floramors & trains in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/15/2021 - 19:25

According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969), Eric Veen (the young author of an essay entitled ‘Villa Venus: an Organized Dream’) derived his project from reading too many erotic works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole:


In the spring of 1869, David van Veen, a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction (in no way related to the Veens of our rambling romance), escaped uninjured when the motorcar he was driving from Cannes to Calais blew a front tire on a frost-blazed road and tore into a parked furniture van; his daughter sitting beside him was instantly killed by a suitcase sailing into her from behind and breaking her neck. In his London studio her husband, an unbalanced, unsuccessful painter (ten years older than his father-in-law whom he envied and despised) shot himself upon receiving the news by cablegram from a village in Normandy called, dreadfully, Deuil.

The momentum of disaster lost none of its speed, for neither did Eric, a boy of fifteen, despite all the care and adoration which his grandfather surrounded him with, escape a freakish fate: a fate strangely similar to his mother’s.

After being removed from Note to a small private school in Vaud Canton and then spending a consumptive summer in the Maritime Alps, he was sent to Ex-en-Valais, whose crystal air was supposed at the time to strengthen young lungs; instead of which its worst hurricane hurled a roof tile at him, fatally fracturing his skull, Among the boy’s belongings David van Veen found a number of poems and the draft of an essay entitled’ Villa Venus: an Organized Dream.’

To put it bluntly, the boy had sought to solace his first sexual torments by imagining and detailing a project (derived from reading too many erotic works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole): namely, a chain of palatial brothels that his inheritance would allow him to establish all over ‘both hemispheres of our callipygian globe.’ The little chap saw it as a kind of fashionable club, with branches, or, in his poetical phrase, ‘Floramors,’ in the vicinity of cities and spas. Membership was to be restricted to noblemen, ‘handsome and healthy,’ with an age limit of fifty (which must be praised as very broadminded on the poor kid’s part), paying a yearly fee of 3650 guineas not counting the cost of bouquets, jewels and other gallant donations. Resident female physicians, good-looking and young (‘of the American secretarial or dentist-assistant type’), would be there to check the intimate physical condition of ‘the caresser and the caressed’ (another felicitous formula) as well as their own if ‘the need arose,’ One clause in the Rules of the Club seemed to indicate that Eric, though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect): at least two of the maximum number of fifty inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys, wearing frontlets and short smocks, not older than fourteen if fair, and not more than twelve if dark. However, in order to exclude a regular flow of ‘inveterate pederasts,’ boy love could be dabbled in by the jaded guest only between two sequences of three girls each, all possessed in the course of the same week — a somewhat comical, but not unshrewd, stipulation. (2.3)


In a letter (that had never been sent) of March 28, 1857, from Geneva to Ivan Turgenev in Paris Leo Tolstoy says that railway is to journey what brothel is to love – as comfortable, but also as inhumanly mechanical and deadly monotonous:


Хоть несколько слов, да напишу вам, дорогой Иван Сергеич, потому что ужасно много думал о вас всю дорогу. Вчера вечером, в 8 часов, когда я после поганой железной дороги пересел в дилижанс на открытое место и увидал дорогу, лунную ночь, все эти звуки и духи дорожные, всю мою тоску и болезнь как рукой сняло или, скорей, превратило в эту тихую, трогательную радость, которую вы знаете. Отлично я сделал, что уехал из этого содома. Ради Бога, уезжайте куда-нибудь и вы, но только не по железной дороге. Железная дорога к путешествию то, что бардель к любви — так же удобно, но так же нечеловечески машинально и убийственно однообразно.


At the end of the preceding chapter of Ada Van falls asleep, imagining long railway travels:


A sense of otiose emptiness was all Van derived from those contacts with Literature. Even while writing his book, he had become painfully aware how little he knew his own planet while attempting to piece together another one from jagged bits filched from deranged brains. He decided that after completing his medical studies at Kingston (which he found more congenial than good old Chose) he would undertake long travels in South America, Africa, India. As a boy of fifteen (Eric Veen’s age of florescence) he had studied with a poet’s passion the time-table of three great American transcontinental trains that one day he would take — not alone (now alone). From Manhattan, via Mephisto, El Paso, Meksikansk and the Panama Chunnel, the dark-red New World Express reached Brazilia and Witch (or Viedma, founded by a Russian admiral). There it split into two parts, the eastern one continuing to Grant’s Horn, and the western returning north through Valparaiso and Bogota. On alternate days the fabulous journey began in Yukonsk, a two-way section going to the Atlantic seaboard, while another, via California and Central America, roared into Uruguay. The dark blue African Express began in London and reached the Cape by three different routes, through Nigero, Rodosia or Ephiopia. Finally, the brown Orient Express joined London to Ceylon and Sydney, via Turkey and several Chunnels. It is not clear, when you are falling asleep, why all continents except you begin with an A.

Those three admirable trains included at least two carriages in which a fastidious traveler could rent a bedroom with bath and water closet, and a drawing room with a piano or a harp. The length of the journey varied according to Van’s predormient mood when at Eric’s age he imagined the landscapes unfolding all along his comfortable, too comfortable, fauteuil. Through rain forests and mountain canyons and other fascinating places (oh, name them! Can’t — falling asleep), the room moved as slowly as fifteen miles per hour but across desertorum or agricultural drearies it attained seventy, ninety-seven night-nine, one hund, red dog — (2.2)


The main character in Turgenev's novel Ottsy i deti ("Fathers and Sons," 1862), Bazarov sees red dogs in his deathbed delirium.


According to Van, all the hundred floramors opened simultaneously on September 20, 1875:


His nephew and heir, an honest but astoundingly stuffy clothier in Ruinen (somewhere near Zwolle, I’m told), with a large family and a small trade, was not cheated out of the millions of guldens, about the apparent squandering of which he had been consulting mental specialists during the last ten years or so. All the hundred floramors opened simultaneously on September 20, 1875 (and by a delicious coincidence the old Russian word for September, ‘ryuen’,’ which might have spelled ‘ruin,’ also echoed the name of the ecstatic Neverlander’s hometown). (2.3).


In a letter of 7/19 September, 1875, to N. V. Khanykov Turgenev says that on the next day (September 20, 1875, NS) he will move to the new-built chalet at his and Viardot's villa Les frênes ("The Ash Trees") in Bougival:


Я Вас приму в новом своём доме, куда завтра переселяюсь, а г-н и г-жа Виардо будут очень довольны, если Вы при сей оказии останетесь у них обедать, и просят меня пригласить Вас, так же как Салтыкова и Соллогуба.


In Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel La dame aux camélias (1848) subsequently adapted by the author for the stage the action takes place in Bougival. In Chekhov’s play Chayka (“The Seagull,” 1896) Treplev speaks of his mother Arkadina (the ageing actress) and mentions Dumas’s play:


Нужно хвалить только её одну, нужно писать о ней, кричать, восторгаться её необыкновенною игрой в "La dame aux camelias" или в "Чад жизни", но так как здесь, в деревне, нет этого дурмана, то вот она скучает и злится, и все мы - её враги, все мы виноваты.


She alone must be praised and written about, raved over, her marvelous acting in “La Dame aux Camelias” or in “The Fumes of Life” extolled to the skies. As she cannot get all that intoxicant in the country, she grows peevish and cross, and thinks we are all against her, and to blame for it all. (Act One)


The characters in Chekhov’s play include the writer Trigorin whom critics compare to Tolstoy and Turgenev:


Нина. Позвольте, но разве вдохновение и самый процесс творчества не дают вам высоких, счастливых минут?
Тригорин. Да. Когда пишу, приятно. И корректуру читать приятно, но… едва вышло из печати, как я не выношу и вижу уже, что оно не то, ошибка, что его не следовало бы писать вовсе, и мне досадно, на душе дрянно… (Смеясь.) А публика читает: «Да, мило, талантливо… Мило, но далеко до Толстого», или: «Прекрасная вещь, но „Отцы и дети“ Тургенева лучше». И так до гробовой доски все будет только мило и талантливо, мило и талантливо — больше ничего, а как умру, знакомые, проходя мимо могилы, будут говорить: «Здесь лежит Тригорин. Хороший был писатель, но он писал хуже Тургенева».


Nina. Yes, but look – there is inspiration, the creative process. Does not that give you moments of ecstasy?

Trigorin. Yes, it's a pleasant feeling writing;... and looking over proofs is pleasant too. But as soon as the thing is published my heart sinks, and I see that it is a failure, a mistake, that I ought not to have written it at all; then I am angry with myself, and feel horrible.... [Laughing] And the public reads it and says: "How charming! How clever!... How charming, but not a patch on Tolstoy!" or "It's a delightful story, but not so good as Turgenev's 'Fathers and Sons.'" And so on, to my dying day, my writings will always be clever and charming, clever and charming, nothing more. And when I die, my friends, passing by my grave, will say: "Here lies Trigorin. He was a charming writer, but not so good as Turgenev." (Act Two) 


According to Dahl, ryuen’ (the old Russian word for "September") comes from ryov oleney (the roar of deer). In his book Chto takoe iskusstvo? (“What is Art?” 1898) Leo Tolstoy says that he lately read about a theatrical performance among the savage tribe, the Voguls (this story was recommended to Tolstoy by Chekhov):


Я, помню, видел представление Гамлета Росси, и самая трагедия и актёр, игравший главную роль, считаются нашими критиками последним словом драматического искусства. А между тем я всё время испытывал и от самого содержания драмы, и от представления то особенное страдание, которое производят фальшивые подобия произведений искусства. И недавно я прочёл рассказ о театре у дикого народа вогулов. Одним из присутствовавших описывается такое представление: один большой вогул, другой маленький, оба одеты в оленьи шкуры, изображают - один самку оленя, другой - детёныша. Третий вогул изображает охотника с луком и на лыжах, четвёртый голосом изображает птичку, предупреждающую оленя об опасности. Драма в том, что охотник бежит по следу оленьей матки с детёнышем. Олени убегают со сцены и снова прибегают. Такое представление происходит в маленькой юрте. Охотник всё ближе и ближе к преследуемым. Оленёнок измучен и жмётся к матери. Самка останавливается, чтобы передохнуть. Охотник догоняет и целится. В это время птичка пищит, извещая оленей об опасности. Олени убегают. Опять преследование, и опять охотник приближается, догоняет и пускает стрелу. Стрела попадает в детёныша. Детёныш не может бежать, жмется к матери, мать лижет ему рану. Охотник натягивает другую стрелу. Зрители, как описывает присутствующий, замирают, и в публике слышатся тяжёлые вздохи и даже плач. И я по одному описанию почувствовал, что это было истинное произведение искусства.


I remember seeing Rossi’s performance of Hamlet, in which the tragedy itself and the actor playing the leading role are considered by our critics to be the last word in dramatic art. And yet, during the whole time of the performance, I experienced both from the content of the play and from its performance that special suffering produced by false simulacra of artistic works. And I lately read of a theatrical performance among the savage tribe, the Voguls. A spectator describes the play. A big Vogul and a little one, both dressed in reindeer skins, represent a reindeer-doe and its young. A third Vogul with a bow, represents a huntsman on snow-shoes, and a fourth imitates with his voice a bird that warns the reindeer of their danger. The drama is that the huntsman follows the track that the doe with its young one has traveled. The deer run off scene and again reappear. (Such performances take place in a small tent-house.) The huntsman gains more and more on the pursued. The little deer is tired, and presses against its mother. The doe stops to draw breath. The hunter comes up with them and draws his bow. But just then the bird sounds its note, warning the deer of their danger. They escape. Again there is a chase, and again the hunter gains on them, catches them and lets fly his arrow. The arrow strikes the young deer. Unable to run, the little one presses against its mother. The mother licks its wound. The hunter draws another arrow. The audience, as the eye-witness describes them, are paralyzed with suspense; deep groans and even weeping is heard among them. And, from the mere description, I felt that this was a true work of art.


In his essay on Chekhov, Tvorchestvo iz nichego (“Creation from Nothing,” 1905), Lev Shestov speaks of Chekhov’s story Palata No. 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) and points out that the doctor dies beautifully: before his death he sees stado oleney (a herd of deer), etc.:


И, кажется, “Палату № 6” в своё время очень сочувственно приняли. Кстати прибавим, что доктор умирает очень красиво: в последние минуты видит стадо оленей и т. п. (VI)


Stado (a herd) comes from sto (hundred). A heard of deer that Dr Ragin sees before his death brings to mind a doe at gaze mentioned by Van at the end of Ada:


Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more. (5.6)


In a letter of Nov. 25, 1892, to Suvorin Chekhov modestly compares his story Palata No. 6 (“Ward Six,” 1892) to lemonade and says that the works of contemporary artists lack the alcohol that would intoxicate the reader/viewer:


Вас нетрудно понять, и Вы напрасно браните себя за то, что неясно выражаетесь. Вы горький пьяница, а я угостил Вас сладким лимонадом, и Вы, отдавая должное лимонаду, справедливо замечаете, что в нем нет спирта. В наших произведениях нет именно алкоголя, который бы пьянил и порабощал, и это Вы хорошо даете понять. Отчего нет? Оставляя в стороне "Палату No 6" и меня самого, будем говорить вообще, ибо это интересней. Будем говорить об общих причинах, коли Вам не скучно, и давайте захватим целую эпоху. Скажите по совести, кто из моих сверстников, т. е. людей в возрасте 30--45 лет, дал миру хотя одну каплю алкоголя? Разве Короленко, Надсон и все нынешние драматурги не лимонад? Разве картины Репина или Шишкина кружили Вам голову? Мило, талантливо, Вы восхищаетесь и в то же время никак не можете забыть, что Вам хочется курить. Наука и техника переживают теперь великое время, для нашего же брата это время рыхлое, кислое, скучное, сами мы кислы и скучны, умеем рождать только гуттаперчевых мальчиков, и не видит этого только Стасов, которому природа дала редкую способность пьянеть даже от помоев. Причины тут не в глупости нашей, не в бездарности и не в наглости, как думает Буренин, а в болезни, которая для художника хуже сифилиса и полового истощения. У нас нет "чего-то", это справедливо, и это значит, что поднимите подол нашей музе, и Вы увидите там плоское место. Вспомните, что писатели, которых мы называем вечными или просто хорошими и которые пьянят нас, имеют один общий и весьма важный признак: они куда-то идут и Вас зовут туда же, и Вы чувствуете не умом, а всем своим существом, что у них есть какая-то цель, как у тени отца Гамлета, которая недаром приходила и тревожила воображение. У одних, смотря по калибру, цели ближайшие -- крепостное право, освобождение родины, политика, красота или просто водка, как у Дениса Давыдова, у других цели отдалённые -- бог, загробная жизнь, счастье человечества и т. п. Лучшие из них реальны и пишут жизнь такою, какая она есть, но оттого, что каждая строчка пропитана, как соком, сознанием цели, Вы, кроме жизни, какая есть, чувствуете ещё ту жизнь, какая должна быть, и это пленяет Вас.


It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions—the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside "Ward No. 6" and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let ms discuss the general causes, if that won't bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries—that is, men between thirty and forty-five—have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Repin's or Shishkin's pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can't forget that you want to smoke. Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, and dull time. We are stale and dull ourselves, we can only beget gutta-percha boys, and the only person who does not see that is Stasov, to whom nature has given a rare faculty for getting drunk on slops. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, as Burenin imagines, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack "something," that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet's father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects—the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects—God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line's being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you.