Part One, Chapter 35
Much of Van’s experience of Ardis the Second has been and will be dominated by his irritation at others, especially Lucette, interfering with his uninterrupted access to Ada, or at others, especially Percy de Prey, challenging his unique sexual access to her. Here on their “magic islet” in the middle of Ladore Van and Ada can be apart from others, and he can focus on her in extreme, loving close-up, and can recall the overlay of present experience on past memories of 1884, already overlaid on themselves in their theme song, “My sister, do you still recall,” from I.22.
Van’s narration in this chapter stresses the experience not as scene, but as summary, an analytic and poetic amatory summary of Ada’s features, each feature juxtaposed against the same feature four years ago. His caressing the details of Ada’s bodily and mental make-up reflects Nabokov’s own comments on the love-infused preciousness of early memory: “the freshness of the flowers being arranged by the under-gardener in the cool drawing-room of our country house, as I was running downstairs with my butterfly net on a summer day half a century ago: that kind of thing is absolutely permanent, immortal, it can never change, no matter how many times I farm it out to my characters, it is always there with me; there’s the red sand, the white garden bench, the black fir trees, everything, a permanent possession. I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is. I think it’s natural that I have a more passionate affection for my old memories, the memories of my childhood, than I have for later ones” (SO 12).
The rowboat Van and Ada take to the island bears the name “Souvenance” (“Recollection”) (406), after the poem “Combien j’ai douce souvenance” by Chateaubriand, the great French memoirist. (Nabokov thought of having his own memoirs entitled in French Douce Souvenance (unpublished Véra Nabokov letter to Doussia Ergaz, 21 April 1956, VNA) or Le château que baignait la Dore, after a line from Chateaubriand’s poem (unpublished Nabokov letter to Doussia Ergaz, 30 October 1951, VNA), and that Ada itself would be described by a French reviewer as “le plus beau livre de souvenirs depuis Proust et Chateaubriand” (“the greatest book of recollections since Proust and Chateaubriand’s,” L’Express, June 15, 1975; cited Boyd 1991: 652). Perhaps the name of the boat was the inspiration for Van’s taking “Combien j’ai douce souvenance” as the basis for the theme song he composed during Ardis the First, “My sister, do you still recall / The blue Ladore and Ardis Hall?” (138), which even at the time refracted the memorability of their present experience through an imagined future recollection.
Now in 1888 they of course do recall their summer of 1884—and it is no accident that “the blue Ladore” recurs in the first sentence of this chapter—and Van shows just how precisely he recalls 1884 by his pointed description of Ada now in relation to herself then.
The rowboat is also intimately linked to Rimbaud’s poem “Mémoire” (“Memory”), whose last section ends with a rowboat anchored to the mud of a river as time flows past (“ô canot immobile . . . / Mon canot, toujours fixe; et sa chaine tirée / Au fond de cet œil d’eau sans bords—à quelle boue?”, ll. 34, 39-40: “O motionless boat! . . . / My boat still stationary, and its chain caught / In the bottom of this rimless eye of water – in what mud?”), in context a vivid and fluid image of memory in itself. “Mémoire” enters Ada in I.10, where Van and Ada show they both have remembered it by heart as they effortlessly interlace lines, “les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes” (Van) and “the nuance of willows” (Ada), recalling “Mémoire”’s lines 11-12, “Les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes / font les saules” (“The green faded dresses of girls / make willows”) (64). Again, willows recur in the first line of I.35, “We are now on a willow islet” (215), and Ada, looking with Van in 1892 through Kim Beauharnais’s photographs of Ardis the First, will recalls both the Rimbaudesque willows and the Chateaubriandesque theme song:
“Look, here’s our little Caliph Island! . . . Please, Van, do glance! These are our willows, remember?”
“ ‘The castle bathed by the Adour:
The guidebooks recommend that tour.’ “
“It happens to be the only one in color. The willows look sort of greenish. . . . ” (406)
(Note Ada’s “remember?,” straight after the willows associated with Rimbaud’s “Mémoire” and just before her new variations on Chateaubriand’s “Combien j’ai de douce souvenance.”)
Van’s paragraph beginning “Their visits to that islet remained engraved in the memory of that summer with entwinements that no longer could be untangled” (217) echoes Rimbaud’s poem, especially in “in mobile leafy shadows, and watching the red rowboat with its mobile inlay of reflected ripples carry them off, waving” (217)—although Van’s virtuosity with visual detail and the multiple overlay of memories outdoes even Rimbaud.
But the “entwinements that no longer could be untangled” also refers forward to Van’s suspicions of Ada’s infidelity, introduced in this chapter in the following paragraph, and their later confirmations, made explicit already in the antepenultimate paragraph of this chapter: “it seemed to Van later that during the ardencies of that summer he knew all along that she had been, and still was, atrociously untrue to him” (220). The virtuoso paragraph on memory ends with:
Time tricked them, made one of them ask a remembered question, caused the other to give a forgotten answer, and once in a small alder thicket, duplicated in black by the blue stream, they found a garter which was certainly hers, she could not deny it, but which Van was positive she had never worn on her stockingless summer trips to the magic islet. (218)
The garter will later be identifiable as one Ada left on a tryst with Percy de Prey on the islet, in the spring of 1888, as captured in Kim Beauharnais’s photograph (see 406-07, and 294). For Van and Ada, given their repeated infidelities, the magic of memory will also always be haunted with rankling as well as rapture, as the echoes of “Mémoire” and “Combien j’ai douce souvenance” around the photograph recording Ada’s spring 1888 infidelity pointedly highlight. Like Keats, Nabokov stresses the impossibility of separating a sensitivity and memory for pleasure from a sensitivity and memory for pain.
In his own autobiography, Nabokov recalls his mother’s training him in observation and memory:
“Vot zapomni [now remember],” she would say in conspiratorial tones as she drew my attention to this or that loved thing in Vyra—a lark ascending the curds-and-whey sky of a dull spring day, heat lightning taking pictures of a distant line of trees in the night, the palette of maple leaves on brown sand, a small bird's cuneate footprints on new snow. As if feeling that in a few years the tangible part of her world would perish, she cultivated an extraordinary consciousness of the various time marks distributed throughout our country place. She cherished her own past with the same retrospective fervor that I now do her image and my past. Thus, in a way, I inherited an exquisite simulacrum—the beauty of intangible property, unreal estate—and this proved a splendid training for the endurance of later losses. (SM 40)
Van’s memories have some of the same exactitude as Nabokov’s, but his most pleasantly intimate memories of Ada are imbued with advance apprehensions of “later losses” of a quite different kind.
In this erotic memoir Van’s very intensity of focus on Ada involves comparisons with the many whores he has had (“the merest touch of her finger or mouth following a swollen vein produced not only a more potent but essentially different delicia than the slowest ‘winslow’ of the most sophisticated young harlot,” 219), and, as he notes, the intensity of the experience of being with Ada, the sense of a new level of reality, a reality that “lost the quotes it wore like claws,” 220) has nothing to do with “virtue,” with fidelity, as he reports the clearest signs yet of their both having known about the other’s infidelities before they were more or less fully disclosed (220).
Despite the awareness of many other sexual partners, and the pains of infidelity, Van moves from his intense close-up on Ada to affirm, in a kind of lyrical absolutism, the cosmic import of his love for Ada. The tone and context form a revealing comparison and contrast with Nabokov himself in the last chapter of Speak, Memory. Van:
The asses who might really think that in the starlight of eternity, my, Van Veen’s, and her, Ada Veen’s, conjunction, somewhere in North America, in the nineteenth century represented but one trillionth of a trillionth part of a pinpoint planet’s significance can bray ailleurs, ailleurs, ailleurs. . . . (220)
It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake. I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as a man in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of his position by making sure he is dreaming. I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, thus helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence. (SM 297)
After I.34, focused on Lucette’s threatened intrusions on their lovemaking, Van exults in I.35 in his time on the” magic islet,” free of Lucette –whose name does not even occur here—and anyone but Ada. Nabokov nevertheless repeatedly implicates Lucette.especially in II.5.
Van begins, in triumphant relief, “We are now on a willow islet,” and uses the chapter’s memorial intensities to outdo Rimbaud’s “Mémoire.” But “willows” first enter Ada in the discussion of “Mémoire” in I.10 noted above (“les robes vertes et déteintes des fillettes” (Van) and “the nuance of willows” (Ada)) in a way that entangles Lucette (“Lucette . . . in her green nightgown . . . the nuance of willows,” 64). Lucette’s hyper-curiosity about Van and Ada’s sexual passion is awakened in 1884, in a scene described in I.23 in such a way as to evoke Rimbaud’s “Memoire” (“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),” 142), in echo of Rimbaud’s “des enfants lisant dans la verdure fleurie” (“Mémoire,” l. 20, “children reading in the flowering glass”). When Lucette’s rubber doll is swept away by the Ladore, “Van shed his pants under a willow and retrieved the fugitive” (143: emphasis added), and Ada, her lust having reached a point of no return, finds a ploy, not very secure, for waylaying Lucette while she and Van make love—with Lucette, in fact, finding a way to watch. In this scene where the nearly drowned doll prefigures Lucette’s death, the willows also link with the report of Ophelia’s apparently suicidal death by drowning, from a willow tree, as reported in Gertrude’s famous speech, “There grows a willow aslant the book,” in Nabokov’s favorite passage from Hamlet, his favorite play. Lucette will be richly saturated in Ophelia allusions later, especially in II.5.
Chateaubriand echoes also pervade I.35, from the rowboat later identified as “Souvenance,” after Chateaubriand’s “Combien j’ai douce souvenance,” to the Ladore and Bryant’s Castle, evoking both the line from that poem, “Du château que baignait la Dore” (“That castle bathed by the Ladore”), and, in Bryant’s Castle, a comic echo of the name Chateaubriand. Later in the chapter the comically clumsy translation from Monparnasse’s Les Enfants Maudits, at this point a conflation of Chateaubriand’s René and his “Romance à Hélène,” reminds us that Ada’s Chateaubriand allusions, while seemingly focused in a knowing way only on Van and Ada’s incestuous relations, in fact tend to point especially to the tragic consequences of incest, perhaps the cause of the suicide of Chateaubriand’s sister Lucile (see 58.02-06n and Boyd 1985/2001: 125-28).especially in II.5.
Mlle Larivière, writing as Monparnasse, seems to Van ridiculously unobservant, not least in her fear of Lucette’s, rather than Ada’s, amatory interest in Van. But Lucette has had her head and heart turned by Van, although he and Ada fail to realize this until too late.especially in II.5.
The translation theme, too, evoked here, repeatedly enmeshes Lucette, as in the initial discussion in I.10 of Wallace Fowlie’s mistranslation of “Mémoire”’s souci d’eau (marsh marigold) as “care of the water,” with its future intimation of Lucette as suicide, in “care of the water” (see Boyd 1985/2001: 51-57).especially in II.5.
One final net of associations. Ada has painted her fingernails with Scheherazade’s Lacquer (218), and Van after shaving her on the island, declares to her: “Now I’m Scheher . . . and you are his Ada” (217). Van’s ostensible mother, Aqua, writes a letter just before her suicide, addressed to Demon and Van, and signed “My sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (‘now is out of hell’),” (29), alluding to Dunyazade, the overlooked sister of Scheherazade in The Arabian Nights; Lucette too will send Van a letter that he reads only after her suicide.
Van makes I.35 a celebration of his intense focus on Ada, when no one else can interfere with their passion, and of their radical importance to each other. That very intensity also explains why Lucette becomes entangled in their affair, in a way that remains hopeless for her. Nabokov joins Van in celebrating the conjunction of memory and love, but he also shows that Van’s claims that his focus on Ada can be triumphantly isolated from his relations with others cannot be sustained, and that memory can record occasions for regret as much as for rapture.