Baguenaudier Bower & kitayskaya punochka in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Fri, 02/05/2021 - 08:15

On the morning following the Night of the Burning Barn (when they make love for the first time) Van and Ada agree to go for a walk before lunch and find a secluded place and Ada tells Van to wait for her in the Baguenaudier Bower:


After she too had finished breakfasting, he waylaid her, gorged with sweet butter, on the landing. They had one moment to plan things, it was all, historically speaking, at the dawn of the novel which was still in the hands of parsonage ladies and French academicians, so such moments were precious. She stood scratching one raised knee. They agreed to go for a walk before lunch and find a secluded place. She had to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière. She showed him her draft. François Coppée? Yes.


Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper

Can tell, before they reach the mud,

The oak tree by its leaf of copper,

The maple by its leaf of blood.


‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard en reconnaissant — that paraphrastic touch of "chopper" and "mud" is, of course, pure Lowden (minor poet and translator, 1815-1895). Betraying the first half of the stanza to save the second is rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves, and then fell out of his sleigh.’

‘I think you are very cruel and stupid,’ said Ada. ‘This is not meant to be a work of art or a brilliant parody. It is the ransom exacted by a demented governess from a poor overworked schoolgirl. Wait for me in the Baguenaudier Bower,’ she added. ‘I’ll be down in exactly sixty-three minutes.’ (1.20)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): leur chute etc.: their fall is slow... one can follow them with one’s eyes, recognizing —

Lowden: a portmanteau name combining two contemporary bards.

baguenaudier: French name of bladder senna.


Baguenaudier (also known as the Chinese Rings, Cardan's Suspension, Cardano's Rings, Devil's needle or five pillars puzzle) is a disentanglement puzzle featuring a loop which must be disentangled from a sequence of rings on interlinked pillars. The loop can be either string or a rigid structure.

It is thought to have been invented originally in China. The origins are obscure. The name "Baguenaudier" is French for "time-waster". It was used by French peasants as a locking mechanism.

Variations of this include The Devil's Staircase, Devil's Halo and the Impossible Staircase. Another similar puzzle is the Giant's Causeway which uses a separate pillar with an embedded ring.


The Chinese puzzle brings to mind kitayskaya punochka (Chinese Wall Bunting) in Kim Beauharnais’s album:


‘Zdraste, Ivan Dementievich,’ said Van, greeting his fourteen-year-old self, shirtless, in shorts, aiming a conical missile at the marble fore-image of a Crimean girl doomed to offer an everlasting draught of marble water to a dying marine from her bullet-chipped jar.

Skip Lucette skipping rope.

Ah, the famous first finch.

‘No, that’s a kitayskaya punochka (Chinese Wall Bunting). It has settled on the threshold of a basement door. The door is ajar. There are garden tools and croquet mallets inside. You remember how many exotic, alpine and polar, animals mixed with ordinary ones in our region.’ (2.7)


Because Ada does not love him, Percy de Prey (one of Ada’s lovers) goes to the Crimean war and dies on the second day of the invasion:


(Bill Fraser, the son of Judge Fraser, of Wellington, witnessed Lieutenant de Prey’s end from a blessed ditch overgrown with cornel and medlar, but, of course, could do nothing to help the leader of his platoon and this for a number of reasons which he conscientiously listed in his report but which it would be much too tedious and embarrassing to itemize here. Percy had been shot in the thigh during a skirmish with Khazar guerillas in a ravine near Chew-Foot-Calais, as the American troops pronounced ‘Chufutkale,’ the name of a fortified rock. He had, immediately assured himself, with the odd relief of the doomed, that he had got away with a flesh wound. Loss of blood caused him to faint, as we fainted, too, as soon as he started to crawl or rather squirm toward the shelter of the oak scrub and spiny bushes, where another casualty was resting comfortably. When a couple of minutes later, Percy — still Count Percy de Prey — regained consciousness he was no longer alone on his rough bed of gravel and grass. A smiling old Tartar, incongruously but somehow assuagingly wearing American blue-jeans with his beshmet, was squatting by his side. ‘Bednïy, bednïy’ (you poor, poor fellow), muttered the good soul, shaking his shaven head and clucking: ‘Bol’no (it hurts)?’ Percy answered in his equally primitive Russian that he did not feel too badly wounded: ‘Karasho, karasho ne bol’no (good, good),’ said the kindly old man and, picking up the automatic pistol which Percy had dropped, he examined it with naive pleasure and then shot him in the temple. (One wonders, one always wonders, what had been the executed individual’s brief, rapid series of impressions, as preserved somewhere, somehow, in some vast library of microfilmed last thoughts, between two moments: between, in the present case, our friend’s becoming aware of those nice, quasi-Red Indian little wrinkles beaming at him out of a serene sky not much different from Ladore’s, and then feeling the mouth of steel violently push through tender skin and exploding bone. One supposes it might have been a kind of suite for flute, a series of ‘movements’ such as, say: I’m alive — who’s that? — civilian — sympathy — thirsty — daughter with pitcher — that’s my damned gun — don’t... et cetera or rather no cetera... while Broken-Arm Bill prayed his Roman deity in a frenzy of fear for the Tartar to finish his job and go. But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been — perhaps, next to the pitcher peri — a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.) (1.42).


The pitcher peri hints at Devushka s kuvshinom (“The Girl with a Pitcher”), a fountain in the park of Tsarskoe Selo. Pushkin describes it in Tsarskoselskaya statuya ("A Statue in Tsarskoe Selo," 1830), a poem in hexameter:


Урну с водой уронив, об утёс её дева разбила.
‎Дева печально сидит, праздный держа черепок.
Чудо! не сякнет вода, изливаясь из урны разбитой;
‎Дева, над вечной струёй, вечно печальна сидит.


A miracle! The water doesn’t dry up, pouring off from the broken urn;

over the perpetual current the maiden sits perpetually sad.


In Ward Five (where hopeless cases are kept and where Van visits Philip Rack, Lucette’s poor music teacher and another lover of Ada who was poisoned by his jealous wife Elsie) of the Kalugano hospital male nurse Dorofey reads a newspaper article ‘The Crimean War: Tartar Guerillas Help Chinese Troops:’


Van drew in his useless weapon. Controlling himself, he thumped it against the footboard of his wheelchair. Dorofey glanced up from his paper, then went back to the article that engrossed him — ‘A Clever Piggy (from the memoirs of an animal trainer),’ or else ‘The Crimean War: Tartar Guerillas Help Chinese Troops.’ A diminutive nurse simultaneously stepped out from behind the farther screen and disappeared again. (ibid.)


Chinese Wall Bunting (a non-existent bird) and Chinese troops bring to mind K podnozhiyu l’ steny dalyokogo Kitaya (To the foot of the Wall of distant China), a line in Pushkin’s poem Poedem, ya gotov; kuda by vy, druz’ya (“Let’s go, I’m ready; wherever you, friends…” 1829):


Поедем, я готов; куда бы вы, друзья,
Куда б ни вздумали, готов за вами я
Повсюду следовать, надменной убегая:
К подножию ль стены далёкого Китая,
В кипящий ли Париж, туда ли наконец,
Где Тасса не поёт уже ночной гребец,
Где древних городов под пеплом дремлют мощи,
Где кипарисные благоухают рощи,
Повсюду я готов. Поедем… но, друзья,
Скажите: в странствиях умрёт ли страсть моя?
Забуду ль гордую, мучительную деву,
Или к её ногам, её младому гневу,
Как дань привычную, любовь я принесу?

— — — — — — — — — — — — —


I’m ready. Come my friends, let’s travel east or west –

to anywhere at all, wherever you think best.

I’m with you.  I intend that haughty Miss to jilt.

Let’s go to see the wall those distant Chinese built,

or bustling Paris streets, or, better still, the shore

where gondoliers by night sing Tasso’s songs no more,

where ash-embedded stones of ancient cities lie,

and where tall cypress groves breathe fragrance to the sky.

I’m game for anywhere.  Let’s start, then...  But, friends, say:

will my emotions die once I am far away?

will I forget that lass who scorns and tortures me?

Or shall I, to appease the girl’s hostility,

still need to render her the homage of my love?



Ada is exactly like that gordaya, muchitel’naya deva (proud, torturing maiden) whom the Poet cannot forget. In his poem Proserpina (1824) Pushkin calls Proserpina (the wife of Pluto, the ruler of the underworld) Ada gordaya tsaritsa (the proud queen of Hades). 


A play on ‘pun,’ kitayskaya punochka may also hint at petit topinambour, Van’s pun on ‘pun:’


‘What’s wrong?’ asked Cordula as they settled down in the very roomy and rococo ‘crumpeter,’ as Kalugano College students used to call it in the ‘Eighties and ‘Nineties.

‘Everything,’ replied Van, ‘but what makes you ask?’

‘Well, we know Dr Platonov slightly, and there was absolutely no reason for you to be so abominably rude to the dear old man.’

‘I apologize,’ said Van. ‘Let us order the traditional tea.’

‘Another queer thing,’ said Cordula, ‘is that you actually noticed me today. Two months ago you snubbed me.’

‘You had changed. You had grown lovely and languorous. You are even lovelier now. Cordula is no longer a virgin! Tell me — do you happen to have Percy de Prey’s address? I mean we all know he’s invading Tartary — but where could a letter reach him? I don’t care to ask your snoopy aunt to forward anything.’

‘I daresay the Frasers have it, I’ll find out. But where is Van going? Where shall I find Van?’

‘At home — 5 Park Lane, in a day or two. Just now I’m going to Kalugano.’

‘That’s a gruesome place. Girl?’

‘Man. Do you know Kalugano? Dentist? Best hotel? Concert hall? My cousin’s music teacher?’

She shook her short curls. No — she went there very seldom. Twice to a concert, in a pine forest. She had not been aware that Ada took music lessons. How was Ada?

‘Lucette,’ he said, ‘Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let’s dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones. You’re right, j’ai des ennuis. But you can make me forget them. Tell me something to distract me, though you distract me as it is, un petit topinambour as the Teuton said in the story. Tell me about your affairs of the heart.’

She was not a bright little girl. But she was a loquacious and really quite exciting little girl. He started to caress her under the table, but she gently removed his hand, whispering ‘womenses,’ as whimsically as another girl had done in some other dream. He cleared his throat loudly and ordered half-a-bottle of cognac, having the waiter open it in his presence as Demon advised. She talked on and on, and he lost the thread of her discourse, or rather it got enmeshed in the rapid landscape, which his gaze followed over her shoulder, with a sudden ravine recording what Jack said when his wife ‘phoned, or a lone tree in a clover field impersonating abandoned John, or a romantic stream running down a cliff and reflecting her brief bright affair with Marquis Quizz Quisana. (1.42)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): j’ai des ennuis: I have worries.

topinambour: tuber of the girasole; pun on ‘pun’ (‘calembour’).


On one of the next photographs in Kim Beauharnais' album Blanche (the French handmaid at Ardis) is struggling with two amorous tsigans in the Baguenaudier Bower:


Lunchtime. Ada bending low over the dripping peach improperly peeled that she is devouring (shot from the garden through the french window).

Drama and comedy. Blanche struggling with two amorous tsigans in the Baguenaudier Bower. Uncle Dan calmly reading a newspaper in his little red motorcar, hopelessly stuck in black mud on the Ladore road. (2.7)


Tsygany ("The Gypsies," 1824) is a long poem by Pushkin. In the Night of the Burning Barn Ada, after joining Van on the divan in the Ardis Hall library, points at the gypsies:


As two last retainers, the cook and the night watchman, scurried across the lawn toward a horseless trap or break, that stood beckoning them with erected thills (or was it a rickshaw? Uncle Dan once had a Japanese valet), Van was delighted and shocked to distinguish, right there in the inky shrubbery, Ada in her long nightgown passing by with a lighted candle in one hand and a shoe in the other as if stealing after the belated ignicolists. It was only her reflection in the glass. She dropped the found shoe in a wastepaper basket and joined Van on the divan.

‘Can one see anything, oh, can one see?’ the dark-haired child kept repeating, and a hundred barns blazed in her amber-black eyes, as she beamed and peered in blissful curiosity. He relieved her of her candlestick, placing it near his own longer one on the window ledge. ‘You are naked, you are dreadfully indecent,’ she observed without looking and without any emphasis or reproof, whereupon he cloaked himself tighter, Ramses the Scotsman, as she knelt beside him. For a moment they both contemplated the romantic night piece framed in the window. He had started to stroke her, shivering, staring ahead, following with a blind man’s hand the dip of her spine through the batiste.

‘Look, gipsies,’ she whispered, pointing at three shadowy forms — two men, one with a ladder, and a child or dwarf — circumspectly moving across the gray lawn. They saw the candlelit window and decamped, the smaller one walking à reculons as if taking pictures. (1.19)


A child or dwarf who is walking à reculons as if taking pictures is Kim Beauharnais. Ada, who wanted to spend the night with Van, has bribed Kim to set the barn on fire in the hope that everybody (except Van) will leave the house to admire the fire. She frankly confesses this to Van:


‘I stayed home on purpose, because I hoped you would too — it was a contrived coincidence,’ she said, or said later she’d said — while he continued to fondle the flow of her hair, and to massage and rumple her nightdress, not daring yet to go under and up, daring, however, to mold her nates until, with a little hiss, she sat down on his hand and her heels, as the burning castle of cards collapsed. She turned to him and next moment he was kissing her bare shoulder, and pushing against her like that soldier behind in the queue.

First time I hear about him. I thought old Mr Nymphobottomus had been my only predecessor.

Last spring. Trip to town. French theater matinée. Mademoiselle had mislaid the tickets. The poor fellow probably thought ‘Tartuffe’ was a tart or a stripteaser.

Ce qui n’est pas si bête, au fond. Which was not so dumb after all. Okay. In that scene of the Burning Barn —


Nothing. Go on.

Oh, Van, that night, that moment as we knelt side by side in the candlelight like Praying Children in a very bad picture, showing two pairs of soft-wrinkled, once arboreal-animal, soles — not to Grandma who gets the Xmas card but to the surprised and pleased Serpent, I remember wanting so badly to ask you for a bit of purely scientific information, because my sidelong glance —

Not now, it’s not a nice sight right now and it will be worse in a moment (or words to that effect).

Van could not decide whether she really was utterly ignorant and as pure as the night sky — now drained of its fire color — or whether total experience advised her to indulge in a cold game. It did not really matter. (ibid.)


Van never finds out that in the Night of the Burning Barn Ada is not a virgin. In Kim Beauharnais' album there is a photograph of Ada's first lover, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik:


‘Well,’ said Van, when the mind took over again, ‘let’s go back to our defaced childhood. I’m anxious’ — (picking up the album from the bedside rug) — ‘to get rid of this burden. Ah, a new character, the inscription says: Dr Krolik.’

‘Wait a sec. It may be the best Vanishing Van but it’s terribly messy all the same. Okay. Yes, that’s my poor nature teacher.’

Knickerbockered, panama-hatted, lusting for his babochka (Russian for ‘lepidopteron’). A passion, a sickness. What could Diana know about that chase?

‘How curious — in the state Kim mounted him here, he looks much less furry and fat than I imagined. In fact, darling, he’s a big, strong, handsome old March Hare! Explain!’

‘There’s nothing to explain. I asked Kim one day to help me carry some boxes there and back, and here’s the visual proof. Besides, that’s not my Krolik but his brother, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik. A doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey.’

‘I love the way your eyes narrow when you tell a lie. The remote mirage in Effrontery Minor.’

‘I’m not lying!’ — (with lovely dignity): ‘He is a doctor of philosophy.’

‘Van ist auch one,’ murmured Van, sounding the last word as ‘wann.’ (2.7)