Robinsons & Quietus Pills in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 08/11/2021 - 10:11

On Admiral Tobakoff Lucette (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) tells Van that the Robinsons (an elderly couple) had saved her life by giving her on the eve a tubeful of Quietus Pills:


‘Please,’ said Lucette, ‘I’m tired of walking around, I’m frail, I’m feverish, I hate storms, let’s all go to bed!’

‘Hey, look!’ he cried, pointing to a poster. ‘They’re showing something called Don Juan’s Last Fling. It’s prerelease and for adults only. Topical Tobakoff!’

‘It’s going to be an unmethylated bore,’ said Lucy (Houssaie School, 1890) but he had already pushed aside the entrance drapery.

They came in at the beginning of an introductory picture, featuring a cruise to Greenland, with heavy seas in gaudy technicolor. It was a rather irrelevant trip since their Tobakoff did not contemplate calling at Godhavn; moreover, the cinema theater was swaying in counterrhythm to the cobalt-and-emerald swell on the screen. No wonder the place was emptovato, as Lucette observed, and she went on to say that the Robinsons had saved her life by giving her on the eve a tubeful of Quietus Pills.

‘Want one? One a day keeps "no shah" away. Pun. You can chew it, it’s sweet.’

‘Jolly good name. No, thank you, my sweet. Besides you have only five left.’

‘Don’t worry, I have it all planned out. There may be less than five days.’

‘More in fact, but no matter. Our measurements of time are meaningless; the most accurate clock is a joke; you’ll read all about it someday, you just wait.’

‘Perhaps, not. I mean, perhaps I shan’t have the patience. I mean, his charwoman could never finish reading Leonardo’s palm. I may fall asleep before I get through your next book.’

‘An art-class legend,’ said Van.

‘That’s the final iceberg, I know by the music. Let’s go, Van! Or you want to see Hoole as Hooan?’

She brushed his cheek with her lips in the dark, she took his hand, she kissed his knuckles, and he suddenly thought: after all, why not? Tonight? Tonight. (3.5)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): emptovato: Anglo-Russian, rather empty.


In Daniel Defoe’s novel The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) the narrator mentions an eternal quietus:


Men are generally counted insensible, when struggling in the pangs of death; but while I was overwhelmed with water, I had the most dreadful apprehensions imaginable. For the joys of heaven and the torments of hell, seemed to present themselves before me in these dying agonies, and even small space of time, as it were, between life and death. I was going I thought I knew not whither, into a dismal gulf unknown, and as yet unperceived, never to behold my friends, nor the light of this world any more! Could I even have thought of annihilation, or a total dissolution of soul as well as body, the gloomy thoughts of having no further being, no knowledge of what we hoped for, but an eternal quietus, without life or sense: even that, I say, would have been enough to strike me with horror and confusion! I strove, however, to the last extremity, while all my companions were overpowered and entombed in the deep: and it was with great difficulty I kept my breath till the wave spent itself, and retiring back, left me on the shore half dead with the water I had taken in. As soon as I got on my feet, I ran as fast as I could, lest another wave should pursue me, and carry me back again. But for all the haste I made, I could not avoid it: for the sea came after me like a high mountain, or furious enemy; so that my business was to hold my breath, and by raising myself on the water, preserve it by swimming. The next dreadful wave buried me at once twenty or thirty feet deep, but at the same time carried me with a mighty force and swiftness toward the shore: when raising myself, I held out as well as possible, till at length the water having spent itself, began to return, at which I struck forward, and feeling ground with my feet, I took to my heels again. Thus being served twice more, I was at length dashed against a piece of a rock, in such a manner as left me senseless; but recovering a little before the return of the wave, which, no doubt, would then have overwhelmed me, I held fast by the rock till those succeeding waves abated; and then fetching another run, was overtaken by a small wave, which was soon conquered. But before any more could overtake me, I reached the main land, where clambering up the cliffs of the shore, tired and almost spent I sat down on the grass, free from the dangers of the foaming ocean. (Chapter III “Wrecked on a Desert Island”)


A port and town in Greenland, Godhavn (Qeqertarsuaq) brings to mind Onhava, the capital of Kinbote’s Zembla in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962). In Lucette's Tobakoff cabin there is a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up:’ 


Quite kindly he asked where she thought she was going.

To Ardis, with him — came the prompt reply — for ever and ever. Robinson’s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one, so Van had still a whole century before him, she would build for him, in the park, several pavilions to house his successive harems, they would gradually turn, one after the other, into homes for aged ladies, and then into mausoleums. There hung, she said, a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up’ above dear Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed, in the suite ‘wangled in one minute flat’ from them, and she wondered how it affected the Tobaks’ love life during sea voyages. Van interrupted Lucette’s nervous patter by asking her if her bath taps bore the same inscriptions as his: Hot Domestic, Cold Salt. Yes, she cried, Old Salt, Old Salzman, Ardent Chambermaid, Comatose Captain! (3.5)


The son of the Robinsons was killed in a head-on car collision:


He espied their half-sister on the forecastle deck, looking perilously pretty in a low-cut, brightly flowered, wind-worried frock, talking to the bronzed but greatly aged Robinsons. She turned toward him, brushing back the flying hair from her face with a mixture of triumph and embarrassment in her expression, and presently they took leave of Rachel and Robert who beamed after them, waving similarly raised hands to her, to him, to life, to death, to the happy old days when Demon paid all the gambling debts of their son, just before he was killed in a head-on car collision. (ibid.)


In Canto Three of his poem John Shade (the poet in Pale Fire) describes IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) and mentions a widower whose second wife and son were killed in a head-on crash:


Time means succession, and succession, change:

Hence timelessness is bound to disarrange

Schedules of sentiment. We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

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

Jealous of one another. Time means growth.

And growth means nothing in Elysian life.

Fondling a changeless child, the flax-haired wife

Grieves on the brink of a remembered pond

Full of a dreamy sky. And, also blond,

But with a touch of tawny in the shade,

Feet up, knees clasped, on a stone balustrade

The other sits and raises a moist gaze

Toward the blue impenetrable haze.

How to begin? Which first to kiss? What toy

To give the babe? Does that small solemn boy

Know of the head-on crash which on a wild

March night killed both the mother and the child?

And she, the second love, with instep bare

In ballerina black, why does she wear

The earrings from the other's jewel case?

And why does she avert her fierce young face? (ll. 567-588)


In the their old age (even on 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.

She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.

‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)


The “real” name of the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus seems to be Botkin. After the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name) Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus. Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigrams, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again.


In his Commentary to Shade’s poem Kinbote mentions Prof. Botkin:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov."

Talking of the vulgarity of a certain burly acquaintance of ours: "The man is as corny as a cook-out chef apron."

Kinbote (laughing): "Wonderful!"

The subject of teaching Shakespeare at college level having been introduced: "First of all, dismiss ideas, and social background, and train the freshman to shiver, to get drunk on the poetry of Hamlet or Lear, to read with his spine and not with his skull."

Kinbote: "You appreciate particularly the purple passages?"

Shade: "Yes, my dear Charles, I roll upon them as a grateful mongrel on a spot of turf fouled by a Great Dane." (note to line 172)


In Kinbote’s Index there is an entry Botkin, V.:


Botkin, V., American scholar of Russian descent, 894; king-bot, maggot of extinct fly that once bred in mammoths and is thought to have hastened their phylogenetic end, 247; bottekin-maker, 71; bot, plop, and boteliy, big-bellied (Russ.); botkin or bodkin, a, Danish stiletto.


In his famous monologue in Shakespeare's Hamlet (3.1) Hamlet mentions a quietus that one can make with a bare bodkin:


For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurn
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?

See also the updated version of my previous post, "Pompeianella & Traverdiata in Ada."