Vaniada & Martin Gardiner in Ada; two methods of composing in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Mon, 02/04/2019 - 10:22

In the epilogue of VN’s novel Ada (1969) old Van and Ada wonder who of them dies first:


By the way, who dies first?
Ada. Van. Ada. Vaniada. Nobody. Each hoped to go first, so as to concede, by implication, a longer life to the other, and each wished to go last, in order to spare the other the anguish or worries, of widowhood. One solution would be for you to marry Violet.
‘Thank you. J’ai tâté de deux tribades dans ma vie, ça suffit. Dear Emile says "terme qu’on évite d’employer." How right he is!’ (5.6)


In his poem Net, ne spryatat'sya mne ot velikoy mury... ("No, I can't hide myself from the great nonsense..." 1931) Mandelshtam says: “We'll take streetcar A and streetcar B / You and I, to see who dies first:”


Нет, не спрятаться мне от великой муры
За извозчичью спину — Москву,
Я трамвайная вишенка страшной поры
И не знаю, зачем я живу.


Мы с тобою поедем на «А» и на «Б»
Посмотреть, кто скорее умрёт,
А она то сжимается, как воробей,
То растёт, как воздушный пирог.


И едва успевает грозить из угла —
Ты как хочешь, а я не рискну!
У кого под перчаткой не хватит тепла,
Чтоб объездить всю курву Москву.


In his poem Ot lyogkoy zhizni my soshli s uma... ("We went out of our minds with the easy life..." 1913) Mandelshtam predicts that the first to die will be the one with the anxious red mouth and the forelock covering his eyes (a recognizable portrait of G. Ivanov, 1894-1958):


Мы смерти ждём, как сказочного волка,
Но я боюсь, что раньше всех умрёт
Тот, у кого тревожно-красный рот
И на глаза спадающая чёлка.


We wait for death, like the fairytale wolf,
But I'm afraid that the first to die will be
The one with the anxious red mouth
And the forelock covering his eyes.


At the end of his poem Nakipevshaya za gody… (“Accumulated over the years…” 1957) G. Ivanov mentions rytsari prilich’ya (the knights of decorum), well-behaved A and B:


Накипевшая за годы
Злость, сводящая с ума,
Злость к поборникам свободы,
Злость к ревнителям ярма,
Злость к хамью и джентльменам -
Разномастным специменам
Той же "мудрости земной",
К миру и стране родной.

Злость? Вернее, безразличье
К жизни, к вечности, к судьбе.
Нечто кошкино иль птичье,
Отчего не по себе
Верным рыцарям приличья,
Благонравным А и Б,
Что уселись на трубе.


Accumulated over the years

Resentment driving one mad,

Resentment to the champions of freedom,

Resentment to the adherents of yoke,

Resentment to louts and to gentlemen –

Differently colored specimens

Of the same “mundane wisdom,”

To the world and to one’s native land.


Resentment? Rather, indifference

To life, to eternity, to fate.

Something feline or avian

That makes the faithful knights of decorum,

Well-behaved A and B

That sat in the tree

Not quite themselves.


The reference is to a well-known Russian riddle that goes in translation: “A and B sat in the tree. A had fallen, B was stolen. What's remaining in the tree?” The answer is “and.” In Vaniada there is i (Russian for “and”). Van and Ada, whom Dr. Lagosse gives the last merciful injection of morphine, die almost simultaneously. After Van’s and Ada’s death i (the middle vowel in Vaniada) remains.


There is a superfluous i in ‘Martin Gardiner,’ an invented philosopher mentioned by Van Veen in The Texture of Time:


Space is related to our senses of sight, touch, and muscular effort; Time is vaguely connected with hearing (still, a deaf man would perceive the ‘passage’ of time incomparably better than a blind limbless man would the idea of ‘passage’). ‘Space is a swarming in the eyes, and Time a singing in the ears,’ says John Shade, a modem poet, as quoted by an invented philosopher (‘Martin Gardiner’) in The Ambidextrous Universe, page 165. (Part Four)


The Ambidextrous Universe (1964) is a book by Martin Gardner. John Shade is the poet in VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962). In his essay on Time Van quotes the lines from Canto Two of Shade’s poem:


A syllogism: other men die; but I

Am not another; therefore I'll not die.

Space is a swarming in the eyes; and time,

A singing in the ears. In this hive I'm

Locked up. (ll. 213-217)


In Canto Four of his poem Shade says that there are two methods of composing, A and B:


I'm puzzled by the difference between
Two methods of composing: A, the kind
Which goes on solely in the poet's mind,
A testing of performing words, while he
Is soaping a third time one leg, and B,
The other kind, much more decorous, when

He's in his study writing with a pen. (ll. 840-46)

In Canto Four Shade describes shaving and mentions Beirut:


And while the safety blade with scrap and screak
Travels across the country of my cheek,
Cars on the highway pass, and up the steep
Incline big trucks around my jawbone creep,
And now a silent liner docks, and now
Sunglassers tour Beirut, and now I plough
Old Zembla's fields where my gray stubble grows,
And slaves make hay between my mouth and nose. (ll. 931-38)


In his poem Zabludivshiysya tramvay (“The Lost Streetcar,” 1921) Gumilyov mentions an old man who had died in Beirut a year ago:


И, промелькнув у оконной рамы,

Бросил нам вслед пытливый взгляд

Нищий старик, - конечно, тот самый,

Что умер в Бейруте год назад.


And slipping by the window frame,

A poor old man threw us an inquisitive glance-

The very same old man, of course,

Who had died in Beirut a year ago.


At the end of his poem Slovo (“The Word,” 1920) Gumilyov says that dead words smell bad, like bees in a deserted hive:


Мы ему поставили пределом

Скудные пределы естества.

И, как пчёлы в улье опустелом,

Дурно пахнут мёртвые слова.


We have chosen to limit it

To the meager limits of nature,

And, like bees in a deserted hive,

Dead words smell bad.


A deserted hive mentioned by Gumilyov brings to mind the hive in which Shade is locked up. In their old age (even on the last day of their long lives) Van and Ada translate Shade’s poem into Russian:


She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:


...Sovetï mï dayom

Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;

On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,

Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...


(...We give advice

To widower. He has been married twice:

He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both

Jealous of one another...)


Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.

She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.

‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)


Describing the suicide of their half-sister Lucette (whom Van and Ada teased to death), Van mentions Oceanus Nox:


The sky was also heartless and dark, and her body, her head, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers, felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. At every slap and splash of cold wild salt, she heaved with anise-flavored nausea and there was an increasing number, okay, or numbness, in her neck and arms. As she began losing track of herself, she thought it proper to inform a series of receding Lucettes — telling them to pass it on and on in a trick-crystal regression — that what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude. (3.5)


Van spells out “Nox” for the benefit of his typist, Violet Knox (whom Ada suggests Van should marry after her death).


In the last line of his poem "No, I can't hide myself from the great nonsense..." Mandelshtam mentions kurva Moskva (Moscow the whore):


Who has enough warmth inside his glove
to ride around the whole of Moscow the whore.


Describing a stage performance in which Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) played the heroine, Van mentions the violent dance called kurva or 'ribbon boule:'


Even before the old Eskimo had shuffled off with the message, Demon Veen had left his pink velvet chair and proceeded to win the wager, the success of his enterprise being assured by the fact that Marina, a kissing virgin, had been in love with him since their last dance on New Year’s Eve. Moreover, the tropical moonlight she had just bathed in, the penetrative sense of her own beauty, the ardent pulses of the imagined maiden, and the gallant applause of an almost full house made her especially vulnerable to the tickle of Demon’s moustache. She had ample time, too, to change for the next scene, which started with a longish intermezzo staged by a ballet company whose services Scotty had engaged, bringing the Russians all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty. In a splendid orchard several merry young gardeners wearing for some reason the garb of Georgian tribesmen were popping raspberries into their mouths, while several equally implausible servant girls in sharovars (somebody had goofed — the word ‘samovars’ may have got garbled in the agent’s aerocable) were busy plucking marshmallows and peanuts from the branches of fruit trees. At an invisible sign of Dionysian origin, they all plunged into the violent dance called kurva or ‘ribbon boule’ in the hilarious program whose howlers almost caused Veen (tingling, and light-loined, and with Prince N.’s rose-red banknote in his pocket) to fall from his seat. (1.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Raspberries; ribbon: allusions to ludicrous blunders in Lowell’s versions of Mandelshtam’s poems (in the N.Y. Review, 23 December 1965).


“An invisible sign of Dionysian origin” brings to mind Mandelshtam’s Oda Betkhovenu (“Ode to Beethoven,” 1914) in which Beethoven is compared to Dionysus:


О Дионис, как муж, наивный

И благодарный, как дитя!

Ты перенёс свой жребий дивный

То негодуя, то шутя!

С каким глухим негодованьем

Ты собирал с князей оброк

Или с рассеянным вниманьем

На фортепьянный шёл урок!


Oda (“ode”) needs but one letter (Kinbote’s initial) to become koda (“coda” in Russian spelling). Kinbote (Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) believes that, to be completed, Shade’s almost finished poem needs but one line (Line 1000, identical to Line 1: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain”). But it seems that, like some sonnets, Shade’s poem also needs a coda (Line 1001: “By its own double in the windowpane”).


Dvoynik (“The Double”) is a short novel (1846) by Dostoevski and a poem (1909) by Alexander Blok. According to G. Ivanov, to his question “does a sonnet need a coda” Blok replied that he did not know what a coda is. Blok’s poem Nochnaya Fialka (“The Night Violet,” 1906) subtitled “A Dream” brings to mind Violet Knox, Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka (little Violet) and who marries Ronald Oranger (the editor of Ada) after Van’s and Ada’s death. In his poem V etot moy blagoslovennyi vecher… (“In this Blessed Evening of Mine…” 1917) Gumilyov compares the stars to apel’siny voskovye (the oranges of wax) that are served at Christmas:


И светились звёзды золотые,
Приглашённые на торжество,
Словно апельсины восковые,
Те, что подают на Рождество.


In VN's novel Lolita (1955) Mrs Richard F. Schiller (Lolita's married name) outlives Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character) by forty days and dies in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. Lolita is fond of comics. The name Ronald Oranger seems to hint at the cartoon character Donald Duck (an anthropomorphic white duck with a yellow-orange bill, legs, and feet).


VN’s family chronicle is prefaced by the following note:


With the exception of Mr and Mrs Ronald Oranger, a few incidental figures, and some non-American citizens, all the persons mentioned by name in this book are dead.



Even after the death of Mr and Mrs Ronald Oranger, a few incidental figures, et al., something of the book (“and”) will remain and live on.