Reference to "(picnic, lightning)" in Ada

Submitted by Alain Champlain on Sat, 06/27/2020 - 06:10

From Ada, part 1, chapter 6:

Alonso, a tiny wizened man in a double-breasted tuxedo, spoke only Spanish, while the sum of Spanish words his hosts knew scarcely exceeded half a dozen. Van had canastilla (a little basket), and nubarrones (thunderclouds), which both came from an en regard translation of a lovely Spanish poem in one of his schoolbooks.

The parenthetical '(a little basket)' and '(thunderclouds)' are, to my eye, a reference to the famous '(picnic, lightning)' in Lolita:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three[...]

Has this been noted anywhere? I couldn't find any mention of it on ADAonline.


‘What was that?’ exclaimed Marina, whom certicle storms terrified even more than they did the Antiamberians of Ladore County.

‘Sheet lightning,’ suggested Van.

‘If you ask me,’ said Demon, turning on his chair to consider the billowing drapery, ‘I’d guess it was a photographer’s flash. After all, we have here a famous actress and a sensational acrobat.’

Ada ran to the window. From under the anxious magnolias a white-faced boy flanked by two gaping handmaids stood aiming a camera at the harmless, gay family group. But it was only a nocturnal mirage, not unusual in July. Nobody was taking pictures except Perun, the unmentionable god of thunder. In expectation of the rumble, Marina started to count under her breath, as if she were praying or checking the pulse of a very sick person. One heartbeat was supposed to span one mile of black night between the living heart and a doomed herdsman, felled somewhere — oh, very far — on the top of a mountain. The rumble came — but sounded rather subdued. A second flash revealed the structure of the French window. (1.38)


Humbert's mother was very photogenic. On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth twin planet on which Ada is set) VN's Lolita is known as The Gitanilla by the Spanish writer Osberg (1.13 et passim). La Gitanilla is a novella by Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. Don Quixote's personal name is Alonso Quijano.


When my mother, in a livid wet dress, under the tumbling mist (so I vividly imagined her), had run panting ecstatically up that ridge above Moulinet to be felled there by a thunderbolt, I was but an infant, and in retrospect no yearnings of the accepted kind could I ever graft upon any moment of my youth, no matter how savagely psychotherapists heckled me in my later periods of depression. But I admit that a man of my power of imagination cannot plead personal ignorance of universal emotions. I may also have relied too much on the abnormally chill relations between Charlotte and her daughter. But the awful point of the whole argument is this. It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif. (Lolita, 2.32)


Van and Ada are brother and sister.


Let me draw your attention to the updated version of my latest post "Botkin's three bodies in Pale Fire." Incidentally, I learnt about the King's two bodies from Brigitte Bardot (whom VN has never seen either on the screen or in life).


Yes, thanks, and there are many other great related quotes, some of which were even in the original draft of my post, but I made edits in the hopes of getting a straight answer to my question: "Has this been noted anywhere?"

Searching through this forum, as well as your annotations page, I haven't found any mentions of the "(picnic, lightning)" reference in Ada. Are you saying you noticed without annotating? Or that you hadn't noticed before?

In a letter of Feb. 14, 1900, to Olga Knipper (a leading actress of the Moscow Art Theater whom Chekhov married in 1901) Chekhov thanks Knipper for her photographs that she sent to him:


Милая актриса, фотографии очень, очень хороши, особенно та, где Вы пригорюнились, поставив локти на спинку стула, и где передано Ваше выражение — скромно-грустное, тихое выражение, за которым прячется чёртик. И другая тоже удачна, но тут Вы немножко похожи на евреечку, очень музыкальную особу, которая ходит в консерваторию и в то же время изучает на всякий случай тайно зубоврачебное искусство и имеет жениха в Могилёве; и жених такой, как Манасевич. Вы сердитесь? Правда, правда, сердитесь? Это я мщу Вам за то, что Вы не подписались.


The photographs are very, very good, especially the one in which you are leaning in dejection with your elbows on the back of a chair, which gives you a discreetly mournful, gentle expression under which there lies hid a little demon. The other is good too, but it looks a little like a Jewess, a very musical person who attends a conservatoire, but at the same time is studying dentistry on the sly as a second string, and is engaged to be married to a young man in Mogilev, and whose fiancé is a person like Manasevich. Are you angry? Really, really angry? It’s my revenge for your not signing them.


In a letter of July 6, 1898, to Sumbatov (Yuzhin) Chekhov predicts to Yuzhin that a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill him:


Будь здоров и благополучен и не бойся нефрита, которого у тебя нет и не будет. Ты умрёшь через 67 лет, и не от нефрита; тебя убьёт молния в Монте-Карло.

Don’t be afraid of nephritis. You’ll die in sixty-seven years and not of nephritis; a lightning in Monte-Carlo will kill you.


The Russian spelling of the cognomen Humbert Humbert is Gumbert Gumbert. In a letter of Oct. 17, 1897, to Suvorin Chekhov (who stayed in Pension Russe in Nice) asks Suvorin to bring from Paris Le Rire, zhurnal s portretom Gumberta (the magazine issue with King Umberto’s portrait):


Привезите журнал «Le rire» с портретом Гумберта, если попадётся на глаза.

Bring the issue of Le Rire with Umberto’s portrait, if you catch sight of it.


Greg Erminin sends to Van a movie magazine with the photographs of Marina and Ada:


Van had seen the picture [the Hollywood version of Four Sisters, as Chekhov's play is known on Antiterra] and had liked it. An Irish girl, the infinitely graceful and melancholy Lenore Colline -

Oh! qui me rendra ma colline
Et le grand chene and my colleen!

- harrowingly resembled Ada Ardis as photographed with her mother in Belladonna, a movie magazine which Greg Erminin had sent him, thinking it would delight him to see aunt and cousin, together, on a California patio just before the film was released. (2.9)


See also the additions in my previous reply to your post. And no, I did not notice anything (the connection, if it exists at all, is too subtle).


Another afterthought: Le Rire (1900) is a book by Henri Bergson. An anagram of Borges, Osberg also brings to mind Bergson. 

I was writing yesterday a short reply but then I forgot: that No, I don't think so it has been noted. It must noted that if it is a reference to Lolita, it must be an Antiterran version of Lolita by Osberg (in Spanish? which would open up issues of translations and transfigurations). But the association of a little basket: that is inevitably carried in picnics and thunderclouds to lightning doesn't convince me right now. Don't want to discourage you but Guillén's poem (just looked them up) referred to seems ok for now. But please write more if you have something else in mind. Even if someone had noted it before, you would be corroborating it (and probably bringing something new to the table) so don't let that deter you. I don't think anybody remembers all that has been said or noted here or there; in the Forum or in the long checklist criticism on VN.

I'm sort of focusing on VN's short stories now, so I'm a bit inactive when it comes to VN's elaborate contraptions.



It seems to me that "canastilla (a little basket), and nubarrones (thunderclouds)" are simply translations from Spanish, whereas the "picnic, lightning" is famous because it was an example of how Nabokov's elaborate style could be so elegantly terse as to summon up a whole scenario in two tossed off words. I forget where I read that - in Annotated Lolita?