ryuen' & Velvet Veen in Ada; merman azure, crined or in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 05/06/2021 - 20:00

According to Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969), all the hundred floramors (palatial brothels built by David van Veen, a wealthy architect of Flemish extraction, all over the world in memory of his grandson Eric) opened simultaneously on September 20, 1875:


Eccentricity is the greatest grief’s greatest remedy. The boy’s grandfather set at once to render in brick and stone, concrete and marble, flesh and fun, Eric’s fantasy. He resolved to be the first sampler of the first houri he would hire for his last house, and to live until then in laborious abstinence.

It must have been a moving and magnificent sight — that of the old but still vigorous Dutchman with his rugged reptilian face and white hair, designing with the assistance of Leftist decorators the thousand and one memorial floramors he resolved to erect allover the world — perhaps even in brutal Tartary, which he thought was ruled by ‘Americanized Jews,’ but then ‘Art redeemed Politics’ — profoundly original concepts that we must condone in a lovable old crank. He began with rural England and coastal America, and was engaged in a Robert Adam-like composition (cruelly referred to by local wags as the Madam-I’m-Adam House), not far from Newport, Rodos Island, in a somewhat senile style, with marble columns dredged from classical seas and still encrusted with Etruscan oyster shells — when he died from a stroke while helping to prop up a propylon. It was only his hundredth house!

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)


In a letter of 7/19 September, 1875, to N. V. Khanykov Turgenev says that on the next day (September 20, 1875, NS) he will move to the new-built chalet at his and Viardot's villa Les frênes ("The Ash Trees") in Bougival:


Я Вас приму в новом своём доме, куда завтра переселяюсь, а г-н и г-жа Виардо будут очень довольны, если Вы при сей оказии останетесь у них обедать, и просят меня пригласить Вас, так же как Салтыкова и Соллогуба.


The old Russian word for September, ryuen’ comes from ryov oleney (the roar of deer). According to 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), a reindeer is one of the three heraldic creatures in the armorial bearings of Charles the Beloved:


Incidentally, it is curious to note that a crested bird called in Zemblan sampel ("silktail"), closely resembling a waxwing in shape and shade, is the model of one of the three heraldic creatures (the other two being respectively a reindeer proper and a merman azure, crined or) in the armorial bearings of the Zemblan King, Charles the Beloved (born 1915), whose glorious misfortunes I discussed so often with my friend. (note to Lines 1-4)


“Crined or” (golden-haired) brings to mind Bras d’Or (an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country mentioned by Van at the beginning of Ada):


Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (‘Dolly’) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called ‘Russian’ Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with ‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes. (1.1)


"Merman azure" seems to combine The Merman (a fine old melodrama in which Odon, a world-famous actor and Zemblan patriot who helps the King to escape from Zembla, plays the Merman) with "the false azure in the windowpane" (at the beginning of his poem Shade says that he was the shadow of the waxwing slain by the false azure in the windowpane). In her Russian translation of Pale Fire Vera Nabokov renders “merman azure” as lazurnyi triton. In Mednyi vsadnik (“The Bronze Horseman,” 1833) Pushkin describes the disastrous Neva flood of 1824 and famously compares St. Petersburg to a triton:


Но силой ветров от залива
Перегражденная Нева
Обратно шла, гневна, бурлива,
И затопляла острова,
Погода пуще свирепела,
Нева вздувалась и ревела,
Котлом клокоча и клубясь,
И вдруг, как зверь остервенясь,
На город кинулась. Пред нею
Всё побежало, всё вокруг
Вдруг опустело — воды вдруг
Втекли в подземные подвалы,
К решеткам хлынули каналы,
И всплыл Петрополь как тритон,
По пояс в воду погружён.


…and Petropolis surfaced, like a triton,

up to the waste immersed in water. (Part One)


On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Pushkin’s poem is known as The Headless Horseman:


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): The Headless Horseman: Mayn Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.

Lermontov: author of The Demon.

Tolstoy etc.: Tolstoy’s hero, Haji Murad, (a Caucasian chieftain) is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.


1880 was the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich Golovin, the main character in Tolstoy’s story Smert’ Ivana Ilyicha (“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” 1886):


Это было в 1880 году. Этот год был самый тяжёлый в жизни Ивана Ильича.

This was in 1880, the hardest year of Ivan Ilyich's life. (chapter III)


The surname Golovin comes from golova (head). Invited by Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) for a talk in her bedroom, Van sits down on the ivanilich:


'Sit down, have a spot of chayku,' she said. 'The cow is in the smaller jug, I think. Yes, it is.' And when Van, having kissed her freckled hand, lowered himself on the ivanilich (a kind of sighing old hassock upholstered in leather): 'Van, dear, I wish to say something to you, because I know I shall never have to repeat it again. Belle, with her usual flair for the right phrase, has cited to me the cousinage-dangereux-voisinage adage – I mean "adage," I always fluff that word – and complained qu'on s'embrassait dans tous les coins. Is that true?' (1.37)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Ivanilich: a pouf plays a marvelous part in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where it sighs deeply under a friend of the widow's.


Belle is Lucette’s name for her governess, Mlle Larivière, who writes fiction under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse (sic, the leaving out of the 't' made it more intime). According to Van, it is said that Guillaume de Monparnasse indignantly rejected an offer from Hollywood to base a screenplay on Velvet Veen’s excursion to the nearest floramor.


AAA is Van’s angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov. He has the same name and patronymic as Ada’s husband, Andrey Andreevich Vinelander (a great sportsman who knows Western game remarkably well and is excited to see European birds, 3.8).


In a letter of June 2 (14), 1855, to Sergey Aksakov (a passionate hunter) Turgenev (the author of "The Notes of a Hunter," 1851) says that he was away hunting vesennikh dupeley (vernal great snipes):


Раз десять собирался я к Вам писать, любезный и почтенный Сергей Тимофеевич, но у меня полон был дом гостями, которые разъехались только вчера, прожив три недели - и я не имел минуты свободного времени. Ваше письмо, полученное мною на днях, заставило меня покраснеть - мне стало стыдно своей лени, и я поспешил взяться за перо. - Гостили у меня Григорович, Боткин и Дружинин; мы проводили время очень весело - разыграли на доморощенном театре доморощенный же фарс и т. д. и т. д. Теперь опять в доме всё пусто - и я не прочь отдохнуть. Я должен, однако, Вам отдать отчет в своих охотничьих похождениях. Я приехал сюда 12-го апреля - и, к изумлению, не застал уже ни одного вальдшнепа - они уже протекли - в нынешнем году всё делается двумя неделями раньше обыкновенного - и реки прошли в половине марта, наделав много разорения и убытков. 18-го апреля я отправился на весенних дупелей и бекасов на берега Десны, в 200-х верстах отсюда. Дупелей и бекасов мы уже застали на яйцах, однако еще были точки - и охота вышла недурная. В 5 полей мы на 4 ружья убили 220 штук. На мою долю пришлось 52. Я стрелял довольно плохо, зато собака моя меня порадовала. Время стояло превосходное - и я вполне насладился весною. В одном из моих полей - я убил странную птицу: помесь курочки и коростеля. Рост ее и весь склад был коростелиный - перья на спине, как у него; перья на груди, животе и боках - как у курочки, нос весь красный и длиннее и острей, чем у коростеля. К сожалению, чучелы я не мог сохранить. - Я до сих пор вовсе не знал, как кошка ловит рыбу - и даже всегда удивлялся, отчего она так до нее жадна - теперь это мне понятно. Век живи - век учись. Мне очень приятно, что гр. Соллогуб доставил Вам наконец "Постоялый двор" - и еще приятнее, что это заставило Вас вспомнить обо мне и написать ко мне; считаю излишним говорить Вам, как Ваше одобрение и память Ваша обо мне - мне дороги.


Kinbote's sampel ("silktail") seems to combine Samt (Germ., velvet) with Ampel (Germ., traffic lights) and dupel' (Russ., great snipe). Describing the first time when Ada saw him, Van mentions his tutor Aksakov and Bagrov’s grandson:


In 1880, Van, aged ten, had traveled in silver trains with showerbaths, accompanied by his father, his father’s beautiful secretary, the secretary’s eighteen-year-old white-gloved sister (with a bit part as Van’s English governess and milkmaid), and his chaste, angelic Russian tutor, Andrey Andreevich Aksakov (‘AAA’), to gay resorts in Louisiana and Nevada. AAA explained, he remembered, to a Negro lad with whom Van had scrapped, that Pushkin and Dumas had African blood, upon which the lad showed AAA his tongue, a new interesting trick which Van emulated at the earliest occasion and was slapped by the younger of the Misses Fortune, put it back in your face, sir, she said. He also recalled hearing a cummerbunded Dutchman in the hotel hall telling another that Van’s father, who had just passed whistling one of his three tunes, was a famous ‘camler’ (camel driver — shamoes having been imported recently? No, ‘gambler’).

Before his boarding-school days started, his father’s pretty house, in Florentine style, between two vacant lots (5 Park Lane in Manhattan), had been Van’s winter home (two giant guards were soon to rise on both sides of it, ready to frog-march it away), unless they journeyed abroad. Summers in Radugalet, the ‘other Ardis,’ were so much colder and duller than those here in this, Ada’s, Ardis. Once he even spent both winter and summer there; it must have been in 1878.

Of course, of course, because that was the first time, Ada recalled, she had glimpsed him. In his little white sailor suit and blue sailor cap. (Un régulier angelochek, commented Van in the Raduga jargon.) He was eight, she was six. Uncle Dan had unexpectedly expressed the desire to revisit the old estate. At the last moment Marina had said she’d come too, despite Dan’s protests, and had lifted little Ada, hopla, with her hoop, into the calèche. They took, she imagined, the train from Ladoga to Raduga, for she remembered the way the station man with the whistle around his neck went along the platform, past the coaches of the stopped local, banging shut door after door, all six doors of every carriage, each of which consisted of six one-window carrosses of pumpkin origin, fused together. It was, Van suggested, a ‘tower in the mist’ (as she called any good recollection), and then a conductor walked on the running board of every coach with the train also running and opened doors all over again to give, punch, collect tickets, and lick his thumb, and change money, a hell of a job, but another ‘mauve tower.’ Did they hire a motor landaulet to Radugalet? Ten miles, she guessed. Ten versts, said Van. She stood corrected. He was out, he imagined, na progulke (promenading) in the gloomy firwood with Aksakov, his tutor, and Bagrov’s grandson, a neighbor’s boy, whom he teased and pinched and made horrible fun of, a nice quiet little fellow who quietly massacred moles and anything else with fur on, probably pathological. However, when they arrived, it became instantly clear that Demon had not expected ladies. He was on the terrace drinking goldwine (sweet whisky) with an orphan he had adopted, he said, a lovely Irish wild rose in whom Marina at once recognized an impudent scullery maid who had briefly worked at Ardis Hall, and had been ravished by an unknown gentleman — who was now well-known. In those days Uncle Dan wore a monocle in gay-dog copy of his cousin, and this he screwed in to view Rose, whom perhaps he had also been promised (here Van interrupted his interlocutor telling her to mind her vocabulary). The party was a disaster. The orphan languidly took off her pearl earrings for Marina’s appraisal. Grandpa Bagrov hobbled in from a nap in the boudoir and mistook Marina for a grande cocotte as the enraged lady conjectured later when she had a chance to get at poor Dan. Instead of staying for the night, Marina stalked off and called Ada who, having been told to ‘play in the garden,’ was mumbling and numbering in raw-flesh red the white trunks of a row of young birches with Rose’s purloined lipstick in the preamble to a game she now could not remember — what a pity, said Van — when her mother swept her back straight to Ardis in the same taxi leaving Dan — to his devices and vices, inserted Van — and arriving home at sunrise. But, added Ada, just before being whisked away and deprived of her crayon (tossed out by Marina k chertyam sobach’im, to hell’s hounds — and it did remind one of Rose’s terrier that had kept trying to hug Dan’s leg) the charming glimpse was granted her of tiny Van, with another sweet boy, and blond-bearded, white-bloused Aksakov, walking up to the house, and, oh yes, she had forgotten her hoop — no, it was still in the taxi. But, personally, Van had not the slightest recollection of that visit or indeed of that particular summer, because his father’s life, anyway, was a rose garden all the time, and he had been caressed by ungloved lovely hands more than once himself, which did not interest Ada. (1.24)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Bagrov’s grandson: allusion to Childhood Years of Bagrov’s Grandson by the minor writer Sergey Aksakov (A.D. 1791-1859).


Sergey Aksakov's Semeynaya khronika ("The Family Chronicle," 1856) brings to mind Ada's full title: Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle.


According to Van, Aksakov reverently pointed out to him Goethe’s and d’Annunzio’s marble footprints (cf. the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy):


After that, they tried to settle whether their ways had merged somewhere or run closely parallel for a bit that year in Europe. In the spring of 1881, Van, aged eleven, spent a few months with his Russian tutor and English valet at his grandmother’s villa near Nice, while Demon was having a much better time in Cuba than Dan was at Mocuba. In June, Van was taken to Florence, and Rome, and Capri, where his father turned up for a brief spell. They parted again, Demon sailing back to America, and Van with his tutor going first to Gardone on Lake Garda, where Aksakov reverently pointed out Goethe’s and d’Annunzio’s marble footprints, and then staying for a while in autumn at a hotel on a mountain slope above Leman Lake (where Karamzin and Count Tolstoy had roamed). Did Marina suspect that Van was somewhere in the same general area as she throughout 1881? Probably no. Both girls had scarlet fever in Cannes, while Marina was in Spain with her Grandee. After carefully matching memories, Van and Ada concluded that it was not impossible that somewhere along a winding Riviera road they passed each other in rented victorias that both remembered were green, with green-harnessed horses, or perhaps in two different trains, going perhaps the same way, the little girl at the window of one sleeping car looking at the brown sleeper of a parallel train which gradually diverged toward sparkling stretches of sea that the little boy could see on the other side of the tracks. The contingency was too mild to be romantic, nor did the possibility of their having walked or run past each other on the quay of a Swiss town afford any concrete thrill. But as Van casually directed the searchlight of backthought into that maze of the past where the mirror-lined narrow paths not only took different turns, but used different levels (as a mule-drawn cart passes under the arch of a viaduct along which a motor skims by), he found himself tackling, in still vague and idle fashion, the science that was to obsess his mature years — problems of space and time, space versus time, time-twisted space, space as time, time as space — and space breaking away from time, in the final tragic triumph of human cogitation: I am because I die. (1.24)


Describing Villa Venus (Eric Veen's floramors), Van mentions Baron Azzuroscudo (a member of the first Venus Club Council):


Demon’s father (and very soon Demon himself), and Lord Erminin, and a Mr Ritcov, and Count Peter de Prey, and Mire de Mire, Esq., and Baron Azzuroscudo were all members of the first Venus Club Council; but it was bashful, obese, big-nosed Mr Ritcov’s visits that really thrilled the girls and filled the vicinity with detectives who dutifully impersonated hedge-cutters, grooms, horses, tall milkmaids, new statues, old drunks and so forth, while His Majesty dallied, in a special chair built for his weight and whims, with this or that sweet subject of the realm, white, black or brown. (2.3)


The Baron's name means in Italian "azure shield" and suggests a coat of arms.


Eric Veen derived his Villa Venus project from reading too many erotic works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole:


To put it bluntly, the boy had sought to solace his first sexual torments by imagining and detailing a project (derived from reading too many erotic works found in a furnished house his grandfather had bought near Vence from Count Tolstoy, a Russian or Pole): namely, a chain of palatial brothels that his inheritance would allow him to establish all over ‘both hemispheres of our callipygian globe.’ The little chap saw it as a kind of fashionable club, with branches, or, in his poetical phrase, ‘Floramors,’ in the vicinity of cities and spas. Membership was to be restricted to noblemen, ‘handsome and healthy,’ with an age limit of fifty (which must be praised as very broadminded on the poor kid’s part), paying a yearly fee of 3650 guineas not counting the cost of bouquets, jewels and other gallant donations. Resident female physicians, good-looking and young (‘of the American secretarial or dentist-assistant type’), would be there to check the intimate physical condition of ‘the caresser and the caressed’ (another felicitous formula) as well as their own if ‘the need arose,’ One clause in the Rules of the Club seemed to indicate that Eric, though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious preparatory school in that respect): at least two of the maximum number of fifty inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys, wearing frontlets and short smocks, not older than fourteen if fair, and not more than twelve if dark. However, in order to exclude a regular flow of ‘inveterate pederasts,’ boy love could be dabbled in by the jaded guest only between two sequences of three girls each, all possessed in the course of the same week — a somewhat comical, but not unshrewd, stipulation. (ibid.)


A yearly fee of 3650 guineas means ten guineas per day. Note = Eton. In his Commentary Kinbote mentions a band of Eton-collared, sweet-voiced minions imported from England:


She [Queen Disa] had recently lost both parents and had no real friend to turn to for explanation and advice when the inevitable rumors reached her; these she was too proud to discuss with her ladies in waiting but she read books, found out all about our manly Zemblan customs, and concealed her naive distress under the great show of sarcastic sophistication. He congratulated her on her attitude, solemnly swearing that he had given up, or at least would give up, the practices of his youth; but everywhere along the road powerful temptations stood at attention. He succumbed to them from time to time, then every other day, then several times daily - especially during the robust regime of Harfar Baron of Shalksbore, a phenomenally endowed young brute (whose family name, "knave's farm," is the most probable derivation of "Shakespeare"). Curdy Buff - as Harfar was nicknamed by his admirers - had a huge escort of acrobats and bareback riders, and the whole affair rather got out of hand so that Disa, upon unexpectedly returning from a trip to Sweden, found the Palace transformed into a circus. He again promised, again fell, and despite the utmost discretion was again caught. At last she removed to the Riviera leaving him to amuse himself with a band of Eton-collared, sweet-voiced minions imported from England. (note to Lines 433-434)