Part One, Chapter 23
As we approach the end of Ardis the First, I.23 starts to develop the Lucette theme, hitherto a mere incidental note. Lucette’s curiosity about big sister and adored big cousin seems like a hilarious complication of Van and Ada’s love. The passionate couple’s very frustration emphasizes the intensity of their love while helping to make their summer idyll not too cloyingly idyllic.
But as we read on and discover Lucette’s emotional instability and its consequences in her suicide, I.23 turns out in retrospect to be darkened by appalling foreshadowings. Indeed as we reread Ada, we find Lucette becomes progressively more central to the ethics and the metaphysics of the novel (see Mason; Boyd 1985/2001). Although it does not feel so on first encounter, I.23 therefore proves pivotal.
Each of the three distinct and memorable scenes of the chapter anticipates aspects of Lucette’s fate (Boyd 1985/2001: 116-18). The first, the scene by the brook, explains how Lucette’s curiosity about Van and Ada’s activities, and their reckless lust, first lead to her spying on them as they make love. The rubber doll almost swept away prefigures Lucette herself swept away by the waters of the Atlantic, and Van will deliberately recall this scene as Lucette dies (see nn. above and discussion below). The scene also evokes Rimbaud’s “Mémoire”: a child reading by the bank of a brook (“Mémoire,” l. 20) ; willows (ll. 12, 37); Lucette has already been associated with the fleeting role of Joan of Arc in Rimbaud’s poem via I.20’s “oriflamme” (1. 27), and is here tied to a tree as “La Pucelle” (l. 4) was tied to the stake; and above all, that doll, retrieved for the moment but later to be lost among the forget-me-nots, a “plaything” (589) as in “Mémoire,” l. 33. Both the doll drowned among the forget-me-nots and the image of Lucette tied to a tree—and later in the novel associated with martyrs (see Boyd 1985/2001: 56-57, 123-24, 181-83)—anticipate her death. Ada’s perforating the doll at her vagina signals the combination of innocence and the premature introduction of sexuality that will prove so fatal for her little sister.
The second scene, in the bathroom, testifies to Lucette’s entrapment in Van and Ada’s passion, marks her loss of innocence (the angle at which she inserts the soap in herself, saying “I’m Van”), and anticipates that her death will itself place her in a “liquid prison,” as Van her calls her bath. Once again, Van will deliberately echo this scene as he recounts the night of Lucette’s death (see below).
The third scene, the poem Lucette has to learn, is not quite as visually vivid as the first two, yet reveals still more of the children’s relationships. Van coolly exploits Lucette’s “whimpering attachment to his company,” and feigns generosity while betraying her trust; sexually insatiable Ada casually and cruelly condescends to her sister.
Lucette will recall this poem nearly twenty years later, in a letter Van cites. Even when he first opens Lucette’s letter, we eventually realize, Van will feel a fatidic shiver, because the poem concerns a relationship between the living and the apparently dead, and he will read Lucette’s letter, which quotes it, only after he knows her to have already died. But later this letter will also reveal itself to be part of a pattern of Lucette and letters (including letters from the beyond) that makes Ada still more complicated (see Boyd 1985/2001, 204-227, 248-53, 274-75).
The very clarity of these three scenes as foreshadowings of Lucette’s death helps to anchor some of the more oblique connections between Lucette and other aspects of the novel. It also provides an answer to another important critical question in the novel: are we to see the connections between Lucette and others in Ada as partly the writerly responsibility, the deliberate heightening, of Van, who after all has had ten years to rework his manuscript, or are they all to be seen as solely Nabokov’s, as authorial indictments of his hero and heroine?
The foreshadowing of Lucette’s death in I.23 must to a considerable extent result from Van’s own conscious intent. It is he who must deliberately pick up the image of the doll nearly swept away from the forget-me-nots and recall it as Lucette begins to drown: “She did not see her whole life flash before her as we all were afraid she might have done; the red rubber of a favorite doll remained safely decomposed among the myosotes of an unanalyzable brook” (494). It is he who places among Ada’s delicate pictorial details, in the last sentence of the book—and therefore undermining and complicating the sales pitch of its closing “Arcadian” blurb—“a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook” (589). It is he who calls the bath in which he and Ada entrap Lucette a “liquid prison,” and who recalls, as he records the night of her death, an echo of his and Ada’s rattling the medicine chest with their rhythms: “by the time no remedy except Dr. Henry’s oil of Atlantic prose could be found in the medicine chest of the past with its banging door and toppling toothbrush” (485). And it is he who introduces even for the first-time reader a note of uncertain foreboding and retrospective regret into his introduction of Lucette’s last letter and her recollection of the poem “Peter and Margaret”: “Van hastened to join Ada in the attic. At that moment he felt quite proud of his stratagem. He was to recall it with a fatidic shiver seventeen years later when Lucette, in her last note to him, mailed from Paris to his Kingston address on June 2, 1901, ‘just in case,’ wrote: . . . ” (146)
I conclude an analysis of Lolita saying that “Humbert demonstrates how easy it is to let moral awareness turn into sincere regret after the fact, but how much more difficult to curb the self before it tramples others underfoot. The emphasis throughout Lolita on the contrast between a forward and rear view of time is ultimately a moral one” (VNAY 254). Something similar is at work in Ada, except that where Humbert in a sense writes his whole rushed text in his own defense, for all his overt self-castigation, Van writes his work both to maximize the celebration of his and Ada’s love and to maximize their remorse at their behavior toward Lucette, although at the time, under pressure of their own ardor, they always thought too little of the damage they were doing her. Yet for all that Van consciously incorporates regret, Nabokov himself constantly deepens the charges against his hero and heroine.
Ada is importantly a novel about memory, and about the patterns woven into our personal past that an ideal memory can discern or a perfectly revisitable past can disclose. In I.23, Van relives the memory of his and Ada’s frustration at Lucette’s new intrusions, with a revived sense of their old urgency and a retrospective sense of dread at where their entanglement of Lucette would lead. The chapter is saturated—by Nabokov, it would seem, rather than by Van?—with references to memory: echoes of Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” pervading the first scene (the brook, the willows, the plaything); the “forget-me-nots” by the brook; Ada’s cautionary “And remember” to Lucette, with its accidental echo of Van and Ada’s sharing memories of their past, “ ‘And do you remember, a tï pomnish’, et te souviens-tu,’ (invariably with that implied codetta of ‘and,’ introducing the bead to be threaded in the torn necklace)” (109); Lucette’s being cajoled into memorizing a poem by heart, and her letter showing, just before her suicide, that she takes the memory all the way with her into death; and Ada’s suggestion that it should not be this poem she memorizes, but Brown’s or Browning’s “Memorabilia,” with its throwaway last line of “Well, I forget the rest.” Nabokov seems to be exploring the other side of memory, even for “the genius of total recall” (545): memory as remorse, as a hell of regret, as well as a paradise to revisit.
I.23 develops an additional recurrent comic theme, beside the comedy of Lucette’s insatiable spying on her siblings, in Mlle Larivière’s role as writer—as Antiterran Maupassant, indeed—and yet as “pathologically unobservant” (96). It is Mlle Larivière’s retiring to her bed for five days that makes it so difficult for Van and Ada to shake off Lucette. Van enjoys the comedy of the echoic relationship between his old governess’s writing and events at Ardis, even though she herself is unaware of them: “While the comfortably resting lady was describing the bank of a brook where little Rockette liked to frolic, Ada sat reading on a similar bank.” (“Little Rockette” pointedly calls to mind the “little Lucette” motif that Van weaves through his memoir.) Van enjoys also Mlle Larivière’s misconstruing both what is brought to her notice about life at Ardis and her art in general: Lucette complains about Van and Ada’s tying her to the willow “to her governess who, completely misconstruing the whole matter (which could also be said of her new composition), summoned Van and from her screened bed, through a reek of embrocation and sweat, told him to refrain from turning Lucette’s head by making of her a fairy-tale damsel in distress” (143).
The immediately amusing irony is that Mlle Larivière has no notion whatever of the amours of Van and Ada. Yet, as often, a deeper irony counts against Van. Nabokov shows that although Mlle Larivière does have a cloudy notion of what happens around her at Ardis, she is fond of her younger charge, so much more open and guileless than Ada, and she reads correctly the danger of Van’s turning Lucette’s head.
In her story, as in Maupassant’s, there is a moment of “unforgivable” sexual avidity (Ada 155: “gloutonnerie impardonnable”) by the side of a riverbank that leads to the death of “little Rockette,” while in Van’s own story, his and Ada’s uncontrolled amatory appetite by the riverbank will in time lead to “little Lucette’s” death. In Maupassant’s story, and presumably in Larivière’s, that moment is triggered when the mayor sees the “petite Roque” swimming naked in the brook and then stepping toward him; in Ada Ada herself feels a rush of lust as she sees Van strip from his dungarees in order to swim after the doll washed away. And in the Maupassant story from which Larivière’s derives, the tragedy concludes when the mayor commits suicide by diving to his death from a tower to his death: “pareil à un nageur qui pique une tête, il se lança dans le vide, les deux mains en avant” (“like a swimmer diving, he threw himself into space, his two hands in front,” La Petite Roque, ed. André Fermigier, Paris: Gallimard, 1987, 65), as Lucette’s tragedy also ends with her diving to her death.
If Mlle Larivière sees the danger in Van’s turning Lucette’s head, Van and Ada see it too, but in a very different way, only from their point of view, not hers. Van cannot help noticing that “her whimpering attachment to his company [was] turning into a veritable obsession,” but he reacts by exploiting—and therefore intensifying—that obsession, playing on her emotions in order to manipulate her out of his and Ada’s way. Larivière’s concern for Lucette may seem absurdly, comically misdirected to Van, and to us on a first reading, but Nabokov grants much more to a comic peripheral character—here, to Mlle Larivière, and throughout the chapter and the whole book, to Lucette—than his arrogant hero allows.
The scenes that foreshadow Lucette’s tragedy also recall Aqua’s. Lucette first becomes embroiled in Van and Ada’s love-making when she nearly loses her “fetus-sized rubber doll.” Aqua’s mental disturbance, intensified by Demon’s infidelities, deepens still further after Marina’s child by Demon is substituted for her own stillborn child: “At one time Aqua believed that a stillborn male infant half a year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had produced in her bath, . . . had somehow been saved and brought to her at the Nusshaus, wrapped up in blood-soaked cotton-wool, but perfectly alive and healthy, to be registered as her son Ivan Veen” (25).
Lucette’s next brush with Van and Ada making love, the next day, involves her in a bath with her “fetus-sized rubber doll,” in pointed echo of Aqua’s “fetus . . . of rubber . . . produced in her bath.” After Aqua’s delivery, Marina’s son is brought as a substitute and registered as her son Ivan Veen. And in I.23, standing up in her bath, Lucette lodges a cake of mulberry soap in her vagina, and declares “I’m Van,” as if another substitute Van.
Lucette’s third overlap with impatient Van and Ada in I.23 involves the poem “Peter and Margaret.” She looks with fascination on the poetry anthology Van has handed her, with “his own wonderful drawings in ink—a black aster (evolved from a blot). . . . ” (The word anthology derives from Greek anthos, “flower” and legein, “to gather” and is defined in W2 thus: “1. A collection of flowers of literature, that is beautiful passages from authors; a collection of poems or epigrams. . . . 2. A collection of flowers; a garland. Rare.”)Van and Ada head for the attic; there they find Marina’s herbarium, itself an “anthology,” which has one “flower” in ink, evolved from a blot—“[blue-ink blot shaped accidentally like a flower, or improved felt-pen deletion] Compliquaria compliquata var. aquamarina. Ex, 15.I.70” (8)—that in fact records the date of Aqua’s giving birth to her still-born child and the substitution of Van. (For other aspects of the relationship between the attic scene in I.1 and the scene of Lucette’s being enticed to learn the poem so that Van and Ada can retreat to the attic, see also Afternote to I.1 and Boyd 1985/2001: 262-71.)
I.23’s comic scenes of Lucette’s awareness of Van and Ada’s love-making not only anticipate her suicide as a consequence of her entanglement with her sister and “cousin,” but also recall Aqua’s suicide as a consequence of her awareness of her sister’s and cousin’s affair and her close entanglement in their lives. Marina’s and Demon’s thoughtlessness in the urgency of passion ultimately lead to Aqua’s suicide, as Ada’s and Van’s recklessness will lead seventeen years later to Lucette’s. But there is a difference. Marina has little memory and Demon little remorse. But if Van and Ada pay Lucette too little heed in life, at least they will forget her not in death.