un petit enfantôme in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 17:40

After Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) possessed her for the first time, Cordula de Prey mentions un petit enfantôme:


Cordula told Edmond: ‘Arrêtez près de what’s-it-called, yes, Albion, le store pour messieurs, in Luga’; and as peeved Van remonstrated: ‘You can’t go back to civilization in pajamas,’ she said firmly. ‘I shall buy you some clothes, while Edmond has a mug of coffee.’

She bought him a pair of trousers, and a raincoat. He had been waiting impatiently in the parked car and now under the pretext of changing into his new clothes asked her to drive him to some secluded spot, while Edmond, wherever he was, had another mug.

As soon as they reached a suitable area he transferred Cordula to his lap and had her very comfortably, with such howls of enjoyment that she felt touched and flattered.

‘Reckless Cordula,’ observed reckless Cordula cheerfully; ‘this will probably mean another abortion — encore un petit enfantôme, as my poor aunt’s maid used to wail every time it happened to her. Did I say anything wrong?’

‘Nothing wrong,’ said Van, kissing her tenderly; and they drove back to the diner. (1.42)


Enfantôme is a portmanteau word that blends enfant (child) with fantôme (phantom). When Van revisits Ardis in 1888, he finds out that Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess) has written a novel entitled Les Enfants Maudits (“The Accursed Children”):


He had spent most of the day fast asleep in his room, and a long, rambling, dreary dream had repeated, in a kind of pointless parody, his strenuous ‘Casanovanic’ night with Ada and that somehow ominous morning talk with her. Now that I am writing this, after so many hollows and heights of time, I find it not easy to separate our conversation, as set down in an inevitably stylized form, and the drone of complaints, turning on sordid betrayals that obsessed young Van in his dull nightmare. Or was he dreaming now that he had been dreaming? Had a grotesque governess really written a novel entitled Les Enfants Maudits? To be filmed by frivolous dummies, now discussing its adaptation? To be made even triter than the original Book of the Fortnight, and its gurgling blurbs? Did he detest Ada as he had in his dreams? He did. (1.32)


The title of Mlle Larivière’s novel blends un enfant terrible with les poètes maudits. One of the poètes maudits, Charles Baudelaire is the author of Un fantôme (“A Phantom”), a cycle of four sonnets included in Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil,” 1857). In a draft of his Introduction to Gavriiliada ("The Gabriliad," 1821) Pushkin mentions Parnasa taynye tsvety (the secret flowers of Parnassus) and arkhivy ada (the archives of Hell):

О вы, которые любили
Парнаса тайные цветы
И своевольные мечты
Вниманьем слабым наградили,
Спасите труд небрежный мой
Под сенью             
покрова -
От рук невежества слепого,
От взоров зависти косой.
Картины, думы и рассказы
Для вас я вновь перемешал,
Смешное с важным сочетал
И бешеной любви проказы
В архивах ада отыскал...


Oh you, who loved

the secret flowers of Parnassus…

…I have mixed for you again
the pictures, thoughts and tales,
combined the funny with the serious
and discovered the pranks of a frenzied love
in the archives of hell.


Mlle Larivière publishes her stuff under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse:


Yes! Wasn’t that a scream? Larivière blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a great writer! A sensational Canadian bestselling author! Her story ‘The Necklace’ (La rivière de diamants) had become a classic in girls’ schools and her gorgeous pseudonym ‘Guillaume de Monparnasse’ (the leaving out of the ‘t’ made it more intime) was well-known from Quebec to Kaluga. As she put it in her exotic English: ‘Fame struck and the roubles rolled, and the dollars poured’ (both currencies being used at the time in East Estotiland); but good Ida, far from abandoning Marina, with whom she had been platonically and irrevocably in love ever since she had seen her in ‘Bilitis,’ accused herself of neglecting Lucette by overindulging in Literature; consequently she now gave the child, in spurts of vacational zeal, considerably more attention than poor little Ada (said Ada) had received at twelve, after her first (miserable) term at school. (1.31)


Les Poètes Maudits (1884) is a collection of articles by Verlaine. In his Foreword to "Paul Verlaine. Poems Selected and Translated by F. Sologub" (1908) Maximilian Voloshin says that he can hear the sounds of intimnyi golos (the intimate voice) in Lermontov's poetry, but does not hear them in Pushkin:


Я слышу, например, звуки интимного голоса у Лермонтова, но не слышу их у Пушкина.

Их нет у Тютчева, но есть у Фета и ещё больше у Полонского.

Из современных поэтов этим даром в наибольшей степени владеет Блок.


Voloshin singles out Alexander Blok as a modern poet whose intimate voice can be heard in his verses. In several poems Blok uses a phrase shchemyashchiy zvuk (a heart-rending sound). The letters of Marina’s poor mad twin sister Aqua to her husband (Demon Veen, Van’s and Ada’s father) were signed “Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov:”


Actually, Aqua was less pretty, and far more dotty, than Marina. During her fourteen years of miserable marriage she spent a broken series of steadily increasing sojourns in sanatoriums. A small map of the European part of the British Commonwealth — say, from Scoto-Scandinavia to the Riviera, Altar and Palermontovia — as well as most of the U.S.A., from Estoty and Canady to Argentina, might be quite thickly prickled with enameled red-cross-flag pins, marking, in her War of the Worlds, Aqua’s bivouacs. She had plans at one time to seek a modicum of health (‘just a little grayishness, please, instead of the solid black’) in such Anglo-American protectorates as the Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern Continents that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course, Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely attractive… But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov (‘Heart rending-Sounds’). (1.3)


Palermontovia blends Palermo (a city in and capital of Sicily) with Lermontov (the author of “The Demon,” 1840), Altar hints at Gibraltar. In his poem Nedvizhnyi strazh dremal na tsarstvennom poroge… (“The motionless guard dozed at the royal threshold…” 1824) Pushkin mentions “the towers of Gibraltar:”


От Тибровых валов до Вислы и Невы,
От сарскосельских лип до башен Гибралтара:
          Всё молча ждёт удара,
Всё пало — под ярем склонились все главы.


From the Tiber’s waves to the Vistula and the Neva,

from the lindens of Tsarskoe Selo to the towers of Gibraltar…


Aqua last note was signed ‘My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (now is out of hell):’


Aujourd’hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several ‘patients,’ in the neighboring bar (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt. The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. I, poor Princesse Lointaine, très lointaine by now, do not know where I stand. Hence I must fall. So adieu, my dear, dear son, and farewell, poor Demon, I do not know the date or the season, but it is a reasonably, and no doubt seasonably, fair day, with a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at my pretty pills.


[Signed] My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (‘now is out of hell’) (1.3)


L’Horloge (“The Clock”) is a poem by Baudelaire. In his memoir essay A. A. Blok kak chelovek (“A. A. Blok as a Person,” 1921) Korney Chukovski says that Blok in jest called his book of verse Nechayannaya radost’ (“Inadvertent Joy,” 1907) Otchayannaya gadost’ (“Desperate Filth”), by Alexander Klok:


Сергей Городецкий рассказывает в «Воспоминаниях о Блоке», что Блок в шутку назвал свою «Нечаянную Радость» – «Отчаянной Гадостью», а себя – Александром Клоком. (I)


According to Chukovski, Blok loved people like Apollon Grigoriev, Gogol, Vrubel and Catiline, because they wereaccursed:”


Никакого благополучия его душа не вмещала и отзывалась только на трагическое: недаром его Вечными Спутниками были такие неблагополучные, гибельные, лишенные уюта скитальцы, как Аполлон Григорьев, Гоголь, Врубель, Катилина. Этих людей Блок полюбил за то, что они были «проклятые», за то, что их фигуры «грозили кораблекрушением», за то, что все они могли бы сказать: «наше дело пропащее». (II)


In his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes his father’s visit to England in February 1916, with five other prominent representatives of the Russian press, and calls one of them, Korney Chukovski, “the enfant terrible of the group:”


My father had visited London before—the last time in February 1916, when, with five other prominent representatives of the Russian press, he had been invited by the British Government to take a look at England’s war effort (which, it was hinted, did not meet with sufficient appreciation on the part of Russia’s public opinion). On the way there, being challenged by my father and Korney Chukovski to rhyme on Afrika, the poet and novelist Aleksey Tolstoy (no relation to Count Lyov Nikolaevich) had supplied, though seasick, the charming couplet


Vizhu pal’mu i Kafrika.
(I see a palm and a little Kaffir. That’s Afrika.)


In England the visitors had been shown the Fleet. Dinners and speeches had followed in noble succession. The timely capture of Erzerum by the Russians and the pending introduction of conscription in England (“Will you march too or wait till March 2?” as the punning posters put it) had provided the speakers with easy topics. There had been an official banquet presided over by Sir Edward Grey, and a funny interview with George V whom Chukovski, the enfant terrible of the group, insisted on asking if he liked the works of Oscar Wilde—“dze ooarks of OOald.” The king, who was baffled by his interrogator’s accent and who, anyway, had never been a voracious reader, neatly countered by inquiring how his guests liked the London fog (later Chukovski used to cite this triumphantly as an example of British cant—tabooing a writer because of his morals). (Chapter Thirteen, 1)


In Speak, Memory VN describes his first love and mentions the verse of Alexander Blok:


WHEN I first met Tamara—to give her a name concolorous with her real one—she was fifteen, and I was a year older. The place was the rugged but comely country (black fir, white birch, peatbogs, hayfields, and barrens) just south of St. Petersburg. A distant war was dragging on. Two years later, that trite deus ex machina, the Russian Revolution, came, causing my removal from the unforgettable scenery. In fact, already then, in July 1915, dim omens and backstage rumblings, the hot breath of fabulous upheavals, were affecting the so-called “Symbolist” school of Russian poetry—especially the verse of Alexander Blok. (Chapter Twelve, 1)


La Princesse Lointaine (1895) is a play by Edmond Rostand. Chekhov’s story Zhenshchina s tochki zreniya p’yanitsy ("Woman as Seen by a Drunkard," 1885), in which girls under sixteen are compared to distilled water, is signed Brat moego brata (My brother's brother). Chekhov is the author of Doch’ Al’biona (“A Daughter of Albion,” 1883), a story about the English governess of a Russian landowner’s children. In Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) cry out: “In vino veritas!” At the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen uses a phrase s glazami (with the eyes) and mentions chelovek (a manservant) and Dr. Krolik (the local entomologist, Ada’s beloved teacher of natural history):


Marina,’ murmured Demon at the close of the first course. ‘Marina,’ he repeated louder. ‘Far from me’ (a locution he favored) ‘to criticize Dan’s taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I’m above all that rot, I’m…’ (gesture); ‘but, my dear,’ he continued, switching to Russian, ‘the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki — the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) —’

‘Everybody has eyes,’ remarked Marina drily.

‘Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that’s not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It’s depressing. It’s a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.’

‘Look, Dad,’ said Van, ‘Dr Krolik can’t do much, because, as you know quite well, he’s dead, and Marina can’t tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they’re alive.’

‘The Veen wit, the Veen wit,’ murmured Demon. (1.38)


Describing Aqua’s torments, Van mentions Lago di Luga and Marina’s (and Aqua’s) talc powder in a half-full glass container marked colorfully Quelques Fleurs:


At one time Aqua believed that a stillborn male infant half a year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had produced in her bath, in a lieu de naissance plainly marked X in her dreams, after skiing at full pulver into a larch stump, had somehow been saved and brought to her at the Nusshaus, with her sister’s compliments, wrapped up in blood-soaked cotton wool, but perfectly alive and healthy, to be registered as her son Ivan Veen. At other moments she felt convinced that the child was her sister’s, born out of wedlock, during an exhausting, yet highly romantic blizzard, in a mountain refuge on Sex Rouge, where a Dr Alpiner, general practitioner and gentian-lover, sat providentially waiting near a rude red stove for his boots to dry. Some confusion ensued less than two years later (September, 1871 — her proud brain still retained dozens of dates) when upon escaping from her next refuge and somehow reaching her husband’s unforgettable country house (imitate a foreigner: ‘Signor Konduktor, ay vant go Lago di Luga, hier geld’) she took advantage of his being massaged in the solarium, tiptoed into their former bedroom — and experienced a delicious shock: her talc powder in a half-full glass container marked colorfully Quelques Fleurs still stood on her bedside table; her favorite flame-colored nightgown lay rumpled on the bedrug; to her it meant that only a brief black nightmare had obliterated the radiant fact of her having slept with her husband all along — ever since Shakespeare’s birthday on a green rainy day, but for most other people, alas, it meant that Marina (after G.A. Vronsky, the movie man, had left Marina for another long-lashed Khristosik as he called all pretty starlets) had conceived, c’est bien le cas de le dire, the brilliant idea of having Demon divorce mad Aqua and marry Marina who thought (happily and correctly) she was pregnant again. Marina had spent a rukuliruyushchiy month with him at Kitezh but when she smugly divulged her intentions (just before Aqua’s arrival) he threw her out of the house. Still later, on the last short lap of a useless existence, Aqua scrapped all those ambiguous recollections and found herself reading and rereading busily, blissfully, her son’s letters in a luxurious ‘sanastoria’ at Centaur, Arizona. He invariably wrote in French calling her petite maman and describing the amusing school he would be living at after his thirteenth birthday. She heard his voice through the nightly tinnitus of her new, planful, last, last insomnias and it consoled her. He called her usually mummy, or mama, accenting the last syllable in English, the first, in Russian; somebody had said that triplets and heraldic dracunculi often occurred in trilingual families; but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever now (except, perhaps, in hateful long-dead Marina’s hell-dwelling mind) that Van was her, her, Aqua’s, beloved son. (1.3)


According to Sig Heiler (Aqua’s last doctor), Aqua’s dead body lay in a fetus-in-utero position:


In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two hundred tablets of different potency. She knew most of them — the jejune sedatives, and the ones that knocked you out from eight p.m. till midnight, and several varieties of superior soporifics that left you with limpid limbs and a leaden head after eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself delightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the cleansing fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season. Lest some busybody resurrect her in the middle of the float-away process, Aqua reckoned she must procure for herself a maximum period of undisturbed stupor elsewhere than in a glass house, and the carrying out of that second part of the project was simplified and encouraged by another agent or double of the Isère Professor, a Dr Sig Heiler whom everybody venerated as a great guy and near-genius in the usual sense of near-beer. Such patients who proved by certain twitchings of the eyelids and other semiprivate parts under the control of medical students that Sig (a slightly deformed but not unhandsome old boy) was in the process of being dreamt of as a ‘papa Fig,’ spanker of girl bottoms and spunky spittoon-user, were assumed to be on the way to haleness and permitted, upon awakening, to participate in normal outdoor activities such as picnics. Sly Aqua twitched, simulated a yawn, opened her light-blue eyes (with those startlingly contrasty jet-black pupils that Dolly, her mother, also had), put on yellow slacks and a black bolero, walked through a little pinewood, thumbed a ride with a Mexican truck, found a suitable gulch in the chaparral and there, after writing a short note, began placidly eating from her cupped palm the multicolored contents of her handbag, like any Russian country girl lakomyashchayasya yagodami (feasting on berries) that she had just picked in the woods. She smiled, dreamily enjoying the thought (rather ‘Kareninian’ in tone) that her extinction would affect people about ‘as deeply as the abrupt, mysterious, never explained demise of a comic strip in a Sunday paper one had been taking for years. It was her last smile. She was discovered much sooner, but had also died much faster than expected, and the observant Siggy, still in his baggy khaki shorts, reported that Sister Aqua (as for some reason they all called her) lay, as if buried prehistorically, in a fetus-in-utero position, a comment that seemed relevant to his students, as it may be to mine. (ibid.)