Vladimir Nabokov

“Itchenor Chat” ( Ada: Part 2,Chapter 3, 350.32

By William Hegan, 2 January, 2019

 BB suggests in his brief notes for this chapter that there is an “Itchen River” in Hampshire. However I am pretty sure that VN had in mind the town of HITCHIN in the county of HERTFORDSHIRE. Hitchin is just a few miles from LETCHWORTH, which is mentioned earlier in the same sentence. Hitchin and Letchworth are two adjacent stops on a railway line from King’s Cross, London to Cambridge, and no doubt VN used this line many times. Hitchin is a very old town (see Wikipedia entry) with wonderful old buildings. “CHIMNEY BREASTS AND HIPPED GABLES” are there in abundance! I suggest that CHAT is VN’s abbreviation for ‘Château’ , meaning castle. He uses this longer word later in the paragraph – “…( that château girdled with chestnuts....” . Also, following up on the LETCHWORTH LODGE from just before, CHAT should refer to another kind of building used in the Venus Villas. There is a prominent hill in Hitchin ( the railway line is just to its east!). I don’t think there was ever a castle there: it has been used for schools for the past 150 years.However today in Hitchin there is a Castle Taxi firm & also a Castle Court street. Although I live in greater Moncton, NB, I know this area of Hertfordshire very well. My wife’s aunt owned a house in BALDOCK ( the next stop after Letchworth on the railway to Cambridge ) and we now have an apartment there. I hope this note will be useful. I have been reading VN’s novels this year in chronological order, have really enjoyed the notes to Ada ( yes, I know it is kind of cheating for a 1st read ! ) , and look forward to exploring your site. Cheers, William (aka Bill) Hegan


5 years 6 months ago

Thanks, Bill, and thanks for adding to our discussions so soon after signing up--exactly what we want to see. I prepared these annotations in the early 1990s, before there was a searchable Internet, and a lot can now be found out by searching or, as in your case, simply knowing, what wasn't remotely Googleable then.

It still seems to me that the River Itchen, flowing into Southampton, must be there. But, to pick up on your suggestion, the proximity of Hitchin (whose river, the Hiz, was originally pronounced "Hitch"--hence the link to the River Itchen) to Letchworth--the proximity of such an old town to one that at the end of the 19C was transformed into a new town, a kind of architectural "parody of paradise" like the whole Villa Venus scheme--must have appealed to VN (and, as you say, known by him through the London-Cambridge railway route), as did the connotations, in this chapter, of (sexual) "itch" and "letch."

When I get round to this chapter in AdaOnline, I'll certainly draw on these suggestions, unknown also to the Kyoto Reading Circle in their work on Ada II.3, and I presume to the annotators of the imminent Pléiade edition of Ada and the other late Nabokov novels.

Brian Boyd


2 years 9 months ago

I can't say for certain that the (vulgar) French term "chatte" was in use at the time of Nabokov's writing Ada, but it would provide an association to justify his abbreviation of 'Château' to 'Chat' here. Having already added the '-or' to Itchen, he has (I think) insinuated one of two phrases that mirrors 'Itchenor Chat' in pronunciation: (1) "itch in her [chatte]" or perhaps (2) the dialect-heavy "itchin' 'er [chatte]."

Either way, readers of this chapter are by now no strangers to instances of (mostly female) sexual itching, and certainly -- a few lines later -- "one could not distinguish ... the sore from the rose."

-Henry Rea


Itchenor Chat also brings to mind the itch of inspiration that, in the case of Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess who writes fiction under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse), is kept up so well by la chaleur du lit (bed’s warmth):


All went well until Mlle Larivière decided to stay in bed for five days: she had sprained her back on a merry-go-round at the Vintage Fair, which, besides, she needed as the setting for a story she had begun (about a town mayor’s strangling a small girl called Rockette), and knew by experience that nothing kept up the itch of inspiration so well as la chaleur du lit. During that period, the second upstairs maid, French, whose moods and looks did not match the sweet temper and limpid grace of Blanche, was supposed to look after Lucette, and Lucette did her best to avoid the lazy servant’s surveillance in favor of her cousin’s and sister’s company. The ominous words: ‘Well, if Master Van lets you come,’ or ‘Yes, I’m sure Miss Ada won’t mind your mushroom-picking with her,’ became something of a knell in regard to love’s freedom. (1.23)


It is said that Guillaume de Monparnasse indignantly rejected an offer from Hollywood to base a screenplay on the visit to Villa Venus of David van Veen’s nephew and heir:


His nephew and heir, an honest but astoundingly stuffy clothier in Ruinen (somewhere near Zwolle, I’m told), with a large family and a small trade, was not cheated out of the millions of guldens, about the apparent squandering of which he had been consulting mental specialists during the last ten years or so. All the hundred floramors opened simultaneously on September 20, 1875 (and by a delicious coincidence the old Russian word for September, ‘ryuen’,’ which might have spelled ‘ruin,’ also echoed the name of the ecstatic Neverlander’s hometown). By the beginning of the new century the Venus revenues were pouring in (their final gush, it is true). A tattling tabloid reported, around 1890, that out of gratitude and curiosity ‘Velvet’ Veen traveled once — and only once — to the nearest floramor with his entire family — and it is also said that Guillaume de Monparnasse indignantly rejected an offer from Hollywood to base a screenplay on that dignified and hilarious excursion. Mere rumours, no doubt. (2.3)


Chat is French for "cat." Describing the family dinner in "Ardis the Second," Van mentions the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse:


Alas, the bird had not survived ‘the honor one had made to it,’ and after a brief consultation with Bouteillan a somewhat incongruous but highly palatable bit of saucisson d’Arles added itself to the young lady’s fare of asperges en branches that everybody was now enjoying. It almost awed one to see the pleasure with which she and Demon distorted their shiny-lipped mouths in exactly the same way to introduce orally from some heavenly height the voluptuous ally of the prim lily of the valley, holding the shaft with an identical bunching of the fingers, not unlike the reformed ‘sign of the cross’ for protesting against which (a ridiculous little schism measuring an inch or so from thumb to index) so many Russians had been burnt by other Russians only two centuries earlier on the banks of the Great Lake of Slaves. Van remembered that his tutor’s great friend, the learned but prudish Semyon Afanasievich Vengerov, then a young associate professor but already a celebrated Pushkinist (1855-1954), used to say that the only vulgar passage in his author’s work was the cannibal joy of young gourmets tearing ‘plump and live’ oysters out of their ‘cloisters’ in an unfinished canto of Eugene Onegin. But then ‘everyone has his own taste,’ as the British writer Richard Leonard Churchill mistranslates a trite French phrase (chacun à son gout) twice in the course of his novel about a certain Crimean Khan once popular with reporters and politicians, ‘A Great Good Man’ — according, of course, to the cattish and prejudiced Guillaume Monparnasse about whose new celebrity Ada, while dipping the reversed corolla of one hand in a bowl, was now telling Demon, who was performing the same rite in the same graceful fashion. (1.38)


Mlle Larivière’s writings correspond to those of Guy de Maupassant (a writer who does not exist on Antiterra). Maupassant’s story La Maison Tellier (1881) in which the action takes place in a brothel is dedicated to Ivan Turgenev. On September 20, 1875, Turgenev moved to a new-built chalet near his and Viardot’s villa Les Frênes (The Ash Trees). Maupassant is the author of Sur les Chats (“On Cats,” 1886). Ada calls Cordula Tobak “not simply a cat, but a polecat:”


‘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)


"Hundreds of whores" remind one of "one hund, red dog" (the last thing Van thinks of before he falls asleep and has his dream of floramors):


Those three admirable trains included at least two carriages in which a fastidious traveler could rent a bedroom with bath and water closet, and a drawing room with a piano or a harp. The length of the journey varied according to Van’s predormient mood when at Eric’s age he imagined the landscapes unfolding all along his comfortable, too comfortable, fauteuil. Through rain forests and mountain canyons and other fascinating places (oh, name them! Can’t — falling asleep), the room moved as slowly as fifteen miles per hour but across desertorum or agricultural drearies it attained seventy, ninety-seven night-nine, one hund, red dog — (2.2).


In Turgenev's novel Ottsy i deti ("Fathers and Sons," 1862) Bazarov sees red dogs in his death-bed delirium.


The fur of a rare polecat, der Perwitsky brings to mind Ellochka Shchukin’s furs in Ilf and Petrov’s novel “The Twelve Chairs.” As he speaks to Varfolomey Korobeynikov (the record-keeper in Stargorod), Ostap Bender (the main character in “The 12 Chairs”) “quotes” Maupassant:


– Так вот, – сказал Остап.

– Так вот, – сказал архивариус, – трудно, но можно…

– Потребует расходов? – помог владелец мясохладобойни.

– Небольшая сумма…

– Ближе к телу, как говорил Мопассан. Сведения будут оплачены.


"So there you are," said Ostap.

"So there  you  are," said the record-keeper. "It's difficult, but possible."

"And it involves expense," suggested the refrigeration-plant owner helpfully.

"A small sum . . ."

“'Closer to the body', as Maupassant used to say. The information will be paid for." (Chapter 11 “The Mirror of Life Index”)


Cordula Tobak brings to mind Fima Sobak (Ellochka Shchukin's friend, a cultured girl whose vocabulary consists of 180 words and who even knows the word "homosexuality"). Sobaka is Russian for "dog." Ada calls Dack (the dackel at Ardis) 'nehoroshaya, nehoroshaya sobaka' ("a bad dog," 1.11). When Van meets Cordula in Paris, he quotes to her stale but appropriate lines: "The Veens speak only to Tobaks, but Tobaks speak only to dogs" (3.2). In Paris Greg Erminin asks Van about guvernantka-belletristka (whose last novel is entitled L'ami Luc and who just got the Lebon Academy Prize for her copious rubbish).


On the other hand, Itchenor Chat reminds one of non-erotic chitchat (forbidden in Villa Venus):


Those preparations proceeded in such sustained, unendurably delicious rhythms that Eric dying in his sleep and Van throbbing with foul life on a rococo couch (three miles south of Bedford) could not imagine how those three young ladies, now suddenly divested of their clothes (a well-known oneirotic device), could manage to draw out a prelude that kept one so long on the very lip of its resolution. I lay supine and felt twice the size I had ever been (senescent nonsense, says science!) when finally six gentle hands attempted to ease la gosse, trembling Adada, upon the terrible tool. Silly pity — a sentiment I rarely experience — caused my desire to droop, and I had her carried away to a feast of peach tarts and cream. The Egypsies looked disconcerted, but very soon perked up. I summoned all the twenty hirens of the house (including the sweet-lipped, glossy chinned darling) into my resurrected presence. After considerable examination, after much flattering of haunches and necks, I chose a golden Gretchen, a pale Andalusian, and a black belle from New Orleans. The handmaids pounced upon them like pards and, having empasmed them with not unlesbian zest, turned the three rather melancholy graces over to me. The towel given me to wipe off the sweat that filmed my face and stung my eyes could have been cleaner. I raised my voice, I had the reluctant accursed casement wrenched wide open. A lorry had got stuck in the mud of a forbidden and unfinished road, and its groans and exertions dissipated the bizarre gloom. Only one of the girls stung me right in the soul, but I went through all three of them grimly and leisurely, ‘changing mounts in midstream’ (Eric’s advice) before ending every time in the grip of the ardent Ardillusian, who said as we parted, after one last spasm (although non-erotic chitchat was against the rules), that her father had constructed the swimming pool on the estate of Demon Veen’s cousin. (2.3)


Also, Itchinor Chat makes one think of Chose (Van's English University). Van receives an introduction to the Venus Villa Club from Dick C., a cardsharp with whom Van plays poker at Chose:


Van fumed and fretted the rest of the morning, and after a long soak in a hot bath (the best adviser, and prompter and inspirer in the world, except, of course, the W.C. seat) decided to pen — pen is the word — a note of apology to the cheated cheater. As he was dressing, a messenger brought him a note from Lord C. (he was a cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane schoolmates), in which generous Dick proposed to substitute for his debt an introduction to the Venus Villa Club to which his whole clan belonged. Such a bounty no boy of eighteen could hope to obtain. It was a ticket to paradise. Van tussled with his slightly overweight conscience (both grinning like old pals in their old gymnasium) — and accepted Dick’s offer. (1.28)


In Kim Beauharnais' album there is a photograph of a rare oak, Quercus ruslan Chat.:


Then came several preparatory views of the immediate grounds: the colutea circle, an avenue, the grotto’s black O, and the hill, and the big chain around the trunk of the rare oak, Quercus ruslan Chat., and a number of other spots meant to be picturesque by the compiler of the illustrated pamphlet but looking a little shabby owing to inexperienced photography. (2.7)


Describing Kim's album, Van mentions lit d'édredon (the eider-down bed):


Sunrise at Ardis. Congs: naked Van still cocooned in his hammock under the ‘lidderons’ as they called in Ladore the liriodendrons, not exactly a lit d’édredon, though worth an auroral pun and certainly conducive to the physical expression of a young dreamer’s fancy undisguised by the network. (ibid.)


In his Pravila dlya nachinayushchikh avtorov ("Rules for Beginning Authors," 1885) Chekhov says that pisatel'skiy zud (the itch of writing) is incurable:


Всякого только что родившегося младенца следует старательно омыть и, давши ему отдохнуть от первых впечатлений, сильно высечь со словами: «Не пиши! Не пиши! Не будь писателем!» Если же, несмотря на такую экзекуцию, оный младенец станет проявлять писательские наклонности, то следует попробовать ласку. Если же и ласка не поможет, то махните на младенца рукой и пишите «пропало». Писательский зуд неизлечим.


VN's self-parody Zud ("Itch," 1940) was signed Ridebis Semper. In Victor Hugo's novel L'Homme qui Rit ("The Laughing Man," 1869) Ursus (the traveling artist) tells Gwynplaine: Masca eris, et ridebis semper (you will be a mask and you will always laugh). In Sur les Chats Maupassant mentions Victor Hugo who just died:


Et je rêvai ; on rêve toujours un peu de ce qui s’est passé dans la journée. Je voyageais ; j’entrais dans une auberge où je voyais attablés devant le feu un domestique en grande livrée et un maçon, bizarre société dont je ne m’étonnais pas. Ces gens parlaient de Victor Hugo, qui venait de mourir, et je prenais part à leur causerie. Enfin j’allais me coucher dans une chambre dont la porte ne fermait point, et tout à coup, j’apercevais le domestique et le maçon, armés de briques, qui venaient doucement vers mon lit.


Van's schoolmate at Riverlane, Cheshire (Dick C.'s cousin?) brings to mind the Cheshire Cat, a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (known on Antiterra as Palace in Wonderland, 1.8).


In his memoir essay O Chekhove ("On Chekhov") Serebrov says that Chekhov compared a novel to a palace:


Чтобы строить роман, необходимо хорошо знать закон симметрии и равновесия масс. Роман – это целый дворец, и надо, чтобы читатель чувствовал себя в нём свободно, не удивлялся бы и не скучал, как в музее.


To build a novel one must know well the law of symmetry and the balance of forms. A novel is a big palace and the reader should be at ease in it, he should not be surprised or bored, as in a museum. (III)