Describing the debauch á trois with Ada and Lucette in his Manhattan flat after the dinner in ‘Ursus’ (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a box of Wipex on the bedside table:
What we have now is not so much a Casanovanic situation (that double-wencher had a definitely monochromatic pencil — in keeping with the memoirs of his dingy era) as a much earlier canvas, of the Venetian (sensu largo) school, reproduced (in ‘Forbidden Masterpieces’) expertly enough to stand the scrutiny of a borders vue d’oiseau.
Thus seen from above, as if reflected in the ciel mirror that Eric had naively thought up in his Cyprian dreams (actually all is shadowy up there, for the blinds are still drawn, shutting out the gray morning), we have the large island of the bed illumined from our left (Lucette’s right) by a lamp burning with a murmuring incandescence on the west-side bedtable. The top sheet and quilt are tumbled at the footboardless south of the island where the newly landed eye starts on its northern trip, up the younger Miss Veen’s pried-open legs. A dewdrop on russet moss eventually finds a stylistic response in the aquamarine tear on her flaming cheekbone. Another trip from the port to the interior reveals the central girl’s long white left thigh; we visit souvenir stalls: Ada’s red-lacquered talons, which lead a man’s reasonably recalcitrant, pardonably yielding wrist out of the dim east to the bright russet west, and the sparkle of her diamond necklace, which, for the nonce, is not much more valuable than the aquamarines on the other (west) side of Novelty Novel lane. The scarred male nude on the island’s east coast is half-shaded, and, on the whole, less interesting, though considerably more aroused than is good for him or a certain type of tourist. The recently repapered wall immediately west of the now louder-murmuring (et pour cause) dorocene lamp is ornamented in the central girl’s honor with Peruvian’ honeysuckle’ being visited (not only for its nectar, I’m afraid, but for the animalcules stuck in it) by marvelous Loddigesia Hummingbirds, while the bedtable on that side bears a lowly box of matches, a karavanchik of cigarettes, a Monaco ashtray, a copy of Voltemand’s poor thriller, and a Lurid Oncidium Orchid in an amethystine vaselet. The companion piece on Van’s side supports a similar superstrong but unlit lamp, a dorophone, a box of Wipex, a reading loupe, the returned Ardis album, and a separatum ‘Soft music as cause of brain tumors,’ by Dr Anbury (young Rattner’s waggish pen-name). Sounds have colors, colors have smells. The fire of Lucette’s amber runs through the night of Ada’s odor and ardor, and stops at the threshold of Van’s lavender goat. Ten eager, evil, loving, long fingers belonging to two different young demons caress their helpless bed pet. Ada’s loose black hair accidentally tickles the local curio she holds in her left fist, magnanimously demonstrating her acquisition. Unsigned and unframed.
That about summed it up (for the magical gewgaw liquefied all at once, and Lucette, snatching up her nightdress, escaped to her room). It was only the sort of shop where the jeweler’s fingertips have a tender way of enhancing the preciousness of a trinket by something akin to a rubbing of hindwings on the part of a settled lycaenid or to the frottage of a conjurer’s thumb dissolving a coin; but just in such a shop the anonymous picture attributed to Grillo or Obieto, caprice or purpose, ober- or unterart, is found by the ferreting artist.
‘She’s terribly nervous, the poor kid,’ remarked Ada stretching across Van toward the Wipex. ‘You can order that breakfast now — unless... Oh, what a good sight! Orchids. I’ve never seen a man make such a speedy recovery.’
‘Hundreds of whores and scores of cuties more experienced than the future Mrs Vinelander have told me that.’
‘I may not be as bright as I used to be,’ sadly said Ada, ‘but I know somebody who is not simply a cat, but a polecat, and that’s Cordula Tobacco alias Madame Perwitsky, I read in this morning’s paper that in France ninety percent of cats die of cancer. I don’t know what the situation is in Poland.’ (2.8)
The Wipex seems to hint at the Kleenex hand paper towels. In J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey the narrator several times mentions a box of Kleenex:
Mrs. Glass had undressed the package and now stood reading the fine print on the back of a carton of toothpaste. "Just kindly button that lip of yours," she said, rather absently. She went over to the medicine cabinet. It was stationed above the washbowl, against the wall. She opened its mirror-faced door and surveyed the congested shelves with the eye--or, rather, the masterly squint--of a dedicated medicine-cabinet gardener. Before her, in overly luxuriant rows, was a host, so to speak, of golden pharmaceuticals, plus a few technically less indigenous whatnots. The shelves bore iodine, Mercurochrome, vitamin capsules, dental floss, aspirin, Anacin, Bufferin, Argyrol, Musterole, Ex-Lax, Milk of Magnesia, Sal Hepatica, Aspergum, two Gillette razors, one Schick Injector razor, two tubes of shaving cream, a bent and somewhat torn snapshot of a fat black-and-white cat asleep on a porch railing, three combs, two hairbrushes, a bottle of Wildroot hair ointment, a bottle of Fitch Dandruff Remover, a small, unlabelled box of glycerine suppositories, Vicks Nose Drops, Vicks VapoRub, six bars of castile soap, the stubs of three tickets to a 1946 musical comedy ("Call Me Mister"), a tube of depilatory cream, a box of Kleenex, two seashells, an assortment of used-looking emery boards, two jars of cleansing cream, three pairs oPS scissors, a nail file, an unclouded blue marble (known to marble shooters, at least in the twenties, as a "purey"), a cream for contracting enlarged pores, a pair of tweezers, the strapless chassis of a girl's or woman's gold wristwatch, a box of bicarbonate of soda, a girl's boarding-school class ring with a chipped onyx stone, a bottle of Stopette--and, inconceivably or no, quite a good deal more. Mrs. Glass briskly reached up and took down an object from the bottom shelf and dropped it, with a muffled, tinny bang, into the wastebasket. "I'm putting some of that new toothpaste they're all raving about in here for you," she announced, without turning around, and made good her word. "I want you to stop using that crazy powder. It's going to take all the lovely enamel off your teeth. You have lovely teeth. The least you can do is take proper--"
Bessie Glass (Franny’s and Zooey’s mother) is a namesake of Bess, Uncle Dan’s last nurse whom he preferred to all others and had taken to Ardis because she managed to extract orally a few last drops of ‘play-zero’ out of his poor body:
According to Bess (which is ‘fiend’ in Russian), Dan’s buxom but otherwise disgusting nurse, whom he preferred to all others and had taken to Ardis because she managed to extract orally a few last drops of ‘play-zero’ (as the old whore called it) out of his poor body, he had been complaining for some time, even before Ada’s sudden departure, that a devil combining the characteristics of a frog and a rodent desired to straddle him and ride him to the torture house of eternity. To Dr Nikulin Dan described his rider as black, pale-bellied, with a black dorsal buckler shining like a dung beetle’s back and with a knife in his raised forelimb. On a very cold morning in late January Dan had somehow escaped, through a basement maze and a toolroom, into the brown shrubbery of Ardis; he was naked except for a red bath towel which trailed from his rump like a kind of caparison, and, despite the rough going, had crawled on all fours, like a crippled steed under an invisible rider, deep into the wooded landscape. On the other hand, had he attempted to warn her she might have made her big Ada yawn and uttered something irrevocably cozy at the moment he opened the thick protective door.
‘I beg you, sir,’ said Van, ‘go down, and I’ll join you in the bar as soon as I’m dressed. I’m in a delicate situation.’
‘Come, come,’ retorted Demon, dropping and replacing his monocle. ‘Cordula won’t mind.’
‘It’s another, much more impressionable girl’ — (yet another awful fumble!). ‘Damn Cordula! Cordula is now Mrs Tobak.’
‘Oh, of course!’ cried Demon. ‘How stupid of me! I remember Ada’s fiancé telling me — he and young Tobak worked for a while in the same Phoenix bank. Of course. Splendid broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, blond chap. Backbay Tobakovich!’
‘I don’t care,’ said clenched Van, ‘if he looks like a crippled, crucified, albino toad. Please, Dad, I really must —’
‘Funny your saying that. I’ve dropped in only to tell you poor cousin Dan has died an odd Boschean death. He thought a fantastic rodent sort of rode him out of the house. They found him too late, he expired in Nikulin’s clinic, raving about that detail of the picture. I’m having the deuce of a time rounding up the family. The picture is now preserved in the Vienna Academy of Art.’
‘Father, I’m sorry — but I’m trying to tell you —’
‘If I could write,’ mused Demon, ‘I would describe, in too many words no doubt, how passionately, how incandescently, how incestuously — c’est le mot — art and science meet in an insect, in a thrush, in a thistle of that ducal bosquet. Ada is marrying an outdoor man, but her mind is a closed museum, and she, and dear Lucette, once drew my attention, by a creepy coincidence, to certain details of that other triptych, that tremendous garden of tongue-in-cheek delights, circa 1500, and, namely, to the butterflies in it — a Meadow Brown, female, in the center of the right panel, and a Tortoiseshell in the middle panel, placed there as if settled on a flower — mark the "as if," for here we have an example of exact knowledge on the part of those two admirable little girls, because they say that actually the wrong side of the bug is shown, it should have been the underside, if seen, as it is, in profile, but Bosch evidently found a wing or two in the corner cobweb of his casement and showed the prettier upper surface in depicting his incorrectly folded insect. I mean I don’t give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth, for the masterpiece-baiter who makes Bosch express some bosh of his time, I’m allergic to allegory and am quite sure he was just enjoying himself by crossbreeding casual fancies just for the fun of the contour and color, and what we have to study, as I was telling your cousins, is the joy of the eye, the feel and taste of the woman-sized strawberry that you embrace with him, or the exquisite surprise of an unusual orifice — but you are not following me, you want me to go, so that you may interrupt her beauty sleep, lucky beast! A propos, I have not been able to alert Lucette, who is somewhere in Italy, but I’ve managed to trace Marina to Tsitsikar — flirting there with the Bishop of Belokonsk — she will arrive in the late afternoon, wearing, no doubt, pleureuses, very becoming, and we shall then travel à trois to Ladore, because I don’t think —’
Was he perhaps under the influence of some bright Chilean drug? That torrent was simply unstoppable, a crazy spectrum, a talking palette —
‘— no really, I don’t think we should bother Ada in her Agavia. He is — I mean, Vinelander is — the scion, s,c,i,o,n, of one of those great Varangians who had conquered the Copper Tartars or Red Mongols — or whoever they were — who had conquered some earlier Bronze Riders — before we introduced our Russian roulette and Irish loo at a lucky moment in the history of Western casinos.’
‘I am extremely, I am hideously sorry,’ said Van, ‘what with Uncle Dan’s death and your state of excitement, sir, but my girl friend’s coffee is getting cold, and I can’t very well stumble into our bedroom with all that infernal paraphernalia.’
‘I’m leaving, I’m leaving. After all we haven’t seen each other — since when, August? At any rate, I hope she’s prettier than the Cordula you had here before, volatile boy!’
Volatina, perhaps? Or dragonara? He definitely smelled of ether. Please, please, please go.
‘My gloves! Cloak! Thank you. Can I use your W.C.? No? All right. I’ll find one elsewhere. Come over as soon as you can, and we’ll meet Marina at the airport around four and then whizz to the wake, and —’
And here Ada entered. Not naked — oh no; in a pink peignoir so as not to shock Valerio — comfortably combing her hair, sweet and sleepy. She made the mistake of crying out ‘Bozhe moy!’ and darting back into the dusk of the bedroom. All was lost in that one chink of a second.
‘Or better — come at once, both of you, because I’ll cancel my appointment and go home right now.’ He spoke, or thought he spoke, with the self-control and the clarity of enunciation which so frightened and mesmerized blunderers, blusterers, a voluble broker, a guilty schoolboy. Especially so now — when everything had gone to the hell curs, k chertyam sobach’im, of Jeroen Anthniszoon van Äken and the molti aspetti affascinati of his enigmatica arte, as Dan explained with a last sigh to Dr Nikulin and to nurse Bellabestia (‘Bess’) to whom he bequeathed a trunkful of museum catalogues and his second-best catheter. (2.10)
Van suspects that Demon (who definitely smells of ether) is under the influence of some bright Chilean drug. In J. D. Salinger’s story The Laughing Man the title character reeks of opium:
The only son of a wealthy missionary couple, the Laughing Man was kidnapped in infancy by Chinese bandits.
When the wealthy missionary couple refused (from a religious conviction) to pay the ransom for their son, the bandits, signally piqued, placed the little fellow's head in a carpenter's vise and gave the appropriate lever several turns to the right. The subject of this unique experience grew into manhood with a hairless, pecan-shaped head and a face that featured, instead of a mouth, an enormous oval cavity below the nose. The nose itself consisted of two flesh- sealed nostrils. In consequence, when the Laughing Man breathed, the hideous, mirthless gap below his nose dilated and contracted like (as I see it) some sort of monstrous vacuole. (The Chief demonstrated, rather than explained, the Laughing Man's respiration method.) Strangers fainted dead away at the sight of the Laughing Man's horrible face. Acquaintances shunned him. Curiously enough, though, the bandits let him hang around their head- quarters--as long as he kept his face covered with a pale-red gossamer mask made out of poppy petals. The mask not only spared the bandits the sight of their foster son's face, it also kept them sensible of his whereabouts; under the circumstances, he reeked of opium.
J. D. Salinger’s story The Laughing Man was inspired by Victor Hugo’s novel L’Homme qui rit (“The Man who Laughs,” 1869). Its characters include the traveling artist Ursus and his adopted daughter Dea, a blind girl who falls in love with Gwynplaine (the man who laughs). After he was forced by Demon to give up Ada, Van blinds Kim Beauharnais, a kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis, 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)