danger that Marina brings to Van’s attention, or the pawn and Lucette treated like a pawn until she is locked up and sees more than she should atop the library divan, Nabokov underscores the harm Van and Ada have caused Lucette through using her as a dismissible and exploitable adjunct to their own satisfaction.


In some ways this is the old ground of Ardis. Now, while staying within the Kingston scene, let us move, as Nabokov does, from Ardis to Arizona.
Nabokov has a knack for making a detail or a circumstance seem a mere given or a passive background rather than part of a pointed design. Arizona comes up early and late in II.5, but so what? But look at the pattern: Lucette’s seduction by Ada occurs in Arizona, we and Van learn from Lucette early in the chapter (and perhaps from her letter: “‘the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen in Arizona. . . . I was afraid of the cougars and snakes’ [quite possibly, this is not remembered speech but an extract from her letter or letters. Ed.], ‘whose cries and rattlings Ada imitated admirably, and, I think, designedly’” (374-375)). Late in the chapter, we and Van learn from Ada’s letter that she will marry an Arizonian Russian should Van not take her back, and again, local color from Arizonian flora and fauna features (“military-looking desert plants, especially various species of agave, hosts of the larvae of the most noble animals in America, the Giant Skippers” (385)). Paired thus, the Arizona backgrounds fore and aft may no longer seem mere background. But what is their point?
The pairing first highlights and contrasts Van, Ada, Lucette and the “Valentinian” or Arizonian whom we will learn to call Andrey Vinelander.
Lucette has come to Kingston in the hope of seducing Van, of winning him for herself, partly by horrifying Van through the image of Ada seducing her. She spends much of the scene elaborating on her “depravation” by Ada in Arizona, precisely because she wants no one but Van. Ada, whose letter is the immediate reason for Lucette’s being here in Van’s rooms, announces in her letter, read at the end of the scene, the proposal from her Arizonian that she would be ready to accept, even if it is Van whom she too wants.

Lucette and Ada each have an “Arizonian” partner, but for Lucette, that is no alternative: she wants only Van, and despite her dwelling on her Arizonian adventures, her ploy does not succeed, and she cannot have the man she craves. Ada, by contrast, by threatening to marry her Arizonian—whom indeed she eventually will accept as an available alternative—quickly secures the Van she wants.
The Lucette who once seemed hopelessly outclassed by her older sister, and appears at Kingston to have swiftly caught up with her, proves herself once again hopelessly outclassed in Van’s affections. At Kingston Van responds to Lucette’s body—her new “elegant slenderness” (368) and the nakedness he vividly imagines under her clothes, and her zestful evocation of her sex life with Ada in Arizona—but not at all to her wishes; but he capitulates quickly to Ada, when Ada mentions an unchallenging and seemingly sexless alternative (“an Arizonian Russian, . . . not overbright and not fashionable” (385), unlike “very chic” (374), astute, and erudite Lucette.

The Arizona pattern runs deeper. Ada’s letter mentions the marriage proposal “made to your poor Ada a month ago in Valentine State. . . . I have told my patient Valentinian that I shall give him a definite answer after consulting the only man I have ever loved or shall love” (385). Arizona is nicknamed the Valentine State because it was admitted to the Union on February 14, 1912; it may be no accident, given the pairing of Arizona early and late in II.5, that another nickname is the Copper State, for Lucette is repeatedly associated with copper or called “copperhead,” and early in II.5 Van strokes Lucette’s “upper copper” while “imagining at once the lower fox cub and the paired embers” (368) of her armpits.
Valentine’s Day offers another V, E, N set of myths of love, rather pallid when set beside the more torrid venery of the “three Veens, the children of Venus” (410), and appropriate to Ada’s lack of enthusiasm for her “patient Valentinian.” Ada introduces Vinelander (whose surname, again, incorporates the letters of “Veen”), while withholding his name, thus: “If you scorn the maid at your window I will aerogram my immediate acceptance of a proposal of marriage that has been made to your poor Ada a month ago in Valentine State” (395). She pointedly alludes, in “the maid at your window” before “Valentine State,” to Ophelia’s mad song:  

Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
     All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
     To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
      And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
     Never departed more. (4.5.47-54)

Indeed, Ada does appear at Van’s window “in the morning betime,” early the next morning, in a monoplane outside his Manhattan apartment—even if she is anything but a “maid,” a virgin. The second stanza, though, points to Lucette: she is let into Van’s room a maid, but it is her special tragedy that she exits his chamber door still a maid, not even kissed or embraced by Van, and that she will even exit from life itself still a virgin, despite her still more determined pursuit of Van.
The contrast between Ada in Arizona and the girl she seduced there comes to the fore in this chapter and through this allusion. Moreover, Ada plays Ophelia from the start of her letter, which begins “O dear Van” (as Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia restarts, “O dear Ophelia”), as if she too risks being driven mad by thwarted love; but Lucette began playing the role of Ophelia even earlier: she ends her 1891 letter to Van, her “rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love” (366), with the end of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia: “and now let us say adieu, yours ever” (379). And Lucette, committing suicide by drowning, will play Ophelia to the salty and bitter end.

Ada ended the last letter Van quotes from her, before this one that Lucette brings to him in Kingston: “I’m writing from Marina Ranch—not very far from the little gulch in which Aqua died and into which I myself feel like creeping some day” (336). She wrote this from Arizona shortly before introducing Lucette to girl-on-girl sex. But it is Lucette who will follow her aunt—who collects pills from her “luxurious ‘sanastoria’ at Centaur, Arizona” (26) to drift off to death—as Lucette collects pills on board the Tobakoff before plunging to doom, and in the same yellow-and-black combination as her aunt had worn to her death. Aqua dies because her fate—and her right to the Van she wants to think her son—is inextricable from that of her sister Marina, Van’s actual mother. Lucette dies because her fate proves so inextricable from Ada’s, in Ardis, in Arizona, in Kingston, in Manhattan, in Paris, and in mid-Atlantic. In Aqua’s case, that is signalled from the first, although we do not understand it that way, by their being twins, named Marina and Aqua; in Lucette’s case, she and Ada seem even closer than twins, when she is coupled with Ada in Arizona: “She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers, . . . we were giving birth simultaneously to baby girls, your Ada bringing out une rousse, and no one’s Lucette, une brune” (375), an “adalucinda” (375) interlacement that will reach its tragic conclusion on Lucette’s last night alive.

Lucette and Cordula

If Arizona features early and late in II.5, Cordula de Prey features even earlier and later in the chapter. Again, this seems mere background: Van has reached a new stage in his work, at the beginning of the chapter, so is contemplating a change of scene, moving to the Manhattan apartment he has now bought off Cordula. Nabokov prepares this at the start of the chapter so that at the end, when Van, after years of resistance, succumbs to Ada’s plea to start up a life together, he can be shown swiftly and decisively, Demonically, even, without exposition slowing the narrative pace, heading to Manhattan, and asking Ada to meet him there the very next morning, to “be in time for breakfast in Cordula’s recent bedroom” (386).
But Cordula features in her own right—although why might seem puzzling in a chapter so focused on Ada and especially Lucette. Early in her visit, Lucette says to Van:

What he had asked Cordula in that bookshop had been “Are you a virgin?” and her answer had been a calm “I don’t date hoodlums” (165).
Although Cordula has so far seemed a foil to Ada, or a soothing, uncomplicated surrogate for her, her fate will also prove to be interlaced with and illuminating of the very different Lucette.
When Van leaves Ardis the First, after their last flourish at Forest Fork, he sputters to Ada “will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?” (158) She replies: 

"I shall never love anybody in my life as I adore you, never and nowhere, neither in eternity, nor in terrenity,
neither in Ladore, nor on Terra. . . . But! But, my love, my Van, I’m physical, horribly physical, qu’y puis-je? Oh dear,
don’t ask me, there’s a girl in my school who is in love withme, I don’t know what I’m saying—”
“The girls don’t matter,” said Van, “it’s the fellows I’ll kill if they come near you.” (158-59)

When a day or so later Van meets Cordula, he notes her interest in her schoolmate Ada, and wonders, is she the lesbian Ada had mentioned? But he decides no, and despite her being “round-faced, small, dumpy” (164) and with braces on her teeth, he propositions her: “How could I get in touch with you? . . . Would you come to Riverlane? Are you a virgin?” (165) His double standard, of wanting to kill the fellows if Ada was unfaithful with them but feeling himself immediately entitled to pursue the fillies, could not be plainer.
He arranges to meet Ada at her college, Brownhill, but the headmistress has decided she needs to be chaperoned—by Cordula. This awakens Van’s suspicions again:

What exactly—not that it mattered but one’s pride and curiosity were at stake—what exactly had they been up to,
those two ill-groomed girls, last term, this term, last night, every night, in their pajama-tops, amid the murmurs
and moans of their abnormal dormitory? Should he ask? Could he find the right words: not to hurt Ada, while
making her bed-filly know he despised her for kindling a child, so dark-haired and pale, coal and coral, leggy
and limp, whimpering at the melting peak? (168)

He asks himself: “Did he feel any Proustian pangs? None. On the contrary: a private picture of their fondling each other kept pricking him with perverse gratification. Before his inner bloodshot eye Ada was duplicated and enriched, twinned by entwinement, giving what he gave, taking what he took: Corada, Adula” (168). But he launches into a diatribe on Proust—a writer as yet unknown to Cordula—as a way of venting the fury he will not acknowledge:

My teacher contends that if the reader knows nothing about Proust’s perversion, the detailed description of a
heterosexual male jealously watchful of a homosexual female is preposterous because a normal man would be
only amused, tickled pink in fact, by his girl’s frolics with a female partner. The professor concludes that a novel
which can be appreciated only by quelque petite blanchisseuse who has examined the author’s dirty linen is,
artistically, a failure. (169)

Eight years later at Kingston Lucette tells Van that if he “posed the famous Van Question, I would answer in the affirmative” (371), and Van’s mind flips back to the first time he asked it, of Cordula, behind the revolving paperbacks’ stand. Wanting to launch into explaining her romps with Ada, “even if it makes you detest and despise Ada and me,” Lucette admits that it is hard “to explain, especially for a virgin—well, technically, a virgin, a kokotische virgin, half poule, half puella” (372),so begins her very roundabout introductionvia the scrutoir where Van once found that “minuscule red pawn” (374).

Van’s response to Lucette’s account of her exertions with Ada follows a dynamic similar to that triggered by his imagining Cordula’s frolics with Ada. He professes not to understand what Lucette means when she says “She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers” (375), and he unleashes an arcane diatribe so characteristic of him when enraged and unable simply to thrash the person provoking the offense:

“Oh, I know,” cried Van (quivering with evil sarcasm, boiling with mysterious rage, taking it out on the
redhaired scapegoatling, naive Lucette, whose only crime was to be suffused with the phantasmata of the
other’s innumerable lips). “Of course, I remember now. A foul taint in the singular can be a sacred mark
in the plural. You are referring of course to the stigmata between the eyebrows of pure sickly young nuns
whom priests had over-anointed there and elsewhere with cross-like strokes of the myrrherabol brush.” (378)

Lucette, unsure whether he really does not understand her “krestik,” explains to Van once more, again obliquely. She recalls the Flavita game where he arranged her letters LIKROT or ROTIKL to spell KLITOR (379). Van now discloses that he fully understands, and Lucette ends her disclosure:

“If my skin were a canvas and her lips a brush, not an inch of me would have remained unpainted and
vice versa. Are you horrified, Van? Do you loathe us?”
            “On the contrary,” replied Van, bringing off a passable imitation of bawdy mirth. “Had I not been
a heterosexual male, I would have been a Lesbian.” (382)

As with Cordula and Ada at Brownhill earlier, Van at Kingston professes no horror and only delight at the thought of girl-on-girl lovemaking, but in both cases erupts in obscure outbursts of jealous rage.

Lucette and the Rivals

Indeed, he has done so once more before declaring “Had I not been a heterosexual male, I would have been a Lesbian.” After Van makes it clear that he perfectly understands her clitoral references, Lucette starts to bring the story up to date:

“Well, after teaching me simple exercises for one hand that I could practice alone, cruel Ada abandoned me. . . .
She abandoned me. . . . Yes, she started a rather sad little affair with Johnny, a young star from Fuerteventura,
c’est dans la famille
, her exact odnoletok (coeval), practically her twin in appearance, born the same year, the
same day, the same instant—” (380)

As narrator, Van comments “That was a mistake on silly Lucette’s part”; as character, he launches into another of his pedantic rants:

“Ah, that cannot be,” interrupted morose Van and after rocking this side and that with clenched hands and
furrowed brow (how one would like to apply a boiling-water-soaked Wattebausch, as poor Rack used to call
her limp arpeggiation, to that ripe pimple on his right temple), “that simply cannot be. No damned twin can do that.
Not even those seen by Brigitte, a cute little number I imagine, with that candle flame flirting with her exposed
nipples. The usual difference in age between twins”—he went on in a madman’s voice so well controlled that it
sounded overpedantic—“is seldom less than a quarter of an hour, the time a working womb needs to rest and relax
with a woman’s magazine, before resuming its rather unappetizing contractions. In very rare cases, when the matrix
just goes on pegging away automatically, the doctor can take advantage of that and ease out the second brat who
then can be considered to be, say, three minutes younger, which in dynastic happy events—doubly happy events—with
all Egypt agog—may be, and has been, even more important than in a marathon finish. But the creatures, no matter
how numerous, never come out à la queue-leu-leu. ‘Simultaneous twins’ is a contradiction in terms.” (380-81)

Van cannot stand the thought of a male rival, and since he can hardly run after this otherwise unknown Johnny, he spurts out his erudite anger.
But note two peculiar features of this paragraph. First, Van’s anger is directed not only at Johnny as rival and at Lucette, as the person who declared Johnny “practically [Ada’s] twin in appearance, born the same year, the same day, the same instant—,” the cue that triggered Van’s explosion; it is also directed at Lucette as Ada’s sexual partner, since his “No damned twin can do that. Not even those seen by Brigitte, a cute little number I imagine, with that candle flame flirting with her exposed nipples” refers back to Lucette’s description of herself and Ada together:

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)

Van treats this detail with the same hot scorn for the idea of “simultaneous twins” as he directs at the absent Johnny. Despite his profession of feeling no more than “bawdy mirth” (382) at Lucette’s disclosure of her affair with Ada, he seethes with rage toward the image of her and Ada together very much as he does toward the image of Johnny and Ada.
Not for the first time, Lucette is coupled with Van’s male rivals: not only in terms of the damage that he causes her, and that he would like to cause his rivals, as I have discussed elsewhere (Boyd 1985/2001, 168-74), but also in terms simply of her being a rival of his for Ada’s sexual energy.
Johnny suffers damage himself from his relationship with Ada.

“After a year or so she found out that an old pederast kept him and she dismissed him, and he shot himself
on a beach at high tide but surfers and surgeons saved him, and now his brain is damaged; he will never
be able to speak.”
            “One can always fall back on mutes,” said Van gloomily. “He could act the speechless eunuch in
‘Stambul, my bulbul’ or the stable boy disguised as a kennel girl who brings a letter.” (381)

Notice that just before Van professes to be unruffled by Lucette’s account of her lesbian romps with Ada, even though he has already seethed at the idea of either Johnny or Lucette conjoined with Ada, Ada had dismissed her new lover for his homosexual relationship, and Johnny has tried to take his own life in the ocean—a clear prefiguration of Lucette’s fate.
Van’s reaction to Johnny proves to be saturated with echoes of his rage at his earlier rivals. His brutally unsympathetic “One can always fall back on mutes” response to Johnny’s fate suggests that the verbal rage he had already expressed in his outburst against “simultaneous twins” might have resulted in a duel, had Johnny not already been damaged, just as he would have sought to thrash Rack and duel Percy de Prey had Rack not been poisoned and had Percy not been killed in the Crimean War. Indeed, in his next reflection, Van links Percy, Rack, Johnny, and himself, wounded in his duel with Tapper, as victims of Ada’s desires: “that was really not bad: bringing down three in as many years—besides winging a fourth. Jolly good shot—Adiana! Wonder whom she’ll bag next” (381-82).
But Van’s “One can always fall back on mutes” already touches on the duel theme in multiple ways. Johnny’s full name, it will turn out, is Johnny Starling; he plays the role of Skvortsov (Starling) in Chekhov’s Four Sisters (430), whose only task, if the play matches our planet’s Three Sisters, is to call from offstage for Baron Tuzenbakh, for whom he is acting as second, to come for what will prove to be his fatal duel. Since Johnny’s injury makes him speechless, even the one tiny contribution he had to make to the Chekhov play is now beyond him.
Back in Ardis the Second Van had begun to suspect Ada’s absences were assignations to meet a still unknown lover. On Ada’s return from what she has claimed was a gynecological consultation, “She smelled of tobacco, either because (as she said) she had spent an hour in a compartment for smokers, or had smoked (she added) a cigarette or two herself in the doctor’s waiting room, or else because (and this she did not say) her unknown lover was a heavy smoker, his open red mouth full of rolling blue fog” (234). Van’s last comment in this scene echoes Tuzenbakh’s last words in Chekhov’s play, after Skvortsov’s calls from offstage: “Tuzenbakh, not knowing what to say: ‘I have not had coffee today. Tell them to make me some.’ Quickly walks away” (235).
Van would learn soon enough after this 1888 scene that Ada’s trysts were with Percy de Prey. In 1892 his gruesomely callous response to Lucette’s report of Johnny’s attempted suicide, “He could act the speechless eunuch in ‘Stambul, my bulbul’” connects in multiple ways with Percy, who becomes associated not just with tobacco but specifically with Turkish tobacco; on his way to the Crimean War Percy has to pass through Turkey’s capital, Istanbul (old “Stambul”); the “stable boy disguised as a kennel girl who brings a letter” reflects directly the messenger Percy sends the day after his fight with Van at Ada’s birthday picnic with an inquiry as to whether Van wishes a duel with him (283-84). Van does not, only because he does not yet know of Percy’s affair with Ada.
He finds that out soon enough, but not before learning that Ada has also had an affair with Philip Rack. If we return to the Kingston scene, to a moment before “Stambul my bulbul,” to Van’s odd aside in his explosion against “simultaneous twins,” we notice a second curious point:

“Ah, that cannot be,” interrupted morose Van and after rocking this side and that with clenched hands and
furrowed brow (how one would like to apply a boiling-water-soaked Wattebausch, as poor Rack used to call
her limp arpeggiation, to that ripe pimple on his right temple), “that simply cannot be. No damned twin can
do that. . . . ” (380).

The parenthetical pimple has never been mentioned before and will never be mentioned again, and it seems a curious digression at a moment of such emotional intensity. But in fact it is very much to the painful point. Van’s sudden sense of a tender bump at the side of his forehead, a ripe pimple he would like to pop with the help of boiling-water-soaked cottonwool, is a comically naturalistic version of the old symbol of the cuckold’s horns: as soon as Van hears of Johnny, he feels he has new horns sprouting. As he himself says to Cordula years later, in a very different mood, after gleefully cuckolding her husband: “Tell him to look out for low lintels. Antlers can be very sensitive when new” (458). In Ardis the Second Van had felt horrified enough at the horns that sprang up, as it were, when he heard of Ada’s infidelities with Rack; they swelled into the antlers he sensed when he also learned about Percy; and they sprout new tines when he hears of Johnny.
After Van’s outburst on simultaneous twins, Lucette clarifies:

“I only meant,” she continued, “that he was a handsome Hispano-Irish boy, dark and pale, and people mistook
them for twins. I did not say they were really twins. Or ‘driblets.’ “
            Driblets? Driplets? Now who pronounced it that way? Who? Who? A dripping ewes-dropper in a dream?
Did the orphans live? But we must listen to Lucette. (381)

“Driblets” and “Driplets” immediately prompts the good reader to answer Van’s silent question “Now who pronounced it that way?” with the name “Philip Rack” (see 202). The “dripping ewes-dropper in a dream” suggests Rack’s wife, giving birth to triplets (sheep have litters of one to three lambs), but also using a dropper to poison her husband. The “orphans” in “Did the orphans live?” emphasizes almost gloatingly that both Rack and his wife have died—as indeed have the miscarried children.

At this point, Lucette reports on Johnny’s suicide attempt, and his never being able to speak, and Van retorts with his “Stambul my bulbul” and “stable boy disguised as a kennel girl” comments, directed by his fast-moving mind at the shadow of Percy de Prey as much as at the new sting of Ada’s latest lover.

Lucette and Cordula, Virgins and Whores, Rivals and Cuckolds

The duel theme is not yet over. Van calms down after venting his indignation at Johnny, Lucette, and Ada in the outburst on simultaneous twins, and the thought- and speech-barbs he directs at Johnny, Rack, and Percy. He responds to Lucette’s questions about her and Ada, “Are you horrified, Van? Do you loathe us?” with his “‘On the contrary,’ . . . bringing off a passable imitation of bawdy mirth. ‘Had I not been a heterosexual male, I would have been a Lesbian’” (382), and even invites Lucette to visit him at his Manhattan flat. Cordula steps to the fore again.

“Will you come for a few days? I promise to behave properly. All right?”
            “My notion of propriety may not be the same as yours. And what about Cordula de Prey?
She won’t mind?”
             “The apartment is mine,” said Van, “and besides, Cordula is now Mrs. Ivan G. Tobak. They are
making follies in Florence. Here’s her last postcard. Portrait of Vladimir Christian of Denmark, who,
she claims, is the dead spit of her Ivan Giovanovich. . . . His ancestor,” Van pattered on, “was the famous
or fameux Russian admiral who had an épée duel with Jean Nicot and after whom the Tobago Islands, or
the Tobakoff Islands, are named, I forget which. . . . ” (383)

Again, the duel theme, this time in Cordula’s husband’s family prehistory. Ivan Giovannovich Tobak pointedly evokes Giovanni Caboto, aka Jean Cabot, aka John Cabot, the first European explorer of North America after the Vinelander voyages. His surname is a palindrome of Kabot (his name in Russian transliteration), and the later lines “The Veens speak only to Tobaks / But Tobaks speak only to dogs” (456.17-18) confirm the connection, parodying John Collins Bossidy’s famous lines: “Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, / And the Cabots talk only to God” (see 456.17-18n.)
Before and after this exchange at Kingston about Cordula and her new husband, and connected with it, Cordula and Lucette share a theme that highlights the parallel and sharp contrast between them. When Van meets Ada at Brownhill in 1884, with Cordula as chaperone, and his visions of Cordula coupling with Ada trigger his venting about Proust and heterosexual male responses to a “girl’s frolics with a female partner” (169), they are in a railway station café:         

The railway station had a semi-private tearoom supervised by the stationmaster’s wife under the school’s idiotic
auspices. It was empty, save for a slender lady in black velvet, wearing a beautiful black velvet picture hat, who
sat with her back to them at a “tonic bar” and never once turned her head, but the thought brushed him that she was
a cocotte from Toulouse. (169)

When Van storms away from Ardis in 1888, furious at his rivals and wanting to lash out at Philip Rack, the more accessible of the two, he finds himself in a railway tea-car with Cordula. He declares that two months ago, when he last saw her, she had “grown lovely and languorous. You are even lovelier now. Cordula is no longer a virgin!” (303), and caresses her under the table. Shocked at his blunt approach in 1884, Cordula had then said she didn’t “date hoodlums” (165), but now in 1888 she would happily welcome his hand under the table if she didn’t have “womenses” (303). The contrast between Van’s livid jealousy of Percy de Prey, whom he has learned about that morning, and his sense he is entitled to proposition or paw at Cordula de Prey, could not be starker. Van stops at Kalugano, to thrash Rack, but as he gets off the train his anger embroils him in a contretemps with Captain Tapper. Tapper’s homosexuality emphasizes his irrelevance to Van’s seething jealousy, but links pointedly with Van’s outburst at the Brownhill railway station café in 1884 against the Cordula he suspected of lesbian romps with Ada. That night in Kalugano, on the eve of the duel with Tapper, Van dines in a chance restaurant:

At the far end of the room, on one of the red stools of the burning bar, a graceful harlot in black—tight bodice,
wide skirt, long black gloves, black-velvet picture hat—was sucking a golden drink through a straw. In the mirror
behind the bar, amid colored glints, he caught a blurred glimpse of her russety blond beauty; he thought he might
sample her later on, but when he glanced again she had gone. (307)

This second instance of the woman in the black-velvet picture hat primes us for the third and culminating instance, Lucette at a bar in Paris, in a position echoing Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous poster for the Divan japonais cabaret. Van encounters Lucette there just after having met Greg Erminin and heard that he was “absolyutno bezumno (madly) in love with your cousin!” (454). For a second, Van flares as if ready to call Greg out to a duel, only to learn from him the next moment that Ada did not even know of his adoration. Minutes later Van bumps into Cordula, and quickly propositions her. She is married, of course: again, the sharp juxtaposition of Van’s sense of his own proprietary rights to Ada, and his sense that another woman’s husband’s rights count for nothing. Cordula’s show of indignation to match her 1884 “I don’t date hoodlums” soon gives way to something closer to her 1888 compliance. Note the terms of Van’s propositioning:

           “ . . . I have an urgent request. Will you cooperate with me in cornuting your husband? It’s a must!”
            “Really, Van!” exclaimed angry Cordula. “You go a bit far. I’m a happy wife. My Tobachok adores me.
We’d have ten children by now if I’d not been careful with him and others.”
             “You’ll be glad to learn that this other has been found utterly sterile.” (456-57)
Van persists, and Cordula becomes as willing as she had been in 1888. They head to a drab hotel across the street. Van comments:

        “ . . . I’ve never seen you on a hobbyhorse yet, because that’s what tout confort promises—and not much else.”
. . . Astraddle, she resembled a child braving her first merry-go-round. She made a rectangular moue as she used
that vulgar contraption. Sad, sullen streetwalkers do it with expressionless faces, lips tightly closed. She rode it
twice. Their brisk nub and its repetition lasted fifteen minutes, not five. . . .
      " Au revoir. You’re a very bad boy and I’m a very bad girl. But it was fun—even though you’ve been speaking to me not as you would to a lady frien"d but as you probably do to little whores. . . . ” (457-58)

Van does indeed treat Cordula as a whore. But he also offers her the Manhattan apartment that once was hers, and which he no longer needs, “as a belated wedding present from an admirer” (457). She accepts, he tells her he is traveling back to Manhattan on his “favorite liner, Admiral Tobakoff,” and, since the name brings the admiral’s descendant Tobak to mind,Van advises her to tell her husband “‘to look out for low lintels. Antlers can be very sensitive when new. Greg Erminin tells me that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four?’ ‘That’s right. . . . ’” (458). Van promptly heads for Lucette’s hotel, and, as he waits, “Van’s eye over his umbrella crook traveled around a carousel of Sapsucker paperbacks (with that wee striped woodpecker on every spine): The Gitanilla, Salzman, Salzman, Salzman, Invitation to a Climax, Squirt, The Go-go Gang, The Threshold of Pain, The Chimes of Chose, The Gitanilla” (459). In the hotel bar, “that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent—at least, unescorted,” he sees Lucette in a “floppy hat of black faille. . . [a] picture hat” (460-61).
The juxtaposition of Cordula and Lucette here in Paris shows the strong contrast in Van’s behavior, between treating Cordula, whom he had asked on meeting her years ago, was she a virgin, and Lucette, whose allure he recognizes, whom he asks now, in Paris, “Are you still half-a-martyr—I mean half-a-virgin?”—she replies “A quarter. . . . Oh, try me, Van! My divan is black with yellow cushions” (464)—but whose sexual invitations he continues to reject.
Back at Kingston, near the end of Lucette’s visit, Van’s explanation that the Manhattan apartment he has invited her to is now his, that Cordula has just married Ivan Giovanovich Tobak, that Tobak’s ancestor was the famous Russian admiral who had a duel with Jean Nicot “and after whom the Tobago Islands, or the Tobakoff Islands, are named” (383), all point forward to the transition between, and the contrast of, Cordula and Lucette in III.2-III.3, and the pattern of linkage between Cordula and the “cocotte from Toulouse” in a picture hat at Brownhill in 1884, the 1888 encounter with Cordula on the train to Kalugano and the woman in the picture hat in the Kalugano restaurant, and 1901 in Paris, Cordula treated as a whore, then Lucette in the picture hat in “that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent—at least unescorted,”
The pattern involves several elements:
(1) “the famous Van Question,” first asked of Cordula, “Are you a virgin?,” which Lucette brings up at Kingston (sparking Van’s memory of the paperback carrousel) and answers in the affirmative;
(2) Van’s jealousy of Cordula’s supposed lesbian frolics with Ada, despite his insisting that the idea only rouses his imagination, and his similar jealousy of Lucette’s actual lesbian frolics with Ada, again despite his “passable imitation of bawdy mirth” (382);
(3) the evidence of Van’s sexual double standards, tightly juxtaposed around
Cordula: his fury at his rivals for Ada (Percy and Rack, on his mind in the train to Kalugano, in 1888; his momentary rival Greg, in Paris, in 1901) and yet his freedom to avail himself of any female he wishes, such as no-longer-virginal Cordula;
(4) the depth of Van’s jealous anger, even at Lucette’s romps with Ada, despite his denial of jealousy, and the references, surrounding her disclosure, to his male rivals, with Johnny now added to Percy de Prey and Rack;
(5) the links between the damage he would like to inflict in each case on his rivals and the damage he will cause Lucette through both his playing on her affections and his restraint, so different from his brusque advances to unbreakable Cordula.

Cordula is no lesbian in 1884, and no virgin in 1888, and behaves, to Van’s amusement and delight, almost like a whore in Paris in 1901; Lucette does make love with Ada, but remains “technically” a virgin, in 1884, 1888, 1892, 1901, despite calling herself at Kingston in 1892 “a kokotische virgin, half poule, half puella” (372), despite being alone in a bawdy bar in Paris in 1901, echoing the earlier cocottes in black picture hats,and despite her renewed invitation to Van to have her, a quarter virgin, on her Paris divan, and on board the Tobakoff.

Nabokov stresses the differences personality makes in matters of love and sex: Cordula’s robust, untroubled availability; Lucette’s anguished fixation on Van, thanks in part to his playing on her emotions, and her determination to lose her virginity only to him, despite her too-early sexual initiation by her siblings, and despite the sexual need awakened in her especially by Ada; Ada’s overflowing and heedless sexual energy, sometimes combined with an element of pity, sometimes with near-pitilessness; Van’s mixture of (a) fierce emotional loyalty to Ada and fierce resentment of her infidelities, contrasted with (b) his own gleeful infidelities to Ada, his glee compounded for him by the spice of adultery, and (c) his physical arousal and behavioral restraint toward Lucette, despite his partial indulgence—like his invitation to her, at the end of the Kingston chapter so focused on the clitoris, to gauge the arousal of his penis: “you may brush it once very lightly, with the knuckles of your gloved hand. I said knuckles, I said once. That will do. I can’t kiss you” (387).

As if to close the loop since Lucette raised and answered in the affirmative “the famous Van question” near the start of her visit to Kingston, prompting him to recall the revolving bookstand where he first asked Cordula was she a virgin, Lucette near the end of her visit asks Van to read the letter she has brought from Ada while she borrows a book—she scans “on the nearest bookshelf The Gitanilla, Clichy Clichés, Mertvago Forever, The Ugly New Englander” (383), three of these on the bookshop carrousel where Van first put his signature question to Cordula. Van has stalled and resisted Lucette’s allures and invitations and imitations of Ada through her whole visit, despite being so stirred by her charms, both seen and unseen but searingly imagined. But when he reads that Ada will marry an unpromising Valentinian rival if he spurns her “wish to come and live with you, wherever you are, for ever and ever” (384-85) he immediately springs into action, drafting a note instructing Ada to join him the very next morning in Manhattan. Lucette will leave to take his message to Ada, still the real maid at his window, still able to answer the Van question in the affirmative. She can stroke Van’s erection, as she had stroked and been stroked by Ada, but she is offered no more, not even a kiss, whereas Ada, after years of letters unanswered by Van, can now hope for not only a return to their old passion but to a lifetime of love.

Letters and Messages

This brings us to the strangest thread in the Kingston chapter: the insistent patterning of letters and messages, and their relation to letters and messages elsewhere in Ada. Lucette visits Van to bring Ada’s latest letter, and carries away Van’s reply to Ada. Van happens to be living in Voltemand Hall, named after, as Lucette recognizes, a minor character in Hamlet, a courtier and letter-carrier, who takes a message from King Claudius of Denmark to the King of Norway, in 1.2, and brings a message back to Claudius in 2.2, just a few lines before Polonius, eager to show Claudius and Gertrude that the cause of Hamlet’s madness is his thwarted love for Ophelia, reads out to them from one of Hamlet’s letters to Ophelia: “Doubt thou the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love. O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu. Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him, Hamlet” (2.2.116-25).

Almost all of this letter, from the quatrain and “O dear Ophelia” on, finds its echo in Ada II.5: “O dear Ophelia” in the opening of Ada’s letter to Van, “O dear Van” (384); “I am ill at these numbers,” Van’s comment on the quatrain forming in his head (“back to the ardors and arbors! Eros qui prend son essor! Arts that our marblery harbors: Eros, the rose and the sore” (367)), as he waits for Lucette after her phone call asking if she can bring him “an important message” (366); “I have not art to reckon my groans” (378), Van’s comment to himself, after asking himself “When will this torture end?” as Lucette leads slowly into the theme of the clitoris by way of the “minuscule red pawn” Van found in the Ardis library scrutoir; and “Adieu, yours ever” (379) from Lucette’s reminding Van about the KLITOR Flavita game, apparently from her “rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter” (366) incorporated by Van as narrator into the dialogue of the Kingston scene, as is also indicated in the paragraph before the “adieu, yours ever”: “[The epithetic tone strongly suggests that this speech has an epistolary source. Ed.]” (378). After Lucette’s “adieu, yours ever,” now as part of the dialogue, Van says “Whilst the machine is to him,” continuing Hamlet’s sign-off in his letter to Ophelia, and Lucette orally finishes the letter off, with “Hamlet,” the character’s signature. The “Thine evermore” in Hamlet’s letter is echoed only approximately by Lucette’s “yours ever,” but Ada’s letter (after declaring her wish “to come and live with you, wherever you are, for ever and ever”) ends: “Tvoya, tvoya, tvoya (thine).” (385)

This is all extraordinarily strange: the varied incorporation of a continuous section of a letter within Hamlet, with contributions from Van, Lucette, and Ada, and from thoughts, verse, dialogue, letters, and letters presented as dialogue; with contributions from a letter Lucette wrote to Van in 1891, a letter Ada has just written in 1892, and dialogue uttered marginally later in 1892, and thoughts either entertained at the time of the dialogue or recorded only later in the narrator’s rendition of those thoughts, as Van composes his memoir in his “last ten years of existence” (576), 1957-1967.

Compounding the strangeness is the fact that “Voltemand” is the nom de plume Van chose for his novel Letters from Terra, published in 1891, a year before he obtains rooms at Voltemand Hall, Kingston University, and that Letters from Terra concerns messages sent from Terra, thought by some to be a “Next World” (20), to Antiterra, whose “annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents” (341). Perhaps particularly strange is that Lucette—whose letter and speech, full of sexual innuendo, Van defines as “punning in an Ophelian frenzy” (394)—will, like Ophelia, drown for love, and will write a letter to Van in Kingston (146, 478), in case her ploy to seduce him on the Tobakoff does not succeed, and she feels she has to take her own life. As indeed she does, so that only after her death will Van in Kingston in 1901 read her letter to him, with its record of a poem she was once coaxed by him to learn, while he and Ada made love: a poem about a ghost talking to a mortal.

And compounding things still further is that not only letters in the sense of epistles but also letters of the alphabet feature prominently in the Kingston chapter, especially around the Flavita game Lucette recalls, apparently in a letter to Van, incorporated into the dialogue. Lucette reminds Van that she “got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game” (379), letters that indeed spell out, when reordered as they are by Van, KLITOR, Russian for “clitoris.” This very pointedly takes us back to the last round of another Flavita game, indeed the last the three children ever play (227), whose story begins with twelve-year-old Lucette wailing “je ne peux rien faire . . . mais rien—with my idiotic Buchstaben, REMNILK, LINKREM” (227). In the sentence before this we learn that “because Van took some notes in the hope—not quite unfulfilled—of ‘catching sight of the lining of time’ (which, as he was later to write, is ‘the best informal definition of portents and prophecies’), . . . the last round of that particular game remained vividly clear in his mind” (227).

Lucette brings to Van at Kingston a letter from Ada that against all the odds—Van has refused to respond to her letters for four years now—restores Van and Ada’s love and sets them up as a couple for the first time, “for ever and ever” (384-85), in the hopeful entreaty in Ada’s letter. Their cosy set-up will be smashed, in fact, when Demon stumbles on them living together, at the end of Part 2 of Ada. But they will meet again after Demon’s death in 1905 in Mont Roux, in “the highest ridge of their twenty-one-year-old love: its complicated, dangerous, ineffably radiant coming of age” (521), in a way that Lucette’s spirit seems to orchestrate in part (for the evidence, see BB, “Lucette late in Ada,” forthcoming, Nabokov Studies 17, 2021). And they will have their love restored again, and set up as a couple “for ever and ever,” or at least for the forty-five years until their death, at the end of Part 4 of the novel, at the end of Van’s treatise The Texture of Time, again, against all the apparent odds. For when they meet in Mont Roux in 1922 they find each other, despite a first flush of excitement at an apparent retrieval of time, distanced by their aging, the long years they have lived apart, and their lack of connection; Ada proffers a weak excuse and heads back to Geneva to fly away from Van forever. But she changes her mind near Morges, and returns to the Trois Cygnes hotel, where Van sees her the next morning, just as he is thinking about jumping down to his death, in a way that brings all their past and their passion back, and that leads to their life and love being restored “for ever and ever.” As I have argued elsewhere, Nabokov provides enough evidence for us to infer that the ghost of Lucette, drowned in the Atlantic, somehow provides the “mermaid’s message” that makes Ada change her mind and return to Mont Roux, Van, and a new life together (Boyd 1985/2001: 202-210, 248-50; Boyd 2021). But the Kingston chapter, with Lucette bringing the decisive letter from Ada to revive their love and initiate their life together, and its strange emphasis on letters and messages, with the Ophelia soon to be drowned at their focus, prefigures the even more surprising turnaround, the even more surprising message, at the end of The Texture of Time.

Strengthening the structural link between these two chapters is that here in II.5, at Kingston, we see Van at work on his philosophy of time—he answers a call from his typist about the spelling of Bergson’s “durée”—in a way not focused on again until The Texture of Time itself. And indeed the role of this typist and the editor of Van’s manuscript of Ada, never more intrusive than in this chapter, add weight to another surprising conclusion Nabokov seems to wish us to draw: that Lucette’s spirit not only induces Van and Ada to resume their love and life together in 1922, but that in 1957 and after she inspires Van to write his memoir, Ada, celebrating their life together (Boyd 1985/2001: 210-19, 251-52).

Editor and Typist

Another strange part of the insistent and manifold “letters” theme in II.5 is the role of the editor of Van’s typescript of Ada itself, and of the typist Van dictates to in the middle of the scene.

The editor of the manuscript of Van’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Ronald Oranger, intervenes very rarely in Ada’s text, but conscientiously notes his interventions, usually in square brackets, about once every forty pages. Only in II.5 do his would-be modest interventions feature often and almost jarringly: in the second paragraph: “Van Veen [as also, in his small way, the editor of Ada] liked to change his abode at the end of a section or chapter or even paragraph” (365); in the fourth: “In the fall of 1891 she had sent him from California a rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter, which shall not be discussed in this memoir [See, however, a little farther. Ed.].” (366); a third of the way through the chapter: “‘Van, it will make you smile’ [thus in the MS. Ed.]. ‘Van,’ said Lucette, ‘it will make you smile’ (it did not: that prediction is seldom fulfilled),” (371); a few pages later: “‘I hated to sleep alone in the corner room assigned to me, even if I did not put out the pink night-light of porcelain with the transparency picture of a lost lamb, because I was afraid of the cougars and snakes’ [quite possibly, this is not remembered speech but an extract from her letter or letters. Ed.]” (374); a few lines later: “Well [here, it would seem, taped speech is re-turned-on]” (375); and another few pages on: “‘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.]” (378). In all cases but one, the editor’s comments are occasioned by Lucette’s long letter to Van and its inclusion within the dialogue of the scene.
In the middle of the chapter and scene, “as in a well-constructed play larded with comic relief, the brass campophone buzzed and not only did the radiators start to cluck but the uncapped soda water fizzed in sympathy” (376). In a polyphonic comedy of crossed messages and burbling hydrophones, soda water, making water, flushing water, Van’s typist Polly phones, asking for clarification of his current manuscript. She is no polyglot: she knows French, she says, but not scientific French; she reads Van’s allusion to Bergson’s “la durée” as what Van hears as “l’adorée,” so that he has to spell it out, once he recognizes its context, as D, U, R. This spelling out of capitalized letters will be followed shortly, in the second phase of the scene, by Lucette’s account of her LIKROT or ROTIKL Flavita game, presented as dialogue but prefaced by the Editor’s strong suggestion “that this speech has an epistolary source” (378).
I have argued elsewhere (Boyd 1985/2001: 210-19, 251-52) that Part Five Chapter Four of Ada, which describes Van’s scholarly production and team (his personal secretary Ronald Oranger and the typist of his last ten years, “Violet Knox [now Mrs. Ronald Oranger. Ed.]” (576)) and especially the origin and composition of Ada itself, suggests that Lucette, from beyond death, has inspired Van, partly through Ronald Oranger and Violet Knox, to

write his memoirs—to be published posthumously.
            He was a very slow writer. It took him six years to write the first draft and dictate it to Miss Knox,
after which he revised the typescript, rewrote it entirely in long hand (1963-1965) and redictated the entire
thing to indefatigable Violet, whose pretty fingers tapped out a final copy in 1967. E, p, i—why “y,” my dear?

Here, as in the Kingston chapter, Van spells out three letters to his typist. The “E, p, i” refers to the previous paragraph, where Van, in discussion with Ada and “Mr. Oranger (a born catalyzer)” (578), realizes that his works “were not epistemic tasks set to himself by a savant, but buoyant and bellicose exercises in literary style. He was asked why, then, did he not let himself go, why did he not choose a big playground for a match between Inspiration and Design” (578), in the form of his memoirs. Notice the “scientific” term, “epistemic,” a little too difficult for typist Violet, and the corrective “E, p, i.” In the Editor’s (Oranger’s) note before Lucette’s mention of the Buchstaben she was left with in the last round of the KLITOR Flavita game, he writes “The epithetic tone strongly suggests that this speech has an epistolary source”: a double “e, p, i” in a vocabulary quite unlike Van’s or VN’s (“epithetic” occurs nowhere else in Nabokov, to my knowledge, and “epistolary” only in the obligate technical sense, to refer to the epistolary novel, in The Gift, once, and in the Eugene Onegin commentary).  

Polly, Van’s Kingston “typist, a trivial but always available blonde” (377), shares her hair color and appeal with Van’s last typist, Violet Knox, “an enchanting English blonde with doll eyes, a velvet carnation and a tweed-cupped little rump [. . . . .]; but such designs, alas, could no longer flesh my fancy” (576). Polly intervenes between Lucette’s two set-pieces on the clitoris, through which Lucette introduces her romps with Ada; sixty years later Ada “allowed herself the luxury of admiring ‘little Violet’ ’s cameo neck, pink nostrils, and fair pony-tail. Sometimes, at dinner, lingering over the liqueurs, my Ada would consider my typist (a great lover of Koo-Ahn-Trow) with a dreamy gaze, and then, quick-quick, peck at her flushed cheek. The situation might have been considerably more complicated had it arisen twenty years earlier” (576). And note that Violet’s French seems on a par with Polly’s.

Given the “D, U, R” that Van spells out to Polly, and the “blonde,” Nabokov seems to be establishing a strong connection between Polly and Violet. He also establishes a strong connection between Lucette and Violet, through Ada’s lesbian interest in both (so far as we know, Ada seems unattracted by any other women in the course of her life), and through the three words Van has to spell out or correct in his account of Lucette’s death:

Although Lucette had never died before—no, dived before, Violet—from such a height, . . . Owing to the
tumultuous swell and her not being sure which way to peer through the spray and the darkness and her own
tentaclinging hair—t,a,c,l—she could not make out the lights of the liner. . . . Now I’ve lost my next note.
            Got it.
The sky was also heartless and dark, and her body, her head, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers,
felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. (493-94)

Not only the spelling but the mention of “Violet” and “Nox, n,o,x” very pointedly implicate Violet at the moment of Lucette’s fatal jump. The “t,a,c,l” of the lovely if heart-wrenching coinage “tentaclinging” comes back in what for Nabokov’s good readers is an extremely loaded way, on the night before Van’s first tryst with Ada after Lucette’s death:

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. Somebody said, wheeling a table nearby: “It’s one of the Vane sisters,” and he awoke murmuring with
professional appreciation the oneiric word-play combining his name and surname, and plucked out the wax
plugs, and, in a marvelous act of rehabilitation and link-up, the breakfast table clanked from the corridor across
the threshold of the adjacent room, and, already munching and honey-crumbed, Ada entered his bedchamber. (520-21)

The ‘t,a,c,l” spelled out in the account of Lucette’s death recurs in the dream as “the talc of a tropical beach,” which, with the rubbing of “the red, irritated shaft of a writhing boy” among the sun-baskers echoes Van’s arousal as he and Lucette sunbathe by the pool on the Tobakoff (“he felt the stout snake of desire weightily unwind,” 478). Van can understand “one of the Vane sisters” only as “oneiric word-play combining his name and surname,” but readers of Nabokov’s story “The Vane Sisters” know that the paragraph describing the dream that ends that story spells out, is dictated even, by the two dead Vane sisters who have led the narrator during the previous day to the place where he will learn of Cynthia Vane’s death, and have even signed themselves acrostically into his life, his dream, and his text, without his awareness. The “one of the Vane sisters” surely implicated here is Sybil, who, like Lucette, takes her own life after rejection by the man she loves.
Another important connection between Violet and Lucette is knocking. Van plays on Violet’s name: “Violet knocks at the library door and lets in plump, short, bow-tied Mr. Oranger” (577). Lucette manages to knock comically at key moments in Van and Ada’s reunions: interrupting their first clinch at Ardis the Second (“the door had come alive: two small fists could be heard drumming upon it from the outside, in a rhythm both knew well,” 190), and interrupting their first intercourse on the morning of their Manhattan reunion (“Van emitted a long groan of deliverance, and now their four eyes were looking again into the azure brook of Pinedale, and Lucette pushed the door open with a perfunctory knuckle knock and stopped, mesmerized by the sight of Van’s hairy rear and the dreadful scar all along his left side,” 392-93). It can be no accident that in the Kingston scene Lucette also knocks, just before Van spells out the letters D, U, R to Polly on the polliphone:

He poured himself another glass of brandy and for a ridiculous moment could not remember what the hell he
had been—yes, the polliphone.
            It had died, but buzzed as soon as he recradled the receiver, and Lucette knocked discreetly at the same time.
            “La durée . . . For goodness sake, come in without knocking . . . No, Polly, knocking does not concern
you—it’s my little cousin. All right. La durée is not synonymous with duration, being saturated—yes, as in Saturday
—with that particular philosopher’s thought. What’s wrong now? You don’t know if it’s dorée or durée? D, U, R.
I thought you knew French. Oh, I see. So long.
            “My typist, a trivial but always available blonde, could not make out durée in my quite legible hand because,
she says, she knows French, but not scientific French.”
            “Actually,” observed Lucette, wiping the long envelope which a drop of soda had stained, “Bergson is only for
very young people or very unhappy people, such as this available rousse.” (376-77)

Notice how Lucette’s knocking implicates the typist, here, by Van’s speaking to Lucette after having started to dictate to Polly, then having to explain to Polly that “knocking does not concern you.” The “available blonde . . . available rousse” echo tightens the pattern. Although Polly features in only this one short subscene and is never “on stage,” visibly or even audibly, Nabokov takes the trouble to link her with both Lucette and Violet, and with dictating to a typist—including the typist of Ada itself—in letters (D, U, R; tentaclinging hair—t,a,c,l; n,o,x; E, p, i) that he also links with the Vane sisters’ dictating their strange message from beyond to the narrator of their story.

The Polly-on-the-polliphone intermezzo between Lucette’s twin circumnavigations of the word “clitoris” or krestik (the minuscule red pawn and the KLITOR in the Flavita game) interrupts the present Kingston scene but seems to look a long way into Ada’s future.

The whole Kingston scene, with Lucette’s account of her depravation by Ada, her attempt to seduce Van, Van’s strong arousal by Lucette, but his refusal to succumb to her temptation, prepare for Van and Ada’s reunion the next day in Manhattan, prefigure the débauche à trois scene a week later—the last time the Veen children will ever be together—and Lucette’s last despairing day with Van aboard the Tobakoff. There at last her persistence seems to have worn down Van’s resistance, only for Ada to step forward, on screen, as she steps forward, at last, by the letter Lucette has brought, into this Kingston scene, to dash Lucette’s hopes. And at the same time by introducing two new rivals to Van for Ada’s sexual energies, Lucette herself and Johnny, and linking them to Cordula, Percy, and Rack, the chapter shows again the complexities and hypocrisies of Van’s hypersexual conduct: his fierce and potentially violent pangs of jealousy and his total indifference to the jealousy he might cause in others, his exploiting Lucette’s affections and responding to her charms in ways that doom even his uncharacteristic but incomplete restraint (“You may gauge it, you may brush it very lightly, with the knuckles of your gloved hand. I said knuckles. I said once”) to be only another way of damaging her.


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