clash of cymbals & crush of symbols in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 07/11/2021 - 06:49

Describing his performance in variety shows as Mascodagama, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a clash of cymbals in the orchestra:


The stage would be empty when the curtain went up; then, after five heartbeats of theatrical suspense, something swept out of the wings, enormous and black, to the accompaniment of dervish drums. The shock of his powerful and precipitous entry affected so deeply the children in the audience that for a long time later, in the dark of sobbing insomnias, in the glare of violent nightmares, nervous little boys and girls relived, with private accretions, something similar to the ‘primordial qualm,’ a shapeless nastiness, the swoosh of nameless wings, the unendurable dilation of fever which came in a cavern draft from the uncanny stage. Into the harsh light of its gaudily carpeted space a masked giant, fully eight feet tall, erupted, running strongly in the kind of soft boots worn by Cossack dancers. A voluminous, black shaggy cloak of the burka type enveloped his silhouette inquiétante (according to a female Sorbonne correspondent — we’ve kept all those cuttings) from neck to knee or what appeared to be those sections of his body. A Karakul cap surmounted his top. A black mask covered the upper part of his heavily bearded face. The unpleasant colossus kept strutting up and down the stage for a while, then the strut changed to the restless walk of a caged madman, then he whirled, and to a clash of cymbals in the orchestra and a cry of terror (perhaps faked) in the gallery, Mascodagama turned over in the air and stood on his head.

In this weird position, with his cap acting as a pseudopodal pad, he jumped up and down, pogo-stick fashion — and suddenly came apart. Van’s face, shining with sweat, grinned between the legs of the boots that still shod his rigidly raised arms. Simultaneously his real feet kicked off and away the false head with its crumpled cap and bearded mask. The magical reversal ‘made the house gasp.’ Frantic (‘deafening,’ ‘delirious,’ ‘a veritable tempest of’) applause followed the gasp. He bounded offstage — and next moment was back, now sheathed in black tights, dancing a jig on his hands. (1.30)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): inquiétante: disturbing.


A clash of cymbals in the orchestra brings to mind "a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra" mentioned by Van when he describes his nights in "Ardis the First:"


The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end. Van watched them with the same pleasurable awe he had experienced as a child, when, lost in the purple crepuscule of an Italian hotel garden, in an alley of cypresses, he supposed they were golden ghouls or the passing fancies of the garden. Now as they softly flew, apparently straight, crossing and recrossing the darkness around him, each flashed his pale-lemon light every five seconds or so, signaling in his own specific rhythm (quite different from that of an allied species, flying with Photinus ladorensis, according to Ada, at Lugano and Luga) to his grass-domiciled female pulsating in photic response after taking a couple of moments to verify the exact type of light code he used. The presence of those magnificent little animals, delicately illuminating, as they passed, the fragrant night, filled Van with a subtle exhilaration that Ada’s entomology seldom evoked in him — maybe in result of the abstract scholar’s envy which a naturalist’s immediate knowledge sometimes provokes. The hammock, a comfortable oblong nest, reticulated his naked body either under the weeping cedar that sprawled over one corner of a lawn, and granted a partial shelter in case of a shower, or, on safer nights, between two tulip trees (where a former summer guest, with an opera cloak over his clammy nightshirt, had awoken once because a stink bomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart, and striking a match, Uncle Van had seen the bright blood blotching his pillow).

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. 

In this our dry report on Van Veen’s early, too early love, for Ada Veen, there is neither reason, nor room for metaphysical digression. Yet, let it be observed (just while the lucifers fly and throb, and an owl hoots — also most rhythmically — in the nearby park) that Van, who at the time had still not really tasted the Terror of Terra — vaguely attributing it, when analyzing his dear unforgettable Aqua’s torments, to pernicious fads and popular fantasies — even then, at fourteen, recognized that the old myths, which willed into helpful being a whirl of worlds (no matter how silly and mystical) and situated them within the gray matter of the star-suffused heavens, contained, perhaps, a glowworm of strange truth. His nights in the hammock (where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra — as suggested to him by career physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time, tingling about him and through him, as it was to retingle — with a little more meaning fortunately — in the last nights of a life, which I do not regret, my love. (1.12)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): pensive reeds: Pascal’s metaphor of man, un roseau pensant.

horsecart: an old anagram. It leads here to a skit on Freudian dream charades (‘symbols in an orchal orchestra’).

buvard: blotting pad.

Kamargsky: La Camargue, a marshy region in S. France combined with Komar, ‘mosquito’, in Russian and moustique in French.


In Manhattan, just before he visits Van in his penthouse apartment, tells him about Uncle Dan's odd Boschean death and finds out by chance that his children are lovers, Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) smoothly passes in front of a slow-clopping horse-drawn vegetable cart:


Next day, February 5, around nine p.m., Manhattan (winter) time, on the way to Dan’s lawyer, Demon noted — just as he was about to cross Alexis A venue, an ancient but insignificant acquaintance, Mrs Arfour, advancing toward him, with her toy terrier, along his side of the street. Unhesitatingly, Demon stepped off the curb, and having no hat to raise (hats were not worn with raincloaks and besides he had just taken a very exotic and potent pill to face the day’s ordeal on top of a sleepless journey), contented himself — quite properly — with a wave of his slim umbrella; recalled with a paint dab of delight one of the gargle girls of her late husband; and smoothly passed in front of a slow-clopping horse-drawn vegetable cart, well out of the way of Mrs R4. But precisely in regard to such a contingency, Fate had prepared an alternate continuation. As Demon rushed (or, in terms of the pill, sauntered) by the Monaco, where he had often lunched, it occurred to him that his son (whom he had been unable to ‘contact’) might still be living with dull little Cordula de Prey in the penthouse apartment of that fine building. He had never been up there — or had he? For a business consultation with Van? On a sun-hazed terrace? And a clouded drink? (He had, that’s right, but Cordula was not dull and had not been present.)

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.

‘Then we are fellow travelers,’ said Demon inhaling not without gourmand anticipation the smell of Monaco’s coffee, exaggerated by the shadows of tropical weeds waving in the breeze of his brain.

On that memorable morning, Van, after ordering breakfast, had climbed out of his bath and donned a strawberry-red terrycloth robe when he thought he heard Valerio’s voice from the adjacent parlor. Thither he padded, humming tunelessly, looking forward to another day of increasing happiness (with yet another uncomfortable little edge smoothed away, another raw kink in the past so refashioned as to fit into the new pattern of radiance). (2.10)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): R4: ‘rook four’, a chess indication of position (pun on the woman’s name).


According to Penelope Gilliatt (who interviewed VN in 1966), VN told her that some of his best poems and chess problems have been composed in bathrooms looking at the floor:


“Some of my best poems and chess problems have been composed in bathrooms looking at the floor,” he said.
At some stage we started to play anagrams. I gave him “cart horse” (the solution is “orchestra”). He took the problem away on what was meant to be a nap, and came bounding into the bar two hours later with an expression that was a very Russian mixture of buoyancy and sheepishness. The tartanned paper of his little notepad was covered with methodically wrong steps. “Her actors,” he said, in try-on triumph, eying me, and knowing perfectly well that the answer had to be one word. Then he started to laugh at his picture of the creature whose property the actors would be. Bossy women strike him as irresistibly comic: they trudge through his books, absurd, cruel, creatures of inane placidity who see everything in the world as a mirror of their womanliness and who will speak sharply about something like Bolshevism as though it were an obvious minor nuisance, like mosquitoes or the common cold. I believe his woman producer also amused him because he finds the theatre inherently funny when it is earnest: something to do with its thickness, I think, compared with the fine mesh of the novels he likes.


In his interview with Penelope Gilliatt VN criticizes Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago (1957) but says that Pasternak is not a bad poet:


“Pasternak?” I asked. At once he talked very fast. “Doctor Zhivago is false, melodramatic, badly written. It is false to history and false to art. The people are dummies. That awful girl is absurd. It reminds me very much of novels written by Russians of, I am ashamed to say, the gentler sex. Pasternak is not a bad poet. But in Zhivago he is vulgar. Simple. If you take his beautiful metaphors, there is nothing behind them. Even in his poems: What is that line, Vera? ‘To be a woman is a big step.’ It is ridiculous.” He laughed and looked stricken.
“This kind of thing recurs. Very typical of poems written in the Soviet era. A person of Zhivago’s class and his set, he wouldn’t stand in the snow and read about the Bolshevist regime and feel a tremendous glow. There was the liberal revolution at that time. Kerensky. If Kerensky had had more luck—but he was a liberal, you see, and he couldn’t just clap the Bolsheviks into jail. It was not done. He was a very average man, I should say. The kind of person you might find in the Cabinet of any democratic country. He spoke very well, with his hand in his bosom like Napoleon because it had almost been broken by handshakes.


The first poem in Pasternak's collection Sestra moya zhizn' ("My Sister Life," 1923) is entitled Pamyati Demona ("In Memory of the Demon"). When Demon reads Van's palm, he is puzzled by the strange condition of the Sister of Van’s Life:


‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long...’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’

‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.

‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’

‘I adore it,’ said Van. ‘It’s for me the château que baignait la Dore. I would gladly spend all my scarred and strange life here. But that’s a hopeless fancy.’

‘Hopeless? I wonder. I know Dan wants to leave it to Lucile, but Dan is greedy, and my affairs are such that I can satisfy great greed. When I was your age I thought that the sweetest word in the language rhymes with "billiard," and now I know I was right. If you’re really keen, son, on having this property, I might try to buy it. I can exert a certain pressure upon my Marina. She sighs like a hassock when you sit upon her, so to speak. Damn it, the servants here are not Mercuries. Pull that cord again. Yes, maybe Dan could be made to sell.’

‘That’s very black of you, Dad,’ said pleased Van, using a slang phrase he had learned from his tender young nurse, Ruby, who was born in the Mississippi region where most magistrates, public benefactors, high priests of various so-called ‘denominations,’ and other honorable and generous men, had the dark or darkish skin of their West-African ancestors, who had been the first navigators to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

I wonder,’ Demon mused. ‘It would cost hardly more than a couple of millions minus what Cousin Dan owes me, minus also the Ladore pastures, which are utterly mucked up and should be got rid of gradually, if the local squires don’t blow up that new kerosene distillery, the of our county. I am not particularly fond of Ardis, but I have nothing against it, though I detest its environs. Ladore Town has become very honky-tonky, and the gaming is not what it used to be. You have all sorts of rather odd neighbors. Poor Lord Erminin is practically insane. At the races, the other day, I was talking to a woman I preyed upon years ago, oh long before Moses de Vere cuckolded her husband in my absence and shot him dead in my presence — an epigram you’ve heard before, no doubt from these very lips —’ (1.38)


Reading Van's palm, Demon seems to predict his own death in an airplane disaster. Van never finds out that his father died, because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair.


Btw., the phrase stïd i sram (shame) is used by Pasternak in his poem Dlya bodrosti ty b malost’ podkhlestnul… (“For courage you’d better whip up a little,” 1926):


Вот радость! Здравствуй. Просто стыд и срам.
Ну, что б черкнуть? Как ехалось? Надолго?
Оставь, пустое, взволоку и сам.
Толкай смелей, она у нас заволгла.


In his poem Pasternak says ne spite dnyom (don't sleep during the day) and uses the phrase na bokovuyu ("hit the sack"):


Не спите днём. Как временный трактат,
Скрепит ваш сон с минувшим мировую.
Но это перемирье прекратят!
И дёрнуло ж вас днём на боковую.


According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN took the problem (the "horse cart" anagram) away on what was meant to be a nap.


At the end of his poem Pasternak says that time would not go by, if it did not have a grudge against us:


Bам дико всё. Призванье, год, число.
Bы угорели. Bас качала жалость.
Bы поняли, что время бы не шло,
Когда б оно на нас не обижалось.


Describing the first occasion on which Ada saw him, Van mentions Grandpa Bagrov who hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir:


Before his boarding-school days started, his father’s pretty house, in Florentine style, between two vacant lots (5 Park Lane in Manhattan), had been Van’s winter home (two giant guards were soon to rise on both sides of it, ready to frog-march it away), unless they journeyed abroad. Summers in Radugalet, the ‘other Ardis,’ were so much colder and duller than those here in this, Ada’s, Ardis. Once he even spent both winter and summer there; it must have been in 1878.

Of course, of course, because that was the first time, Ada recalled, she had glimpsed him. In his little white sailor suit and blue sailor cap. (Un régulier angelochek, commented Van in the Raduga jargon.) He was eight, she was six. Uncle Dan had unexpectedly expressed the desire to revisit the old estate. At the last moment Marina had said she’d come too, despite Dan’s protests, and had lifted little Ada, hopla, with her hoop, into the calèche. They took, she imagined, the train from Ladoga to Raduga, for she remembered the way the station man with the whistle around his neck went along the platform, past the coaches of the stopped local, banging shut door after door, all six doors of every carriage, each of which consisted of six one-window carrosses of pumpkin origin, fused together. It was, Van suggested, a ‘tower in the mist’ (as she called any good recollection), and then a conductor walked on the running board of every coach with the train also running and opened doors all over again to give, punch, collect tickets, and lick his thumb, and change money, a hell of a job, but another ‘mauve tower.’ Did they hire a motor landaulet to Radugalet? Ten miles, she guessed. Ten versts, said Van. She stood corrected. He was out, he imagined, na progulke (promenading) in the gloomy firwood with Aksakov, his tutor, and Bagrov’s grandson, a neighbor’s boy, whom he teased and pinched and made horrible fun of, a nice quiet little fellow who quietly massacred moles and anything else with fur on, probably pathological. However, when they arrived, it became instantly clear that Demon had not expected ladies. He was on the terrace drinking goldwine (sweet whisky) with an orphan he had adopted, he said, a lovely Irish wild rose in whom Marina at once recognized an impudent scullery maid who had briefly worked at Ardis Hall, and had been ravished by an unknown gentleman — who was now well-known. In those days Uncle Dan wore a monocle in gay-dog copy of his cousin, and this he screwed in to view Rose, whom perhaps he had also been promised (here Van interrupted his interlocutor telling her to mind her vocabulary). The party was a disaster. The orphan languidly took off her pearl earrings for Marina’s appraisal. Grandpa Bagrov hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir and mistook Marina for a grande cocotte as the enraged lady conjectured later when she had a chance to get at poor Dan. Instead of staying for the night, Marina stalked off and called Ada who, having been told to ‘play in the garden,’ was mumbling and numbering in raw-flesh red the white trunks of a row of young birches with Rose’s purloined lipstick in the preamble to a game she now could not remember — what a pity, said Van — when her mother swept her back straight to Ardis in the same taxi leaving Dan — to his devices and vices, inserted Van — and arriving home at sunrise. But, added Ada, just before being whisked away and deprived of her crayon (tossed out by Marina k chertyam sobach’im, to hell’s hounds — and it did remind one of Rose’s terrier that had kept trying to hug Dan’s leg) the charming glimpse was granted her of tiny Van, with another sweet boy, and blond-bearded, white-bloused Aksakov, walking up to the house, and, oh yes, she had forgotten her hoop — no, it was still in the taxi. But, personally, Van had not the slightest recollection of that visit or indeed of that particular summer, because his father’s life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time, and he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than once himself, which did not interest Ada. (1.24)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Bagrov’s grandson: allusion to Childhood Years of Bagrov’s Grandson by the minor writer Sergey Aksakov (A.D. 1791-1859).


In his deathbed delirium Uncle Dan used the phrase k chertyam sobach’im (to the devil):


And here Ada entered. Not naked — oh no; in a pink peignoir so as not to shock Valerio — comfortably combing her hair, sweet and sleepy. She made the mistake of crying out ‘Bozhe moy!’ and darting back into the dusk of the bedroom. All was lost in that one chink of a second.

‘Or better — come at once, both of you, because I’ll cancel my appointment and go home right now.’ He spoke, or thought he spoke, with the self-control and the clarity of enunciation which so frightened and mesmerized blunderers, blusterers, a voluble broker, a guilty schoolboy. Especially so now — when everything had gone to the hell curs, k chertyam sobach’im, of Jeroen Anthniszoon van Äken and the molti aspetti affascinati of his enigmatica arte, as Dan explained with a last sigh to Dr Nikulin and to nurse Bellabestia (‘Bess’) to whom he bequeathed a trunkful of museum catalogues and his second-best catheter. (2.10)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Bozhe moy: Russ., good Heavens.