Part One, Chapter 26
This chapter was the subject of a Nabokv-L discussion (September 17, 2003) between fellow Adaphile D. Barton Johnson, who singled it out as a rare example of “gratuitous virtuosity” in Nabokov (gratuitous because the only function he can see for the chapter is to supply the key to the coded phrases in I.25) and myself. I now adapt my original response.
Van and Ada are still children. As incestuous lovers on a large estate under the eyes of vague Marina and unobservant Mlle Larivière, and the less blind but much more accommodating Blanche, they could make love at will at Ardis. But despite the shimmer of fantasy that the Antiterran setting and the precocious characters supply, this is psychologically a realistic novel. When their schools part them, the most Van and Ada can do, for all their desperation to continue as at Ardis, is to write letters to one another. And the fact that they must resort to code indicates how aware they are that their incestuous love is impermissible to others. A lesser novelist might ignore the break between the summers of fulfillment at Ardis; Nabokov has to explain both the ongoing momentum of Van and Ada’s passion, and the obstacles their passion meets: time, space, their lack of independence, their need for secrecy, and their other interests, including other sexual interests.
As Don Johnson senses, this chapter lacks the verbal, visual and imaginative treats we expect in Ada. It is remarkable, that is, not for its virtuosity, but only for its apparent gratuitousness. Nabokov has deliberately made it flat and uninviting, as Chapter 16 (“Eumaeus”) of Joyce’s Ulysses seems deliberately tired and drained, after the verbal and visual oneiric fireworks of Chapter 15 (“Circe”)—until we look closely and see how alertly Joyce has woven together all kinds of tired thought and expressions. Here Nabokov does something similar, although he provides an internal motivation for his stylistic shift, as Joyce tends not to do.
He highlights the distaste Van feels in writing, and the distaste and difficulty he expects the reader to feel in reading (emphases added)
Codes are a bore to describe; yet a few basic details must be, reluctantly, given. . . . There is an awful moment in popular books on cosmic theories (that breezily begin with plain straightforward chatty paragraphs) when there suddenly start to sprout mathematical formulas, which immediately blind one’s brain. We do not go as far as that here. If he approaches the description of our lovers’ code (the “our” may constitute a source of irritation in its own right, but never mind) with a little more attention and a little less antipathy, the simplest-minded reader will, one trusts, understand that “overflowing” into the next ABC business.
(Notice that the last sentence originally began “If the description” etc. This could be Nabokov’s error—and it is on that assumption that the text has been emended; but it could also be the case that Nabokov intended the flaw, as if Van’s antipathy to what he is writing is so great that he cannot pay close enough attention even to revise properly. Nabokov may, in other words, have been impersonating writerly disenchantment. Or perhaps he felt the same himself. A1 has his note on the title pages, among many other corrections: “[p. 161 not worth correcting].” This may of course merely refer to the trivial correction required at 161.31. But note the numerous inconsistencies in the time scheme in this one chapter: see notes 160.01-05, 160.06-08, 162.15-16.)
Unfortunately, complications arose . . . . Owing to these improvements the messages became even harder to read than to write, especially as both correspondents, in the exasperation of tender passion, inserted afterthoughts, deleted phrases, rephrased insertions and reinstated deletions with misspellings and miscodings, owing as much to their struggle with inexpressible distress as to their overcomplicating its cryptogram. . . . For example, l2.11. l1.2.20. l2.8 meant “love,” with “l” and the number following it denoting the line in the Marvell poem, and the next number giving the position of the letter in that line, l2.11, meaning “eleventh letter in second line.” I hold this to be pretty clear.
(An impatient cry of near-desperation, in fact, on Van’s part; and one exasperated reader did seek clarification on Nabokv-L some years ago.)
Again , this is a nuisance to explain, and the explanation is fun to read only for the purpose (thwarted, I am afraid) of looking for errors in the examples. Anyway, it soon proved to have defects even more serious than those of the first code.
Nabokov does not merely describe the codes and the difficulty of writing passionate letters according to codes that must be retained only in memory, he makes us as readers feel Van’s difficulty and distaste, and his irritation that his and Ada’s relationship has suddenly come to this. Apart from Ada’s “our black rainbow,” the chapter has nothing of Ada’s normal stylistic brio. It seems flat, a writer’s chore reluctantly and irritably fulfilled. But this stylistic disgruntlement serves a singular function at this place in Van and Ada’s story, as the frustrations of the coded correspondence suddenly unite and separate them.
In a novel so full of vivid scenes, this chapter offers only the remoteness of summary. Instead merely of referring to the epistolary codes from a distance, it makes us experience the irritation, complication and frustration that serve as such a contrast to the glow and glee of Van and Ada’s love at its freshest in Ardis the First. The change jars for us as it did for Van and Ada. Van also makes us share a queasy uncertainty about why the correspondence should have become so much less frequent, especially on Ada’s part. We are partly primed by the “will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?” near the end of the previous chapter, but there is nothing explicit here, just the uneasiness, the surprise that a love so strong didn’t continue unabated despite the obstacle of distance.
Letters occupy a key place in the development of the novel as a genre, solidly from Samuel Richardson until the end of the eighteenth century (Fanny Burney, early Austen) and intermittently thereafter. Ada is saturated with references to the history of the novel, from the Tolstoy echo in the opening line, the letter-writing scene in a stage version of Eugene Onegin that inspires Demon’s passion for Marina and so starts the whole incestuous story, and the “gentle eminence of old novels” on which Ardis stands. The letter-writing theme comes to a local and discordant crescendo here in I.26.
In I.40 Van will write: “The novelistic theme of written communications has now really got into its stride” (287). That comment, on the anonymous note from Blanche warning Van that he is being deceived (by Ada), is another example of the use of letters to indicate the strain in Van and Ada’s relationship, as in their first period of separation, or in their second, during which Van will not even read Ada’s letters. These in turn echo the strained relationship between Demon and Marina a generation earlier, which Demon breaks off with a letter at the end of I.2.
Van and Ada’s being able to use Rimbaud and Marvell for their code indicates their precocity, their literariness, their retentiveness, their attunement. But it also points to the first time the Rimbaud and Marvell poems are paired, when Ada and Van are communicating in a virtual code, in order to exclude Marina, in I.10, a passage that foreshadows their need to block parental understanding of their communication, as in the literal code here in I.26, the cryptic telegram of I.29 or the comically obtrusive ultrasecrecy of the Very Private Letters agency in II.1.
But I.10’s exchange involving Rimbaud and Marvell also very pointedly introduces Lucette and the lost “souci d’eau,” the “care of the water,” that anticipates her death by drowning (see Boyd 1985/2001, and Afternote I.10). Letters are inseparable from that fate. Lucette’s slide towards her doom gathers pace when Ada sends a letter to Van delivered personally by Lucette, since he will not read Ada’s other letters, in a scene that Van reports partly by incorporating a passionate love-letter from Lucette to him, rich in echoes of Ophelia and her letters that Hamlet returns before she dies by drowning.
The key words that Van uses in I.26 to demonstrate the first code and the difference to the encryption caused by a difference in the number of letters in the word are “love” and “lovely.” “Love” of course is appropriate in this novel of ardor, including Lucette’s tragic ardor for Van. We first encounter Van and Ada making love in the attic, in the first chapter of the novel. They can escape Lucette’s surveillance on this occasion because they dupe her into wanting to hurriedly learn by heart a poem from an anthology of Van’s. If she can recite the poem word perfect, she keeps the book, Van explains, “lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips”: “ ‘Otherwise, you’ll forfeit the reward, and will regret the loss all your life.’ ‘Oh, Van, how lovely of you,’ said Lucette” (145-46). While Ada and Van ascend to the attic—where they discover the evidence that shows them that they are full brother and sister, and that will indicate how urgently, later, they will need to keep their correspondence encoded—Lucette learns the poem, and recalls it for Van in the last letter that she ever writes, which Van receives only after her death. A letter that incorporates a short poem it was “lovely” of Van to have offered her has no accidental relationship to these coded letters that use the “love”-“lovely” code or short poems by Rimbaud and Marvell.
The poem Lucette commits to memory and recalls in her last letter itself concerns communication between the dead and the living, a motif that recurs throughout Ada, in a strange relationship to Van’s novel Letters from Terra (a planet many Antiterrans think of as a “Next World” (20)), a novel itself written in bitter response to the letters Ada sends him in vain after their parting in 1888. And the pattern of letters particularly involves Lucette, as in the Scrabble game in Ada I.36 and the Anglo-Russian letters for CLITORIS that Lucette introduces, recalling another Scrabble game, when in II.5 she brings Van a letter from Ada for him to read, in a passage that Van renders by incorporating a letter of Lucette’s that he in turn makes echo Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia. Throughout the novel letters, epistolary or alphabetic, will suggest encoded communication between the Next World and This; I.26 introduces the theme of encoded forbidden communication in its starkest form.
An unexpected theme of communication, especially secret communication, through water also pervades the novel: Aqua, crazy enough to imagine she hears water talking; the novel’s hydraulic dorophones; the “ondulas” that send Theresa’s messages from Terra in Letters from Terra, before she flies over herself and swims “like a micromermaid” on a microscope slide (II.2); “little Lucette” who flushes her blank suicide note down the toilet on a transatlantic liner before drowning and then sends “maybe a mermaid’s message” (562) to Ada to rejoin Van. In I.26 Van works himself into an impatient expository tangle in explaining the first code of his secret correspondence with Ada, through the examples of “love” and “lovely,” especially as he describes the “letters overflowing into the new alphabetic series . . . that ‘overflowing’ into the next ABC business.” The “overflowing” coupled with the alphabetic code imagistically evokes the water-message theme.
Notice that the letter Lucette brings to Van from Ada in II.5 announces Ada’s intention to marry if Van does not respond. Here in I.26 the dwindling frequency of the coded correspondence also encodes Ada’s deepening relationship with other men over her first four years apart from Van.
Just as Transparent Things as a whole is short and jarringly uncomfortable after Ada’s protracted radiance, so I.26 is short, aridly unsensuous, frustrating for Van to write and us for to read, because this is the first chapter after Van’s first parting from Ada, at the end of the radiance of Ardis the First. Ada, all too conscious that the chapter coyly registers her increasing entanglement with other men at Van’s expense, therefore ends it thus: “(I suggest omitting this little chapter altogether. Ada’s note.)”