Part One, Chapter 34
Afternote: Van (and Nabokov) encourage us to read this chapter, the first time at any rate, from the perspective of Van and Ada, a perspective in which Lucette does indeed look “a pest” obstructing their awesome desire. Nabokov, at least, hopes that some good readers will see through the urgency of “our lovers” and take thought for the pubescent girl whose curiosity and emotions are inflamed by her big sister’s and big “cousin’s” antics, and that all readers, by the time they reread, will see they should have focused on Lucette as much as on Van and Ada.
Other chapters in the novel show Lucette, often through oblique connections, as fatally entangled in Van and Ada’s lives. This chapter discloses Van and Ada’s responsibility head on, in terms of their psychological states and Lucette’s. Van and Ada after all are 18 and 15, almost 16, and intellectually precocious, and Lucette only 12, in the turmoil of pubescence, and without the hyperintelligence of Van and Ada to elevate her beyond her years. I.34 has far fewer of the fatidic prefigurations of Lucette’s death that we find in I.23, the corresponding chapter in Ardis the First, but offers more direct evidence of what Van and Ada see at the time as “the pardonable blindness of ascending bliss” (213). At the time they see behavior like Lucette’s objecting to being locked in a closet while they make love on the divan, and her knocking and calling and kicking, as “fits of vile temper” (213). Both reproach themselves now, as they write, for the long-term damage that Ada’s ploy to confuse Lucette causes the young girl. Van passes the primary blame to Ada, although he too was complicit, and Ada tries to avoid Van’s direct reproach (“Strike out, strike out, please, Van”) but does not succeed.
The opening paragraph of the chapter both introduces Lucette as pest and prepares for her tracking Van and Ada during the day in the remainder of the chapter by focusing primarily on night as a time when Van and Ada still cannot feel complete security in love-making. Even under the cover of night, Ardis Manor offers them no riskless refuge: Marina, entertaining guests, lights up the garden; Sore as nightwatchman carries around his emerald lantern; Sore and Blanche seek nooks around the manor for their own trysts. And in any case “waiting all day for a propitious night was too much for our impatient lovers” (211). The emphatic “golden globes of the new garden lamps that glowed here and there in the sudden greenery” (211, a fine image in itself, the light that suddenly transforms the colourless night scene into local patches of green) links with Lucette later in the chapter, her “face with all its freckles aglow swooped up and two green eyes levelled at the astounding tandem” (213).
The chapter also begins by playing with myths of love: Marina surrounded by her movie-world guests (including, presumably, her Pedro), Blanche trysting with the old Burgundian nightwatchman, Sore, and Van and Ada also eagerly engaged in their trysts. Blanche and Sore often see Van and Ada in amorous clinches, and Ardis seems a garden of earthly delights in keeping with the myth of love, “a sacred secret and creed” (409), that Blanche had already disseminated through the countryside after Van and Ada’s first, 1884, summer of love. But Blanche’s promiscuity, comically evoked in this first paragraph, and interleaved with Lucette as also a witness of Van and Ada’s ardor, has resulted in her venereal disease—ironically echoed in the name of her current partner, Sore, a reverse Eros—which will prove disastrous in its consequence, the blind child she will bear to Trofim Fartukov. Van and Ada “in the pardonable blindness of ascending bliss” (213) ignore the fact that Lucette can see them, and that a distant consequence of this knowledge will be the early extinguishing of her little light. For Blanche and Lucette, see Boyd 2001: 152-58.
Another theme throughout the chapter is the decline from Ardis the First to Ardis the Second: Van and Ada’s consciousness now of the “splintered boxes and projecting nails” in the attic, and of the risk of exposure on the roof, which “any green imp with coppery limbs could easily keep under surveillance” (212), or the shooting gallery, which “crawled now with bedbugs, reeked of stale beer, and was so grimy and greasy” (212). The chapter ends with Van’s soft lament: “This summer is so much sadder than the other” (214). The Villa Venus chain of floramors in II.3, itself an ironic echo of Ardis, will also begin with the splendor of rampant luxurious lovemaking and decline as “the deterioration of the club set in . . . with amazing rapidity along several unconnected lines” (356) and ends in a “squalid recess” (358).
Lucette’s spying on Van and Ada making love builds on its 1884 base into 1888. But Lucette is now four years older, and therefore more resourceful in finding ways of circumventing their vigilance, and more sexually curious and more infatuated with Van, and therefore more motivated than ever to spy on them. The “behind” theme, of Van making love to Ada from behind, never before tied to Lucette’s onlooking, here recurs repeatedly: in Van clasping Ada at the window ledge of the shooting gallery, as Lucette skips toward them (212), or as she swings up high enough to see “the astounding tandem” (213) in the locked pavilion, and therefore insists on playing “leaptoad” with them (213). The theme will take its initially most comic form during the return journey from the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday, where Lucette has to sit on Van’s knee and later wonders “could a boy bee impregnate a girl flower through something, through his gaiters or woolies or whatever he wore?” (289). As I suggest in Boyd 2001, 134-36 and 139-44, Nabokov uses the “behind” theme to imply that Van and Ada have “buggered up” Lucette’s life.
Nowhere more ominously than through the dangerous ploy that Ada proposes “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 (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’). This, Ada affirmed, would achieve two ends—assuage the pubescent child’s jealousy and act as an alibi in case she caught them in the middle of a more ambiguous romp” (213). In fact the ploy only ensures that Lucette becomes more confusingly sexually fixated on Van. And Ada suggests her stratagem only because the garden of love at Ardis has become too crowded for comfort. Anxious to appease Percy de Prey sexually enough for him not to call on her at Ardis, where he would run into the irascibly jealous Van, she arranges with Percy, as we later discover, to meet her on the outskirts of the estate, while she is “in the woods” on the pretext of “botanizing.” Keeping Van engaged with Lucette will be one way of Ada’s ensuring he does not tail her, but Van’s ironic quotes around “in the woods” and “botanizing” disclose for the rereader his awareness now, as he writes, of what he could not know then, at this point in 1888.
Nabokov will later find ways to link the indifference toward Lucette’s feelings that will ultimately damage her and Van’s desire to inflict deliberate damage on his rivals for Ada (Boyd 2001: 168-83). But here he establishes a direct causal connection between Ada’s thoughtlessness toward her young sister in the pangs of her ardor for Van and in her determination to continue her sexual relationship with Percy, by tying Van up in Lucette’s attentions to him, however that stratagem impacts on Lucette. Although the connection is immediately causally related, Nabokov also links it with all Van’s rivals to date in Ardis the Second, through the image of the lithograph of the old oak on which Lucette swings to a vantage point on “the astounding tandem” (213) that Van and Ada form in the locked pavilion. The lithograph is by Peter de Rast, whose name manages to echo simultaneously, with its Pe . . . de, Percy de Prey, with its P R initials, Philip Rack, and with its Peter and Pe . . d . .R, the Pedro whose flirtation with Ada at the pool had made Van’s jealousy flare. The hint of pederast in “Peter de Rast” also anticipates a next rival for Van, Johnny Starling, kept by “an old pederast” (381), whom Lucette will tell Van about in 1892, at the same time as she discloses (372-80) that she too has in a sense been a rival, seduced into sexual coupling with Ada to appease some of her big sister’s insatiable sexual desire.
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