Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0027061, Wed, 15 Jun 2016 14:55:42 +0300

Blanche, Philip Rack, Percy de Prey,
Goodson airport & Countess Alp in Ada
According to Blanche (a French handmaid at Ardis), if Van (who makes a pass at her on his first morning in Ardis) possessed her once, she could die:

What was her name? Blanche — but Mlle Larivière called her ‘Cendrillon’ because her stockings got so easily laddered, see, and because she broke and mislaid things, and confused flowers. His loose attire revealed his desire; this could not escape a girl’s notice, even if color-blind, and as he drew up still closer, while looking over her head for a suitable couch to take shape in some part of this magical manor — where any place, as in Casanova’s remembrances could be dream-changed into a sequestered seraglio nook — she wiggled out of his reach completely and delivered a little soliloquy in her soft Ladoran French:

'Monsieur a quinze ans, je crois, et moi, je sais, j'en ai dixneuf. Monsieur is a nobleman; I am a poor peat-digger's daughter. Monsieur a tâté, sans doute, des filles de la ville; quant à moi, je suis vierge, ou peu s'en faut. De plus, were I to fall in love with you - I mean really in love - and I might, alas, if you possessed me rien qu'une petite fois - it would be, for me, only grief, and infernal fire, and despair, and even death, Monsieur. Finalement, I might add that I have the whites and must see le Docteur Chronique, I mean Crolique, on my next day off. Now we have to separate, the sparrow has disappeared, I see, and Monsieur Bouteillan has entered the next room, and can perceive us clearly in that mirror above the sofa behind that silk screen.'

‘Forgive me, girl,’ murmured Van, whom her strange, tragic tone had singularly put off, as if he were taking part in a play in which he was the principal actor, but of which he could only recall that one scene. (1.7)

Nevertheless, on Van’s last night in Ardis Blanche offers herself to him:

'C'est ma dernière nuit au château,' she said softly, and rephrased it in her quaint English, elegiac and stilted, as spoken only in obsolete novels. ''Tis my last night with thee.'

'Your last night? With me? What do you mean?' He considered her with the eerie uneasiness one feels when listening to the utterances of delirium or intoxication.

But despite her demented look, Blanche was perfectly lucid. She had made up her mind a couple of days ago to leave Ardis Hall. She had just slipped her demission, with a footnote on the young lady's conduct, under the door of Madame. She would go in a few hours. She loved him, he was her 'folly and fever,' she wished to spend a few secret moments with him.

He entered the toolroom and slowly closed the door. The slowness had its uncomfortable cause. She had placed her lantern on the rung of a ladder and was already gathering up and lifting her skimpy skirt. Compassion, courtesy and some assistance on her part might have helped him to work up the urge which she took for granted and whose total absence he carefully concealed under his tartan cloak; but quite aside from the fear of infection (Bout had hinted at some of the poor girl's troubles), a graver matter engrossed him. He diverted her bold hand and sat down on the bench beside her.

Was it she who had placed that note in his jacket?

It was. She had been unable to face departure if he was to remain fooled, deceived, betrayed. She added, in naive brackets, that she had been sure he always desired her, they could talk afterwards. Je suis à toi, c'est bientôt l'aube, your dream has come true.

'Parlez pour vous,' answered Van. 'I am in no mood for love-making. And I will strangle you, I assure you, if you do not tell me the whole story in every detail, at once.' (1.41)

Van spurns Blanche and she remains alive. She eventually marries Trofim Fartukov (the Russian coachman at Ardis) and gives birth to a blind child:

'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?' (2.7)

At a party in “Ardis the Second” (on the next day after Van’s arrival) Philip Rack (Lucette’s teacher of music) compares himself to an actor who is playing a role and has forgotten the next speech (after Blanche’s monologue in “Ardis the First” Van feels as if he were taking part in a play in which he was the principal actor but of which he could only recall one scene):

The melancholy young German was in a philosophical mood shading into the suicidal. He had to return to Kalugano with his Elsie, who Doc Ecksreher thought 'would present him with driplets in dry weeks.' He hated Kalugano, his and her home town, where in a moment of 'mutual aberration' stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski's Organs where the oversexed pitiful oaf had a good job.

'When are you leaving?' asked Ada.

'Forestday - after tomorrow.'

'Fine. That's fine. Adieu, Mr Rack.'

Poor Philip drooped, fingerpainting sad nothings on wet stone, shaking his heavy head, gulping visibly.

'One feels... One feels,' he said, 'that one is merely playing a role and has forgotten the next speech.'

'I'm told many feel that,' said Ada; 'it must be a furchtbar feeling.'

'Cannot be helped? No hope any more at all? I am dying, yes?'

'You are dead, Mr Rack,' said Ada. (1.32)

It is Blanche who tells Van about Ada’s romance with Rack:

She nodded, fear and adoration in her veiled eyes. When and how had it started? Last August, she said. Votre demoiselle picking flowers, he squiring her through the tall grass, a flute in his hand. Who he? What flute? Mais le musicien allemand, Monsieur Rack. The eager informer had her own swain lying upon her on the other side of the hedge. How anybody could do it with l'immonde Monsieur Rack, who once forgot his waistcoat in a haystack, was beyond the informer's comprehension. Perhaps because he made songs for her, a very pretty one was once played at a big public ball at the Ladore Casino, it went... Never mind how it went, go on with the story. Monsieur Rack, one starry night, in a boat on the river, was heard by the informer and two gallants in the willow bushes, recounting the melancholy tale of his childhood, of his years of hunger and music and loneliness, and his sweetheart wept and threw her head back and he fed on her bare throat, il la mangeait de baisers dégoûtants. He must have had her not more than a dozen times, he was not as strong as another gentleman - oh, cut it out, said Van - and in winter the young lady learnt he was married, and hated his cruel wife, and in April when he began to give piano lessons to Lucette the affair was resumed, but then -

'That will do!' he cried and, beating his brow with his fist, stumbled out into the sunlight. (1.41)

Rack, who possessed Ada several times, was poisoned by his wife and dies in the Kalugano hospital (1.42). By “another gentleman” Blanche means Percy de Prey (and not Van, as Van thinks). Van learns about Ada’s romance with Percy from Ada herself:

She walked swiftly toward him across the iridescently glistening lawn. 'Van,' she said, 'I must tell you my dream before I forget. You and I were high up in the Alps - Why on earth are you wearing townclothes?'

'Well, I'll tell you,' drawled dreamy Van. 'I'll tell you why. From a humble but reliable sauce, I mean source, excuse my accent, I have just learned qu'on vous culbute behind every hedge. Where can I find your tumbler?'

'Nowhere,' she answered quite calmly, ignoring or not even perceiving his rudeness, for she had always known that disaster would come today or tomorrow, a question of time or rather timing on the part of fate.

'But he exists, he exists,' muttered Van, looking down at a rainbow web on the turf.

'I suppose so,' said the haughty child, 'however, he left yesterday for some Greek or Turkish port. Moreover, he was going to do everything to get killed, if that information helps. Now listen, listen! Those walks in the woods meant nothing. Wait, Van! I was weak only twice when you had hurt him so hideously, or perhaps three times in all. Please! I can't explain in one gush, but eventually you will understand. Not everybody is as happy as we are. He's a poor, lost, clumsy boy. We are all doomed, but some are more doomed than others. He is nothing to me. I shall never see him again. He is nothing, I swear. He adores me to the point of insanity.'

'I think,' said Van, 'we've got hold of the wrong lover. I was asking about Herr Rack, who has such delectable gums and also adores you to the point of insanity.'

He turned, as they say, on his heel, and walked toward the house. (ibid.)

In his poem Mozhet byt’, eto tochka bezumiya… (“May be, it is the point of insanity…” 1937) Mandelshtam mentions napolnennyi muzykoy dom (the house filled with music).* Ada’s lover who adores her to the point of insanity, Percy de Prey perishes in the second day of the invasion, less than a week after he had left Goodson airport. His last moments are compared to a suite for flute:

One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual's brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend's becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore's, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of 'movements' such as, say: I'm alive - who's that? - civilian - sympathy - thirsty - daughter with pitcher - that's my damned gun - don't... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been - perhaps, next to the pitcher peri - a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis. (1.42)

Die Zauberflöte (“The Magic Flute,” 1791) and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (“The Abduction from the Seraglio,” 1782) are operas by W. A. Mozart. Casanova (in whose remembrances “any place could be dream-changed into a sequestered seraglio nook”) was a friend of Lorenzo da Ponte, the author of the libretto of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787).

Van learns about Percy de Prey’s death from Cordula de Prey (Percy’s second cousin). The “Italian” patronymic of Cordula’s first husband, Ivan Giovanovich Tobak (2.5), seems to hint at Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

Before the dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon asks Van, if Percy and Ada see a lot of each other and uses the phrases “a good son” (cf. Goodson airport mentioned by Cordula) and “et cetera” (cf. et cetera or rather no cetera, the last ‘movement’ in the suite for flute imagined by Van):

'I wonder,' Demon mused. 'It would cost hardly more than a couple of millions minus what Cousin Dan owes me, minus also the Ladore pastures, which are utterly mucked up and should be got rid of gradually, if the local squires don't blow up that new kerosene distillery, the stïd i sram (shame) of our county. I am not particularly fond of Ardis, but I have nothing against it, though I detest its environs. Ladore Town has become very honky-tonky, and the gaming is not what it used to be. You have all sorts of rather odd neighbors. Poor Lord Erminin is practically insane. At the races, the other day, I was talking to a woman I preyed upon years ago, oh long before Moses de Vere cuckolded her husband in my absence and shot him dead in my presence - an epigram you've heard before, no doubt from these very lips -'

(The next thing will be 'paternal repetitiousness.')

'- but a good son should put up with a little paternal repetitiousness - Well, she tells me her boy and Ada see a lot of each other, et cetera. Is that true?'

'Not really,' said Van. 'They meet now and then - at the usual parties. Both like horses, and races, but that's all. There is no et cetera, that's out of the question.' (1.38)

Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen perishes in the mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. (3.7)

According to Ada, Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis who spied on Van and Ada and whom Van blinds for attempting to blackmail Ada) resembles a janizary in some exotic opera:

In the last two or three years she had not seen him, the light-footed, lean lad with the sallow complexion had become a dusky colossus, vaguely resembling a janizary in some exotic opera, stomping in to announce an invasion or an execution. (2.7)

In Turgenev’s story Neschastnaya (“An Unhappy Girl,” 1868) Mr. Ratsch (Susanna’s step-father) criticizes Susanna’s playing of a Beethoven sonata and uses the phrase Janitscharen Musik (Germ., the janizary music):**

-- Я всех лучших виртуозов самолично слышал,-- продолжал г. Ратч, внезапно нахмурившись,-- и все они перед покойным Фильдом -- тьфу! Нуль! зеро!! Das war ein Kerl! Und ein so reines Spiel! И композиции его -- самые прекрасные! А все эти новые "тлу-ту-ту" да "тра-та-та", это, я полагаю, больше для школяров писано. Da braucht man keine Delicatesse! Хлопай по клавишам как попало... Не беда! Что-нибудь выйдет! Janitscharen-Musik! Пхе! (Иван Демьяныч утёр себе лоб платком.) Впрочем, я это говорю не на ваш счёт, Сусанна Ивановна; вы играли хорошо и моими замечаниями не должны обижаться.

-- У всякого свой вкус,-- тихим голосом заговорила Сусанна, и губы ее задрожали,-- а ваши замечанья, Иван Демьяныч, вы знаете, меня обидеть не могут.

'I have heard all the best performers with my own ears,' pursued Mr. Ratsch, suddenly frowning, 'and compared with the late Field they were all--pfau! nil! zero!! Das war ein Kerl! Und ein so reines Spiel! And his own compositions the finest things! But all those now "tloo-too-too," and "tra-ta-ta," are written, I suppose, more for beginners. Da braucht man keine Delicatesse! Bang the keys anyhow... no matter! It'll turn out some how! Janitscharen Musik! Pugh!' (Ivan Demianych wiped his forehead with his handkerchief.) 'But I don't say that for you, Susanna Ivanovna; you played well, and oughtn't to be hurt by my remarks.'

'Everyone has his own taste,' Susanna said in a low voice, and her lips were trembling; 'but your remarks, Ivan Demianych, you know, cannot hurt me.' (chapter XIII)

The story’s main character, Susanna took poison or, more likely, was poisoned by her relatives. In the epilogue the narrator mentions Napoleon:

Прошло несколько лет. Тётушка моя скончалась; я из Москвы переселился в Петербург. В Петербург переехал и Фустов. Он поступил в министерство финансов, но я виделся с ним редко и не находил уже в нем ничего особенного. Чиновник как и все, да и баста! Если он ещё жив и не женат, то, вероятно, и доселе не изменился: точит и клеит, и гимнастикой занимается, и сердца пожирает по-прежнему, и Наполеона в лазоревом мундире рисует в альбомы приятельниц.

Several years passed by. My aunt was dead; I had left Moscow and settled in Petersburg. Fustov too had moved to Petersburg. He had entered the department of the Ministry of Finance, but we rarely met and I saw nothing much in him then. An official like everyone else, and nothing more! If he is still living and not married, he is, most likely, unchanged to this day; he carves and carpenters and uses dumb-bells, and is as much a lady-killer as ever, and sketches Napoleon in a blue uniform in the albums of his lady friends. (chapter XXVIII)

Kim Beauharnais’ surname hints at Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s first wife who is known on Antiterra as Queen Josephine:

Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van's teacher of history, 'Jeejee' Jones.

'He resembles my teacher of history,' said Van when the man had gone.

'I used to love history,' said Marina, 'I loved to identify myself with famous women. There's a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties - Lincoln's second wife or Queen Josephine.'

'Yes, I've noticed - it's beautifully done. We've got a similar set at home.'

'Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?' Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

'Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),' replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis' (with a slight smile). 'Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.'

'Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.'

'Pah,' uttered Ada. (1.5)

The characters of Dostoevski’s Igrok (“The Gambler,” 1867) include Blanche, a Parisian girl who helps the young man of the story to squander his fabulous win. Demon Veen is a gambler. Telling his son about the Black Miller, Demon (who forces Van to give up Ada) mentions Countess Alp:

Dr Lapiner's wife, born Countess Alp, not only left him, in 1871, to live with Norbert von Miller, amateur poet, Russian translator at the Italian Consulate in Geneva, and professional smuggler of neonegrine - found only in the Valais - but had imparted to her lover the melodramatic details of the subterfuge which the kindhearted physician had considered would prove a boon to one lady and a blessing to the other. Versatile Norbert spoke English with an extravagant accent, hugely admired wealthy people and, when name-dropping, always qualified such a person as 'enawmously rich' with awed amorous gusto, throwing himself back in his chair and spreading tensely curved arms to enfold an invisible fortune. He had a round head as bare as a knee, a corpse's button nose, and very white, very limp, very damp hands adorned with rutilant gems. His mistress soon left him. Dr Lapiner died in 1872. About the same time, the Baron married an innkeeper's innocent daughter and began to blackmail Demon Veen; this went on for almost twenty years, when aging Miller was shot dead by an Italian policeman on a little-known border trail, which had seemed to get steeper and muddier every year. (2.11)

On Van’s last morning in Ardis Ada wants to tell him her dream in which they were “high in the Alps.” As Van prepares to leave Ardis, avalanche and skis appear in his stream of consciousness:

Son killed by avalanche, no hat found, contraceptives donated to Old Guides' Home. After the passage of about eight decades all this sounds very amusing and silly - but at the time he was a dead man going through the motions of an imagined dreamer. He bent down with a grunt, cursing his knee, to fix his skis, in the driving snow, on the brink of the slope, but the skis had vanished, the bindings were shoelaces, and the slope, a staircase. (1.41)

Ada never told Van her Alptraum (Germ., “nightmare”) that seems to predict their third (1892-1905) and fourth (1905-1922) separations.

*see my post of May 15, 2016

**see my post of May 10, 2016

Alexey Sklyarenko

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