Illinois Brat & Mount Peck in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 06/27/2021 - 16:39

Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s and Ada’s father) tells Van that, when he was Van’s age, his father allowed him Lilletovka and that Illinois Brat:


‘Van…,’ began Demon, but stopped — as he had begun and stopped a number of times before in the course of the last years. Some day it would have to be said, but this was not the right moment. He inserted his monocle and examined the bottles: ‘By the way, son, do you crave any of these aperitifs? My father allowed me Lilletovka and that Illinois Brat — awful bilge, antranou svadi, as Marina would say. I suspect your uncle has a cache behind the solanders in his study and keeps there a finer whisky than this usque ad Russkum. Well, let us have the cognac, as planned, unless you are a filius aquae?’ (1.38)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): antranou etc.: Russian mispronunciation of Fr. entre nous soit dit, between you and me.

filius aqua: ‘son of water’, bad pun on filum aquae, the middle way, ‘the thread of the stream’.


In Ernest Hemingway’s story The Killers (1927) the action takes place in Summit, Illinois, during the 1920s, during Prohibition. In the Postscript to his Russian translation (1967) of Lolita VN calls Hemingway “the contemporary substitute of Mayn Reid:”


 С тех пор «Лолита» переводилась на многие языки: она вышла отдельными изданиями в Арабских странах, Аргентине, Бразилии, Германии, Голландии, Греции, Дании, Израиле, Индии, Италии, Китае, Мексике, Норвегии, Турции, Уругвае, Финляндии, Франции, Швеции и Японии. Продажу ее только что разрешили в Австралии, но она все еще запрещена в Испании и Южно-Африканской Республике. Не появлялась она и в пуританских странах за железным занавесом. Из всех этих переводов я отвечаю, в смысле точности и полноты, только за французский, который я сам проверил до напечатания. Воображаю, что сделали с бедняжкой египтяне и китайцы, а еще яснее воображаю, что сделала бы с ней, если бы я допустил это, «перемещенная дама», недавно научившаяся английскому языку, или американец, который «брал» русский язык в университете. Вопрос же — для кого, собственно, «Лолита» переводится, относится к области метафизики и юмора. Мне трудно представить себе режим, либеральный ли или тоталитарный, в чопорной моей отчизне, при котором цензура пропустила бы «Лолиту». Кстати, не знаю, кого сейчас особенно чтят в России — кажется, Гемингвея, современного заместителя Майн Рида, да ничтожных Фолкнера и Сартра, этих баловней западной буржуазии. Зарубежные же русские запоем читают советские романы, увлекаясь картонными тихими донцами на картонных же хвостах-подставках или тем лирическим доктором с лубочно-мистическими позывами, мещанскими оборотами речи и чаровницей из Чарской, который принес советскому правительству столько добротной иностранной валюты.


Kartonnye tikhie dontsy (the cardboard characters of Sholokhov's novel Tikhiy Don, "And Quiet Flows the Don," 1928) bring to mind Baron d'Onsky (Demon's adversary in a sword duel, 1.2) and a painted tragic actor waving his cardboard sword in the closing lines of Lermontov's poem Ne ver' sebe ("Don't Trust Yourself," 1839):


А между тем из них едва ли есть один,
Тяжёлой пыткой не измятый,
До преждевременных добравшийся морщин
Без преступленья иль утраты!..

Поверь: для них смешон твой плач и твой укор,
С своим напевом заучённым,
Как разрумяненный трагический актёр,
Махающий мечом картонным...


But among them is hardly a one
Not crushed by heavy torture
Into early wrinkles
Without crime or loss!..

Believe me: to them are laughable your tears and your blame
With its tune learned by heart,
Like a painted tragic actor
Waving a cardboard sword.


Captain Mayn Reid is the author of The Headless Horseman (1865). On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) The Headless Horseman is a poem by Pushkin:


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): The Headless Horseman: Mayn Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.

Lermontov: author of The Demon.

Tolstoy etc.: Tolstoy’s hero, Haji Murad, (a Caucasian chieftain) is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.


In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. Just before describing his father’s death, Van paraphrases the lines in Lermontov’s The Demon, replacing “the summits of the Caucasus” with “the summits of the Tacit” and “Kazbek” with “Mount Peck:”


He greeted the dawn of a placid and prosperous century (more than half of which Ada and I have now seen) with the beginning of his second philosophic fable, a ‘denunciation of space’ (never to be completed, but forming in rear vision, a preface to his Texture of Time). Part of that treatise, a rather mannered affair, but nasty and sound, appeared in the first issue (January, 1904) of a now famous American monthly, The Artisan, and a comment on the excerpt is preserved in one of the tragically formal letters (all destroyed save this one) that his sister sent him by public post now and then. Somehow, after the interchange occasioned by Lucette’s death such nonclandestine correspondence had been established with the tacit sanction of Demon:


And o’er the summits of the Tacit

He, banned from Paradise, flew on:

Beneath him, like a brilliant’s facet,

Mount Peck with snows eternal shone. (3.7)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): And o’er the summits of the Tacit etc.: parody of four lines in Lermontov’s The Demon (see also p.115).


The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), a film based on the 1936 short story of the same name by Earnest Hemingway, stars Gregory Peck cast as Harry Street. Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain (sratovolcano) in Tanzania, Africa. When Ada refuses to leave her sick husband, Van paraphrases Lermontov's lines again, replacing "the summits of the Tacit" with "the summits of the Basset:"


There was a narrow chasm of silence broken only by the rain drumming on the eaves.

‘Stay with me, girl,’ said Van, forgetting everything — pride, rage, the convention of everyday pity.

For an instant she seemed to waver — or at least to consider wavering; but a resonant voice reached them from the drive and there stood Dorothy, gray-caped and mannish-hatted, energetically beckoning with her unfurled umbrella.

‘I can’t, I can’t, I’ll write you,’ murmured my poor love in tears.

Van kissed her leaf-cold hand and, letting the Bellevue worry about his car, letting all Swans worry about his effects and Mme Scarlet worry about Eveline’s skin trouble, he walked some ten kilometers along soggy roads to Rennaz and thence flew to Nice, Biskra, the Cape, Nairobi, the Basset range —

And o'er the summits of the Basset — 

Would she write? Oh, she did! Oh, every old thing turned out superfine! Fancy raced fact in never-ending rivalry and girl giggles. Andrey lived only a few months longer, po pal’tzam (finger counting) one, two, three, four — say, five. Andrey was doing fine by the spring of nineteen six or seven, with a comfortably collapsed lung and a straw-colored beard (nothing like facial vegetation to keep a patient busy). Life forked and reforked. Yes, she told him. He insulted Van on the mauve-painted porch of a Douglas hotel where van was awaiting his Ada in a final version of Les Enfants Maudits. Monsieur de Tobak (an earlier cuckold) and Lord Erminin (a second-time second) witnessed the duel in the company of a few tall yuccas and short cactuses. Vinelander wore a cutaway (he would); Van, a white suit. Neither man wished to take any chances, and both fired simultaneously. Both fell. Mr Cutaway’s bullet struck the outsole of Van’s left shoe (white, black-heeled), tripping him and causing a slight fourmillement (excited ants) in his foot — that was all. Van got his adversary plunk in the underbelly — a serious wound from which he recovered in due time, if at all (here the forking swims in the mist). Actually it was all much duller.

So she did write as she had promised? Oh, yes, yes! In seventeen years he received from her around a hundred brief notes, each containing around one hundred words, making around thirty printed pages of insignificant stuff — mainly about her husband’s health and the local fauna. After helping her to nurse Andrey at Agavia Ranch through a couple of acrimonious years (she begrudged Ada every poor little hour devoted to collecting, mounting, and rearing!), and then taking exception to Ada’s choosing the famous and excellent Grotonovich Clinic (for her husband’s endless periods of treatment) instead of Princess Alashin’s select sanatorium, Dorothy Vinelander retired to a subarctic monastery town (Ilemna, now Novostabia) where eventually she married a Mr Brod or Bred, tender and passionate, dark and handsome, who traveled in eucharistials and other sacramental objects throughout the Severnïya Territorii and who subsequently was to direct, and still may be directing half a century later, archeological reconstructions at Goreloe (the ‘Lyaskan Herculanum’); what treasures he dug up in matrimony is another question.

Steadily but very slowly Andrey’s condition kept deteriorating. During his last two or three years of idle existence on various articulated couches, whose every plane could be altered in hundreds of ways, he lost the power of speech, though still able to nod or shake his head, frown in concentration, or faintly smile when inhaling the smell of food (the origin, indeed, of our first beatitudes). He died one spring night, alone in a hospital room, and that same summer (1922) his widow donated her collections to a National Park museum and traveled by air to Switzerland for an ‘exploratory interview’ with fifty-two-year-old Van Veen. (3.8)


Nairobi is the capital of Kenya. Mount Kilimanjaro can be seen from Amboseli national park in Kenya. Mount Kilimanjaro has three volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Describing the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday, Van mentions the Kibo fritillary, a recently discovered rarity:


Three adult gentlemen, moreover, were expected but never turned up: Uncle Dan, who missed the morning train from town; Colonel Erminin, a widower, whose liver, he said in a note, was behaving like a pecheneg; and his doctor (and chess partner), the famous Dr Krolik, who called himself Ada’s court jeweler, and indeed brought her his birthday present early on the following day — three exquisitely carved chrysalids (‘Inestimable gems,’ cried throatily Ada, tensing her brows), all of which were to yield before long, specimens of a disappointing ichneumon instead of the Kibo Fritillary, a recently discovered rarity. (1.13)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): pecheneg: a savage.


Pechen' is Russian for "liver." Pecheneg ("The Savage," 1897) is a story by Chekhov. In 1901, when he meets Greg Erminin in Paris, Van tells Greg that his father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian Colonel:


Van was about to leave when a smartly uniformed chauffeur came up to inform’ my lord’ that his lady was parked at the corner of rue Saïgon and was summoning him to appear.

‘Aha,’ said Van, ‘I see you are using your British title. Your father preferred to pass for a Chekhovian colonel.’

‘Maude is Anglo-Scottish and, well, likes it that way. Thinks a title gets one better service abroad. By the way, somebody told me — yes, Tobak! — that Lucette is at the Alphonse Four. I haven’t asked you about your father? He’s in good health?’ (Van bowed,) ‘And how is the guvernantka belletristka?’

‘Her last novel is called L‘ami Luc. She just got the Lebon Academy Prize for her copious rubbish.’

They parted laughing. (3.2).


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): guvernantka etc.: Russ., governess-novelist.


The characters in Chekhov's play "The Three Sisters" (known on Demonia as Four Sisters) include Colonel Vershinin (vershina means "summit"). Mount Peck also brings to mind Pekarski, a character in Chekhov's Rasskaz neizvestnogo cheloveka ("The Story of an Unknown Man," 1893). Another character in Chekhov's story, Gruzin, reminds one of Gruziya (Georgia) and Gruzinov, a character in VN's novel Podvig ("Glory," 1932). The main character in "Glory," Martin Edelweiss, brings to mind the artificial edelweiss in Marina's herbarium:


Artificial edelweiss brought by my new nurse with a note from Aqua saying it came from a ‘mizernoe and bizarre’ Christmas Tree at the Home. 25.XII.69. (1.1)


At the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon mentions Dr Krolik:


'Marina,' murmured Demon at the close of the first course. 'Marina,' he repeated louder. 'Far from me' (a locution he favored) 'to criticize Dan's taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I'm above all that rot, I'm...' (gesture); 'but, my dear,' he continued, switching to Russian, 'the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki - the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) -'
'Everybody has eyes,' remarked Marina drily.
'Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that's not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It's depressing. It's a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.'
'Look, Dad,' said Van, 'Dr Krolik can't do much, because, as you know quite well, he's dead, and Marina can't tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they're alive.'
'The Veen wit, the Veen wit,' murmured Demon.

‘Exactly,’ said Marina. ‘I simply refuse to do anything about it. Besides poor Jones is not at all asthmatic, but only nervously eager to please. He’s as healthy as a bull and has rowed me from Ardisville to Ladore and back, and enjoyed it, many times this summer. You are cruel, Demon. I can’t tell him "ne pïkhtite," as I can’t tell Kim, the kitchen boy, not to take photographs on the sly — he’s a regular snap-shooting fiend, that Kim, though otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy; nor can I tell my little French maid to stop getting invitations, as she somehow succeeds in doing, to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore.’

‘That’s interesting,’ observed Demon.

‘He’s a dirty old man!’ cried Van cheerfully.

‘Van!’ said Ada.

‘I’m a dirty young man,’ sighed Demon.

‘Tell me, Bouteillan,’ asked Marina, ‘what other good white wine do we have — what can you recommend?’ The butler smiled and whispered a fabulous name.

Yes, oh, yes,’ said Demon. ‘Ah, my dear, you should not think up dinners all by yourself. Now about rowing — you mentioned rowing... Do you know that moi, qui vous parle, was a Rowing Blue in 1858? Van prefers football, but he’s only a College Blue, aren’t you Van? I’m also better than he at tennis — not lawn tennis, of course, a game for parsons, but "court tennis" as they say in Manhattan. What else, Van?’

‘You still beat me at fencing, but I’m the better shot. That’s not real sudak, papa, though it’s tops, I assure you.’

(Marina, having failed to obtain the European product in time for the dinner, had chosen the nearest thing, wall-eyed pike, or ‘dory,’ with Tartar sauce and boiled young potatoes.)

‘Ah!’ said Demon, tasting Lord Byron’s Hock. ‘This redeems Our Lady’s Tears.’ (1.38)


In his poem V Severnom more (“In a Northern Sea”) from the cycle Vol'nye mysli ("Free Thoughts," 1907) Alexander Blok describes a sea voyage in a big-bellied and funny motorboat and mentions mnogotsventaya ryab’ (many-colored ripples) on the water:


И с длинного, протянутого в море,
Подгнившего, сереющего мола,
Прочтя все надписи: "Навек с тобой",
"Здесь были Коля с Катей", "Диодор
Иеромонах и послушник Исидор
Здесь были. Дивны божии дела", -
Прочтя все надписи, выходим в море
В пузатой и смешной моторной лодке.


Бензин пыхтит и пахнет. Два крыла
Бегут в воде за нами. Вьётся быстрый след,
И, обогнув скучающих на пляже,
Рыбачьи лодки, узкий мыс, маяк,
Мы выбегаем многоцветной рябью
В просторную ласкающую соль.


Benzin pïkhtit i pakhnet (the gasoline puffs and smells) brings to mind “I can’t tell him [Jones] "ne pïkhtite" [don’t wheeze],Marina’s words to Demon. In his poem Neznakomka (“The Unknown Woman,” 1906) Blok mentions p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who cry out In vino veritas! (“in wine is truth”):


А рядом у соседних столиков
Лакеи сонные торчат,
И пьяницы с глазами кроликов
"In vino veritas!" кричат.


And drowsy lackeys lounge about
Beside the adjacent tables
While drunks with the eyes of rabbits

cry out "In vino veritas!"


Describing his meeting with Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister) in Paris (also known as Lute on Demonia) in 1901, Van mentions Blok's Incognita:


The Bourbonian-chinned, dark, sleek-haired, ageless concierge, dubbed by Van in his blazer days ‘Alphonse Cinq,’ believed he had just seen Mlle Veen in the Récamier room where Vivian Vale’s golden veils were on show. With a flick of coattail and a swing-gate click, Alphonse dashed out of his lodge and went to see. Van’s eye over his umbrella crook traveled around a carousel of Sapsucker paperbacks (with that wee striped woodpecker on every spine): The Gitanilla, Salzman, Salzman, Salzman, Invitation to a Climax, Squirt, The Go-go Gang, The Threshold of Pain, The Chimes of Chose, The Gitanilla — here a Wall Street, very ‘patrician’ colleague of Demon’s, old Kithar K.L. Sween, who wrote verse, and the still older real-estate magnate Milton Eliot, went by without recognizing grateful Van, despite his being betrayed by several mirrors.

The concierge returned shaking his head. Out of the goodness of his heart Van gave him a Goal guinea and said he’d call again at one-thirty. He walked through the lobby (where the author of Agonic Lines and Mr Eliot, affalés, with a great amount of jacket over their shoulders, dans des fauteuils, were comparing cigars) and, leaving the hotel by a side exit, crossed the rue des Jeunes Martyres for a drink at Ovenman’s.

Upon entering, he stopped for a moment to surrender his coat; but he kept his black fedora and stick-slim umbrella as he had seen his father do in that sort of bawdy, albeit smart, place which decent women did not frequent — at least, unescorted. He headed for the bar, and as he was in the act of wiping the lenses of his black-framed spectacles, made out, through the optical mist (Space’s recent revenge!), the girl whose silhouette he recalled having seen now and then (much more distinctly!) ever since his pubescence, passing alone, drinking alone, always alone, like Blok’s Incognita. It was a queer feeling — as of something replayed by mistake, part of a sentence misplaced on the proof sheet, a scene run prematurely, a repeated blemish, a wrong turn of time. He hastened to reequip his ears with the thick black bows of his glasses and went up to her in silence. For a minute he stood behind her, sideways to remembrance and reader (as she, too, was in regard to us and the bar), the crook of his silk-swathed cane lifted in profile almost up to his mouth. There she was, against the aureate backcloth of a sakarama screen next to the bar, toward which she was sliding, still upright, about to be seated, having already placed one white-gloved hand on the counter. She wore a high-necked, long-sleeved romantic black dress with an ample skirt, fitted bodice and ruffy collar, from the black soft corolla of which her long neck gracefully rose. With a rake’s morose gaze we follow the pure proud line of that throat, of that tilted chin. The glossy red lips are parted, avid and fey, offering a side gleam of large upper teeth. We know, we love that high cheekbone (with an atom of powder puff sticking to the hot pink skin), and the forward upsweep of black lashes and the painted feline eye — all this in profile, we softly repeat. From under the wavy wide brim of her floppy hat of black faille, with a great black bow surmounting it, a spiral of intentionally disarranged, expertly curled bright copper descends her flaming cheek, and the light of the bar’s ‘gem bulbs’ plays on her bouffant front hair, which, as seen laterally, convexes from beneath the extravagant brim of the picture hat right down to her long thin eyebrow. Her Irish profile sweetened by a touch of Russian softness, which adds a look of mysterious expectancy and wistful surprise to her beauty, must be seen, I hope, by the friends and admirers of my memories, as a natural masterpiece incomparably finer and younger than the portrait of the similarily postured lousy jade with her Parisian gueule de guenon on the vile poster painted by that wreck of an artist for Ovenman.

‘Hullo there, Ed,’ said Van to the barman, and she turned at the sound of his dear rasping voice.

‘I didn’t expect you to wear glasses. You almost got le paquet, which I was preparing for the man supposedly "goggling" my hat. Darling Van! Dushka moy!’

‘Your hat,’ he said, ‘is positively lautrémontesque — I mean, lautrecaquesque — no, I can’t form the adjective.’

Ed Barton served Lucette what she called a Chambéryzette.

‘Gin and bitter for me.’

‘I’m so happy and sad,’ she murmured in Russian. ‘Moyo grustnoe schastie! How long will you be in old Lute?’

Van answered he was leaving next day for England, and then on June 3 (this was May 31) would be taking the Admiral Tobakoff back to the States. She would sail with him, she cried, it was a marvelous idea, she didn’t mind whither to drift, really, West, East, Toulouse, Los Teques. He pointed out that it was far too late to obtain a cabin (on that not very grand ship so much shorter than Queen Guinevere), and changed the subject. (3.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): affalés etc.: sprawling in their armchairs.

bouffant: puffed up.

gueule etc.: simian facial angle.

grustnoe etc.: Russ., she addresses him as ‘my sad bliss’.


In his poem Pomnite den' bezotradnyi i seryi... ("Do you remember the cheerless and gray day..." 1899) Blok mentions grustnoe schast'ye (the sad happiness):


Помните день безотрадный и серый,
Лист пожелтевший во мраке зачах...
Всё мне: Любовь и Надежда и Вера
     В Ваших очах!

Помните лунную ночь голубую,
Шли мы, и песня звучала впотьмах...
Я схоронил эту песню живую
     В Ваших очах!

Помните счастье: давно отлетело
Грустное счастье на быстрых крылах...
Только и жило оно и горело
     В Ваших очах!