Nirvana in Ada; Botkin in Pale Fire

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Thu, 07/15/2021 - 08:33

At the beginning of Ada’s last chapter Van Veen (the narrator and main character in Ada, 1969) mentions Nirvana (in Hinduism and Buddhism, the highest state that someone can attain, a state of enlightenment, meaning a person's individual desires and suffering go away):


Nirvana, Nevada, Vaniada. By the way, should I not add, my Ada, that only at the very last interview with poor dummy-mummy, soon after my premature — I mean, premonitory — nightmare about, ‘You can, Sir,’ she employed mon petit nom, Vanya, Vanyusha — never had before, and it sounded so odd, so tend... (voice trailing off, radiators tinkling).

‘Dummy-mum’ — (laughing). ‘Angels, too, have brooms — to sweep one’s soul clear of horrible images. My black nurse was Swiss-laced with white whimsies.’

Sudden ice hurtling down the rain pipe: brokenhearted stalactite.

Recorded and replayed in their joint memory was their early preoccupation with the strange idea of death. There is one exchange that it would be nice to enact against the green moving backdrop of one of our Ardis sets. The talk about ‘double guarantee’ in eternity. Start just before that.

‘I know there’s a Van in Nirvana. I’ll be with him in the depths moego ada, of my Hades,’ said Ada.

‘True, true’ (bird-effects here, and acquiescing branches, and what you used to call ‘golden gouts’).

‘As lovers and siblings,’ she cried, ‘we have a double chance of being together in eternity, in terrarity. Four pairs of eyes in paradise!’

‘Neat, neat,’ said Van.

Something of the sort. One great difficulty. The strange mirage-shimmer standing in for death should not appear too soon in the chronicle and yet it should permeate the first amorous scenes. Hard but not insurmountable (I can do anything, I can tango and tap-dance on my fantastic hands). 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!’

‘If not Violet, then a local Gauguin girl. Or Yolande Kickshaw.’

Why? Good question. Anyway. Violet must not be given this part to type. I’m afraid we’re going to wound a lot of people (openwork American lilt)! Oh come, art cannot hurt. It can, and how!

Actually the question of mortal precedence has now hardly any importance. I mean, the hero and heroine should get so close to each other by the time the horror begins, so organically close, that they overlap, intergrade, interache, and even if Vaniada’s end is described in the epilogue we, writers and readers, should be unable to make out (myopic, myopic) who exactly survives, Dava or Vada, Anda or Vanda. (5.6)


According to Van, “nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the ‘Ardis’ part of the book:”


Ardis Hall — the Ardors and Arbors of Ardis — this is the leitmotiv rippling through Ada, an ample and delightful chronicle, whose principal part is staged in a dream-bright America — for are not our childhood memories comparable to Vineland-born caravelles, indolently encircled by the white birds of dreams? The protagonist, a scion of one of our most illustrious and opulent families, is Dr Van Veen, son of Baron ‘Demon’ Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure. The end of an extraordinary epoch coincides with Van’s no less extraordinary boyhood. Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the ‘Ardis’ part of the book. On the fabulous country estate of his art-collecting uncle, Daniel Veen, an ardent childhood romance develops in a series of fascinating scenes between Van and pretty Ada, a truly unusual gamine, daughter of Marina, Daniel’s stage-struck wife. That the relationship is not simply dangerous cousinage, but possesses an aspect prohibited by law, is hinted in the very first pages. (ibid.)


In his book Dusha Tolstogo (“The Soul of Tolstoy,” 1927) Ivan Nazhivin quotes Tolstoy’s letter of Jan. 30, 1873, to Fet in which Tolstoy speaks of Nirvana:


"... Сколько бы я о ней [Нирване] ни думал, я ничего не придумаю другого, как то, что эта Нирвана - ничто. Я стою только за одно – за религиозное уважение, ужас к этой Нирване.

Важнее этого все-таки нет ничего.

Что я разумею под религиозным уважением? Вот что. Я недавно приехал к брату, а у него умер ребенок и хоронят. Пришли попы, и розовый гробик, и все, что следует. Мы с братом... невольно выразили друг другу почти отвращение к обрядности. А потом я подумал: "Ну, а что бы брат сделал, чтобы вынести, наконец, из дома разлагающееся тело ребенка? Как вообще прилично кончить дело? Лучше нельзя (я, по крайней мере, не придумаю), как с панихидой, ладаном и т. д. Как самому слабеть и умирать... Хочется внешне выразить значительность и религиозный ужас перед этим величайшим в жизни каждого человека событием. И я тоже не могу придумать ничего более приличного - и приличного для всех возрастов, всех степеней развития, - как обстановка религиозная. Для меня, по крайней мере, эти славянские слова отзываются совершенно тем самым метафизическим восторгом, когда задумаешься о Нирване. Религия уже тем удивительна, что она столько веков, стольким миллионам людей оказывала ту услугу, наибольшую услугу, которую может в этом деле оказать что-либо человеческое. С такой задачей как же ей быть логической?... [Она бессмыслица, но одна из миллиардов бессмыслиц, которая годится для этого дела.] Но что-то в ней есть...". (Chapter XV)


According to Tolstoy (who describes in his letter to Fet his recent visit to his brother whose little son just died and was buried with priests, funeral service, incense, etc.), Nirvana is nichto (nothing) and bessmyslitsa (nonsense).


In the same letter to Fet Tolstoy mentions Fet’s wife Maria Petrovna (née Botkin):


Уж несколько дней, как получил ваше милое и грустное письмо и только нынче собрался ответить.

Грустное потому, что вы пишете, Тютчев умирает, слух, что Тургенев умер, и про себя говорите, что машина стирается, и хотите спокойно думать о Нирване. Пожалуйста, известите поскорее, — фальшивая ли это была тревога. Надеюсь, что да и что вы без Марьи Петровны маленькие признаки приняли за возвращение вашей страшной болезни.


In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) the “real” name of the three main characters (the poet Shade, his commentator Kinbote and his murderer Gradus) seems to be Botkin. An American scholar of Russian descent, Professor Vsevolod Botkin went mad and became Shade, Kinbote and Gradus after the tragic death of his daughter Nadezhda (Hazel Shade’s “real” name). Nadezhda means “hope.” There is a hope that, when Kinbote completes his work on Shade’s poem and commits suicide (on Oct. 19, 1959, the anniversary of Pushkin’s Lyceum), Botkin, like Count Vorontsov (a target of Pushkin’s epigram, “half-milord, half-merchant, etc.”), will be full again. Count Vorontsov is a character in Tolstoy’s story Hadji Murat (publ. in 1911). On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Tolstoy wrote the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool, at a motor court in Utah:


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.


The year 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). The surname Golovin comes from golova (head). In PF Kinbote writes his Commentary, Index and Foreword (in that order) to Shade’s poem in Cedarn, Utana (Utah + Montana). Cedarn brings to mind the great weeping cedar mentioned by Van when he describes the patio party in “Ardis the Second:”


The three of them formed a pretty Arcadian combination as they dropped on the turf under the great weeping cedar, whose aberrant limbs extended an oriental canopy (propped up here and there by crutches made of its own flesh like this book) above two black and one golden-red head as they had above you and me on dark warm nights when we were reckless, happy children.

Van, sprawling supine, sick with memories, put his hands behind his nape and slit his eyes at the Lebanese blue of the sky between the fascicles of the foliage. Lucette fondly admired his long lashes while pitying his tender skin for the inflamed blotches and prickles between neck and jaw where shaving caused the most trouble. Ada, her keepsake profile inclined, her mournful magdalene hair hanging down (in sympathy with the weeping shadows) along her pale arm, sat examining abstractly the yellow throat of a waxy-white helleborine she had picked. She hated him, she adored him. He was brutal, she was defenseless.

Lucette, always playing her part of the clinging, affectionately fussy lassy, placed both palms on Van’s hairy chest and wanted to know why he was cross.

‘I’m not cross with you,’ replied Van at last.

Lucette kissed his hand, then attacked him.

‘Cut it out!’ he said, as she wriggled against his bare thorax. ‘You’re unpleasantly cold, child.’

‘It’s not true, I’m hot,’ she retorted.

‘Cold as two halves of a canned peach. Now, roll off, please.’

‘Why two? Why?’

‘Yes, why,’ growled Ada with a shiver of pleasure, and, leaning over, kissed him on the mouth. He struggled to rise. The two girls were now kissing him alternatively, then kissing each other, then getting busy upon him again — Ada in perilous silence, Lucette with soft squeals of delight. I do not remember what Les Enfants Maudits did or said in Monparnasse’s novelette — they lived in Bryant’s château, I think, and it began with bats flying one by one out of a turret’s œil-de-bœuf into the sunset, but these children (whom the novelettist did not really know — a delicious point) might also have been filmed rather entertainingly had snoopy Kim, the kitchen photo-fiend, possessed the necessary apparatus. One hates to write about those matters, it all comes out so improper, esthetically speaking, in written description, but one cannot help recalling in this ultimate twilight (where minor artistic blunders are fainter than very fugitive bats in an insect-poor wilderness of orange air) that Lucette’s dewy little contributions augmented rather than dampened Van’s invariable reaction to the only and main girl’s lightest touch, actual or imagined. Ada, her silky mane sweeping over his nipples and navel, seemed to enjoy doing everything to jolt my present pencil and make, in that ridiculously remote past, her innocent little sister notice and register what Van could not control. The crushed flower was now being merrily crammed under the rubber belt of his black trunks by twenty tickly fingers. As an ornament it had not much value; as a game it was inept and dangerous. He shook off his pretty tormentors, and walked away on his hands, a black mask over his carnival nose. Just then, the governess, panting and shouting, arrived on the scene. ‘Mais qu’est-ce qu’il t’a fait, ton cousin?’ She kept anxiously asking, as Lucette, shedding the same completely unwarranted tears that Ada had once shed, rushed into the mauve-winged arms. (1.32)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): mais qu’est-ce etc.: but what did your cousin do to you.


In his book on Tolstoy Nazhivin compares Tolstoy to a monstrous tree whose shade covered almost the whole Earth:


Мы подошли к тому времени его жизни, которое обыкновенно принято считать временем духовного "кризиса", хотя сам он не раз говорил, что никакого особенного кризиса или перелома в жизни его не было, что вся его жизнь была непрерывным и страстным устремлением к истине и самосовершенствованию. И в самом деле, корни того дерева, которое потом тенью своей покрыло чуть не всю землю, мы можем без труда открыть в самых ранних годах Толстого. Разве в детстве муравейные братья не трогали его до слез? Разве совсем молоденький Оленин не целовал в сладком упоении землю? Разве на гремящих бешеным орудийным огнем бастионах Севастополя не плакала душа молодого офицера о безумстве людей-христиан, истребляющих в кровавой свалке одни других? Разве не мечтал он там, под канонадой, об основании новой религии, в фундамент которой было бы положено очищенное от всяких суеверий учение Христа? Разве не чувствовал он совсем молодым человеком, что "могучее средство к истинному счастью в жизни - это без всяких законов пускать из себя во все стороны, как паук, целую паутину любви и ловить туда все, что попало"? (Chapter XVI)


At the beginning of Canto Three of his poem John Shade compares IPH (a lay Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter) to a lifeless tree: 


L'if, lifeless tree! Your great Maybe, Rabelais:

The grand potato. I.P.H., a lay

Institute (I) of Preparation (P)

For the Hereafter (H), or If, as we

Called it - big if! - engaged me for one term

To speak on death ("to lecture on the Worm,"

Wrote President McAber). You and I,

And she, then a mere tot, moved from New Wye

To Yewshade, in another, higher state.

I love great mountains. From the iron gate

Of the ramshackle house we rented there

One saw a snowy form, so far, so fair,

That one could only fetch a sigh, as if

It might assist assimilation. Iph

Was a larvorium and a violet:

A grave in Reason's early spring. And yet

It missed the gist of the whole thing; it missed

What mostly interests the preterist;

For we die every day; oblivion thrives

Not on dry thighbones but on blood-ripe lives,

And our best yesterdays are now foul piles

Of crumpled names, phone numbers and foxed files.

I'm ready to become a floweret

Or a fat fly, but never, to forget. (ll. 501-524)


At the end of their long lives (even in the last day of their 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)