NABOKV-L post 0012794, Tue, 6 Jun 2006 18:13:09 -0700

I thank Mr. Strickland for his informative series of suggestions. I have pursued at least one of them. It follows:

Don Johnson

April 23, 2004

Nabokov's Ada and Pierre Louys' Chansons de Bilitis:
The Tree of Knowledge

Pierre Louys' 1894 Les Chansons de Bilitis is one of the classics of the lesbian canon. The work was something of a mystification since it purported to be the memoir of a sixth century B.C Greek courtesan whose tomb had recently excavated on Cypress. A prose poem of a hundred and forty-three stanzas in the form of inscriptions on the tomb walls, it recounts Bilitis' girlhood as a goatherd in what is now southern Turkey (then Pamphilia) near the Mediterrean. She is early introduced to sex by a newly-married friend and then a young herdsman. She has an infant whom she deserts at sixteen when she moves to Mytilene on the Isle of Lesbos where she is befriended by the poet Sappho and has a ten-year liaison with a beloved but faithless mistress. After a painful break-up, she moves on to Cypress, then a thriving and decadent community where she establishes herself as a wealthy and famed courtesan par excellence, while not forsaking the pleasures afforded by those of her own sex At forty, she retires and writes her poetic biography which survives on the walls of her tomb. The entire work, ostensibly translated from the Greek, is the work of Pierre Louys (1870-1924), a twenty-three-year-old Parisian who was immersed in the culture of the ancient eastern Mediterranean and went on to even greater, if transient, fame as the author of the equally scandalous novel Aphrodite (1906), a tale of bisexual courtesan life in Alexandria. He was to become a friend of Andre Gide, Claude Debussy, Maurice Maeterlinck, Gabriele d'Annunzio, and Oscar Wilde. Les Chansons de Bilitis was a pan-European scandal and became a lushly illustrated, privately printed collector's item in many languages. There was even a Russian version in 1907. Les Chansons de Bilitis, now mostly forgotten, makes two fleeting, but explicit appearances in Nabokov's ADA - both in connection with lesbianism.

Soon after that first Ardis summer, Van encounters Ada's boarding-school dorm-mate Cordula de Prey who tells him of Ada's letters raving about her visiting cousin. Ada has mentioned in a letter to Van that one of her school mates is in love with her (158). Van inspects Cordula closely:

He had read somewhere (we might recall the precise title if we tried, not Tiltil, that's in Blue Beard...) that a man can recognize a Lesbian, young and alone (because a tailored old pair can fool no one), by a combination of three characteristics: slightly trembling hands, a cold-in-the-head voice, and that skidding-in-panic of the eyes if you happen to scan with obvious appraisal such charms as the occasion might force her to show (lovely shoulders, for instance)1. Nothing whatever of all that "(yes - Mytilene, petite isle, by Louis Pierre)" seemed to apply to Cordula, who wore a 'garbotosh' (belted mackintosh) over her terribly unsmart turtle and held both hands deep in her pockets as she challenged his stare (164-165).

It takes Van a moment to place the source of the presumed traits of a lesbian - "(yes - Mytilene, petite isle, by Louis Pierre)" [1]. Mytilene was the city on the small island of Lesbos where Bilitis knew the poet Sappho. Pierre Louis was the pseudonym of Pierre Louys. The name Bilitis is introduced a few page later when it is mentioned en passant that Ada and Lucette's governess Ida Lariviere "had been platonically and irrevocably in love ever since she had seen [Marina] in 'Bilitis'" (194). Nor is this the only lesbian allusion. Cordula's "garbotosh" and stance are those of Greta Garbo in a poster promoting her first talking film-- Eugene O'Neil's Anna Christie. Garbo was widely rumored to be a lesbian.2 Van's first (mis-)recollection ("not Tiltil, that's in Blue Beard" come from Maurice Maeterlinck's play L'oiseau bleu (1909) in which the names of the woodcutter's children, Tyltyl and Mytyl, lead him to Sappho's Mytilene.

Cordula further fuels Van's suspicions (and continues the French theme) with her comments that she and Ada are in the Advanced French goup that share a dormitory. In his next letter Van asks Ada whether Cordula is the lezbianochka she had earlier referred to. Van remains suspicious when Ada denies it. The theme is reintensified during durig Van miserable rainy-day visit to Ada's school where their meeting is "chaperoned" by Cordula, again in her Garbo outfit. Van is tormented by his imaginings of their ecstactic "twinned :entwinement,:: Corada, Adula" (168). He imagines taking revenge by telling the pair of the sexual antics of Cordula's cousin at Riverlane, but contents himself with a literary discussion of Proust's characters, Marcel and Albertine, whose actions make sense only if the reader knows the narrator is "a pansy" - a fatal flaw since author's life should be extraneous to his art. The lesbian theme is enacted throughout the novel by Ada and Lucette and echoed here and there in allusions to Ada's and Cordula's schoolmate, the tribadka Vanda (!) Broom. Cf. the French tribade defined by the four-volume 1957 Emile Littre Dictionnaire as a "Terme qu'on evite d'employer. Femme qui abuse de son sexe avec une autre femme" (584).

The above, more or less explicit allusions to Pierre Louys' Chansons de Bilitis do not exhaust its presence in Ada, although we now enter upon more slippery ground. Let us call this new theme "The Tree of Knowledge."

For the big picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday and Ida's forty-second jour de fete, the child was permitted to wear her lolita :, a rather long, but very airy and ample, black skirt :. .
She had stepped into it, naked, : and pulled it on with a brisk jiggle of the hips which provoked her governess's familiar rebuke: mais ne te tremousse pas comme ca quand tu mets ta jupe! Une petite fille de bonne maison, etc. Per contra, the omission of panties was ignored by Ida Lariviere, a bosomy woman of great and repulsive beauty (in nothing but corset and gartered stockings at the moment) who was not above making secret concessions to the heat of the dog-days herself; but in tender Ada's case the practice had deprecable effects. The child tried to assuage the rash in the soft arch, with all its accompaniment of sticky, itchy, not altogether unpleasurable sensations, by tightly straddling the cool limb of a Shattal apple tree, much to Van's disgust as we shall see more than once. :.Neither hygiene, nor sophistication of taste, were, as Van kept observing, typical of the Ardis household (I-13 77-78).

A few days later find the children climbing the shattal tree at the bottom of the garden (I-15, pp. 94-95)

Her bare foot slipped, and the two panting youngsters tangled ignominiously among the branches, in a shower of drupes and leaves, clutching at each other, and the next moment, as they regained a semblance of balance, his expressionless face and cropped head were between her legs and a last fruit fell with a thud - the dropped dot of an inverted exclamation point. She was wearing his wristwatch and a cotton frock.
'Yes, of course, I remember: you kissed me here, on the inside -'
'And you started to strangle me with those devilish knees of yours -'
'I was seeking some sort of support.')
That might have been true, but according to a later (considerably later!) version they were still in the tree, and still glowing, when Van removed a silk thread of larva web from his lip and remarked that such negligence of attire was a form of hysteria.
'Well,' answered Ada, straddling her favorite limb, 'as we all know by now, Mlle La Riviere de Diamants has nothing against a hysterical little girl's not wearing pantalets during l'ardeur de la canicule.'
'I refuse to share the ardor of your little canicule with an apple tree.'
'It is really the Tree of Knowledge - this specimen was imported last summer : from the Eden National Park :."

For a detailed exegesis, I refer the reader to Brian Boyd's "Annotations to Ada 15: Part I Chapter 15" in issue 44 of The Nabokovian (65ff). For our purposes, it suffices to remark two things. The identification of the Edenic shattal as the "Tree of Knowledge," i.e., carnal knowledge, and of Ada's slip (with its "lip-to-lips" consequences) as "The Fall." Pay particular note to the first excerpt in which Ada arouses herself by rubbing her genitalia against the tree branch. Van is not yet on the scene.

Now-what might this have to do with Louys' Les Chansons de Bilitis? The image of a young girl masturbating again a tree limb is not a frequent one in world literature but, as it happens, it is precisely the scene that opens The Songs of Bilitis.


Je me suis devetue pour monter a un arbre;
mes cuisses nues embrassaient l'ecorce lisse
et humide; mes sandales marchaient sur les

Tout en haut, mais encore sous les feuilles
et a l'ombre de la chaleur, je me suis mise a
cheval sur une fourche ecartee en balancant
mes pieds dans le vide.

Il avait plu. Des gouttes d'eau tombaient et
coulaient sur ma peau. Mes mains etaient
tachees de mousse, et mes orteils etaient
rouges, a cause des fleurs ecrasees.

Je sentais le bel arbre vivre quand le vent
passait au travers; alors je serrais mes
jambes davantage et j'appliquais mes levres
ouvertes sur la nuque chevelue d'un rameau.


I undressed to climb a tree; my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark; my sandals climbed upon the branches.
High up, but still beneath the leaves and shaded from the heat, I straddled a wide-spread fork and swung my feet into the void.
It had rained. Drops of water fell and flowed upon my skin. My hands were soiled with moss and my heels were reddened by the crushed blossoms.
I felt the lovely tree living when the wind passed through it; so I locked my legs tighter, and crushed my open lips to the hairy nape of a bough.

Lest the reader think I have an overactive imagination, please note that the next chapter but one (in which they first kiss) opens with a double entendre:

The hugest dictionary in the library said under Lip: 'Either of a pair of fleshy folds surrounding an orifice.'
Mileyshiy Emile, as Ada called Monsieur Littre, spoke thus: 'Partie exterieure et charnue qui forme le contour de la bouche... Les deux bords d'une plaie simple' (we simply speak with our wounds; wounds procreate) '...C'est le membre qui leche.' Dearest Emile!

Nabokov's choice from "the hugest dictionary," (Merriam-Webster II) is in fact the fifth among the definitions. The first locates "lips" at the opening of the mouth. English "lips" and the French "levres" refer to both the upper and lower orifices and presumably are cognate with the Latin labium, pl. labia. Also perhaps of note is that Ada's shattal tree is from Edenic Asia Minor as is Bilitis herself. Their positions astraddle the branch leave no doubt about which lips are intended. They are, by the way, about the same age.

Ada is not the first Nabokov work to cite Les Chansons de Bilitis. The protagonist of Podvig (Glory) Nabokov's fourth novel (1932) flees revolutionary Russia aboard a freighter. Seventeen-year-old Martin is seduced by a flamboyant Petersburg society poetess. After their arrival in Athens, Alla presents him with Pierre Louys' Chansons de Bilitis "in the cheap edition illustrated with the naked forms of adolescents, from which she would read to him, meaningfully pronouncing the French, in the early evening on the Acropolis, the most appropriate place, one might say" (30). (Алла : по прieздe въ Афины, подарила ему "Пeсни Билитисъ", дешевое изданiе, иллюстрированное фигурами голыхъ подростковъ, [38] и читала ему вслухъ, выразительно произнося французскiя слова, подвечеръ, на Акрополe, на самомъ, такъ сказать, подходящемъ мeстe). The low opinion of the thirty-year-old Nabokov of Les Chansons de Bilitis is evident. But perhaps it had once been otherwise.

One of Ada's themes is the Ardis library from which Van filches erotic reading material for himself and Ada, whose access is strictly regulated. Nabokov has remarked that between the ages of ten and fifteen in St. Petersbburg he probably read more fiction and poetry-English, Russian, and French -- than in any other five-year period in my life" (SO-42). The Nabokov family library has long since been dispersed but its printed catalogue survives: Sistematicheskii katalog Biblioteki Vladimira Dmitrievicha Nabokova. (S-Peterburg: Tovarishchestvo Xudozhestvennoi Pechati, 1904). Item numbers 372 & 373 are "Louys, P. Aphrodite. Paris, 1901" and "Louys, P. Les Chansons de Bilitis, Paris MDCCCXCVIII" (1898).

* Be it noted that Van's three infallible characteristics for recognizing lesbians are to be found in Louys' novella where short hair and skimpy bosoms are the typifying traits.

D. Barton Johnson, Editor NABOKV-L

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