Part One, Chapter 33
In I.33 Van brings Rack into focus, in preparation for the surprise later disclosure by Blanche, in I.41, that Ada has had an affair with him. The theme of rivalry interleaves here with the theme of Lucette as obstruction, which will become the prime focus of I.34 and dominate much of Ardis the Second, until the theme of the rivals lurches to the fore with Percy de Prey in I.39 and brings Ardis the Second to an early end for Van.
At Ardis the First, Van’s only “rival” had been the comically (and for Van very satisfyingly) outclassed Greg Erminin. On his arrival at Ardis the Second, Van witnesses Percy de Prey lingeringly kissing Ada’s hand in farewell, in I. 31, and then Pedro, despite his being claimed and kept by Marina, flirting and lusting after Ada in the swimming pool, in I.32, and now Rack. The limp and sub-virile Rack stands in hilarious contrast to the arrogant and amply endowed bully-boy Percy and the cocky, satyr-handsome actor Pedro. His moony moping for Ada seems at this stage absurdly unlikely ever to have been requited. Already despondent at having to leave Ardis, Rack in I.33 comes to farewell Ada. Van, never inclined to tolerate rivals, even someone who seems ridiculously improbable, also happens to be on the brink of possessing Ada. Furious two chapters earlier when he helplessly witnessed from a distance Percy’s farewell to Ada, and the implicit claim Percy staked on Ada, he now denies Rack a similar opportunity altogether. His anger amplifies as he vindictively recounts the scene scores of years later.
Early in I.32, Van had introduced “Philip Rack, an insignificant but on the whole likable young musician” (197). But standing before her in the swimming pool Rack had focused persistently and plaintively on Ada, despite her dismissals. Even if nowhere near as overt as Pedro’s brazen flirting, his attentions to Ada have changed Van’s tolerant attitude to him by the start of I.33.
Rack is the last to leave Ardis of those whom Van recognizes as rivals, as at least sexually or romantically interested in Ada. In I.33 Rack seems just another fleeting obstacle to the fulfilment of Van’s particularly urgent desire for Ada, and Van’s revulsion (“I have never clasped a wetter, limper, nastier forelimb in all my life,” 208) seems a comic index of how viscerally he reacts, or overreacts, even to those who appear far too unappealing to ever raise an amatory response from Ada. That Van’s jealousy should produce a hostile recoil even from the woebegone, physically unprepossessing and maladroit Rack seems to suggest that his jealousy arises not from Ada’s possible infidelities but only from the intensity of his passion for her.
All this makes it more surprising to us, and to Van, when, as his jealousy mounts, after the uninvited intrusion of Percy de Prey into the picnic for Ada’s birthday—and the mounting hints that Percy may still be mounting Ada—the person Blanche announces as Ada’s rival turns out after all to be Rack. After Blanche admits that it was she who left the note in Van’s jacket warning that he must not be deceived, he starts to pump her for information:
When and how had it started? Last August, she said. Votre demoiselle picking flowers, he squiring her through the tall grass, a flute in his hand. Who he? What flute? Mais le musicien allemand, Monsieur Rack. The eager informer had her own swain lying upon her on the other side of the hedge. How anybody could do it with l’immonde Monsieur Rack, who once forgot his waistcoat in a haystack, was beyond the informer’s comprehension. Perhaps because he made songs for her, a very pretty one was once played at a big public ball at the Ladore Casino, it went . . . (293)
But in I.33 there is another focus for Van’s frustration at the thwarting of his pressing desire for Ada: Lucette. Lucette’s music lesson with Rack first seems to promise twenty minutes of uninterrupted time for her ardent siblings. Instead, her “repetitive tinkle-thump-tinkle” (207) gives Rack what he hopes will be the opportunity of saying farewell to Ada and bestowing on her another musical tribute—only for him to be thwarted by Van, as his seeking Ada itself thwarts Van. Rebuffed by Van, Rack returns not to the music lesson but to his bicycle, and pedals away from Ardis, perhaps in tears of disappointment that help contribute to his bicycle’s crash. After Van watches the crash from the nursery W.C. window while washing his hands of the contagion of Rack’s touch, he returns to find Ada with Lucette, and showing her how she can peel in one strip the apple the music teacher has brought his young pupil. Van hopes he can get rid of Lucette at once by sending her to Mlle Larivière, but Ada, caught in the pleasure of her display to Lucette, has for once no desire for absolutely immediate gratification with Van, and chooses to make Van wait. Half an hour later Van returns from the library, still more disgruntled, and this time Ada sends Lucette off to Mademoiselle, while proposing that she and Van “will retire to the bathroom . . . and I’ll give him a good haircut” (210).
I.33 insistently recalls the ploys Van and Ada used to decoy Lucette in Ardis the First. In I.33 Van and Ada begin their first thwarted embrace in an upstairs dressing room that houses some of Lucette’s “old ‘untouchable’ treasures among which was the battered anthology he had given her four years ago” (207)—the anthology from which he bets, against Ada, that Lucette can learn a poem in an hour—while he and Ada make love. Even in I.23 that ruse quietly prefigures Lucette’s doom: “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” quoting the poem—in a letter he reads only after her suicide (146).
Note that Nabokov’s typescript for the novel included at this point another doubled hint at Lucette as an obstruction in 1884 and as a suicide in 1901 (“‘untouchable’ treasures among which was the doll Van had saved from drowning, and the battered anthology”: see 207.09-11n. above). Presumably Nabokov came to think this detail superfluous and/or too overt. Van saves that doll from drowning on the first occasion when Lucette sees Van and Ada making love: after Van strips to save the doll, Ada’s sudden desire for Van leads them to tie Lucette up while they ran off to slake their arousal, only for Lucette to untie herself and spy on them (142-43). Later in I.33 Nabokov manages to allude to this scene, even without the detail about the doll he excised from the previous page. When Van returns from dismissing Rack, he finds Ada “not really reading, but nervously, angrily, absently flipping through the pages of what happened to be that old anthology—she who at any time, if she picked up a book, would at once get engrossed in whatever text she happened to slip into ‘from the book’s brink’ with the natural movement of a water creature put back into its brook” (208: second and third italics added). Ada not reading here, and “the book’s brink . . . brook,” recall Ada reading on the bank of a brook at the beginning of the earlier scene: “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, wistfully glancing from time to time at an inviting clump of evergreens (that had frequently sheltered our lovers) and at brown-torsoed, barefooted Van, in turned-up dungarees, who was searching for his wristwatch that he thought he had dropped among the forget-me-nots (but which Ada, he forgot, was wearing). Lucette had abandoned her skipping rope to squat on the brink of the brook and float a fetus-sized rubber doll” (142-43: italics added).
When Ada, at the end of I.33, sends Lucette off to Mlle Larivière while announcing that she and Van will retreat “to the bathroom,—or somewhere where there’s a good glass” (210), her announcement recalls the third of the three stratagems in I.23 to hold Lucette at bay: the scene in the bathroom where Lucette has been instructed not to leave the “liquid prison” of her bath while Van and Ada make love in an L-shaped bathroom around the corner of “which the sea-green eye of the bathroom looking-glass could not reach” (144).
I.33, in other words, evokes all three of Van and Ada’s 1884 ploys to keep Lucette away from them described in detail in I.23—all three, by Nabokov’s design, also prefiguring her death. I.33 comes between the end of I.32, where Lucette (in shorts and no top) and Ada (in swimsuit) first together cling and kiss and roll over Van (in swimming trunks), and I.34. I.34 introduces Van and Ada’s more complicated 1888 ploys to neutralize and mislead Lucette, including the dangerous and ultimately fatal strategy that Ada devises, building on the romp at the end of I.32, “to have Van fool Lucette by petting her in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time, and by caressing and kissing Lucette when Ada was away in the woods” (213)—and to distract Van, as it turns out, while Ada meets Van’s current rival, Percy de Prey. We first see Lucette in I.33 watching Ada peel the apple that Rack has just given Lucette: a kind of emblem of Ada exposing the fatal fruit of knowledge before Lucette, who here watches agog, and anticipating the hellish consequences of their romps in their mock-paradise of Ardis, and of Ada’s later introducing Lucette to what for her will be the frustrating turmoil of sexual frenzy.
Here in I.33 Van may be impetuous in his desire but Ada, intensely engaged with Lucette, for once fobs him off. With Van absent, and no other appropriate males close in the deserts of Arizona in 1890, Ada will unpeel the apple of desire for fourteen-year-old Lucette, in what the younger girl reports to Van as “the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen” (374).
I offer one more tentative chain of associations. Ada unpeels for Lucette “a yellow-red spiral which Lucette watched with ritual fascination” (209). Van, irked not to have immediate amatory access to Ada, retreats to the library. Further frustrated by the search for a book he then finds he no longer needs, he lies for a while “on the black divan, but that seemed only to increase the pressure of passionate obsession” (209). He attempts “to return to the upper floor by the cochlea,” and as he climbs recalls his and Ada’s climbing those stairs after their first sexual fumbles on the night of the Burning Barn. He now reaches the top of the staircase to find it latched from the other side, and has to redescend in renewed frustration, “memories now blotted out by trivial exasperation.” In the margin of his own copy of Ada, where he prepared his notes for translators of the novel, Nabokov drew a spiral beside the word “cochlea,” as if to emphasize the juxtaposition of Ada’s spiral peel and the spiral staircase—the “semi-secret little staircase” that first “spiralled” Van and Ada together early in 1884 (42), “the accessory spiral stairs” (115) down which Van descends to the library on the night of the Burning Barn, before he kneels on the divan where Ada joins him and they first make awkward love, and up which they climb back together afterward. (The Kyoto Reading Circle Annotations note the spiral-cochlea echo.)
“Cochlea,” Nabokov well knew, can also refer to a spiral structure within the inner ear. Lucette is repeatedly characterized as an eavesdropper on Van and Ada (see Boyd 2001: 56, 114-15, 117-18, 126-27, 147-48, 149, 169, 214), for the first and key time when she is playing “just within earshot” (94) as they have their first fortunate fall, Van’s face onto Ada’s naked crotch, within the “shattal tree” (94), “the Tree of Knowledge . . . from the Eden National Park” (95), earlyish in Ardis the First. That parody of the biblical fall beside the Tree of Knowledge (see I.15 and Afternote), seems a first fall into knowledge for Lucette, too, as she overhears their entanglement.
Van and Ada reach a deeper stage of sexual knowledge on the divan in the library on the night of the Burning Barn, and Lucette too will learn from the divan, where she can overhear her passionate siblings while in the closet at one end of the divan “in which you two locked me up at least ten times” (373), as she later recalls. In I.33 Ada’s peeling the apple in a spiral for Lucette, before Van descends to the library and the divan, and tries to return via the “cochlea” of the spiral staircase, seems to hint again at Lucette’s partaking of the apple of knowledge via what she overhears as well as sees of Van and Ada’s making love.
In any case the conjunction of Lucette and Rack throughout I.33 has an immediate narrative cause—Rack giving Lucette music lessons—and immediate narrative consequences—Van’s repeated frustrations in his attempts to possess Ada—and delayed artistic implications. As I note elsewhere (the section “Lucette and the Rivals” in chapter 10 of Boyd 2001: 168-74), Nabokov repeatedly and pointedly links Lucette with Van’s rivals for Ada. He implies how the pain caused Lucette by Van and Ada’s thoughtlessness toward her in the throes of their passion links with the pain Ada causes Van in her infidelities and the pain Van wishes to inflict on his rivals. Here in I.33 Nabokov intertwines Rack, the hopeless and already dismissed rival of Van’s love for Ada, and Lucette, who will become the hopeless rival of Ada’s love for Van, and will be dismissed by Van to her death, when he feigns she has been displaced by yet another rival.
In this chapter focusing on Van’s frustration, two points need to be made about the frustrations of others. Van happily frustrates Rack’s search for Ada, and watches frustration compounded on frustration as Rack, cycling away from Ardis, crashes into a privet hedge. Van as actor and narrator himself gleefully compounds Rack’s misfortunes, all through the paragraph beginning “‘There’s one downstairs in the hall,’ said Van, assuming, or feigning to assume, that the unfortunate fellow had stomach cramps or nausea” (208), in his squeamish disgust at Rack’s handshake, in his report of Rack’s mishap (“The clumsy cyclist’s balance did not survive his futile gesture: he brushed harshly against the hedge on the other side of the path, and crashed,” 208) and his own final reaction (“a surge of obscure disgust made Van spit into the toilet bowl,” 209).
Lucette, although she here frustrates Van’s ardor for Ada, as she will so often during Ardis the Second, is for once not frustrated herself. Ada peeling Lucette’s apple in one uninterrupted peel for once acts like sister to younger sister. Uncharacteristically engaged with Lucette more than Van, she deflects Van’s device to decoy Lucette away to Mlle Larivière (“Well, she’ll have to wait,” 209), and continues her entrancing peel. Irritated Van stomps off: “Have some work to do. . . . Bored beyond words. Shall be in the library.” “ ‘Okay,’ limpidly responded Lucette without turning—and emitted a cry of pleasure as she caught the finished festoons” (209). Innocent Lucette has no idea at Van’s vexation, or its cause, or at the fact that his announcement is directed to Ada, not her: a misconstruction comic for us, but marking almost the last time we see Lucette treated with perfect innocence by her siblings, and responding with charming guilelessness. Beginning in the next chapter, Ada will work up Lucette’s responsiveness to Van into something that will rob her of her innocence and destroy her chances of happy adult sexual experience—into something that will frustrate, in short, her whole short life.