She [Blanche] wore what his father termed with a semi-assumed leer 'soubret black and frissonet frill'; a tortoiseshell comb in her chestnut hair caught the amber light; the French window was open, and she was holding one hand, starred with a tiny aquamarine, rather high on the jamb as she looked at a sparrow that was hopping up the paved path toward the bit of baby-toed biscuit she had thrown to him. (1.7)


In his poem Pamyati kota Murra (“In Memory of the Tomcat Murr,” 1934) Khodasevich (the author of a book on Derzhavin) says that his cat is now in the gardens beyond the river of fire where Catullus is with the sparrow and Derzhavin is with the swallow:


В забавах был так мудр и в мудрости забавен -
Друг утешительный и вдохновитель мой!
Теперь он в тех садах, за огненной рекой,
Где с воробьём Катулл и с ласточкой Державин.


The name Blanche means “white.” Russian for “white” is belyi. In his poem Raznye vina (“Various Wines,” 1782) Derzhavin pairs zlato-kiprskoe vino (the golden Cyprian wine) with belyanka (a fair-haired girl):


Вот злато-кипрское вино,
За здравье выпьем светловласых.
Как сердцу сладостно оно
Нам с поцелуем уст прекрасных!
Ты тож, белянка, хороша, —
Так поцелуй меня, душа!


Fair-haired girl, you too are beautiful,

So kiss me, my soul!


Belyanka comes from belyi. In Chapter Four (XXXIX: 3-4) of Eugene Onegin Pushkin mentions belyanki chernookoy mladoy i svezhiy potseluy (a white-skinned, dark-eyed girl’s young and fresh kiss).


The river of fire in Khodasevich’s poem is the Phlegethon (one of the five rivers that surround Hades). At the beginning of his poem Proserpina (1824), in which he calls Proserpina Ada gordaya tsaritsa (“the proud queen of Hell”), Pushkin mentions volny Flegetona (the waves of the Phlegeton) and svody tartara (the vaults of Tartarus):


Плещут волны Флегетона,

Своды тартара дрожат,

Кони бледного Плутона

Быстро к нимфам Пелиона

Из аида бога мчат.


Tartar (the underworld) mentioned by Pushkin brings to mind Tartary, a land on Antiterra (Earth’s twin planet, aka Demonia, on which Ada is set) that occupies the territory “from Kurland to the Kurils:”


She [Aqua] had plans at one time to seek a modicum of health ('just a little grayishness, please, instead of the solid black') in such Anglo-American protectorates as the Balkans and Indias, and might even have tried the two Southern Continents that thrive under our joint dominion. Of course, Tartary, an independent inferno, which at the time spread from the Baltic and Black seas to the Pacific Ocean, was touristically unavailable, though Yalta and Altyn Tagh sounded strangely attractive... But her real destination was Terra the Fair and thither she trusted she would fly on libellula long wings when she died. Her poor little letters from the homes of madness to her husband were sometimes signed: Madame Shchemyashchikh-Zvukov ('Heart rending-Sounds'). (1.3)


Aqua’s husband Demon calls his wife’s letters to him golubyanki (petits bleus*):


In mid-July, 1886, while Van was winning the table-tennis tournament on board a 'luxury' liner (that now took a whole week to reach in white dignity Manhattan from Dover!), Marina, both her daughters, their governess, and two maids were shivering more or less simultaneous stages of Russian influentsa at various stops on their way by train from Los Angeles to Ladore. A hydrogram from Chicago awaiting Van at his father's house on July 21 (her dear birthday!) said: 'dadaist impatient patient arriving between twenty-fourth and seventh call doris can meet regards vicinity.'

'Which reminds me painfully of the golubyanki (petits bleus) Aqua used to send me,' remarked Demon with a sigh (having mechanically opened the message). 'Is tender Vicinity some girl I know? Because you may glare as much as you like, but this is not a wire from doctor to doctor.' (1.29)


The word golubyanka comes from goluboy (pale blue) and means “a small blue butterfly” (of the family Lycaenidae; belyanka is a butterfly of the family Pieridae). Aqua signed her last note (addressed to Demon and Van) “My sister's sister who teper' iz ada ('now is out of hell')” (1.3).


Chekhov’s story Zhenshchiny s tochki zreniya p’yanitsy (“Women as Seen by a Drunkard,” 1885) was signed Brat moego brata (My brother’s brother). The author of The Lady with the Little Dog (1899), Chekhov was a doctor and lived in Yalta.


The phrase shchemyashchiy zvuk (a heart-rending sound) occurs in several poems of Alexander Blok. In Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906) p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) cry out: “In vino veritas!” Blanche tells Van that she has to see Dr Krolik (a local entomologist, Ada’s teacher of natural history) on her next day off:


'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.' (1.7)


According to Demon, Bouteillan (the butler at Ardis) looks as ruddy as his native vine:


'Good! Ah, the portentous footfall is approaching, I hear. Prascovie de Prey has the worst fault of a snob: overstatement. Bonsoir, Bouteillan. You look as ruddy as your native vine - but we are not getting any younger, as the amerlocks say, and that pretty messenger of mine must have been waylaid by some younger and more fortunate suitor.'

'Proshu, papochka (please, Dad),' murmured Van, who always feared that his father's recondite jests might offend a menial - while sinning himself by being sometimes too curt. (1.38)


Van is rude, as he speaks over the phone to Bouteillan’s son Bout:


At 7 a.m. on July 25 he called Ardis Hall from the Malahar post office and got connected with Bout who was connected with Blanche and mistook Van's voice for the butler's.

'Dammit, Pa,' he said into his bedside dorophone, 'I'm busy!'

'I want Blanche, you idiot,' growled Van.

'Oh, pardon,' cried Bout, 'un moment, Monsieur.'

A bottle was audibly uncorked (drinking hock at seven in the morning!) and Blanche took over, but scarcely had Van begun to deliver a carefully worded message to be transmitted to Ada, when Ada herself who had been on the qui vive all night answered from the nursery, where the clearest instrument in the house quivered and bubbled under a dead barometer. (1.29)


After he was forced by Demon to give up Ada, Van had slapped the cheek of Valerio (a waiter at Monaco who brought up breakfast to Van’s rooms and who told Demon, his fellow traveler in the lift, that Van was still living with his lady in his penthouse apartment):


He wondered what really kept him alive on terrible Antiterra, with Terra a myth and all art a game, when nothing mattered any more since the day he slapped Valerio's warm bristly cheek; and whence, from what deep well of hope, did he still scoop up a shivering star, when everything had an edge of agony and despair, when another man [Andrey Vinelander, Ada’s husband] was in every bedroom with Ada. (3.1)


Valerio is a ginger-haired elderly Roman. Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 BC) was a Latin poet.


It was Valerio who procured neat Rose (a sportive Negro maid) and was being paid to keep her strictly for Veen and Dean (the cryptogrammatist who dwells on the floor below). As he speaks of Rose, Van mentions his neighbor’s “Pandean hum:”


With jumbled feelings, with unpardonable lust, Van watched her pretty behind roll and tighten under its lacy bow as she made the bed, while her lower lover could be heard through the radiator pipes humming to himself happily (he had decoded again a Tartar dorogram telling the Chinese where we planned to land next time!). Rose soon finished putting the room in order, and flirted off, and the Pandean hum had hardly time to be replaced (rather artlessly for a person of Dean's profession) by a crescendo of international creaks that a child could decipher, when the hallway bell dingled, and next moment whiter-faced, redder-mouthed, four-year-older Ada stood before a convulsed, already sobbing, ever-adolescent Van, her flowing hair blending with dark furs that were even richer than her sister's. (2.6)


Pandean is “pertaining to the god Pan, or his pipes.” Pan (1925) is the second poem in Khodasevich’s cycle Sorrentinskie zametki (“The Sorrento Notes”). In Khodasevich’s poem Sorrentinskie fotografii (“The Sorrento Photographs,” 1926) the line zolotokrylyi angel rozov (the golden-winged angel is rosy) rhymes with voronyi stai, dym morozov (the flocks of crows, a smoke of frosts):


На восьмигранном острие,

Золотокрылый ангел розов

И неподвижен - а над ним

Вороньи стаи, дым морозов,

Давно рассеившийся дым.


In Sorrento (a place near Naples) Khodasevich lived with Gorky. In his memoir essay on Gorky in Necropolis (1939) Khodasevich says that Gorky, in his silk red dressing-gown and variegated cap, looked like a learned Chinese:


Он вышел ко мне, похожий на ученого китайца: в шёлковом красном халате, в пёстрой шапочке, скуластый, с большими очками на конце носа, с книгой в руках.


In a letter of July 12, 1900, to Gorky Chekhov rejects Gorky’s proposal to go to China:


Милый Алексей Максимович, Ваше приглашение в Китай удивило меня. А пьеса? Как же пьеса? Вы кончили, стало быть? Как бы ни было, в Китай ехать уже поздно, так как, по-видимому, война приходит к концу. Да и поехать туда я могу только врачом. Военным врачом. Если война затянется, то поеду, а пока вот сижу и пишу помаленьку.

Chekhov says that he can go the war in China only as a doctor.


Kreshchyonyi kitaets (“A Christened Chinese,” 1927) is a novel by Andrey Bely (whose penname means “white”). The adjective kreshchyonyi (christened, baptized) in the novel’s title brings to mind “a crescendo of international creaks” that, according to Van, a child could decipher. On the other hand, one is reminded of kreshchenskiy kholod (Twelfthtide cold) with which Tatiana is surrounded in Chapter Eight (XXXIII: 7-8) of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. In a letter of Sept. 10, 1824, to Pushkin Delvig says that the crowd will not understand all beauty of Proserpina and The Demon and asks Pushkin to send him a score of lines from EO for his magazine Severnye Tsvety (“Northern Flowers”):


Есть ещё у меня не просьба, но только спрос: не вздумаешь ли ты дать мне стихов двадцать из Евгения Онегина? Это хорошо бы было для толпы, которая не поймёт всей красоты твоей Прозерпины или Демона, а уж про Онегина давно горло дерёт. Подумайте, ваше Парнасское величество!


In his EO Commentary (vol. III, p. 164) VN says that Pushkin’s poem Angel (“The Angel,” 1827) is a kind of amendment to The Demon (1823). During his visit to Ardis Demon mentions “a passing angel:”


'Did what's-her-name go with you?'

'Well, my boy, frankly, the nomenclature is getting more and more confused every year. Let us speak of plainer things. Where are the drinks? They were promised me by a passing angel.'

(Passing angel?)

Van pulled a green bell-cord which sent a melodious message pantryward and caused the old-fashioned, bronze-framed little aquarium, with its lone convict cichlid, to bubble antiphonally in a corner of the music room (an eerie, perhaps self-aerating reaction, which only Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen boy, understood). 'Should he ring her up after dinner,' wondered Demon. What time would it be there? Not much use, bad for the heart. (1.38)


Kim Beauharnais is also a photographer. The passing angel who promised Demon the drinks was Blanche:


But - to use a hoary narrational turn - the old Frenchman [Bouteillan] knew his former master too well to be bothered by gentlemanly humor. His hand still tingled nicely from slapping Blanche's compact young bottom for having garbled Mr Veen's simple request and broken a flower vase. After placing his tray on a low table he retreated a few steps, his fingers remaining curved in the tray-carrying position, and only then acknowledged Demon's welcome with a fond bow. Was Monsieur's health always good? Indeed it was. (1.38)


Vashe Parnasskoe velichestvo (“your Parnassian majesty,” as Delvig calls Pushkin) brings to mind Monparnasse, Mlle Larivière’s penname. Mlle Larivière says that she will publish her story La Rivière de Diamants that she read at the picnic under a pseudonym, when Ada points at a butterfly:


A pale diaphanous butterfly with a very black body followed them and Ada cried 'Look!' and explained it was closely related to a Japanese Parnassian. Mlle Larivière said suddenly she would use a pseudonym when publishing the story. (1.13)


A similar butterfly floats past before Van’s duel with Captain Tapper:


'Where are we now, Johnny dear?' asked Van as they swung out of the lake's orbit and sped along a suburban avenue with clapboard cottages among laundry-lined pines.

'Dorofey Road,' cried the driver above the din of the motor. 'It abuts at the forest.'

It abutted. Van felt a faint twinge in his knee where he had hit it against a stone when attacked from behind a week ago, in another wood. At the moment his foot touched the pine-needle strewn earth of the forest road, a transparent white butterfly floated past, and with utter certainty Van knew that he had only a few minutes to live. (1.42)


In Kalugano (where he fights a pistol duel with Tapper) Van hoped to find Philip Rack, one of Ada’s lovers. Lucette’s teacher of music, Rack is a composer of genius. Khodasevich named his beloved cat after the tomcat in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s  Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr (“The Life Opinions of the Tomcat Murr,” 1822). In Hoffmann’s novel, Murr is the cat of the Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler. E. T. A. Hoffmann is the author of Ritter Gluck (1809). In Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri (1830) Salieri mentions the great Gluck:


Что говорю? Когда великий Глюк
Явился и открыл нам новы тайны
(Глубокие, пленительные тайны),
Не бросил ли я всё, что прежде знал,
Что так любил, чему так жарко верил,
И не пошёл ли бодро вслед за ним
Безропотно, как тот, кто заблуждался
И встречным послан в сторону иную?


In Pushkin’s little tragedy Salieri poisons Mozart. According to Dr Fitzbishop, Rack (who dies in the Kalugano hospital) was poisoned by his jealous wife Elsie:


The poor guy had always had a bad liver and a very indifferent heart, but on top of that a poison had seeped into his system; the local 'lab' could not identify it and they were now waiting for a report, on those curiously frog-green faeces, from the Luga people. If Rack had administered it to himself by his own hand, he kept 'mum'; it was more likely the work of his wife who dabbled in Hindu-Andean voodoo stuff and had just had a complicated miscarriage in the maternity ward. Yes, triplets - how did he guess? Anyway, if Van was so eager to visit his old pal it would have to be as soon as he could be rolled to Ward Five in a wheelchair by Dorofey, so he'd better apply a bit of voodoo, ha-ha, on his own flesh and blood. (1.42)


At the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday (when Mlle Larivière reads her story La Rivière de Diamants) a wild cat appears for a moment from under a bush:


The ruins of the turkey, the port wine which only the governesses had touched, and a broken Sèvres plate were quickly removed by the servants. A cat appeared from under a bush, stared in a shock of intense surprise, and, despite a chorus of 'kitty-kitty,' vanished. (ibid.)


*Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): petit bleu: Parisian slang for pneumatic post (an express message on blue paper).


Alexey Sklyarenko

Google Search
the archive
the Editors
NOJ Zembla Nabokv-L
Subscription options AdaOnline NSJ Ada Annotations L-Soft Search the archive VN Bibliography Blog

All private editorial communications are read by both co-editors.