In his review of Letters from Terra, Van’s novel published under a pseudonym, the poet Max Mispel suggested that the author’s real name might be Mandalatov:
The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p. 187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended as follows: ‘If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.’ (2.2)
The name Mandalatov hints at mandala, a term used in psychiatry and mentioned by VN in his novel Pnin (1957):
Nothing of the slightest interest to therapists could Victor be made to discover in those beautiful, beautiful Rorschach ink blots, wherein children see, or should see, all kinds of things, seascapes, escapes, capes, the worms of imbecility, neurotic tree trunks, erotic galoshes, umbrellas, and dumb-bells. Nor did any of Victor's casual sketches represent the so-called mandala--a term supposedly meaning (in Sanskrit) a magic ring, and applied by Dr Jung and others to any doodle in the shape of a more or less fourfold spreading structure, such as a halved mangosteen, or a cross, or the wheel on which egos are broken like Morphos, or more exactly, the molecule of carbon, with its four valences--that main chemical component of the brain, automatically magnified and reflected on paper. (Chapter Four, 3)
Na smert’ I. P. Pnina (“On I. P. Pnin’s Death,” 1805) is a poem by Batyushkov (a poet who went mad in the 1820s). Jung is the author of Psychology and Alchemy (1944). In a letter of May 7, 1889, to Suvorin Chekhov mentions Bourget’s novel Le Disciple (1889), compares psychology to alchemy and uses the phrase pora sdat’ v arkhiv (it is time to leave out of the account):
Я прочёл «Ученика» Бурже в Вашем изложении и в русском переводе («Северный вестник»). Дело мне представляется в таком виде. Бурже талантливый, очень умный и образованный человек. Он так полно знаком с методом естественных наук и так его прочувствовал, как будто хорошо учился на естественном или медицинском факультете. Он не чужой в той области, где берётся хозяйничать, — заслуга, которой не знают русские писатели, ни новые, ни старые. Что же касается книжной, учёной психологии, то он её так же плохо знает, как лучшие из психологов. Знать её всё равно, что не знать, так как она не наука, а фикция, нечто вроде алхимии, которую пора уже сдать в архив.
I have read Bourget’s “Disciple” in the Russian translation. This is how it strikes me. Bourget is a gifted, very intelligent and cultured man. He is as thoroughly acquainted with the method of the natural sciences, and as imbued with it as though he had taken a good degree in science or medicine. He is not a stranger in the domain he proposes to deal with — a merit absent in Russian writers both new and old. As to the bookish, scientific psychology, he knows it as badly as the best among the psychologists. To know it is the same as not to know, because it is not a science but a fiction, something like alchemy which it is time to leave out of account.
Describing a weekday lunch at Ardis, Van mentions Paul Bourget and Lyovin (a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, 1875-77):
Arch and grandiloquent, Ada would be describing a dream, a natural history wonder, a special belletristic device — Paul Bourget’s ‘monologue intérieur’ borrowed from old Leo — or some ludicrous blunder in the current column of Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine who thought that Lyovin went about Moscow in a nagol’nïy tulup, ‘a muzhik’s sheepskin coat, bare side out, bloom side in,’ as defined in a dictionary our commentator produced like a conjurer, never to be procurable by Elsies. (1.10)
At the beginning of Ada the first sentence of Tolstoy’s novel is turned inside out:
All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858). (1.1)
“Elsie de Nord” hints at Elsinore (the royal castle in Shakespeare’s Hamlet). Van borrowed his penname Voltemand from a courtier in Hamlet. Van’s novel Letters from Terra was reviewed by the First Clown in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly:
Statistically speaking no reviews could have been expected, given the unorthodox circumstances in which poor Terra’s correspondence had been handled. Curiously enough, as many as two did appear. One, by the First Clown in Elsinore, a distinguished London weekly, popped up in a survey entitled, with a British journalist’s fondness for this kind of phoney wordplay, ‘Terre à terre, 1891,’ and dealt with the year’s ‘Space Romances,’ which by that time had begun to fine off. He sniffed Voltemand’s contribution as the choicest of the lot, calling it (alas, with unerring flair) ‘a sumptuously fripped up, trite, tedious and obscure fable, with a few absolutely marvelous metaphors marring the otherwise total ineptitude of the tale.’ (2.2)
Arkhiv (the word used by Chekhov in his letter to Suvorin) is Russian for “archive.” In the last lines of his poem O vy, kotorye lyubili… (“O you, who loved…” 1821) Pushkin mentions beshenoy lyubvi prokazy (the pranks of frenzied love) that he discovered v arkhivakh ada (in the archives of hell):
О вы, которые любили
Парнаса тайные цветы
И своевольные мечты
Вниманьем слабым наградили,
Спасите труд небрежный мой
Под сенью покрова —
От рук невежества слепого,
От взоров зависти косой.
Картины, думы и рассказы
Для вас я вновь перемешал,
Смешное с важным сочетал
И бешеной любви проказы
В архивах ада отыскал...
By trud nebrezhnyi moy (my careless work) Pushkin means his frivolous poem Gavriiliada (“The Gabrieliad,” 1821) written in Kishinev and first published only in 1918. In a little poem at the end of his letter of Dec. 1, 1826, to Alekseev (Pushkin’s good friend in Kishinev) Pushkin asks Alekseev to regale him not with an Arabian fairy tale, but with his Russian truth:
Прощай, отшельник бессарабский,
Лукавый друг души моей —
Порадуй же меня не сказочкой арабской,
Но русской правдою твоей.
Farewell, the Bessarabian hermit,
arch friend of my soul.
Regale me not with an Arabian fairy tale,
but with your Russian truth.
In a letter of April 30, 1823, to Alexander Turgenev Vyazemski calls Pushkin (who began writing Eugene Onegin on May 9, 1823, in Bessarabia) bes Arabskiy (the Arabian devil), a pun on Bessarabskiy (the Bessarabian). As VN points out in his EO Commentary (vol.. II, p. 38), the epithet should have been, of course, arapskiy, from arap (“Blackamor,” an allusion to Pushkin’s Ethiopian blood), and not arabskiy, from arab (“Arab”).
Van, Ada and their half-sister Lucette are the great-grandchildren of Prince Peter Zemski. In the Goodson Airport Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) mentions his friend Bessborodko who is to be installed in Bessarabia:
‘Stocks,’ said Demon, ‘are on the zoom. Our territorial triumphs, et cetera. An American governor, my friend Bessborodko, is to be installed in Bessarabia, and a British one, Armborough, will rule Armenia. I saw you enlaced with your little Countess near the parking lot. If you marry her I will disinherit you. They’re quite a notch below our set.’
‘In a couple of years,’ said Van, ‘I’ll slide into my own little millions’ (meaning the fortune Aqua had left him). ‘But you needn’t worry, sir, we have interrupted our affair for the time being — till the next time I return to live in her girlinière’ (Canady slang). (2.1)
Van begins his work on Letters from Terra living in Cordula’s Manhattan flat (girlinière). Max Mispel discerned in Van’s novel the influence of Osberg and that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine (Sirin was VN’s Russian nom de plume; bene is Latin for “good”). On Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) VN’s Lolita (1955) is known as The Gitanilla, a novel by the Spanish writer Osberg (anagram of Borges):
For the big picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday and Ida’s forty-second jour de fête, the child was permitted to wear her lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel and pronounced, incidentally, with a Spanish ‘t,’ not a thick English one), a rather long, but very airy and ample, black skirt, with red poppies or peonies, ‘deficient in botanical reality,’ as she grandly expressed it, not yet knowing that reality and natural science are synonymous in the terms of this, and only this, dream. (1.13)
At the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess) reads her story La Rivière de Diamants that Van and Ada call “a fairy tale:”
‘I can never get used (m’y faire)’ said Mlle Laparure, ‘to the contrast between the opulence of nature and the squalor of human life. See that old moujik décharné with that rent in his shirt, see his miserable cabane. And see that agile swallow! How happy, nature, how unhappy, man! Neither of you told me how you liked my new story? Van?’
‘It’s a good fairy tale,’ said Van.
‘It’s a fairy tale,’ said careful Ada.
‘Allons donc!’ cried Mlle Larivière, ‘On the contrary — every detail is realistic. We have here the drama of the petty bourgeois, with all his class cares and class dreams and class pride.’ (ibid.)
Mlle Larivière publishes her story under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse (sic). In the second line of his poem “O you, who loved…” Pushkin mentions Parnasa taynye tsvety (the secret flowers of Parnassus). The secret flowers of Parnassus bring to mind Marina’s herbarium that Van and Ada discover in the attic of Ardis Hall:
Ancolie Bleue des Alpes, Ex en Valais, i.IX.69. From Englishman in hotel. ‘Alpine Columbine, color of your eyes.’
Epervière auricule. 25.X.69, Ex, ex Dr Lapiner’s walled alpine garden.
Golden [ginkgo] leaf: fallen out of a book ‘The Truth about Terra’ which Aqua gave me before going back to her Home. 14.XII.69.
Artificial edelweiss brought by my new nurse with a note from Aqua saying it came from a ‘mizernoe and bizarre’ Christmas Tree at the Home. 25.XII.69.
Petal of orchid, one of 99 orchids, if you please, mailed to me yesterday, Special Delivery, c’est bien le cas de le dire, from Villa Armina, Alpes Maritimes. Have laid aside ten for Aqua to be taken to her at her Home. Ex en Valais, Switzerland. ‘Snowing in Fate’s crystal ball,’ as he used to say. (Date erased.)
Gentiane de Koch, rare, brought by lapochka [darling] Lapiner from his ‘mute gentiarium’ 5.I.1870.
[blue-ink blot shaped accidentally like a flower, or improved felt-pen deletion] (Compliquaria compliquata var. aquamarina. Ex, 15.I.70.
Fancy flower of paper, found in Aqua’s purse. Ex, 16.II.1870, made by a fellow patient, at the Home, which is no longer hers.
Gentiana verna (printanière). Ex, 28.III.1870, on the lawn of my nurse’s cottage. Last day here. (1.1)
Marina’s twin sister, poor mad Aqua was obsessed with the idea of Terra (Antiterra’s twin planet):
She 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 last note was signed “My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada” (now is out of hell). Chekhov’s story Zhenshchina s tochki zreniya p’yanitsy (“Woman as Seen by a Drunkard,” 1885), in which girls under sixteen are compared to aqua distillatae, was signed Brat moego brata (My brother’s brother).
The phrase shchemyashchiy zvuk (heart-rending sound) occurs in several poems by Alexander Blok. In Blok’s poem Neznakomka (“Incognita,” 1906), directly alluded to in Ada (3.3), p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) cry out: “In vino veritas!” During the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen uses the phrase s glazami and mentions Dr Krolik (Ada’s beloved entomologist and teacher of natural history):
‘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. (1.38)
In her last note Aqua twice repeats the word chelovek (used by Demon in the sense “man-servant”):
The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. (1.3)
Van’s black wet-nurse, Ruby Black, seems to blend Pushkin (who had Ethiopian blood) with his nurse Arina Rodionovna. In his poem K vel’mozhe (“To the Grandee,” 1830) Pushkin addresses Prince Yusupov, the great-grandfather of Felix Yusupov (one of Rasputin’s murderers whose elder brother was killed in a duel). In his “Memoirs” (1953) Felix Yusupov (the husband of Irina Romanov, the niece of Nicholas II) mentions “the black ruby” that a lady from Los Angeles desired to see at the New York exhibition of his and his wife’s jewelry.
Chelovek is an anagram of Vekchelo (a circus artist who walks on his hands):
His reversed body gracefully curved, his brown legs hoisted like a Tarentine sail, his joined ankles tacking, Van gripped with splayed hands the brow of gravity, and moved to and fro, veering and sidestepping, opening his mouth the wrong way, and blinking in the odd bilboquet fashion peculiar to eyelids in his abnormal position. Even more extraordinary than the variety and velocity of the movements he made in imitation of animal hind legs was the effortlessness of his stance; King Wing warned him that Vekchelo, a Yukon professional, lost it by the time he was twenty-two; but that summer afternoon, on the silky ground of the pineglade, in the magical heart of Ardis, under Lady Erminin’s blue eye, fourteen-year-old Van treated us to the greatest performance we have ever seen a brachiambulant give. Not the faintest flush showed on his face or neck! (1.13)
As Mascodagama, Van performs in variety shows dancing tango on his hands:
For the tango, which completed his number on his last tour, he was given a partner, a Crimean cabaret dancer in a very short scintillating frock cut very low on the back. She sang the tango tune in Russian:
Pod znóynïm nébom Argentínï,
Pod strástnïy góvor mandolinï
‘Neath sultry sky of Argentina,
To the hot hum of mandolina. (1.30)
J. L. Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinean writer. In the second half of his life Borges was blind. There are three blind characters in Ada. In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Panikovski simulates blindness (one of the novel’s chapters is entitled “Homer, Milton and Panikovski”) and Ostap Bender dances tango solo to the tune “‘Neath sultry sky of Argentina.” Pod sladkiy lepet mandoliny (“to the sweet murmur of mandolina”), as Bender puts it, the Polish priests Kushakovski and Moroshek try to make a good Catholic of their compatriot, Adam Kozlevich (the driver of the Antelope Gnu car in “The Golden Calf”).
Describing Aqua’s death, Van mentions her last doctor, Sig Heiler:
In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two hundred tablets of different potency. She knew most of them — the jejune sedatives, and the ones that knocked you out from eight p.m. till midnight, and several varieties of superior soporifics that left you with limpid limbs and a leaden head after eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself delightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the cleansing fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season. Lest some busybody resurrect her in the middle of the float-away process, Aqua reckoned she must procure for herself a maximum period of undisturbed stupor elsewhere than in a glass house, and the carrying out of that second part of the project was simplified and encouraged by another agent or double of the Isère Professor, a Dr Sig Heiler whom everybody venerated as a great guy and near-genius in the usual sense of near-beer. Such patients who proved by certain twitchings of the eyelids and other semiprivate parts under the control of medical students that Sig (a slightly deformed but not unhandsome old boy) was in the process of being dreamt of as a ‘papa Fig,’ spanker of girl bottoms and spunky spittoon-user, were assumed to be on the way to haleness and permitted, upon awakening, to participate in normal outdoor activities such as picnics. Sly Aqua twitched, simulated a yawn, opened her light-blue eyes (with those startlingly contrasty jet-black pupils that Dolly, her mother, also had), put on yellow slacks and a black bolero, walked through a little pinewood, thumbed a ride with a Mexican truck, found a suitable gulch in the chaparral and there, after writing a short note, began placidly eating from her cupped palm the multicolored contents of her handbag, like any Russian country girl lakomyashchayasya yagodami (feasting on berries) that she had just picked in the woods. She smiled, dreamily enjoying the thought (rather ‘Kareninian’ in tone) that her extinction would affect people about ‘as deeply as the abrupt, mysterious, never explained demise of a comic strip in a Sunday paper one had been taking for years. It was her last smile. She was discovered much sooner, but had also died much faster than expected, and the observant Siggy, still in his baggy khaki shorts, reported that Sister Aqua (as for some reason they all called her) lay, as if buried prehistorically, in a fetus-in-utero position, a comment that seemed relevant to his students, as it may be to mine. (1.3)
According to Van, he partly derived the name of the main character in Letters from Terra from the name of Aqua’s last doctor:
Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua’s last doctor. When Leymanski’s obsession turned into love, and one’s sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair. (2.2)
Sig Leymanksi is an anagram of Kingsley Amis (“a waggish British novelist keenly interested in physics fiction”). As to Sig Heiler, his name (a play on the Nazi salute Sieg heil! and Heiler, German for “healer”) seems to hint at Carl Jung (the author of “Wotan,” 1936).
Antilia Glems + Gerald + vesna + Ada = gitanilla Esmeralda + navsegda
Gerald – Maurice Gerald, the main character in Captain Mayne Reid’s Headless Horseman (on Antiterra The Headless Horseman is a poem by Pushkin, 1.28)
vesna – spring
gitanilla Esmeralda – the gypsy girl in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris (1831)
navsegda – forever