spilled diamonds & Russian biks in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 01/20/2022 - 04:40

Revisiting Ardis in 1888, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) brings Ada a diamond necklace but then tears it apart in fury:


Leaving his post, naked Van went through the clothes he had shed. He found the necklace. In icy fury, he tore it into thirty, forty glittering hailstones, some of which fell at her feet as she burst into the room.

Her glance swept the floor.

‘What a shame —’ she began.

Van calmly quoted the punchline from Mlle Larivière’s famous story: ‘Mais, ma pauvre amie, elle était fausse’ — which was a bitter lie; but before picking up the spilled diamonds, she locked the door and embraced him, weeping — the touch of her skin and silk was all the magic of life, but why does everybody greet me with tears? He also wanted to know was that Percy de Prey? It was. Who had been kicked out of Riverlane? She guessed he had. He had changed, he had grown swine-stout. He had, hadn’t he just? Was he her new beau?

‘And now,’ said Ada, ‘Van is going to stop being vulgar — I mean, stop forever! Because I had and have and shall always have only one beau, only one beast, only one sorrow, only one joy.’

‘We can collect your tears later,’ he said, ‘I can’t wait.’

Her open kiss was hot and tremulous, but when he tried to draw up her dress she flinched with a murmur of reluctant denial, because the door had come alive: two small fists could be heard drumming upon it from the outside, in a rhythm both knew well.

‘Hi, Lucette!’ cried Van: ‘I’m changing, go away.’

‘Hi, Van! They want Ada, not you. They want you downstairs. Ada!’

One of Ada’s gestures — used when she had to express in a muted flash all the facets of her predicament (‘See, I was right, that’s how it is, nichego ne podelaesh’’) — consisted of rounding by means of both hands an invisible bowl from rim to base, accompanied by a sad bow. This is what she did now before leaving the room.

The situation was repeated in a much more pleasing strain a few hours later. For supper Ada wore another dress, of crimson cotton, and when they met at night (in the old toolroom by the glow of a carbide lantern) he unzipped her with such impetuous force that he nearly tore it in two to expose her entire beauty. They were still fiercely engaged (on the same bench covered with the same tartan lap robe — thoughtfully brought) when the outside door noiselessly opened, and Blanche glided in like an imprudent ghost. She had her own key, was back from a rendezvous with old Sore, the Burgundian night watchman, and stopped like a fool gaping at the young couple. ‘Knock next time,’ said Van with a grin, not bothering to pause — rather enjoying, in fact, the bewitching apparition: she wore a miniver cloak that Ada had lost in the woods. Oh, she had become wonderfully pretty, and elle le mangeait des yeux — but Ada slammed the lantern shut, and with apologetic groans, the slut groped her way to the inner passage. His true love could not help giggling; and Van resumed his passionate task.

They stayed on and on, quite unable to part, knowing any explanation would do if anybody wondered why their rooms had remained empty till dawn. The first ray of the morning dabbed a toolbox with fresh green paint, when, at last moved by hunger, they got up and quietly repaired to the pantry.

‘Chto, vïspalsya, Vahn (well, slept your fill, Van)? said Ada, beautifully mimicking her mother’s voice, and she continued in her mother’s English: ‘By your appetite, I judge. And, I think, it is only the first brekfest.’

‘Okh,’ grumbled Van, ‘my kneecaps! That bench was cruel. And I am hongry.’ (1.31)


Rassypannoe ozherel’ye (“The Spilled Necklace,” 1912) is a collection of poetry by Alexander Bisk. In his review of Bisk’s collection Boris Sadovskoy says that the best epigraph to Bisk’s tedious and gray book would be his own verse: I khochetsya zasnut’, i dolgo, dolgo spat’ (“And one wants to fall asleep, and sleep long, long”):


Писатели, подобные г. Биску, въ литературѣ играютъ роль пушечнаго мяса. Тысячи поэтовъ и стихотворцевъ породилъ могучимъ явленіемъ своимъ Пушкинъ, а навсегда остались послѣ него едва ли девять именъ....


   Чтобъ одного возвеличить, судьба

   Тысячи слабыхъ уноситъ.


   Такъ и отшумѣвшая только что эпоха русскаго "декадентства", давъ намъ нѣсколькихъ крупныхъ поэтовъ, расплодила несмѣтное множество эпигоновъ, подголосковъ, а то и просто подражателей, подобныхъ автору "Разсыпаннаго Ожерелья". Что можно сказать о его стихотвореніяхъ? Еще Бѣлинскій говаривалъ: "посредственность въ стихахъ нестерпима". Все, о чемъ пишетъ гладко и безцвѣтно г. Бискъ, задолго до него и несравненно лучше сказалъ Бальмонтъ.

   Форма стиховъ г. Биска пуста, потому что въ душѣ автора, видимо, отсутствуетъ содержаніе. Ясно, что у г. Биска ничего своего нѣтъ за душой, что просто ему нечего сказать,-- нѣтъ у него нити, на которую можно было бы нанизать "разсыпанное ожерелье" словъ. Оттого и всѣ его стихи не рѣчи, "прошептанныя Музой самой", а какія-то пробы пера. Можно попробовать такъ, а можно и этакъ. Можно подъ Бальмонта, а можно и подъ Брюсова. Въ общемъ же получается скучное впечатлѣніе оторваннаго отъ жизни, космополитическаго какого-то декадентства.

   Русскимъ языкомъ г. Бискъ владѣетъ небезупречно. Онъ говоритъ: дрёма, ирисы, пажи, восхвалять, фётишъ, суженый, вторило, крови, дымы, слюды, къ утру, стрѣльчатый и т. п. Встрѣчаются у него такія слова, какъ "младой", такія риѳмы, какъ "гнѣвъ я -- деревья". Эпиграфомъ къ нудной и сѣрой книгѣ г. Биска лучше всего было бы поставить его же собственный стихъ:

   И хочется заснуть, и долго, долго спать...


According to Sadovski, poets like Bisk play in lierature the part of cannon fodder. Ada's lover Percy de Prey (who makes Van furious because he kisses Ada's hand) goes to a distant war and is killed by an old Tartar on the second day of the invasion of the Crimea (1.42).


The surname Bisk brings to mind Russian ‘biks’ mentioned by Van when he describes Ada’s allusions to her affairs of the flesh:


‘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.


Describing his debauch á trois with Ada and Lucette after the dinner in ‘Ursus’ (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major), Van mentions Ada’s diamond necklace:


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.’

After a while he adored [sic! Ed.] the pancakes. No Lucette, however, turned up, and when Ada, still wearing her diamonds (in sign of at least one more caro Van and a Camel before her morning bath) looked into the guest room, she found the white valise and blue furs gone. A note scrawled in Arlen Eyelid Green was pinned to the pillow.

Would go mad if remained one more night shall ski at Verma with other poor woolly worms for three weeks or so miserable

Pour Elle (ibid.)


“A Casanovanic situation” brings to mind Van’s strenuous ‘Casanovanic’ night with Ada in “Ardis the Second:”


He had spent most of the day fast asleep in his room, and a long, rambling, dreary dream had repeated, in a kind of pointless parody, his strenuous ‘Casanovanic’ night with Ada and that somehow ominous morning talk with her. Now that I am writing this, after so many hollows and heights of time, I find it not easy to separate our conversation, as set down in an inevitably stylized form, and the drone of complaints, turning on sordid betrayals that obsessed young Van in his dull nightmare. Or was he dreaming now that he had been dreaming? Had a grotesque governess really written a novel entitled Les Enfants Maudits? To be filmed by frivolous dummies, now discussing its adaptation? To be made even triter than the original Book of the Fortnight, and its gurgling blurbs? Did he detest Ada as he had in his dreams? He did. (1.32)


In Biskra (a city in Algeria, "the Saharan Nice") there is Bisk and iskra (a sparkle). When Ada refuses to leave her sick husband, Van 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.


See also the updated full version of my previous post, “Russian biks & Dr Hangover revisited.”