Ronald Oranger & Violet Knox as super-imperial couple

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/28/2021 - 21:59

After Van’s and Ada’s death Ronald Oranger (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, old Van’s secretary, the editor of Ada) marries Violet Knox (old Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka):


Violet Knox [now Mrs Ronald Oranger. Ed.], born in 1940, came to live with us in 1957. She was (and still is — ten years later) an enchanting English blonde with doll eyes, a velvet carnation and a tweed-cupped little rump [.....]; but such designs, alas, could no longer flesh my fancy. She has been responsible for typing out this memoir — the solace of what are, no doubt, my last ten years of existence. A good daughter, an even better sister, and half-sister, she had supported for ten years her mother’s children from two marriages, besides laying aside [something]. I paid her [generously] per month, well realizing the need to ensure unembarrassed silence on the part of a puzzled and dutiful maiden. Ada called her ‘Fialochka’ and allowed herself the luxury of admiring ‘little Violet’ ‘s cameo neck, pink nostrils, and fair pony-tail. Sometimes, at dinner, lingering over the liqueurs, my Ada would consider my typist (a great lover of Koo-Ahn-Trow) with a dreamy gaze, and then, quick-quick, peck at her flushed cheek. The situation might have been considerably more complicated had it arisen twenty years earlier. (5.4)


“Koo-Ahn-Trow” seems to hint at the Cointreau (orange-flavored liqueur) demanded by Berdnikov in Gorky's novel Zhizn’ Klima Samgina (“The Life of Klim Samgin,” 1925-36). But it also brings to mind Crème de Violette, a liqueur immortalized by Igor Severyanin in his poem Fioletovyi trans (“The Violet Trance,” 1911):


О, Лилия ликеров, — о, Crème de Violette!
Я выпил грёз фиалок фиалковый фиал...
Я приказал немедля подать кабриолет
И сел на сером клёне в атласный интервал.

Затянут в черный бархат, шоффер — и мой клеврет
Коснулся рукоятки, и вздрогнувший мотор,
Как жеребец заржавший, пошел на весь простор,
А ветер восхищенный сорвал с меня берэт.

Я приказал дать «полный». Я нагло приказал
Околдовать природу и перепутать путь!
Я выбросил шоффера, когда он отказал, —
Взревел! и сквозь природу — вовсю и как-нибудь!

Встречалась ли деревня, — ни голосов, ни изб!
Врезался в чернолесье, — ни дерева, ни пня!
Когда б мотор взорвался, я руки перегрыз б!!.
Я опьянел грозово, все на пути пьяня!..

И вдруг — безумным жестом остолблен кленоход:
Я лилию заметил у ската в водопад.
Я перед ней склонился, от радости горбат,
Благодаря: за встречу, за благостный исход...

Я упоен. Я вещий. Я тихий. Я грёзэр.
И разве виноват я, что лилии колет
Так редко можно встретить, что путь без лилий сер?..
О, яд мечты фиалок, — о, Crème de Violette...


In his autobiographical narrative poem Rosa oranzhevogo chasa (“The Dew of the Orange Hour,” 1925) Severyanin confesses that he cherishes a funny thought that his ancestor was imperator Vizantii (a Byzantine emperor):


Склоняясь ныне над сумой,
Таю, наперекор стихии,
Смешную мысль, что предок мой
Был император Византии!.. (Part One, 4)


When Van describes his nights in “Ardis the First,” Ada takes over and mentions sverhimperatorskaya cheta (a super-imperial couple):


Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please.

(She). Billions of boys. Take one fairly decent decade. A billion of Bills, good, gifted, tender and passionate, not only spiritually but physically well-meaning Billions, have bared the jillions of their no less tender and brilliant Jills during that decade, at stations and under conditions that have to be controlled and specified by the worker, lest the entire report be choked up by the weeds of statistics and waist-high generalizations. No point would there be, if we left out, for example, the little matter of prodigious individual awareness and young genius, which makes, in some cases, of this or that particular gasp an unprecedented and unrepeatable event in the continuum of life or at least a thematic anthemia of such events in a work of art, or a denouncer’s article. The details that shine through or shade through: the local leaf through the hyaline skin, the green sun in the brown humid eye, tout ceci, vsyo eto, in tit and toto, must be taken into account, now prepare to take over (no, Ada, go on, ya zaslushalsya: I’m all enchantment and ears), if we wish to convey the fact, the fact, the fact — that among those billions of brilliant couples in one cross section of what you will allow me to call spacetime (for the convenience of reasoning), one couple is a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta, in consequence of which (to be inquired into, to be painted, to be denounced, to be put to music, or to the question and death, if the decade has a scorpion tail after all), the particularities of their love-making influence in a special unique way two long lives and a few readers, those pensive reeds, and their pens and mental paintbrushes. Natural history indeed! Unnatural history — because that precision of senses and sense must seem unpleasantly peculiar to peasants, and because the detail is all: The song of a Tuscan Firecrest or a Sitka Kinglet in a cemetery cypress; a minty whiff of Summer Savory or Yerba Buena on a coastal slope; the dancing flitter of a Holly Blue or an Echo Azure — combined with other birds, flowers and butterflies: that has to be heard, smelled and seen through the transparency of death and ardent beauty. And the most difficult: beauty itself as perceived through the there and then. The males of the firefly (now it’s really your turn, Van). (1.12)


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


Ada's grandchildren who marry after Van’s and Ada’s death, Ronald Oranger and Violet Knox seem to be sverhimperatorskaya cheta. In “The Dew of the Orange Hour” Severyanin mentions apel'sinovyi zakat (the orange sunset) and calls the blue Suda (a river in the Province of Vologda where Severyanin spent his boyhood) vnuchka Volgi (a granddaughter of the Volga) and doch' Sheksny (a daughter of the Sheksna, the Volga's tributary):


…О Суда! Голубая Суда,
Ты, внучка Волги! дочь Шексны!
Как я хочу к тебе отсюда
В твои одебренные сны!.. (Part Two, 20)


In the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time) Ada compares the veins on Van's male organ to the rivers of Africa and Van mentions the blue Nile:


He discarded his makeshift kilt, and her tone of voice changed immediately.

‘Oh, dear,’ she said as one child to another. ‘It’s all skinned and raw. Does it hurt? Does it hurt horribly?’

‘Touch it quick,’ he implored.

‘Van, poor Van,’ she went on in the narrow voice the sweet girl used when speaking to cats, caterpillars, pupating puppies, ‘yes, I’m sure it smarts, would it help if I’d touch, are you sure?’

‘You bet,’ said Van, ‘on n’est pas bête à ce point’ (‘there are limits to stupidity,’ colloquial and rude).

‘Relief map,’ said the primrose prig, ‘the rivers of Africa.’ Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled up again. ‘Now what’s this? The cap of the Red Bolete is not half as plushy. In fact’ (positively chattering), ‘I’m reminded of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom.’

‘God, we all are,’ said Van.

‘Oh, I like this texture, Van, I like it! Really I do!’

‘Squeeze, you goose, can’t you see I’m dying.’

But our young botanist had not the faintest idea how to handle the thing properly — and Van, now in extremis, driving it roughly against the hem of her nightdress, could not help groaning as he dissolved in a puddle of pleasure.

She looked down in dismay.

‘Not what you think,’ remarked Van calmly. ‘This is not number one. Actually it’s as clean as grass sap. Well, now the Nile is settled stop Speke.’ (1.19)


In Part Three of his poem "The Dew of the Orange Hour" Severyanin describes his journey by train to Port Arthur on the eve of the Russo-Japanese war and mentions the great Siberian rivers (Ob, Yenisei, Angara) and Lake Baikal:


Я видел сини Енисея,
Тебя, незлобивая Обь.
Кем наша матушка-Рассея, —
Как несравнимая особь, —
Не зря гордится пред Европой;
И как судьба меня ни хлопай,
Я устремлен душою всей
К тебе, о синий Енисей!
Вдоль малахитовой Ангары,
Под выступами скользких скал,
Неслись, тая в душе разгары;
А вот — и озеро Байкал. (6)


Describing his novel Letters from Terra and the political situation on Terra, Van mentions a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds:


On Terra, Theresa had been a Roving Reporter for an American magazine, thus giving Van the opportunity to describe the sibling planet’s political aspect. This aspect gave him the least trouble, presenting as it did a mosaic of painstakingly collated notes from his own reports on the ‘transcendental delirium’ of his patients. Its acoustics were poor, proper names often came out garbled, a chaotic calendar messed up the order of events but, on the whole, the colored dots did form a geomantic picture of sorts. As earlier experimentators had conjectured, our annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents. At the moment of our sorry story, the king of Terra’s England, yet another George (there had been, apparently, at least half-a-dozen bearing that name before him) ruled, or had just ceased to rule, over an empire that was somewhat patchier (with alien blanks and blots between the British Islands and South Africa) than the solidly conglomerated one on our Antiterra. Western Europe presented a particularly glaring gap: ever since the eighteenth century, when a virtually bloodless revolution had dethroned the Capetians and repelled all invaders, Terra’s France flourished under a couple of emperors and a series of bourgeois presidents, of whom the present one, Doumercy, seemed considerably more lovable than Milord Goal, Governor of Lute! Eastward, instead of Khan Sosso and his ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds, was governed by a Sovereign Society of Solicitous Republics (or so it came through) which had superseded the Tsars, conquerors of Tartary and Trst. Last but not least, Athaulf the Future, a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform, the secret flame of many a British nobleman, honorary captain of the French police, and benevolent ally of Rus and Rome, was said to be in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country of speedways, immaculate soldiers, brass bands and modernized barracks for misfits and their young. (2.2)


Describing the ball in Port Arthur, Severyanin mentions val’sa tur (a waltz):


Военной строгости указки
Бросает в воду вальса тур.
Эскадра свой справляет праздник,
И вместе с ней весь Порт-Артур.


At the beginning of VN’s novel Priglashenie na kazn’ (“Invitation to a Beheading,” 1935) the jailer Rodion enters Cincinnatus' cell and offers him tur val'sa (to dance a waltz with him):


Спустя некоторое время тюремщик Родион вошёл и ему предложил тур вальса. Цинциннат согласился. Они закружились. Бренчали у Родиона ключи на кожаном поясе, от него пахло мужиком, табаком, чесноком, и он напевал, пыхтя в рыжую бороду, и скрипели ржавые суставы (не те годы, увы, опух, одышка). Их вынесло в коридор. Цинциннат был гораздо меньше своего кавалера. Цинциннат был лёгок как лист. Ветер вальса пушил светлые концы его длинных, но жидких усов, а большие, прозрачные глаза косили, как у всех пугливых танцоров.


Sometime later Rodion the jailer came in and offered to dance a waltz with him. Cincinnatus agreed. They began to whirl. The keys on Rodion's leather belt jangled; he smelled of sweat, tobacco and garlic; he hummed puffing into his red beard; and his rusty joints creaked (he was not what he used to be, alas - now he was fat and short of breath). The dance carried them into the corridor. Cincinnatus was much smaller than his partner. Cincinnatus was light as a leaf. The wind of the waltz made the tips of his long but thin mustache flutter, and his big limpid eyes looked askance, as is always the case with timorous dancers. (Chapter 1)


The characters in “Invitation to a Beheading” include M'sieur Pierre, the executioner. M'sieur Pierre is a namesake of Pierre Legrand, Van’s fencing master whose name hints at Peter the Great (the first Russian emperor and the founder of St. Petersburg, VN’s home city):


‘Now let’s go out for a breath of crisp air,’ suggested Van. ‘I’ll order Pardus and Peg to be saddled.’

‘Last night two men recognized me,’ she said. ‘Two separate Californians, but they didn’t dare bow — with that silk-tuxedoed bretteur of mine glaring around. One was Anskar, the producer, and the other, with a cocotte, Paul Whinnier, one of your father’s London pals. I sort of hoped we’d go back to bed.’

‘We shall now go for a ride in the park,’ said Van firmly, and rang, first of all, for a Sunday messenger to take the letter to Lucette’s hotel — or to the Verma resort, if she had already left.

‘I suppose you know what you’re doing?’ observed Ada.

‘Yes,’ he answered.

‘You are breaking her heart,’ said Ada.

‘Ada girl, adored girl,’ cried Van, ‘I’m a radiant void. I’m convalescing after a long and dreadful illness. You cried over my unseemly scar, but now life is going to be nothing but love and laughter, and corn in cans. I cannot brood over broken hearts, mine is too recently mended. You shall wear a blue veil, and I the false mustache that makes me look like Pierre Legrand, my fencing master.’

‘Au fond,’ said Ada, ‘first cousins have a perfect right to ride together. And even dance or skate, if they want. After all, first cousins are almost brother and sister. It’s a blue, icy, breathless day,’

She was soon ready, and they kissed tenderly in their hallway, between lift and stairs, before separating for a few minutes.

‘Tower,’ she murmured in reply to his questioning glance, just as she used to do on those honeyed mornings in the past, when checking up on happiness: ‘And you?’

‘A regular ziggurat.’ (2.8)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): bretteur: duelling bravo.

au fond: actually.


Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen had a sword duel with Baron d’Onsky (Skonky):


Upon being questioned in Demon’s dungeon, Marina, laughing trillingly, wove a picturesque tissue of lies; then broke down, and confessed. She swore that all was over; that the Baron, a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai’s real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. Since prudent Veen preferred killing his man in Europe (decrepit but indestructible Gamaliel was said to be doing his best to forbid duels in the Western Hemisphere — a canard or an idealistic President’s instant-coffee caprice, for nothing was to come of it after all), Demon rented the fastest petroloplane available, overtook the Baron (looking very fit) in Nice, saw him enter Gunter’s Bookshop, went in after him, and in the presence of the imperturbable and rather bored English shopkeeper, back-slapped the astonished Baron across the face with a lavender glove. The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)


At the end of his poem Severyanin mentions the impending war with Japan and says that he cannot help envying a cow, because it hates the clanging of foils:


Вот в это время назревала
Уже с Японией война.
И, крови жаждя, как вина,
Мечтали люди — до отвала
Упиться ею: суждена
Людскому роду кровь в напиток, —
Её на свете ведь избыток.
И людям просто пир не в пир,
Коль не удастся выпить крови…
Как не завидовать корове:
Ведь ей отвратен лязг рапир! (Part Three, 8)


Severyanin wrote his poem in Estland, a country whose name brings to mind Estotiland (mentioned by Van at the beginning of Ada):


Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (‘Dolly’) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called ‘Russian’ Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with ‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, however, was Raduga near the burg of that name, beyond Estotiland proper, in the Atlantic panel of the continent between elegant Kaluga, New Cheshire, U.S.A., and no less elegant Ladoga, Mayne, where they had their town house and where their three children were born: a son, who died young and famous, and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares). (1.1)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Severnïya Territorii: Northern Territories. Here and elsewhere transliteration is based on the old Russian orthography.

granoblastically: in a tesselar (mosaic) jumble.

Tofana: allusion to ‘aqua tofana’ (see any good dictionary).

sur-royally: fully antlered, with terminal prongs.


Severnïya Territorii remind one not only of Severn (the longest river in Great Britain), but also of Severyanin.


In "Ardis the Second" Marina (who wears a kimono and drinks tea with mare's milk) invites Van to a talk in her bedroom and tell him "the cow is in the smaller jug:"


Naked-faced, dull-haired, wrapped up in her oldest kimono (her Pedro had suddenly left for Rio), Marina reclined on her mahogany bed under a golden-yellow quilt, drinking tea with mare’s milk, one of her fads.

‘Sit down, have a spot of chayku,’ she said. ‘The cow is in the smaller jug, I think. Yes, it is.’ And when Van, having kissed her freckled hand, lowered himself on the ivanilich (a kind of sighing old hassock upholstered in leather): ‘Van, dear, I wish to say something to you, because I know I shall never have to repeat it again. Belle, with her usual flair for the right phrase, has cited to me the cousinage-dangereux-voisinage adage — I mean "adage," I always fluff that word — and complained qu’on s’embrassait dans tous les coins. Is that true?’

Van’s mind flashed in advance of his speech. It was, Marina, a fantastic exaggeration. The crazy governess had observed it once when he carried Ada across a brook and kissed her because she had hurt her toe. I’m the well-known beggar in the saddest of all stories. (1.37)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): chayku: Russ., tea (diminutive).

Ivanilich: a pouf plays a marvelous part in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where it sighs deeply under a friend of the widow’s.

cousinage: cousinhood is dangerous neighborhood.

on s’embrassait: kissing went on in every corner.


Sverhimperatorskaya cheta (a super-imperial couple) also seems to hint at cheta mel’kaet za chetoy (pair after pair flicks by), a line in Chapter Five (XLI: 4) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin:


Однообразный и безумный,
Как вихорь жизни молодой,
Кружится вальса вихорь шумный;
Чета мелькает за четой.
К минуте мщенья приближаясь,
Онегин, втайне усмехаясь,
Подходит к Ольге. Быстро с ней
Вертится около гостей,
Потом на стул её сажает,
Заводит речь о том о сём;
Спустя минуты две потом
Вновь с нею вальс он продолжает;
Все в изумленье. Ленский сам
Не верит собственным глазам.


Monotonous and mad
like young life's whirl,
the waltz's noisy whirl revolves,
pair after pair flicks by.
Nearing the minute of revenge,
Onegin, chuckling secretly,
goes up to Olga, rapidly with her
twirls near the guests,
then seats her on a chair,
proceeds to speak of this and that;
a minute or two having lapsed, then
again with her he goes on waltzing;
all in amazement are. Lenski himself
does not believe his proper eyes.