Describing Flavita (the Russian Scrabble), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) says that at chess Ada is not as good as at Flavita and mentions one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet:
Van, a first-rate chess player — he was to win in 1887 a match at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.) — had been puzzled by Ada’s inability of raising the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved, Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with — even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp. (1.36)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Pat Rishin: a play on ‘patrician’. One may recall Podgoretz (Russ. ‘underhill’) applying that epithet to a popular critic, would-be expert in Russian as spoken in Minsk and elsewhere. Minsk and Chess also figure in Chapter Six of Speak, Memory (p.133, N.Y. ed. 1966).
In his poem Shakhmatnyi kon' ("The Chess Knight," 1927) VN compares the dandruff on the collar of the old chess maestro to skorlupki shakhmatnykh mysley (the scales of chess thoughts):
Старый маэстро пивцо попивал,
слушал друзей, сигару жевал,
кивал головой седовато-кудластой,
и ворот осыпан был перхотью частой,—
скорлупками шахматных мыслей.
The friends of the old maestro remember how in Vienna he sacrificed his queen to Kieseritzky:
И друзья вспоминали, как, матом грозя,
Кизерицкому в Вене он отдал ферзя.
Кругом над столами нависли
табачные тучи, а плиточный пол
был в темных и светлых квадратах.
Друзья вспоминали, какой изобрел
он дерзостный гамбит когда-то.
According to Van, Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combinational sacrifice, offering, say, her queen:
Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combinational sacrifice, offering, say, her queen — with a subtle win after two or three moves if the piece were taken; but she saw only one side of the question, preferring to ignore, in the queer lassitude of clogged cogitation, the obvious counter combination that would lead inevitably to her defeat if the grand sacrifice were not accepted. On the Scrabble board, however, this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen, foresight and exploitation of chance, when shaping appetizing long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops. (1.36)
Vienna and Kieseritzky in VN’s poem “The Chess Knight” bring to mind "from Vienne, Isère" and "the Isère Professor" (as Van calls Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu):
Being unwilling to suffer another relapse after this blessed state of perfect mental repose, but knowing it could not last, she did what another patient had done in distant France, at a much less radiant and easygoing ‘home.’ A Dr Froid, one of the administerial centaurs, who may have been an émigré brother with a passport-changed name of the Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes or, more likely, the same man, because they both came from Vienne, Isère, and were only sons (as her son was), evolved, or rather revived, the therapistic device, aimed at establishing a ‘group’ feeling, of having the finest patients help the staff if ‘thusly inclined.’ Aqua, in her turn, repeated exactly clever Eleonore Bonvard’s trick, namely, opting for the making of beds and the cleaning of glass shelves. The astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was called (who cares — one forgets little things very fast, when afloat in infinite non-thingness) was, perhaps, more modem, with a more refined desertic view, than the Mondefroid bleakhouse horsepittle, but in both places a demented patient could outwit in one snap an imbecile pedant.
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. (1.3)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): horsepittle: ‘hospital’, borrowed from a passage in Dickens’ Bleak House. Poor Joe’s pun, not a poor Joycean one.
In The Bleak House Ada’s cousin Richard mentions “all this wasteful, wanton chess-playing:”
"It is to me, and has been ever since I can remember," returned Ada. "I am grieved that I should be the enemy---as I suppose I am --of a great number of relations and others, and that they should be my enemies--as I suppose they are--and that we should all be ruining one another without knowing how or why and be in constant doubt and discord all our lives. It seems very strange, as there must be right somewhere, that an honest judge in real earnest has not been able to find out through all these years where it is."
"Ah, cousin!" said Richard. "Strange, indeed! All this wasteful, wanton chess-playing is very strange. To see that composed court yesterday jogging on so serenely and to think of the wretchedness of the pieces on the board gave me the headache and the heartache both together. My head ached with wondering how it happened, if men were neither fools nor rascals; and my heart ached to think they could possibly be either. But at all events, Ada--I may call you Ada?"
"Of course you may, cousin Richard."
"At all events, Chancery will work none of its bad influences on US. We have happily been brought together, thanks to our good kinsman, and it can't divide us now!"
"Never, I hope, cousin Richard!" said Ada gently. (Chapter V: “A Morning Adventure”)
In Charles Dickens' and Wilkie Collins' story No Thoroughfare Madame Dor, upon awakening, says "Mon Dieu!" twice:
She hurried from the room, and touched Madame Dor’s shoulder in passing. Madame Dor woke up with a loud snort, looked first over one shoulder and then over the other, peered down into her lap, and discovered neither stockings, worsted, nor darning-needle in it. At the same moment, footsteps became audible ascending the stairs. “Mon Dieu!” said Madame Dor, addressing herself to the stove, and trembling violently. Vendale picked up the stockings and the ball, and huddled them all back in a heap over her shoulder. “Mon Dieu!” said Madame Dor, for the second time, as the avalanche of worsted poured into her capacious lap. (Act II: Vendale Makes Love)
Asmund and Signy (cf. Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu) is an Icelandic fairy tale collected in Islandische Märchen. Andrew Lang included it in The Brown Fairy Book. Like Van and Ada, Asmund and Signy are brother and sister.
Asmund + Signy = Sigmund + Sayn
The Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu seems to be the Antiterran counterpart of Dr Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). At the beginning of his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN says that he rejects completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud:
THE cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour). I know, however, of a young chronophobiac who experienced something like panic when looking for the first time at homemade movies that had been taken a few weeks before his birth. He saw a world that was practically unchanged—the same house, the same people—and then realized that he did not exist there at all and that nobody mourned his absence. He caught a glimpse of his mother waving from an upstairs window, and that unfamiliar gesture disturbed him, as if it were some mysterious farewell. But what particularly frightened him was the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin; even that was empty, as if, in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated.
Such fancies are not foreign to young lives. Or, to put it otherwise, first and last things often tend to have an adolescent note—unless, possibly, they are directed by some venerable and rigid religion. Nature expects a full-grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.
I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature. Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought—with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went—to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits. Short of suicide, I have tried everything. I have doffed my identity in order to pass for a conventional spook and steal into realms that existed before I was conceived. I have mentally endured the degrading company of Victorian lady novelists and retired colonels who remembered having, in former lives, been slave messengers on a Roman road or sages under the willows of Lhasa. I have ransacked my oldest dreams for keys and clues—and let me say at once that I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud, with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare’s works) and its bitter little embryos spying, from their natural nooks, upon the love life of their parents.
Initially, I was unaware that time, so boundless at first blush, was a prison. In probing my childhood (which is the next best to probing one’s eternity) I see the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold. I had learned numbers and speech more or less simultaneously at a very early date, but the inner knowledge that I was I and that my parents were my parents seems to have been established only later, when it was directly associated with my discovering their age in relation to mine. Judging by the strong sunlight that, when I think of that revelation, immediately invades my memory with lobed sun flecks through overlapping patterns of greenery, the occasion may have been my mother’s birthday, in late summer, in the country, and I had asked questions and had assessed the answers I received. All this is as it should be according to the theory of recapitulation; the beginning of reflexive consciousness in the brain of our remotest ancestor must surely have coincided with the dawning of the sense of time. (Chapter One, 1)
The Freudians’ “crankish quest for sexual symbols” 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'): 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 his poem "The Chess Knight" VN mentions ogromnyi orkestr (a huge orchestra) of invisible chessmen on invisible chessboards:
Старый маэстро сидел согнувшись,
пепел ронял на пикейный жилет,—
и нападал, пузырями раздувшись,
неудержимый шахматный бред.
Пили друзья за здоровье маэстро,
вспоминали, как с этой сигарой в зубах
управлял он вслепую огромным оркестром
незримых фигур на незримых досках.
The old maestro's cigar reminds one of a cigar in Uncle Dan's teeth in the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time):
Uncle Dan, a cigar in his teeth, and kerchiefed Marina with Dack in her clutch deriding the watchdogs, were in the process of setting out between raised arms and swinging lanterns in the runabout — as red as a fire engine! — only to be overtaken at the crunching curve of the drive by three English footmen on horseback with three French maids en croupe. The entire domestic staff seemed to be taking off to enjoy the fire (an infrequent event in our damp windless region), using every contraption available or imaginable: telegas, teleseats, roadboats, tandem bicycles and even the clockwork luggage carts with which the stationmaster supplied the family in memory of Erasmus Veen, their inventor. Only the governess (as Ada, not Van, had by then discovered) slept on through everything, snoring with a wheeze and a harkle in the room adjacent to the old nursery where little Lucette lay for a minute awake before running after her dream and jumping into the last furniture van.
Van, kneeling at the picture window, watched the inflamed eye of the cigar recede and vanish. That multiple departure... Take over. (1.19)
The last furniture van into which Lucette jumps makes one think of chessmen being moved like heavy furniture in the old maestro's brain:
Старый маэстро пивцо попивал,
слушал друзей, сигару жевал
и думал с улыбкою хмурой:
«Кто-то, а кто — я понять не могу,
переставляет в мозгу,
как тяжелую мебель, фигуры,
и пешка одна со вчерашнего дня
чёрною куклой идет на меня».
Neuderzhimyi shakhmatnyi bred (the irrepressible chess madness) in VN's poem "The Chess Knight" brings to mind a Mr Brod or Bred, tender and passionate, dark and handsome, who marries Dorothy Vinelander (Ada's sister-in-law):
So she did write as she had promised? Oh, yes, yes! In seventeen years he received from her around a hundred brief notes, each containing around one hundred words, making around thirty printed pages of insignificant stuff — mainly about her husband’s health and the local fauna. After helping her to nurse Andrey at Agavia Ranch through a couple of acrimonious years (she begrudged Ada every poor little hour devoted to collecting, mounting, and rearing!), and then taking exception to Ada’s choosing the famous and excellent Grotonovich Clinic (for her husband’s endless periods of treatment) instead of Princess Alashin’s select sanatorium, Dorothy Vinelander retired to a subarctic monastery town (Ilemna, now Novostabia) where eventually she married a Mr Brod or Bred, tender and passionate, dark and handsome, who traveled in eucharistials and other sacramental objects throughout the Severnïya Territorii and who subsequently was to direct, and still may be directing half a century later, archeological reconstructions at Goreloe (the ‘Lyaskan Herculanum’); what treasures he dug up in matrimony is another question. (3.8)
Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn was a county of Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany, comprising the lands of the region of Sayn. In Speak, Memory VN describes his ancestry and mentions his paternal aunt Elizaveta, married to Henri, Prince Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, and after his death, to Roman Leikmann, former tutor of her sons:
He [Dmitri Nabokov, VN’s grandfather] left four sons and five daughters. The eldest was Dmitri, who inherited the Nabokov majorat in the then Tsardom of Poland; his first wife was Lidia Eduardovna Falz-Fein, his second, Marie Redlich; next, came Sergey, governor of Mitau, who married Daria Nikolaevna Tuchkov, the great-great-granddaughter of Field Marshal Kutuzov, Prince of Smolensk, then came my father. The youngest was Konstantin, a confirmed bachelor. The sisters were: Natalia, wife of Ivan de Peterson, Russian consul at The Hague; Vera, wife of Ivan Pïhachev, sportsman and landowner; Nina, who divorced Baron Rausch von Traubenberg, military Governor of Warsaw, to marry Admiral Nikolay Kolomeytsev, hero of the Japanese war; Elizaveta, married to Henri, Prince Sayn-Wittgenstein-Berleburg, and after his death, to Roman Leikmann, former tutor of her sons; and Nadezhda, wife of Dmitri Vonlyarlyarski, whom she later divorced. (Chapter Three, 1)
The Erminin twins, Greg and Grace (the children of Colonel Erminin), bring to mind ‘Erminia,’ the nickname of Eliza Khitrovo (Kutuzov’s daughter who was in love with Pushkin).
See also the updated version of my post “Lalla Rookh chessmen & Mrs R4 in Ada.”