Uncle Dan's cigar & 63 minutes in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 07/25/2021 - 13:19

Describing the Night of the Burning Barn (when he and Ada make love for the first time), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a cigar in Uncle Dan’s teeth:


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.

That multiple departure really presented a marvelous sight against the pale star-dusted firmament of practically subtropical Ardis, tinted between the black trees with a distant flamingo flush at the spot where the Barn was Burning. To reach it one had to drive round a large reservoir which I could make out breaking into scaly light here and there every time some adventurous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis or in a Rob Roy or by means of a raft — typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan; and one could now follow with an artist’s eye the motorcar’s lamps, fore and aft, progressing east along the AB bank of that rectangular lake, then turning sharply upon reaching its B corner, trailing away up the short side and creeping back west, in a dim and diminished aspect, to a middle point on the far margin where they swung north and disappeared. (1.19)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): en croupe: riding pillion.


Van stretched himself naked in the now motionless candlelight.

‘Let us sleep here,’ he said. ‘They won’t be back before dawn relights Uncle’s cigar.’

‘My nightie is trempée,’ she whispered.                                                                                                                        

‘Take it off, this plaid sleeps two.’

‘Don’t look, Van.’

‘That’s not fair,’ he said and helped her to slip it up and over her hair-shaking head. She was shaded with a mere touch of coal at the mystery point of her chalk-white body. A bad boil had left a pink scar between two ribs. He kissed it, and lay back on his clasped hands. She was inspecting from above his tanned body the ant caravan to the oasis of the navel; he was decidedly hirsute for so young a boy. Her young round breasts were just above his face. I denounce the philistine’s post-coital cigarette both as a doctor and an artist. It is, however, true that Van was not unaware of a glass box of Turkish Traumatis on a console too far to be reached with an indolent stretch. The tall clock struck an anonymous quarter, and Ada was presently watching, cheek on fist, the impressive, though oddly morose, stirrings, steady clockwise launch, and ponderous upswing of virile revival. (ibid.)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): trempée: soaked.


In his poem Shakhmatnyi kon' ("The Chess Knight," 1927) VN several time mentions a cigar in the old maestro’s teeth:


Круглогривый, тяжелый, суконцем подбитый,
шахматный конь в коробке уснул,—
а давно ли, давно ли в пивной знаменитой
стоял живой человеческий гул?
Гул живописцев, ребят бородатых,
и крики поэтов, и стон скрипачей...
Лампа сияла, а пол под ней
был весь в очень ровных квадратах.

Он сидел с друзьями в любимом углу,
по привычке слегка пригнувшись к столу,
и друзья вспоминали турниры былые,
говорили о тонком его мастерстве...
Бархатный стук в голове:
это ходят фигуры резные.

Старый маэстро пивцо попивал,
слушал друзей, сигару жевал,
кивал головой седовато-кудластой,
и ворот осыпан был перхотью частой,—
скорлупками шахматных мыслей.

И друзья вспоминали, как, матом грозя,
Кизерицкому в Вене он отдал ферзя.
Кругом над столами нависли
табачные тучи, а плиточный пол
был в тёмных и светлых квадратах.
Друзья вспоминали, какой изобрёл
он дерзостный гамбит когда-то.

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 идёт на меня».

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.

Вдруг чёрный король, подкрепив проходную
пешку свою, подошёл вплотную.

Тогда он встал, отстранил друзей
и смеющихся, и оробелых.
Лампа сияла, а пол под ней
был в квадратах чёрных и белых.

На лице его старом, растерянном, добром,
   деревянный отблеск лежал.
Он сгорбился, шею надул, прижал
напряженные локти к рёбрам
и прыгать пошёл по квадратам большим,
через один, то влево, то вправо,—
и это была не пустая забава,
и недолго смеялись над ним.

И потом, в молчании чистой палаты,
   куда чёрный король его увёл,
на шестьдесят четыре квадрата
   необъяснимо делился пол.
И эдак, и так — до последнего часа —
в бредовых комбинациях, ночью и днём,
прыгал маэстро, старик седовласый,
   белым конём.


The floor in a clean ward to which the black king led the mad maestro is inexplicably divided into sixty-four squares. On the morning following the Night of the Burning Barn Ada tells Van to wait for her in the Baguenaudier Bower and says that she will be down in exactly sixty-three minutes:


After she too had finished breakfasting, he waylaid her, gorged with sweet butter, on the landing. They had one moment to plan things, it was all, historically speaking, at the dawn of the novel which was still in the hands of parsonage ladies and French academicians, so such moments were precious. She stood scratching one raised knee. They agreed to go for a walk before lunch and find a secluded place. She had to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière. She showed him her draft. François Coppée? Yes.


Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper

Can tell, before they reach the mud,

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its leaf of blood.


‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard en reconnaissant — that paraphrastic touch of "chopper" and "mud" is, of course, pure Lowden (minor poet and translator, 1815-1895). Betraying the first half of the stanza to save the second is rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves, and then fell out of his sleigh.’

‘I think you are very cruel and stupid,’ said Ada. ‘This is not meant to be a work of art or a brilliant parody. It is the ransom exacted by a demented governess from a poor overworked schoolgirl. Wait for me in the Baguenaudier Bower,’ she added. ‘I’ll be down in exactly sixty-three minutes.’

Her hands were cold, her neck was hot; the postman’s boy had rung the doorbell; Bout, a young footman, the butler’s bastard, crossed the resonant flags of the hall.

On Sunday mornings the mail came late, because of the voluminous Sunday supplements of the papers from Balticomore, and Kaluga, and Luga, which Robin Sherwood, the old postman, in his bright green uniform, distributed on horseback throughout the somnolent countryside. As Van, humming his school song — the only tune he could ever carry — skipped down the terrace steps, he saw Robin on his old bay holding the livelier black stallion of his Sunday helper, a handsome English lad whom, it was rumored behind the rose hedges, the old man loved more vigorously than his office required.

Van reached the third lawn, and the bower, and carefully inspected the stage prepared for the scene, ‘like a provincial come an hour too early to the opera after jogging all day along harvest roads with poppies and bluets catching and twinkle-twining in the wheels of his buggy’ (Floeberg’s Ursula). (1.20)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): leur chute etc.: their fall is slow... one can follow them with one’s eyes, recognizing —

Lowden: a portmanteau name combining two contemporary bards.

baguenaudier: French name of bladder senna.

Floeberg: Flaubert’s style is mimicked in this pseudo quotation.


63 + 1 = 64. Describing Flavita (the Russian Scrabble), Van 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 "The Chess Knight" VN compares the dandruff on the collar of the old maestro to skorlupki shakhmatnykh mysley (the scales of chess thoughts). The friends of the old maestro remember how in Vienna he sacrificed his queen to Kieseritzky. 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)