Part One, Chapter 19
Van adds to the comedy and charm of the scene of the Burning Barn by highlighting Blanche as Cinderella. As we and Van later learn (405), Bout, just starting his affair with her, is devotedly kissing her instep when she notices the Barn burning and cries out “Au feu!”—so explaining why she reaches the fire slipperless and returns, jumping “out of a pumpkin-hued police van in her stockinged feet (long, long after midnight, alas).” (121)
Blanche’s Cinderella role sounds the note of fairy-tale fulfilment for Van and Ada on the night of the Burning Barn. At the same time her own high sexuality—her rapidly changing lovers and her venereal diseases—will parody and counterpoint their intense ardors at Ardis.
On Van and Ada’s first night of love-making during Ardis the First, Blanche loses a miniver-trimmed slipper, and Van wears a tartan lap robe. On his first night of love-making with Ada on his 1888 return, in Ardis the Second, Ada brings the lap robe, in presumable commemoration of their first night together, and as they couple and recouple, Blanche glides in from a tryst with Sore the nightwatchman, wearing “a miniver cloak that Ada had lost in the woods” (191). Van had torn the diamond necklace he had brought Ada on seeing Percy de Prey kiss and hold Ada’s hand repeatedly, and he confronted her: was Percy “her new beau?” (190) Ada had dismissed the idea, and her and Van’s love-making has lost none of its old force when Blanche glides in, but the “miniver cloak that Ada had lost in the woods” is fresh evidence, though Van cannot yet know it, of Ada’s sylvan trysts with Percy.
Van’s fateful last night at Ardis the Second, when he learns the truth about Ada’s infidelities, recalls the night of the Burning Barn both overtly and covertly, not least because it is Blanche who raises the cry of alarm on each occasion. “When lightning struck two days later (an old image that is meant to intimate a flash-back to an old barn)” (284), Van writes, as he introduces the theme of the anonymous note that hints he is being deceived. The note itself, “One must not berne you” (287), indicates a French-speaker’s warning that he should not be duped any longer (Blanche means the colloquial “burn,” in the sense of cheat [W3, burn 4c: cheat, befool ], but draws on the spelling of French berner, “to banter, hoax”), but the “burn” again points back to the night of the Burning Barn. That night, her dalliance with Bout had positioned her so that she could see the fire, just as throughout 1888 her trysts with Sore position her ideally for seeing Ada on her way to meet Rack or Percy.
On his troubled night at the end of Ardis the Second, Van retires to his hammock, knowing the note’s author is French but not knowing which of the French servants at Ardis has written it. When Blanche comes out to him, he is wrapped once again in his lap robe. She offers herself to him, but, unlike the night of the Burning Barn, when Ada all too clearly saw the dimensions of Van’s desire underneath the lap robe, he now carefully conceals the absence of any urge for Blanche “under his tartan cloak” (293) and begins to grill her about the note and what it implies.
The disclosure is even grimmer than Van has dreaded: Ada has been unfaithful not only with strapping Percy de Prey, but also with puny Philip Rack. But the “lack of restraint” (122) that Van found so disconcerting, as well as so opportune, on the night that the Burning Barn kindled the full ardors of Ardis, now reveals its full dangers, when he discovers Ada’s infidelity and must wrench himself forever from Ardis.
Blanche’s own sexual changeability—from Bouteillan on Van’s first morning at Ardis (when she has the whites), to Bout on the night of the Burning Barn (in 1888 a now wiser Bout hints to Van of the risks of infection Blanche carries ), to Sore on the night Van returns to Ardis, his very name an indication of his state of sexual health, to Trofim Fartukov’s warning as he drives Van and Blanche away from Ardis that he wouldn’t touch her “even through a leathern apron” (300) (he changes his mind, marries her, and they have, as a result of her venereal disease, a child born blind)—serves as a coarser counterpoint, a physical equivalent, in her burning organs, her lack of restraint, to the fires of jealousy that Ada’s lack of restraint stirs in Van.
If Blanche frames the night of the Burning Barn in a way that points up the eventual ironies of Van’s being “berned” by Ada, even within the scene of Van and Ada in the library there are signs of the infidelities to come.
Van pushing against Ada “like that solder behind in the queue” prompts Van’s response: “First time I hear about him. I thought old Mr. Nymphobottomus had been my only predecessor.” (117) At the time this seems merely comic, but it anticipates the sheer unexpectedness of Blanche’s disclosure that Ada has been unfaithful not only with the de Prey he had strongly suspected but with the unappetizing and unlikely Rack.
Ada investigating Van’s penis with something like eager scientific curiosity and comparing it to the cap of the red bolete and a geranium or pelargonium bloom anticipates the Ada of Ardis the Second who will repeatedly use her being “‘in the woods’ ‘botanizing’ ” (213) as a cover for her continued couplings with Percy de Prey.
After ejaculating at the hands of “our young botanist [who] had not the faintest idea how to handle the thing properly” (119), Van lies down as Ada continues to inspect him, and adds: “I denounce the philistine’s post-coital cigarette both as a doctor and an artist. It is, however, true that Van was not unaware of a glass box of Turkish Traumatis on a console too far to be reached with an indolent stretch. The tall clock struck an anonymous quarter.” (120-21) The Turkish Traumatis cigarettes here anticipate the motif of Turkish tobacco that will be associated throughout Ardis the Second with Ada’s infidelity with Percy, with her “compassionate” sexual solace to him before his departure “for some Greek or Turkish port” (296) on his way to the Crimean War: thus, when he meets Ada after what will prove to have been her farewell tryst with Percy, Van “ladores” the “dark aroma of her hair blending with crushed lily stalks, Turkish cigarettes and the lassitude that comes from ‘lass.’ ” (287) (See D. Barton Johnson, “Ada’s Percy de Prey as the Marlborough Man,” Nabokovian 27 [Fall 1991]: 45-52.)
The “tall clock struck an anonymous quarter” in the Burning Barn scene anticipates the announcement of the Crimean War in I.37, where Van lies alone on the divan, glancing occasionally at the same “tall clock above the bald pate of tan Tartary as represented on a large old globe” (230). As the clock gathers its strength to strike, Van wakes from a brief dream “so closely fused with the real event that even when he recalled Bout’s putting his finger on the rhomboid peninsula where the Allies had just landed (as proclaimed by the Ladore newspaper spread-eagled on the library table), he still saw Blanche wiping Crimea clean with one of Ada’s lost handkerchiefs.” (231)
Both Blanche as Cinderella counterpoint and Van and Ada’s first lovemaking on the divan, then, prefigure the pains of jealousy Van will feel at Ada’s “lack of restraint” and that will bring his love-making with Ada at Ardis forever to an end. But the divan on which they make love also becomes a focal point in the life of another Cinderella, Lucette.
The very evening that the Barn Burns, Lucette has been playing Scrabble with them, and has been imploring her big sister and cousin for a share of the divan:
Another time, in the bay of the library, on a thundery evening (a few hours before the barn burned), a succession of Lucette’s blocks formed the amusing VANIADA, and from this she extracted the very piece of furniture she was in the act of referring to in a peevish little voice: “But I, too, perhaps, would like to sit on the divan.” (226)
As the letters suggest, Van and Ada seem destined to be together, and on the divan. Van records this and an earlier Scrabble hand because he had
been stung as a scientist by the curious affinity between certain aspects of Scrabble and those of the planchette. He became aware of it one August evening in 1884 on the nursery balcony, under a sunset sky the last fire of which snaked across the corner of the reservoir, . . . and intensified the hue of Lucette’s copper curls. . . . Pretty Blanche, also touched, on earlobe and thumbnail, with the evening’s pink—and redolent with the perfume called Miniver Musk by handmaids—had brought a still unneeded lamp. . . . Ada had won the right to begin, and was in the act of collecting one by one, mechanically and unthinkingly, her seven “luckies'” from the open case where the blocks lay face down. . . . She was speaking at the same time, saying casually: “I would much prefer the Benten lamp here but it is out of kerosin. Pet (addressing Lucette), be a good scout, call her—Good Heavens!”
The seven letters she had taken, S,R,E,N,O,K,I, and was sorting out in her spektrik (the little trough of japanned wood each player had before him) now formed in quick and, as it were, self-impulsed rearrangement the key word of the chance sentence that had attended their random assemblage. (226)
Numerous details from this scene and the next, Lucette’s VANIADA—the snaking fire reflected on the reservoir, the evening’s pink, Blanche’s Miniver Musk, the japanned wood, the divan—link with details of the night of the Burning Barn: Blanche’s having “lost a miniver-trimmed slipper” (114), Van’s watching from the divan the “distant flamingo flush” of the fire, the “large reservoir . . . breaking into scaly light . . . raft ripples likes fire snakes in Japan,” Ada joining “Van on the divan” (116).
A few hours before the scene of the Burning Barn, Lucette plays Scrabble with her sister and cousin, but cannot sit with them on the divan. In the Burning Barn scene itself, just before Ada joins “Van on the divan,” Lucette’s not being so close to Van is pointedly stressed by a similar play on van: as Van peers out into the night from his perch on the divan, Lucette runs from her dream and jumps “into the last furniture van.// Van, kneeling at the picture window, watched the inflamed eye of the cigar recede and vanish.” (116)
Lucette’s playing with them, but still being excluded, reaches a new level after Van and Ada begin to make love on that same divan: when for instance Ada’s “lack of restraint” leads to her and Van’s tying Lucette up as they pretend to become dragon and knight (143), or, four years later, in the prolonged petting games of Ardis the Second:
The three of them cuddled and cosseted so frequently and so thoroughly that at last one afternoon on the long-suffering black divan he and Ada could no longer restrain their amorous excitement, and under the absurd pretext of a hide-and-seek game they locked up Lucette in a closet used for storing bound volumes of The Kaluga Waters and The Lugano Sun, and frantically made love, while the child knocked and called and kicked until the key fell out and the keyhole turned an angry green. (213; first italics added)
When she visits Van at Kingston in 1892, Lucette’s conversation recapitulates the letter she sent him with a passionate declaration of her love. With uncanny vividness she evokes the library in order to recall her intricate involvement with Van and Ada and to emblematize her more recent, still more intimate, sexual entanglement with Ada. All the time she verbally reconstructs the library, she and Van both use the divan as an orientator, as she leads herself and him in memory to the closet “at the heel end of the Vaniada divan” (373) in which Van and Ada locked her up. Notice that the Cinderella pattern, so obviously focused on Blanche on the night of the Burning Barn, now refocuses on Lucette, the youngest and most overlooked of three siblings, as she discloses her now troubled relation to Van and Ada:
“Well, that secretaire,” continued Lucette, considering her left shoe, her very chic patent-leather Glass shoe, as she crossed her lovely legs, “that secretaire enclosed a folded card table and a top-secret drawer. And you thought, I think, it was crammed with our grandmother’s love letters, written when she was twelve or thirteen. And our Ada knew, oh, she knew, the drawer was there but she had forgotten how to release the orgasm or whatever it is called in card tables and bureaus.” (374)
The “minuscule red pawn” soon found in the drawer becomes Lucette’s vivid emblem for the clitoris, for the stimulation that unrestrained Ada has given to Lucette’s, and that Ada will make still more complicated when she pulls Lucette into bed with her and Van: Lucette lies there “in a martyr’s pudibund swoon” (418) as ten “eager, evil, loving fingers belonging to two different demons caress their helpless bed pet” (420).
This scene is itself prefigured in detail in the night of the Burning Barn, where Ada inspects “from above [Van’s] tanned body the ant caravan to the oasis of the navel. . . . I denounce the philistine’s post-coital cigarette both as a doctor and an artist. It is, however, true that Van was not unaware of a glass box of Turkish Traumatis on a console too far to be reached” (120-21). The débauche à trios scene in which Lucette shares the bed with Van and Ada is again scrutinized “from above” (418) and again described in terms of exotic tourism (“Another trip from the port to the interior reveals the central girl’s long white left thigh. . . . The scarred male nude on the island’s east coast is half-shaded . . . ,” 419). After Van ejaculates without entry, as he last did with one of the Veen girls on the night of the Burning Barn, Lucette flees, Ada watches his recovery (“Oh, what a good sight! . . . I’ve never seen a man make such a speedy recovery” ), as she first does on the night of the Burning Barn (“Ada was presently watching, cheek on fist, the impressive, though oddly morose, stirrings, steady clockwise launch, and ponderous upswing of male revival” ). Then “ 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” (420) and finds Lucette has left entirely, her “caro Van and a Camel” echoing the “caravan” and “post-coital cigarette . . . Turkish Traumatis” of the Burning Barn scene.
When she meets Van in Paris in 1901, in a scene that recreates Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster Divan japonais, an ever-more-desperate Lucette invites him to her room: “I have a fabulous Japanese divan. . . . I’ll stretch out upon the divan like a martyr, remember?” (463-64)
On the night of the Burning Barn scene, Lucette, jumping on a van, leaves the scene where Ada will join Van on the divan, yet if she is physically out of the situation she is also evoked there, not least through the divan by which she had played Scrabble with Van and Ada hours before. The Burning Barn scene, with its divan, and its insistent “ Japan” (“typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan . . . . Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet”) as Van looks out from his perch on the divan—itself prefigured in the Scrabble evenings, in the “sunset sky the last fire of which snaked across the corner of the reservoir,” in Blanche’s “Miniver musk,” the “japanned wood” and Lucette’s wish to sit on the divan—prefigures the Divan japonais poster so strongly associated with Lucette, and the fire’s snaking reflections foreshadow Van’s view from the deck of the Tobakoff (“watched the low sun’s ardency break into green-golden eye-spots a few sea-serpent yards to starboard,” 474) the night before Lucette jumps from the deck to her death and Van imagines her seeing before her mind’s eye as she drowns, in one last Cinderella image, “a pair of new vair-furred bedroom slippers, which [her maid] Brigitte had forgotten to pack” (494).
For Van and Ada, the Burning Barn transforms the world they knew, and does so within a few hours of the thundery evening when they played Scrabble with Lucette. Blanche leaving her slipper as she dashes off to the fire and Lucette running after her dream add to the enchantment. But Ada’s “lack of restraint,” which both disconcerts Van and offers him swifter sexual access than he could ever have expected, will ensure the fires of love do not burn quite so cleanly, at the end of Ardis the Second, when Blanche discloses how Ada has “berned” him, or when the fires stoked in Lucette on the divan in Ardis the Second, and restoked in Arizona, Manhattan and after, are suddenly quenched in the Atlantic