According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969), after visiting Radugalet (the ‘other Ardis’), Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) conjectured that Grandpa Bagrov (who hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir) mistook her for a grande cocotte:
Before his boarding-school days started, his father’s pretty house, in Florentine style, between two vacant lots (5 Park Lane in Manhattan), had been Van’s winter home (two giant guards were soon to rise on both sides of it, ready to frog-march it away), unless they journeyed abroad. Summers in Radugalet, the ‘other Ardis,’ were so much colder and duller than those here in this, Ada’s, Ardis. Once he even spent both winter and summer there; it must have been in 1878.
Of course, of course, because that was the first time, Ada recalled, she had glimpsed him. In his little white sailor suit and blue sailor cap. (Un régulier angelochek, commented Van in the Raduga jargon.) He was eight, she was six. Uncle Dan had unexpectedly expressed the desire to revisit the old estate. At the last moment Marina had said she’d come too, despite Dan’s protests, and had lifted little Ada, hopla, with her hoop, into the calèche. They took, she imagined, the train from Ladoga to Raduga, for she remembered the way the station man with the whistle around his neck went along the platform, past the coaches of the stopped local, banging shut door after door, all six doors of every carriage, each of which consisted of six one-window carrosses of pumpkin origin, fused together. It was, Van suggested, a ‘tower in the mist’ (as she called any good recollection), and then a conductor walked on the running board of every coach with the train also running and opened doors all over again to give, punch, collect tickets, and lick his thumb, and change money, a hell of a job, but another ‘mauve tower.’ Did they hire a motor landaulet to Radugalet? Ten miles, she guessed. Ten versts, said Van. She stood corrected. He was out, he imagined, na progulke (promenading) in the gloomy firwood with Aksakov, his tutor, and Bagrov’s grandson, a neighbor’s boy, whom he teased and pinched and made horrible fun of, a nice quiet little fellow who quietly massacred moles and anything else with fur on, probably pathological. However, when they arrived, it became instantly clear that Demon had not expected ladies. He was on the terrace drinking goldwine (sweet whisky) with an orphan he had adopted, he said, a lovely Irish wild rose in whom Marina at once recognized an impudent scullery maid who had briefly worked at Ardis Hall, and had been ravished by an unknown gentleman — who was now well-known. In those days Uncle Dan wore a monocle in gay-dog copy of his cousin, and this he screwed in to view Rose, whom perhaps he had also been promised (here Van interrupted his interlocutor telling her to mind her vocabulary). The party was a disaster. The orphan languidly took off her pearl earrings for Marina’s appraisal. Grandpa Bagrov hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir and mistook Marina for a grande cocotte as the enraged lady conjectured later when she had a chance to get at poor Dan. Instead of staying for the night, Marina stalked off and called Ada who, having been told to ‘play in the garden,’ was mumbling and numbering in raw-flesh red the white trunks of a row of young birches with Rose’s purloined lipstick in the preamble to a game she now could not remember — what a pity, said Van — when her mother swept her back straight to Ardis in the same taxi leaving Dan — to his devices and vices, inserted Van — and arriving home at sunrise. But, added Ada, just before being whisked away and deprived of her crayon (tossed out by Marina k chertyam sobach’im, to hell’s hounds — and it did remind one of Rose’s terrier that had kept trying to hug Dan’s leg) the charming glimpse was granted her of tiny Van, with another sweet boy, and blond-bearded, white-bloused Aksakov, walking up to the house, and, oh yes, she had forgotten her hoop — no, it was still in the taxi. But, personally, Van had not the slightest recollection of that visit or indeed of that particular summer, because his father’s life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time, and he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than once himself, which did not interest Ada. (1.24)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Bagrov’s grandson: allusion to Childhood Years of Bagrov’s Grandson by the minor writer Sergey Aksakov (A.D. 1791-1859).
In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) the narrator (Sebastian’s half-brother V.) says that Sebastian could not have tolerated a grande cocotte hinting at a craving for bhang:
My first impression was that I had got what I wanted – that at least I knew who Sebastian's mistress had been; but presently I cooled down. Could it have been she, that windbag's first wife? I wondered as a taxi took me to my next address. Was it really worthwhile following that plausible, too plausible trail? Was not the image Pahl Pahlich had conjured up a trifle too obvious? The whimsical wanton that ruins a foolish man's life. But was Sebastian foolish? I called to mind his acute distaste for the obvious bad and the obvious good; for ready-made forms of pleasure and hackneyed forms of distress. A girl of that type would have got on his nerves immediately. For what could her conversation have been, if indeed she had managed to get acquainted with that quiet, unsociable, absent-minded Englishman at the Beaumont Hotel? Surely, after the very first airing of her notions, he would have avoided her. He used to say, I know, that fast girls had slow minds and that there could be nothing duller than a pretty woman who likes fun; even more: that if you looked well at the prettiest girl while she was exuding the cream of the commonplace, you were sure to find some minute blemish in her beauty, corresponding to her habits of thought. He would not mind perhaps having a bite at the apple of sin because, apart from solecisms, he was indifferent to the idea of sin; but he did mind apple-jelly, potted and patented. He might have forgiven a woman for being a flirt, but he would never have stood a sham mystery. He might have been amused by a hussy getting drunk on beer, but he could not have tolerated a grande cocotte hinting at a craving for bhang. The more I thought of it, the less possible it seemed…. At any rate, I ought not to bother about that girl until I had examined the two other possibilities. (Chapter 16)
Bhang is an edible preparation made from the leaves of the cannabis plant originating from the Indian Subcontinent. According to Van, Marina believed that she had been a dancing girl in India long before Moses or anybody was born in the lotus swamp:
Now Lucette demanded her mother’s attention.
‘What are Jews?’ she asked.
‘Dissident Christians,’ answered Marina.
‘Why is Greg a Jew?’ asked Lucette.
‘Why-why!’ said Marina; ‘because his parents are Jews.’
‘And his grandparents? His arrière grandparents?’
‘I really wouldn’t know, my dear. Were your ancestors Jews, Greg?’
‘Well, I’m not sure,’ said Greg. ‘Hebrews, yes — but not Jews in quotes — I mean, not comic characters or Christian businessmen. They came from Tartary to England five centuries ago. My mother’s grandfather, though, was a French marquis who, I know, belonged to the Roman faith and was crazy about banks and stocks and jewels, so I imagine people may have called him un juif.’
‘It’s not a very old religion, anyway, as religions go, is it?’ said Marina (turning to Van and vaguely planning to steer the chat to India where she had been a dancing girl long before Moses or anybody was born in the lotus swamp).
‘Who cares —’ said Van.
‘And Belle’ (Lucette’s name for her governess), ‘is she also a dizzy Christian?’
‘Who cares,’ cried Van, ‘who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter — Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind.’
‘How did this idiotic conversation start in the first place?’ Ada wished to be told, cocking her head at the partly ornamented dackel or taksik.
‘Mea culpa,’ Mlle Larivière explained with offended dignity. ‘All I said, at the picnic, was that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches, because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.’
‘The Romans,’ said Greg, ‘the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.’
Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.
‘When I was a little girl,’ said Marina crossly, ‘Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.’
‘Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,’ observed Ada.
‘Are we Mesopotamians?’ asked Lucette.
‘We are Hippopotamians,’ said Van. ‘Come,’ he added, ‘we have not yet ploughed today.’
A day or two before, Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. Dack barked in strident protest. (1.14)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): un juif: a Jew.
In a conversation with Van in “Ardis the Second” Marina compares genes to chess knights:
The dog came in, turned up a brimming brown eye Vanward, toddled up to the window, looked at the rain like a little person, and returned to his filthy cushion in the next room.
‘I could never stand that breed,’ remarked Van. ‘Dackelophobia.’
‘But girls — do you like girls, Van, do you have many girls? You are not a pederast, like your poor uncle, are you? We have had some dreadful perverts in our ancestry but — Why do you laugh?’
‘Nothing,’ said Van. ‘I just want to put on record that I adore girls. I had my first one when I was fourteen. Mais qui me rendra mon Hélène? She had raven black hair and a skin like skimmed milk. I had lots of much creamier ones later. I kazhetsya chto v etom?’
‘How strange, how sad! Sad, because I know hardly anything about your life, my darling (moy dushka). The Zemskis were terrible rakes (razvratniki), one of them loved small girls, and another raffolait d’une de ses juments and had her tied up in a special way-don’t ask me how’ (double hand gesture of horrified ignorance ‘— when he dated her in her stall. Kstati (à propos), I could never understand how heredity is transmitted by bachelors, unless genes can jump like chess knights. I almost beat you, last time we played, we must play again, not today, though — I’m too sad today. I would have liked so much to know everything, everything, about you, but now it’s too late. Recollections are always a little "stylized" (stilizovanï), as your father used to say, an irrisistible and hateful man, and now, even if you showed me your old diaries, I could no longer whip up any real emotional reaction to them, though all actresses can shed tears, as I’m doing now. You see (rummaging for her handkerchief under her pillow), when children are still quite tiny (takie malyutki), we cannot imagine that we can go without them, for even a couple of days, and later we do, and it’s a couple of weeks, and later it’s months, gray years, black decades, and then the opéra bouffe of the Christians’ eternity. I think even the shortest separation is a kind of training for the Elysian Games — who said that? I said that. And your costume, though very becoming, is, in a sense, traurnïy (funerary). I’m spouting drivel. Forgive me these idiotic tears... Tell me, is there anything I could do for you? Do think up something! Would you like a beautiful, practically new Peruvian scarf, which he left behind, that crazy boy? No? It’s not your style? Now go. And remember — not a word to poor Mlle Larivière, who means well!’ (1.37)
Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): raffolait etc.: was crazy about one of his mares.
According to V., Sebastian Knight used to draw a small black knight to sign his stories.
Btw., a motor landaulet to Radugalet hired by Marina and Ada brings to mind v landolete benzinovom (in a gasoline landaulet) in Severyanin’s poem Kenzeli (“Quinzels,” 1911):
В шумном платье муаровом, в шумном платье муаровом
По аллее олуненной Вы проходите морево...
Ваше платье изысканно, Ваша тальма лазорева,
А дорожка песочная от листвы разузорена –
Точно лапы паучные, точно мех ягуаровый.
Для утонченной женщины ночь всегда новобрачная...
Упоенье любовное Вам судьбой предназначено...
В шумном платье муаровом, в шумном платье муаровом –
Вы такая эстетная, Вы такая изящная...
Но кого же в любовники? и найдется ли пара Вам?
Ножки плэдом закутайте дорогим, ягуаровым,
И, садясь комфортабельно в ландолете бензиновом,
Жизнь доверьте Вы мальчику, в макинтоше резиновом,
И закройте глаза ему Вашим платьем жасминовым –
Шумным платьем муаровым, шумным платьем муаровым!..
A phrase used by Van, na progulke (promenading), may hint at Severyanin's poem Progulka miss ("A Promenade of the Miss"):
Мисс по утрам сопровождает лайка,
Предленчные прогулки любит мисс
И говорит собачке: «Что ж! полай-ка
На воробья, но вовремя уймись…»
Забавно пёс рондолит острый хвостик,
С улыбкою смотря на госпожу;
Они идут на грациозный мостик,
Где их встречать предложено пажу.
Попробуем пажа принять за лорда
И прекратим на этом о паже…
— Кто понял смысл последнего аккорда,
Тот автору сочувствует уже.