scattering vs. collecting flowers in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 04/12/2019 - 18:55

Gerard de Vries (“Three Notes on Ada”): In Strong Opinions Nabokov presents the text of Ada’s “first throb, the strange nucleus of the book that was to grow around it,” that “exists as an inset scene right in the middle of the novel” (310. See Ada 356-8). This text is a dream within a dream: Van dreams that someone called Eric Veen writes an essay called “Villa Venus: an Organized Dream” (346, 348).


In my articles “Ada as a Triple Dream” and “Addendum to Ada as a Triple Dream” (The Nabokovian No. 53, Fall 2004) I argue that, like Lermontov's poem Son ("A Dream," 1841), VN's novel Ada (1969) is a triple dream (a dream within a dream within a dream). One of the three dreamers in Ada is Eric Veen. The title of his essay brings to mind a line from Pushkin’s poem K vel’mozhe (“To a Grandee,” 1830):


Kak pylkiy otroka vostorgov polnyi son

Like a lad’s ardent dream full of delights.


At the end of his epistle to Prince Yusupov (“To a Grandee”) Pushkin mentions prelest’ Goncharovoy (the charm of Miss Goncharov) and vel’mozhi rimskie (the Roman grandees):


Один все тот же ты. Ступив за твой порог,
Я вдруг переношусь во дни Екатерины.
Книгохранилище, кумиры, и картины,
И стройные сады свидетельствуют мне,
Что благосклонствуешь ты музам в тишине,
Что ими в праздности ты дышишь благородной.
Я слушаю тебя: твой разговор свободный
Исполнен юности. Влиянье красоты
Ты живо чувствуешь. С восторгом ценишь ты
И блеск Алябьевой и прелесть Гончаровой.
Беспечно окружась Корреджием, Кановой,
Ты, не участвуя в волнениях мирских,
Порой насмешливо в окно глядишь на них
И видишь оборот во всем кругообразный.


Так, вихорь дел забыв для муз и неги праздной,
В тени порфирных бань и мраморных палат,

Вельможи римские встречали свой закат.
И к ним издалека то воин, то оратор,
То консул молодой, то сумрачный диктатор
Являлись день-другой роскошно отдохнуть,
Вздохнуть о пристани и вновь пуститься в путь.


De Vries: "the reputation of Pompeii became widespread in Russia with the 1833 exhibition of The Last Day of Pompeii, a painting by the Russian artist Karl Briullov."


Bryullov’s painting reached St. Petersburg (via Milan and Paris where it was exhibited) only in August 1834. In his essay The Last Day of Pompeii, a Painting by Bryulov” (1835) Gogol several times mentions ten’ (shade) and uses a phrase gradusom nizhe (one degree lower):


Его кисть остаётся навеки в памяти. Я прежде видел одну только его картину: семейство Витгенштейна. Она с первого раза, вдруг врезалась в моё воображение и осталась в нём вечно в своём ярком блеске. Когда я шёл смотреть картину: Разрушение Помпеи, у меня прежняя вовсе вышла из головы. Я приближался вместе с толпою к той комнате, где она стояла, и на минуту, как всегда бывает в подобных случаях, я позабыл вовсе о том, что иду смотреть картину Брюлова, я даже позабыл о том, есть ли на свете Брюлов. Но когда я взглянул на нее, когда она блеснула передо мною, в мыслях моих, как молния, пролетело слово: Брюлов! я узнал его. Кисть его вмещает в себе ту поэзию, которую чувства наши всегда знают и видят даже отличительные признаки, но слова их никогда не расскажут. Колорит его так ярок, каким никогда почти не являлся прежде, его краски горят и мечутся в глаза. Они были бы нестерпимы, если бы явились у художника градусом ниже Брюлова, но у него они облечены в ту гармонию и дышат тою внутреннею музыкою, которой исполнены живые предметы природы.


In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Gradus is the name of Shade’s murderer. In “The Texture of Time” (Part Four of Ada) Van quotes a line and a half from Canto Two of Shade’s poem ("Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time, / A singing in the ears"). In the last day of their long lives Van and Ada translate Shade’s poem into Russian:


She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569–572) in John Shade’s famous poem:

…Sovetï mï dayom

Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;

On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,

Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke…

(…We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another…)

Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on. (5.6).


In its unfinished form Shade’s poem has 999 lines. Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”). Pushkin’s sonnet Madona (1830) is addressed to his wife (née Goncharov). In his fragment “Rome” (1842) Gogol describes a carnival in Rome and mentions the Italian sonetto colla coda (tailed sonnet). Gogol's story Portret ("The Portrait") was included in his collection Arabeski ("Arabesques," 1835). "The Arabian Nights" (a book that, according to Humbert Humbert, Lolita was theoretically willing to enjoy) are also known as "A Thousand and One Nights." Describing Ardis Hall, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) mentions Marina's set of a Thousand-and-One Best Plays:


Ada showed her shy guest the great library on the second floor, the pride of Ardis and her favorite ‘browse,’ which her mother never entered (having her own set of a Thousand-and-One Best Plays in her boudoir), and which Red Veen, a sentimentalist and a poltroon, shunned, not caring to run into the ghost of his father who had died there of a stroke, and also because he found nothing so depressing as the collected works of unrecollected authors, although he did not mind an occasional visitor’s admiring the place’s tall bookcases and short cabinets, its dark pictures and pale busts, its ten chairs of carved walnut, and two noble tables inlaid with ebony. (1.6)


Practically on the eve of his fatal duel with d'Anthès Pushkin visited Karl Bryullov in the artist’s studio. In his biography of de Heeckeren d’Anthès (reprinted by Shchyogolev in “The Duel and Death of Pushkin”) Louis Metman (d’Anthès’s grandson) mentions his grandfather’s portrait (1878) by Carolus-Duran. According to Metman, the artist portrayed old Baron d'Anthès with a glowing cigar in his hand:


Портрет Каролюса Дюран, помеченный 1878 годом, одна из лучших работ художника, изображает барона Геккерена в его бодрой старости, которая, невзирая на жестокие припадки подагры, сохранила его уму всю его ясность.
Он изображён прямо сидящим в кресле и держащим в свисающей руке ещё горящую сигару, с несколько высокомерно закинутой головой, что было для него привычно и что мы видим и на маленьком портрете, писанном с него в Петербурге, на котором он изображён в кавалергардском мундире.
Серебристо-белые, откинутые назад волосы, длинные усы и густая бородка обрамляют мужественное лицо, с крупными чертами, со свежим цветом кожи. Темно-голубые глаза смотрят прямо и пристально, что было отличительной чертой его своеобразного лица, и дополняют живой образ барона Геккерена за последние двадцать лет его жизни...


In VN’s story Poseshchenie Muzeya (“A Visit to the Museum,” 1938) a joker wants to borrow a light from the portrait:


-- Кто эта старая обезьяна?-- спросил относительно портрета некто в полосатом нательнике, а так как дед моего приятеля  был изображен с сигарой в руке, другой балагур вынул папиросу и собрался у портрета прикурить.

"Who's the old ape?" asked an individual in a striped jersey, and, as my friend's grandfather was depicted holding a glowing cigar, another funster took out a cigarette and prepared to borrow a light from the portrait.


In his article Pushkinskiy fon rasskaza Nabokova "Poseshchenie muzeya" (“The Pushkin Background of Nabokov's story A Visit to the Museum,” Nabokovskiy vestnik, # 1, 1998, pp. 66-71) Vadim Stark compares the narrator in VN's story to Hermann, the mad gambler in Pushkin's story Pikovaya dama (The Queen of Spades, 1833), and to the hero of Jacques Offenbach's opera bouffon Orpheus in the Underworld (1858). At the end of his essay Gogol compares Bryullov’s painting to an opera:


Его произведения первые, которых могут понимать (хотя неодинаково) и художник, имеющий высшее развитие вкуса, и не знающий, что такое художество. Они первые, которым сужден завидный удел пользоваться всемирною славою, и высшею степенью их есть до сих пор: Последний день Помпеи, которую по необыкновенной обширности и соединению в себе всего прекрасного, можно сравнить разве с оперою, если только опера есть действительно соединение троинственного мира искусств: живописи, поэзии и музыки.


In VN’s story a Russian Nobleman in the painting "bore a likeness to Offenbach." Stark points out the similarity of Offenbach's portraits to those of Dmitri Nikolaevich Nabokov, VN's grandfather who died in his pied-a-terre on the Palace Quay in St. Petersburg (but thinking he was still in Nice) "at the time of the Russo-Japanese War:"


...and a bit of house wall that could be just glimpsed from the window was painted a brilliant white, so every time he [DNN] rereverted to a state of comparative lucidity he found himself safe on the illusory Riviera artistically staged by my mother; and there, on 28 March 1904, exactly eighteen years before my father, day for day, he peacefully died. (Speak, Memory, Chapter Three, 1)


In VN’s story the portrait of the grandfather of the narrator's friend is by Gustave Leroy. As pointed out by Stark, the watchmaker Pierre Leroy (1717-85) is mentioned in The Queen of Spades:


На стене висели два портрета, писанные в Париже Mme Leburn. Один из них изображал мужчину лет сорока, румяного и полного, в светло-зеленом мундире и со звездою; другой — молодую красавицу с орлиным носом, с зачесанными висками и с розою в пудреных волосах. По всем углам торчали фарфоровые пастушки, столовые часы работы славного Leroy, коробочки, рулетки, веера и разные дамские игрушки, изобретенные в конце минувшего столетия вместе с Монгольфьеровым шаром и Месмеровым магнетизмом. Германн пошёл за ширмы. За ними стояла маленькая железная кровать; справа находилась дверь, ведущая в кабинет; слева, другая — в коридор. Германн её отворил, увидел узкую, витую лестницу, которая вела в комнату бедной воспитанницы... Но он воротился и вошёл в тёмный кабинет.


Two portraits, painted in Paris by Mme. Lebrun, hang on the wall [of the old Countess's bedroom]. One of them showed a man about forty years old, red-faced and portly, wearing a light green coat with a star; the other a beautiful young woman with an aquiline nose, with her hair combed back over her temples, and with a rose in her powdered locks. Every nook and corner was crowded with china shepherdesses, table clocks made by the famous Leroy, little boxes, bandalores, fans, and diverse other ladies’ toys invented at the end of the last century, along with Montgolfier’s balloon and Mesmer’s magnetism. Hermann stepped behind the screen. At the back of it stood a little iron bedstead; on the right was the door which led to the cabinet; on the left--the other which led to the corridor. He opened the latter, and saw the little winding staircase which led to the room of the poor companion... But he retraced his steps and entered the dark cabinet. (chapter III)


The little winding staircase that leads to Lizaveta Ivanovna's room brings to mind the spiral staircase in Ardis that leads to the library (where Van and Ada make love for the first time in the Night of the Burning Barn, 1.19).


According to Tomski (a character in “The Queen of Spades”), sixty years ago his eighty-year-old grandmother (the old Countess) was known in Paris as la Vénus muscovite:


Надобно знать, что бабушка моя, лет шестьдесят тому назад, ездила в Париж и была там в большой моде. Народ бегал за нею, чтоб увидеть la Vénus moscovite; Ришелье за нею волочился, и бабушка уверяет, что он чуть было не застрелился от её жестокости.


About sixty years ago, my grandmother went to Paris, where she created quite a sensation. People used to run after her to catch a glimpse of the 'Muscovite Venus.' Richelieu courted her, and my grandmother maintains that he almost blew out his brains in consequence of her cruelty. (chapter I)


La Vénus moscovite in Pushkin’s story brings to mind Venus and the Moustique muscovite (Moscow mosquito) mentioned by Van in his description of his nights at Ardis:


The windows in the black castle went out in rows, files, and knight moves. The longest occupant of the nursery water closet was Mlle Larivière, who came there with a rose-oil lampad and her buvard. A breeze ruffled the hangings of his now infinite chamber. Venus rose in the sky; Venus set in his flesh.
All that was a little before the seasonal invasion of a certain interestingly primitive mosquito (whose virulence the not-too-kind Russian contingent of our region attributed to the diet of the French winegrowers and bogberry-eaters of Ladore); but even so the fascinating fireflies, and the still more eerie pale cosmos coming through the dark foliage, balanced with new discomforts the nocturnal ordeal, the harassments of sweat and sperm associated with his stuffy room. Night, of course, always remained an ordeal, throughout the near-century of his life, no matter how drowsy or drugged the poor man might be - for genius is not all gingerbread even for Billionaire Bill with his pointed beardlet and stylized bald dome, or crusty Proust who liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping, or this brilliant or obscure V.V. (depending on the eyesight of readers, also poor people despite our jibes and their jobs); but at Ardis, the intense life of the star-haunted sky troubled the boy's night so much that, on the whole, he felt grateful when foul weather or the fouler gnat - the Kamargsky Komar of our muzhiks and the Moustique moscovite of their no less alliterative retaliators - drove him back to his bumpy bed. (1.12)


In "The Queen of Spades" three ladies at a ball approach Tomski with the question “oubli ou regret?” (oblivion or regret?):


Подошедшие к ним три дамы с вопросами — oubli ou regret? — прервали разговор, который становился мучительно любопытен для Лизаветы Ивановны.

Дама, выбранная Томским, была сама княжна ***. Она успела с ним изъясниться, обежав лишний круг и лишний раз повертевшись перед своим стулом.


Three ladies approaching him with the question: "oubli ou regret?" interrupted the conversation, which had become so tantalizingly interesting to Lizaveta Ivanovna.

The lady chosen by Tomski was Princess Polina herself. She succeeded in effecting a reconciliation with him during the numerous turns of the dance, after which he conducted her to her chair. (chapter IV)


'Destroy and forget’ (a phrase repeated in Ada at least three times) seems to hint at oubli ou regret:


'Good for you, Pompeianella (whom you saw scattering her flowers in one of Uncle Dan's picture books, but whom I admired last summer in a Naples museum). Now don't you think we should resume our shorts and shirts and go down, and bury or burn this album at once, girl. Right?’

'Right,' answered Ada. 'Destroy and forget. But we still have an hour before tea.' (1.1)


A time to scatter flowers, and a time to collect flowers (Van and Ada find out that they are brother and sister thanks to Marina’s herbarium).


In “A Visit to the Museum” the action takes place in Montisert. According to Stark, Montisert = Monte Carlo. Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) comes to Van’s and Ada’s apartment in the company of Valerio (an elderly Roman), a waiter at ‘Monaco’ (a restaurant in the entresol of the tall building crowned by Van’s penthouse):


With the simple and, combinationally speaking, neat, thought that, after all, there was but one sky (white, with minute multicolored optical sparks), Demon hastened to enter the lobby and catch the lift which a ginger-haired waiter had just entered, with breakfast for two on a wiggle-wheel table and the Manhattan Times among the shining, ever so slightly scratched, silver cupolas. Was his son still living up there, automatically asked Demon, placing a piece of nobler metal among the domes. Si, conceded the grinning imbecile, he had lived there with his lady all winter. (2.10)


Telling Van about Ada’s fiancé, Demon mentions “our Russian roulette and Irish loo:”


‘He is — I mean, Vinelander is — the scion, s,c,i,o,n, of one of those great Varangians who had conquered the Copper Tartars or Red Mongols — or whoever they were — who had conquered some earlier Bronze Riders — before we introduced our Russian roulette and Irish loo at a lucky moment in the history of Western casinos.’ (ibid.)


Describing Uncle Dan’s death, Van mentions a few last drops of “play-zero:”


According to Bess (which is ‘fiend’ in Russian), Dan’s buxom but otherwise disgusting nurse, whom he preferred to all others and had taken to Ardis because she managed to extract orally a few last drops of ‘play-zero’ (as the old whore called it) out of his poor body, he had been complaining for some time, even before Ada’s sudden departure, that a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent desired to straddle him and ride him to the torture house of eternity. To Dr Nikulin Dan described his rider as black, pale-bellied, with a black dorsal buckler shining like a dung beetle’s back and with a knife in his raised forelimb. On a very cold morning in late January Dan had somehow escaped, through a basement maze and a toolroom, into the brown shrubbery of Ardis; he was naked except for a red bath towel which trailed from his rump like a kind of caparison, and, despite the rough going, had crawled on all fours, like a crippled steed under an invisible rider, deep into the wooded landscape. (ibid.)


The three conjoined lakes in Pale Fire, Omega, Ozero and Zero, bring to mind VN’s story Ozero, oblako, bashnya (“Cloud, Castle, Lake,” 1939). An important symbol in Ada's philosophy, bashnya (tower) becomes "castle" in the English title of VN's story. Before the Burning Barn chapter Van mentions Ada's castle of cards. According to Ada, it was not a castle, but a Pompeian villa:


‘Fine,’ said Van, ‘that’s certainly fascinating; but I was thinking of the first time you might have suspected I was also a sick pig or horse. I am recalling,’ he continued, ‘the round table in the round rosy glow and you kneeling next to me on a chair. I was perched on the chair’s swelling arm and you were building a house of cards, and your every movement was magnified, of course, as in a trance, dream-slow but also tremendously vigilant, and I positively reveled in the girl odor of your bare arm and in that of your hair which now is murdered by some popular perfume. I date the event around June 10 — a rainy evening less than a week after my first arrival at Ardis.’

‘I remember the cards,’ she said, ‘and the light and the noise of the rain, and your blue cashmere pullover — but nothing else, nothing odd or improper, that came later. Besides, only in French love stories les messieurs hument young ladies.’

‘Well, I did while you went on with your delicate work. Tactile magic. Infinite patience. Fingertips stalking gravity. Badly bitten nails, my sweet. Forgive these notes, I cannot really express the discomfort of bulky, sticky desire. You see I was hoping that when your castle toppled you would make a Russian splash gesture of surrender and sit down on my hand.’

‘It was not a castle. It was a Pompeian Villa with mosaics and paintings inside, because I used only court cards from Grandpa’s old gambling packs. Did I sit down on your hot hard hand?’

‘On my open palm, darling. A pucker of paradise. You remained still for a moment, fitting my cup. Then you rearranged your limbs and reknelt.’

‘Quick, quick, quick, collecting the flat shining cards again to build again, again slowly? We were abominably depraved, weren’t we?’

‘All bright kids are depraved. I see you do recollect —’

‘Not that particular occasion, but the apple tree, and when you kissed my neck, et tout le reste. And then — zdravstvuyte: apofeoz, the Night of the Burning Barn!’ (1.18)


Nochi na ville ("The Nights at a Villa," 1839) is a fragment by Gogol mentioned by Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in Chapter Four ("The Life of Chernyshevski") of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937). In Gogol's play Revizor ("The Inspector," 1836) Khlestakov says: "That's what a man lives for — to pluck the flowers of pleasure." Describing his stay with Lolita in The Enchanted Hunters, Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN's novel Lolita, 1955) mentions "little slave flowers that can be casually plucked between business and bath:"


Of course, in my old-fashioned, old-world way, I, Jean-Jacques Humbert, had taken for granted, when I first met her, that she was as unravished as the stereotypical notion of “normal child” had been since the lamented end of the Ancient World B. C. and its fascinating practices. We are not surrounded in our enlighted era by little slave flowers that can be casually plucked between business and bath as they used to be in the days of the Romans; and we do not, as dignified Orientals did in still more luxurious times, use tiny entertainers fore and aft between the mutton and the rose sherbet. The whole point is that the old link between the adult world and the child world has been completely severed nowadays by new customs and new laws. Despite my having dabbled in psychiatry and social work, I really knew very little about children. (1.28)


Humbert Humbert proposes a mural painting for the dining room of the hotel in which he spends his first night with Lolita:


I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. Oh you, veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now in solitary confinement after gracing that school crossing for years, you wretched emeritus read to by a boy! It would never do, would it, to have you fellows fall madly in love with my Lolita! had I been a painter, had the management of The Enchanted Hunters lost its mind one summer day and commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own making, this is what I might have thought up, let me list some fragments:

There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studiesa tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group, Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smearing pink, a sigh, a wincing child. (1.30)


"A callypygean slave child" brings to mind "both hemispheres of our callipygian globe" in Eric Veen's Villa Venus essay:


To put it bluntly, the boy had sought to solace his first sexual torments by imagining and detailing a project (derived from reading too many erotic works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole): namely, a chain of palatial brothels that his inheritance would allow him to establish all over ‘both hemispheres of our callipygian globe.’ The little chap saw it as a kind of fashionable club, with branches, or, in his poetical phrase, ‘Floramors,’ in the vicinity of cities and spas. Membership was to be restricted to noblemen, ‘handsome and healthy,’ with an age limit of fifty (which must be praised as very broadminded on the poor kid’s part), paying a yearly fee of 3650 guineas not counting the cost of bouquets, jewels and other gallant donations. Resident female physicians, good-looking and young (‘of the American secretarial or dentist-assistant type’), would be there to check the intimate physical condition of ‘the caresser and the caressed’ (another felicitous formula) as well as their own if ‘the need arose.’ One clause in the Rules of the Club seemed to indicate that Eric, though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect): at least two of the maximum number of fifty inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys, wearing frontlets and short smocks, not older than fourteen if fair, and not more than twelve if dark. However, in order to exclude a regular flow of ‘inveterate pederasts,’ boy love could be dabbled in by the jaded guest only between two sequences of three girls each, all possessed in the course of the same week — a somewhat comical, but not unshrewd, stipulation. (2.3)