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
‘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.
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.