According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969), in the preamble to a game she now could not remember Ada was mumbling and numbering in raw-flesh red the white trunks of a row of young birches with Rose’s purloined lipstick:
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 the first quatrain of his poem on Lenin’s death, Byl on v detstve osobennyi mal’chik (“He was in childhood a special boy,” 1924), Sasha Chyornyi says that, as a boy, Lenin painted the bark of birches with cranberry juice and put into his red pencil-box, with an eraser, the petals of fiery red roses:
«Был он в детстве особенный мальчик –
Красил клюквой кору у берёз,
И с резинкой клал в красный пенальчик
Лепестки красно-огненных роз.
Был он кроток, как птичка лесная.
Как-то дети убили ежа...
Встав на бочку, он крикнул, рыдая:
"Лишь буржуи достойны ножа!"
А ночами, покинув кроватку,
Алым бантом украсив плечо,
Зажигал перед Марксом лампадку
И молился в слезах горячо:
Чтобы массы рабочих могучих
Все буржуями сделались вдруг.
Чтоб буржуи в лохмотьях вонючих
На коленках стояли вокруг...
Шли года. Постепенно взрослея,
Вот и вырос Владимир Ильич.
Борода, словно локоны феи,
А чело, как пасхальный кулич».
Миллионы обрёк он на казни,
Ну а сам не рубил он мечом.
Только чёрный поклёп неприязни
Мог его называть палачом.
Смерти он наблюдал безучастно,
Но у сердца особенный лад
И сиротам расстрелянных часто
Посылал он тайком шоколад.
...He watched the deaths indifferently,
but the heart has a special way
and he often sent on the quiet
chocolate to the orphans of executed people.
Sasha Chyorny’s pseudonym means “black” and brings to mind Uncle Black, Pahl Pahlich Rechnoy’s cousin in VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941). According to Pahl Pahlich’s little son, Uncle Black can drive a taxi (Uncle Dan, Marina and Ada arrived in Radugalet in a taxi):
'In the meantime,' said Pahl Pahlich, 'we shall clap down a little brandy – cognachkoo.'
The child, finding that I had been sufficiently interested in his pictures, wandered off to his uncle, who at once took him on his knee and proceeded to draw with incredible rapidity and very beautifully a racing car.
'You are an artist,' I said – to say something.
Pahl Pahlich, who was rinsing glasses in the tiny kitchen, laughed and shouted over his shoulder: 'Oh, he's an all-round genius. He can play the violin standing upon his head, and he can multiply one telephone number by another in three seconds, and he can write his name upside down in his ordinary hand.'
'And he can drive a taxi,' said the child, dangling its thin, dirty little legs.
'No, I shan't drink with you,' said Uncle Black, as Pahl Pahlich put the glasses on the table. 'I think I shall take the boy out for a walk. Where are his things?' (Chapter 15)
In the next chapter of VN’s novel the narrator (Sebastian’s half-brother V.) says that Sebastian could not have tolerated a grande cocotte hinting at a craving for bhang:
My first impression was that I had got what I wanted – that at least I knew who Sebastian's mistress had been; but presently I cooled down. Could it have been she, that windbag's first wife? I wondered as a taxi took me to my next address. Was it really worthwhile following that plausible, too plausible trail? Was not the image Pahl Pahlich had conjured up a trifle too obvious? The whimsical wanton that ruins a foolish man's life. But was Sebastian foolish? I called to mind his acute distaste for the obvious bad and the obvious good; for ready-made forms of pleasure and hackneyed forms of distress. A girl of that type would have got on his nerves immediately. For what could her conversation have been, if indeed she had managed to get acquainted with that quiet, unsociable, absent-minded Englishman at the Beaumont Hotel? Surely, after the very first airing of her notions, he would have avoided her. He used to say, I know, that fast girls had slow minds and that there could be nothing duller than a pretty woman who likes fun; even more: that if you looked well at the prettiest girl while she was exuding the cream of the commonplace, you were sure to find some minute blemish in her beauty, corresponding to her habits of thought. He would not mind perhaps having a bite at the apple of sin because, apart from solecisms, he was indifferent to the idea of sin; but he did mind apple-jelly, potted and patented. He might have forgiven a woman for being a flirt, but he would never have stood a sham mystery. He might have been amused by a hussy getting drunk on beer, but he could not have tolerated a grande cocotte hinting at a craving for bhang. The more I thought of it, the less possible it seemed…. At any rate, I ought not to bother about that girl until I had examined the two other possibilities. (Chapter 16)
Marina conjectured that Grandpa Bagrov mistook her for a grande cocotte. Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) tells Ada that he abhors and rejects her livid lipstick:
Here Ada herself came running into the room. Yes-yes-yes-yes, here I come. Beaming!
Old Demon, iridescent wings humped, half rose but sank back again, enveloping Ada with one arm, holding his glass in the other hand, kissing the girl in the neck, in the hair, burrowing in her sweetness with more than an uncle’s fervor. ‘Gosh,’ she exclaimed (with an outbreak of nursery slang that affected Van with even more umilenie, attendrissement, melting ravishment, than his father seemed to experience). ‘How lovely to see you! Clawing your way through the clouds! Swooping down on Tamara’s castle!’
(Lermontov paraphrased by Lowden).
‘The last time I enjoyed you,’ said Demon ‘was in April when you wore a raincoat with a white and black scarf and simply reeked of some arsenic stuff after seeing your dentist. Dr Pearlman has married his receptionist, you’ll be glad to know. Now to business, my darling. I accept your dress’ (the sleeveless black sheath), ‘I tolerate your romantic hairdo, I don’t care much for your pumps na bosu nogu (on bare feet), your Beau Masque perfume — passe encore, but, my precious, I abhor and reject your livid lipstick. It may be the fashion in good old Ladore. It is not done in Man or London.’
Ladno (Okay),’ said Ada and, baring her big teeth, rubbed fiercely her lips with a tiny handkerchief produced from her bosom.
‘That’s also provincial. You should carry a black silk purse. And now I’ll show what a diviner I am: your dream is to be a concert pianist!’
‘It is not,’ said Van indignantly. ‘What perfect nonsense. She can’t play a note!’
‘Well, no matter,’ said Demon. ‘Observation is not always the mother of deduction. However, there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief
‘Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre
Irène de Grandfief, la pauvre et noble enfant
Ferma son pi-ano... vendit son éléphant’
‘The gobble enfant is genuine, but the elephant is mine.’ ‘You don’t say so,’ laughed Ada.
‘Our great Coppée,’ said Van, ‘is awful, of course, yet he has one very fetching little piece which Ada de Grandfief here has twisted into English several times, more or less successfully.’
‘Oh, Van!’ interjected Ada with unusual archness, and scooped up a handful of salted almonds.
‘Let’s hear it, let’s hear it,’ cried Demon as he borrowed a nut from her cupped hand.
The neat interplay of harmonious motions, the candid gayety of family reunions, the never-entangling marionette strings — all this is easier described than imagined.
‘Old storytelling devices,’ said Van, ‘may be parodied only by very great and inhuman artists, but only close relatives can be forgiven for paraphrasing illustrious poems. Let me preface the effort of a cousin — anybody’s cousin — by a snatch of Pushkin, for the sake of rhyme —’
‘For the snake of rhyme!’ cried Ada. ‘A paraphrase, even my paraphrase, is like the corruption of "snakeroot" into "snagrel" — all that remains of a delicate little birthwort.’
‘Which is amply sufficient,’ said Demon, ‘for my little needs, and those of my little friends.’
‘So here goes,’ continued Van (ignoring what he felt was an indecent allusion, since the unfortunate plant used to be considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Ladore region not so much as a remedy for the bite of a reptile, as the token of a very young woman’s easy delivery; but no matter). ‘By chance preserved has been the poem. In fact, I have it. Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ‘em...’
‘Oh, I know ‘em,’ interrupted Demon:
‘Leur chute est lente. On peut les suivre
Du regard en reconnaissant
Le chêne à sa feuille de cuivre
L’érable à sa feuille de sang
‘Yes, that was Coppée and now comes the cousin,’ said Van, and he recited:
‘Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper
Can follow each of them and know
The oak tree by its leaf of copper,
The maple by its blood-red glow.’
‘Pah!’ uttered the versionist.
‘Not at all!’ cried Demon. ‘That "leavesdropper" is a splendid trouvaille, girl.’ He pulled the girl to him, she landing on the arm of his Klubsessel, and he glued himself with thick moist lips to her hot red ear through the rich black strands. Van felt a shiver of delight. (1.38)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): passe encore: may still pass muster.
Lorsque etc.: When her fiancé had gone to war, the unfortunate and noble maiden closed her piano, sold her elephant.
By chance preserved: The verses are by chance preserved
I have them, here they are:
(Eugene Onegin, Six: XXI: 1-2)
Klubsessel: Germ., easy chair.
At the family dinner Marina and Ada smoke cigarettes tipped with red rose petal:
Marina helped herself to an Albany from a crystal box of Turkish cigarettes tipped with red rose petal and passed the box on to Demon. Ada, somewhat self-consciously, lit up too.
‘You know quite well,’ said Marina, ‘that your father disapproves of your smoking at table.’
‘Oh, it’s all right,’ murmured Demon.
‘I had Dan in view,’ explained Marina heavily. ‘He’s very prissy on that score.’
‘Well, and I’m not,’ answered Demon.
Ada and Van could not help laughing. All that was banter — not of a high order, but still banter.
A moment later, however, Van remarked: ‘I think I’ll take an Alibi — I mean an Albany — myself.’
‘Please note, everybody,’ said Ada, ‘how voulu that slip was! I like a smoke when I go mushrooming, but when I’m back, this horrid tease insists I smell of some romantic Turk or Albanian met in the woods.’
‘Well,’ said Demon, ‘Van’s quite right to look after your morals.’ (1.38)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): voulu: intentional.
In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. Van fails to see 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. In his Triolet o klyone (“A Triolet about the Maple,” 1915) Igor Severyanin exclaims: “O, if the maple that grows in the garden, having spread its branches, had flown away!”:
О, если б клён, в саду растущий,
Расправив ветви, улетел!..
О, если бы летать хотел
Безмозглый клён, в саду растущий!..
Он с каждым днём всё гуще-гуще,
И вот уж сплошь он полиствел.
Что толку! — лучше бы: растущий,
Взмахнув ветвями, улетел!
A motor landaulet to Radugalet hired by Marina and Ada brings to mind v landolete benzinovom (in a gasoline landaulet) in Severyanin’s poem Kenzeli (“Quinzels,” 1911):
В шумном платье муаровом, в шумном платье муаровом
По аллее олуненной Вы проходите морево...
Ваше платье изысканно, Ваша тальма лазорева,
А дорожка песочная от листвы разузорена –
Точно лапы паучные, точно мех ягуаровый.
Для утонченной женщины ночь всегда новобрачная...
Упоенье любовное Вам судьбой предназначено...
В шумном платье муаровом, в шумном платье муаровом –
Вы такая эстетная, Вы такая изящная...
Но кого же в любовники? и найдется ли пара Вам?
Ножки плэдом закутайте дорогим, ягуаровым,
И, садясь комфортабельно в ландолете бензиновом,
Жизнь доверьте Вы мальчику, в макинтоше резиновом,
И закройте глаза ему Вашим платьем жасминовым –
Шумным платьем муаровым, шумным платьем муаровым!..
In VN’s poem The Ballad of Longwood Glen (1957) Art Longwood climbs an oak tree:
And the sky-bound oak (where owls had perched
And the moon dripped gold) was felled and searched.
Before climbing the tree, silent Art (who can stare at a thing all day) watches a bug climb a stalk and fly away. Having climbed the oak tree, Art Longwood turns into a butterfly and flies away ("How accessible ether! How easy flight!"). To a Butterfly ("I've watched you now a full half-hour") and Glen-Almain; Or, the Narrow Glen are poems by William Wordsworth, the author of "Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood."
Art Longwood is the hero from earth:
None saw the delirious celestial crowds
Greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds.
The delirious celestial crowds who greet the hero from earth in the snow of the clouds seem to be the angels. In his poem Net, bytie – ne zybkaya zagadka… (“No, life isn’t an unresolvable riddle,” 1923) VN says that we are gusenitsy angelov (the caterpillars of angels):
Нет, бытие - не зыбкая загадка!
Подлунный дол и ясен, и росист.
Мы - гусеницы ангелов; и сладко
въедаться с краю в нежный лист.
Рядись в шипы, ползи, сгибайся, крепни,
и чем жадней твой ход зеленый был,
тем бархатистей и великолепней
хвосты освобожденных крыл.
In the last line of his poem Sam treugol'nyi, dvukrylyi, beznogiy... ("Himself triangular, two-winged, legless..." 1932) VN calls a night moth that flew into the room angelochek nochnoy ("the nocturnal little angel"):
Сам треугольный, двукрылый, безногий,
но с округлённым, прелестным лицом,
ижицей быстрой в безумной тревоге
комнату всю облетая кругом,
страшный малютка, небесный калека,
гость, по ошибке влетевший ко мне,
дико метался, боясь человека,
а человек прижимался к стене,
всё ещё в свадебном галстуке белом,
выставив руку, лицо отклоня,
с ужасом тем же, но оцепенелым:
только бы он не коснулся меня,
только бы вылетел, только нашёл бы
это окно и опять, в неземной
лаборатории, в синюю колбу
сел бы, сложась, ангелочек ночной.
In his little white sailor suit and blue sailor cap, little Van is un régulier angelochek. In his poem Vecher dymchat i dolog... ("The Evening is hazy and long...") from Sem' stikhotvoreniy ("Seven Poems," 1956) VN calls rayskiy sumerechnik (a heavenly hawkmoth, Sphinx Caput mortuum) "an angel" and, when the insect is netted, "the demon:"
Вечер дымчат и долог:
я с мольбою стою,
О, как хочется, чтобы
там, в цветах, вдруг возник,
запуская в них хобот,
Содроганье – и вот он.
Я по ангелу бью,
и уж демон замотан
в сетку дымчатую.