Aurora & lavender in Lolita & in Ada; Joe Lavender in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 01/02/2021 - 16:48

Describing his stay in Elphinstone (where Lolita falls ill and is hospitalized), Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955) mentions Aurora (the goddess of dawn in Roman mythology and Latin poetry) and the pickers of lavender:


All at once it occurred to me that her illness was somehow the development of a theme – that it had the same taste and tone as the series of linked impressions which had puzzled and tormented me during our journey; I imagined that secret agent, or secret lover, or prankster, or hallucination, or whatever he was, prowling around the hospital – and Aurora had hardly “warmed her hands,” as the pickers of lavender say in the country of my birth, when I found myself trying to get into that dungeon again, knocking upon its green doors, breakfastless, stool-less, in despair.

This was Tuesday, and Wednesday or Thursday, splendidly reacting like the darling she was to some “serum” (sparrow’s sperm or dugong’s dung), she was much better, and the doctor said that in a couple of days she would be “skipping” again. (2.22)


The pickers of lavender in the country of Humbert’s birth (France) bring to mind a lavender glove with which Demon Veen (in VN's novel Ada, 1969, Van's and Ada's father) back-slapped Baron d'Onsky (Skonky) across the face:


Upon being questioned in Demon's dungeon, Marina, laughing trillingly, wove a picturesque tissue of lies; then broke down, and confessed. She swore that all was over; that the Baron, a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai's real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. Since prudent Veen preferred killing his man in Europe (decrepit but indestructible Gamaliel was said to be doing his best to forbid duels in the Western Hemisphere — a canard or an idealistic President’s instant-coffee caprice, for nothing was to come of it after all), Demon rented the fastest petroloplane available, overtook the Baron (looking very fit) in Nice, saw him enter Gunter’s Bookshop, went in after him, and in the presence of the imperturbable and rather bored English shopkeeper, back-slapped the astonished Baron across the face with a lavender glove. The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)


In his Foreword to Shade's poem 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) quotes a Zemblan saying "the lost glove is happy:"


As mentioned, I think, in my last note to the poem, the depth charge of Shade's death blasted such secrets and caused so many dead fish to float up, that I was forced to leave New Wye soon after my last interview with the jailed killer. The writing of the commentary had to be postponed until I could find a new incognito in quieter surroundings, but practical matters concerning the poem had to be settled at once. I took a plane to New York, had the manuscript photographed, came to terms with one of Shade's publishers, and was on the point of clinching the deal when, quite casually, in the midst of a vast sunset (we sat in a cell of walnut and glass fifty stories above the progression of scarabs), my interlocutor observed: "You'll be happy to know, Dr. Kinbote, that Professor So-and-so [one of the members of the Shade committee] has consented to act as our adviser in editing the stuff." 

Now "happy" is something extremely subjective. One of our sillier Zemblan proverbs says: the lost glove is happy. Promptly I refastened the catch of my briefcase and betook myself to another publisher.


The characters in Pale Fire include Joe Lavender, the owner of Villa Libitina visited by Gradus (Shade's murderer). According to Kinbote (the author of a book on surnames), the name Lavender comes from the laundry (in Old French, lavandier is a person who washes linen), not from the laund (an open usually grassy area among trees):


On July 10, the day John Shade wrote this, and perhaps at the very minute he started to use his thirty-third index card for lines 406-416, Gradus was driving in a hired car from Geneva to Lex, where Odon was known to be resting, after completing his motion picture, at the villa of an old American friend, Joseph S. Lavender (the name hails from the laundry, not from the laund). Our brilliant schemer had been told that Joe Lavender collected photographs of the artistic type called in French ombrioles. He had not been told what exactly these were and dismissed them mentally as "lampshades with landscapes." His cretinous plan was to present himself as the agent of a Strasbourg art dealer and then, over drinks with Lavender and his house guest, endeavor to pick up clues to the King's whereabouts. He did not reckon with the fact that Donald Odon with his absolute sense of such things would have immediately deduced from the way Gradus displayed his empty palm before shaking hands or made a slight bow after every sip, and other tricks of demeanor (which Gradus himself did not notice in people but had acquired from them) that wherever he had been born he had certainly lived for a considerable time in a low-class Zemblan environment and was therefore a spy or worse. Gradus was also unaware that the ombrioles Lavender collected (and I am sure Joe will not resent this indiscretion) combined exquisite beauty with highly indecent subject matter - nudities blending with fig trees, oversize ardors, softly shaded hinder cheeks, and also a dapple of female charms.

From his Geneva hotel Gradus had tried to get Lavender on the telephone but was told he could not be reached before noon. By noon Gradus was already under way and telephoned again, this time from Montreux. Lavender had been given the message and would Mr. Degré drop in around tea time. He luncheoned in a lakeside cafe, went for a stroll, asked the price of a small crystal giraffe in a souvenir shop, bought a newspaper, read it on a bench, and presently drove on. In the vicinity of Lex he lost his way among steep tortuous lanes. Upon stopping above a vineyard, at the rough entrance of an unfinished house, he was shown by the three index fingers of three masons the red roof of Lavender's villa high up in the ascending greenery on the opposite side of the road. He decided to leave the car and climb the stone steps of what looked like an easy short cut. While he was trudging up the walled walk with his eye on the rabbit foot of a poplar which now hid the red roof at the top of the climb, now disclosed it, the sun found a weak spot among the rain clouds and next moment a ragged blue hole in them grew a radiant rim. He felt the burden and the odor of his new brown suit bought in a Copenhagen store and already wrinkled. Puffing, consulting his wrist watch, and fanning himself with his trilby, also new, he reached at last the transverse continuation of the looping road he had left below. He crossed it, walked through a wicket and up a curving gravel path, and found himself in front of Lavender's villa. Its name, Libitina, was displayed in cursive script above one of the barred north windows, with its letters made of black wire and the dot over each of the three i's cleverly mimicked by the tarred head of a chalk-coated nail driven into the white facade. This device, and the north-facing window grates, Gradus had observed in Swiss villas before, but immunity to classical allusion deprived him of the pleasure he might have derived from the tribute that Lavender's macabre joviality had paid the Roman goddess of corpses and tombs. Another matter engaged his attention: from a corner casement came the sounds of a piano, a tumult of vigorous music which for some odd reason, as he was to tell me later, suggested to him a possibility he had not considered and caused his hand to fly to his hip pocket as he prepared to meet not Lavender and not Odon but that gifted hymnist, Charles the Beloved. The music stopped as Gradus, confused by the whimsical shape of the house, hesitated before a glassed-in porch. An elderly footman in green appeared from a green side door and led him to another entrance. With a show of carelessness not improved by laborious repetition, Gradus asked him, first in mediocre French, then in worse English, and finally in fair German, if there were many guests staying in the house; but the man only smiled and bowed him into the music room. The musician had vanished. A harplike din still came from the grand piano upon which a pair of beach sandals stood as on the brink of a lily pond. From a window seat a gaunt jet-glittering lady stiffly arose and introduced herself as the governess of Mr. Lavender's nephew. Gradus mentioned his eagerness to see Lavender's sensational collection: this aptly defined its pictures of lovemaking in orchards, but the governess (whom the King had always called to her pleased face Mademoiselle Belle instead of Mademoiselle Baud) hastened to confess her total ignorance of her employer's hobbies and treasures and suggested the visitor's taking a look at the garden: "Gordon will show you his favorite flowers" she said, and called into the next room "Gordon!"

Rather reluctantly there came out a slender but strong-looking lad of fourteen or fifteen dyed a nectarine hue by the sun. He had nothing on save a leopard-spotted loincloth. His closely cropped hair was a tint lighter than his skin: His lovely bestial face wore an expression both sullen and sly. Our preoccupied plotter did not register any of these details and merely experienced a general impression of indecency.

"Gordon is a musical prodigy," said Miss Baud, and the boy winced. "Gordon, will you show the garden to this gentleman?"

The boy acquiesced, adding he would take a dip if nobody minded. He put on his sandals and led the way out. Through light and shade walked the strange pair: the graceful boy wreathed about the loins with ivy and the seedy killer in his cheap brown suit with a folded newspaper sticking out of his left-hand coat pocket.

"That's the Grotto," said Gordon. "I once spent the night here with a friend." Gradus let his indifferent glance enter the mossy recess where one could glimpse a collapsible mattress with a dark stain on its orange nylon. The boy applied avid lips to a pipe of spring water and wiped his wet hands on his black bathing trunks. Gradus consulted his watch. They strolled on. "You have not seen anything yet," said Gordon. (note to Line 408)


Gordon is the son of Joe Lavender’s famous sister, Elvina Krummholz. In Keats' ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci (1819) the lady takes the knight to her Elfin grot:


She took me to her Elfin grot,

       And there she wept and sighed full sore,

And there I shut her wild wild eyes

       With kisses four.


Describing his visits to the Elphinstone hospital, Humbert mentions une belle dame toute en bleu:


I do not think they had more than a dozen patients (three or four were lunatics, as Lo had cheerfully informed me earlier) in that show place of a hospital, and the staff had too much leisure. However - likewise for reasons of show - regulations were rigid. It is also true that I kept coming at the wrong hours. Not without a secret flow of dreamy malice, visionary Mary (next time it will be une belle dame toute en bleu floating through Roaring Gulch) plucked me by the sleeve to lead me out. (2.22)


When Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada) and his (and Ada’s) half-sister Lucette cross the Atlantic on Admiral Tobakoff, Lucette mentions 'Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up,' a steeplechase picture that hangs in her cabin:


Quite kindly he asked where she thought she was going.

To Ardis, with him — came the prompt reply — for ever and ever. Robinson’s grandfather had died in Araby at the age of one hundred and thirty-one, so Van had still a whole century before him, she would build for him, in the park, several pavilions to house his successive harems, they would gradually turn, one after the other, into homes for aged ladies, and then into mausoleums. There hung, she said, a steeplechase picture of ‘Pale Fire with Tom Cox Up’ above dear Cordula’s and Tobak’s bed, in the suite ‘wangled in one minute flat’ from them, and she wondered how it affected the Tobaks’ love life during sea voyages. Van interrupted Lucette’s nervous patter by asking her if her bath taps bore the same inscriptions as his: Hot Domestic, Cold Salt. Yes, she cried, Old Salt, Old Salzman, Ardent Chambermaid, Comatose Captain! (3.5)


As they bathe in the sun at the poolside, Van compares Lucette to Aurora:


Two half-naked children in shrill glee came running toward the pool. A Negro nurse brandished their diminutive bras in angry pursuit. Out of the water a bald head emerged by spontaneous generation and snorted. The swimming coach appeared from the dressing room. Simultaneously, a tall splendid creature with trim ankles and repulsively fleshy thighs, stalked past the Veens, all but treading on Lucette’s emerald-studded cigarette case. Except for a golden ribbon and a bleached mane, her long, ripply, beige back was bare all the way down to the tops of her slowly and lusciously rolling buttocks, which divulged, in alternate motion, their nether bulges from under the lamé loincloth. Just before disappearing behind a rounded white corner, the Titianesque Titaness half-turned her brown face and greeted Van with a loud ‘hullo!’

Lucette wanted to know: kto siya pava? (who’s that stately dame?)

‘I thought she addressed you,’ answered Van, ‘I did not distinguish her face and do not remember that bottom.’

‘She gave you a big jungle smile,’ said Lucette, readjusting her green helmet, with touchingly graceful movements of her raised wings, and touchingly flashing the russet feathering of her armpits.

‘Come with me, hm?’ she suggested, rising from the mat.

He shook his head, looking up at her: ‘You rise,’ he said, ‘like Aurora,’

‘His first compliment,’ observed Lucette with a little cock of her head as if speaking to an invisible confidant.

He put on his tinted glasses and watched her stand on the diving board, her ribs framing the hollow of her intake as she prepared to ardis into the amber. He wondered, in a mental footnote that might come handy some day, if sunglasses or any other varieties of vision, which certainly twist our concept of ‘space,’ do not also influence our style of speech. The two well-formed lassies, the nurse, the prurient merman, the natatorium master, all looked on with Van.

‘Second compliment ready,’ he said as she returned to his side. ‘You’re a divine diver. I go in with a messy plop.’

‘But you swim faster,’ she complained, slipping off her shoulder straps and turning into a prone position; ‘Mezhdu prochim (by the way), is it true that a sailor in Tobakoff’s day was not taught to swim so he wouldn’t die a nervous wreck if the ship went down?’

‘A common sailor, perhaps,’ said Van. ‘When michman Tobakoff himself got shipwrecked off Gavaille, he swam around comfortably for hours, frightening away sharks with snatches of old songs and that sort of thing, until a fishing boat rescued him — one of those miracles that require a minimum of cooperation from all concerned, I imagine.’ (ibid.)


Describing Lucette’s suicide, Van mentions Toby the barman:


She drank a ‘Cossack pony’ of Klass vodka — hateful, vulgar, but potent stuff; had another; and was hardly able to down a third because her head had started to swim like hell. Swim like hell from sharks, Tobakovich!

She had no purse with her. She almost fell from her convex ridiculous seat as she fumbled in her shirt pocket for a stray bank note.

‘Beddydee,’ said Toby the barman with a fatherly smile, which she mistook for a leer. ‘Bedtime, miss,’ he repeated and patted her ungloved hand.

Lucette recoiled and forced herself to retort distinctly and haughtily:

‘Mr Veen, my cousin, will pay you tomorrow and bash your false teeth in.’

Six, seven — no, more than that, about ten steps up. Dix marches. Legs and arms. Dimanche. Déjeuner sur l’herbe. Tout le monde pue. Ma belle-mère avale son râtelier. Sa petite chienne, after too much exercise, gulps twice and quietly vomits, a pink pudding onto the picnic nappe. Après quoi she waddles off. These steps are something.

While dragging herself up she had to hang onto the rail. Her twisted progress was that of a cripple. Once on the open deck she felt the solid impact of the black night, and the mobility of the accidental home she was about to leave.

Although Lucette had never died before — no, dived before, Violet — from such a height, in such a disorder of shadows and snaking reflections, she went with hardly a splash through the wave that humped to welcome her. That perfect end was spoiled by her instinctively surfacing in an immediate sweep — instead of surrendering under water to her drugged lassitude as she had planned to do on her last night ashore if it ever did come to this. The silly girl had not rehearsed the technique of suicide as, say, free-fall parachutists do every day in the element of another chapter. Owing to the tumultuous swell and her not being sure which way to peer through the spray and the darkness and her own tentaclinging hair — t,a,c,l — she could not make out the lights of the liner, an easily imagined many-eyed bulk mightily receding in heartless triumph. Now I’ve lost my next note.

Got it.

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.

She did not see her whole life flash before her as we all were afraid she might have done; the red rubber of a favorite doll remained safely decomposed among the myosotes of an unanalyzable brook; but she did see a few odds and ends as she swam like a dilettante Tobakoff in a circle of brief panic and merciful torpor. She saw a pair of new vair-furred bedroom slippers, which Brigitte had forgotten to pack; she saw Van wiping his mouth before answering, and then, still withholding the answer, throwing his napkin on the table as they both got up; and she saw a girl with long black hair quickly bend in passing to clap her hands over a dackel in a half-tom wreath.

A brilliantly illumined motorboat was launched from the — not-too-distant ship with Van and the swimming coach and the oilskin-hooded Toby among the would-be saviors; but by that time a lot of sea had rolled by and Lucette was too tired to wait. Then the night was filled with the rattle of an old but still strong helicopter. Its diligent beam could spot only the dark head of Van, who, having been propelled out of the boat when it shied from its own sudden shadow, kept bobbing and bawling the drowned girl’s name in the black, foam-veined, complicated waters. (ibid.)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Dimanche etc.: Sunday. Lunch on the grass. Everybody stinks. My mother-in-law swallows her dentures. Her little bitch, etc. After which, etc. (see p.375, a painter’s diary Lucette has been reading).

Nox: Lat., at night.


In Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four (1890) Sherlock Holmes and Watson trace the steam launch Aurora hired by Jonathan Small (the wooden-legged man) and Tonga (the barefooted native of the Andaman Islands who killed Bartholomew Sholto with a poisoned dart shot from a blow-pipe) with the help of dog Toby. The Golconda in one's cuff links mentioned by Kinbote in his Foreword to Shade's poem ("Imagine a soft, clumsy giant; imagine a historical personage whose knowledge of money is limited to the abstract billions of a national debt; imagine an exiled prince who is unaware of the Golconda in his cuff links!") brings to mind the Agra treasure in Conan Doyle’s Sign of the Four and Dostoevski's Zolotoy vek v karmane ("Golden Age in One's Pocket"). Like Hermann Karlovich (the narrator and main character in VN's novel "Despair," 1934), VN regarded Dostoevski as the author of detective novels.


A compulsive smoker, Sherlock Holmes does not part with his pipe. The name Tobakoff comes from tabak (tobacco). O vrede tabaka (“On the Harm of Tobacco,” 1886, 1903) are two monologue scenes by Chekhov. In a conversation with Kinbote Shade listed Chekhov among Russian humorists:


Speaking of the Head of the bloated Russian Department, Prof. Pnin, a regular martinet in regard to his underlings (happily, Prof. Botkin, who taught in another department, was not subordinated to that grotesque "perfectionist"): "How odd that Russian intellectuals should lack all sense of humor when they have such marvelous humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, and those joint authors of genius Ilf and Petrov." (note to Line 172)


The characters in Ilf and Petrov’s novel Dvenadtsat’ stulyev (“The Twelve Chairs,” 1928) include Fima Sobak (a friend of Ellochka the Cannibal). The name Sobak rhymes with Tobak (Cordula de Prey’s first husband). Sobaka is Russian for “dog” (when Van meets Cordula in Paris, he quotes to her the stale but appropriate lines "The Veens speak only to Tobaks, / But Tobaks speak only to dogs"). In a conversation with Demon Van calls Cordula's husband "Backbay Tobakovich" (2.10). Tobakovich brings to mind Sobakevich, one of the landowners visited by Chichikov in Gogol’s Myortvye dushi (“Dead Souls,” 1842), and the Cockerells’ cocker spaniel in VN’s novel Pnin (1957). In The Enchanted Hunters (a hotel in Briceland where Humbert and Lolita spend their first night together) Lolita caresses an old lady's cocker spaniel:


A hunchbacked and hoary Negro in a uniform of sorts took our bags and wheeled them slowly into the lobby. It was full of old ladies and clergy men. Lolita sank down on her haunches to caress a pale-faced, blue-freckled, black-eared cocker spaniel swooning on the floral carpet under her hand – as who would not, my heart - while I cleared my throat through the throng to the desk. (1.27)


At the Elphinstone hospital Quilty ("Mr. Gustave") calls for Lolita with a cocker spaniel pup:


"Okey-dokey," big Frank sang out, slapped the jamb, and whistling, carried my message away, and I went on drinking, and by morning the fever was gone, and although I was as limp as a toad, I put on the purple dressing gown over my maize yellow pajamas, and walked over to the office telephone. Everything was fine. A bright voice informed me that yes, everything was fine, my daughter had checked out the day before, around two, her uncle, Mr. Gustave, had called for her with a cocker spaniel pup and a smile for everyone, and a black Caddy Lack, and had paid Dolly's bill in cash, and told them to tell me I should not worry, and keep warm, they were at Grandpa's ranch as agreed. (2.22)


In Canto One of his poem Shade describes a bird’s footprints on the snow and mentions the fellow in Sherlock Holmes whose tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes:


And then the gradual and dual blue

As night unites the viewer and the view,

And in the morning, diamonds of frost

Express amazement: Whose spurred feet have crossed

From left to right the blank page of the road?

Reading from left to right in winter's code:

A dot, an arrow pointing back; repeat:

Dot, arrow pointing back... A pheasant's feet!

Torquated beauty, sublimated grouse,

Finding your China right behind my house.        

Was he in Sherlock Holmes, the fellow whose

Tracks pointed back when he reversed his shoes? (ll. 17-28)


In his note to Line 27 Kinbote writes:


A hawk-nosed, lanky, rather likable private detective, the main character in various stories by Conan Doyle. I have no means to ascertain at the present time which of these is referred to here but suspect that our poet simply made up this Case of the Reversed Footprints.


Describing Aunt Maud's room in Canto One of his poem, Shade mentions Chapman's Homer (in a baseball match):


I was brought up by dear bizarre Aunt Maud,

A poet and a painter with a taste

For realistic objects interlaced

With grotesque growths and images of doom.

She lived to hear the next babe cry. Her room

We've kept intact. Its trivia create

A still life in her style: the paperweight

Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon,

The verse book open at the Index (Moon,

Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,

The human skull; and from the local Star

A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4

On Chapman's Homer, thumbtacked to the door. (ll. 86-98)


On First Looking into Chapman's Homer (1816) is a sonnet by Keats:


Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men

Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.