Mercuries in Ada; odd dark word in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/30/2020 - 16:04

Before the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen (in VN’s novel Ada, 1969, Van’s and Ada’s father) tells Van that the servants at Ardis are not Mercuries:


‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long…’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’

‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.

‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’

‘I adore it,’ said Van. ‘It’s for me the château que baignait la Dore. I would gladly spend all my scarred and strange life here. But that’s a hopeless fancy.’

‘Hopeless? I wonder. I know Dan wants to leave it to Lucile, but Dan is greedy, and my affairs are such that I can satisfy great greed. When I was your age I thought that the sweetest word in the language rhymes with "billiard," and now I know I was right. If you’re really keen, son, on having this property, I might try to buy it. I can exert a certain pressure upon my Marina. She sighs like a hassock when you sit upon her, so to speak. Damn it, the servants here are not Mercuries. Pull that cord again. Yes, maybe Dan could be made to sell.’

‘That’s very black of you, Dad,’ said pleased Van, using a slang phrase he had learned from his tender young nurse, Ruby, who was born in the Mississippi region where most magistrates, public benefactors, high priests of various so-called’ denominations,’ and other honorable and generous men, had the dark or darkish skin of their West-African ancestors, who had been the first navigators to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

I wonder,’ Demon mused. ‘It would cost hardly more than a couple of millions minus what Cousin Dan owes me, minus also the Ladore pastures, which are utterly mucked up and should be got rid of gradually, if the local squires don’t blow up that new kerosene distillery, the stïd i sram (shame) of our county. I am not particularly fond of Ardis, but I have nothing against it, though I detest its environs. Ladore Town has become very honky-tonky, and the gaming is not what it used to be. You have all sorts of rather odd neighbors. Poor Lord Erminin is practically insane. At the races, the other day, I was talking to a woman I preyed upon years ago, oh long before Moses de Vere cuckolded her husband in my absence and shot him dead in my presence — an epigram you’ve heard before, no doubt from these very lips —’

(The next thing will be ‘paternal repetitiousness.’)

‘— but a good son should put up with a little paternal repetitiousness — Well, she tells me her boy and Ada see a lot of each other, et cetera. Is that true?’

‘Not really,’ said Van. ‘They meet now and then — at the usual parties. Both like horses, and races, but that’s all. There is no et cetera, that’s out of the question.’

‘Good! Ah, the portentous footfall is approaching, I hear. Prascovie de Prey has the worst fault of a snob: overstatement. Bonsoir, Bouteillan. You look as ruddy as your native vine — but we are not getting any younger, as the amerlocks say, and that pretty messenger of mine must have been waylaid by some younger and more fortunate suitor.’

‘Proshu, papochka (please, Dad),’ murmured Van, who always feared that his father’s recondite jests might offend a menial — while sinning himself by being sometimes too curt. (1.38)


In Pushkin’s poem Gavriiliada (“The Gabrieliad,” 1821) God, when he fell in love with Maria, chose the archangel Gabriel as a Mercury (v Merkurii arkhangela izbral):


И ты, господь! познал ее волненье,
И ты пылал, о боже, как и мы.
Создателю постыло всё творенье,
Наскучило небесное моленье, —
Он сочинял любовные псалмы
И громко пел: «Люблю, люблю Марию,
В унынии бессмертие влачу...
Где крылия? к Марии полечу
И на груди красавицы почию!..»
И прочее... всё, что придумать мог, —
Творец любил восточный, пестрый слог.
Потом, призвав любимца Гавриила,
Свою любовь он прозой объяснял.
Беседы их нам церковь утаила,
Евангелист немного оплошал!
Но говорит армянское преданье,
Что царь небес, не пожалев похвал,
В Меркурии архангела избрал,
Заметя в нем и ум и дарованье, —
И вечерком к Марии подослал.
Архангелу другой хотелось чести:
Нередко он в посольствах был счастлив;
Переносить записочки да вести
Хоть выгодно, но он самолюбив.


To transmit little notes and messages is profitable, but the archangel is ambitious. Demon’s pretty messenger is Blanche, a French handmaid at Ardis whom Demon calls "a passing angel:"


‘Did what’s-her-name go with you?’

‘Well, my boy, frankly, the nomenclature is getting more and more confused every year. Let us speak of plainer things. Where are the drinks? They were promised me by a passing angel.’

(Passing angel?) (1.38)


Blanche is the author of the anonymous note that Van finds in his dinner jacket:


One common orchid, a Lady’s Slipper, was all that wilted in the satchel which she had left on a garden table and now dragged upstairs. Marina and the mirror had gone. He peeled off his training togs and took one last dip in the pool over which the butler stood, looking meditatively into the false-blue water with his hands behind his back.

‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘if I haven’t just seen a tadpole.’

The novelistic theme of written communications has now really got into its stride. When Van went up to his room he noticed, with a shock of grim premonition, a slip of paper sticking out of the heart pocket of his dinner jacket. Penciled in a large hand, with the contour of every letter deliberately whiffled and rippled, was the anonymous injunction: ‘One must not berne you.’ Only a French-speaking person would use that word for ‘dupe.’ Among the servants, fifteen at least were of French extraction — descendants of immigrants who had settled in America after England had annexed their beautiful and unfortunate country in 1815. To interview them all — torture the males, rape the females — would be, of course, absurd and degrading. With a puerile wrench he broke his best black butterfly on the wheel of his exasperation. The pain from the fang bite was now reaching his heart. He found another tie, finished dressing and went to look for Ada. (1.40)


Addressing Van, Blanche uses the archaic second person pronoun “thou:”


‘C’est ma dernière nuit au château,’ she said softly, and rephrased it in her quaint English, elegiac and stilted, as spoken only in obsolete novels. ‘‘Tis my last night with thee.’

‘Your last night? With me? What do you mean?’ He considered her with the eerie uneasiness one feels when listening to the utterances of delirium or intoxication.

But despite her demented look, Blanche was perfectly lucid. She had made up her mind a couple of days ago to leave Ardis Hall. She had just slipped her demission, with a footnote on the young lady’s conduct, under the door of Madame. She would go in a few hours. She loved him, he was her ‘folly and fever,’ she wished to spend a few secret moments with him.

He entered the toolroom and slowly closed the door. The slowness had its uncomfortable cause. She had placed her lantern on the rung of a ladder and was already gathering up and lifting her skimpy skirt. Compassion, courtesy and some assistance on her part might have helped him to work up the urge which she took for granted and whose total absence he carefully concealed under his tartan cloak; but quite aside from the fear of infection (Bout had hinted at some of the poor girl’s troubles), a graver matter engrossed him. He diverted her bold hand and sat down on the bench beside her.

Was it she who had placed that note in his jacket?

It was. She had been unable to face departure if he was to remain fooled, deceived, betrayed. She added, in naive brackets, that she had been sure he always desired her, they could talk afterwards. Je suis à toi, c’est bientôt l’aube, your dream has come true.

‘Parlez pour vous,’ answered Van. ‘I am in no mood for love-making. And I will strangle you, I assure you, if you do not tell me the whole story in every detail, at once.’ (1.41)


It seems that the odd dark word that Kinbote (in VN’s novel Pale Fire, 1962, Shade’s mad commentator who imagines that he is Charles the Beloved, the last self-exiled king of Zembla) cannot write out is “thou:”


He had worked for two years as a male nurse in a hospital for Negroes in Maryland. He was hard up. He wanted to study landscaping, botany and French ("to read in the original Baudelaire and Dumas"). I promised him some financial assistance. He started to work at my place the very next day. He was awfully nice and pathetic, and all that, but a little too talkative and completely impotent which I found discouraging. Otherwise he was a strong strapping fellow, and I hugely enjoyed the aesthetic pleasure of watching him buoyantly struggle with earth and turf or delicately manipulate bulbs, or lay out the flagged path which may or may not be a nice surprise for my landlord, when he safely returns from England (where I hope no bloodthirsty maniacs are stalking him!). How I longed to have him (my gardener, not my landlord) wear a great big turban, and shalwars, and an ankle bracelet. I would certainly have him attired according to the old romanticist notion of a Moorish prince, had I been a northern king – or rather had I still been a king (exile becomes a bad habit). You will chide me, my modest man, for writing so much about you in this note, but I feel I must pay you this tribute. After all, you saved my life. You and I were the last people who saw John Shade alive, and you admitted afterwards to a strange premonition which made you interrupt your work as you noticed us from the shrubbery walking toward the porch where stood – (Superstitiously I cannot write out the odd dark word you employed.) (note to Line 998)


“A strange premonition” that makes Kinbote’s black gardener interrupt his work brings to mind a shock of grim premonition experienced by Van when he sees a slip of paper sticking out of the heart pocket of his dinner jacket.


Van's scuffle with Percy de Prey (one of Ada's lovers) at the picnic on Ada's sixteen birthday is a parody of Gabriel's fight with the Satan in Pushkin's Gabriel poem.


At the end of his farewell letter to Marina (Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother) Demon mentions Marina’s runaway maid who will be stuffed with mercury:


‘Adieu. Perhaps it is better thus,’ wrote Demon to Marina in mid-April, 1869 (the letter may be either a copy in his calligraphic hand or the unposted original), ‘for whatever bliss might have attended our married life, and however long that blissful life might have lasted, one image I shall not forget and will not forgive. Let it sink in, my dear. Let me repeat it in such terms as a stage performer can appreciate. You had gone to Boston to see an old aunt — a cliché, but the truth for the nonce — and I had gone to my aunt’s ranch near Lolita, Texas. Early one February morning (around noon chez vous) I rang you up at your hotel from a roadside booth of pure crystal still tear-stained after a tremendous thunderstorm to ask you to fly over at once, because I, Demon, rattling my crumpled wings and cursing the automatic dorophone, could not live without you and because I wished you to see, with me holding you, the daze of desert flowers that the rain had brought out. Your voice was remote but sweet; you said you were in Eve’s state, hold the line, let me put on a penyuar. Instead, blocking my ear, you spoke, I suppose, to the man with whom you had spent the night (and whom I would have dispatched, had I not been overeager to castrate him). Now that is the sketch made by a young artist in Parma, in the sixteenth century, for the fresco of our destiny, in a prophetic trance, and coinciding, except for the apple of terrible knowledge, with an image repeated in two men’s minds. Your runaway maid, by the way, has been found by the police in a brothel here and will be shipped to you as soon as she is sufficiently stuffed with mercury.’ (1.2)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Lolita, Texas: this town exists, or, rather, existed, for it has been renamed, I believe, after the appearance of the notorious novel.


In one of his epigrams on Aglaya Davydov (with whom Pushkin, as many others, had had a brief affair) Pushkin mentions Mercury who punishes Aglaya for her love of chuzhdyi pol (the opposite sex):


Оставя честь судьбе на произвол,
Давыдова, живая жертва фурий,
От малых лет любила чуждый пол,
И вдруг беда! казнит её Меркурий,
Раскаяться приходит ей пора,
Она лежит, глаз пухнет понемногу,
Вдруг лопнул он: что ж дама? — «Слава богу!
Всё к лучшему: вот новая <дыра>!»


Having left her honor to the mercy of fate,

Mme Davydov, a live victim of the furies,

from young age loved the opposite sex,

and suddenly she is in trouble! Mercury punishes her.

It's time for her to repent,

she lies in bed, her eye swells up little by little,

Suddenly it burst: what will the lady do? "Thank God!

It's for the best: here is a new hole!"


The first cousin of Daniel Veen (Marina's husband), Demon could have asked Marina a question that Pushkin asks Aglaya Davydov in another epigram:


Иной имел мою Аглаю
За свой мундир и чёрный ус,
Другой за деньги — понимаю,
Другой за то, что был француз,
Клеон — умом её стращая,
Дамис — за то, что нежно пел.
Скажи теперь, мой друг Аглая,
За что твой муж тебя имел?


One had Aglaya by attraction
Of black moustache and martial stance,
One for his money (no objection),
A third because he was from France,
Cleon by dint of being clever,
Damis for tender songs galore;
But, my Aglaya, say, whatever
Did your own husband have you for?

(tr. W. Arndt)


Chyornyi us (the black moustache) in Pushkin's epigram brings to mind the tickle of Demon's moustache to which Marina was especially vulnerable:


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.

His heart missed a beat and never regretted the lovely loss, as she ran, flushed and flustered, in a pink dress into the orchard, earning a claque third of the sitting ovation that greeted the instant dispersal of the imbecile but colorful transfigurants from Lyaska — or Iveria. Her meeting with Baron O., who strolled out of a side alley, all spurs and green tails, somehow eluded Demon’s consciousness, so struck was he by the wonder of that brief abyss of absolute reality between two bogus fulgurations of fabricated life. Without waiting for the end of the scene, he hurried out of the theater into the crisp crystal night, the snowflakes star-spangling his top hat as he returned to his house in the next block to arrange a magnificent supper. By the time he went to fetch his new mistress in his jingling sleigh, the last-act ballet of Caucasian generals and metamorphosed Cinderellas had come to a sudden close, and Baron d’O., now in black tails and white gloves, was kneeling in the middle of an empty stage, holding the glass slipper that his fickle lady had left him when eluding his belated advances. The claqueurs were getting tired and looking at their watches when Marina in a black cloak slipped into Demon’s arms and swan-sleigh. (1.2)


Mlle Larivière (Lucette's governess) calls Blanche "Cendrillon." Baron O.'s green tails bring to mind a green tail coat that Pierre Bezukhov (a character in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” 1869) wears in the battle of Borodino:


25-го утром  Пьер выезжал из  Можайска. На  спуске с огромной крутой и кривой горы, ведущей из города, мимо стоящего на горе направо собора, в котором шла служба и благовестили, Пьер вылез из экипажа и пошёл пешком. За ним спускался на горе какой-то конный полк с песельниками впереди. Навстречу ему поднимался поезд телег с раненными во вчерашнем деле. Возчики-мужики, крича на лошадей и хлеща их кнутами, перебегали с одной стороны на  другую.

Телеги, на которых лежали и сидели по три и по четыре солдата раненых, прыгали по набросанным в виде мостовой камням на крутом подъеме. Раненые, обвязанные тряпками, бледные, с поджатыми губами и нахмуренными бровями,

держась за грядки, прыгали и толкались в  телегах. Все почти с наивным детским любопытством смотрели на белую шляпу и зелёный фрак Пьера.


On the morning of the twenty-fifth Pierre was leaving Mozhaysk. At the descent of the high steep hill, down which a winding road led out of the town past the cathedral on the right, where a service was being held and the bells were ringing, Pierre got out of his vehicle and proceeded on foot. Behind him a cavalry regiment was coming down the hill preceded by its singers. Coming up toward him was a train of carts carrying men who had been wounded in the engagement the day before. The peasant drivers, shouting and lashing their horses, kept crossing from side to side. The carts, in each of which three or four wounded soldiers were lying or sitting, jolted over the stones that had been thrown on the steep incline to make it something like a road. The wounded, bandaged with rags, with pale cheeks, compressed lips, and knitted brows, held on to the sides of the carts as they were jolted against one another. Almost all of them stared with naive, childlike curiosity at Pierre’s white hat and green tail coat.

Pierre’s coachman shouted angrily at the convoy of wounded to keep to one side of the road. (Volume Three, Part Two, chapter XX)


In his diary (the entry of Nov. 27, 1809) Pierre Bezukhov mentions Mercury:


После этого в дневнике было пропущено три листа, и потом было написано следующее: «Имел продолжительный поучительный разговор наедине с братом В., который советовал мне держаться брата А. Многое, хотя и недостойному, мне было открыто. Адонаи есть имя сотворившего мир. Элоим есть имя правящего всем. Третье имя, имя неизрекаемое, имеющее значение Всего. Беседы с братом В. подкрепляют, освежают и утверждают меня на пути добродетели. При нем нет места сомнению. Мне ясно различие бедного учения наук общественных с нашим святым, все обнимающим учением. Науки человеческие все подразделяют — чтобы понять, все убивают — чтобы рассмотреть. В святой науке ордена все едино, все познается в своей совокупности и жизни. Троица — три начала вещей — сера, меркурий и соль. Сера елейного и огненного свойства; она в соединении с солью огненностью своей возбуждает в ней алкание, посредством которого притягивает меркурий, схватывает его, удерживает и совокупно производит отдельные тела. Меркурий есть жидкая и летучая духовная сущность — Христос, Дух Святой, он».


After this, three pages were left blank in the diary, and then the following was written: I have had a long and instructive talk alone with Brother V., who advised me to hold fast by brother A. Though I am unworthy, much was revealed to me. Adonai is the name of the creator of the world. Elohim is the name of the ruler of all. The third name is the name unutterable which means the All. Talks with Brother V. strengthen, refresh, and support me in the path of virtue. In his presence doubt has no place. The distinction between the poor teachings of mundane science and our sacred all-embracing teaching is clear to me. Human sciences dissect everything to comprehend it, and kill everything to examine it. In the holy science of our order all is one, all is known in its entirety and life. The Trinity - the three elements of matter - are sulphur, mercury, and salt. Sulphur is of an oily and fiery nature; in combination with salt by its fiery nature it arouses a desire in the latter by means of which it attracts mercury, seizes it, holds it, and in combination produces other bodies. Mercury is a fluid, volatile, spiritual essence. Christ, the Holy Spirit, Him!... (Volume Two, Part Three, chapter X)


Before the family dinner in "Ardis the Second" Demon mentions that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer:


‘I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’

‘Capital,’ said Demon.

‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’

‘Capital,’ he repeated. ‘You look splendid, my dear, dear fellow — and I don’t have to exaggerate compliments as some do in regard to an aging man with shoe-shined hair. Your dinner jacket is very nice — or, rather it’s very nice recognizing one’s old tailor in one’s son’s clothes — like catching oneself repeating an ancestral mannerism — for example, this (wagging his left forefinger three times at the height of his temple), which my mother did in casual, pacific denial; that gene missed you, but I’ve seen it in my hairdresser’s looking-glass when refusing to have him put Crêmlin on my bald spot; and you know who had it too — my aunt Kitty, who married the Banker Bolenski after divorcing that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer.’

Demon preferred Walter Scott to Dickens, and did not think highly of Russian novelists. As usual, Van considered it fit to make a corrective comment:

‘A fantastically artistic writer, Dad.’ (1.38)