Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0012820, Tue, 13 Jun 2006 11:14:34 +0100

Fw: Bilitis
Dear List,

Following the exchanges on Mytilène and Bilitis, I chose to read once again Pierre Louys poem and check references to it and to Lesbian love in "Ada".

A. I found five direct references to "Lesbian"in Ada:

1. He looked her over more closely than he had done before. 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). Nothing whatever of all that (yes - Mytilène, 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. "

2."After considerable examination, after much flattering of haunches and necks, I chose a golden Gretchen, a pale Andalusian, and a black belle from New Orleans. The handmaids pounced upon them like pards and, having empasmed them with not unlesbian zest, turned the three rather melancholy graces over to me...). "

3. "About the same time a respectable Lesbian who conducted a Villa Venus at Souvenir, the beautiful Missouri spa, throttled with her own hands (she had been a Russian weightlifter) two of her most beautiful and valuable charges. It was all rather sad."

4.'You must not press me for the details of our sweet torrid and horrid nights together, before and between that poor guy and the next intruder. If my skin were a canvas and her lips a brush, not an inch of me would have remained unpainted and vice versa. Are you horrified, Van? Do you loathe us?'

'On the contrary,' replied Van, bringing off a passable imitation of bawdy mirth. 'Had I not been a heterosexual male, I would have been a Lesbian.'

5. " 'Pah!' uttered Ada. 'She put me in a most embarrassing situation. I can quite understand her being mad at Dorothy (who meant well, poor stupid thing - stupid enough to warn me against possible "infections" such as "labial lesbianitis." Labial lesbianitis!) but that was no reason for Lucette to look up Andrey in town and tell him she was great friends with the man I had loved before my marriage.

B. One reference to "Lesbie" ( La Lesbie de Catulle, Claudia):

"and here Mlle Larivière came down for coffee and recollections of Van as a bambin angélique who adored à neuf ans - the precious dear! - Gilberte Swann et la Lesbie de Catulle (and who had learned, all by himself, to release the adoration as soon as the kerosene lamp had left the mobile bedroom in his black nurse's fist)."

C. Finally I discovered one reference to "Bilitis" ( a "falsification", "hoax" or a "pastiche" written in 1894 by Pierre-Félix Louis, i.e "Pierre Louys", following Meleagrus and presented as "translations from the Greek". Louyis only confessed that he himself had written the entire poem in 1925 on his death-bed) and an indirect mention at "Mytilène" on pages 131 and 154 in "Ada or Ardor", Penguin Edition.

1. "...good Ida, far from abandoning Marina, with whom she had been platonically and irrevocably in love ever since she had seen her in 'Bilitis,' accused herself of neglecting Lucette by overindulging in Literature; consequently she now gave the child, in spurts of vacational zeal, considerably more attention than poor little Ada (said Ada) had received at twelve, after her first (miserable) term at school. Van had been such an idiot; suspecting Cordula! Chaste, gentle, dumb, little Cordula de Prey, when Ada had explained to him, twice, thrice, in different codes, that she had invented a nasty tender schoolmate, at a time when she had been literally torn from him, and only assumed - in advance, so to speak - such a girl's existence."

2. "Nothing whatever of all that (yes - Mytilène, 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."

D. Pierre Louys original poem was very successful but it had been accepted as a discovery by the hellenists and praised as such. I suppose that this irony would not have escaped V. Nabokov.

There are four textual references to Louys work and they all came from the first poem ( "The Tree"). I think that Nabokov returned to Louys indirectly, but profoundly, since I can find a certain paralel between the development of Ada and Van´s affair and the story of the loves of Bilitis (at first at the land of the "nymphs", later in Lesbos and, finally, in Cyprus).
At least, the first part that describes Van and Ada´s falling in love takes place in Ardis, initially around the "Shattal tree" - as indicated by Louys "The Tree" . Later, Van and Ada are separated and she begins (or makes up) a series of lesbian affairs. This second chapter is pointed out by VN when he writes about Mytilene. The third part would have us find both Van and Ada having various lovers of any age and gender until they are finally united. Billitis, of course, is dead more or less at fourty and here the paralel ends. We also have no information about a little girl being born to Van and Ada after their first experience in Ardis...

We have an indication that Mlle Larivière de Montparnasse, whose maiden name is Ida suggests both the Parnassus and Mount Ida ( Greece), feels a lesbian platonic love towards Marina and, perhaps, seduces Lucette.

Van and Ada have a "small island" in Ardis. And yet, according to Louys, Mitilene was a penninsula, not an island and the capital of Lesbos.

I think that Van's erotic dreams (or hallucinatory events) at Villa Venus return to the orgies found in Louys poems ( both second and, mainly, the third parts)

"Les Chansons de Bilitis" is divided into four chapters and an introduction. The first one is named "Bucoliques en Pamphylie" ( with an epigraph by Teocritus), the second is "Élégies à Mytiléne" ( with an epigraph by Sappho) with a description of her lesbian affair with Mnasidika. The third is "Épigrammes dans l'Isle de Chypre" ( epigraph by Filodemus). Next we find another chapter named "Le Tombeau de Bilitis" ( the tomb of Bilitis) with three epitaphs.

The part that describes the "small island (?) of Mytilène" deals with her total immersion in homosexual love, since her loves had been betrayed and frustrated.In contrast, in the poem´s first part we find a very young virgin prey to her first sexual stirrings, still undirected toward boys, that finds love in a young man who, then, rapes her and leaves her with child ( Pannychis) whom Bilitis later abandons to travel to Mytiléne. In the third part, Bilitis becomes bisexually inclined and lives as a rich courtesan.

In "Ada", following the "The Tree" poem in the first part we have references to the "Shattal tree":

1. "The child tried to assuage the rash in the sort 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. Besides the lolita, she wore a short-sleeved white black-striped jersey..."

2. One afternoon they were climbing the glossy-limbed shattal tree at the bottom of the garden. Mlle Larivière and little Lucette (...) Van, in blue gym suit, having worked his way up to a fork just under his agile playmate (who naturally was better acquainted with the tree's intricate map) but not being able to see her face, betokened mute communication by taking her ankle between finger and thumb as she would have a closed butterfly. 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.

('Remember?'/'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(...)

3. " Then Van and Ada met in the passage, and would have kissed at some earlier stage of the Novel's Evolution in the History of Literature. It might have been a neat little sequel to the Shattal Tree incident. "

4." During that midsummer week or fortnight, notwithstanding those daily butterfly kisses on that hair, on that neck, Van felt even farther removed from her than he had been on the eve of the day when his mouth had accidentally come into contact with an inch of her skin hardly perceived by him sensually in the maze of the shattal tree."

Search the archive: http://listserv.ucsb.edu/archives/nabokv-l.html
Contact the Editors: mailto:nabokv-l@utk.edu,nabokv-l@holycross.edu
Visit Zembla: http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/zembla.htm
View Nabokv-L policies: http://web.utk.edu/~sblackwe/EDNote.htm