Aqua, Marina & another consumable witch in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 07/27/2021 - 19:21

The characters in VN’s novel Ada (1969) include the twin sisters Durmanov, Aqua and Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother):


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.

The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, however, was Raduga near the burg of that name, beyond Estotiland proper, in the Atlantic panel of the continent between elegant Kaluga, New Cheshire, U.S.A., and no less elegant Ladoga, Mayne, where they had their town house and where their three children were born: a son, who died young and famous, and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares).

On April 23, 1869, in drizzly and warm, gauzy and green Kaluga, Aqua, aged twenty-five and afflicted with her usual vernal migraine, married Walter D. Veen, a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry who had long conducted, and was soon to resume intermittently, a passionate affair with Marina. The latter, some time in 1871, married her first lover’s first cousin, also Walter D. Veen, a quite as opulent, but much duller, chap.

The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns. (1.1)


At the beginning of her essay Polyot v Evropu (“The Flight to Europe,” 1925) Zinaida Hippius (who, having read VN’s first collection of poetry, asked VN’s father to tell his son that he would never be a writer) compares Russian writers to precious stones of different value, from the diamond to a modest aquamarine:


Надо, прежде всего, воскреснуть.

Двадцать лет непрерывного вглядыванья в литературу, оценки писателей, старанья выразить то, что видишь; двадцать лет критической работы... и затем, с начала 18-го года, конец. Нет не только меня (что -- я?), нет литературы, нет писателей, нет ничего: тёмный провал.

Я говорил прежде не раз, что в России мало существует "литература" (в западном понятии), существуют, главным образом, писатели. Что у нас есть отдельные, крупные личности, а общность литературная, лицо литературы, смутно, сложно, неопределённо.

Теперь вижу: я ошибался. Теперь вижу -- нет, была и "литература", была общая чаша, громадная, полная... чем? драгоценными камнями? Ценными во всяком случае. Разной ценности. От алмаза до скромного аквамарина. Даже еще проще попадались камушки.

Дело критиков было разбираться в этом богатстве, отмечать ценность и место всякого камня. Мы это посильно и делали. Если находили совсем негодный булыжник -- старались его удалить. (I)


In her essay Hippius compares Russian émigré writers to chess pieces in a chess box:


Если наши писатели, всей кучей вытряхнутые в Европу, сами ещё перепутаны, как шахматы в ящике, то для иностранцев они даже не шахматы, а просто шашки, все одинаковые. Они их искренно не различают,-- да и откуда им знать, действительно, где конь, где ферзь, где пешка? Узнавать -- долгая, трудная история. И они подходят к нам с привычным критерием -- "экзотики".

"Деревня" Бунина? вещь удивительная! прекрасная! высокоинтересная! (французы специально так воспитаны, чтобы не скупиться на похвалы, раз уж они о ком-нибудь говорят); не менее, однако, любопытна! интересна! и т. д. (экзотична) и книга, положим, Гребенщикова о "сибирских" мужиках. Любезные французы даже и не подозревают, что если Бунин чистейшего огня рубин, то Гребенщиков -- дай Бог с речного берега камушек; что дома, на родной шахматной доске, Бунин стоял рядом с ферзью, а Гребенщикова на этой доске, пожалуй, и вовсе не бывало. (III)


At the end of her essay Hippius calls the 1917 Revolution katastrofa (a disaster) after which literature was thrown out the window:


С этой стороны катастрофа наша может оказаться благодетельной. Как никак -- есть же в русской литературе некий дух, от проникновения в который Европа не только не проиграет, а, пожалуй, выиграет: омолодится.

Да и нашим писателям это сближение не к худу. И у старого Запада есть чему поучиться. Выбросили литературу за окно, окно захлопнули. Ничего. Откроются когда-нибудь двери в Россию; и литература вернётся туда, Бог даст, с большим, чем прежде, сознанием всемирности. (III)


At the end of VN’s novel Zashchita Luzhina (“The Luzhin Defense,” 1930) Luzhin (the mad chess player) commits suicide by jumping to his death from a bathroom window. In “Ardis the First” Van and Ada give Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) a bath in the L-shaped bathroom:”


On the following day Ada informed her mother that Lucette badly needed a bath and that she would give it to her, whether her governess liked it or not. ‘Horosho,’ said Marina (while getting ready to receive a neighbor and his protégé, a young actor, in her best Dame Marina style), ‘but the temperature should be kept at exactly twenty-eight (as it had been since the eighteenth century) and don’t let her stay in it longer than ten or twelve minutes.’

‘Beautiful idea,’ said Van as he helped Ada to heat the tank, fill the old battered bath and warm a couple of towels.

Despite her being only in her ninth year and rather underdeveloped, Lucette had not escaped the delusive pubescence of red-haired little girls. Her armpits showed a slight stipple of bright floss and her chub was dusted with copper.

The liquid prison was now ready and an alarm clock given a full quarter of an hour to live.

‘Let her soak first, you’ll soap her afterwards,’ said Van feverishly.

‘Yes, yes, yes,’ cried Ada.

‘I’m Van,’ said Lucette, standing in the tub with the mulberry soap between her legs and protruding her shiny tummy.

‘You’ll turn into a boy if you do that,’ said Ada sternly, ‘and that won’t be very amusing.’

Warily, the little girl started to sink her buttocks in the water.

‘Too hot,’ she said, ‘much too horribly hot!’

‘It’ll cool,’ said Ada, ‘plop down and relax. Here’s your doll.’

‘Come on, Ada, for goodness’ sake, let her soak,’ repeated Van.

‘And remember,’ said Ada, ‘don’t you dare get out of this nice warm water until the bell rings or you’ll die, because that’s what Krolik said. I’ll be back to lather you, but don’t call me; we have to count the linen and sort out Van’s hankies.’

The two elder children, having locked the door of the L-shaped bathroom from the inside, now retired to the seclusion of its lateral part, in a corner between a chest of drawers and an old unused mangle, which the sea-green eye of the bathroom looking-glass could not reach; but barely had they finished their violent and uncomfortable exertions in that hidden nook, with an empty medicine bottle idiotically beating time on a shelf, when Lucette was already calling resonantly from the tub and the maid knocking on the door: Mlle Larivière wanted some hot water too. (1.23)


In “Ardis the Second” Marina invites Van to a conversation in her bedroom. She asks Van to stop his soft games with Lucette and compares genes to chess knights:


The dog came in, turned up a brimming brown eye Vanward, toddled up to the window, looked at the rain like a little person, and returned to his filthy cushion in the next room.

‘I could never stand that breed,’ remarked Van. ‘Dackelophobia.’

‘But girls — do you like girls, Van, do you have many girls? You are not a pederast, like your poor uncle, are you? We have had some dreadful perverts in our ancestry but — Why do you laugh?’

‘Nothing,’ said Van. ‘I just want to put on record that I adore girls. I had my first one when I was fourteen. Mais qui me rendra mon Hélène? She had raven black hair and a skin like skimmed milk. I had lots of much creamier ones later. I kazhetsya chto v etom?’

‘How strange, how sad! Sad, because I know hardly anything about your life, my darling (moy dushka). The Zemskis were terrible rakes (razvratniki), one of them loved small girls, and another raffolait d’une de ses juments and had her tied up in a special way-don’t ask me how’ (double hand gesture of horrified ignorance ‘— when he dated her in her stall. Kstati (à propos), I could never understand how heredity is transmitted by bachelors, unless genes can jump like chess knights. I almost beat you, last time we played, we must play again, not today, though — I’m too sad today. I would have liked so much to know everything, everything, about you, but now it’s too late. Recollections are always a little "stylized" (stilizovanï), as your father used to say, an irrisistible and hateful man, and now, even if you showed me your old diaries, I could no longer whip up any real emotional reaction to them, though all actresses can shed tears, as I’m doing now. You see (rummaging for her handkerchief under her pillow), when children are still quite tiny (takie malyutki), we cannot imagine that we can go without them, for even a couple of days, and later we do, and it’s a couple of weeks, and later it’s months, gray years, black decades, and then the opéra bouffe of the Christians’ eternity. I think even the shortest separation is a kind of training for the Elysian Games — who said that? I said that. And your costume, though very becoming, is, in a sense, traurnïy (funerary). I’m spouting drivel. Forgive me these idiotic tears... Tell me, is there anything I could do for you? Do think up something! Would you like a beautiful, practically new Peruvian scarf, which he left behind, that crazy boy? No? It’s not your style? Now go. And remember — not a word to poor Mlle Larivière, who means well!’ (1.37)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): raffolait etc.: was crazy about one of his mares.


Describing the difference between Terra and Antiterra (aka Demonia, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set), Van mentions two chess games with identical openings and identical end moves:


The details of the L disaster (and I do not mean Elevated) in the beau milieu of last century, which had the singular effect of both causing and cursing the notion of ‘Terra,’ are too well-known historically, and too obscene spiritually, to be treated at length in a book addressed to young laymen and lemans — and not to grave men or gravemen.

Of course, today, after great anti-L years of reactionary delusion have gone by (more or less!) and our sleek little machines, Faragod bless them, hum again after a fashion, as they did in the first half of the nineteenth century, the mere geographic aspect of the affair possesses its redeeming comic side, like those patterns of brass marquetry, and bric-à-Braques, and the ormolu horrors that meant ‘art’ to our humorless forefathers. For, indeed, none can deny the presence of something highly ludicrous in the very configurations that were solemnly purported to represent a varicolored map of Terra. Ved’ (‘it is, isn’t it’) sidesplitting to imagine that ‘Russia,’ instead of being a quaint synonym of Estoty, the American province extending from the Arctic no longer vicious Circle to the United States proper, was on Terra the name of a country, transferred as if by some sleight of land across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean to the opposite hemisphere where it sprawled over all of today’s Tartary, from Kurland to the Kuriles! But (even more absurdly), if, in Terrestrial spatial terms, the Amerussia of Abraham Milton was split into its components, with tangible water and ice separating the political, rather than poetical, notions of ‘America’ and ‘Russia,’ a more complicated and even more preposterous discrepancy arose in regard to time — not only because the history of each part of the amalgam did not quite match the history of each counterpart in its discrete condition, but because a gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of directional signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other. It was owing, among other things, to this ‘scientifically ungraspable’ concourse of divergences that minds bien rangés (not apt to unhobble hobgoblins) rejected Terra as a fad or a fantom, and deranged minds (ready to plunge into any abyss) accepted it in support and token of their own irrationality.

As Van Veen himself was to find out, at the time of his passionate research in terrology (then a branch of psychiatry) even the deepest thinkers, the purest philosophers, Paar of Chose and Zapater of Aardvark, were emotionally divided in their attitude toward the possibility that there existed’ a distortive glass of our distorted glebe’ as a scholar who desires to remain unnamed has put it with such euphonic wit. (Hm! Kveree-kveree, as poor Mlle L. used to say to Gavronsky. In Ada’s hand.)

There were those who maintained that the discrepancies and ‘false overlappings’ between the two worlds were too numerous, and too deeply woven into the skein of successive events, not to taint with trite fancy the theory of essential sameness; and there were those who retorted that the dissimilarities only confirmed the live organic reality pertaining to the other world; that a perfect likeness would rather suggest a specular, and hence speculatory, phenomenon; and that two chess games with identical openings and identical end moves might ramify in an infinite number of variations, on one board and in two brains, at any middle stage of their irrevocably converging development. (1.3)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): beau milieu: right in the middle.

Faragod: apparently, the god of electricity.

braques: allusion to a bric-à-brac painter.


After the L disaster electricity was banned on Antiterra. Elektrichestvo ("Electricity," 1901) is a poem by Hippius:


Две нити вместе свиты,
Концы обнажены.
То «да» и «нет» — не слиты,
Не слиты — сплетены.
Их темное сплетенье
И тесно, и мертво.
Но ждет их воскресенье,
И ждут они его.
Концов концы коснутся —
Другие «да» и «нет»,
И «да» и «нет» проснутся,
Сплетенные сольются,
И смерть их будет — Свет.


Two wires are wrapped together,
The loose ends naked, exposed
A yes and no, not united,
Not united, but juxtaposed.
A dark, dark juxtaposition —
So close together, dead.
But resurrection awaits them;
And they await what waits ahead.
End will meet end in touching
Yes — no, left and right,
The yes and no awakening,
Inseparably uniting
And their death will be — Light. 

(tr. George M. Young)


Tartary (a country that on Antiterra occupies the territory of Soviet Russia) brings to mind Upeku v tartarary! V Sibir’! (“I’ll clap you in hell! In Siberia!”), the exclamations of angry Pyotr Vasilievich in Hippius’ story Ved’ma (“The Witch”) included in her book Zerkala (“The Mirrors,” 1898):


Мадам Лино слышала только слово, самое роковое для нее, думала она — вон. Она вся тряслась, слезы катились из мутных глаз с красноватыми веками, она ловила руки Петра Васильевича и повторяла:

— Monsieur... Monsieur... De grâce... Умоляю...

— К чёрту! — заорал Петр Васильевич, отталкивая с силой эти цепляющиеся за него руки.— Дрянь негодная! Сознается! Упеку в тартарары! В Сибирь! Сводила дочь с негодяем! Продала, ведьма проклятая! (Chapter VII)


According to Van, two or three centuries earlier poor mad Aqua might have been just another consumable witch:


Poor Aqua, whose fancies were apt to fall for all the fangles of cranks and Christians, envisaged vividly a minor hymnist’s paradise, a future America of alabaster buildings one hundred stories high, resembling a beautiful furniture store crammed with tall white-washed wardrobes and shorter fridges; she saw giant flying sharks with lateral eyes taking barely one night to carry pilgrims through black ether across an entire continent from dark to shining sea, before booming back to Seattle or Wark. She heard magic-music boxes talking and singing, drowning the terror of thought, uplifting the lift girl, riding down with the miner, praising beauty and godliness, the Virgin and Venus in the dwellings of the lonely and the poor. The unmentionable magnetic power denounced by evil lawmakers in this our shabby country — oh, everywhere, in Estoty and Canady, in ‘German’ Mark Kennensie, as well as in ‘Swedish’ Manitobogan, in the workshop of the red-shirted Yukonets as well as in the kitchen of the red-kerchiefed Lyaskanka, and in ‘French’ Estoty, from Bras d’Or to Ladore — and very soon throughout both our Americas, and all over the other stunned continents — was used on Terra as freely as water and air, as bibles and brooms. Two or three centuries earlier she might have been just another consumable witch. (1.3)


On Demonia Viedma (a city in Argentina) is also known as Witch:


A sense of otiose emptiness was all Van derived from those contacts with Literature. Even while writing his book, he had become painfully aware how little he knew his own planet while attempting to piece together another one from jagged bits filched from deranged brains. He decided that after completing his medical studies at Kingston (which he found more congenial than good old Chose) he would undertake long travels in South America, Africa, India. As a boy of fifteen (Eric Veen’s age of florescence) he had studied with a poet’s passion the time-table of three great American transcontinental trains that one day he would take — not alone (now alone). From Manhattan, via Mephisto, El Paso, Meksikansk and the Panama Chunnel, the dark-red New World Express reached Brazilia and Witch (or Viedma, founded by a Russian admiral). There it split into two parts, the eastern one continuing to Grant’s Horn, and the western returning north through Valparaiso and Bogota. On alternate days the fabulous journey began in Yukonsk, a two-way section going to the Atlantic seaboard, while another, via California and Central America, roared into Uruguay. The dark blue African Express began in London and reached the Cape by three different routes, through Nigero, Rodosia or Ephiopia. Finally, the brown Orient Express joined London to Ceylon and Sydney, via Turkey and several Chunnels. It is not clear, when you are falling asleep, why all continents except you begin with an A. (2.2)


Like Mlle Larivière (Lucette’s governess who writes fiction under the penname Guillaume de Monparnasse), Mme Linot (the main character in Hippius’ story “The Witch”) is a governess. At the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday Mlle Larivière reads her story La Rivière de diamants (that corresponds to Maupassant’s La Parure, 1884).


In her poem Banal’nostyam (“To Banalities,” 1914) Hippius compares stock rhymes to Siamese twins:


Не покидаю острой кручи я,
Гранит сверкающий дроблю.
Но вас, о старые созвучия,
Неизменяемо люблю.

Люблю сады с оградой тонкою,
Где роза с грезой, сны весны
И тень с сиренью — перепонкою,
Как близнецы, сопряжены.

Влечётся нежность за безбрежностью,
Всё рифмы-девы, — мало жён...
О как их трогательной смежностью
Мой дух стальной обворожён!

Вас гонят... Словно дети малые,
Дрожат мечта и красота...
Целую ноги их усталые,
Целую старые уста.

Создатели домов лучиночных,
Пустых, гороховых домов,
Искатели сокровищ рыночных —
Одни боятся вечных слов.

Я — не боюсь. На кручу сыпкую
Возьму их в каменный приют.
Прилажу зыбкую им зыбку я...
Пусть отдохнут! Пусть отдохнут!


VN is the author of Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster (1950), a story about the Siamese twins. Lloyd in Floyd were born in Turkey:


Some  years  ago  Dr. Fricke asked Lloyd and me a question that I shall  try  to  answer  now.  With  a  dreamy  smile of scientific delectation he stroked the fleshy cartilaginous band uniting  us-- omphalopagus  diaphragmo-xiphodidymus, as Pancoast has dubbed a similar case-- and wondered if  we  could recall  the very first time either of us, or both, realized the peculiarity of our  condition  and  destiny. All Lloyd could remember was the way our Grandfather Ibrahim (or Ahim, or Ahem-- irksome lumps of dead sounds to the ear of today!) would touch what the doctor was touching and call it a bridge of gold. I said nothing.

Our  childhood  was  spent  atop  a fertile hill above the Black Sea on our grandfather's farm near Karaz. His youngest daughter, rose of the East, gray Ahem's pearl (if so, the old scoundrel might have taken better care of her) had  been raped in a roadside orchard by our anonymous sire and had died soon after giving birth  to  us--  of  sheer  horror  and  grief, I imagine. One set of rumors mentioned a Hungarian peddler; another favored a German collector of birds or some member of his  expedition-- his taxidermist, most likely. Dusky, heavily necklaced aunts, whose voluminous clothes smelled of rose oil and mutton,  attended  with  ghoulish zest to the wants of our monstrous infancy.


In Kim Beauharnais’s album there is a photograph of Doctor Krolik’s brother, Karol, or Karapars, Krolik, a doctor of philosophy, born in Turkey (Ada’s first lover):


‘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)


On Van’s first morning at Ardis Blanche (the French handmaid whose hand is starred with a tiny aquamarine) mentions le Docteur Crolique:


The front door proved to be bolted and chained. He tried the glassed and grilled side door of a blue-garlanded gallery; it, too, did not yield. Being still unaware that under the stairs an in conspicuous recess concealed an assortment of spare keys (some very old and anonymous, hanging from brass hooks) and communicated though a toolroom with a secluded part of the garden, Van wandered through several reception rooms in search of an obliging window. In a corner room he found, standing at a tall window, a young chambermaid whom he had glimpsed (and promised himself to investigate) on the preceding evening. She wore what his father termed with a semi-assumed leer ‘soubret black and frissonet frill’; a tortoiseshell comb in her chestnut hair caught the amber light; the French window was open, and she was holding one hand, starred with a tiny aquamarine, rather high on the jamb as she looked at a sparrow that was hopping up the paved path toward the bit of baby-toed biscuit she had thrown to him. Her cameo profile, her cute pink nostril, her long, French, lily-white neck, the outline, both full and frail, of her figure (male lust does not go very far for descriptive felicities!), and especially the savage sense of opportune license moved Van so robustly that he could not resist clasping the wrist of her raised tight-sleeved arm. Freeing it, and confirming by the coolness of her demeanor that she had sensed his approach, the girl turned her attractive, though almost eyebrowless, face toward him and asked him if he would like a cup of tea before breakfast. No. What was her name? Blanche — but Mlle Larivière called her ‘Cendrillon’ because her stockings got so easily laddered, see, and because she broke and mislaid things, and confused flowers. His loose attire revealed his desire; this could not escape a girl’s notice, even if color-blind, and as he drew up still closer, while looking over her head for a suitable couch to take shape in some part of this magical manor — where any place, as in Casanova’s remembrances could be dream-changed into a sequestered seraglio nook — she wiggled out of his reach completely and delivered a little soliloquy in her soft Ladoran French:

Monsieur a quinze ans, je crois, et moi, je sais, j’en ai dixneuf. Monsieur is a nobleman; I am a poor peat-digger’s daughter. Monsieur a tâté, sans doute, des filles de la ville; quant à moi, je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut. De plus, were I to fall in love with you — I mean really in love — and I might, alas, if you possessed me rien qu’une petite fois — it would be, for me, only grief, and infernal fire, and despair, and even death, Monsieur. Finalement, I might add that I have the whites and must see le Docteur Chronique, I mean Crolique, on my next day off. Now we have to separate, the sparrow has disappeared, I see, and Monsieur Bouteillan has entered the next room, and can perceive us clearly in that mirror above the sofa behind that silk screen.’

‘Forgive me, girl,’ murmured Van, whom her strange, tragic tone had singularly put off, as if he were taking part in a play in which he was the principal actor, but of which he could only recall that one scene.

The butler’s hand in the mirror took down a decanter from nowhere and was withdrawn. Van, reknotting the cord of his robe, passed through the French window into the green reality of the garden. (1.7)


Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): Monsieur a quinze ans, etc.: You are fifteen, Sir, I believe, and I am nineteen, I know.... You, Sir, have known town girls no doubt; as to me, I’m a virgin, or almost one. Moreover...

rien qu’une petite fois: just once.