life, pure mathematics & decipherment in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 09/26/2021 - 08:41

At the beginning of Ada’s epilogue Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada, 1969) salutes life and mentions his old Russian valet who pulls out and pushes in nose-ringed drawers in the dressing room:


I, Van Veen, salute you, life, Ada Veen, Dr Lagosse, Stepan Nootkin, Violet Knox, Ronald Oranger. Today is my ninety-seventh birthday, and I hear from my wonderful new Everyrest chair a spade scrape and footsteps in the snow-sparkling garden, and my old Russian valet, who is deafer than he thinks, pullout and push in nose-ringed drawers in the dressing room. This Part Five is not meant as an epilogue; it is the true introduction of my ninety-seven percent true, and three percent likely, Ada or Ardor, a family chronicle.

Of all their many houses, in Europe and in the Tropics, the château recently built in Ex, in the Swiss Alps, with its pillared front and crenelated turrets, became their favorite, especially in midwinter, when the famous glittering air, le cristal d’Ex, ‘matches the highest forms of human thought — pure mathematics & decipherment’ (unpublished ad).

At least twice a year our happy couple indulged in fairly long travels. Ada did not breed or collect butterflies any more, but throughout her healthy and active old age loved to film them in their natural surroundings, at the bottom of her garden or the end of the world, flapping and flitting, settling on flowers or filth, gliding over grass or granite, fighting or mating. Van accompanied her on picture-shooting journeys to Brazil, the Congo, New Guinea, but secretly preferred a long drink under a tent to a long wait under a tree for some rarity to come down to the bait and be taken in color. One would need another book to describe Ada’s adventures in Adaland. The films — and the crucified actors (Identification Mounts) — can be seen by arrangement at the Lucinda Museum, 5, Park Lane, Manhattan. (5.1)


In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stuliev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928) Ostap Bender says that life is a complex affair, but a complex affair which can be managed as simply as opening a box:


— Жизнь! — сказал Остап. — Жертва! Что вы знаете о жизни и о жертвах? Вы думаете, что, если вас выселили из особняка, вы знаете жизнь? И если у вас реквизировали поддельную китайскую вазу, то это жертва? Жизнь, господа присяжные заседатели, это сложная штука, но, господа присяжные заседатели, эта сложная штука открывается просто, как ящик. Надо только уметь его открыть. Кто не может открыть, тот пропадает.


"Life!" said Ostap. "Sacrifice! What do you know about life and sacrifices? Do you think that just because you were evicted from your own house you've tasted life? And just because they requisitioned one of your imitation Chinese vases, it's a sacrifice? Life, gentlemen of the jury, is a complex affair, but, gentlemen of the jury, a complex affair which can be managed as simply as opening a box. All you have to do is to know how to open it. Those who don't – have had it." (Chapter 12 “A Passionate Woman is a Poet’s Dream”)


In the same chapter of Ilf and Petrov’s novel Ostap mentions chistaya matematika (pure mathematics):


Остались два ордера: один — на 10 стульев, выданный музею мебельного мастерства в Москве, другой — на один стул т. Грицацуеву, в Старгороде, по улице Плеханова, 15.

— Готовьте деньги, — сказал Остап, — возможно, в Москву придется ехать.

— Но тут ведь тоже есть стул?

— Один шанс против десяти. Чистая математика. Да и то, если гражданин Грицацуев не растапливал им буржуйку.

— Не шутите так, не нужно.

— Ничего, ничего, либер фатер Конрад Карлович Михельсон, найдем! Святое дело! Батистовые портянки будем носить, крем Марго кушать.

— Мне почему-то кажется, — заметил Ипполит Матвеевич, — что ценности должны быть именно в этом стуле.

— Ах! Вам кажется? Что вам еще кажется? Ничего? Ну, ладно. Будем работать по-марксистски. Предоставим небо птицам, а сами обратимся к стульям. Я измучен желанием поскорее увидеться с инвалидом империалистической войны, гражданином Грицацуевым, улица Плеханова, дом пятнадцать. Не отставайте, Конрад Карлович. План составим по дороге.


Two orders were left: one  for ten chairs transferred  to the furniture museum in Moscow, and the other  for the chair given to Comrade Gritsatsuev in Plekhanov Street, Stargorod.

"Have your money ready," said Ostap. "We may have to go to Moscow."

"But there's a chair here!"

"One  chance in ten. Pure mathematics. Anyway, citizen Gritsatsuev may have lit the stove with it."

 "Don't joke like that!"

 "Don't worry, lieber Vater Konrad Karlovich Michelson, we'll find them. It's a sacred cause!" "We'll be wearing cambric footcloths and drinking crème Margot."

 "I have a hunch the jewels are in that very chair."

 "Oh, you have a hunch, do you. What other hunches do you have? None? All right. Let's work the Marxist way. We'll leave the sky to the birds and deal with the  chairs ourselves. I can't wait to meet the imperialist war invalid, citizen  Gritsatsuyev, at 15 Plekhanov Street. Don't lag  behind, Konrad Karlovich. We'll plan as we go." (ibid.)


A passionate woman, a poet's dream, Mme Gritsatsuev brings to mind the Gritz hotel mentioned by Van as he describes Flavita (the Russian Scrabble):


The set our three children received in 1884 from an old friend of the family (as Marina’s former lovers were known), Baron Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter’s lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one’s name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa.

By July the ten A’s had dwindled to nine, and the four D’s to three. The missing A eventually turned up under an Aproned Armchair, but the D was lost — faking the fate of its apostrophizable double as imagined by a Walter C. Keyway, Esq., just before the latter landed, with a couple of unstamped postcards, in the arms of a speechless multilinguist in a frock coat with brass buttons. The wit of the Veens (says Ada in a marginal note) knows no bounds. (1.36) 


Baron Klim Avidov is an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov, Flavita is an anagram of alfavit (alphabet). The preceding chapter of “The Twelve Chairs” is entitled Alfavit – zerkalo zhizni (“The Mirror of Life Index”). In Stargorod Bender calls Vorob'yaninov gigant mysli, otets russkoy demokratii i osoba, priblizhyonnaya k imperatoru (the master-mind, the father of Russian democracy and a person close to the emperor):


— Строгий секрет! Государственная тайна!

Остап показал рукой на Воробьянинова:

— Кто, по-вашему, этот мощный старик? Не говорите, вы не можете этого знать. Это — гигант мысли, отец русской демократии и особа, приближенная к императору.


"Strict secrecy! A state secret!"

He pointed to Vorobyaninov.

"Who do you  think this powerful old man is? Don't say you don't know. He's the master-mind, the father of Russian democracy and a person close to the emperor." (Chapter XIV “The Alliance of the Sword and Ploughshare”)


Osoba, priblizhyonnaya k imperatoru (a person close to the emperor) brings to mind sverhimperatorskaya cheta (a unique super-imperial couple) mentioned by Ada when she takes over:


Hammock and honey: eighty years later he could still recall with the young pang of the original joy his falling in love with Ada. Memory met imagination halfway in the hammock of his boyhood’s dawns. At ninety-four he liked retracing that first amorous summer not as a dream he had just had but as a recapitulation of consciousness to sustain him in the small gray hours between shallow sleep and the first pill of the day. Take over, dear, for a little while. Pill, pillow, billow, billions. Go on from here, Ada, please.

(She). Billions of boys. Take one fairly decent decade. A billion of Bills, good, gifted, tender and passionate, not only spiritually but physically well-meaning Billions, have bared the jillions of their no less tender and brilliant Jills during that decade, at stations and under conditions that have to be controlled and specified by the worker, lest the entire report be choked up by the weeds of statistics and waist-high generalizations. No point would there be, if we left out, for example, the little matter of prodigious individual awareness and young genius, which makes, in some cases, of this or that particular gasp an unprecedented and unrepeatable event in the continuum of life or at least a thematic anthemia of such events in a work of art, or a denouncer’s article. The details that shine through or shade through: the local leaf through the hyaline skin, the green sun in the brown humid eye, tout ceci, vsyo eto, in tit and toto, must be taken into account, now prepare to take over (no, Ada, go on, ya zaslushalsya: I’m all enchantment and ears), if we wish to convey the fact, the fact, the fact — that among those billions of brilliant couples in one cross section of what you will allow me to call spacetime (for the convenience of reasoning), one couple is a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta, in consequence of which (to be inquired into, to be painted, to be denounced, to be put to music, or to the question and death, if the decade has a scorpion tail after all), the particularities of their love-making influence in a special unique way two long lives and a few readers, those pensive reeds, and their pens and mental paintbrushes. Natural history indeed! Unnatural history — because that precision of senses and sense must seem unpleasantly peculiar to peasants, and because the detail is all: The song of a Tuscan Firecrest or a Sitka Kinglet in a cemetery cypress; a minty whiff of Summer Savory or Yerba Buena on a coastal slope; the dancing flitter of a Holly Blue or an Echo Azure — combined with other birds, flowers and butterflies: that has to be heard, smelled and seen through the transparency of death and ardent beauty. And the most difficult: beauty itself as perceived through the there and then. The males of the firefly (now it’s really your turn, Van). (1.12)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): pensive reeds: Pascal’s metaphor of man, un roseau pensant.

horsecart: an old anagram. It leads here to a skit on Freudian dream charades (‘symbols in an orchal orchestra’), p.62.


Sitka (formerly Novo-Arkhangelsk) is a city-borough in the southeast portion of Alaska. Stepan Nootkin (old Van's old Russian valet) brings to mind Nootka Island, an island adjacent to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.


In Ilf and Petrov’s novel Zolotoy telyonok (“The Golden Calf,” 1931) Bender tells Khvorobyev (the old monarchist who is tormented by Soviet dreams) that he treated his friends using Freud’s methods:


-- Я вам помогу, - сказал Остап. - Мне приходилось лечить друзей и знакомых по Фрейду. Сон - это пустяки. Главное - это устранить причину сна. Основной причиной является самое существование советской власти. Но в данный момент я устранять ее не могу. У меня просто нет времени. Я, видите ли, турист-спортсмен, сейчас мне надо произвести небольшую починку своего автомобиля, так что разрешите закатить его к вам в сарай. А насчет причины вы не беспокойтесь. Я ее устраню на обратном пути. Дайте только пробег окончить.


"I’ll help you,” Ostap said. “I've treated several friends and acquaintances using Freud's methods. Dreams are not the issue. The main thing is to remove the cause of the dream. The principal cause of your dreams is the very existence of the Soviet regime. But I can’t remove right now. I’m in a hurry. I'm on a sports tour, you see, and my car needs a few small repairs. Would you mind if I put it in your shed? As for the cause of your dreams, don't worry, I'll take care of it on the way back. Just let me finish the rally.” (Chapter 8 “The Artistic Crisis”)


Khvorobyev does not know how to decipher the word Proletkult (a portmanteau of the Russian words proletarskaya kultura, “proletarian culture”):


Федор Никитич Хворобьев был монархистом и ненавидел советскую власть. Эта власть была ему противна. Он, когда-то попечитель учебного округа, принужден был служить заведующим методологическопедагогическим сектором местного Пролеткульта. 

Это вызывало в нем отвращение.

До самого конца своей службы он не знал, как расшифровать слово "Пролеткульт", и от этого презирал его еще больше. Дрожь омерзения вызывали в нем одним своим видом члены месткома, сослуживцы и посетители методологическо-педагогического сектора. Он возненавидел слово "сектор". О, этот сектор! Никогда Федор Никитич, ценивший все изящное, а в том числе и геометрию, не предполагал, что это прекрасное математическое понятие, обозначающее часть площади криволинейной фигуры, будет так опошлено. 


Fyodor Nikitich Khvorobyov was a monarchist, and he detested the Soviet regime. He found it repugnant. He, who had once served as a school district superintendent, was forced to run the Educational Methodology Sector of the local Proletkult.

That disgusted him.

Until the end of his career, he never knew what Proletkult stood for, and that made him detest it even more. He cringed with disgust at the mere sight of the members of the local union committee, his colleagues, and the visitors to the Educational Methodology Sector. He hated the word “sector.” Oh, that sector! Fyodor Nikitich had always appreciated elegant things, including geometry. Never in his worst nightmares would he imagine that this beautiful mathematical term, used to describe a portion of a circle, could be so brutally trivialized. (ibid.)


When she visits Van at Kingston (Van’s American University), Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) calls him “Dr V. V. Sector:”


She returned the balled handkerchief of many an old romance to her bag, which, however, remained unclosed. Chows, too, have blue tongues.
‘Mamma dwells in her private Samsara. Dad has had another stroke. Sis is revisiting Ardis.’
‘Sis! Cesse, Lucette! We don’t want any baby serpents around.’
‘This baby serpent does not quite know what tone to take with Dr V.V. Sector. You have not changed one bit, my pale darling, except that you look like a ghost in need of a shave without your summer Glanz.’
And summer Mädel. He noticed that the letter, in its long blue envelope, lay now on the mahogany sideboard. He stood in the middle of the parlor, rubbing his forehead, not daring, not daring, because it was Ada’s notepaper. (2.5)


After Van’s and Ada’s death Ronald Oranger (old Van’s secretary, the editor of Ada) marries Violet Knox (old Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka, “little violet”):


Violet Knox [now Mrs Ronald Oranger. Ed.], born in 1940, came to live with us in 1957. She was (and still is — ten years later) an enchanting English blonde with doll eyes, a velvet carnation and a tweed-cupped little rump [.....]; but such designs, alas, could no longer flesh my fancy. She has been responsible for typing out this memoir — the solace of what are, no doubt, my last ten years of existence. A good daughter, an even better sister, and half-sister, she had supported for ten years her mother’s children from two marriages, besides laying aside [something]. I paid her [generously] per month, well realizing the need to ensure unembarrassed silence on the part of a puzzled and dutiful maiden. Ada called her ‘Fialochka’ and allowed herself the luxury of admiring ‘little Violet’ ‘s cameo neck, pink nostrils, and fair pony-tail. Sometimes, at dinner, lingering over the liqueurs, my Ada would consider my typist (a great lover of Koo-Ahn-Trow) with a dreamy gaze, and then, quick-quick, peck at her flushed cheek. The situation might have been considerably more complicated had it arisen twenty years earlier. (5.4)


Ronald Oranger and Violet Knox are sverhimperatorskaya cheta. Van does not realize that Ronald Oranger and Violet Knox are Ada's grandchildren. In “The Golden Calf” the inhabitants of Voron’ya slobodka (“A Crow’s Nest”) include nich’ya babushka (nobody’s grandmother) who is afraid of electricity and uses a kerosene lamp in her entresol apartment. After the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century electricity was banned on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set). At the beginning of a game of Flavita Ada’s letters form the word kerosin (kerosene):


A particular nuisance was the angry or disdainful looking up of dubious words in a number of lexicons, sitting, standing and sprawling around the girls, on the floor, under Lucette’s chair upon which she knelt, on the divan, on the big round table with the board and the blocks and on an adjacent chest of drawers. The rivalry between moronic Ozhegov (a big, blue, badly bound volume, containing 52,872 words) and a small but chippy Edmundson in Dr Gerschizhevsky’s reverent version, the taciturnity of abridged brutes and the unconventional magnanimity of a four-volume Dahl (‘My darling dahlia,’ moaned Ada as she obtained an obsolete cant word from the gentle long-bearded ethnographer) — all this would have been insupportably boring to Van had he not been stung as a scientist by the curious affinity between certain aspects of Scrabble and those of the planchette. He became aware of it one August evening in 1884 on the nursery balcony, under a sunset sky the last fire of which snaked across the corner of the reservoir, stimulated the last swifts, and intensified the hue of Lucette’s copper curls. The morocco board had been unfolded on a much inkstained, monogrammed and notched deal table. Pretty Blanche, also touched, on earlobe and thumbnail, with the evening’s pink — and redolent with the perfume called Miniver Musk by handmaids — had brought a still unneeded lamp. Lots had been cast, Ada had won the right to begin, and was in the act of collecting one by one, mechanically and unthinkingly, her seven ‘luckies’ from the open case where the blocks lay face down, showing nothing but their anonymous black backs, each in its own cell of flavid velvet. She was speaking at the same time, saying casually: ‘I would much prefer the Benten lamp here but it is out of kerosin. Pet (addressing Lucette), be a good scout, call her — Good Heavens!’

The seven letters she had taken, S,R,E,N,O,K,I, and was sorting out in her spektrik (the little trough of japanned wood each player had before him) now formed in quick and, as it were, self-impulsed rearrangement the key word of the chance sentence that had attended their random assemblage. (1.36)


A Japanese goddess of the sea, Benten is mentioned in Jules Verne’s novel “Around the World in Eighty Days.” The Benten lamp is out of kerosene, because in the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time) it was used by Kim Beauharnais, a kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis whom Ada (who wanted to spend the night with Van) had bribed to set the barn on fire. In 1893, after he was forced by his father to give up Ada, Van blinds Kim with an alpenstock for spying on him and Ada and attempting to blackmail Ada:


Van sealed the letter, found his Thunderbolt pistol in the place he had visualized, introduced one cartridge into the magazine and translated it into its chamber. Then, standing before a closet mirror, he put the automatic to his head, at the point of the pterion, and pressed the comfortably concaved trigger. Nothing happened — or perhaps everything happened, and his destiny simply forked at that instant, as it probably does sometimes at night, especially in a strange bed, at stages of great happiness or great desolation, when we happen to die in our sleep, but continue our normal existence, with no perceptible break in the faked serialization, on the following, neatly prepared morning, with a spurious past discreetly but firmly attached behind. Anyway, what he held in his right hand was no longer a pistol but a pocket comb which he passed through his hair at the temples. It was to gray by the time that Ada, then in her thirties, said, when they spoke of their voluntary separation:

‘I would have killed myself too, had I found Rose wailing over your corpse. "Secondes pensées sont les bonnes," as your other, white, bonne used to say in her pretty patois. As to the apron, you are quite right. And what you did not make out was that the artist had about finished a large picture of your meek little palazzo standing between its two giant guards. Perhaps for the cover of a magazine, which rejected that picture. But, you know, there’s one thing I regret,’ she added: ‘Your use of an alpenstock to release a brute’s fury — not yours, not my Van’s. I should never have told you about the Ladore policeman. You should never have taken him into your confidence, never connived with him to burn those files — and most of Kalugano’s pine forest. Eto unizitel’no (it is humiliating).’

‘Amends have been made,’ replied fat Van with a fat man’s chuckle. ‘I’m keeping Kim safe and snug in a nice Home for Disabled Professional People, where he gets from me loads of nicely brailled books on new processes in chromophotography.’

There are other possible forkings and continuations that occur to the dream-mind, but these will do. (2.11)


At 'Monaco' (a tall building in Manhattan crowned by Van's penthouse apartment) Van shares Rose (a black servant girl mentioned by Ada) with Mr Dean, the famous, recently decorated cryptogrammatist:


In the meantime Van had arrived at Alexis Avenue, had lain in bed for an hour, then shaved and showered, and almost torn off with the brutality of his pounce the handle of the door leading to the terrace as there came the sound of a celestial motor.

Despite an athletic strength of will, ironization of excessive emotion, and contempt for weepy weaklings, Van was aware of his being apt to suffer uncurbable blubbering fits (rising at times to an epileptic-like pitch, with sudden howls that shook his body, and inexhaustible fluids that stuffed his nose) ever since his break with Ada had led to agonies, which his self-pride and self-concentration had never foreseen in the hedonistic past. A small monoplane (chartered, if one judged by its nacreous wings and illegal but abortive attempts to settle on the central green oval of the Park, after which it melted in the morning mist to seek a perch elsewhere) wrenched a first sob from Van as he stood in his short ‘terry’ on the roof terrace (now embellished by shrubs of blue spiraea in invincible bloom). He stood in the chill sun until he felt his skin under the robe turn to an armadillo’s pelvic plates. Cursing and shaking both fists at breast level, he returned into the warmth of his flat and drank a bottle of champagne, and then rang for Rose, the sportive Negro maid whom he shared in more ways than one with the famous, recently decorated cryptogrammatist, Mr Dean, a perfect gentleman, dwelling on the floor below. With jumbled feelings, with unpardonable lust, Van watched her pretty behind roll and tighten under its lacy bow as she made the bed, while her lower lover could be heard through the radiator pipes humming to himself happily (he had decoded again a Tartar dorogram telling the Chinese where we planned to land next time!). Rose soon finished putting the room in order, and flirted off, and the Pandean hum had hardly time to be replaced (rather artlessly for a person of Dean’s profession) by a crescendo of international creaks that a child could decipher, when the hallway bell dingled, and next moment whiter-faced, redder-mouthed, four-year-older Ada stood before a convulsed, already sobbing, ever-adolescent Van, her flowing hair blending with dark furs that were even richer than her sister’s. (2.6)