Part One, Chapter 36
Van reports that he took notes of the children’s last game of Flavita “in the hope—not quite unfulfilled—of ‘catching sight of the lining of time’ (which, as he was later to write, is ‘the best informal definition of portents and prophecies’)” (227). If his hope was indeed “not quite unfulfilled,” what glimpse of the future does this game offer?
Before answering that, we should consider the earlier coincidences that Van records as suggesting an affinity between Scrabble and the planchette. Both coincidences refer to the present, to Ada noting that the Benten lamp is “out of kerosin” as she happens to pick as her first seven letters “S,R,E,N,O,K,I,” or Lucette’s blocks forming “the amusing VANIADA” just as she says “in a peevish little voice: ‘But I, too, perhaps, would like to sit on the divan” (226). Although these coincidences occur within the present, they also point to a charged future. The second occurs in the bay of the library, a few hours before the barn burned, and therefore a few hours before Van and Ada really become “Van i Ada,” before they make love for the first clumsy time in that library bay, on that divan. That lovemaking will ensure the exclusion of Lucette from their intensifying passion, and yet her entanglement in it, as for instance when she is locked up by them, as she later recalls “at the heel end of the Vaniada divan—remember—[in] the closet [ . . . ] at least ten times” and can spy on their lovemaking through its “keyless hole” (373).
The kerosin coincidence also seems to point forward, albeit less clearly, to the Night of the Burning Barn. Although the Barn appears to have been set alight by lightning, the association of kerosene with burning adds to other links with the episode of the Barn. On her way to the fire, Blanche loses “a miniver-trimmed slipper on the grand staircase” (114); here she arrives with the lamp “redolent with the perfume called Miniver Musk” (226). In the Burning Barn chapter Van describes the “reservoir” beyond which the barn burns “breaking into scaly light here and there every time some adventurous hostler or pantry boy crossed it on water skis . . . —typical raft ripples like fire snakes in Japan,” and in the next paragraph, at the end of which Ada “joined Van on the divan,” Van refers to the fact that “Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet” (116: italics added); on the night of the kerosin game, they play “under a sunset sky the last fire of which snaked across the corner of the reservoir,” and Ada sets our her “S,R,E,N,O,K,I” letters in her “little trough of japanned wood” (226).
Ada’s TORFYaNuYu triumph can be seen in retrospect to point toward the dire disclosure Van has dreaded since his 1888 return to Ardis. On first returning, he witnessed Percy de Prey kissing Ada farewell on the hand, but doing so twice and holding her hand between kisses. In jealous rage he tears the diamond necklace he has bought her, but she assures him she loves only him. He has been annoyed by pathetic Philip Rack’s and priapic Pedro’s obvious interest in Ada, but for some time the Percy theme has seemed quiescent—although it is about to become increasingly noisome in the chapters that follow the Scrabble game. But TORFYaNUYu already anticipates the disclosure.
After Percy’s invasion of Ada’s birthday picnic, and his challenge to and fight with Van, and Percy’s invitation to a duel, Van receives a note in his jacket pocket: “One must not berne you.” He immediately realizes that “Only a French-speaking person would use that word for ‘dupe.’” (287) That night Blanche accosts him, hoping to sleep with him before she leaves her job at Ardis the next day. Van asks her was it she who placed the note in his jacket (Yes), and “When and how had it started?” (293). Instead of discussing Percy, as Van expects, she takes the wording of his question seriously and reports on the start of Ada’s infidelity with Philip Rack. Van stops her before she can go on to Percy; but when he confronts Ada, she immediately assumes he refers to Percy rather than Rack, and admits to her affair with him as she attempts to excuse it.
The disclosure of Ada’s infidelity begins, then, with Blanche, the maid from Torfyanaya or Tourbière. Within hours Van flees Ardis in pursuit of his rivals on the calèche that is returning Blanche to Tourbière. After she has been dropped off, Van asks the coachman: “The express does not stop at Torfyanka, does it, Trofim?” Trofim answers: “‘I’ll take you five versts across the bog . . . the nearest is Volosyanka.’ His vulgar Russian word for Maidenhair.” (299) On his way from Torfyanka to the “Maidenhair” station, Van sinks into a turbulent stream of consciousness that matches Anna Karenin’s on her carriage ride to the station where she will commit suicide. Trofim interrupts his thoughts to say:
“Dazhe skvoz’ kozhanïy fartuk ne stal-bï ya trogat’ etu frantsuzskuyu devku.”
Bárin: master. Dázhe skvoz’ kózhanïy fártuk: even through a leathern apron. Ne stal-bï ya trógat’: I would not think of touching. étu: this (that). Frantsúzskuyu: French (adj., accus.). Dévku: wench. Úzhas, otcháyanie: horror, despair. Zhálost’: pity. Kóncheno, zagázheno, rastérzano: finished, fouled, torn to shreds. (300)
Note that the gloss on Trofim’s remark, with its “Frantsúzskuyu: French (adj., accus.),” mimics Ada’s explanation for Lucette of her TORFYaNUYu: “this quite ordinary adjective means ‘peaty,’ feminine gender, accusative case” (228) (see also Boyd 1985/2001: 221). The accusation of infidelity made by the French maid from Torfyanka or Torfyanaya (whose name itself is a French adjective, feminine gender: blanche), and the end of Ardis for Van, has been crisply anticipated in Ada’s winning Scrabble combination.
Other elements of this final game also point to the infidelity that ends Ardis. Van hints to Lucette to “Go through her ORHIDEYa” just before Ada on her next turn places her TORFYaNUYu (227). Together “orchid” and “peaty” prefigure the bog orchids that Ada brings back (288, 297) from her times “away in the woods (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’)” (213), which by now merely serve as a cover for her trysts with Percy. Just before Van finds Blanche’s “One must not berne you” note, Lucette is drawing a bog orchid Ada has collected, and she is still drawing it when Van confronts Ada with the note, only for Ada to dismiss its significance or even relevance to Van (287-90).
And in general, TORFYaNUYu with its sense of “peaty” or “boggy” pinpoints the theme of Ardis as an enchanted garden or paradise of love that actually turns out to be a bog (see Boyd 2012 Ch.25). The Dutch name “Veen,” like the Russian torfyanaya, means “peaty, boggy,” while the Russian vina means “fault, guilt”—an equation the feminine accusative of the Russian torfyanaya seems to highlight.
After the summer of 1884, Blanche has been instrumental in spreading the myth of romance around the “Veens, the children of Venus” (410): “Romantically inclined handmaids, whose reading consisted of Gwen de Vere and Klara Mertvago, adored Van, adored Ada, adored Ardis’s ardors in arbors. Their swains, plucking ballads on their seven-stringed Russian lyres under the racemosa in bloom or in old rose gardens (while the windows went out one by one in the castle), added freshly composed lines—naive, lackey-daisical, but heartfelt—to cyclic folk songs. . . . ” (409). But her own life undermines these myths of romance. The Trofim who says he will never touch that French wench—he knows too well of her promiscuity and her venereal disease—will end by marrying her and having a child born blind, like Venus’s son Cupid.
TORFYaNUYu, then, anticipates not only Blanche’s disclosure to Van of Ada’s infidelity, but also the undermining of the romantic myth of love she builds up around Van and Ada, the idyll of the Veens, the Garden of Eden-like elements, the paradise of Ardis (Lucette wants to try the combination ARDIS on the Scrabble board, but Ada rules it out, as Ada uses TORFYaNUYu, and Lucette’s attempt to rule it out fails), that turns into a moral bog in part through Ada’s infidelities. Once again VN juxtaposes, as it were, the Edenic left side of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and the more uncertain central panel of frantic coupling, with a hint of the hellishness—hinted at too in the missing A and D tiles of the Flavita set (224), which together form the ad (Russian “hell”) that Van feels himself almost in when he expels himself from Ardis and rides on from Torfyanka. Bosch’s right panel is filled with fire: the fire that had seemed a kind of fortunate fall for Van and Ada on the Night of the Burning Barn has more lurid flames in the wake of Blanche’s “One must not berne you.”
But the Scrabble games prefigure not only the hell of jealousy Van finds himself plunged into. They also foreshadow the hell of despair that leads Lucette to douse her pain by plunging to her death in the Atlantic.
The letters Lucette finds herself stuck with, and unable to use, just before Ada swoops in with TORFYaNUYu, “KREM or KREME—or even better—there’s KREMLI” (227) as Van suggests, anticipate Lucette’s later recalling to Van of an 1884 Scrabble game that she herself uses to prefigure her announcement of her own sexual relationship with hypersexual Ada. When Lucette visits Van at Kingston, she reports to him—or Van uses material from the “rambling, indecent, crazy, almost savage declaration of love in a ten-page letter” (366) she writes in the fall of 1891 as the basis for constructing her part of the dialogue of their encounter in fall 1892—about her lascivious liaison with Ada: “We interweaved like serpents and sobbed like pumas. We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas” (375). To lead into her revelation of yet another, and the most surprising, of Ada’s infidelities to Van, she asks him to recall a “little organ” in the “secretaire” at one end of the library’s divan, which Van pressed, shooting out a drawer that contained only “a minuscule red pawn that high (showing its barleycorn size with her finger). . . . the entire incident pre-emblematized . . . the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen in Arizona” (374). The minuscule red pawn of course pre-emblematizes the clitorises that Ada and Lucette began to stimulate in each other. Van reacts by “quivering with evil sarcasm, boiling with mysterious rage” (378), but she persists, recalling how in 1884 she
“got stuck with six Buchstaben in the last round of a Flavita game. Mind you, I was eight and had not studied anatomy, but was doing my poor little best to keep up with two Wunderkinder. You examined and fingered my groove and quickly redistributed the haphazard sequence which made, say, LIKROT or ROTIKL and Ada flooded us both with her raven silks as she looked over our heads, and when you had completed the rearrangement, you and she came simultaneously, si je puis le mettre comme ça (Canady French), came falling on the black carpet in a paroxysm of incomprehensible merriment” (379).
Van, already seething with jealousy, tries to discommode her by taking the play on klitor still further: “but, you know, a medically minded English Scrabbler, having two more letters to cope with, could make, for example, STIRCOIL, a well-known sweat-gland stimulant, or CITROILS, which grooms use for rubbing fillies” (379).
Many details in this 1892 recollection of the 1884 game recall the last Flavita game the children ever play, the one capped by Ada’s coup. In both the 1884 game recalled by Lucette in 1892, and the 1888 game, Lucette is stuck “in the last round” of the game. In both, Lucette uses the word Buchstaben, during the 1888 game (227), and during her 1892 reminding Van of the 1884 game (379). The KREM or “cream” of the 1888 game anticipates Van’s playing with vaginal lubrication in his “STIRCOIL, a well-known sweat-gland stimulant, or CITROILS, which grooms use for rubbing fillies.” The “Canady French” in 1892 recalls Ada’s condescending “a rich beautiful tongue which my pet should not neglect for the sake of a Canadian brand of French” (228) when explaining TORFYaNUYu in 1888. And just as Ada’s stunning 1888 find foreshadows Blanche’s disclosure of Ada’s infidelity with Percy and Rack, so Lucette’s 1888 KREM recalls her 1884 KLITORto foreshadow her disclosure of Ada’s “infidelity” with her.
That forms only part of the pattern of “portents and prophecies.” The letters so naturally prominent in a Scrabble game, heightened by Lucette’s reference to her “Buchstaben” (227, 379), link with a series of letters in the epistolary sense. Just before he finds “One must not berne you” in the pocket of his dinner jacket, Van as narrator comments “The novelistic theme of written communications has now really got into its stride” (287). That fateful note from Blanche leads ultimately to Van fleeing Ardis and Ada, and to Ada’s attempts to reach Van by the letters she writes him. He ignores them, but cannot help expressing his bitter response by writing not letters to Ada but Letters from Terra. Lucette writes to Van, disclosing her own relationship with Van, and returns to the theme when she visits Van in Kingston, bringing a letter from Ada that discloses she is about to marry someone if Van does not respond to this letter. Van is at Voltemand Hall in Kingston, named after the letter-carrier in Hamlet, and responds to echoes of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia—incorporated into Lucette’s letter to Van and thence into the dialogue of their meeting at Kingston, right at the point where she mentions the KLITOR letters she is stuck with in a Flavita game—with his own echo of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.
The “lining of time” seems far more complexly rumpled in this pattern of interwoven letters from the 1888 and 1884 Flavita games and the letters around Van’s refusal to read Ada’s letters after reading Blanche’s warning note than even the direct anticipation of the end of Ardis in Ada’s recordbreaking word could suggest.
But there is more. The Flavita board is golden-yellow, “i.e. flavid, in concession to the game’s original name,” and the tiles are “weighty rectangles of ebony” (223). The combination of colors, yellow and black, recalls the divan in the library, “A kind of divan or daybed covered in black velvet, with two yellow cushions, . . . in a recess, below a plate-glass window” (41), where many of their Flavita games are played. But that divan also anticipates the scene in Paris that Van describes in homage to an advertisement for the wines of Paris that imitates and, he thinks, greatly improves on the Toulouse-Lautrec poster for the cabaret Le Divan japonais (460-61), with its markedly yellow and black palette (see Boyd 1985/2001, 129-31 and D. Barton Johnson, “A Shimmer of Exact Details: Ada’s Art Gallery,” in Gerard de Vries and D. Barton Johnson, Vladiir Nabokov and the Art of Painting, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press,2006, 115-19). In this scene, Van runs into Lucette, now 25 and still helplessly and desperately in love with him. It is this meeting that leads Lucette to decide to stake all on one last chance to win Van’s love: she will seduce him on the transatlantic crossing he has planned, or take her life if she fails. She does take her life, wearing “black slacks and a lemon shirt” (492) that match the hues of the “yellow slacks and a black bolero” (28) her aunt Aqua wore the day she committed suicide.
Not only the colors but the Japanese theme of the Scrabble chapter foreshadows the fateful Divan japonais pattern (I will highlight the Japanese elements in the quotations from I.36 that follow). Only one Roman letter occurs on the Flavita tiles, “namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin)” (223); Ada would prefer the Benten lamp (see 226.14n) and sorts out her letters on “her spektrik (the little trough of japanned wood . . . )” (226), in the paragraph before Lucette says that she “too, perhaps, would like to sit on the divan” as she has drawn the letters VANIADA (226). After Lucette expresses her outrage at Ada’s gloating over her Flavita triumph, Van comments: “The bloom streaking Ada’s arm, the pale blue of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade’s parchment (a translucent lakescape with Japanese dragons), scored infinitely more points than [Lucette’s] tensed fingers bunched on the pencil stub could ever add up in the past, present or future” (228). When Lucette encounters Van in Paris, she invites him to her room: “I have a fabulous Japanese divan. . . . I’ll stretch out upon the divan like a martyr, remember? . . . Oh, try me, Van! My divan is black with yellow cushions.” (463-64) But just as Van, after Ada’s Flavita victory on the black divan, declares that her smallest details “scored infinitely more points than” Lucette could tally “in the past, present or future,” so in Paris he remains in thrall to inimitable, unmatchable Ada, despite all Lucette’s efforts and allures.
So the Scrabble games signal not only the end of Ardis, the pain caused for Van by Ada’s infidelities, but also the end of Lucette. She will fail to match even remotely the sister who can outdo her so effortlessly in Flavita as on the divan with her Van. Yet Lucette will remain obsessed with Van, after seeing him and Ada in congress together—for instance, imprisoned in the closet with a keyhole looking to the divan—and after his exploiting the emotional hold he has over her—as he does at the end of the Flavita chapter, only in order to get rid of her once more so he can once more be alone with Ada.
Van explicitly reports that he noted the details of that last Flavita game “in the hope—not quite unfulfilled—of ‘catching sight of the lining of time’” (227). He leaves the riddle this poses for us to solve, just as he can solve it himself only by looking back again and again at his past once the future has declared its hand. As narrator he does intensify the patterns of time, as when he reports on Trofim’s expostulation against Blanche in a way that links with Adas’s TORFYaNUYu: “Frantsúzskuyu: French (adj., accus.),” in echo of her “French—this quite ordinary adjective means ‘peaty,’ feminine gender, accusative case” (300, 228). But Nabokov makes it clear that the patterns themselves, though emphasized by Van in narrative retrospect, are not established by Van: it is he, Vladimir Nabokov, his name scrambled as Baron Klim Avidov, who has given the Veen children the Flavita set, and it is he who has devised these patterns in the rich texture of Veen time, patterns like the yellow-and-black stretching from Aqua’s suicide to Lucette’s, and through the Flavita combinations that themselves incorporate and anticipate other elements of the pattern.
One final strand of this chapter. Some readers have been uneasy about what has seemed to them the gratuitous attacks on Edmund Wilson and Alexander Gerschenkron in the course of this chapter. But their presence actually illuminates—it did for me—an unexpected feature of the chapter and the novel.
Nabokov brings himself into the chapter, in the guise of Baron Klim Avidov, who administers a powerful uppercut to someone who casts aspersions on him, as Nabokov himself responds sharply to challenges from Wilson and Gerschenkron. A fierce competitiveness lay behind Wilson’s critique of Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin, as behind Nabokov’s critique of Chizhevski’s commentary to Pushkin, and Gerschenkron’s critique of Nabokov, including his critiques of Chizhevski. But competitiveness is a theme of this whole chapter, in the contrast of Van’s excellent and Ada’s erratic chess, in the Flavita or Scrabble games, in the captiousness of the sisters as they challenge the legitimacy of each other’s proposed words, in the vying for space near Van, where Lucette loses to Ada by as large a margin as she does at Scrabble. And competitiveness or rivalry is also a theme of the rendering of love and human relations generally here and throughout the novel.
Ada and Lucette play Scrabble with a keen combativeness—with “angry or disdainful looking up of dubious words” and “squabbles over the legitimacy of this or that word” (225)—despite the vast difference in their skills. Ada does not spare her sister, making no allowance for the four-year gap in their ages: “Ruth for a little child?” asks Van; “Ruthless!” Ada answers (227). She moans with pleasure as she finds an obsolete cant word (225) and gloats as she tallies her closing coup, recounting “her monstrous points in a smug, melodious tone” (227). Even Lucette’s challenge allows Ada to assert her superiority as she dismisses it with crowing condescension. Van sees their competition as only one more proof of Ada’s incomparability, her standing hors concours.
Van chooses not to engage too seriously in the Scrabble competition, knowing that he can beat Ada as easily at chess as she can him on the Flavita board. Instead he chooses to help Lucette to get the game over quickly, “leaving Ada available for the third or fourth little flourish of the sweet summer day” (225). But even these passionate lovers prove often highly competitive.
We first overhear Van and Ada in the scene in the attic in Pt. 1 Ch. 1. Although they are between rounds of love-making, brilliance and competitiveness are here more to the fore than tenderness or desire. Van flaunts his intelligence in inferring what he can from the evidence they have stumbled on in the attic: “‘I deduce,’ said the boy, ‘three main facts: that not yet married Marina and her married sister hibernated in my lieu de naissance; that Marina had her own Dr. Krolik, pour ainsi dire; and that the orchids came from Demon who preferred to stay by the sea, his dark-blue great-grandmother’” (8). Ada responds in a way that outdoes him, partly by drawing on her specialist area of knowledge, natural history: “‘I can add,’ said the girl, ‘that the petal belongs to the common Butterfly Orchis; that my mother was even crazier than her sister; and that the paper flower so cavalierly dismissed is a perfectly recognizable reproduction of an early-spring sanicle that I saw in profusion on hills in coastal California last February . . . ’” (8). Even her show-off syntax shows her competing with Van. Van congratulates her on her deductions, but cannot help immediately trying to go one better—“Good for you, Pompeianella (whom you saw scattering her flowers in one of Uncle Dan’s picture books, but whom I admired last summer in a Naples museum)” (9)—before suggesting that they make love once more.
Van and Ada compete with each other, and enjoy the fact that intellectually others cannot compete with them. They relish what they see as their superiority to others, as “a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta” (71), and savor the inferiority of others. They go out of their way to spread their contempt, as when Van leads into the Scrabble games by inventing an advertisement with a photo of “a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with—even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp” (224).
“‘Struggle for life’ indeed!,” writes Nabokov in Speak, Memory. “The curse of battle and toil leads man back to the boar, to the grunting beast’s crazy obsession with the search for food” (SM 298). Within the over-abundant world of Ada, no one needs to struggle for food, but competition nevertheless remains intense everywhere, even among the haves, the wealthy and aristocratic, the bright and the brighter—like the competition in our world that this chapter alludes to, between a Nabokov and a Wilson, a Chizhevski or a Gerschenkron. In Ada competition for sex and status rarely lets up.
Although Lucette tries desperately to challenge her sister at Flavita, or even to sit on the divan and therefore closer to Van, Van, secure in his competitive advantages in his own preferred pursuits, and looking forward to being still closer to Ada shortly, does not bother to play hard. Yet the Scrabble game inscribes evidence of a different kind of competition for which he has no relish whatever.
He seethes with rage at the prospect of having competitors for Ada, as a mere possibility, at the end of Ardis the First (“it’s the fellows I’ll kill,” 158); when he sees Ada with the Cordula de Prey whom he suspects may be her lesbian lover; when he returns to Ardis to find Percy de Prey intolerably kissing her hand and holding it before he kisses it again; and when he sees Pedro strutting and thrusting himself before her by the pool. But these are minor worries compared with the double disclosure prefigured in Ada’s TORFYaNUYu: that he has rivals for Ada in Percy de Prey and even Philip Rack.
This disclosure in itself comes about through another kind of competition. Blanche, in romanticized awe of Van and Ada as lovers in 1884 (see 409), has seen by the summer of 1888 that Ada has and has had other lovers. She now thinks that if Van knows this, she might herself have a chance to compete with Ada for him. Blanche of course has a succession of competitors for her love—Bouteillan, Bout, Sore, and Trofim, among those we know—as Van cruelly reminds Bouteillan, once her lover, but displaced by his own son: “‘If,’ said Van, ‘you’re thinking of little Blanche, then you’d better quote Delille not to me, but to your son, who’ll knock her up any day now.’ The old Frenchman glanced at Van askance, pozheval gubami (chewed his lips), but said nothing.” (157) As he leaves Ardis for the last time in implacable pursuit of his own rivals, Van feels aroused by Blanche as the carriage drops her at Torfyanka/Tourbičre, only to hear Trofim declare that he “would not think of touching . . . that . . . French . . . wench” (300). But he will, and will even oust other competitors, and father a child, albeit blind, on “Blanche de la Tourberie” (407).
Ardis registers the tension between the pleasures of love and the pangs, as others desire those already desired: Greg Erminin, Dr. Krolik, Philip Rack, Percy and Pedro longing for Van’s Ada; Van, Bout, Sore, Demon and Trofim all desiring the Blanche initially paired with Bouteillan; Lucette craving Van’s Ada. The drive of desire inevitably means crowded competition. The paradise of the left panel of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights evoked in Ardis the First, with Adam and Eve the only humans present, yields in Ardis the Second, as it were, to the overpopulated pleasure-garden of the central panel where many throng around one toothsome person or lush fruit or ornate egg.
In the contest of desire, as in games like chess or Scrabble, there will be winners and losers. Competition pervades all of life, of course, and as anyone who has had siblings will know, it can be as fierce even within human families as among nestlings squawking for food from their parents. No wonder the Cinderella story in all its many variations appears to be the most widespread of folk tales. And in Ada competition within the family includes not only childish games but even love and desire: and Lucette, the family’s Cinderella, not offered the same privileges as her arrogant elder siblings, will never win her prince, for all her deserts and all her efforts.
After Ada tallies her triumphant Scrabble coup, Van tilted Lucette’s chair
to make her slide off and go. The poor child’s final score for the fifteen rounds or so of the game was less than half of her sister’s last masterstroke, and Van had hardly fared better, but who cared! The bloom streaking Ada’s arm, the pale blue of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade’s parchment (a translucent lakescape with Japanese dragons), scored infinitely more points than those tensed fingers bunched on the pencil stub could ever add up in the past, present or future. (228)
In Van’s adoring eyes, Ada outclasses Lucette even more in life at large than within the confines of the game they have just played.
Even if she is bright in her own right, Lucette seems dim in competition with Ada. But by sixteen, when she visits Van at Kingston, Lucette’s own natural brilliance comes to the fore in tandem with her sexual frailty. At Kingston her reminder to Van of the Scrabble game where she was left with KLITOR, the letters for the Russian for “clitoris,” becomes a way of focusing his imagination on the fact that he has another competitor for Ada, as she details her own grappling and groaning with her sister: “She kissed my krestik while I kissed hers, our heads clamped in such odd combinations . . . . “ (375). Like Cinderella-Blanche, Cinderella-Lucette makes the disclosure of Van’s rivals as part of offering herself to him, and like Blanche, she also discloses a second competitor, in this case “Johnny, a young star from Fuerteventura” (380).
In the course of discussing that Scrabble game, and recalling the library where they usually played it, Lucette avoids mentioning the divan until Van does, then conjures up “the closet in which you two locked me up at least ten times” at “the heel end of the Vaniada divan” (373). This is the divan she would like to sit on but is not allowed to, while playing Scrabble: “a succession of Lucette’s blocks formed the amusing VANIADA, and from this she extracted the very piece of furniture she was in the act of referring to in a peevish little voice: ‘But I, too, perhaps, would like to sit on the divan.’” (226) Even in the children’s last Scrabble game four years later she cannot sit on the divan (“He tilted her chair to make her slide off and go,” 228)—the divan where V and A first made love, and at one end of which they have most often locked Lucette up while they made love. That divan, with its Japanese associations stretching back to the Night of the Burning Barn when Van and Ada first made love, and reinforced in the Scrabble chapter that shows her barred from the divan as from access to Van, will prefigure her last desperate attempts to compete with Ada and with Van’s past with her (“I’ll stretch out upon the divan like a martyr. . . . Oh, try me, Van! My divan is black with yellow cushions” (464)). Even on her last day, aboard the Admiral Tobakoff, she frets at the danger of a chance competitor for Van’s lust, in the “tall splendid creature,” the “Titianesque Tiraness” in a “lamé loincloth” who comes on to Van by the shipboard pool (479): “You deceived me, Van. It is, it is one of your gruesome girls!” (483). It is not, in fact, but after Van has been roused to desire by Lucette’s beauty, adoration, and eagerness, his half-sister has to face the one rival she can never rout. When Ada’s image appears on the shipboard cinema screen, Van finds his desire suddenly displaced, and he retreats to his room to masturbate and dispel the sexual tension. Lucette phones him after watching the film out, and Van allows her to believe that she has lost even the competition with the Titianesque Titaness—“Ya ne odin (I’m not alone)” (491)—when in fact she has merely proved unable to win, one last time, against her sister.
Lucette has stayed in the ship’s cinema, rather than pursue Van as he leaves, not to watch the film but because when he leaves the Robinsons, “old bores of the family” (475), “[b]eaming and melting in smiles of benevolence and self-effacement, . . . sidled up and plumped down next to Lucette, who turned to them with her last, last, last free gift of staunch courtesy that was stronger than failure and death” (490). At Scrabble, Ada is brilliant, but consistently unkind (“Ruthless! . . . Van, . . .will you please summon Mademoiselle; she’s working with Mother over a script which cannot be more stupid than this nasty child is. . . . Perhaps the simplest answer . . . is for you, Van, to give her a vigorous, resounding spanking” 227-29), and Van uses “kindness” toward Lucette only to manipulate her, to get the game over with, to clear her from the room (“‘I dare you [spank me]!’ cried Lucette, and veered invitingly. Very gently Van stroked the silky top of her head and kissed her behind the ear; and, bursting into a hideous storm of sobs, Lucette rushed out of the room” (229). Lucette, aboard the Tobakoff, shows costly kindness toward those “old bores of the family” who cannot compete with the Veens in brilliance, and for that, though she loses to Ada at Scrabble and in love, she deserves to win the competition for her author’s and his readers’ favor.
A last observation. Edmund Wilson’s hostile review of Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin translation and commentary was published in July 1965, Nabokov’s reply, and Wilson’s reply to that, at the end of August 1965; Nabokov’s “Reply to My Critics” was written in October-November 1965, and completed on January 20, 1966. Nabokov had the first rush of inspiration for Ada “at the every end of 1965, a couple of months before the novel began to flow” (SO 310) as it did in February 1966 (VNAY 508-09). The controversy was very fresh in his mind, then, at the time he began Ada. Nabokov and Wilson had been passionate friends in their early years of acquaintance: Mary McCarthy, then married to Wilson, told me “They loved each other.” Did the mutual attraction of two competitive hyper-pedants help prompt Nabokov to develop the intellectual competitiveness of Van and Ada, fiercest of all in their competitiveness about translation?
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