sapphic vorschmacks & philistine epithets in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 01/17/2022 - 16:29

Before he falls asleep, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) asks Ada to avoid sapphic vorschmacks with Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister):


‘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. (2.8)


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

famous fly: see p.109, Serromyia.

Vorschmacks: Germ., hors-d’oeuvres.


In a letter to her boyfriend Lane Franny Glass (the title character of J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey) says that she has been reading Sappho like mad and adds “no vulgar remarks, please.”



I have no idea if you will be able to decipher this as the noise in the dorm is absolutely incredible tonight and I can hardly hear myself think. So if I spell anything wrong kindly have the kindness to overlook it. Incidentally I've taken your advice and resorted to the dictionary a lot lately, so if it cramps my style your to blame. Anyway I just got your beautiful letter and I love you to pieces, distraction, etc., and can hardly wait for the weekend. It's too bad about not being able to get me in Croft House, but I don't actually care where I stay as long as It's warm and no bugs and I see you occasionally, i.e. every single minute. I've been going i.e. crazy lately. I absolutely adore your letter, especially the part about Eliot. I think I'm beginning to look down on all poets except Sappho. I've been reading her like mad and no vulgar remarks, please. I may even do my term thing on her if I decide to go out for honors and if I can get the moron they assigned me as an advisor to let me. "Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea, what shall we do? Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your tunics." Isn't that marvellous? She keeps doing that, too. Do you love me? You didn't say once in your horrible letter I hate you when your being hopelessly super-male and retiscent (sp. ?). Not really hate you but am constitutionally against strong, silent men. Not that you aren't strong but you know what I mean. It's getting so noisy in here I can hardly hear myself think. Anyway I love you and want to get this off special delivery so you can get it in plenty of time if I can find a stamp in this madhouse. I love you I love you I love you. Do you actually know I've only danced with you twice in eleven months? Not counting that time at the Vanguard when you were so tight. I'll probably be hopelessly selfconscious. Incidentally I'll kill you if there's a receiving line at this thing. Till Saturday, my flower!!


In one of her letters to Van Ada uses the phrase "like mad:"


[California? 1890]

I love only you, I’m happy only in dreams of you, you are my joy and my world, this is as certain and real as being aware of one’s being alive, but... oh, I don’t accuse you! — but, Van, you are responsible (or Fate through you is responsible, ce qui revient au même) of having let loose something mad in me when we were only children, a physical hankering, an insatiable itch. The fire you rubbed left its brand on the most vulnerable, most vicious and tender point of my body. Now I have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon, as charred wood has to pay for burning. When I remain without your caresses, I lose all control of my nerves, nothing exists any more than the ecstasy of friction, the abiding effect of your sting, of your delicious poison. I do not accuse you, but this is why I crave and cannot resist the impact of alien flesh; this is why our joint past radiates ripples of boundless betrayals. All this you are free to diagnose as a case of advanced erotomania, but there is more to it, because there exists a simple cure for all my maux and throes and that is an extract of scarlet aril, the flesh of yew, just only yew. Je réalise, as your sweet Cinderella de Torf (now Madame Trofim Fartukov) used to say, that I’m being coy and obscene. But it all leads up to an important, important suggestion! Van, je suis sur la verge (Blanche again) of a revolting amorous adventure. I could be instantly saved by you. Take the fastest flying machine you can rent straight to El Paso, your Ada will be waiting for you there, waving like mad, and we’ll continue, by the New World Express, in a suite I’ll obtain, to the burning tip of Patagonia, Captain Grant’s Horn, a Villa in Verna, my jewel, my agony. Send me an aerogram with one Russian word — the end of my name and wit. (2.1)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): ce qui etc.: which amounts to the same thing.

maux: aches.

aril: coating of certain seeds.

Grant etc.: Jules Verne in Captain Grant’s Children has ‘agonie’ (in a discovered message) turn out to be part of ‘Patagonie’.


When Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) asks Van to stop his ignoble affair with Ada, Van tells Demon: “No shouting and no philistine epithets:”


The most protracted of the several pauses having run its dark course, Demon’s voice emerged to say, with a vigor that it had lacked before:

‘Van, you receive the news I impart with incomprehensible calmness. I do not recall any instance, in factual or fictional life, of a father’s having to tell his son that particular kind of thing in these particular circumstances. But you play with a pencil and seem as unruffled as if we were discussing your gaming debts or the demands of a wench knocked up in a ditch.’

Tell him about the herbarium in the attic? About the indiscretions of (anonymous) servants? About a forged wedding date? About everything that two bright children had so gaily gleaned? I will. He did.

‘She was twelve,’ Van added, ‘and I was a male primatal of fourteen and a half, and we just did not care. And it’s too late to care now.’

‘Too late?’ shouted his father, sitting up on his couch.

‘Please, Dad, do not lose your temper,’ said Van. ‘Nature, as I informed you once, has been kind to me. We can afford to be careless in every sense of the word.’

‘I’m not concerned with semantics — or semination. One thing, and only one, matters. It is not too late to stop that ignoble affair —’

‘No shouting and no philistine epithets,’ interrupted Van.

‘All right,’ said Demon. ‘I take back the adjective, and I ask you instead: Is it too late to prevent your affair with your sister from wrecking her life?’

Van knew this was coming. He knew, he said, this was coming. ‘Ignoble’ had been taken care of; would his accuser define ‘wrecking’?

The conversation now took a neutral turn that was far more terrible than its introductory admission of faults for which our young lovers had long pardoned their parents. How did Van imagine his sister’s pursuing a scenic career? Would he admit it would be wrecked if they persisted in their relationship? Did he envisage a life of concealment in luxurious exile? Was he ready to deprive her of normal interests and a normal marriage? Children? Normal amusements?

‘Don’t forget "normal adultery,"’ remarked Van.

‘How much better that would be!’ said grim Demon, sitting on the edge of the couch with both elbows propped on his knees, and nursing his head in his hands: ‘The awfulness of the situation is an abyss that grows deeper the more I think of it. You force me to bring up the tritest terms such as "family," "honor," "set," "law."...All right, I have bribed many officials in my wild life but neither you nor I can bribe a whole culture, a whole country. And the emotional impact of learning that for almost ten years you and that charming child have been deceiving their parents —’

Here Van expected his father to take the ‘it-would-kill-your-mother’ line, but Demon was wise enough to keep clear of it. Nothing could ‘kill’ Marina. If any rumors of incest did come her way, concern with her ‘inner peace’ would help her to ignore them — or at least romanticize them out of reality’s reach. Both men knew all that. Her image appeared for a moment and accomplished a facile fade-out. (2.11)


In her letter to Lane Franny says that she is constitutionally against strong, silent men. During one of his meetings with Ada (now married to Andrey Vinelander) in Mont Roux Van mentions the strong silent boys:


‘My upper-lip space feels indecently naked.’ (He had shaved his mustache off with howls of pain in her presence). ‘And I cannot keep sucking in my belly all the time.’

‘Oh, I like you better with that nice overweight — there’s more of you. It’s the maternal gene, I suppose, because Demon grew leaner and leaner. He looked positively Quixotic when I saw him at Mother’s funeral. It was all very strange. He wore blue mourning. D’Onsky’s son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. Then a robed person who looked like an extra in a technicolor incarnation of Vishnu made an incomprehensible sermon. Then she went up in smoke. He said to me, sobbing: "I will not cheat the poor grubs!" Practically a couple of hours after he broke that promise we had sudden visitors at the ranch — an incredibly graceful moppet of eight, black-veiled, and a kind of duenna, also in black, with two bodyguards. The hag demanded certain fantastic sums — which Demon, she said, had not had time to pay, for "popping the hymen" — whereupon I had one of our strongest boys throw out vsyu (the entire) kompaniyu.’

‘Extraordinary,’ said Van, ‘they had been growing younger and younger — I mean the girls, not the strong silent boys. His old Rosalind had a ten-year-old niece, a primed chickabiddy. Soon he would have been poaching them from the hatching chamber.’

‘You never loved your father,’ said Ada sadly.

‘Oh, I did and do — tenderly, reverently, understandingly, because, after all, that minor poetry of the flesh is something not unfamiliar to me. But as far as we are concerned, I mean you and I, he was buried on the same day as our uncle Dan.’

‘I know, I know. It’s pitiful! And what use was it? Perhaps I oughtn’t to tell you, but his visits to Agavia kept getting rarer and shorter every year. Yes, it was pitiful to hear him and Andrey talking. I mean, Andrey n’a pas le verbe facile, though he greatly appreciated — without quite understanding it — Demon’s wild flow of fancy and fantastic fact, and would often exclaim, with his Russian "tssk-tssk" and a shake of the head — complimentary and all that — "what a balagur (wag) you are!" — And then, one day, Demon warned me that he would not come any more if he heard again poor Andrey’s poor joke (Nu i balagur-zhe vï, Dementiy Labirintovich) or what Dorothy, l’impayable ("priceless for impudence and absurdity") Dorothy, thought of my camping out in the mountains with only Mayo, a cowhand, to protect me from lions.’

‘Could one hear more about that?’ asked Van.

‘Well, nobody did. All this happened at a time when I was not on speaking terms with my husband and sister-in-law, and so could not control the situation. Anyhow, Demon did not come even when he was only two hundred miles away and simply mailed instead, from some gaming house, your lovely, lovely letter about Lucette and my picture.’

‘One would also like to know some details of the actual coverture — frequence of intercourse, pet names for secret warts, favorite smells —’

‘Platok momental’no (handkerchief quick)! Your right nostril is full of damp jade,’ said Ada, and then pointed to a lawnside circular sign, rimmed with red, saying: Chiens interdits and depicting an impossible black mongrel with a white ribbon around its neck: Why, she wondered, should the Swiss magistrates forbid one to cross highland terriers with poodles? (3.8)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): D’Onsky: see p.17.

comme etc.: shedding floods of tears.

N’a pas le verbe etc.: lacks the gift of the gab.

chiens etc.: dogs not allowed.


In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific. Van never finds out that his father died because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair. Describing his last meeting with Demon, Van mentions old Eliot, the real-estate man:


The last occasion on which Van had seen his father was at their house in the spring of 1904. Other people had been present: old Eliot, the real-estate man, two lawyers (Grombchevski and Gromwell), Dr Aix, the art expert, Rosalind Knight, Demon’s new secretary, and solemn Kithar Sween, a banker who at sixty-five had become an avant-garde author; in the course of one miraculous year he had produced The Waistline, a satire in free verse on Anglo-American feeding habits, and Cardinal Grishkin, an overtly subtle yam extolling the Roman faith. The poem was but the twinkle in an owl’s eye; as to the novel it had already been pronounced ‘seminal’ by celebrated young critics (Norman Girsh, Louis Deer, many others) who lauded it in reverential voices pitched so high that an ordinary human ear could not make much of that treble volubility; it seemed, however, all very exciting, and after a great bang of obituary essays in 1910 (‘Kithar Sween: the man and the writer,’ ‘Sween as poet and person,’ ‘Kithar Kirman Lavehr Sween: a tentative biography’) both the satire and the romance were to be forgotten as thoroughly as that acting foreman’s control of background adjustment — or Demon’s edict. (3.7)


According to Franny, she absolutely adores Lane’s letter, especially the part about Eliot. T. S. Eliot is the author of Sweeney Agonistes (1932). At the Alphonse Four (Lucette’s hotel in Paris) Van sees the author of Agonic Lines (Kithar Sween) in the company of Mr. Eliot:


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. (3.3)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): affalés etc.: sprawling in their armchairs.


In Franny and Zooey Zooey tells Franny over the 'phone that the cigars are ballast:


"He said he was--this is exactly what he said--he said he was sitting at the table in the kitchen, all by himself, drinking a glass oPS ginger ale and eating saltines and reading 'Dombey and Son,' and all of a sudden Jesus sat down in the other chair and asked if he could have a small glass of ginger ale. A small glass, mind you--that's exactly what he said. I mean he says things like that, and yet he thinks he's perfectly qualified to give me a lot of advice and stuff! That's what makes me so mad! I could just spit! I could I It's like being in a lunatic asylum and having another patient all dressed up as a doctor come over to you and start taking your pulse or something... It's just awful. He talks and talks and talks. And if he isn't talking, he's smoking his smelly cigars all over the house. I'm so sick of the smell of cigar smoke I could just roll over and die."

  "The cigars are ballast, sweetheart. Sheer ballast. If he didn't have a cigar to hold on to, his feet would leave the ground. We'd never see our Zooey again."

  There were several experienced verbal stunt pilots in the Glass family, but this last little remark perhaps Zooey alone was coordinated well enough to bring in safely over a telephone. Or so this narrator suggests. And Franny may have felt so, too. In any case, she suddenly knew that it was Zooey at the other end of the phone. She got up, slowly, from the edge of the bed. "All right, Zooey," she said, "All right."