musky smell in Ada & in Lolita

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/21/2021 - 07:06

Describing his verbal nightmare that he had a few days before he his mother for the last time, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the musky smell in the Miramas (Bouches Rouges-du-Rhône) Villa Venus:


Early in 1900, a few days before he saw Marina, for the last time, at the clinic in Nice (where he learned for the first time the name of her illness), Van had a ‘verbal’ nightmare, caused, maybe, by the musky smell in the Miramas (Bouches Rouges-du-Rhône) Villa Venus. Two formless fat transparent creatures were engaged in some discussion, one repeating ‘I can’t!’ (meaning ‘can’t die’ — a difficult procedure to carry out voluntarily, without the help of the dagger, the ball, or the bowl), and the other affirming ‘You can, sir!’ She died a fortnight later, and her body was burnt, according to her instructions.

Van, a lucid soul, considered himself less brave morally than physically. He was always (meaning well into the nineteen-sixties) to recollect with reluctance, as if wishing to suppress in his mind a petty, timorous, and stupid deed (for, actually, who knows, the later antlers might have been set right then, with green lamps greening green growths before the hotel where the Vinelanders stayed) his reacting from Kingston to Lucette’s cable from Nice (‘Mother died this morning the funeral dash cremation dash is to be held after tomorrow at sundown’) with the request to advise him (‘please advise’) who else would be there, and upon getting her prompt reply that Demon had already arrived with Andrey and Ada, his cabling back: ‘Désolé de ne pouvoir être avec vous.’ (3.1)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): désolé etc.: distressed at being unable to be with you.


Adelaide de Miramas, ou le Fanatisme protestan is a lost historical work by Marquis de Sade. In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Clare Quilty tells to Humbert Humbert (who came to kill Quilty) that he has made a private movie out of Justine (a novel by Marquis de Sade) and other eighteenth-century sexcapades:


“My dear sir,” he said, “stop trifling with life and death. I am a playwright. I have written tragedies, comedies, fantasies. I have made private movies out of Justine and other eighteenth-century sexcapades. I’m the author of fifty-two successful scenarios. I know all the ropes. Let me handle this. There should be a poker somewhere, why don’t I fetch it, and then we’ll fish out your property.” (2.35)


Describing his childhood romance with Annabel Leigh, Humbert mentions a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume that Annabel (whose mother’s maiden name was Vanessa van Ness) stole from her mother’s Spanish maid:


I recall the scent of some kind of toilet powder - I believe she stole it from her mother’s Spanish maid - a sweetish, lowly, musky perfume. It mingled with her own biscuity odor, and my senses were suddenly filled to the brim; a sudden commotion in a nearby bush prevented them from overflowing - and as we drew away from each other, and with aching veins attended to what was probably a prowling cat, there came from the house her mother’s voice calling her, with a rising frantic note - and Dr. Cooper ponderously limped out into the garden. But that mimosa grove - the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since - until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another. (1.4)


Trying to teach Lolita to play tennis, Humbert recalls gay, innocent, elegant Annabel and mentions a faint musky fragrance of Lolita’s coeval with whom she preferred to play tennis:


I tried to teach her to play tennis so we might have more amusements in common; but although I had been a good player in my prime, I proved to be hopeless as a teacher; and so, in California, I got her to take a number of very expensive lessons with a famous coach, a husky, wrinkled old-timer, with a harem of ball boys; he looked an awful wreck off the court, but now and then, when, in the course of a lesson, to keep up the exchange, he would put out as it were an exquisite spring blossom of a stroke and twang the ball back to his pupil, that divine delicacy of absolute power made me recall that, thirty years before, I had seen him in Cannes demolish the great Gobbert! Until she began taking those lessons, I thought she would never learn the game. On this or that hotel court I would drill Lo, and try to relive the days when in a hot gale, a daze of dust, and queer lassitude, I fed ball after ball to gay, innocent, elegant Annabel (gleam of bracelet, pleated white skirt, black velvet hair band). With every word of persistent advice I would only augment Lo’s sullen fury. To our games, oddly enough, she preferred - at least, before we reached California - formless pat ball approximations - more ball hunting than actual play - with a wispy, weak, wonderfully pretty in an ange gauche way coeval. A helpful spectator, I would go up to that other child, and inhale her faint musky fragrance as I touched her forearm and held her knobby wrist, and push this way or that her cool thigh to show her the back-hand stance. In the meantime, Lo, bending forward, would let her sunny-brown curls hang forward as she stuck her racket, like a cripple’s stick, into the ground and emitted a tremendous ugh of disgust at my intrusion. I would leave them to their game and look on, comparing their bodies in motion, a silk scarf round my throat; this was in south Arizona, I think - and the days had a lazy lining warmth, and awkward Lo would slash at the ball and miss it, and curse, and send a simulacrum of a serve into the net, and show the wet glistening young down of her armpit as she brandished her racket in despair, and her even more insipid partner would dutifully rush out after every ball, and retrieve none; but both were enjoying themselves beautifully, and in clear ringing tones kept the exact score of their ineptitudes all the time. (2.2)


While Humbert is away to attend to a (fake) phone call from Beardsley, Quilty (the author of The Golden Guts) joins Lolita and another couple to play tennis with them:


Two people in tennis shorts, a red-haired fellow only about eight years my junior, and an indolent dark girl with a moody mouth and hard eyes, about two years Lolita’s senior, appeared from nowhere. As is common with dutiful tyros, their rackets were sheathed and framed, and they carried them not as if they were the natural and comfortable extensions of certain specialized muscles, but hammers or blunderbusses or whimbles, or my own dreadful cumbersome sins. Rather unceremoniously seating themselves near my precious coat, on a bench adjacent to the court, they fell to admiring very vocally a rally of some fifty exchanges that Lo innocently helped me to foster and uphold - until there occurred a syncope in the series causing her to gasp as her overhead smash went out of court, whereupon she melted into winsome merriment, my golden pet.

I felt thirsty by then, and walked to the drinking fountain; there Red approached me and in all humility suggested a mixed double. “I am Bill Mead,” he said. “And that’s Fay Page, actress. Maffy On Say” - he added (pointing with his ridiculously hooded racket at polished Fay who was already talking to Dolly). I was about to reply “Sorry, but” (for I hate to have my filly involved in the chops and jabs of cheap bunglers), when a remarkably melodious cry diverted my attention: a bellboy was tripping down the steps from the hotel to our court and making me signs. I was wanted, if you please, on an urgent long distance call - so urgent in fact that the line was being held for me. Certainly. I got into my coat (inside pocket heavy with pistol) and told Lo I would be back in a minute. She was picking up a ball - in the continental foot-racket way which was one of the few nice things I had taught her, and smiled - she smiled at me!

An awful calm kept my heart afloat as I followed the boy up to the hotel. This, to use an American term, in which discovery, retribution, torture, death, eternity appear in the shape of a singularly repulsive nutshell, was it  . I had left her in mediocre hands, but it hardly mattered now. I would fight, of course. Oh, I would fight. Better destroy everything than surrender her. Yes, quite a climb.

At the desk, dignified, Roman-nosed man, with, I suggest, a very obscure past that might reward investigation, handed me a message in his own hand. The line had not been held after all. The note said:

“Mr. Humbert. The head of Birdsley (sic!) School called. Summer residence - Birdsley 2-8282. Please call back immediately. Highly important.”

I folded myself into a booth, took a little pill, and four about twenty minutes tussled with space-spooks. A quartet of propositions gradually became audible: soprano, there was no such number in Beardsley; alto, Miss Pratt was on her way to England; tenor, Beardsley School had not telephoned; bass, they could not have done so, since nobody knew I was, that particular day, in Champion, Colo. Upon my stinging him, the Roman took the trouble to find out if there had been a long distance call. There had been none. A fake call from some local dial was not excluded. I thanked him. He said: You bet. After a visit to the purling men’s room and a stiff drink at the bar, I started on my return march. From the very first terrace I saw, far below, on the tennis court which seemed the size of a school child’s ill-wiped slate, golden Lolita playing in a double. She moved like a fair angel among three horrible Boschian cripples. One of these, her partner, while changing sides, jocosely slapped her on her behind with his racket. He had a remarkably round head and wore incongruous brown trousers. There was a momentary flurry - he saw me, and throwing away his racket – mine – scuttled up the slope. He waved his wrists and elbows in a would-be comical imitation of rudimentary wings, as he climbed, blow-legged, to the street, where his gray car awaited him. Next moment he and the grayness were gone. When I came down, the remaining trio were collecting and sorting out the balls.

“Mr. Mead, who was that person?”

Bill and Fay, both looking very solemn, shook their heads.

That absurd intruder had butted in to make up a double, hadn’t he, Dolly?

Dolly. The handle of my racket was still disgustingly warm. Before returning to the hotel, I ushered her into a little alley half-smothered in fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to burst into ripe sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping me, when we found ourselves behind the convulsed Mead twosomeassorted people, you know, meeting among idyllic settings in old comedies. Bill and Fay were both weak with laughter - we had come at the end of their private joke. It did not really matter.

Speaking as if it really did not really matter, and assuming, apparently, that life was automatically rolling on with all its routine pleasures, Lolita said she would like to change into her bathing things, and spend the rest of the afternoon at the swimming pool. It was a gorgeous day. Lolita! (2.20)


“Three horrible Boschian cripples” bring to mind Uncle Dan’s Boschian death in Ada. Like Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother), Jean Farlow (John’s wife, the Farlows are the old friends of the Haze family) dies of cancer. According to Humbert, Jean's long brown legs were about as attractive to him as those of a chestnut mare:


Jean said she had been up there, in a place of green concealment, spying on nature (spies are generally shot), trying to finish a lakescape, but it was no good, she had no talent whatever (which was quite true).” And have you ever tried painting, Humbert?” Charlotte, who was a little jealous of Jean, wanted to know if John was coming.

He was. He was coming home for lunch today. He had dropped her on the way to Parkington and should be picking her up any time now. It was a grand morning. She always felt a traitor to Cavall and Melampus for leaving them roped on such gorgeous days. She sat down on the white sand between Charlotte and me. She wore shorts. Her long brown legs were about as attractive to me as those of a chestnut mare. She showed her gums when she smiled.

“I almost put both of you into my lake,” she said. “I even noticed something you overlooked. You [addressing Humbert] had your wrist watch on in, yes, sir, you had.”

“Waterproof,” said Charlotte softly, making a fish mouth.

Jean took my wrist upon her knee and examined Charlotte’s gift, then put back Humbert’s hand on the sand, palm up.

“You could see anything that way,” remarked Charlotte coquettishly.

Jean sighed. “I once saw,” she said, “two children, male and female, at sunset, right here, making love. Their shadows were giants. And I told you about Mr. Tomson at daybreak. Next time I expect to see fat old Ivor in the ivory. He is really a freak, that man. Last time he told me a completely indecent story about his nephew. It appears - ”

“Hullo there,” said John’s voice. (1.20)


In "nightmare" there is a mare. When Lolita tells Humbert the name of her lover, Humbert remembers Charlotte's "waterproof:"


She said really it was useless, she would never tell, but on the other hand, after all” - Do you really want to know who it was? Well, it was - ”

And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she emitted, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago.

Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness? I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along. There was no shock, no surprise. Quietly the fusion took place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the ripe fruit fall at the right moment; yes, with the express and perverse purpose of renderingshe was talking but I sat melting in my golden peaceof rendering that golden and monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my most inimical reader should experience now. (2.29)