Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0008590, Tue, 16 Sep 2003 20:57:28 -0700

Fw: EDnote on gratuitous word play
----- Original Message -----
From: "Brian Boyd (FOA ENG)" <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz>
To: <chtodel@cox.net>
Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2003 5:33 PM
Subject: EDnote on gratuitous word play

>From Brian Boyd:

Don Johnson's supposition that ADA I.26 is "all in aid of permitting the
reader to decode a short, inconsequential phrase in the preceding chapter"
and is therefore an example of Gratuitous Virtuosity is charmingly wrong.

1: The chapter does allow one to crack the coded passage in the preceding
chapter. I will never forget the delight when as a horny 17-year-old I first
read ADA and wondered what steamy sexual practice in I.25 had to be encoded
in a novel that had been mounting steadily in sexual fulfillment and
frankness. Like all alert readers I could discover a method for cracking the
code in the next chapter, savor the satisfaction of applying it to solve the
riddle, and enjoy the surprise and amusement of Nabokov's deft undercutting
of pornographic expectations. The combination of parody of pornography and
training readers to read actively, with curiosity, memory, imagination, and
awareness of their own and the genre's expectations, hardly seems

But within chapter I.26 itself Nabokov is also doing many other things.

2: Van and Ada are still children. As incestuous lovers on a large estate
under the eyes of vague Marina and unobservant Mlle Larivière, and the less
blind but much more accommodating Blanche, they could make love at will at
Ardis. But despite the shimmer of fantasy that the Antiterran setting and
the precocious characters supply, this is psychologically a realistic novel.
When their schools part them, the most Van and Ada can do, for all their
desperation to continue as at Ardis, is to write letters to one another. And
the fact that they must resort to code indicates how aware they are that
their incestuous love is impermissible to others. A lesser novelist might
ignore the break between the summers of fulfillment at Ardis; Nabokov has to
explain both the ongoing momentum of Van and Ada's passion, and the
obstacles their passion meets: time, space, their lack of independence,
their need for secrecy, and their other interests, including other sexual

3: Letters occupy a key place in the development of the novel as a genre,
solidly from Richardson until the end of the eighteenth-century and
intermittently thereafter, as Nabokov was very aware as a novelist and a
critical reader. ADA is saturated with references to the history of the
novel, from the Tolstoy echo in the opening line, the letter-writing scene
in a stage version of Eugene Onegin that inspires Demon's passion for Marina
and so starts the whole incestuous story, and the "gentle eminence of old
novels" on which Ardis stands. So here in I.26.

4: In I.40 Van writes "The novelistic theme of written communications has
now really got into its stride" (287). That comment, on the anonymous note
from Blanche warning Van that he is being deceived (by Ada), is another
example of the use of letters to indicate the strain in Van and Ada's
relationship, as in their first period of separation, or in their second,
during which Van will not even read Ada's letters. These in turn echo the
strained relationship between Demon and Marina a generation earlier, which
Demon breaks off with a letter at the end of I.2.

5: Van and Ada's being able to use Rimbaud and Marvell for their code
indicates their precocity, their literariness, their retentiveness, their

6: But it also points to the first time the Rimbaud and Marvell poems come
together, when Ada and Van are communicating in a virtual code, in order to
exclude Marina, in I.10, a passage that foreshadows their need to block
parental understanding of their communication, as in the code of I.26, the
cryptic telegram of I.29 or the ultrasecrecy of the Very Private Letters
agency in II.1.

7: But I.10's exchange involving Rimbaud and Marvell also very pointedly
introduces Lucette and the lost "souci d'eau," the "care of the water," that
anticipates her death by drowning. Letters are inseparable from that fate.
Lucette's slide towards her doom gathers pace when Ada sends a letter to Van
delivered personally by Lucette, since he will not read Ada's other letters,
in a scene that Van reports partly by incorporating a passionate love-letter
from Lucette to him, rich in echoes of Ophelia and her letters that Hamlet
returns before SHE dies by drowning.

The key words that Van uses in I.26 to demonstrate the first code, and the
difference to the encryption caused by a difference in the number of letters
in the word, are "love" and "lovely." "Love" of course is appropriate in
this novel of ardor, including Lucette's tragic ardor for Van. We first
encounter Van and Ada making love in the attic, in the first chapter of the
novel. They can escape Lucette's surveillance on this occasion because they
dupe her into wanting to hurriedly learn by heart a poem from an anthology
of Van's. If she can recite the poem word perfect, she keeps the book, Van
explains, "lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips":

"Otherwise, you'll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss all your
"Oh, Van, how lovely of you," said Lucette. . . .

While Ada and Van ascend to the attic-where they discover the evidence that
shows them that they are full brother and sister, and that will indicate how
urgently, later, they will need to keep their correspondence encoded-Lucette
learns the poem, and recalls it for Van in the last letter that she ever
writes, which Van receives only after her death. A letter that incorporates
a poem it was "lovely" of Van to have offered her surely has no accidental
relationship to coded letters that use the "love"-"lovely" code or short
poems by Rimbaud and Marvell.

8: The poem Lucette commits to memory and recalls in her last letter itself
concerns communication between the dead and the living, a motif that recurs
throughout ADA, in a strange relationship to Van's novel Letters from Terra
(a planet many Antiterrans think of as a "Next World" (20)), a novel itself
written in bitter response to the letters Ada sends him in vain after their
parting in 1888. And the pattern of letters particularly involves Lucette,
as in the Scrabble game in ADA I.36 and the Anglo-Russian letters for
CLITORIS that Lucette introduces, recalling another Scrabble game, when she
brings Van a letter from Ada for him to read, in a passage Van lifts from a
letter of Lucette's that he in turn makes echo Hamlet's letter to Ophelia.
Throughout the novel letters, epistolary or alphabetic, will suggest encoded
communication between the Next World and This; I.26 introduces the theme of
encoded forbidden communication in its starkest form.

9: The unexpected theme of communication, especially secret communication,
through water also pervades the novel, from Aqua crazy enough to imagine she
hears water talking, to the novel's hydraulic dorophones, to the "ondulas"
that send Theresa's messages from Terra in Letters from Terra, before she
flies over herself and swims "like a micromermaid" on a microscope slide, or
"little Lucette" who flushes her blank suicide note down the toilet on a
transatlantic liner before drowning and then sending "maybe a mermaid's
message" to Ada to rejoin Van. In I.26 Van works himself into an impatient
expository tangle in explaining the first code of his secret correspondence
with Ada, through the examples of "love" and "lovely," especially as he
describes the "letters overflowing into the new alphabetic series . . . that
'overflowing' into the next ABC business."

9: Notice that the letter Lucette brings to Van from Ada announces Ada's
intention to marry if Van does not respond. The dwindling frequency of the
coded correspondence in I.26 also encodes Ada's deepening relationship with
other men over her first four years apart from Van.

10: I.26 is the shortest chapter in ADA, less than two pages in some
editions, and it is not meant to thrill. Just as TRANSPARENT THINGS as a
whole was short and jarringly uncomfortable after ADA's protracted radiance,
I.26 is short, aridly unsensuous, frustrating for Van to write and us for to
read, because this is the first chapter after Van and Ada's first parting,
at the end of the radiance of Ardis the First. Ada, all too conscious that
the chapter encodes her increasing entanglement with other men at Van's
expense, ends it thus: "(I suggest omitting this little chapter altogether.
Ada's note.)"

Since Don has written more about Nabokov as "alphabetic man of letters," and
about "taking ADA clitorally," than anyone else, I am surprised that he of
all people should think I.26 an example of gratuitous virtuosity. It is the
chapter with the least to offer in ADA-it was MEANT to be thus, in pointed
contrast to the rapturous idyll of Ardis-and it was still the chapter that
satisfied Nabokov least. But gratuitous?

9/17/2003 7:49 AM


Nick Grundy has challenged me to find a good example of Gratuitous
Virtuosity in VN's work. In general, I am not persuaded that GV is a sin
(and even sometimes a mitzvah---GV, GV!) but, if pushed, I would nominate
ADA, I-26 which explicates the code used by Van & Ada during their 1884-88
separation. The three-page chapter would seem to be all in aid of permitting
the reader to decode a short, inconsequential phrase in the preceding

Van plunged into the dense undergrowth. He wore a silk shirt, a velvet
jacket, black breeches, riding boots with star spurs - and this attire was
hardly convenient for making klv zdB AoyvBno wkh gwzxm dqg kzwAAqvo a gwttp
vq wjfhm Ada in a natural bower of aspens; xliC mujzikml..... .

The "decrypt" (as we ex-cryptanalysists racily put it): is "[making]
his way through the brush and crossing the brook to reach Ada"......., they
embraced." At the end of I-26 Ada herself suggests "omitting this little
chapter altogether." Boyd in the Cyberedition of his book on ADA points out
that the coded passage calls attention to surrounding textual allusions to
Marvell and Rimbaud poems. Yes, but such would be the case even if I-26 is
omitted. Nor can the chapter can be justified on structural
grounds---nothing in the book would be affected if the chapter were not
there. In closing, I remark my opening comment that GV is not necessarily a
mortal sin. A close look at Ada shows that there are other "gratuitous"