Russian biks, Dr Hangover, Lute & labruska grape in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 08/19/2021 - 09:57

Describing Ada’s allusions to her affairs of the flesh, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions cockamaroo (Russian ‘biks’), played with a toy cue on the billiard cloth of an oblong board with holes and hoops, bells and pins among which the ping-pong-sized eburnean ball zigzagged with bix-pix concussions:


‘My dear,’ said Van, ‘do help me. She told me about her Valentian estanciero but now the name escapes me and I hate bothering her.’

‘Only she never told you,’ said loyal Lucette, ‘so nothing could escape. Nope. I can’t do that to your sweetheart and mine, because we know you could hit that keyhole with a pistol.’

‘Please, little vixen! I’ll reward you with a very special kiss.’

‘Oh, Van,’ she said over a deep sigh. ‘You promise you won’t tell her I told you?’

‘I promise. No, no, no,’ he went on, assuming a Russian accent, as she, with the abandon of mindless love, was about to press her abdomen to his. ‘Nikak-s net: no lips, no philtrum, no nosetip, no swimming eye. Little vixen’s axilla, just that — unless’ — (drawing back in mock uncertainty) — ‘you shave there?’

‘I stink worse when I do,’ confided simple Lucette and obediently bared one shoulder.

‘Arm up! Point at Paradise! Terra! Venus!’ commanded Van, and for a few synchronized heartbeats, fitted his working mouth to the hot, humid, perilous hollow.

She sat down with a bump on a chair, pressing one hand to her brow.

‘Turn off the footlights,’ said Van. ‘I want the name of that fellow.’

‘Vinelander,’ she answered.

He heard Ada Vinelander’s voice calling for her Glass bed slippers (which, as in Cordulenka’s princessdom too, he found hard to distinguish from dance footwear), and a minute later, without the least interruption in the established tension, Van found himself, in a drunken dream, making violent love to Rose — no, to Ada, but in the rosacean fashion, on a kind of lowboy. She complained he hurt her ‘like a Tiger Turk.’ He went to bed and was about to doze off for good when she left his side. Where was she going? Pet wanted to see the album.

‘I’ll be back in a rubby,’ she said (tribadic schoolgirl slang), ‘so keep awake. From now on by the way, it’s going to be Chère-amie-fait-morata’ — (play on the generic and specific names of the famous fly) — ‘until further notice.’

‘But no sapphic vorschmacks,’ mumbled Van into his pillow.

‘Oh, Van,’ she said, turning to shake her head, one hand on the opal doorknob at the end of an endless room. ‘We’ve been through that so many times! You admit yourself that I am only a pale wild girl with gipsy hair in a deathless ballad, in a nulliverse, in Rattner’s "menald world" where the only principle is random variation. You cannot demand,’ she continued — somewhere between the cheeks of his pillow (for Ada had long vanished with her blood-brown book) — ‘you cannot demand pudicity on the part of a delphinet! You know that I really love only males and, alas, only one man.’

There was always something colorfully impressionistic, but also infantile, about Ada’s allusions to her affairs of the flesh, reminding one of baffle painting, or little glass labyrinths with two peas, or the Ardis throwing-trap — you remember? — which tossed up clay pigeons and pine cones to be shot at, or cockamaroo (Russian ‘biks’), played with a toy cue on the billiard cloth of an oblong board with holes and hoops, bells and pins among which the ping-pong-sized eburnean ball zigzagged with bix-pix concussions.

Tropes are the dreams of speech. Through the boxwood maze and bagatelle arches of Ardis, Van passed into sleep. When he reopened his eyes it was nine a.m. She lay curved away from him, with nothing beyond the opened parenthesis, its contents not yet ready to be enclosed, and the beloved, beautiful, treacherous, blue-black-bronze hair smelt of Ardis, but also of Lucette’s ‘Oh-de-grâce.’

Had she cabled him? Cancelled or Postponed? Mrs Viner — no, Vingolfer, no, Vinelander — first Russki to taste the labruska grape.

‘Mne snitsa saPERnik SHCHASTLEEVOY!’ (Mihail Ivanovich arcating the sand with his cane, humped on his bench under the creamy racemes).

‘I dream of a fortunate rival!’

In the meantime it’s Dr Hangover for me, and his strongest Kaffeina pill. (2.8)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Nikak-s net: Russ., certainly not.

famous fly: see p.109, Serromyia.

Vorschmacks: Germ., hors-d’oeuvres.


Russian biks seems to hint at Alexander Bisk (1883-1973), R. M. Rilke’s first Russian translator and a poet. In his memoir essay Russkiy Parizh, 1906-1908 (“The Russian Paris, 1906-1908,” 1963) Bisk says that 1906 and the next years were the period of pokhmel’ye (hangover) after the outburst of 1905 and tells about his meetings in Paris with Gumilyov:


1906-й и следующие годы были эпохой похмелья после вспышки 1905 года, но в Париже еще царило революционное настроение. Минский читал на русских вечерах стихотворение, которое начиналось: "Пролетарии всех стран, соединяйтесь". Я был совершенно вне политики, но, в виду того, что моя сестра была эсэркой, я читал сочиненное мной бравурное стихотворение "В борьбе обретаешь ты право свое".

Но были и другие вечера, более консервативные. На одном из них одна высокопоставленная дама читала "стихи поэта Гумилева", где, помню, рифмовались "кольца" и "колокольца". Гумилев только недавно начал писать. Я читал там свои "Парижские Сонеты", и Гумилеву особенно понравились последние строчки одного из них:


Лютеция молчала, как и ныне,

И факелы чудовищные жгла.


Он пригласил меня участвовать в журнальчике, который он издавал.

Он успел уже побывать в Африке, и спросил меня, люблю ли я путешествовать. Я ответил, что люблю, но для Африки у меня нет достаточно денег, на что Гумилев ответил: у меня тоже нет денег, а я вот путешествую.

Очень скоро я с Гумилевым рассорился из-за того, что он не прислал мне номера журнала, где были помещены мои стихи.


According to Biks, when he recited his “Paris Sonnets,” Gumilyov especially liked the last lines of one of them:


Lutèce was silent, as nowadays,

and kept burning tremendous torches.


On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) England annexed France in 1815 and Paris is also known as Lute:


In 1885, having completed his prep-school education, he went up to Chose University in England, where his fathers had gone, and traveled from time to time to London or Lute (as prosperous but not overrefined British colonials called that lovely pearl-gray sad city on the other side of the Channel). (1.28)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Lute: from ‘Lutèce’, ancient name of Paris.


In one of his last articles, Bez bozhestva, bez vdokhnoven’ya” (“Without Divinity, without Inspiration,” 1921), Alexander Blok criticizes Gumilyov and the acmeists who, according to Blok, deliberately hush up what is most significant and precious in them, the soul:


Когда отбросишь все эти горькие шутки, становится грустно; ибо Н. Гумилёв и некоторые другие "акмеисты", несомненно даровитые, топят самих себя в холодном болоте бездушных теорий и всяческого формализма; они спят непробудным сном без сновидений; они не имеют и не желают иметь тени представления о русской жизни и о жизни мира вообще; в своей поэзии (а следовательно, и в себе самих) они замалчивают самое главное, единственно ценное: душу. (3)


In his essay Blok mentions oskomina (one of Blok’s favorite words that also occurs in his diaries; nabit’ oskominu means “set the teeth on edge”):


Мы привыкли к окрошке, ботвинье и блинам, и французская травка с уксусом в виде отдельного блюда может понравиться лишь гурманам. Так и "чистая поэзия" лишь на минуту возбуждает интерес и споры среди "специалистов"; споры эти потухают так же быстро, как вспыхнули, и после них остаётся одна оскомина; а "большая публика", никакого участия в этом не принимающая и не обязанная принимать, а требующая только настоящих, живых художественных произведений, верхним чутьём догадывается, что в литературе не совсем благополучно, и начинает относиться к литературе новейшей совсем иначе, чем к литературе старой. (1)


In a letter to his brother Sebastian Knight (the title character in VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941) mentions osskomina and vypolziny (shed snake-skins or pupae shed by insects):


I am fed up [osskomina] with a number of tortuous things and especially with the patterns of my shed snake-skins [vypolziny] so that now I find a poetic solace in the obvious and the ordinary which for some reason or other I had overlooked in the course of my life. (Chapter 19)


Sebastian’s vypolziny bring to mind the opening and closing lines of Gumilyov’s poem Pamyat’ (“Memory,” 1921):


Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,
Чтоб душа старела и росла.
Мы, увы, со змеями не схожи,
Мы меняем души, не тела.

Only snakes shed their skin,
So their souls can age and grow.
We, alas, do not resemble snakes,
We change souls, not bodies.


Крикну я... но разве кто поможет,
Чтоб моя душа не умерла?
Только змеи сбрасывают кожи,
Мы меняем души, не тела.

I will cry out... but who can prevent
My soul from dying?
Only snakes shed their skin
We change souls, not bodies.


Van calls Lucette (Van's and Ada's half-sister) "little vixen." Vixen means "she-fox." Krylov’s fable Lisitsa i vinograd (“The She-Fox and the Grapes,” 1808) ends in the line Totchas oskominu nab’yosh’ (At once you’ll set your teeth on edge):


Голодная кума Лиса залезла в сад;
‎В нём винограду кисти рделись.
У кумушки глаза и зубы разгорелись;
А кисти сочные, как яхонты горят;
‎Лишь то беда, висят они высоко:
‎Отколь и как она к ним ни зайдёт,
‎Хоть видит око,
‎Да зуб неймёт.
‎Пробившись попусту час целой,
Пошла и говорит с досадою: «Ну, что́ ж!
‎На взгляд-то он хорош,
‎Да зелен — ягодки нет зрелой:
‎Тотчас оскомину набьешь».


The ancestor of Ada’s future husband, Andrey Vinelader, was the first Russki to taste the labruska grape. Vitis labrusca is also known as the fox grape.


Describing his meeting with Lucette in Paris (Lute) 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 the last quatrain of his poem Pomnite den' bezotradnyi i seryi... ("Do you remember the cheerless and gray day..." 1899) Blok mentions grustnoe schast'ye (the sad bliss):


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!