Vladimir Nabokov

Source for Ada's orchestra/horsecart dream anagram

By Alain Champlain, 7 July, 2021

As has already been mentioned, in Ada, Part One, Chapter 12, the mention of a hammock begets both these parentheticals:

"(where a former summer guest, with an opera cloak over his clammy nightshirt, had awoken once because a stink bomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart, and striking a match, Uncle Van had seen the bright blood blotching his pillow)."

"(where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra—as suggested to him by career physicians)"

The Darkbloom annotation gives: 

“horsecart: an old anagram. It leads here to a skit on Freudian dream charades (‘symbols in an orchal orchestra’).”


Anyhow, I stumbled upon the 'source' for this 'old anagram' in Vladimir Nabokov Interviewed by Penelope Gilliatt (1966):


"At some stage we started to play anagrams. I gave him “cart horse” (the solution is “orchestra”). He took the problem away on what was meant to be a nap, and came bounding into the bar two hours later with an expression that was a very Russian mixture of buoyancy and sheepishness. The tartanned paper of his little notepad was covered with methodically wrong steps. “Her actors,” he said, in try-on triumph, eying me, and knowing perfectly well that the answer had to be one word."

'“Vera has been doing ‘cart horse’ as well,” he said. “Eventually she suggested ‘horse-cart.’ She hadn’t much hope.”'

Fun to note the nap too.


Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years ago

A very nice interview, thank you for bringing it up. It is as if I visited the Engadine myself! VN must have found the solution of the "cart horse" anagram afterwards (he would see the solution anyway, when the interview was published). As to prowling black spumas in Uncle Van's dreams (apparently, a misprint; it should be "Uncle Ivan"), they seem to hint at the Latin phrase cum spumas agere in ore, "foaming at the mouth." Royal' drozhashchiy penu s gub oblizhet ("A trembling piano will lick off foam from its lips," 1919) is a poem by Pasternak:


Рояль дрожащий пену с губ оближет.
Тебя сорвёт, подкосит этот бред.
Ты скажешь: — милый! — Нет, — вскричу я, — нет!
При музыке?! — Но можно ли быть ближе,

Чем в полутьме, аккорды, как дневник,
Меча в камин комплектами, погодно?
О пониманье дивное, кивни,
Кивни, и изумишься! — ты свободна.

Я не держу. Иди, благотвори.
Ступай к другим. Уже написан Вертер,
А в наши дни и воздух пахнет смертью:
Открыть окно — что жилы отворить.


Pasternak's poem ends in the lines "And in our days even the air smells of death: / To open the window is the same as to open one's veins." Air is the element that destroys Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father who dies in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific, 3.7). Pamyati Demona ("In Memory of the Demon") is the first poem in Pasternak's collection Sestra moya zhizn' ("My Sister Life," 1923). When Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister) visits Van in Kingston and brings him Ada's letter, Van tells her that all three casements are open:


‘I think I’ll take off my jacket,’ she said with the usual flitting frown of feminine fuss that fits the ‘thought.’ ‘You’ve got central heating; we girls have tiny fireplaces.’

She threw it off, revealing a sleeveless frilly white blouse. She raised her arms to pass her fingers through her bright curls, and he saw the expected bright hollows.

Van said, ‘All three casements pourtant are open and can open wider; but they can do it only westward and that green yard down below is the evening sun’s praying rug, which makes this room even warmer. Terrible for a window not to be able to turn its paralyzed embrasure and see what’s on the other side of the house.’

Once a Veen, always a Veen. (2.5)


Like Penelope Gilliatt (the interviewer whom VN met in the hotel lobby), Lucette is red-haired.


While a trembling piano and "a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra" seem to foreshadow Philip Rack, Lucette's music teacher and one of Ada's lovers (who is poisoned by his jealous wife Elsie and dies in Ward Five of the Kalugano hospital, 1.42), "prowling black spumas" anticipate Karol, or Karapars ("black panther"), Krolik, a doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey (Dr. Krolik's brother who was Ada's first lover and whose photograph Van sees in Kim Beauharnais' album, 2.7). In his interview with Penelope Gilliatt VN tells about his hospitalization after food poisoning, mentions Lewis Carroll Carroll (as VN calls him) and criticizes Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set) Pasternak's novel is known as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor, and as Mertvago Forever, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are known as Palace in Wonderlad. Both books are mentioned in Ada in close proximity:


She showed him next where the hammock — a whole set of hammocks, a canvas sack full of strong, soft nets — was stored: this was in the corner of a basement toolroom behind the lilacs, the key was concealed in this hole here which last year was stuffed by the nest of a bird — no need to identify it. A pointer of sunlight daubed with greener paint a long green box where croquet implements were kept; but the balls had been rolled down the hill by some rowdy children, the little Erminins, who were now Van’s age and had grown very nice and quiet.

‘As we all are at that age,’ said Van and stooped to pick up a curved tortoiseshell comb — the kind that girls use to hold up their hair behind; he had seen one, exactly like that, quite recently, but when, in whose hairdo?

‘One of the maids,’ said Ada. ‘That tattered chapbook must also belong to her, Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor.’

‘Playing croquet with you,’ said Van, ‘should be rather like using flamingoes and hedgehogs.’

‘Our reading lists do not match,’ replied Ada. ‘That Palace in Wonderland was to me the kind of book everybody so often promised me I would adore, that I developed an insurmountable prejudice toward it. Have you read any of Mlle Larivière’s stories? Well, you will. She thinks that in some former Hindooish state she was a boulevardier in Paris; and writes accordingly. We can squirm from here into the front hall by a secret passage, but I think we are supposed to go and look at the grand chêne which is really an elm.’ Did he like elms? Did he know Joyce’s poem about the two washerwomen? He did, indeed. Did he like it? He did. In fact he was beginning to like very much arbors and ardors and Adas. They rhymed. Should he mention it? (1.8)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Les amours du Dr Mertvago: play on 'Zhivago' ('zhiv' means in Russian 'alive' and 'mertv' ‘dead’).


In his interview with Penelope Gilliatt VN says that he knows Dublin (the setting of Joyce's Ulysses) as good as he knows Moscow (the setting of Doctor Zhivago).


Describing his meeting with Lucette in Paris in 1901, Van compares Lucette to Blok's Incignita (3.3). In his poem Neznakomka ("The Unknown Woman," 1906) Alexander Blok mentions p'yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who cry out "In vino veritas!" At the family dinner in "Ardis the Second" Demon uses the phrase s glazami (with the eyes) and mentions Dr. Krolik:


'Marina,' murmured Demon at the close of the first course. 'Marina,' he repeated louder. 'Far from me' (a locution he favored) 'to criticize Dan's taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I'm above all that rot, I'm...' (gesture); 'but, my dear,' he continued, switching to Russian, 'the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki - the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) -'
'Everybody has eyes,' remarked Marina drily.
'Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that's not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It's depressing. It's a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.'
'Look, Dad,' said Van, 'Dr Krolik can't do much, because, as you know quite well, he's dead, and Marina can't tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they're alive.'
'The Veen wit, the Veen wit,' murmured Demon.

‘Exactly,’ said Marina. ‘I simply refuse to do anything about it. Besides poor Jones is not at all asthmatic, but only nervously eager to please. He’s as healthy as a bull and has rowed me from Ardisville to Ladore and back, and enjoyed it, many times this summer. You are cruel, Demon. I can’t tell him "ne pïkhtite," as I can’t tell Kim, the kitchen boy, not to take photographs on the sly — he’s a regular snap-shooting fiend, that Kim, though otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy; nor can I tell my little French maid to stop getting invitations, as she somehow succeeds in doing, to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore.’ (1.38)


Describing the family dinner, Van mentions Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder who took pictures:


'What was that?' exclaimed Marina, whom certicle storms terrified even more than they did the Antiamberians of Ladore County.
'Sheet lightning,' suggested Van.
'If you ask me,' said Demon, turning on his chair to consider the billowing drapery, 'I'd guess it was a photographer's flash. After all, we have here a famous actress and a sensational acrobat.'
Ada ran to the window. From under the anxious magnolias a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids stood aiming a camera at the harmless, gay family group. But it was only a nocturnal mirage, not unusual in July. Nobody was taking pictures except Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder. (ibid.)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): certicle: anagram of 'electric.'


In his poem Groza momental'naya navek ("The Thunderstorm Instantaneous Forever") included in "My Sister Life" Pasternak, too, has grom (thunder) take pictures:


А затем прощалось лето
С полустанком. Снявши шапку,
Сто слепящих фотографий
Ночью снял на память гром.

Меркла кисть сирени. B это
Время он, нарвав охапку
Молний, с поля ими трафил
Озарить управский дом.

И когда по кровле зданья
Разлилась волна злорадства
И, как уголь по рисунку,
Грянул ливень всем плетнем,

Стал мигать обвал сознанья:
Вот, казалось, озарятся
Даже те углы рассудка,
Где теперь светло, как днем!

In memory [of the summer] the thunder took at night
a hundred blinding photographs.


The title of Pasternak's poem brings to mind Mertvago Forever.


Pasternak's poem about a piano licking off foam from its lips brings to mind Fet’s glorious Siyala noch’ ("The night was radiant..."), a romance that Van, Ada and Lucette listen in 'Ursus' (the best Franco-Estotinan restaurant in Manhattan Major):


Here Van stood up again, as Ada, black fan in elegant motion, came back followed by a thousand eyes, while the opening bars of a romance (on Fet’s glorious Siyala noch’) started to run over the keys (and the bass coughed à la russe into his fist before starting).

A radiant night, a moon-filled garden. Beams

Lay at our feet. The drawing room, unlit;

Wide open, the grand piano; and our hearts

Throbbed to your song, as throbbed the strings in it...

Then Banoffsky launched into Glinka’s great amphibrachs (Mihail Ivanovich had been a summer guest at Ardis when their uncle was still alive — a green bench existed where the composer was said to have sat under the pseudoacacias especially often, mopping his ample brow):

Subside, agitation of passion! (2.8)


On the next morning Van learns from Lucette the name of Ada's future husband:


‘My dear,’ said Van, ‘do help me. She told me about her Valentian estanciero but now the name escapes me and I hate bothering her.’

‘Only she never told you,’ said loyal Lucette, ‘so nothing could escape. Nope. I can’t do that to your sweetheart and mine, because we know you could hit that keyhole with a pistol.’

‘Please, little vixen! I’ll reward you with a very special kiss.’

‘Oh, Van,’ she said over a deep sigh. ‘You promise you won’t tell her I told you?’

‘I promise. No, no, no,’ he went on, assuming a Russian accent, as she, with the abandon of mindless love, was about to press her abdomen to his. ‘Nikak-s net: no lips, no philtrum, no nosetip, no swimming eye. Little vixen’s axilla, just that — unless’ — (drawing back in mock uncertainty) — ‘you shave there?’

‘I stink worse when I do,’ confided simple Lucette and obediently bared one shoulder.

‘Arm up! Point at Paradise! Terra! Venus!’ commanded Van, and for a few synchronized heartbeats, fitted his working mouth to the hot, humid, perilous hollow.

She sat down with a bump on a chair, pressing one hand to her brow.

‘Turn off the footlights,’ said Van. ‘I want the name of that fellow.’

‘Vinelander,’ she answered.

He heard Ada Vinelander’s voice calling for her Glass bed slippers (which, as in Cordulenka’s princessdom too, he found hard to distinguish from dance footwear), and a minute later, without the least interruption in the established tension, Van found himself, in a drunken dream, making violent love to Rose — no, to Ada, but in the rosacean fashion, on a kind of lowboy. She complained he hurt her ‘like a Tiger Turk.’ He went to bed and was about to doze off for good when she left his side. Where was she going? Pet wanted to see the album. (ibid.)


 "A Tiger Turk" mentioned by Ada is her first lover, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik, a doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey.


Van never finds out that Andrey Vinelander and Ada have at least two children and that Mr. Ronald Oranger (old Van's secretary, the editor of Ada) and Violet Knox (old Van's typist whom Ada calls Fialochka, "little Violet," and who marries Ronald Oranger after Van's and Ada's death) are Ada's grandchildren. According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN asked her if the Queen was pregnant. King Victor (who often visits Villa Venus, Eric Veen's floramors, incognito) seems to be the Antiterran counterpart of the British Queen Victoria (who had nine children). Lewis Carroll Carroll was a "Victorian" writer.




‘When I was a kid,’ said Van, ‘and stayed for the first — or rather, second — time in Switzerland, I thought that "Verglas" on roadway signs stood for some magical town, always around the corner, at the bottom of every snowy slope, never seen, but biding its time. I got your cable in the Engadine where there are real magical places, such as Alraun or Alruna — which means a tiny Arabian demon in a German wizard’s mirror. By the way, we have the old apartment upstairs with an additional bedroom, number five-zero-eight.’

‘Oh dear. I’m afraid you must cancel poor 508. If I stayed for the night, 510 would do for both of us, but I’ve got bad news for you. I can’t stay. I must go back to Geneva directly after dinner to retrieve my things and maids, whom the authorities have apparently put in a Home for Stray Females because they could not pay the absolutely medieval new droits de douane — isn’t Switzerland in Washington State, sort of, après tout? Look, don’t scowl’ — (patting his brown blotched hand on which their shared birthmark had got lost among the freckles of age, like a babe in autumn woods, on peut les suivre en reconnaissant only Mascodagama’s disfigured thumb and the beautiful almond-shaped nails) — ‘I promise to get in touch with you in a day or two, and then we’ll go on a cruise to Greece with the Baynards — they have a yacht and three adorable daughters who still swim in the tan, okay?’

‘I don’t know what I loathe more,’ he replied, ‘yachts or Baynards; but can I help you in Geneva?’

He could not. Baynard had married his Cordula, after a sensational divorce — Scotch veterinaries had had to saw off her husband’s antlers (last call for that joke). (Part Four)


In the penultimate story of his book Les Plaisirs et les Jours (“Pleasures and Days,” 1896), Les regrets, rêveries couleur du temps (“Regrets, Reveries the Color of Time”), Marcel Proust mentions a forgotten village of the Engadine:


Nous nous sommes aimés dans un village perdu d’Engadine au nom deux fois doux : le rêve des sonorités allemandes s’y mourait dans la volupté des syllabes italiennes, À l’entour, trois lacs d’un vert inconnu baignaient des forêts de sapins. Des glaciers et des pics fermaient l’horizon. Le soir, la diversité des plans multipliait la douceur des éclairages. Oublierons-nous jamais les promenades au bord du lac de Sils-Maria, quand l’après-midi finissait, à six heures ? Les mélèzes d’une si noire sérénité quand ils avoisinent la neige éblouissante tendaient vers l’eau bleu pâle, presque mauve, leurs branches d’un vert suave et brillant. Un soir l’heure nous fut particulièrement propice ; en quelques instants, le soleil baissant, fit passer l’eau par toutes les nuances et notre âme par toutes les voluptés, Tout à coup nous rimes un mouvement, nous venions de voir un petit papillon rose, puis deux, puis cinq, quitter les fleurs de notre rive et voltiger au-dessus du lac. Bientôt ils semblaient une impalpable poussière de rose emportée, puis ils abordaient aux fleurs de l’autre rive, revenaient et doucement recommençaient l’aventureuse traversée, s’arrêtant parfois comme tentés au-dessus de ce lac précieusement nuancé alors comme une grande fleur qui se fane. C’en était trop et nos yeux s’emplissaient de larmes. Ces petits papillons, en traversant le lac, passaient et repassaient sur notre âme, – sur notre âme toute tendue d’émotion devant tant de beautés, prête à vibrer, – passaient et repassaient comme un archet voluptueux. (Chapter XXII – PRÉSENCE RÉELLE)


Part Four of Ada is Van's essay The Texture of Time (1922). In À la recherche du temps perdu ("In Search of Lost Time") Proust several time mentions un grand tralala:


« Vous n’étiez pas invité hier chez Salomon ? disait-on dans la famille. — Non, je n’étais pas des élus ! — Qu’est-ce qu’il y avait ? — Un grand tralala, le stéréoscope, toute la boutique. — Ah ! s’il y avait le stéréoscope, je regrette, car il paraît que Salomon est extraordinaire quand il le montre. — Que veux-tu, dit M. Bloch à son fils, il ne faut pas lui donner tout à la fois, comme cela il lui restera quelque chose à désirer. » (À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs)


Brichot m’apprit qu’il y avait ce soir, au « Quai Conti » (c’est ainsi que les fidèles disaient en parlant du salon Verdurin depuis qu’il s’était transporté là), grand « tra la la » musical, organisé par M. de Charlus. (La Prisonnière)


"The whole tralala" in Ada's cable and un grand tralala in Proust's novel bring to mind Tralatitions, Mr. R.'s last book in VN's novel Transparent Things (1972). Tralatition is "a change, as in the use of words; a metaphor." In his interview with Penelope Gilliatt VN speaks of the metaphors:


“And the metaphors. Unattached comparisons. Suppose I were to say ‘as passionately adored and insulted as a barometer in a mountain hotel,”’ he said, looking out at the rain. “It would be a beautiful metaphor. But who is it about? The image is top-heavy. There is nothing to attach it to. And there is a pseudo-religious strain in the book which almost shocks me. Zhivago is so feminine that I sometimes wonder if it might have been partly written by Pasternak’s mistress."


According to Van, Ada was partly written by Ada herself:


Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please.

(She). Billions of boys. Take one fairly decent decade. A billion of Bills, good, gifted, tender and passionate, not only spiritually but physically well-meaning Billions, have bared the jillions of their no less tender and brilliant Jills during that decade, at stations and under conditions that have to be controlled and specified by the worker, lest the entire report be choked up by the weeds of statistics and waist-high generalizations. No point would there be, if we left out, for example, the little matter of prodigious individual awareness and young genius, which makes, in some cases, of this or that particular gasp an unprecedented and unrepeatable event in the continuum of life or at least a thematic anthemia of such events in a work of art, or a denouncer’s article. The details that shine through or shade through: the local leaf through the hyaline skin, the green sun in the brown humid eye, tout ceci, vsyo eto, in tit and toto, must be taken into account, now prepare to take over (no, Ada, go on, ya zaslushalsya: I’m all enchantment and ears), if we wish to convey the fact, the fact, the fact — that among those billions of brilliant couples in one cross section of what you will allow me to call spacetime (for the convenience of reasoning), one couple is a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta, in consequence of which (to be inquired into, to be painted, to be denounced, to be put to music, or to the question and death, if the decade has a scorpion tail after all), the particularities of their love-making influence in a special unique way two long lives and a few readers, those pensive reeds, and their pens and mental paintbrushes. Natural history indeed! Unnatural history — because that precision of senses and sense must seem unpleasantly peculiar to peasants, and because the detail is all: The song of a Tuscan Firecrest or a Sitka Kinglet in a cemetery cypress; a minty whiff of Summer Savory or Yerba Buena on a coastal slope; the dancing flitter of a Holly Blue or an Echo Azure — combined with other birds, flowers and butterflies: that has to be heard, smelled and seen through the transparency of death and ardent beauty. And the most difficult: beauty itself as perceived through the there and then. The males of the firefly (now it’s really your turn, Van).

The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end. Van watched them with the same pleasurable awe he had experienced as a child, when, lost in the purple crepuscule of an Italian hotel garden, in an alley of cypresses, he supposed they were golden ghouls or the passing fancies of the garden. Now as they softly flew, apparently straight, crossing and recrossing the darkness around him, each flashed his pale-lemon light every five seconds or so, signaling in his own specific rhythm (quite different from that of an allied species, flying with Photinus ladorensis, according to Ada, at Lugano and Luga) to his grass-domiciled female pulsating in photic response after taking a couple of moments to verify the exact type of light code he used. The presence of those magnificent little animals, delicately illuminating, as they passed, the fragrant night, filled Van with a subtle exhilaration that Ada’s entomology seldom evoked in him — maybe in result of the abstract scholar’s envy which a naturalist’s immediate knowledge sometimes provokes. The hammock, a comfortable oblong nest, reticulated his naked body either under the weeping cedar that sprawled over one corner of a lawn, and granted a partial shelter in case of a shower, or, on safer nights, between two tulip trees (where a former summer guest, with an opera cloak over his clammy nightshirt, had awoken once because a stink bomb had burst among the instruments in the horsecart, and striking a match, Uncle Van had seen the bright blood blotching his pillow). (1.12)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): pensive reeds: Pascal’s metaphor of man, un roseau pensant.

horsecart: an old anagram. It leads here to a skit on Freudian dream charades (‘symbols in an orchal orchestra’), p.62.

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years ago

According to Penelope Gilliatt, long ago the Empress of Russia gave VN pleasure by being an eager admirer of Ella Wheeler Wilcox:


"The high-flying philistinism of protected art tastes strikes him often as richly foolish. Long ago the Empress of Russia gave him pleasure by being an eager admirer of Ella Wheeler Wilcox."


The last Russian Empress, Aleksandra Fyodorovna, was a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria (who corresponds to the Antiterran King Victor, a frequent visitor of floramors, one hundred palatial brothels built by David van Veen, a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction, all over the world in memory of his grandson Eric, the author of an essay entitled "Villa Venus: an Organized Dream"). Ronald Oranger and Violet Knox (Ada's grandchildren who marry after Van's and Ada's death) are sverhimperatorskaya cheta (a super-imperial couple).

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years ago

On Antiterra England annexed France in 1815 and Paris is also known as Lute (from Lutèce, the city's ancient name). Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van mentions Milord Goal, governor of Lute:


On Terra, Theresa had been a Roving Reporter for an American magazine, thus giving Van the opportunity to describe the sibling planet’s political aspect. This aspect gave him the least trouble, presenting as it did a mosaic of painstakingly collated notes from his own reports on the ‘transcendental delirium’ of his patients. Its acoustics were poor, proper names often came out garbled, a chaotic calendar messed up the order of events but, on the whole, the colored dots did form a geomantic picture of sorts. As earlier experimentators had conjectured, our annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents. At the moment of our sorry story, the king of Terra’s England, yet another George (there had been, apparently, at least half-a-dozen bearing that name before him) ruled, or had just ceased to rule, over an empire that was somewhat patchier (with alien blanks and blots between the British Islands and South Africa) than the solidly conglomerated one on our Antiterra. Western Europe presented a particularly glaring gap: ever since the eighteenth century, when a virtually bloodless revolution had dethroned the Capetians and repelled all invaders, Terra’s France flourished under a couple of emperors and a series of bourgeois presidents, of whom the present one, Doumercy, seemed considerably more lovable than Milord Goal, Governor of Lute! Eastward, instead of Khan Sosso and his ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds, was governed by a Sovereign Society of Solicitous Republics (or so it came through) which had superseded the Tsars, conquerors of Tartary and Trst. Last but not least, Athaulf the Future, a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform, the secret flame of many a British nobleman, honorary captain of the French police, and benevolent ally of Rus and Rome, was said to be in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country of speedways, immaculate soldiers, brass bands and modernized barracks for misfits and their young. (2.2)


In Speak, Memory (a book that VN was holding when he met Penelope Gilliat in the hotel lobby) VN says that, as a Cambridge student, he was a football goalkeeper. Describing Victor Vitry's film version of his novel, Van mentions the final football match in the Olympic Games held in Berlin:


Vitry dated Theresa’s visit to Antiterra as taking place in 1940, but 1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours. The conceit allowed certain pleasing dips into the modes and manners of our past (did you remember that horses wore hats — yes, hats — when heat waves swept Manhattan?) and gave the impression — which physics-fiction literature had much exploited — of the capsulist traveling backward in terms of time. Philosophers asked nasty questions, but were ignored by the wishing-to-be-gulled moviegoers.

In contrast to the cloudless course of Demonian history in the twentieth century, with the Anglo-American coalition managing one hemisphere, and Tartary, behind her Golden Veil, mysteriously ruling the other, a succession of wars and revolutions were shown shaking loose the jigsaw puzzle of Terrestrial autonomies. In an impressive historical survey of Terra rigged up by Vitry — certainly the greatest cinematic genius ever to direct a picture of such scope or use such a vast number of extras (some said more than a million, others, half a million men and as many mirrors) — kingdoms fell and dictatordoms rose, and republics, half-sat, half-lay in various attitudes of discomfort. The conception was controversial, the execution flawless. Look at all those tiny soldiers scuttling along very fast across the trench-scarred wilderness, with explosions of mud and things going pouf-pouf in silent French now here, now there!

In 1905, Norway with a mighty heave and a long dorsal ripple unfastened herself from Sweden, her unwieldy co-giantess, while in a similar act of separation the French parliament, with parenthetical outbursts of vive émotion, voted a divorce between State and Church. Then, in 1911, Norwegian troops led by Amundsen reached the South Pole and simultaneously the Italians stormed into Turkey. In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and the Americans tore up Panama. In 1918 they and the French defeated Germany while she was busily defeating Russia (who had defeated her own Tartars some time earlier). In Norway there was Siegrid Mitchel, in America Margaret Undset, and in France, Sidonie Colette. In 1926 Abdel-Krim surrendered, after yet another photogenic war, and the Golden Horde again subjugated Rus. In 1933, Athaulf Hindler (also known as Mittler — from ‘to mittle,’ mutilate) came to power in Germany, and a conflict on an even more spectacular scale than the 1914-1918 war was under way, when Vitry ran out of old documentaries and Theresa, played by his wife, left Terra in a cosmic capsule after having covered the Olympic Games held in Berlin (the Norwegians took most of the prizes, but the Americans won the fencing event, an outstanding achievement, and beat the Germans in the final football match by three goals to one). (5.5)


VN told Penelope Gilliatt that he saw the Queen on TV at a football match. According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN did not cared about de Gaulle. At the end of the same chapter about Vitry's film Van mentions a bad-tempered French general:


L.F.T. tiny dolls, L.F.T. breloques of coral and ivory, appeared in souvenir shops, from Agony, Patagonia, to Wrinkleballs, Le Bras d’Or. L.F.T. clubs sprouted. L.F.T. girlies minced with mini-menus out of roadside snackettes shaped like spaceships. From the tremendous correspondence that piled up on Van’s desk during a few years of world fame, one gathered that thousands of more or less unbalanced people believed (so striking was the visual impact of the Vitry-Veen film) in the secret Government-concealed identity of Terra and Antiterra. Demonian reality dwindled to a casual illusion. Actually, we had passed through all that. Politicians, dubbed Old Felt and Uncle Joe in forgotten comics, had really existed. Tropical countries meant, not only Wild Nature Reserves but famine, and death, and ignorance, and shamans, and agents from distant Atomsk. Our world was, in fact, mid-twentieth-century. Terra convalesced after enduring the rack and the stake, the bullies and beasts that Germany inevitably generates when fulfilling her dreams of glory. Russian peasants and poets had not been transported to Estotiland, and the Barren Grounds, ages ago — they were dying, at this very moment, in the slave camps of Tartary. Even the governor of France was not Charlie Chose, the suave nephew of Lord Goal, but a bad-tempered French general. (ibid.)


Chose is Van's English University. Charlie Chose seems to be the Antiterran counterpart of Charlie Chaplin. In his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927) VN mentions smeshnoy i trogatel'nyi Chaplin (funny and touching Chaplin).

In the epilogue of Ada Van calls butterfies filmed by Ada in her old age "the crucified actors:"


I, Van Veen, salute you, life, Ada Veen, Dr Lagosse, Stepan Nootkin, Violet Knox, Ronald Oranger. Today is my ninety-seventh birthday, and I hear from my wonderful new Everyrest chair a spade scrape and footsteps in the snow-sparkling garden, and my old Russian valet, who is deafer than he thinks, pull out and push in nose-ringed drawers in the dressing room. This Part Five is not meant as an epilogue; it is the true introduction of my ninety-seven percent true, and three percent likely, Ada or Ardor, a family chronicle.

Of all their many houses, in Europe and in the Tropics, the château recently built in Ex, in the Swiss Alps, with its pillared front and crenelated turrets, became their favorite, especially in midwinter, when the famous glittering air, le cristal d’Ex, ‘matches the highest forms of human thought — pure mathematics & decipherment’ (unpublished ad).

At least twice a year our happy couple indulged in fairly long travels. Ada did not breed or collect butterflies any more, but throughout her healthy and active old age loved to film them in their natural surroundings, at the bottom of her garden or the end of the world, flapping and flitting, settling on flowers or filth, gliding over grass or granite, fighting or mating. Van accompanied her on picture-shooting journeys to Brazil, the Congo, New Guinea, but secretly preferred a long drink under a tent to a long wait under a tree for some rarity to come down to the bait and be taken in color. One would need another book to describe Ada’s adventures in Adaland. The films — and the crucified actors (Identification Mounts) — can be seen by arrangement at the Lucinda Museum, 5, Park Lane, Manhattan.  (5.1)


According to Penelope Gilliatt, when she offered VN (who was collecting butterflies in the Engadine) to play anagrams and suggested "horse cart," VN came up with "her actors." During the conversation about religions in "Ardis the First" Lucette asks Van what "crucified" means:


Now Lucette demanded her mother’s attention.

‘What are Jews?’ she asked.

‘Dissident Christians,’ answered Marina.

‘Why is Greg a Jew?’ asked Lucette.

‘Why-why!’ said Marina; ‘because his parents are Jews.’

‘And his grandparents? His arrière grandparents?’

‘I really wouldn’t know, my dear. Were your ancestors Jews, Greg?’

‘Well, I’m not sure,’ said Greg. ‘Hebrews, yes — but not Jews in quotes — I mean, not comic characters or Christian businessmen. They came from Tartary to England five centuries ago. My mother’s grandfather, though, was a French marquis who, I know, belonged to the Roman faith and was crazy about banks and stocks and jewels, so I imagine people may have called him un juif.’

‘It’s not a very old religion, anyway, as religions go, is it?’ said Marina (turning to Van and vaguely planning to steer the chat to India where she had been a dancing girl long before Moses or anybody was born in the lotus swamp).

‘Who cares —’ said Van.

‘And Belle’ (Lucette’s name for her governess), ‘is she also a dizzy Christian?’

‘Who cares,’ cried Van, ‘who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter — Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind.’

‘How did this idiotic conversation start in the first place?’ Ada wished to be told, cocking her head at the partly ornamented dackel or taksik.

‘Mea culpa,’ Mlle Larivière explained with offended dignity. ‘All I said, at the picnic, was that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches, because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.’

‘The Romans,’ said Greg, ‘the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.’

Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.

‘When I was a little girl,’ said Marina crossly, ‘Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.’

‘Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,’ observed Ada.

‘Are we Mesopotamians?’ asked Lucette.

‘We are Hippopotamians,’ said Van. ‘Come,’ he added, ‘we have not yet ploughed today.’

A day or two before, Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. Dack barked in strident protest. (1.14)


At the picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday Mlle Larivière reads her story La Rivière de diamants, Van walks on his hands for the first time and Ada plays anagrams with Grace Erminin (Greg's twin sister):


But whatever wrath there hung in the air, it soon subsided. Ada asked her governess for pencils and paper. Lying on his stomach, leaning his cheek on his hand, Van looked at his love’s inclined neck as she played anagrams with Grace, who had innocently suggested ‘insect.’

‘Scient,’ said Ada, writing it down.

‘Oh no!’ objected Grace.

‘Oh yes! I’m sure it exists. He is a great scient. Dr Entsic was scient in insects.’

Grace meditated, tapping her puckered brow with the eraser end of the pencil, and came up with:


‘Incest,’ said Ada instantly.

‘I give up,’ said Grace. ‘We need a dictionary to check your little inventions.’ (1.13)


Mlle Larivière story La Rivière de diamants corresponds to Maupassant's story La Parure (1884). VN told Penelope Gilliatt that his French slang goes back to Maupassant (a writer who did not exist on Antiterra).


According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN told her that he discovered the secret of levitation. Describing his hand-walking, Van wonders if both palms did leave the ground when he seemed actually to ‘skip’ on his hands:


Questions for study and discussion:

1. Did both palms leave the ground when Van, while reversed, seemed actually to ‘skip’ on his hands?

2. Was Van’s adult incapacity to ‘shrug’ things off only physical or did it ‘correspond’ to some archetypal character of his ‘undersoul’?

3. Why did Ada burst into tears at the height of Van’s performance? (ibid.)


Like all other lovers of Ada (Percy de Prey, Philip Rack, Johnny Starling), Van is her actor. In a letter to Ada written after Lucette's suicide Van calls Ada (who played the gitanilla in Yuzlik's film Don Juan's Last Fling) "my Zegris butterfly:"


My only love:

This letter will never be posted. It will lie in a steel box buried under a cypress in the garden of Villa Armina, and when it turns up by chance half a millennium hence, nobody will know who wrote it and for whom it was meant. It would not have been written at all if your last line, your cry of unhappiness, were not my cry of triumph. The burden of that excitement must be... [The rest of the sentence was found to be obliterated by a rusty stain when the box was dug up in 1928. The letter continues as follows]: ...back in the States, I started upon a singular quest. In Manhattan, in Kingston, in Lahore, in dozens of other towns, I kept pursuing the picture which I had not [badly discolored] on the boat, from cinema to cinema, every time discovering a new item of glorious torture, a new convulsion of beauty in your performance. That [illegible] is a complete refutation of odious Kim’s odious stills. Artistically, and ardisiacally, the best moment is one of the last — when you follow barefoot the Don who walks down a marble gallery to his doom, to the scaffold of Dona Anna’s black-curtained bed, around which you flutter, my Zegris butterfly, straightening a comically drooping candle, whispering delightful but futile instructions into the frowning lady’s ear, and then peering over that mauresque screen and suddenly dissolving in such natural laughter, helpless and lovely, that one wonders if any art could do without that erotic gasp of schoolgirl mirth. And to think, Spanish orange-tip, that all in all your magic gambol lasted but eleven minutes of stopwatch time in patches of two- or three-minute scenes!

Alas, there came a night, in a dismal district of workshops and bleary shebeens, when for the very last time, and only halfway, because at the seduction scene the film black-winked and shriveled, I managed to catch [the entire end of the letter is damaged]. (3.6)


Van's novel Letters from Terra came out under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage’ in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris’ in London: 


Letters from Terra, by Voltemand, came out in 1891 on Van’s twenty-first birthday, under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage’ in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris’ in London.

(Had I happened to see a copy I would have recognized Chateaubriand’s lapochka and hence your little paw, at once.) (2.2)


Voltemand is a courtier in Shakespeare's Hamlet. According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN criticized Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare:


“As a translator of Shakespeare he is very poor. He is considered great only by people who don’t know Russian. An example.” His wife helped him to remember a line of a Pasternak translation. “What he has turned it into in Russian is this: ‘All covered with grease and keeps wiping the pig-iron.’ You see. It is ridiculous. What would be the original?”
“Greasy Joan doth keel the pot?”
“Yes. ‘Keeps wiping the pig-iron!’” He expostulated and looked genuinely angry. “Pasternak himself has been very much helped by translation. Sometimes when you translate a cliche—you know, a cloud has a silver lining—it can sound like Milton because it is in another language.”


According to Ada, Lucette knows her revised monologue of Shakespeare's King Lear:


Et pourtant,’ said the sound-sensitive governess, wincing, ‘I read to her twice Ségur’s adaptation in fable form of Shakespeare’s play about the wicked usurer.’

‘She also knows my revised monologue of his mad king,’ said Ada:

Ce beau jardin fleurit en mai,

Mais en hiver

Jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais

N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert,

n’est vert.

‘Oh, that’s good,’ exclaimed Greg with a veritable sob of admiration. (1.14)


The author of Paradise Lost, Milton brings to mind the Amerussia of Abraham Milton mentioned by Van when he describes the dufference between Terra and Antiterra:


The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans — and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): beau milieu: right in the middle.

Faragod: apparently, the god of electricity.

braques: allusion to a bric-à-brac painter.


Pasternak's father was a painter. 

Alexey Sklyarenko

3 years ago

In reply to by Alexey Sklyarenko

In Manhattan, just before he visits Van in his penthouse apartment and tells him about Uncle Dan's odd Boschean death, Demon Veen smoothly passes in front of a slow-clopping horse-drawn vegetable cart:


Next day, February 5, around nine p.m., Manhattan (winter) time, on the way to Dan’s lawyer, Demon noted — just as he was about to cross Alexis A venue, an ancient but insignificant acquaintance, Mrs Arfour, advancing toward him, with her toy terrier, along his side of the street. Unhesitatingly, Demon stepped off the curb, and having no hat to raise (hats were not worn with raincloaks and besides he had just taken a very exotic and potent pill to face the day’s ordeal on top of a sleepless journey), contented himself — quite properly — with a wave of his slim umbrella; recalled with a paint dab of delight one of the gargle girls of her late husband; and smoothly passed in front of a slow-clopping horse-drawn vegetable cart, well out of the way of Mrs R4. But precisely in regard to such a contingency, Fate had prepared an alternate continuation. As Demon rushed (or, in terms of the pill, sauntered) by the Monaco, where he had often lunched, it occurred to him that his son (whom he had been unable to ‘contact’) might still be living with dull little Cordula de Prey in the penthouse apartment of that fine building. He had never been up there — or had he? For a business consultation with Van? On a sun-hazed terrace? And a clouded drink? (He had, that’s right, but Cordula was not dull and had not been present.)

With the simple and, combinationally speaking, neat, thought that, after all, there was but one sky (white, with minute multicolored optical sparks), Demon hastened to enter the lobby and catch the lift which a ginger-haired waiter had just entered, with breakfast for two on a wiggle-wheel table and the Manhattan Times among the shining, ever so slightly scratched, silver cupolas. Was his son still living up there, automatically asked Demon, placing a piece of nobler metal among the domes. Si, conceded the grinning imbecile, he had lived there with his lady all winter.

‘Then we are fellow travelers,’ said Demon inhaling not without gourmand anticipation the smell of Monaco’s coffee, exaggerated by the shadows of tropical weeds waving in the breeze of his brain.

On that memorable morning, Van, after ordering breakfast, had climbed out of his bath and donned a strawberry-red terrycloth robe when he thought he heard Valerio’s voice from the adjacent parlor. Thither he padded, humming tunelessly, looking forward to another day of increasing happiness (with yet another uncomfortable little edge smoothed away, another raw kink in the past so refashioned as to fit into the new pattern of radiance). (2.10)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): R4: ‘rook four’, a chess indication of position (pun on the woman’s name).


According to Penelope Gilliatt, VN told her that some of his best poems and chess problems have been composed in bathrooms looking at the floor:


“Some of my best poems and chess problems have been composed in bathrooms looking at the floor,” he said.
At some stage we started to play anagrams. I gave him “cart horse” (the solution is “orchestra”). He took the problem away on what was meant to be a nap, and came bounding into the bar two hours later with an expression that was a very Russian mixture of buoyancy and sheepishness. The tartanned paper of his little notepad was covered with methodically wrong steps. “Her actors,” he said, in try-on triumph, eying me, and knowing perfectly well that the answer had to be one word. Then he started to laugh at his picture of the creature whose property the actors would be. Bossy women strike him as irresistibly comic: they trudge through his books, absurd, cruel, creatures of inane placidity who see everything in the world as a mirror of their womanliness and who will speak sharply about something like Bolshevism as though it were an obvious minor nuisance, like mosquitoes or the common cold. I believe his woman producer also amused him because he finds the theatre inherently funny when it is earnest: something to do with its thickness, I think, compared with the fine mesh of the novels he likes.


In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). Van never finds out 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.

Describing his performance in variety shows as Mascodagama, Van mentions a clash of cymbals in the orchestra:


The stage would be empty when the curtain went up; then, after five heartbeats of theatrical suspense, something swept out of the wings, enormous and black, to the accompaniment of dervish drums. The shock of his powerful and precipitous entry affected so deeply the children in the audience that for a long time later, in the dark of sobbing insomnias, in the glare of violent nightmares, nervous little boys and girls relived, with private accretions, something similar to the ‘primordial qualm,’ a shapeless nastiness, the swoosh of nameless wings, the unendurable dilation of fever which came in a cavern draft from the uncanny stage. Into the harsh light of its gaudily carpeted space a masked giant, fully eight feet tall, erupted, running strongly in the kind of soft boots worn by Cossack dancers. A voluminous, black shaggy cloak of the burka type enveloped his silhouette inquiétante (according to a female Sorbonne correspondent — we’ve kept all those cuttings) from neck to knee or what appeared to be those sections of his body. A Karakul cap surmounted his top. A black mask covered the upper part of his heavily bearded face. The unpleasant colossus kept strutting up and down the stage for a while, then the strut changed to the restless walk of a caged madman, then he whirled, and to a clash of cymbals in the orchestra and a cry of terror (perhaps faked) in the gallery, Mascodagama turned over in the air and stood on his head.

In this weird position, with his cap acting as a pseudopodal pad, he jumped up and down, pogo-stick fashion — and suddenly came apart. Van’s face, shining with sweat, grinned between the legs of the boots that still shod his rigidly raised arms. Simultaneously his real feet kicked off and away the false head with its crumpled cap and bearded mask. The magical reversal ‘made the house gasp.’ Frantic (‘deafening,’ ‘delirious,’ ‘a veritable tempest of’) applause followed the gasp. He bounded offstage — and next moment was back, now sheathed in black tights, dancing a jig on his hands. (1.30)


A clash of cymbals in the orchestra brings to mind "a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra" mentioned by Van when he describes his nights in "Ardis the First:"


In this our dry report on Van Veen’s early, too early love, for Ada Veen, there is neither reason, nor room for metaphysical digression. Yet, let it be observed (just while the lucifers fly and throb, and an owl hoots — also most rhythmically — in the nearby park) that Van, who at the time had still not really tasted the Terror of Terra — vaguely attributing it, when analyzing his dear unforgettable Aqua’s torments, to pernicious fads and popular fantasies — even then, at fourteen, recognized that the old myths, which willed into helpful being a whirl of worlds (no matter how silly and mystical) and situated them within the gray matter of the star-suffused heavens, contained, perhaps, a glowworm of strange truth. His nights in the hammock (where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchestra — as suggested to him by career physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time, tingling about him and through him, as it was to retingle — with a little more meaning fortunately — in the last nights of a life, which I do not regret, my love. (1.12)


When Demon reads Van's palm, he is puzzled by the strange condition of the Sister of Van's Life:


‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long...’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’

‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.

‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’

‘I adore it,’ said Van. ‘It’s for me the château que baignait la Dore. I would gladly spend all my scarred and strange life here. But that’s a hopeless fancy.’

‘Hopeless? I wonder. I know Dan wants to leave it to Lucile, but Dan is greedy, and my affairs are such that I can satisfy great greed. When I was your age I thought that the sweetest word in the language rhymes with "billiard," and now I know I was right. If you’re really keen, son, on having this property, I might try to buy it. I can exert a certain pressure upon my Marina. She sighs like a hassock when you sit upon her, so to speak. Damn it, the servants here are not Mercuries. Pull that cord again. Yes, maybe Dan could be made to sell.’

‘That’s very black of you, Dad,’ said pleased Van, using a slang phrase he had learned from his tender young nurse, Ruby, who was born in the Mississippi region where most magistrates, public benefactors, high priests of various so-called’ denominations,’ and other honorable and generous men, had the dark or darkish skin of their West-African ancestors, who had been the first navigators to reach the Gulf of Mexico. (1.38)


The first poem in Pasternak's collection Sestra moya zhizn' ("My Sister Life," 1923) is entitled Pamyati Demona ("In Memory of the Demon"). Reading Van's palm, Demon predicts his own death in an airplane disaster.


3 years ago

Alain, excuse the belated comments:

Nice find! I enjoyed the article; Nabokov came across as more candid than usual, or perhaps the writer made it seem so.


I was confused at first by the “orchal orchestra.” I thought maybe it was a “choral” orchestra if there is such a thing– but what’s the point? It turns out that “orchal” is related to testicles (Gr. Orchis)! Whether “orchestra” or “horse cart,” that certainly would be a crash or clash of symbols. Then again – the “cart horse” might well be well-endowed! This way the word-play would come full circle, without even mentioning "cart horse."  


BTW, some interesting discussion of the “black spumas” were posted previously: NABOKV-L POST 0026924 and NABOKV-L POST 0026924


It occurred to me that the “black spumas” refer to the earlier description of Mascodagama’s black costume as a sort of “shapeless nastiness”:


The shock of his powerful and precipitous entry affected so deeply the children in the audience that for a long time later, in the dark of sobbing insomnias, in the glare of violent nightmares, nervous little boys and girls relived, with private accretions, something similar to the ‘primordial qualm,’ a shapeless nastiness, the swoosh of nameless wings, the unendurable dilation of fever which came in a cavern draft from the uncanny stage. (1.30)

The tubercular youth in the hammock was having a nightmare of stalking black blood-coughs. The children in the Mascodagama's audience were likewise having a "nightmarish" experience of the nasty black shape.

Nonchalantly, Van went back to the willows and said:

‘Every shot in the book has been snapped in 1884, except this one. I never rowed you down Ladore River in early spring. Nice to note you have not lost your wonderful ability to blush.’

‘It’s his error. He must have thrown in a fotochka taken later, maybe in 1888. We can rip it out if you like.’

‘Sweetheart,’ said Van, ‘the whole of 1888 has been ripped out. One need not be a sleuth in a mystery story to see that at least as many pages have been removed as retained. I don’t mind — I mean I have no desire to see the Knabenkräuter and other pendants of your friends botanizing with you; but 1888 has been withheld and he’ll turn up with it when the first grand is spent.’

‘I destroyed 1888 myself,’ admitted proud Ada; ‘but I swear, I solemnly swear, that the man behind Blanche, in the perron picture, was, and has always remained, a complete stranger.’

‘Good for him,’ said Van. ‘Really it has no importance. It’s our entire past that has been spoofed and condemned. On second thoughts, I will not write that Family Chronicle. By the way, where is my poor little Blanche now?’

‘Oh, she’s all right. She’s still around. You know, she came back — after you abducted her. She married our Russian coachman, the one who replaced Bengal Ben, as the servants called him.’

‘Oh she did? That’s delicious. Madame Trofim Fartukov. I would never have thought it.’

‘They have a blind child,’ said Ada.

‘Love is blind,’ said Van.

‘She tells me you made a pass at her on the first morning of your first arrival.’

‘Not documented by Kim,’ said Van. ‘Will their child remain blind? I mean, did you get them a really first-rate physician?’

‘Oh yes, hopelessly blind. But speaking of love and its myths, do you realize — because I never did before talking to her a couple of years ago — that the people around our affair had very good eyes indeed? Forget Kim, he’s only the necessary clown — but do you realize that a veritable legend was growing around you and me while we played and made love?’

She had never realized, she said again and again (as if intent to reclaim the past from the matter-of-fact triviality of the album), that their first summer in the orchards and orchidariums of Ardis had become a sacred secret and creed, throughout the countryside. Romantically inclined handmaids, whose reading consisted of Gwen de Vere and Klara Mertvago, adored Van, adored Ada, adored Ardis’s ardors in arbors. Their swains, plucking ballads on their seven-stringed Russian lyres under the racemosa in bloom or in old rose gardens (while the windows went out one by one in the castle), added freshly composed lines — naive, lackey-daisical, but heartfelt — to cyclic folk songs. Eccentric police officers grew enamored with the glamour of incest. Gardeners paraphrased iridescent Persian poems about irrigation and the Four Arrows of Love. Nightwatchmen fought insomnia and the fire of the clap with the weapons of Vaniada’s Adventures. Herdsmen, spared by thunderbolts on remote hillsides, used their huge ‘moaning horns’ as ear trumpets to catch the lilts of Ladore. Virgin chatelaines in marble-floored manors fondled their lone flames fanned by Van’s romance. And another century would pass, and the painted word would be retouched by the still richer brush of time. (2.7)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Knabenkräuter: Germ., orchids (and testicles).

perron: porch.


In Marina's bedroom there is a picture of her brother (Van's and Ada's Uncle Ivan):


A formal photograph, on a separate page: Adochka, pretty and impure in her flimsy, and Vanichka in gray-flannel suit, with slant-striped school tie, facing the kimera (chimera, camera) side by side, at attention, he with the shadow of a forced grin, she, expressionless. Both recalled the time (between the first tiny cross and a whole graveyard of kisses) and the occasion: it was ordered by Marina, who had it framed and set up in her bedroom next to a picture of her brother at twelve or fourteen clad in a bayronka (open shirt) and cupping a guinea pig in his gowpen (hollowed hands); the three looked like siblings, with the dead boy providing a vivisectional alibi. (ibid.)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): bayronka: from Bayron, Russ., Byron.


Uncle Ivan's bayronka (open shirt) hints at Byron, but it is also a play on tolstovka (a kind of blouse). At the end of his review of Aldanov’s novel Peshchera (“The Cave,” 1936) in Sovremennye Zapiski (“Contemporary Notes,” # 61) VN mentions a photograph of Lenin and his gang being taken in the Kremlin “for posterity:”


Смерть Брауна безукоризненна. Холодок пробегает, когда он ищет «бессмертие» в энциклопедическом словаре. Вообще, если начать выбирать из романа все сокровища наблюдательности, все образцы вдохновения мысли, то никогда не кончишь. Кое-чего все же не могу не привести. Как хорошо скучает Витя в первый день своего пребывания в Париже! «Витя с облегчением повесил трубку; в этом огромном городе нашелся близкий, хоть старый и скучный, человек». Незабываем старый еврей-ювелир, который «с выражением напряженного, почти страдальческого любопытства на лице, полураскрыв рот, читал газету». Все «письмо из России» великолепно, и особенно описание, как Ленин с шайкой «снимался для потомства». «За его стулом стояли Троцкий во френче и Зиновьев в какой-то блузе или толстовке». «...Какие Люциферовы чувства они должны испытывать к нежно любимому Ильичу...» «А ведь, если б в таком-то году, на таком-то съезде, голосовать не так, а иначе, да на такую-то брошюру ответить вот так, то ведь не он, а я сидел бы "Давыдычем" на стуле, а он стоял бы у меня за спиной с доброй, товарищески-верно-подданической улыбкой!» Это звучит приговором окончательным, вечным, тем приговором, который вынесут будущие времена.


Behind Lenin’s chair stand Trotsky wearing french (a jacket) and Zinoviev wearing some blouse or tolstovka. Trotsky’s french brings to mind French (a handmaid at Ardis who appears on the last photograph in Kim Beauharnais’s album):


‘Please, Van, do glance! These are our willows, remember?’


‘"The castle bathed by the Adour:

The guidebooks recommend that tour."’


‘It happens to be the only one in color. The willows look sort of greenish because the twigs are greenish, but actually they are leafless here, it’s early spring, and you can see our red boat Souvenance through the rushes. And here’s the last one: Kim’s apotheosis of Ardis.’

The entire staff stood in several rows on the steps of the pillared porch behind the Bank President Baroness Veen and the Vice President Ida Larivière. Those two were flanked by the two prettiest typists, Blanche de la Tourberie (ethereal, tearstained, entirely adorable) and a black girl who had been hired, a few days before Van’s departure, to help French, who towered rather sullenly above her in the second row, the focal point of which was Bouteillan, still wearing the costume sport he had on when driving off with Van (that picture had been muffed or omitted). On the butler’s right side stood three footmen; on his left, Bout (who had valeted Van), the fat, flour-pale cook (Blanche’s father) and, next to French, a terribly tweedy gentleman with sightseeing strappings athwart one shoulder: actually (according to Ada), a tourist, who, having come all the way from England to see Bryant’s Castle, had bicycled up the wrong road and was, in the picture, under the impression of accidentally being conjoined to a group of fellow tourists who were visiting some other old manor quite worth inspecting too. The back rows consisted of less distinguished menservants and scullions, as well as of gardeners, stableboys, coachmen, shadows of columns, maids of maids, aids, laundresses, dresses, recesses — getting less and less distinct as in those bank ads where limited little employees dimly dimidiated by more fortunate shoulders, but still asserting themselves, still smile in the process of humble dissolve. (2.7)


In Kim Beauharnais' album there is also a photograph of Karol, or Karapars, Krolik (Ada's first lover):


‘Well,’ said Van, when the mind took over again, ‘let’s go back to our defaced childhood. I’m anxious’ — (picking up the album from the bedside rug) — ‘to get rid of this burden. Ah, a new character, the inscription says: Dr Krolik.’

‘Wait a sec. It may be the best Vanishing Van but it’s terribly messy all the same. Okay. Yes, that’s my poor nature teacher.’

Knickerbockered, panama-hatted, lusting for his babochka (Russian for ‘lepidopteron’). A passion, a sickness. What could Diana know about that chase?

‘How curious — in the state Kim mounted him here, he looks much less furry and fat than I imagined. In fact, darling, he’s a big, strong, handsome old March Hare! Explain!’

‘There’s nothing to explain. I asked Kim one day to help me carry some boxes there and back, and here’s the visual proof. Besides, that’s not my Krolik but his brother, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik. A doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey.’

‘I love the way your eyes narrow when you tell a lie. The remote mirage in Effrontery Minor.’

‘I’m not lying!’ — (with lovely dignity): ‘He is a doctor of philosophy.’

‘Van ist auch one,’ murmured Van, sounding the last word as ‘wann.’ (ibid.)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): auch: Germ., also.


Wann is German for "when." Karapars means in Turkish "black panther." After the dinner in 'Ursus' and lovemaking in Van's Manhattan flat Ada complains that Van hurt her like a Tiger Turk:


‘My dear,’ said Van, ‘do help me. She told me about her Valentian estanciero but now the name escapes me and I hate bothering her.’

‘Only she never told you,’ said loyal Lucette, ‘so nothing could escape. Nope. I can’t do that to your sweetheart and mine, because we know you could hit that keyhole with a pistol.’

‘Please, little vixen! I’ll reward you with a very special kiss.’

‘Oh, Van,’ she said over a deep sigh. ‘You promise you won’t tell her I told you?’

‘I promise. No, no, no,’ he went on, assuming a Russian accent, as she, with the abandon of mindless love, was about to press her abdomen to his. ‘Nikak-s net: no lips, no philtrum, no nosetip, no swimming eye. Little vixen’s axilla, just that — unless’ — (drawing back in mock uncertainty) — ‘you shave there?’

‘I stink worse when I do,’ confided simple Lucette and obediently bared one shoulder.

‘Arm up! Point at Paradise! Terra! Venus!’ commanded Van, and for a few synchronized heartbeats, fitted his working mouth to the hot, humid, perilous hollow.

She sat down with a bump on a chair, pressing one hand to her brow.

‘Turn off the footlights,’ said Van. ‘I want the name of that fellow.’

‘Vinelander,’ she answered.

He heard Ada Vinelander’s voice calling for her Glass bed slippers (which, as in Cordulenka’s princessdom too, he found hard to distinguish from dance footwear), and a minute later, without the least interruption in the established tension, Van found himself, in a drunken dream, making violent love to Rose — no, to Ada, but in the rosacean fashion, on a kind of lowboy. She complained he hurt her ‘like a Tiger Turk.’ He went to bed and was about to doze off for good when she left his side. Where was she going? Pet wanted to see the album.

‘I’ll be back in a rubby,’ she said (tribadic schoolgirl slang), ‘so keep awake. From now on by the way, it’s going to be Chère-amie-fait-morata’ — (play on the generic and specific names of the famous fly) — ‘until further notice.’

‘But no sapphic vorschmacks,’ mumbled Van into his pillow. (2.8)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): famous fly: see p.109, Serromyia.

Vorschmacks: Germ., hors-d’oeuvres.


On the next morning Ada mentions Orchids:


That about summed it up (for the magical gewgaw liquefied all at once, and Lucette, snatching up her nightdress, escaped to her room). It was only the sort of shop where the jeweler’s fingertips have a tender way of enhancing the preciousness of a trinket by something akin to a rubbing of hindwings on the part of a settled lycaenid or to the frottage of a conjurer’s thumb dissolving a coin; but just in such a shop the anonymous picture attributed to Grillo or Obieto, caprice or purpose, ober- or unterart, is found by the ferreting artist.

‘She’s terribly nervous, the poor kid,’ remarked Ada stretching across Van toward the Wipex. ‘You can order that breakfast now — unless... Oh, what a good sight! Orchids. I’ve never seen a man make such a speedy recovery.’

‘Hundreds of whores and scores of cuties more experienced than the future Mrs Vinelander have told me that.’

‘I may not be as bright as I used to be,’ sadly said Ada, ‘but I know somebody who is not simply a cat, but a polecat, and that’s Cordula Tobacco alias Madame Perwitsky, I read in this morning’s paper that in France ninety percent of cats die of cancer. I don’t know what the situation is in Poland.’

After a while he adored [sic! Ed.] the pancakes. No Lucette, however, turned up, and when Ada, still wearing her diamonds (in sign of at least one more caro Van and a Camel before her morning bath) looked into the guest room, she found the white valise and blue furs gone. A note scrawled in Arlen Eyelid Green was pinned to the pillow.


Would go mad if remained one more night shall ski at Verma with other poor woolly worms for three weeks or so miserable

Pour Elle


Van walked over to a monastic lectern that he had acquired for writing in the vertical position of vertebrate thought and wrote what follows:


Poor L.

We are sorry you left so soon. We are even sorrier to have inveigled our Esmeralda and mermaid in a naughty prank. That sort of game will never be played again with you, darling firebird. We apollo [apologize]. Remembrance, embers and membranes of beauty make artists and morons lose all self-control. Pilots of tremendous airships and even coarse, smelly coachmen are known to have been driven insane by a pair of green eyes and a copper curl. We wished to admire and amuse you, BOP (bird of paradise). We went too far. I, Van, went too far. We regret that shameful, though basically innocent scene. These are times of emotional stress and reconditioning. Destroy and forget.

Tenderly yours A & V.

(in alphabetic order).


‘I call this pompous, puritanical rot,’ said Ada upon scanning Van’s letter. ‘Why should we apollo for her having experienced a delicious spazmochka? I love her and would never allow you to harm her. It’s curious — you know, something in the tone of your note makes me really jealous for the first time in my fire [thus in the manuscript, for "life." Ed.] Van, Van, somewhere, some day, after a sunbath or dance, you will sleep with her, Van!’

‘Unless you run out of love potions. Do you allow me to send her these lines?’

‘I do, but want to add a few words.’

Her P.S. read:


The above declaration is Van’s composition which I sign reluctantly. It is pompous and puritanical. I adore you, mon petit, and would never allow him to hurt you, no matter how gently or madly. When you’re sick of Queen, why not fly over to Holland or Italy?

A. (ibid.)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): oberart etc.: Germ., superspecies; subspecies.

spazmochka: Russ., little spasm.


In March, 1905, Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father) perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. Van does not suspect 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.


The Knabenkräuter and other pendants of Ada's friends bring to mind "pendant que je shee in Aspenis" (Lucette's words to Van):


‘Look, Van,’ she said (finishing her fourth flute). ‘Why not risk it? Everything is quite simple. You marry me. You get my Ardis. We live there, you write there. I keep melting into the back ground, never bothering you. We invite Ada — alone, of course — to stay for a while on her estate, for I had always expected mother to leave Ardis to her. While she’s there, I go to Aspen or Gstaad, or Schittau, and you live with her in solid crystal with snow falling as if forever all around pendant que je shee in Aspenis. Then I come back like a shot, but she can stay on, she’s welcome, I’ll hang around in case you two want me. And then she goes back to her husband for a couple of dreary months, see?’

‘Yes, magnificent plan,’ said Van. ‘The only trouble is: she will never come. It’s now three o’clock, I have to see a man who is to renovate Villa Armina which I inherited and which will house one of my harems. Slapping a person’s wrist that way is not your prettiest mannerism on the Irish side. I shall now escort you to your apartment. You are plainly in need of some rest.’ (3.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): pendant que je etc.: while I am skiing.


Van learns about the catastrophe in which his father perished at Villa Armina:


Idly, one March morning, 1905, on the terrace of Villa Armina, where he sat on a rug, surrounded by four or five lazy nudes, like a sultan, Van opened an American daily paper published in Nice. In the fourth or fifth worst airplane disaster of the young century, a gigantic flying machine had inexplicably disintegrated at fifteen thousand feet above the Pacific between Lisiansky and Laysanov Islands in the Gavaille region. A list of ‘leading figures’ dead in the explosion comprised the advertising manager of a department store, the acting foreman in the sheet-metal division of a facsimile corporation, a recording firm executive, the senior partner of a law firm, an architect with heavy aviation background (a first misprint here, impossible to straighten out), the vice president of an insurance corporation, another vice president, this time of a board of adjustment whatever that might be —

‘I’m hongree,’ said a maussade Lebanese beauty of fifteen sultry summers.

‘Use bell,’ said Van, continuing in a state of odd fascination to go through the compilation of labeled lives:

— the president of a wholesale liquor-distributing firm, the manager of a turbine equipment company, a pencil manufacturer, two professors of philosophy, two newspaper reporters (with nothing more to report), the assistant controller of a wholesome liquor distribution bank (misprinted and misplaced), the assistant controller of a trust company, a president, the secretary of a printing agency —

The names of those big shots, as well as those of some eighty other men, women, and silent children who perished in blue air, were being withheld until all relatives had been reached; but the tabulatory preview of commonplace abstractions had been thought to be too imposing not to be given at once as an appetizer; and only on the following morning did Van learn that a bank president lost in the closing garble was his father. (3.7)


Poor old Demon was destroyed by his daughter. In Ada VN parodies the Freudian interpretation of the Oedipus myth (hence "a skit on Freudian dream charades").