Part One, Chapter 22
Van and Ada’s celebration of their love reaches its pitch in this short chapter. Characteristically, what sets the stamp on the intensity of their present moment is partly their awareness of what surrounds it: their anticipation of future recollection of the present, a key Nabokovian marker of the transcendence of time, and their appreciation, both playful and impassioned, of the capacity of art to transform, amplify and immortalize the vitality of life.
If Ardis means “point of an arrow,” this chapter stresses not the direction of time’s arrow but time as fulfillment, time as not change but accumulation, now that the arrows of Van’s and Ada’s love have hit their targets. Where most of the Ardis chapters have focused on singular events, on new steps in the journey towards the lovers’ consummation, this chapter begins with a focus on stasis, on glorious repetition, not uncertain progression.
To first-time readers, especially the Anglophone readers whom Nabokov knew would be his first audience, Van’s verse lines would rarely have been recognized as a parodic pastiche of Chateaubriand. (Nabokov was keenly aware how little Chateaubriand was known in the English-speaking world, even to literary academics: see VNAY 571.) The couplets seem simply heartfelt and (almost) innocent, as they certainly are in Chateaubriand’s own song. Van’s switches of language, four times to French, and once to Russian, may reflect merely his and Ada’s shared trilingualism, though they could raise readers’ curiosity about the existence of a possible model. For those attuned to Nabokovian clues, but unaware of the source of the lines, “Bryant’s Castle” offers a first clue (if we “translate” it into Château Bryant, as the “Bryant’s Château” of 205.16 almost does for us); but Nabokov offered the solution in his Darkbloom notes in 1970. (See Cancogni 230-37 for a discussion of readers’ possible responses.)
Van playfully appropriates Chateaubriand’s lines of serene shared recollection of a shared childhood past. For Nabokov these lines were almost a personal leitmotiv; he even thought of calling the French version of his memoirs Le Château que baignait la Dore (see 5.07n). The “Et ma montagne, et le grand chêne” construction of the second line of Chateaubriand’s last stanza seemed to stand for Nabokov as the very intonation of memorial tenderness, as the mind calls up one after another things long prized but long gone. In Speak, Memory he writes: “Tamara, Russia, the wildwood grading into old gardens, my northern birches and firs . . . et la montagne et le grand chêne—these are things that fate one day bundled up pell-mell and tossed into the sea, completely severing me from my boyhood” (SM 249-50). The “and . . . and . . . and” will become the personal pulse of Nabokovian nostalgia.
Rivers and Walker stress the appropriateness of the whole of Les Aventures du dernier Abencérage to the Nabokovian theme of exile, especially exile from the past: “Le Dernier Abencérage is the story of Aben-Hamet, the last member of the Moorish tribe of Abencérage, who returns to his homeland in Spain, falls in love with a beautiful maiden, and finally ends his days in exile in Africa. The novella begins:
Lorsque Boabdil, dernier roi de Grenade, fut obligé d’abandonner le royaume de ses pères, il s’arrêta au sommet du mont Padul. . . . A la vue de ce beau pays . . . Boabdil se prit à verser des larmes. La sultane Aïxa, sa mère . . . l’accompagnait dans son exil. . . . Ils descendirent de la montagne, et Grenade disparut à leurs yeux pour toujours.
Les Maures d’Espagne . . . se dispersèrent en Afrique. . . . les Abencérages se fixèrent dans les enirons de Tunis. . . .
Ces familles portèrent dans leur patrie nouvelle le souvenir de leur ancienne patrie. Le Paradis de Grenade vivait toujours dans leur mémoire. . . .
When Boabdil the last king of Granada, was obliged to abandon the kingdom of his fathers, he paused at the summit of Mount Padul. . . . At the sight of this beautiful country . . . Boabdil began to shed tears. His mother the sultana Aïxa . . . accompanied him into his exile. . . . They came down from the mountain, and Granada disappeared from their eyes forever.
The Moors of Spain . . . were scattered throughout Africa. . . . the Abencérage tribe settled around Tunis. . . .
These families took with them into their new homeland the memory of their former homeland. The “Paradise of Granada” lived always in their memory.” (Rivers & Walker 277)
Although Van will come to feel he is exiled from Ardis, that is in fact less important to the poem he composes in 1884 (see also end of 138.05-06n. above) than his and Ada’s sense of future recollection. For Nabokov, being able to catch now a glimpse of what one will recall many years later from this present moment is a way of tying the arrow of time in a Moebius-strip knot, an infinite loop. Fyodor says to Koncheyev in The Gift: “Doesn’t it amuse you to imagine that one day, on this very spot, on this lakeside, beneath this oak tree, a visiting dreamer will come and sit and imagine in his turn that you and I once sat here?” Refusing to accept Koncheyev’s dry reply, he urges again: “But nevertheless try! Try to experience that strange, future, retrospective thrill. . . . All the little hairs on the soul stand on end!” (Gift 342). Earlier in the novel, Fyodor has written a poem that Nabokov would later single out as his own “favorite Russian poem” (SO 14) precisely because it incorporates a future recollection, and like Van’s “My sister, do you still recall,” is addressed from lover to lover (first stanza: “Odnazhdy my pod-vecher oba / Stoyali na starom mostu. / Skazhi mne, sprosil ya, do groba / Zapomnish’ von lastochku tu? / I ty otvechala: eshchyo by!”; in English: “One night between sunset and river / On the old bridge we stood, you and I. / Will you ever forget it, I queried / —That particular [swallow] that went by? / And you answered, so earnestly: Never!” Gift 94). Note that this poem, like Chateaubriand’s and Van’s, focuses on a swallow (“hirondelle”). (The English version in The Gift changes “swallow” to “swift” for metric reasons, and perhaps to avoid ambiguity.)
One other passage views the same romantic desire from the stance of a more jaded present, but still suggests the passion of the original impulse:
Katya and I also would have liked to reminisce, but, since we had nothing yet to reminisce about, we would counterfeit the remoteness of time and push back into it our immediate happiness. We transformed everything we saw into monuments to our still nonexistent past by trying to look at a garden path, at the moon, at the weeping willows, with the same eyes with which now—when fully conscious of irreparable losses—we might have looked at that old, waterlogged raft on the pond, at that moon above the black cow shed. I even suppose that, thanks to a vague inspiration, we were preparing in advance for certain things, training ourselves to remember, imagining a distant past and practicing nostalgia, so that subsequently, when that past really existed for us, we would know how to cope with it, and not perish under its burden. (“The Admiralty Spire,” SoVN 348)
In Ada, of course, the mood is wholly different. Whereas the author of “The Admiralty Spire” is writing with a sense of stinging disenchantment, prompted by his discovery, decades later, of what he is sure Katya’s own novelistic and cheapened account of the love they once shared, in Ada, by contrast, a future in which Van and Ada are still together many decades later, still sharing their reminiscences of the glorious weeks and months of their first falling in love, repeatedly peeps through the account of Ardis the First. There has from the first been a sense of the future defeating the “ardis” of time, but until this point it has been supplied by Van and Ada as narrators. Here, for the first time, we find the characters within their present sharing and hoarding their own future recollections, anticipating, rightly as we already know, that they will continue to recall, together, this present bliss.
After the poem’s celebration of the varied repetition of his and Ada’s love in Ardis and Ladore, Van takes us on unexpected excursion through Ladore County—the river, the castle, the town of Kaluga, quaint Ardisville—only to return to Ardis Park itself and his and Ada’s frenetic amours. Again he lets us glimpse something beyond summer at Ardis—the first hints of fall, Marina’s and Mlle Larivière’s excursions within Ladore County—only to focus once again on a single scene of himself and Ada making love, in a sumptuous setting that allows him to draw on the pastoral serenity and sensuality of Renaissance painting, but also to play with the impermissible, the “forbidden” masterpiece, the frankness of fellatio.
For all the celebration of romance and eros in this chapter, the mood is, as usual, more complex and polyphonic than it seems.
The Chateaubriand allusions in Ada seem at first blush playful and proudly self-conscious celebrations of Van and Ada’s love, in defiant disregard of its incestuous nature. Van transforms the innocent Ma sœur of the poem into the knowing “My sister” of his own experience.
Behind the contrast, both Van and Nabokov are also aware of the parallel: of the incestuous strain in Chateaubriand’s writings, and of the hints of an incestuous love between Chateaubriand and his sister. Van acknowledges his sibling relationship with and his love for Ada, and his awareness of the intense relationship between brother and sister suggested in Chateaubriand’s Atala, René and his Mémoires d’outre-tombe.
But as I have shown elsewhere, the Chateaubriand allusions that seem playfully to disarm disapproval of incest in fact always imply Lucette and her tragic entanglement with her siblings, not least through the fact that her name is officially Lucile, and Chateaubriand’s sister, Lucile, also committed suicide (see Boyd 1985/2001: 125-28). Here in his poem the last of the women Van evokes as having lost his Lucile (“Oh! qui me rendra ma Lucile”); the first is Aline, a name that connects with no other detail in Ada but this: “She was, cette Lucette, like the girl in Ah, cette Line (a popular novel) . . . ” (152): subtract the cette from both and the result is “Lucette” and “Ah Line.” To this point in Ada, the Lucette theme has barely been sounded, but it will suddenly come to the fore in the next chapter, I.23, as both a comic and exasperating intrusion on Van and Ada’s young ardor and as a tragedy already foreshadowed.
The first prose paragraph of I.22, unusually, takes Van and Ada well beyond the confines of Ardis Park, partly in order to justify the relevance of the “Ladore” more or less borrowed from Chateaubriand’s poem (where the river is La Dore): they trace the river, they explore the country town of Ladore, they walk to “the black ruins of Bryant’s Castle.” The next sentences take them still further afield, to Kaluga, to Countess de Prey’s, and then back to Ardisville, locations they are never shown to visit elsewhere in the novel. Why?
These three locations, in the midst of the idyll at Ardis, seem like a foretaste of Van’s 1888 “expulsion” from Ardis, from his and Ada’s private Eden, as if from the sumptuous repetitions of delight in the middle panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and into the hell of its right-hand panel.
Why do Van and Ada drink “the Kaluga Waters,” when earth’s Kaluga is not known as a spa? Kaluga is where “Aqua . . . married Walter D. Veen” (4): two “waters” of different kinds, while kaluga, Russian for “bog,” reflects veen, Dutch for “bog.” The “similarities of young bodies of water” (13), or at least the interchangeability of Marina and Aqua as “Walter” Veen’s lovers, and of their infant sons by him, will lead to Aqua’s suicide in the Arizonian desert and its prefiguration of Lucette’s suicide in the waters of the Atlantic.
“The Kaluga Waters” reflects the fact that the marsh marigold or souci d’eau (“care of the water,” as Fowlie literally mistranslates it, 65), which becomes a motif so strongly associated with Lucette, is known in Russian as “Kaluzhnitsa, as used quite properly in Kaluga, U.S.A.” (63: the word derives of course from kaluga).
Most pointedly of all, early in Ardis the Second, after Ada institutes her plan to befuddle Lucette by having Van pet her “in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time”:
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)
The plural “waters” is used only four times in the novel: when Van describes how he would “launch Ada upon the troubled waters of Botany Bay” (63) in order to prevent Marina from dominating the conversation with talk of the theater, with the specific example of the marsh marigold or kaluzhnitsa or souci d’eau then taking up the next two pages; when Van and Ada here in I.22 drink “the Kaluga Waters”; when Lucette sees them making love as she perches atop the bound volumes of The Kaluga Waters; and in the description of Van looking for Lucette in the mid-Atlantic, “bobbing and bawling the drowned girl’s name in the black, foam-veined, complicated waters” (495).
“They traveled to Kaluga and drank the Kaluga Waters, and saw the family dentist. Van, flipping through a magazine, heard Ada scream and say ‘chort’ (devil) in the next room” (139). Ada’s unexpected details are never random. Nabokov here introduces the hellish note, the pain of the visit to the dentist, the scream, and the “devil” all suggesting Bosch’s visions of hell rather than an earthly heaven. Van meanwhile is “flipping through a magazine” in verbal prefiguration of a scene at the picnic for Ada’s birthday party at Ardis the Second, where Percy de Prey turns up uninvited and drunk and plays cat-and-mouse with Van. Foreseeing, for good reason, a fight or a duel between them, Ada calls Van aside:
“Van!” called Ada shrilly. “I want to say something to you, Van, come here.”
Dorn (flipping through a literary review, to Trigorin): “Here, a couple of months ago, a certain article was printed . . . a Letter from America, and I wanted to ask you, incidentally” (taking Trigorin by the waist and leading him to the front of the stage), “because I’m very much interested in that question . . .”
Ada stood with her back against the trunk of a tree, like a beautiful spy who has just rejected the blindfold.
“I wanted to ask you, incidentally, Van” (continuing in a whisper, with an angry flick of the wrist)—“stop playing the perfect idiot host; he came drunk as a welt, can’t you see?” (272)
Note the “flipping through a literary review” that echoes not only Chekhov’s The Seagull (see 272.05-10 and n.) but also Van here in Kaluga “flipping through a magazine.”
That the connection is not accidental is confirmed by the next sentence in I.22: “They had tea at a neighbor’s, Countess de Prey—who tried to sell them, unsuccessfully, a lame horse.” This is the first encounter between Van or Ada and a de Prey recorded in the novel, and it comes to Van’s mind again at the beginning of Ardis the Second when he turns up unannounced in the midst of a party breaking up, where he thinks he recognizes his fellow ex-Riverlane student, Percy de Prey. Sweaty and exhausted, he heads up to take a bath and from the casement window looks down at
the hubbub of gay departures. He made out Ada. He noticed her running after Percy who had put on his gray topper and was walking away across a lawn which his transit at once caused to overlap in Van’s mind with the fleeting memory of the paddock where he and Van had once happened to discuss a lame horse and Riverlane. Ada overtook the young man in a patch of sudden sunlight; he stopped, and she stood speaking to him and tossing her head in a way she had when nervous or displeased. De Prey kissed her hand. That was French, but all right. He held the hand he had kissed while she spoke and then kissed it again, and that was not done, that was dreadful, that could not be endured.
Leaving his post, naked Van went through the clothes he had shed. He found the necklace. In icy fury, he tore it into thirty, forty glittering hailstones. (189)
Not only does the “lame horse” prefigure, in the midst of the pleasures of Ardis the First, the tormenting and justified jealousy that Van tries vainly to suppress in Ardis the Second, it also anticipates Lucette’s announcement to him at Kingston, another four years later, of her seduction by Ada, which compounds her fatal emotional disorientation:
“Well [here, it would seem, taped speech is re-turned-on], to make a short story sort of longish—”
Old Countess de Prey’s phrase in praise of a lame mare in her stables in 1884, thence passed on to her son, who passed it on to his girl who passed it on to her half-sister. Thus instantly reconstructed by Van sitting with tented hands in a red-plush chair.
“—I took my pillow to Ada’s bedroom. . . . The night was oven-hot and we were stark naked. . . . ” (375)
The next sentence of I.22 again confirms the link between this passage and later developments: “They visited the fair at Ardisville where they especially admired the Chinese tumblers.” Lucette, in her report to Van, goes on to recall:
“She taught me practices I had never imagined,” confessed Lucette in rerun wonder. “We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas. She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers . . . . [During the day] we were just ordinary sisters, . . . she collecting cactuses . . . and I reading a lot, or copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces that we found, apropos, in a box of korsetov i khrestomatiy (corsets and chrestomathies) which Belle had left behind, and I can assure you, they were far more realistic than the scroll-painting by Mong Mong, very active in 888, a millennium before Ada said it illustrated Oriental calisthenics when I found it by chance in the corner of one of my ambuscades. . . . ” (375-76)
After these unexpected excursuses through the Ladore regions, I.22 returns to Ardis, to Van and Ada’s erotic pleasures, even outdoors at Ardis, seen in terms of Renaissance paintings with their pastoral idylls and alfresco nudes—usually mythological and symbolic rather than “forbiddenly” erotic. Van’s verbal painting of delicate details increases the sensual and even forbidden element, especially in the teasing veil that ludic allusion almost throws over what is also a vivid description of fellatio.
But here again Lucette is implicated. Not only, as in the quotation above, does she become unhealthily obsessed with the erotica in Ardis’s Forbidden Masterpieces, but the final instance of the Forbidden Masterpiece motif, and of characters in the novel transferred as if into a painting, occurs in the elaborate scene of the débauche à trois in Manhattan in 1892, the last occasion when the three “children of Venus” meet, and when Ada brings Van’s hand over to fondle Lucette, as she herself does, while also fondling Van:
What we have now is . . . a much earlier canvas, of the Venetian (sensu largo) school, reproduced (in “Forbidden Masterpieces”) expertly enough to stand the scrutiny of a bordel’s vue d’oiseau. . . .
. . . Ten eager, evil, loving, long fingers belonging to two different young demons caress their helpless bed pet. Ada’s loose black hair accidentally tickles the local curio she holds in her left fist, magnanimously demonstrating her acquisition. Unsigned and unframed.
That about summed it up (for the magical gewgaw liquefied all at once, and Lucette, snatching up her nightdress, escaped to her room). (418, 420)
The Forbidden Masterpiece, its unsigned and unframed state, the Venetian school, and Ada’s hair tickling Van all link this scene, another stage in Lucette’s disintegration, with the erotic idyll of I.22.Van and Ada in I.22 glory in the repetition of their love, in memory, and in the fleshy here and now of 1884. But this is the last chapter before Lucette is introduced as a key complication of their love, in I.23—at first seemingly a mere comic counterpoint—and the chapter already hints that love’s repeatability and multipliability will become much more than merely idyllic, even within Ardis the First, let alone four years later, in Ardis the Second, or another four, in Manhatten.