Biskra, po pal'tzam, guba & Sladko in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 08/20/2021 - 18:52

When Ada refuses to leave her sick husband, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) walks some ten kilometers along soggy roads to Rennaz and thence flies to Nice, Biskra, the Cape, Nairobi, the Basset range:


She led him around the hotel to an ugly rotunda, out of the miserable drizzle, and there she attempted to embrace him but he evaded her lips. She was leaving in a few minutes. Heroic, helpless Andrey had been brought back to the hotel in an ambulance. Dorothy had managed to obtain three seats on the Geneva-Phoenix plane. The two cars were taking him, her and the heroic sister straight to the helpless airport.

She asked for a handkerchief, and he pulled out a blue one from his windjacket pocket, but her tears had started to roll and she shaded her eyes, while he stood before her with outstretched hand.

‘Part of the act?’ he inquired coldly.

She shook her head, took the handkerchief with a childish ‘merci,’ blew her nose and gasped, and swallowed, and spoke, and next moment all, all was lost.

She could not tell her husband while he was ill. Van would have to wait until Andrey was sufficiently well to bear the news and that might take some time. Of course, she would have to do everything to have him completely cured, there was a wondermaker in Arizona —

‘Sort of patching up a bloke before hanging him,’ said Van.

‘And to think,’ cried Ada with a kind of square shake of stiff hands as if dropping a lid or a tray, ‘to think that he dutifully concealed everything! Oh, of course, I can’t leave him now!’

‘Yes, the old story — the flute player whose impotence has to be treated, the reckless ensign who may never return from a distant war!’

‘Ne ricane pas!’ exclaimed Ada. ‘The poor, poor little man! How dare you sneer?’

As had been peculiar to his nature even in the days of his youth, Van was apt to relieve a passion of anger and disappointment by means of bombastic and arcane utterances which hurt like a jagged fingernail caught in satin, the lining of Hell.

‘Castle True, Castle Bright!’ he now cried, ‘Helen of Troy, Ada of Ardis! You have betrayed the Tree and the Moth!’

Perestagne (stop, cesse)!’

‘Ardis the First, Ardis the Second, Tanned Man in a Hat, and now Mount Russet —’

‘Perestagne!’ repeated Ada (like a fool dealing with an epileptic).

‘Oh! Qui me rendra mon Hélène —’

Ach, perestagne!’

‘— et le phalène.’

‘Je t’emplie ("prie" and "supplie"), stop, Van. Tu sais que j’en vais mourir.’

‘But, but, but’ — (slapping every time his forehead) — ‘to be on the very brink of, of, of — and then have that idiot turn Keats!’

‘Bozhe moy, I must be going. Say something to me, my darling, my only one, something that might help!’

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. (3.8)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): phalène: moth (see also p.111).

tu sais etc.: you know it will kill me.

Bozhe moy: Russ., oh, my God.


Biskra is a city in Algeria (it is nicknamed "The Queen of the Zibans", "The Door of the Desert" or "The Saharan Nice" because of its location at the beginning of the Sahara Desert). In his poem Skital’tsy (“The Wanderers,” 1924) VN mentions Biskra:


За громадные годы изгнанья,

вся колючим жаром дыша,

исходила ты мирозданья,

о, косматая наша душа.


Семимильных сапог не обула,

и не мчал тебя чародей,

но от пыльных зловоний Стамбула

до парижских литых площадей,


от полярной губы до Бискры,

где с арабом прильнула к ручью,

ты прошла и сыпала искры,

если трогали шерсть твою.


Мне, быть может, преступнее, краше,

голодней всех племен мирских.

От языческой нежности нашей

умирают девушки их.


Слишком вольно душе на свете.

Встанет ветер всея Руси,

и душа скитальцев ответит,

и ей ветер скажет: неси.


И по ребрам дубовых лестниц

мы прикатим с собой на пир

бочки солнца, тугие песни

и в рогожу завернутый мир.


Skital’tsy rhymes with pal’tsy (fingers) and brings to mind po pal’tzam (finger counting), a phrase used by Van. Ot polyarnoy guby do Biskry (From an Arctic gulf to Biskra), a line in VN’s poem, reminds one of guba (lip) mentioned by Van when he describes his and Ada’s kissing phase:


The hugest dictionary in the library said under Lip: ‘Either of a pair of fleshy folds surrounding an orifice.’

Mileyshiy Emile, as Ada called Monsieur Littré, spoke thus: ‘Partie extérieure et charnue qui forme le contour de la bouche... Les deux bords d’une plaie simple’ (we simply speak with our wounds; wounds procreate) ‘...C’est le membre qui lèche.’ Dearest Emile!

A fat little Russian encyclopedia was solely concerned with guba, lip, as meaning a district court in ancient Lyaska or an arctic gulf.

Their lips were absurdly similar in style, tint and tissue. Van’s upper one resembled in shape a long-winged sea bird coming directly at you, while the nether lip, fat and sullen, gave a touch of brutality to his usual expression. Nothing of that brutality existed in the case of Ada’s lips, but the bow shape of the upper one and the largeness of the lower one with its disdainful prominence and opaque pink repeated Van’s mouth in a feminine key.

During our children’s kissing phase (a not particularly healthy fortnight of long messy embraces), some odd pudibund screen cut them off, so to speak, from each other’s raging bodies. But contacts and reactions to contacts could not help coming through like a distant vibration of desperate signals. Endlessly, steadily, delicately, Van would brush his lips against hers, teasing their burning bloom, back and forth, right, left, life, death, reveling in the contrast between the airy tenderness of the open idyll and the gross congestion of the hidden flesh.

There were other kisses. ‘I’d like to taste,’ he said, ‘the inside of your mouth. God, how I’d like to be a goblin-sired Gulliver and explore that cave.’

‘I can lend you my tongue,’ she said, and did. (1.17)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): mileyshiy: Russ., ‘dearest’.

partie etc.: exterior fleshy part that frames the mouth... the two edges of a simple wound... it is the member that licks.


In VN’s play Sobytie (“The Event,” 1938) the famous writer (one of the guests at Antonina Pavlovna’s birthday party) uses the prase guba ne dura ("lip is no fool"):


Писатель. Какая вы отважная. Нда. У этого убийцы губа не дура.


The Writer. What a courageous person you are. This killer knows which side his bread is buttered. (Act Two)

The phrase guba ne dura is a part of the saying guba ne dura, yazyk ne lopatka: znaet chto gor'ko, chto sladko (lip is no fool, tongue is no scoop: knows which is bitter, which is sweet).


According to Van, Pushkin used to exclaim ‘Sladko! (Sweet!)’ when he was bitten by mosquitoes in Yukon:


The ‘pest’ appeared as suddenly as it would vanish. It settled on pretty bare arms and legs without the hint of a hum, in a kind of recueilli silence, that — by contrast — caused the sudden insertion of its absolutely hellish proboscis to resemble the brass crash of a military band. Five minutes after the attack in the crepuscule, between porch step and cricket-crazed garden, a fiery irritation would set in, which the strong and the cold ignored (confident it would last a mere hour) but which the weak, the adorable, the voluptuous took advantage of to scratch and scratch and scratch scrumptiously (canteen cant). ‘Sladko! (Sweet!)’ Pushkin used to exclaim in relation to a different species in Yukon. During the week following her birthday, Ada’s unfortunate fingernails used to stay gamet-stained and after a particularly ecstatic, lost-to-the-world session of scratching, blood literally streamed down her shins — a pity to see, mused her distressed admirer, but at the same time disgracefully fascinating — for we are visitors and investigators in a strange universe, indeed, indeed. (1.17)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): recueilli: concentrated, rapt.

canteen: a reference to the ‘scrumpets’ (crumpets) provided by school canteens.


In May, 1828, besieged by mosquitoes Pushkin actually exclaimed Sladko! in Priyutino, the Olenins’ estate near St. Petersburg, where the poet courted Annette Olenine. In Olenin there is Lenin, and in Biskra there are Bisk and iskra (spark).


Iskra was a newspaper established by Lenin. It had for motto Iz iskry vozgoritsya plamya (“A flame will yet be kindled from the spark”), a line from Alexander Odoevski’s reply to Pushkin’s poem to the Decembrists Vo glubine sibirskikh rud (“In the depth of Siberian ores,” 1827).


In his memoir essay Russkiy Parizh. 1906-1908 (“The Russian Paris. 1906-1908,” 1963) Alexander Bisk (1883-1973) describes his meetings in Paris with Gumilyov, the poet and explorer of Africa who asked Bisk if he loved to travel:


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.


When Van asks her to leave her husband, Ada exclaims perestagne ("stop, cesse!") three times. In Act Three of “The Event” Troshcheykin’s wife Lyubov, as she speaks to her mother, repeats the word perestan’ five times:


Любовь. Перестань, перестань, перестань... Ты меня сама вовлекаешь в какую-то мутную, липкую, пошлую обстановку чувств. Я не хочу! Какое тебе дело до меня? Алёша лезет со своими страхами, а ты со своими. Оставьте меня. Не трогайте меня. Кому какое дело, что меня шесть лет медленно сжимали и вытягивали, пока я не превратилась в какую-то роковую уездную газель - с глазами и больше ни с чем? Я не хочу. И главное, какое ты имеешь право меня допрашивать? Ведь тебе решительно всё равно, ты просто входишь в ритм и потом не можешь остановиться...

Антонина Павловна. Один только вопрос, и я пойду спать: ты с ним увидишься?

Любовь. Я ему с няней пошлю французскую записку, я к нему побегу, я брошу мужа, я...

Антонина Павловна. Люба, ты... ты шутишь?

Любовь. Да. Набросок третьего действия.

Антонина Павловна. Дай бог, чтобы он тебя разлюбил за эти годы, а то хлопот не оберешься.

Любовь. Мама, перестань. Слышишь, перестань!


In “perestagne” there is Tagne:


During the last week of July, there emerged, with diabolical regularity, the female of Chateaubriand’s mosquito, Chateaubriand (Charles), who had not been the first to be bitten by it... but the first to bottle the offender, and with cries of vindictive exultation to carry it to Professor Brown who wrote the rather slap-bang Original Description (‘small black palpi... hyaline wings... yellowy in certain lights... which should be extinguished if one keeps open the kasements [German printer!]...’ The Boston Entomologist for August, quick work, 1840) was not related to the great poet and memoirist born between Paris and Tagne (as he’d better, said Ada, who liked crossing orchids).


Mon enfant, ma sœur,

Songe à l’épaisseur

Du grand chêne a Tagne;

Songe à la montagne,

Songe à la douceur —


— of scraping with one’s claws or nails the spots visited by that fluffy-footed insect characterized by an insatiable and reckless appetite for Ada’s and Ardelia’s, Lucette’s and Lucile’s (multiplied by the itch) blood. (1.17)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Ada who liked crossing orchids: she crosses here two French authors, Baudelaire and Chateaubriand.

mon enfant, etc.: my child, my sister, think of the thickness of the big oak at Tagne, think of the mountain, think of the tenderness —


Pyotr Nikolaevich (the famous writer in “The Event”) is an "antidulcinist" (enemy of sweet meal). Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) and Ada share Van’s extravagant tastes:


They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily. Price, the mournful old footman who brought the cream for the strawberries, resembled Van’s teacher of history, ‘Jeejee’ Jones.

‘He resembles my teacher of history,’ said Van when the man had gone.

‘I used to love history,’ said Marina, ‘I loved to identify myself with famous women. There’s a ladybird on your plate, Ivan. Especially with famous beauties — Lincoln’s second wife or Queen Josephine.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed — it’s beautifully done. We’ve got a similar set at home.’

‘Slivok (some cream)? I hope you speak Russian?’ Marina asked Van, as she poured him a cup of tea.

‘Neohotno no sovershenno svobodno (reluctantly but quite fluently),’ replied Van, slegka ulïbnuvshis’ (with a slight smile). ‘Yes, lots of cream and three lumps of sugar.’

‘Ada and I share your extravagant tastes. Dostoevski liked it with raspberry syrup.’

‘Pah,’ uttered Ada.


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): with a slight smile: a pet formula of Tolstoy’s denoting cool superiority, if not smugness, in a character’s manner of speech.


In Dostoevski's novel Besy ("The Possessed," 1872) Pyotr Verkhovenski mentions Emile Littré (1801-81) and his dictum that crime is insanity:


Он вдруг поцеловал у него руку. Холод прошел по спине Ставрогина, и он в испуге вырвал свою руку. Они остановились.

- Помешанный! - прошептал Ставрогин.

- Может и брежу, может и брежу! - подхватил тот скороговоркой, - но я выдумал первый шаг. Никогда Шигалеву не выдумать первый шаг. Много Шигалевых! Но один, один только человек в России изобрел первый шаг и знает, как его сделать. Этот человек я. Что вы глядите на меня? Мне вы, вы надобны, без вас я нуль. Без вас я муха, идея в стклянке, Колумб без Америки.

Ставрогин стоял и пристально глядел в его безумные глаза.

- Слушайте, мы сначала пустим смуту, - торопился ужасно Верховенский, поминутно схватывая Ставрогина за левый рукав. - Я уже вам говорил: мы проникнем в самый народ. Знаете ли, что мы уж и теперь ужасно сильны? Наши не те только, которые режут и жгут, да делают классические выстрелы или кусаются. Такие только мешают. Я без дисциплины ничего не понимаю. Я ведь мошенник, а не социалист, ха-ха! Слушайте, я их всех сосчитал: учитель, смеющийся с детьми над их богом и над их колыбелью, уже наш. Адвокат, защищающий образованного убийцу тем, что он развитее своих жертв и, чтобы денег добыть, не мог не убить, уже наш. Школьники, убивающие мужика, чтоб испытать ощущение, наши, наши. Присяжные, оправдывающие преступников сплошь, наши. Прокурор, трепещущий в суде, что он недостаточно либерален, наш, наш. Администраторы, литераторы, о, наших много, ужасно много, и сами того не знают! С другой стороны, послушание школьников и дурачков достигло высшей черты; у наставников раздавлен пузырь с желчью; везде тщеславие размеров непомерных, аппетит зверский, неслыханный... Знаете ли, знаете ли, сколько мы одними готовыми идейками возьмем? Я поехал - свирепствовал тезис Littre, что преступление есть помешательство; приезжаю - и уже преступление не помешательство, а именно здравый-то смысл и есть, почти долг, по крайней мере благородный протест. "Ну как развитому убийце не убить, если ему денег надо!" Но это лишь ягодки. Русский бог уже спасовал пред "дешевкой". Народ пьян, матери пьяны, дети пьяны, церкви пусты, а на судах: "двести розог, или тащи ведро". О, дайте, дайте, взрасти поколению. Жаль только, что некогда ждать, а то пусть бы они еще попьянее стали! Ах как жаль, что нет пролетариев! Но будут, будут, к этому идет...


He suddenly kissed his hand. A shiver ran down Stavrogin’s spine, and he pulled away his hand in dismay. They stood still.

“Madman!” whispered Stavrogin.

“Perhaps I am raving; perhaps I am raving,” Pyotr Stepanovitch assented, speaking rapidly. “But I’ve thought of the first step! Shigalov would never have thought of it. There are lots of Shigalovs, but only one man, one man in Russia has hit on the first step and knows how to take it. And I am that man! Why do you look at me? I need you, you; without you I am nothing. Without you I am a fly, a bottled idea; Columbus without America.”

Stavrogin stood still and looked intently into his wild eyes.

“Listen. First of all we’ll make an upheaval,” Verhovensky went on in desperate haste, continually clutching at Stavrogin’s left sleeve. “I’ve already told you. We shall penetrate to the peasantry. Do you know that we are tremendously powerful already? Our party does not consist only of those who commit murder and arson, fire off pistols in the traditional fashion, or bite colonels. They are only a hindrance. I don’t accept anything without discipline. I am a scoundrel, of course, and not a socialist. Ha ha! Listen. I’ve reckoned them all up: a teacher who laughs with children at their God and at their cradle is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims and could not help murdering them to get money is one of us. The schoolboys who murder a peasant for the sake of sensation are ours. The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves. On the other hand, the docility of schoolboys and fools has reached an extreme pitch; the schoolmasters are bitter and bilious. On all sides we see vanity puffed up out of all proportion; brutal, monstrous appetites.… Do you know how many we shall catch by little, ready-made ideas? When I left Russia, Littré’s dictum that crime is insanity was all the rage; I come back and I find that crime is no longer insanity, but simply common sense, almost a duty; anyway, a gallant protest. ‘How can we expect a cultured man not to commit a murder, if he is in need of money.’ But these are only the first fruits. The Russian God has already been vanquished by cheap vodka. The peasants are drunk, the mothers are drunk, the children are drunk, the churches are empty, and in the peasant courts one hears, ‘Two hundred lashes or stand us a bucket of vodka.’ Oh, this generation has only to grow up. It’s only a pity we can’t afford to wait, or we might have let them get a bit more tipsy! Ah, what a pity there’s no proletariat! But there will be, there will be; we are going that way.…” (Part Two, Chapter 8: "Ivan Tsarevich")


According to Verkhovenski, without Stavrogin he is a fly, a bottled idea, Columbus without America. Mukha (a fly) brings to mind the mating habits of the fly Serromyia amorata Poupart mentioned by Van when he describes the library of Ardis Hall:


Another hearty laugh shook Van when he unearthed for entomologically-minded Ada the following passage in a reliable History of Mating Habits. ‘Some of the perils and ridicule which attend the missionary position adopted for mating purposes by our puritanical intelligentsia and so justly derided by the "primitive" but healthy-minded natives of the Begouri Islands are pointed out by a prominent French orientalist [thick footnote, skipped here] who describes the mating habits of the fly Serromyia amorata Poupart. Copulation takes place with both ventral surfaces pressed together and the mouths touching. When the last throb (frisson) of intercourse is terminated the female sucks out the male’s body content through the mouth of her impassioned partner. One supposes (see Pesson et al.) [another copious footnote] that the titbits, such as the juicy leg of a bug enveloped in a webby substance, or even a mere token (the frivolous dead end or subtle beginning of an evolutionary process — qui le sait!) such as a petal carefully wrapped up and tied up with a frond of red fern, which certain male flies (but apparently not the femorata and amorata morons) bring to the female before mating, represent a prudent guarantee against the misplaced voracity of the young lady,’ (1.21)