Knabenkräuter & Wunderkinder in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 08/18/2018 - 11:21

Describing Kim Beauharnais’ album, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the Knabenkräuter and other pendants of Ada’s lovers:


Nonchalantly, Van went back to the willows and said:

‘Every shot in the book has been snapped in 1884, except this one. I never rowed you down Ladore River in early spring. Nice to note you have not lost your wonderful ability to blush.’

‘It’s his error. He must have thrown in a fotochka taken later, maybe in 1888. We can rip it out if you like.’

‘Sweetheart,’ said Van, ‘the whole of 1888 has been ripped out. One need not be a sleuth in a mystery story to see that at least as many pages have been removed as retained. I don’t mind — I mean I have no desire to see the Knabenkräuter and other pendants of your friends botanizing with you; but 1888 has been withheld and he’ll turn up with it when the first grand is spent.’ (2.7)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Knabenkräuter: Germ., orchids (and testicles).


Van calls Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis who spies on Van and Ada and attempts to blackmail Ada) “Bewhorny:”


Sunrise at Ardis. Congs: naked Van still cocooned in his hammock under the ‘lidderons’ as they called in Ladore the liriodendrons, not exactly a lit d’édredon, though worth an auroral pun and certainly conducive to the physical expression of a young dreamer’s fancy undisguised by the network.

‘Congratulations,’ repeated Van in male language. ‘The first indecent postcard. Bewhorny, no doubt, has a blown-up copy in his private stock.’ (ibid.)


Knabenkräuter and Bewhorny bring to mind Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn,” 1805-08), a collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano. In 1811 Brentano’s sister Bettina married von Arnim and in 1835 published her (in large part fictitious) book Goethes Briefwechsel mit einem Kinde (Goethe's Correspondence with a Child). Describing a game of Flavita (Russian Scrabble) that they played in “Ardis the First,” Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette calls Van and Ada “two Wunderkinder:”


'- I got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game. Mind you, I was eight and had not studied anatomy, but was doing my poor little best to keep up with two Wunderkinder. You examined and fingered my groove and quickly redistributed the haphazard sequence which made, say, LIKROT or ROTIKL and Ada flooded us both with her raven silks as she looked over our heads, and when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously, si je puis le mettre comme ça (Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment; so finally I quietly composed ROTIK ('little mouth') and was left with my own cheap initial. I hope I've thoroughly got you mixed up, Van, because la plus laide fille au monde peut donner beaucoup plus qu'elle n'a, and now let us say adieu, yours ever.'

'Whilst the machine is to him,' murmured Van.

'Hamlet,' said the assistant lecturer's brightest student. (2.5)


Lucette’s six Buchstaben (Germ., letters of the alphabet) form the Russian word klitor (clitoris). German for “clitoris” is Kitzler. In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) one of Quilty’s aliases is ‘Dr Kitzler, Eryx, Miss.:’


An ordinary encyclopedia informed me who the peculiar looking “Phineas Quimby, Lebanon, NH” was; and any good Freudian, with a German name and some interest in religious prostitution, should recognize at a glance the implication of “Dr. Kitzler, Eryx, Miss.” (2.23)


According to Van, Ada had read a three-volume History of Prostitution at the age of ten or eleven, between Hamlet and Captain Grant’s Microgalaxies:


It would not be sufficient to say that in his love-making with Ada he discovered the pang, the ogon’, the agony of supreme ‘reality.’ Reality, better say, lost the quotes it wore like claws — in a world where independent and original minds must cling to things or pull things apart in order to ward off madness or death (which is the master madness). For one spasm or two, he was safe. The new naked reality needed no tentacle or anchor; it lasted a moment, but could be repeated as often as he and she were physically able to make love. The color and fire of that instant reality depended solely on Ada’s identity as perceived by him. It had nothing to do with virtue or the vanity of virtue in a large sense — in fact it seemed to Van later that during the ardencies of that summer he knew all along that she had been, and still was, atrociously untrue to him — just as she knew long before he told her that he had used off and on, during their separation, the live mechanisms tense males could rent for a few minutes as described, with profuse woodcuts and photographs, in a three-volume History of Prostitution which she had read at the age of ten or eleven, between Hamlet and Captain Grant’s Microgalaxies. (1.35)


In the same chapter Van says that neither he, nor Ada had remained the brash Wunderkind of 1884:


Neither had remained the brash Wunderkind of 1884, but in bookish knowledge both surpassed their coevals to an even more absurd extent than in childhood; and in formal terms Ada (born on July 21, 1872) had already completed her private school course while Van, her senior by two years and a half, hoped to get his master’s degree at the end of 1889. (ibid.)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Microgalaxies: known on Terra as Les Enfants du Capitaine Grant, by Jules Verne. In one of her letters to Van Ada mentions Captain Grant’s Horn:


Take the fastest flying machine you can rent straight to El Paso, your Ada will be waiting for you there, waving like mad, and we’ll continue, by the New World Express, in a suite I’ll obtain, to the burning tip of Patagonia, Captain Grant’s Horn, a Villa in Verna, my jewel, my agony. Send me an aerogram with one Russian word — the end of my name and wit. (2.1)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Grant etc.: Jules Verne in Captain Grant’s Children has ‘agonie’ (in a discovered message) turn out to be part of ‘Patagonie’.


Van contrasts his novel Letters from Terra with Ada’s letters:


Ada’s letters breathed, writhed, lived; Van’s Letters from Terra, ‘a philosophical novel,’ showed no sign of life whatsoever.

(I disagree, it’s a nice, nice little book! Ada’s note.) (2.2)


Van compares Theresa, the main character in Letters from Terra, to a micromermaid:


After beaming to Sig a dozen communications from her planet, Theresa flies over to him, and he, in his laboratory, has to place her on a slide under a powerful microscope in order to make out the tiny, though otherwise perfect, shape of his minikin sweetheart, a graceful microorganism extending transparent appendages toward his huge humid eye. Alas, the testibulus (test tube – never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is 'accidentally' thrown away by Professor Leyman's (he had trimmed his name by that time) assistant, Flora, initially an ivory-pale, dark-haired funest beauty, whom the author transformed just in time into a third bromidic dummy with a dun bun. (ibid.)


Sig Leymanski (anagram of Kingsley Amis) brings to mind kopchyonye sigi (the smoked whitefish), as in a letter of Oct. 4-6, 1888, to Suvorin Chekhov calls the editors of Russkaya mysl’ (“Russian Thought,” a literary magazine, 1880-1918):


Что же касается «Русской мысли», то там сидят не литераторы, а копчёные сиги, которые столько же понимают в литературе, как свинья в апельсинах. К тому же библиографический отдел ведёт там дама. Если дикая утка, которая летит в поднебесье, может презирать свойскую, которая копается в навозе и в лужах и думает, что это хорошо, то так должны презирать художники и поэты мудрость копчёных сигов... Сердит я на «Русскую мысль» и на всю московскую литературу!


According to Van, the name Sig Leymanski was partly derived from the name of Aqua’s last doctor, Sig Heiler (a play on “Sieg heil!,” a Nazi salute):


Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua’s last doctor. (2.2)


Kim Beauharnais’ surname hints at Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife who is known on Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) as Queen Josephine:


They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada. (1.5)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): with a slight smile: a pet formula of Tolstoy’s denoting cool superiority, if not smugness, in a character’s manner of speech. In a letter of Oct. 25, 1891, to Suvorin Chekhov says that he is rereading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace:”


Каждую ночь просыпаюсь и читаю «Войну и мир». Читаешь с таким любопытством и с таким наивным удивлением, как будто раньше не читал. Замечательно хорошо. Только не люблю тех мест, где Наполеон. Как Наполеон, так сейчас и натяжки, и всякие фокусы, чтобы доказать, что он глупее, чем был на самом деле. Всё, что делают и говорят Пьер, князь Андрей или совершенно ничтожный Николай Ростов, — всё это хорошо, умно, естественно и трогательно; всё же, что думает и делает Наполеон, — это не естественно, не умно, надуто и ничтожно по значению. Когда я буду жить в провинции (о чём я мечтаю теперь день и ночь), то буду медициной заниматься и романы читать.

I wake up every night and read “War and Peace.” One reads it with the same interest and naive wonder as though one had never read it before. It’s amazingly good. Only I don’t like the passages in which Napoleon appears. As soon as Napoleon comes on the scene there are forced explanations and tricks of all sorts to prove that he was stupider than he really was. Everything that is said and done by Pierre, Prince Andrey, or the absolutely insignificant Nikolay Rostov — all that is good, clever, natural, and touching; everything that is thought and done by Napoleon is not natural, not clever, inflated and worthless.

It seems that, like Maupassant (whose story La parure is known on Antiterra as La rivière de diamants by Guillaume de Monparnasse, Mlle Larivière's penname), Napoleon did not exist on Antiterra. In his Geständnisse (“Confessions,” 1853-54) Heinrich Heine points out that Napoleon is never mentioned in Mme de Staël’s book De l'Allemagne (“On Germany,” 1813) and uses the words kitzeln (to tickle) and kitzligste (most sensitive):


Der Haß gegen den Kaiser ist die Seele dieses Buches “De l'Allemagne, und obgleich sein Name nirgends darin genannt wird, sieht man doch, wie die Verfasserin bei jeder Zeile nach den Tuilerien schielt. Ich zweifle nicht, daß das Buch den Kaiser weit empfindlicher verdrossen hat, als der direkteste Angriff, denn nichts verwundet einen Mann so sehr, wie kleine weibliche Nadelstiche. Wir sind auf große Schwertstreiche gefaßt, und man kitzelt uns an den kitzligsten Stellen.


Madame de Staël's hate of the Emperor is the soul of her book, De l'Allemagne, and, although his name is nowhere mentioned, one can see at every line how the writer squints at the Tuilleries. I doubt not that the book annoyed the Emperor more than the most direct attack; for nothing so much irritates a man as a woman's petty needle-pricks. We are prepared for great sabre-strokes, and instead we are tickled at the most sensitive spots. (chapter 2)


Schwert (cf. Schwertstreiche, “sabre-strokes,” mentioned by Heine) is German for “sword.” In his sword duel with Baron d’Onsky (Skonky) Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) wanted to castrate Marina's lover:


The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)


Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, clearly hints at Stalin (who is also represented on Antiterra by Khan Sosso, the ruler of the ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, 2.2). Charming Monsieur de Pastrouil seems to blend Louis Pasteur (1822-95), a French chemist and bacteriologist, with Uncle Struy, a character in Undina. Starinnaya povest’ ("Undina. The Ancient Tale," 1831-36), Zhukovski’s rendering in hexameter of a prose novella (Undine, 1811) by the German author Friedrich de La Motte Fouqué. Vitrum being Latin for “glass” and vitrina being Russian for “shop window,” Glass Biota brings to mind Victor Vitry, a brilliant French director who made a film of Van’s Letters from Terra:


Ada, who resented the insufficiency of her brother’s fame, felt soothed and elated by the success of The Texture of Time (1924). That work, she said, always reminded her, in some odd, delicate way, of the sun-and-shade games she used to play as a child in the secluded avenues of Ardis Park. She said she had been somehow responsible for the metamorphoses of the lovely larvae that had woven the silk of ‘Veen’s Time’ (as the concept was now termed in one breath, one breeze, with ‘Bergson’s Duration,’ or ‘Whitehead’s Bright Fringe’). But a considerably earlier and weaker work, the poor little Letters from Terra, of which only half a dozen copies existed — two in Villa Armina and the rest in the stacks of university libraries — was even closer to her heart because of its nonliterary associations with their 1892-93 sojourn in Manhattan. Sixty-year-old Van crustily and contemptuously dismissed her meek suggestion to the effect that it should be republished, together with the Sidra reflections and a very amusing anti-Signy pamphlet on Time in Dreams. Seventy-year-old Van regretted his disdain when Victor Vitry, a brilliant French director, based a completely unauthorized picture on Letters from Terra written by ‘Voltemand’ half a century before.

Vitry dated Theresa’s visit to Antiterra as taking place in 1940, but 1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours. The conceit allowed certain pleasing dips into the modes and manners of our past (did you remember that horses wore hats — yes, hats — when heat waves swept Manhattan?) and gave the impression — which physics-fiction literature had much exploited — of the capsulist traveling backward in terms of time. Philosophers asked nasty questions, but were ignored by the wishing-to-be-gulled moviegoers.

In contrast to the cloudless course of Demonian history in the twentieth century, with the Anglo-American coalition managing one hemisphere, and Tartary, behind her Golden Veil, mysteriously ruling the other, a succession of wars and revolutions were shown shaking loose the jigsaw puzzle of Terrestrial autonomies. In an impressive historical survey of Terra rigged up by Vitry — certainly the greatest cinematic genius ever to direct a picture of such scope or use such a vast number of extras (some said more than a million, others, half a million men and as many mirrors) — kingdoms fell and dictatordoms rose, and republics, half-sat, half-lay in various attitudes of discomfort. The conception was controversial, the execution flawless. Look at all those tiny soldiers scuttling along very fast across the trench-scarred wilderness, with explosions of mud and things going pouf-pouf in silent French now here, now there!

In 1905, Norway with a mighty heave and a long dorsal ripple unfastened herself from Sweden, her unwieldy co-giantess, while in a similar act of separation the French parliament, with parenthetical outbursts of vive émotion, voted a divorce between State and Church. Then, in 1911, Norwegian troops led by Amundsen reached the South Pole and simultaneously the Italians stormed into Turkey. In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and the Americans tore up Panama. In 1918 they and the French defeated Germany while she was busily defeating Russia (who had defeated her own Tartars some time earlier). In Norway there was Siegrid Mitchel, in America Margaret Undset, and in France, Sidonie Colette. In 1926 Abdel-Krim surrendered, after yet another photogenic war, and the Golden Horde again subjugated Rus. In 1933, Athaulf Hindler (also known as Mittler — from ‘to mittle,’ mutilate) came to power in Germany, and a conflict on an even more spectacular scale than the 1914–1918 war was under way, when Vitry ran out of old documentaries and Theresa, played by his wife, left Terra in a cosmic capsule after having covered the Olympic Games held in Berlin (the Norwegians took most of the prizes, but the Americans won the fencing event, an outstanding achievement, and beat the Germans in the final football match by three goals to one).

Van and Ada saw the film nine times, in seven different languages, and eventually acquired a copy for home use. They found the historical background absurdly farfetched and considered starting legal proceedings against Vitry — not for having stolen the L.F.T. idea, but for having distorted Terrestrial politics as obtained by Van with such diligence and skill from extrasensorial sources and manic dreams. But fifty years had elapsed, and the novella had not been copyrighted; in fact, Van could not even prove that ‘Voltemand’ was he. Reporters, however, ferreted out his authorship, and in a magnanimous gesture, he allowed it to be publicized.

Three circumstances contributed to the picture’s exceptional success. One factor was, of course, that organized religion, disapproving of Terra’s appeal to sensation-avid sects, attempted to have the thing banned. A second attraction came from a little scene that canny Vitry had not cut out: in a flashback to a revolution in former France, an unfortunate extra, who played one of the under-executioners, got accidentally decapitated while pulling the comedian Steller, who played a reluctant king, into a guillotinable position. Finally, the third, and even more human reason, was that the lovely leading lady, Norwegian-born Gedda Vitry, after titillating the spectators with her skimpy skirts and sexy rags in the existential sequences, came out of her capsule on Antiterra stark naked, though, of course, in miniature, a millimeter of maddening femininity dancing in ‘the charmed circle of the microscope’ like some lewd elf, and revealing, in certain attitudes, I’ll be damned, a pinpoint glint of pubic floss, gold-powered!

L.F.T. tiny dolls, L.F.T. breloques of coral and ivory, appeared in souvenir shops, from Agony, Patagonia, to Wrinkleballs, Le Bras d’Or. L.F.T. clubs sprouted. L.F.T. girlies minced with mini-menus out of roadside snackettes shaped like spaceships. From the tremendous correspondence that piled up on Van’s desk during a few years of world fame, one gathered that thousands of more or less unbalanced people believed (so striking was the visual impact of the Vitry-Veen film) in the secret Government-concealed identity of Terra and Antiterra. Demonian reality dwindled to a casual illusion. Actually, we had passed through all that. Politicians, dubbed Old Felt and Uncle Joe in forgotten comics, had really existed. Tropical countries meant, not only Wild Nature Reserves but famine, and death, and ignorance, and shamans, and agents from distant Atomsk. Our world was, in fact, mid-twentieth-century. Terra convalesced after enduring the rack and the stake, the bullies and beasts that Germany inevitably generates when fulfilling her dreams of glory. Russian peasants and poets had not been transported to Estotiland, and the Barren Grounds, ages ago — they were dying, at this very moment, in the slave camps of Tartary. Even the governor of France was not Charlie Chose, the suave nephew of Lord Goal, but a bad-tempered French general. (5.5)


The phenomenon of Terra appeared on its sibling planet after the L disaster in the middle of the 19th century:


The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans — and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality.

As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his passionate research in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry) even the deepest thinkers, the purest philosophers, Paar of Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally divided in their attitude toward the possibility that there existed’ a distortive glass of our distorted glebe’ as a scholar who desires to remain unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm! Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle L. used to say to Gavronsky. In Ada’s hand.)

There were those who maintained that the discrepancies and ‘false overlappings’ between the two worlds were too numerous, and too deeply woven into the skein of successive events, not to taint with trite fancy the theory of essential sameness; and there were those who retorted that the dissimilarities only confirmed the live organic reality pertaining to the other world; that a perfect likeness would rather suggest a specular, and hence speculatory, phenomenon; and that two chess games with identical openings and identical end moves might ramify in an infinite number of variations, on one board and in two brains, at any middle stage of their irrevocably converging development. (1.3)


The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. January 3 is Lucette's birthday. On the other hand, L seems to hint at Lermontov (the author of the prophetical "Prediction," 1832), Lenin (who came to power in Russia in October of 1917), Luzhin (the chess Wunderkind in VN's novel "The Luzhin Defense," 1930) and Lolita. The name Luzhin comes from luzha (puddle). At the beginning of her poem Bohème (1917) Marina Tsvetaevin mentions luzhi (puddles):


Помнишь плащ голубой,
Фонари и лужи?
Как играли с тобой
Мы в жену и мужа.


Do you remember the blue cloak,

Street lamps and puddles?

How we played

In wife and husband.


In a series of memoir essays Otets i ego muzey ("Father and his Museum," 1933-36) Marina Tsvetaev points out that the main sponsor of the magnificent Alexander III Museum in Moscow (founded by Ivan Tsvetaev) was Nechaev-Maltsev, the owner of the glass factories in Gus'-Khrustal’nyi (“Chrystal Goose,” a city in the Province of Vladimir). After his duel with Demon, d'Onsky married the Bohemian lady, the keeper of Glass Biota in a Boston museum. D'Onsky's nickname, Skonky rhymes with ikonki (little icons), a word used by Marina Tsvetaev in her poem Dortuar vesnoy ("Dormitory in the Spring," 1910):


Косы длинны, а руки так тонки!
Бред внезапный: «От вражеских пушек
Войско турок...» Недвижны иконки,
Что склонились над снегом подушек.


In his farewell letter to Marina Demon mentions his aunt's ranch near Lolita, Texas:


You had gone to Boston to see an old aunt — a cliché, but the truth for the nonce — and I had gone to my aunt’s ranch near Lolita, Texas. (1.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Lolita, Texas: this town exists, or, rather, existed, for it has been renamed, I believe, after the appearance of the notorious novel.


In her poem V strane, kotoraya - odna... ("In a land that was the only one..." 1932) Marina Tsvetaev says that she knows a mountain that was renamed all by itself and from now on will be called the Voloshin mountain. In her memoir essay on Maximilian Voloshin, Zhivoe o zhivom ("A Living Word about a Living Man," 1932), Marina Tsvetaev uses the phrase au beau milieu (right in the middle) as applied to Victor Hugo's poem Napoléon II (1832): 


И внезапно – au beau milieu Victor Hugo Наполеону II – уже не вкрадчиво, а срочно: – А нельзя ли будет пойти куда-нибудь в другое место? – Можно, конечно, вниз тогда, но там семь градусов и больше не бывает.


In his poem Evropa ("Europe," 1919) included in Rossiya raspyataya ("Russia Crucified") Voloshin mentions Europe's maternie organy (maternal organs), chuvstvilishche i pokhotnik eya (her sensorium and clitoris):


Полярным льдам уста её открыты,
У пояса, среди сапфирных влаг,
Как пчельный рой у чресел Афродиты,
Раскинул острова Архипелаг.
Сюда ведут страстных желаний тропы,
Здесь матерние органы Европы,
Здесь, жгучие дрожанья затая, -
В глубоких влуминах укрытая стихия,
Чувствилище и похотник ея...


In a conversation with Van Lucette mentions the drawer's secret chuvstvilishche (sensorium):


‘Well, that secretaire,’ continued Lucette, considering her left shoe, her very chic patent-leather Glass shoe, as she crossed her lovely legs, ‘that secretaire enclosed a folded card table and a top-secret drawer. And you thought, I think, it was crammed with our grandmother’s love letters, written when she was twelve or thirteen. And our Ada knew, oh, she knew, the drawer was there but she had forgotten how to release the orgasm or whatever it is called in card tables and bureaus.’

Whatever it is called.

‘She and I challenged you to find the secret chuvstvilishche (sensorium) and make it work. 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, which turned out to be a yielding roundlet in the rosewood under the felt you felt — I mean, under the felt you were feeling: it was a felted thumb spring, and Ada laughed as the drawer shot out.’

‘And it was empty,’ said Van.

‘Not quite. It contained a minuscule red pawn that high’ (showing its barleycorn-size with her finger — above what? Above Van’s wrist). ‘I kept it for luck; I must still have it somewhere.' (2.5)


The particule mentioned by Lucette brings to mind a particule imagined by Walter C. Keyway, Esq.:


The set [of Flavita] our three children received in 1884 from an old friend of the family (as Marina’s former lovers were known), Baron Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter’s lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one’s name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa.

By July the ten A’s had dwindled to nine, and the four D’s to three. The missing A eventually turned up under an Aproned Armchair, but the D was lost — faking the fate of its apostrophizable double as imagined by a Walter C. Keyway, Esq., just before the latter landed, with a couple of unstamped postcards, in the arms of a speechless multilinguist in a frock coat with brass buttons. The wit of the Veens (says Ada in a marginal note) knows no bounds.(1.36)


Baron Klim Avidov is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. Rossiya being the Russian name of VN's motherland, Venezia Rossa brings to mind two stanzas (XLIX-L) in Chapter One of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin:


Адриатические волны,
О Брента! нет, увижу вас
И, вдохновенья снова полный,
Услышу ваш волшебный глас!
Он свят для внуков Аполлона;
По гордой лире Альбиона
Он мне знаком, он мне родной.
Ночей Италии златой
Я негой наслажусь на воле,
С венецианкою младой,
То говорливой, то немой,
Плывя в таинственной гондоле;
С ней обретут уста мои
Язык Петрарки и любви.


Придёт ли час моей свободы?
Пора, пора! - взываю к ней;
Брожу над морем, жду погоды,
Маню ветрила кораблей.
Под ризой бурь, с волнами споря,
По вольному распутью моря
Когда ж начну я вольный бег?
Пора покинуть скучный брег
Мне неприязненной стихии,
И средь полуденных зыбей,
Под небом Африки моей,
Вздыхать о сумрачной России,
Где я страдал, где я любил,
Где сердце я похоронил.


Adrian waves,

O Brenta! Nay, I'll see you

and, filled anew with inspiration,

I'll hear your magic voice!

'Tis sacred to Apollo's nephews;

through the proud lyre of Albion

to me 'tis known, to me 'tis kindred.

In the voluptuousness of golden

Italy's nights at liberty I'll revel,

with a youthful Venetian,

now talkative, now mute,

swimming in a mysterious gondola;

with her my lips will find

the tongue of Petrarch and of love.


Will the hour of my freedom come?

'Tis time, 'tis time! To it I call;

I roam above the sea, I wait for the right weather,

I beckon to the sails of ships.

Under the cope of storms, with waves disputing,

on the free crossway of the sea

when shall I start on my free course?

'Tis time to leave the dull shore of an element

inimical to me,

and sigh, 'mid the meridian swell, beneath the

sky of my Africa,

for somber Russia, where

I suffered, where I loved,

where I buried my heart.


In the preceding stanza (One: XLVIII) Pushkin describes the horn music on the Neva:


С душою, полной сожалений,
И опершися на гранит,
Стоял задумчиво Евгений,
Как описал себя пиит.
Все было тихо; лишь ночные
Перекликались часовые,
Да дрожек отдаленный стук
С Мильонной раздавался вдруг;
Лишь лодка, веслами махая,
Плыла по дремлющей реке:
И нас пленяли вдалеке
Рожок и песня удалая...
Но слаще, средь ночных забав,
Напев Торкватовых октав!


With soul full of regrets,

and leaning on the granite,

Eugene stood pensive — as himself

the Poet has described.

'Twas stillness all; only night sentries

to one another called,

and the far clip-clop of some droshky

resounded suddenly from Million Street;

only a boat, oars swinging,

swam on the dozing river,

and, in the distance, captivated us

a horn and a brave song.

But, 'mid the night's diversions, sweeter

is the strain of Torquato's octaves.


In his EO Commentary (vol. II, p. 180) VN quotes Mme de Staël:


This music on the waters has been assigned by solemn commentators to the kind of slave orchestra so wittily described by Mme de Staël in reference to Dmitri Naryshkin's musicians, each of whom could draw only one note from his instrument. People said on seeing them: "[There goes] le sol, le mi ou le re de Narischkin (Dix Ans d'exil, pt. II, ch. 18).


According to Van, Ada cannot play a note (it is Lucette who takes piano lessons). Lucette's music teacher, Philip Rack (a German composer who lives in Kalugano) is one of Ada's lovers. In Kalugano Van fights a pistol duel with Captain Tapper, a member of the Do-Re-La [Darkbloom: 'Ladore' musically jumbled] Country Club (1.42). In the Kalugano hospital (where he recovers from the wound received in his duel with Tapper) Van meets Tatiana (a remarkably proud and pretty nurse who later writes him a passionate letter) and male nurse Dorofey. Van compares Dorofey (who rolls him in a wheelchair to Ward Five where poor Rack is dying) to Onegin's coachman. In Chapter Four (XIV: 5) of EO Onegin, as he speaks to Tatiana, mentions his sovest’ (conscience):


Но я не создан для блаженства;
Ему чужда душа моя;
Напрасны ваши совершенства:
Их вовсе недостоин я.
Поверьте (совесть в том порукой),
Супружество нам будет мукой.
Я, сколько ни любил бы вас,
Привыкнув, разлюблю тотчас;
Начнёте плакать: ваши слёзы
Не тронут сердца моего,
А будут лишь бесить его.
Судите ж вы, какие розы
Нам заготовит Гименей
И, может быть, на много дней.


“But I'm not made for bliss;

my soul is strange to it;

in vain are your perfections:

I'm not at all worthy of them.

Believe me (conscience is thereof the pledge),

wedlock to us would be a torment.

However much I loved you,

having grown used, I'd cease to love at once;

you would begin to weep; your tears

would fail to touch my heart —

they merely would exasperate it.

Judge, then, what roses

Hymen would lay in store for us —

and, possibly, for many days!” (Four: XIV)


In Kurochkin’s fable Vorchun Dorofey (“The Grumbler Dorofey,” 1860) Dorofey is the name of the author’s conscience. In VN’s novel Dar (“The Gift,” 1937) Fyodor quotes Goethe (who said, pointing with his cane at the starry sky: “there is my conscience”):


Если в те дни ему пришлось бы отвечать перед каким-нибудь сверхчувственным судом (помните, как Гёте говаривал, показывая тростью на звёздное небо:  "Вот моя совесть!"), то вряд ли бы он решился сказать, что любит её, -- ибо давно догадывался, что никому и ничему всецело отдать душу неспособен: оборотный капитал ему был слишком нужен для своих частных дел; но зато, глядя на нее, он сразу добирался (чтобы через минуту скатиться опять) до таких высот нежности, страсти и жалости, до которых редкая любовь доходит.


If, during those days, he had had to answer before some pretersensuous court (remember how Goethe said, pointing with his cane at the starry sky: “There is my conscience!”) he would scarcely have decided to say that he loved her—for he had long since realized that he was incapable of giving his entire soul to anyone or anything: its working capital was too necessary to him for his own private affairs; but on the other hand, when he looked at her he immediately reached (in order to fall off again a minute later) such heights of tenderness, passion and pity as are reached by few loves. (Chapter Three)


The starry sky mentioned by Goethe brings to mind “an underground observatory,” Van’s definition of artist:


‘I say, Dick, ever met a gambler in the States called Plunkett? Bald gray chap when I knew him.’

‘Plunkett? Plunkett? Must have been before my time. Was he the one who turned priest or something? Why?’

‘One of my father’s pals. Great artist.’


‘Yes, artist. I’m an artist. I suppose you think you’re an artist. Many people do.’

‘What on earth is an artist?’

‘An underground observatory,’ replied Van promptly.

‘That’s out of some modem novel,’ said Dick, discarding his cigarette after a few avid inhales.

‘That’s out of Van Veen,’ said Van Veen. (1.28)


Dick is a cardsharp who plays poker with Van and the French twins at Chose (Van’s English University) and who offers Van an introduction to the Venus Villa Club. Before accepting Dick’s offer, Van tussles with his slightly overweight conscience:


Van fumed and fretted the rest of the morning, and after a long soak in a hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and inspirer in the world, except, of course, the W.C. seat) decided to pen — pen is the word — a note of apology to the cheated cheater. As he was dressing, a messenger brought him a note from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane schoolmates), in which generous Dick proposed to substitute for his debt an introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his whole clan belonged. Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain. It was a ticket to paradise. Van tussled with his slightly overweight conscience (both grinning like old pals in their old gymnasium) — and accepted Dick’s offer. (ibid.)


When Van meets Dick (a cardsharp who plays poker with Van and the French twins at Chose, Van’s English University) in Monte Carlo, Dick mentions a microscopic point of euphorion, a precious metal:


He did not ‘twinkle’ long after that. Five or six years later, in Monte Carlo, Van was passing by an open-air café when a hand grabbed him by the elbow, and a radiant, ruddy, comparatively respectable Dick C. leaned toward him over the petunias of the latticed balustrade:

‘Van,’ he cried, ‘I’ve given up all that looking-glass dung, congratulate me! Listen: the only safe way is to mark ‘em! Wait, that’s not all, can you imagine, they’ve invented a microscopic — and I mean microscopic — point of euphorion, a precious metal, to insert under your thumbnail, you can’t see it with the naked eye, but one minuscule section of your monocle is made to magnify the mark you make with it, like killing a flea, on one card after another, as they come along in the game, that’s the beauty of it, no preparations, no props, nothing! Mark ‘em! Mark ‘em!’ good Dick was still shouting, as Van walked away. (ibid.)


Euphorion is the son of Faust and Helen of Troy in Part Two of Goethe’s Faust (1808-32). “Mark ‘em!” (Dick’s advice) seems to hint at Mark Aldanov (VN's fellow writer who is mentioned in Chapter Four of "The Gift"). In Aldanov’s novel Bred (“Delirium,” 1955) the Soviet colonel calls the Brits asei (pl. of asey, “I say” in Russian spelling). According to Fyodor, in his predsmertnyi bred (deathbed delirium) Chernyshevski mentioned mikroskopicheskaya chastichka gnoya (a microscopic part of pus):


Так он бредил долго, от воображаемого Вебера перескакивая на какие-то воображаемые свои мемуары, кропотливо рассуждая о том, что "самая маленькая судьба этого человека решена, ему нет спасения... В его крови найдена хоть микроскопическая частичка гноя, судьба его решена...". О себе ли он говорил, в себе ли почувствовал эту частичку, тайно испортившую всё то, что он за жизнь свою сделал и испытал? Мыслитель, труженик, светлый ум, населявший свои утопии армией стенографистов, - он теперь дождался того, что его бред записал секретарь. В ночь на 17-ое с ним был удар, - чувствовал, что язык во рту какой-то толстый; после чего вскоре скончался. Последними его словами (в 3 часа утра, 16-го) было: "Странное дело: в этой книге ни разу не упоминается о Боге". Жаль, что мы не знаем, какую именно книгу он про себя читал.

Thus he rambled on for a long time, jumping from an imaginary Weber to some imaginary memoirs of his own, laboriously discoursing about the fact that “the smallest fate of this man has been decided, there is no salvation for him… Although microscopic, a tiny particle of pus has been found in his blood, his fate has been decided …” Was he talking about himself, was it in himself that he felt this tiny particle that had kept mysteriously impairing all he did and experienced in life? A thinker, a toiler, a lucid mind, populating his utopias with an army of stenographers—he had now lived to see his delirium taken down by a secretary. On the night of the 16th he had a stroke—he felt the tongue in his mouth to be somehow thick; after which he soon died. His last words (at 3 A.M. on the 17th) were: “A strange business: in this book there is not a single mention of God.” It is a pity that we do not know precisely which book he was reading to himself. (“The Gift,” Chapter Four)


Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van mentions the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton:


There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —


(or my, Ada Veen’s)


— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. (2.2)


Kalugano + Brenta = Kaluga + Brentano


In his poem Brenta, ryzhaya rechonka... ("Brenta, a rust-colored rivulet..." 1920) Vladislav Hodasevich calls Brenta lzhivyi obraz krasoty (a false image of beauty) and says that, after seeing Brenta, he loves prose in life and in verses.


In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN paraphrases Pushkin's words in One: L: 10-12 of EO:


My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the émigré who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:


 … Beneath the sky
Of my America to sigh
For one locality in Russia. (Chapter Three, 5)