caged birds & iridescent prisoners in Ada; iridule & muderperlwelk in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 03/12/2021 - 08:19

Describing his first tea party at Ardis, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions pheasants in a big cage and his mother [Marina’s poor mad twin sister Aqua] somewhere in a cage of her own:


Some ten years ago, not long before or after his fourth birthday, and toward the end of his mother’s long stay in a sanatorium, ‘Aunt’ Marina had swooped upon him in a public park where there were pheasants in a big cage. She advised his nurse to mind her own business and took him to a booth near the band shell where she bought him an emerald stick of peppermint candy and told him that if his father wished she would replace his mother and that you could not feed the birds without Lady Amherst’s permission, or so he understood.

They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada.

Marina’s portrait, a rather good oil by Tresham, hanging above her on the wall, showed her wearing the picture hat she had used for the rehearsal of a Hunting Scene ten years ago, romantically brimmed, with a rainbow wing and a great drooping plume of black-banded silver; and Van, as he recalled the cage in the park and his mother somewhere in a cage of her own, experienced an odd sense of mystery as if the commentators of his destiny had gone into a huddle. Marina’s face was now made up to imitate her former looks, but fashions had changed, her cotton dress was a rustic print, her auburn locks were bleached and no longer tumbled down her temples, and nothing in her attire or adornments echoed the dash of her riding crop in the picture and the regular pattern of her brilliant plumage which Tresham had rendered with ornithological skill. (1.5)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Lady Amherst: confused in the child’s mind with the learned lady after whom a popular pheasant is named.

with a slight smile: a pet formula of Tolstoy’s denoting cool superiority, if not smugness, in a character’s manner of speech.


According to John Shade (the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962), we are most artistically caged:


My God died young. Theolatry I found

Degrading, and its premises, unsound.

No free man needs a God; but was I free?

How fully I felt nature glued to me

And how my childish palate loved the taste

Half-fish, half-honey, of that golden paste!

My picture book was at an early age

The painted parchment papering our cage:

Mauve rings around the moon; blood-orange sun

Twinned Iris; and that rare phenomenon

The iridule - when, beautiful and strange,

In a bright sky above a mountain range

One opal cloudlet in an oval form

Reflects the rainbow of a thunderstorm

Which in a distant valley has been staged -

For we are most artistically caged. (ll. 99-114)


In his note to Line 109 (iridule) Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) writes:


An iridescent cloudlet, Zemblan muderperlwelk. The term "iridule" is, I believe, Shade's own invention. Above it, in the Fair Copy (card 9, July 4) he has written in pencil "peacock-herl." The peacock-herl is the body of a certain sort of artificial fly also called "alder." So the owner of this motor court, an ardent fisherman, tells me. (See also the "strange nacreous gleams" in line 634.)


Muderperlwelk hints at Perlmutterwolke, German for “iridescent cloud.” Describing the family dinner in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions Demon’s iridescent wings:


Here Ada herself came running into the room. Yes-yes-yes-yes, here I come. Beaming!

Old Demon, iridescent wings humped, half rose but sank back again, enveloping Ada with one arm, holding his glass in the other hand, kissing the girl in the neck, in the hair, burrowing in her sweetness with more than an uncle’s fervor. ‘Gosh,’ she exclaimed (with an outbreak of nursery slang that affected Van with even more umilenie, attendrissement, melting ravishment, than his father seemed to experience). ‘How lovely to see you! Clawing your way through the clouds! Swooping down on Tamara’s castle!’

(Lermontov paraphrased by Lowden). (1.38)


Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen (Aqua’s husband) was a great fisherman in his youth:


On April 23, 1869, in drizzly and warm, gauzy and green Kaluga, Aqua, aged twenty-five and afflicted with her usual vernal migraine, married Walter D. Veen, a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry who had long conducted, and was soon to resume intermittently, a passionate affair with Marina. The latter, some time in 1871, married her first lover’s first cousin, also Walter D. Veen, a quite as opulent, but much duller, chap.

The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns.

Daniel Veen’s mother was a Trumbell, and he was prone to explain at great length — unless sidetracked by a bore-baiter — how in the course of American history an English ‘bull’ had become a New England ‘bell.’ Somehow or other he had ‘gone into business’ in his twenties and had rather rankly grown into a Manhattan art dealer. He did not have — initially at least — any particular liking for paintings, had no aptitude for any kind of salesmanship, and no need whatever to jolt with the ups and downs of a ‘job’ the solid fortune inherited from a series of far more proficient and venturesome Veens. Confessing that he did not much care for the countryside, he spent only a few carefully shaded summer weekends at Ardis, his magnificent manor near Ladore. He had revisited only a few times since his boyhood another estate he had, up north on Lake Kitezh, near Luga, comprising, and practically consisting of, that large, oddly rectangular though quite natural body of water which a perch he had once clocked took half an hour to cross diagonally and which he owned jointly with his cousin, a great fisherman in his youth. (1.1)


At the beginning of Canto One of his poem Shade describes a bird’s footprints on the snow and mentions a pheasant’s feet:


Retake the falling snow: each drifting flake

Shapeless and slow, unsteady and opaque,

A dull dark white against the day's pale white

And abstract larches in the neutral light.

And then the gradual and dual blue

As night unites the viewer and the view,

And in the morning, diamonds of frost

Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed

From left to right the blank page of the road?

Reading from left to right in winter's code:

A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:

Dot, arrow pointing back... A pheasant's feet

Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,

Finding your China right behind my house.

Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose

Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (ll. 13-28)


Describing the morning after the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time), Van mentions certain caged birds and calls them iridescent prisoners:


On weekends, all three meals of the day were heralded by three gongs, small, medium and big. The first now announced breakfast in the dining room. Its vibration suscitated the thought that in twenty-six steps Van would join his young accomplice, whose delicate musk he still preserved in the hollow of his hand — and affected Van with a kind of radiant amazement: Had it really happened? Are we really free? Certain caged birds, say Chinese amateurs shaking with fatman mirth, knock themselves out against the bars (and lie unconscious for a few minutes) every blessed morning, right upon awakening, in an automatic, dream-continuing, dreamlined dash — although they are, those iridescent prisoners, quite perky and docile and talkative the rest of the time. (1.20)


At breakfast, when asked by Uncle Dan what she was doing last night, Ada is blushing:


Meanwhile, Uncle Dan, in delayed action, chased an imaginary insect off his pate, looked up, looked around, and at last acknowledged the newcomer.

‘Oh yes, Ada,’ he said, ‘Van here is anxious to know something. What were you doing, my dear, while he and I were taking care of the fire?’

Its reflection invaded Ada. Van had never seen a girl (as translucently white-skinned as she), or indeed anybody else, porcelain or peach, blush so substantially and habitually, and the habit distressed him as being much more improper than any act that might cause it. She stole a foolish glance at the somber boy and began saying something about having been fast ablaze in her bedroom.

‘You were not,’ interrupted Van harshly, ‘you were with me looking at the blaze from the library window. Uncle Dan is all wet.’

‘Ménagez vos américanismes,’ said the latter — and then opened his arms wide in paternal welcome as guileless Lucette trotted into the room with a child’s pink, stiff-bagged butterfly net in her little fist, like an oriflamme.

Van shook his head disapprovingly at Ada. She showed him the sharp petal of her tongue, and with a shock of self-indignation her lover felt himself flushing in his turn. So much for the franchise. He ringed his napkin and retired to the mestechko (‘little place’) off the front hall. (ibid.)


Ada shares her wonderful ability to blush with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin:


Анна посмотрела на нее мокрыми от слез глазами.

- Не говори этого, Долли. Я ничего не сделала, не могла сделать. Я часто удивляюсь, зачем люди сговорились портить меня. Что я сделала и что могла сделать? У тебя в сердце нашлось столько любви, чтоб простить...

- Без тебя бог знает что бы было! Какая ты счастливая, Анна!- сказала Долли. - У тебя все в душе ясно и хорошо.

- У каждого есть в душе свои skeletons, как говорят англичане.

- Какие же у тебя skeletons? У тебя все так ясно.

- Есть! - вдруг сказала Анна, и неожиданно после слез хитрая, смешливая улыбка сморщила ее губы.

- Ну, так они смешные, твои skeletons, а не мрачные, - улыбаясь, сказала Долли.

- Нет, мрачные. Ты знаешь, отчего я еду нынче, а не завтра? Это признание, которое меня давило, я хочу тебе его сделать, - сказала Анна, ре- шительно откидываясь на кресле и глядя прямо в глаза Долли.

И, к удивлению своему, Долли увидала, что Анна покраснела до ушей, до вьющихся черных колец волос на шее.


 Anna looked at her with eyes wet with tears.

“Don’t say that, Dolly. I’ve done nothing, and could do nothing. I often wonder why people are all in league to spoil me. What have I done, and what could I do? In your heart there was found love enough to forgive....”

“If it had not been for you, God knows what would have happened! How happy you are, Anna!” said Dolly. “Everything is clear and good in your heart.”

“Every heart has its own skeletons, as the English say.”

“You have no sort of skeleton, have you? Everything is so clear in you.”

“I have!” said Anna suddenly, and, unexpectedly after her tears, a sly, ironical smile curved her lips.

“Come, he’s amusing, anyway, your skeleton, and not depressing,” said Dolly, smiling.

“No, he’s depressing. Do you know why I’m going today instead of tomorrow? It’s a confession that weighs on me; I want to make it to you,” said Anna, letting herself drop definitely into an armchair, and looking straight into Dolly’s face.

And to her surprise Dolly saw that Anna was blushing up to her ears, up to the curly black ringlets on her neck. ("Anna Karenin," Part One, Chapter 28)


After the breakfast Ada shows to Van the draft of her translation of a poem by Coppée and Van mentions Lowden:


After she too had finished breakfasting, he waylaid her, gorged with sweet butter, on the landing. They had one moment to plan things, it was all, historically speaking, at the dawn of the novel which was still in the hands of parsonage ladies and French academicians, so such moments were precious. She stood scratching one raised knee. They agreed to go for a walk before lunch and find a secluded place. She had to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière. She showed him her draft. François Coppée? Yes.


Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper

Can tell, before they reach the mud,

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its leaf of blood.


‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard en reconnaissant — that paraphrastic touch of "chopper" and "mud" is, of course, pure Lowden (minor poet and translator, 1815-1895). Betraying the first half of the stanza to save the second is rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves, and then fell out of his sleigh.’

‘I think you are very cruel and stupid,’ said Ada. ‘This is not meant to be a work of art or a brilliant parody. It is the ransom exacted by a demented governess from a poor overworked schoolgirl. Wait for me in the Baguenaudier Bower,’ she added. ‘I’ll be down in exactly sixty-three minutes.’ (1.20)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): leur chute etc.: their fall is slow... one can follow them with one’s eyes, recognizing —

Lowden: a portmanteau name combining two contemporary bards.

baguenaudier: French name of bladder senna.


Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Van recites Coppée’s poem in Ada’s revised (or rather his own) translation:


‘The last time I enjoyed you,’ said Demon ‘was in April when you wore a raincoat with a white and black scarf and simply reeked of some arsenic stuff after seeing your dentist. Dr Pearlman has married his receptionist, you’ll be glad to know. Now to business, my darling. I accept your dress’ (the sleeveless black sheath), ‘I tolerate your romantic hairdo, I don’t care much for your pumps na bosu nogu (on bare feet), your Beau Masque perfume — passe encore, but, my precious, I abhor and reject your livid lipstick. It may be the fashion in good old Ladore. It is not done in Man or London.’

‘Ladno (Okay),’ said Ada and, baring her big teeth, rubbed fiercely her lips with a tiny handkerchief produced from her bosom.

‘That’s also provincial. You should carry a black silk purse. And now I’ll show what a diviner I am: your dream is to be a concert pianist!’

‘It is not,’ said Van indignantly. ‘What perfect nonsense. She can’t play a note!’

‘Well, no matter,’ said Demon. ‘Observation is not always the mother of deduction. However, there is nothing improper about a hanky dumped on a Bechstein. You don’t have, my love, to blush so warmly. Let me quote for comic relief


‘Lorsque son fi-ancé fut parti pour la guerre

Irène de Grandfief, la pauvre et noble enfant

Ferma son pi-ano... vendit son éléphant’


‘The gobble enfant is genuine, but the elephant is mine.’

‘You don’t say so,’ laughed Ada.

‘Our great Coppée,’ said Van, ‘is awful, of course, yet he has one very fetching little piece which Ada de Grandfief here has twisted into English several times, more or less successfully.’

‘Oh, Van!’ interjected Ada with unusual archness, and scooped up a handful of salted almonds.

‘Let’s hear it, let’s hear it,’ cried Demon as he borrowed a nut from her cupped hand.

The neat interplay of harmonious motions, the candid gayety of family reunions, the never-entangling marionette strings — all this is easier described than imagined.

‘Old storytelling devices,’ said Van, ‘may be parodied only by very great and inhuman artists, but only close relatives can be forgiven for paraphrasing illustrious poems. Let me preface the effort of a cousin — anybody’s cousin — by a snatch of Pushkin, for the sake of rhyme —’

‘For the snake of rhyme!’ cried Ada. ‘A paraphrase, even my paraphrase, is like the corruption of "snakeroot" into "snagrel" — all that remains of a delicate little birthwort.’

‘Which is amply sufficient,’ said Demon, ‘for my little needs, and those of my little friends.’

‘So here goes,’ continued Van (ignoring what he felt was an indecent allusion, since the unfortunate plant used to be considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Ladore region not so much as a remedy for the bite of a reptile, as the token of a very young woman’s easy delivery; but no matter). ‘By chance preserved has been the poem. In fact, I have it. Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ‘em...’

‘Oh, I know ‘em,’ interrupted Demon:


Leur chute est lente. On peut les suivre

Du regard en reconnaissant

Le chêne à sa feuille de cuivre

L’érable à sa feuille de sang


‘Grand stuff!’

‘Yes, that was Coppée and now comes the cousin,’ said Van, and he recited:


‘Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper

Can follow each of them and know

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its blood-red glow.’


‘Pah!’ uttered the versionist.

‘Not at all!’ cried Demon. ‘That "leavesdropper" is a splendid trouvaille, girl.’ He pulled the girl to him, she landing on the arm of his Klubsessel, and he glued himself with thick moist lips to her hot red ear through the rich black strands. Van felt a shiver of delight. (1.38)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): passe encore: may still pass muster.

Lorsque etc.: When her fiancé had gone to war, the unfortunate and noble maiden closed her piano, sold her elephant.

By chance preserved: The verses are by chance preserved

                                    I have them, here they are:

                                    (Eugene Onegin, Six: XXI: 1-2)

Klubsessel: Germ., easy chair.


At the family dinner Demon quotes our great Canadian’s lovely lines about blushing Irène:


‘Vous me comblez,’ said Demon in reference to the burgundy, ‘though’ pravda, my maternal grandfather would have left the table rather than see me drinking red wine instead of champagne with gelinotte. Superb, my dear (blowing a kiss through the vista of flame and silver).’

The roast hazel-hen (or rather its New World representative, locally called ‘mountain grouse’) was accompanied by preserved lingonberries (locally called ‘mountain cranberries’). An especially succulent morsel of one of those brown little fowls yielded a globule of birdshot between Demon’s red tongue and strong canine: ‘La fève de Diane,’ he remarked, placing it carefully on the edge of his plate. ‘How is the car situation, Van?’

‘Vague. I ordered a Roseley like yours but it won’t be delivered before Christmas. I tried to find a Silentium with a side car and could not, because of the war, though what connection exists between wars and motorcycles is a mystery. But we manage, Ada and I, we manage, we ride, we bike, we even jikker.’

‘I wonder,’ said sly Demon, ‘why I’m reminded all at once of our great Canadian’s lovely lines about blushing Irène:


‘Le feu si délicat de la virginité

Qui something sur son front...


‘All right. You can ship mine to England, provided —’

‘By the way, Demon,’ interrupted Marina, ‘where and how can I obtain the kind of old roomy limousine with an old professional chauffeur that Praskovia, for instance, has had for years?’

‘Impossible, my dear, they are all in heaven or on Terra. But what would Ada like, what would my silent love like for her birthday? It’s next Saturday, po razschyotu po moemu (by my reckoning), isn’t it? Une rivière de diamants?’

‘Protestuyu!’ cried Marina. ‘Yes, I’m speaking seriozno. I object to your giving her kvaka sesva (quoi que ce soit), Dan and I will take care of all that.’

‘Besides you’ll forget,’ said Ada laughing, and very deftly showed the tip of her tongue to Van who had been on the lookout for her conditional reaction to ‘diamonds.’

Van asked: ‘Provided what?’

‘Provided you don’t have one waiting already for you in George’s Garage, Ranta Road.’

‘Ada, you’ll be jikkering alone soon,’ he continued, ‘I’m going to have Mascodagama round out his vacation in Paris. Qui something sur son front, en accuse la beauté!’ (1.38)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): vous me comblez: you overwhelm me with kindness.

pravda: Russ., it’s true.

gelinotte: hazel-hen.

le feu etc.: the so delicate fire of virginity

that on her brow...

po razschyotu po moemu: an allusion to Famusov (in Griboedov’s Gore ot uma), calculating the pregnancy of a lady friend.

protestuyu: Russ., I protest.

seriozno: Russ., seriously.

quoi que ce soit: whatever it might be.

en accuse etc.: ...brings out its beauty.

Nabokov also pointed out a caged-bird theme in two different works in Lectures:


In Dickens' Bleak House, which includes a character named Ada, 


Miss Flite shows off some twenty cages of birds. "'I began to keep the little creatures,' she said, '...With the intention of restoring them to liberty...'"

...the bars of their cages seem to throw their shadow, seem already to bar with their shadows the symbols of youth, beauty, hope... I want to remind you very forcibly at this point of another caged bird that I mentioned in connection with Mansfield Park when I referred to a passage from Sterne's Sentimental Journey about a starling--and about liberty and about captivity. Here we are again following the same thematic line. Cages, bird cages, their bars, the shadow of their bars striking out, as it were, all happiness...

(Page 74 in Lectures on Literature, Harcourt 1980)

Oh yes, thank you. Describing poor mad Aqua's torments, Van mentions the astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was called, and the Mondefroid bleakhouse horsepittle:


Being unwilling to suffer another relapse after this blessed state of perfect mental repose, but knowing it could not last, she did what another patient had done in distant France, at a much less radiant and easygoing ‘home.’ A Dr Froid, one of the administerial centaurs, who may have been an émigré brother with a passport-changed name of the Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes or, more likely, the same man, because they both came from Vienne, Isère, and were only sons (as her son was), evolved, or rather revived, the therapistic device, aimed at establishing a ‘group’ feeling, of having the finest patients help the staff if ‘thusly inclined.’ Aqua, in her turn, repeated exactly clever Eleonore Bonvard’s trick, namely, opting for the making of beds and the cleaning of glass shelves. The astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was called (who cares — one forgets little things very fast, when afloat in infinite non-thingness) was, perhaps, more modem, with a more refined desertic view, than the Mondefroid bleakhouse horsepittle, but in both places a demented patient could outwit in one snap an imbecile pedant. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): horsepittle: ‘hospital’, borrowed from a passage in Dickens’ Bleak House. Poor Joe’s pun, not a poor Joycean one.


"Aye!" says Allan. "Why, what had you been doing?"

"Nothink, sir. Never done nothink to get myself into no trouble, 'sept in not m oving on and the inkwhich. But I'm a-moving on now. I'm a-moving on to the berryin ground--that's the move as I'm up to."

"No, no, we will try to prevent that. But what did he do with you?"

"Put me in a horsepittle," replied Jo, whispering, "till I was discharged, then giv me a little money--four half-bulls, wot you may call half-crowns--and ses 'Hook it! Nobody wants you here,' he ses. 'You hook it. You go and tramp,' he ses. 'You move on,' he ses. 'Don't let me ever see you nowheres within forty mile of London, or you'll repent it.' So I shall, if ever he doos see me, and he'll see me if I'm above ground," concludes Jo, nervously repeating all his former precautions and investigations. ("Bleak House," Chapter XLVI: Stop Him!)


In Charles Dickens' and Wilkie Collins' story No Thoroughfare Madame Dor, upon awakening, says "Mon Dieu!" twice:


She hurried from the room, and touched Madame Dor’s shoulder in passing.  Madame Dor woke up with a loud snort, looked first over one shoulder and then over the other, peered down into her lap, and discovered neither stockings, worsted, nor darning-needle in it.  At the same moment, footsteps became audible ascending the stairs.  “Mon Dieu!” said Madame Dor, addressing herself to the stove, and trembling violently.  Vendale picked up the stockings and the ball, and huddled them all back in a heap over her shoulder.  “Mon Dieu!” said Madame Dor, for the second time, as the avalanche of worsted poured into her capacious lap. (Act II: Vendale Makes Love)


The twin sisters Aqua and Marina are the granddaughters of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or:


Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (‘Dolly’) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called ‘Russian’ Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with ‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, however, was Raduga near the burg of that name, beyond Estotiland proper, in the Atlantic panel of the continent between elegant Kaluga, New Cheshire, U.S.A., and no less elegant Ladoga, Mayne, where they had their town house and where their three children were born: a son, who died young and famous, and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares). (1.1)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Severnïya Territorii: Northern Territories. Here and elsewhere transliteration is based on the old Russian orthography.

granoblastically: in a tesselar (mosaic) jumble.

Tofana: allusion to ‘aqua tofana’ (see any good dictionary).

sur-royally: fully antlered, with terminal prongs.


Prince Peter Zemski seems to be the Antiterran counterpart of Prince Pyotr Vyazemski (1792-1878), a minor poet who, according to VN (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 27), was disastrously influenced by the French poetaster Pierre Jean Béranger. In "The Life of Chernyshevski," Chapter Four of VN's novel Dar ("The Gift," 1937), Fyodor mentions Kurochkin's translation of Béranger's poem Si j’étais petit oiseau ("If I Were a Little Bird"):


В зале того-же Руадзе, 2 марта 62 года, состоялось первое (ежели не считать защиты диссертации и надгробной речи на морозе) публичное выступление Чернышевского. Официально выручка с вечера шла недостаточным студентам; на самом же деле он был в пользу политических заключенных Михайлова и Обручева, недавно взятых. Рубинштейн с блеском исполнил весьма возбудительный марш, профессор Павлов говорил о тысячелетии Руси, - при чем двусмысленно сказал, что если правительство остановится на первом шаге (освобождение крестьян) "то оно остановится на краю пропасти, - имяяй уши слышати, да слышит" (его услышали, он был немедленно выслан). Некрасов прочел скверные, но "сильные" стихи, посвященные памяти Добролюбова, а Курочкин - перевод "Птички" Беранже (томление узницы и восторг внезапной свободы); о Добролюбове говорил и Чернышевский.

In a large auditorium situated in that same Ruadze House there took place on March 2, 1862, Chernyshevski’s first (if you do not count his dissertation defense and the graveside speech in the frost) public address. Officially the proceeds of the evening were to go to needy students; but in actual fact it was in aid of the political prisoners Mihailov and Obruchev, who had recently been arrested. Rubinstein brilliantly performed an extremely stirring march, Professor Pavlov spoke of Russia’s millennium—and added ambiguously that if the government stopped at the first step (the emancipation of the peasants) “it would stop on the brink of an abyss—let those with ears to hear, hear.” (They heard him; he was immediately ex-pulsed.) Nekrasov read some poor but “powerful” verses dedicated to the memory of Dobrolyubov, and Kurochkin read a translation of Béranger’s “The Little Bird” (the captive’s languishment and the rapture of sudden freedom); Chernyshevski’s speech was also on Dobrolyubov.


Kurochkin is the author of Vorchun Dorofey (“The Grumbler Dorofey,” 1860). In Kurochkin's fable Dorofey is the name of the author’s conscience. In the Kalugano hospital (where he recovers from a wound received in a pistol duel with Captain Tapper) Van meets Tatiana, a remarkably pretty and proud young nurse, and Dorofey, a beefy-handed male nurse (1.42). In Dorofey there is "dor." In the night before his duel with Tapper (a member of the Do-Re-La Country Club) Van has a word dream in which Bouteillan (the French butler at Ardis) explains to him that the ‘dor’ in the name of an adored river (Ladore) equals the corruption of hydro in ‘dorophone’ (hydraulic telephone; electricity is banned on Antiterra after the L disaster in the middle of the 19th century). In his lecture on dreams (2.4) Van compares himself to "the dusty-trousered Marmlad before his Marmlady in Dickens" and mentions "the lewd, ludicrous and vulgar mistake of the Signy-Mondieu analysts." The Signy-Mondieu analysts bring to mind Dickens' story "The Signal-Man" (1866).


Describing Chernyshevski's life in Siberia, Fyodor mentions the half-witted artisan Rozanov who testified that the revolutionaries wanted to catch and cage “a bird with royal blood in order to ransom Chernyshevski:”


В последних числах сентября Чернышевского перевели на Александровский завод, в тридцати верстах от Кадаи. Зиму он там провел в тюрьме, с каракозовцами и мятежными поляками. Темница была снабжена монгольской особенностью - "палями": столбами, тесно вкопанными встоячь вокруг тюрьмы; "палисад без сада", острил один из ссыльных, бывший офицер Красовский. В июне следующего года, по окончании срока испытуемости, Чернышевский был выпущен в вольную команду и снял комнату у дьячка, необыкновенно с лица на него похожего: полуслепые, серые глаза, жиденькая бородка, длинные спутанные волосы... Всегда пьяненький, всегда вздыхающий, он сокрушенно отвечал на расспросы любопытных: "Всё пишет, пишет сердечный!". Но Чернышевский прожил там не больше двух месяцев. Его имя всуе упоминалось на политических судах. Блаженненький мещанин Розанов показывал, что революционеры хотят поймать и посадить в клетку "птицу из царской крови, чтобы выменять Чернышевского". От графа Шувалова была иркутскому генерал-губернатору депеша: "Цель эмиграции освободить Чернышевского, прошу принять всевозможные меры относительно его". Между тем Красовский, выпущенный вместе с ним, бежал (и погиб в тайге, ограбленный), так что были все причины водворить опасного ссыльного опять в тюрьму и на месяц лишить права переписки.


During the last days of September, Chernyshevski was transferred to Aleksandrovski Zavod, a settlement twenty miles from Kadaya. He spent the winter there in prison, together with some Karakozovites and rebellious Poles. The dungeon was equipped with a Mongolian specialty—“stakes”: posts dug vertically into the ground and surrounding the prison in a solid ring. In June of the following year, having completed his probationery term, Chernyshevski was released on parole and took a room in the house of a sexton, a man who looked very much like him: gray purblind eyes, a sparse beard, long, tangled hair…. Always a little drunk, always sighing, he would sorrowfully answer the questions of the curious with “The dear fellow keeps writing and writing!” But Chernyshevski stayed there no more than two months. His name was taken in vain at political trials. The half-witted artisan Rozanov testified that the revolutionaries wanted to catch and cage “a bird with royal blood in order to ransom Chernyshevski.” Count Shuvalov sent the Irkutsk Governor-General a telegram: THE AIM OF THE EMIGRES IS TO FREE CHERNYSHEVSKI (STOP) PLEASE TAKE ALL POSSIBLE MEASURES IN REGARD TO HIM. Meanwhile the exile Krasovski, who had been transferred at the same time as he, had fled (and perished in the taiga, after having been robbed), so that there was every reason to jail dangerous Chernyshevski once again and to deprive him for a month of the right to correspondence.

Being unwilling to suffer another relapse after this blessed state of perfect mental repose, but knowing it could not last, she did what another patient had done in distant France, at a much less radiant and easygoing ‘home.’ A Dr Froid, one of the administerial centaurs, who may have been an émigré brother with a passport-changed name of the Dr Froit of Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu in the Ardennes or, more likely, the same man, because they both came from Vienne, Isère, and were only sons (as her son was), evolved, or rather revived, the therapistic device, aimed at establishing a ‘group’ feeling, of having the finest patients help the staff if ‘thusly inclined.’ Aqua, in her turn, repeated exactly clever Eleonore Bonvard’s trick, namely, opting for the making of beds and the cleaning of glass shelves. The astorium in St Taurus, or whatever it was called (who cares — one forgets little things very fast, when afloat in infinite non-thingness) was, perhaps, more modem, with a more refined desertic view, than the Mondefroid bleakhouse horsepittle, but in both places a demented patient could outwit in one snap an imbecile pedant. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): horsepittle: ‘hospital’, borrowed from a passage in Dickens’ Bleak House. Poor Joe’s pun, not a poor Joycean one.


The astorium in St Taurus seems to hint at Esther, a character in Bleak House. In his lecture on Dickens VN points out that the marriage would not be quite as fair towards Esther as it seems, since owing to its white-marriage implications it would deprive Esther of her normal motherhood while, on the other hand, making it unlawful and immoral for her to love any other man:


For an elderly man, deeply in love with a young woman, a proposal on such terms is of course a great act of renunciation, self-control, and tragic temptation. Esther, on the other hand, accepts it, under the innocent impression, “That his generosity rose above my disfigurement, and my inheritance of shame,” a disfigurement that Dickens is going to play down thoroughly in the last chapters. Actually, of course, and this does not seem to have entered the mind of any of the three parties concerned – Esther Sommerson, John Janrndyce and Charles Dickens – the marriage would not be quite as fair towards Esther as it seems, since owing to its white-marriage implications it would deprive Esther of her normal motherhood while, on the other hand, making it unlawful and immoral for her to love any other man. Just possibly there is an echo of the caged-bird theme when Esther, weeping although happy and thankful, addresses herself in the glass, "When you are mistress of Bleak House, you are to be as cheerful as a bird. In fact, you are always to be cheerful, so let us begin for once and for all.”


Officially, Aqua (Marina’s poor mad twin sister whom Demon married out of spite and pity, a not unusual blend) is Van’s mother. Like Esther, Aqua (who had a miscarriage and who was convinced by others that Van is her son) was deprived of normal motherhood:


At one time Aqua believed that a stillborn male infant half a year old, a surprised little fetus, a fish of rubber that she had produced in her bath, in a lieu de naissance plainly marked X in her dreams, after skiing at full pulver into a larch stump, had somehow been saved and brought to her at the Nusshaus, with her sister’s compliments, wrapped up in blood-soaked cotton wool, but perfectly alive and healthy, to be registered as her son Ivan Veen. At other moments she felt convinced that the child was her sister’s, born out of wedlock, during an exhausting, yet highly romantic blizzard, in a mountain refuge on Sex Rouge, where a Dr Alpiner, general practitioner and gentian-lover, sat providentially waiting near a rude red stove for his boots to dry. Some confusion ensued less than two years later (September, 1871 — her proud brain still retained dozens of dates) when upon escaping from her next refuge and somehow reaching her husband’s unforgettable country house (imitate a foreigner: ‘Signor Konduktor, ay vant go Lago di Luga, hier geld’) she took advantage of his being massaged in the solarium, tiptoed into their former bedroom — and experienced a delicious shock: her talc powder in a half-full glass container marked colorfully Quelques Fleurs still stood on her bedside table; her favorite flame-colored nightgown lay rumpled on the bedrug; to her it meant that only a brief black nightmare had obliterated the radiant fact of her having slept with her husband all along — ever since Shakespeare’s birthday on a green rainy day, but for most other people, alas, it meant that Marina (after G.A. Vronsky, the movie man, had left Marina for another long-lashed Khristosik as he called all pretty starlets) had conceived, c’est bien le cas de le dire, the brilliant idea of having Demon divorce mad Aqua and marry Marina who thought (happily and correctly) she was pregnant again. Marina had spent a rukuliruyushchiy month with him at Kitezh but when she smugly divulged her intentions (just before Aqua’s arrival) he threw her out of the house. Still later, on the last short lap of a useless existence, Aqua scrapped all those ambiguous recollections and found herself reading and rereading busily, blissfully, her son’s letters in a luxurious ‘sanastoria’ at Centaur, Arizona. He invariably wrote in French calling her petite maman and describing the amusing school he would be living at after his thirteenth birthday. She heard his voice through the nightly tinnitus of her new, planful, last, last insomnias and it consoled her. He called her usually mummy, or mama, accenting the last syllable in English, the first, in Russian; somebody had said that triplets and heraldic dracunculi often occurred in trilingual families; but there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever now (except, perhaps, in hateful long-dead Marina’s hell-dwelling mind) that Van was her, her, Aqua’s, beloved son. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Nuss: German for ‘nut’.

Khristosik: little Christ (Russ.).

rukuliruyushchiy: Russ., from Fr. roucoulant, cooing.


“Normal motherhood” of which Aqua was deprived brings to mind "normal adultery" mentioned by Van in his conversation with Demon:


The conversation now took a neutral turn that was far more terrible than its introductory admission of faults for which our young lovers had long pardoned their parents. How did Van imagine his sister’s pursuing a scenic career? Would he admit it would be wrecked if they persisted in their relationship? Did he envisage a life of concealment in luxurious exile? Was he ready to deprive her of normal interests and a normal marriage? Children? Normal amusements?

‘Don’t forget "normal adultery,"’ remarked Van.

‘How much better that would be!’ said grim Demon, sitting on the edge of the couch with both elbows propped on his knees, and nursing his head in his hands: ‘The awfulness of the situation is an abyss that grows deeper the more I think of it. You force me to bring up the tritest terms such as "family," "honor," "set," "law."...All right, I have bribed many officials in my wild life but neither you nor I can bribe a whole culture, a whole country. And the emotional impact of learning that for almost ten years you and that charming child have been deceiving their parents —’

Here Van expected his father to take the ‘it-would-kill-your-mother’ line, but Demon was wise enough to keep clear of it. Nothing could ‘kill’ Marina. If any rumors of incest did come her way, concern with her ‘inner peace’ would help her to ignore them — or at least romanticize them out of reality’s reach. Both men knew all that. Her image appeared for a moment and accomplished a facile fade-out.

Demon spoke on: ‘I cannot disinherit you: Aqua left you enough "ridge" and real estate to annul the conventional punishment. And I cannot denounce you to the authorities without involving my daughter, whom I mean to protect at all cost. But I can do the next proper thing, I can curse you, I can make this our last, our last —’

Van, whose finger had been gliding endlessly to and fro along the mute but soothingly smooth edge of the mahogany desk, now heard with horror the sob that shook Demon’s entire frame, and then saw a deluge of tears flowing down those hollow tanned cheeks. In an amateur parody, at Van’s birthday party fifteen years ago, his father had made himself up as Boris Godunov and shed strange, frightening, jet-black tears before rolling down the steps of a burlesque throne in death’s total surrender to gravity. Did those dark streaks, in the present show, come from his blackening his orbits, eyelashes, eyelids, eyebrows? The funest gamester... the pale fatal girl, in another well-known melodrama.... In this one. Van gave him a clean handkerchief to replace the soiled rag. His own marble calm did not surprise Van. The ridicule of a good cry with Father adequately clogged the usual ducts of emotion.

Demon regained his composure (if not his young looks) and said:

‘I believe in you and your common sense. You must not allow an old debaucher to disown an only son. If you love her, you wish her to be happy, and she will not be as happy as she could be once you gave her up. You may go. Tell her to come here on your way down.’

Down. My first is a vehicle that twists dead daisies around its spokes; my second is Oldmanhattan slang for ‘money’; and my whole makes a hole.

As he traversed the second-floor landing, he saw, through the archway of two rooms, Ada in her black dress standing, with her back to him, at the oval window in the boudoir. He told a footman to convey her father’s message to her and passed almost at a run through the familiar echoes of the stone-flagged vestibule.

My second is also the meeting place of two steep slopes. Right-hand lower drawer of my practically unused new desk — which is quite as big as Dad’s, with Sig’s compliments. (2.11)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): ridge: money.


Sig seems to be Dr Sig Heiler (“Herr Doctor Sig”), Aqua’s last doctor:


In less than a week Aqua had accumulated more than two hundred tablets of different potency. She knew most of them — the jejune sedatives, and the ones that knocked you out from eight p.m. till midnight, and several varieties of superior soporifics that left you with limpid limbs and a leaden head after eight hours of non-being, and a drug which was in itself delightful but a little lethal if combined with a draught of the cleansing fluid commercially known as Morona; and a plump purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season. Lest some busybody resurrect her in the middle of the float-away process, Aqua reckoned she must procure for herself a maximum period of undisturbed stupor elsewhere than in a glass house, and the carrying out of that second part of the project was simplified and encouraged by another agent or double of the Isère Professor, a Dr Sig Heiler whom everybody venerated as a great guy and near-genius in the usual sense of near-beer. Such patients who proved by certain twitchings of the eyelids and other semiprivate parts under the control of medical students that Sig (a slightly deformed but not unhandsome old boy) was in the process of being dreamt of as a ‘papa Fig,’ spanker of girl bottoms and spunky spittoon-user, were assumed to be on the way to haleness and permitted, upon awakening, to participate in normal outdoor activities such as picnics. Sly Aqua twitched, simulated a yawn, opened her light-blue eyes (with those startlingly contrasty jet-black pupils that Dolly, her mother, also had), put on yellow slacks and a black bolero, walked through a little pinewood, thumbed a ride with a Mexican truck, found a suitable gulch in the chaparral and there, after writing a short note, began placidly eating from her cupped palm the multicolored contents of her handbag, like any Russian country girl lakomyashchayasya yagodami (feasting on berries) that she had just picked in the woods. She smiled, dreamily enjoying the thought (rather ‘Kareninian’ in tone) that her extinction would affect people about ‘as deeply as the abrupt, mysterious, never explained demise of a comic strip in a Sunday paper one had been taking for years. It was her last smile. She was discovered much sooner, but had also died much faster than expected, and the observant Siggy, still in his baggy khaki shorts, reported that Sister Aqua (as for some reason they all called her) lay, as if buried prehistorically, in a fetus-in-utero position, a comment that seemed relevant to his students, as it may be to mine.

Her last note, found on her and addressed to her husband and son, might have come from the sanest person on this or that earth.

Aujourd’hui (heute-toity!) I, this eye-rolling toy, have earned the psykitsch right to enjoy a landparty with Herr Doktor Sig, Nurse Joan the Terrible, and several ‘patients,’ in the neighboring bar (piney wood) where I noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt. The hands of a clock, even when out of order, must know and let the dumbest little watch know where they stand, otherwise neither is a dial but only a white face with a trick mustache. Similarly, chelovek (human being) must know where he stands and let others know, otherwise he is not even a klok (piece) of a chelovek, neither a he, nor she, but ‘a tit of it’ as poor Ruby, my little Van, used to say of her scanty right breast. I, poor Princesse Lointaine, très lointaine by now, do not know where I stand. Hence I must fall. So adieu, my dear, dear son, and farewell, poor Demon, I do not know the date or the season, but it is a reasonably, and no doubt seasonably, fair day, with a lot of cute little ants queuing to get at my pretty pills.

[Signed] My sister’s sister who teper’

iz ada (‘now is out of hell’)

‘If we want life’s sundial to show its hand,’ commented Van, developing the metaphor in the rose garden of Ardis Manor at the end of August, 1884, ‘we must always remember that the strength, the dignity, the delight of man is to spite and despise the shadows and stars that hide their secrets from us. Only the ridiculous power of pain made her surrender. And I often think it would have been so much more plausible, esthetically, ecstatically, Estotially speaking — if she were really my mother.’ (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): aujourd’hui, heute: to-day (Fr., Germ.).

Princesse Lointaine: Distant Princess, title of a French play.


In March, 1905, Van’s and Ada’s father, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). Half a year later Van and Ada (now married to Andrey Vinelander) meet in Mont Roux, Switzerland, and their almost life-long affair is resumed. Van does not realize that his father died, because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair. Similarly, Van never finds out that Andrey Vinelander and Ada have at least two children and that Ronald Oranger (old Van’s secretary, the editor of Ada) and Violet Knox (old Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka and who marries Ronald Oranger after Van’s and Ada’s death) are Ada’s grandchildren.

Hi Alexey,

I had not realized either Ada's responsibility for Demon's death, nor Violet and Ronald being Ada's grandchildren. I read some of the other posts where you mention the latter, but I could not find what led you to this theory. Could you please direct me to a post that explains this? I find both theories fascinating.




Hello Daniel,


See, for instance, my post "Ronald Oranger & Violet Knox:" (I hope, the link will work)