all wet & Blindman's Buff in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 02/22/2022 - 17:41

At breakfast after the Night of the Burning Barn (when Van and Ada make love for the first time) Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) says that Uncle Dan is all wet:

 

Meanwhile, Uncle Dan, in delayed action, chased an imaginary insect off his pate, looked up, looked around, and at last acknowledged the newcomer.

‘Oh yes, Ada,’ he said, ‘Van here is anxious to know something. What were you doing, my dear, while he and I were taking care of the fire?’

Its reflection invaded Ada. Van had never seen a girl (as translucently white-skinned as she), or indeed anybody else, porcelain or peach, blush so substantially and habitually, and the habit distressed him as being much more improper than any act that might cause it. She stole a foolish glance at the somber boy and began saying something about having been fast ablaze in her bedroom.

‘You were not,’ interrupted Van harshly, ‘you were with me looking at the blaze from the library window. Uncle Dan is all wet.’

‘Ménagez vos américanismes,’ said the latter — and then opened his arms wide in paternal welcome as guileless Lucette trotted into the room with a child’s pink, stiff-bagged butterfly net in her little fist, like an oriflamme.

Van shook his head disapprovingly at Ada. She showed him the sharp petal of her tongue, and with a shock of self-indignation her lover felt himself flushing in his turn. So much for the franchise. He ringed his napkin and retired to the mestechko (‘little place’) off the front hall. (1.20)

 

Darkbloom ('Notes to Ada'): ménagez etc.: go easy on your Americanisms.

 

All wet is American slang for “totally wrong; mistaken; wrongheaded; on the wrong track.” At the beginning of his essay I. A. Goncharov (1890) Merezhkovski mentions a violent storm in the Indian Ocean near the Cape of Good Hope described by Goncharov in his travel book Fregat Pallada (“Frigate Pallada,” 1858) and quotes Goncharov’s words about himself ves’ mokryi (all wet):

 

Однажды на Индейском океане, близ мыса Доброй Надежды, Гончарову пришлось испытать сильный шторм. "Шторм был классический, по всей форме, - рассказывает он, - в течение вечера приходили раза два за мной сверху звать посмотреть его. Рассказывали, как с одной стороны вырывающаяся из-за туч луна озаряет море и корабль, а с другой нестерпимым блеском играет молния. Они думали, что я буду описывать эту картину. Но как на мое покойное и сухое место давно уже было три или четыре кандидата, то я и хотел досидеть тут до ночи"... Но не удалось. Вода случайно проникла через открытые люки в каюту. Делать нечего, он неохотно поднялся и пошел на палубу. "Я смотрел минут пять на молнию, на темноту и на волны, которые все силились перелезть к нам через борт.

- Какова картина? - спросил меня капитан, ожидая восторгов и похвал.

- Безобразие, беспорядок! - отвечал я, уходя, весь мокрый, в каюту переменить обувь и белье".

 

In VN’s story Rozhdestvo (“Christmas,” 1924) the boy in his diary calls Goncharov’s “Frigate” a deadly bore:

 

— Пожалуйста, убери,— повторил Слепцов и нагнулся над принесенным ящиком. В нем он собрал вещи сына — сачок, бисквитную коробку с каменным коконом, расправилки, булавки в лаковой шкатулке, синюю тетрадь. Первый лист тетради был наполовину вырван, на торчавшем клочке осталась часть французской диктовки. Дальше шла запись по дням, названия пойманных бабочек и другие заметы: «Ходил по болоту до Боровичей...», «Сегодня идет дождь, играл в шашки с папой, потом читал скучнейшую «Фрегат Палладу», «Чудный жаркий день. Вечером ездил на велосипеде. В глаз попала мошка. Проезжал, нарочно два раза, мимо ее дачи, но ее не видел...»

 

“Please take it away,” repeated Sleptsov, and bent over the case he had brought. In it he had gathered his son’s belongings—the folding butterfly net, the biscuit tin with the pear-shaped cocoon, the spreading boards, the pins in their lacquered box, the blue notebook. Half of the first page had been torn out, and its remaining fragment contained part of a French dictation. There followed daily entries, names of captured butterflies, and other notes: 

Walked across the bog as far as Borovichi . . .

Raining today. Played checkers with Father, then read Goncharov’s “Frigate,” a deadly bore.

Marvellous hot day. Rode my bike in the evening. A midge got in my eye. Deliberately rode by her dacha twice, but didn’t see her. . . .

 

In VN’s story Sleptsov’s face is wet with tears:

 

Слепцов встал. Затряс головой, удерживая приступ страшных сухих рыданий.

— Я больше не могу... — простонал он, растягивая слова, и повторил еще протяжнее: — не — могу — больше...

«Завтра Рождество,— скороговоркой пронеслось у него в голове.— А я умру. Конечно. Это так просто. Сегодня же...»

Он вытащил платок, вытер глаза, бороду, щеки. На платке остались темные полосы.

— ...Смерть,— тихо сказал Слепцов, как бы кончая длинное предложение.

Тикали часы. На синем стекле окна теснились узоры мороза. Открытая тетрадь сияла на столе, рядом сквозила светом кисея сачка, блестел жестяной угол коробки. Слепцов зажмурился, и на мгновение ему показалось, что до конца понятна, до конца обнажена земная жизнь — горестная до ужаса, унизительно бесцельная, бесплодная, лишенная чудес...

И в то же мгновение щелкнуло что-то — тонкий звук — как будто лопнула натянутая резина. Слепцов открыл глаза и увидел: в бисквитной коробке торчит прорванный кокон, а по стене, над столом, быстро ползет вверх черное сморщенное существо величиной с мышь. Оно остановилось, вцепившись шестью черными мохнатыми лапками в стену, и стало странно трепетать. Оно вылупилось оттого, что изнемогающий от горя человек перенес жестяную коробку к себе, в теплую комнату, оно вырвалось оттого, что сквозь тугой шелк кокона проникло тепло, оно так долго ожидало этого, так напряженно набиралось сил и вот теперь, вырвавшись, медленно и чудесно росло. Медленно разворачивались смятые лоскутки, бархатные бахромки, крепли, наливаясь воздухом, веерные жилы. Оно стало крылатым незаметно, как незаметно становится прекрасным мужающее лицо. И крылья — еще слабые, еще влажные — все продолжали расти, расправляться, вот развернулись до предела, положенного им Богом, — и на стене уже была — вместо комочка, вместо черной мыши, — громадная ночная бабочка, индийский шелкопряд, что летает, как птица, в сумраке, вокруг фонарей Бомбея.

И тогда простертые крылья, загнутые на концах, темно-бархатные, с четырьмя слюдяными оконцами, вздохнули в порыве нежного, восхитительного, почти человеческого счастья.

 

Sleptsov got up. He shook his head, restraining yet another onrush of hideous sobs.

“I-can’t-bear-it-any-longer,” he drawled between groans, repeating even more slowly, “I—can’t—bear—it—any—longer . . .”

It’s Christmas tomorrow, came the abrupt reminder, and I’m going to die. Of course. It’s so simple. This very night . . .

He pulled out a handkerchief and dried his eyes, his beard, his cheeks. Dark streaks remained on the handkerchief.

“. . . death,” Sleptsov said softly, as if concluding a long sentence.

The clock ticked. Frost patterns overlapped on the blue glass of the window. The open notebook shone radiantly on the table; next to it the light went through the muslin of the butterfly net, and glistened on a corner of the open tin. Sleptsov pressed his eyes shut, and had a fleeting sensation that earthly life lay before him, totally bared and comprehensible—and ghastly in its sadness, humiliatingly pointless, sterile, devoid of miracles.

At that instant there was a sudden snap—a thin sound like that of an overstretched rubber band breaking. Sleptsov opened his eyes. The cocoon in the biscuit tin had burst at its tip, and a black, wrinkled creature the size of a mouse was crawling up the wall above the table. It stopped, holding on to the surface with six black furry feet and started palpitating strangely. It had emerged from the chrysalid because a man overcome with grief had transferred a tin box to his warm room and the warmth had penetrated its taut leaf-and-silk envelope; it had awaited this moment so long, had collected its strength so tensely, and now, having broken out, it was slowly and miraculously expanding. Gradually the wrinkled tissues, the velvety fringes unfurled; the fan-pleated veins grew firmer as they filled with air. It became a winged thing imperceptibly, as a maturing face imperceptibly becomes beautiful. And its wings—still feeble, still moist—kept growing and unfolding, and now they were developed to the limit set for them by God, and there, on the wall, instead of a little lump of life, instead of a dark mouse, was a great Attacus moth like those that fly, birdlike, around lamps in the Indian dusk.

And then those thick black wings, with a glazy eyespot on each and a purplish bloom dusting their hooked foretips, took a full breath under the impulse of tender, ravishing, almost human happiness.

 

The surname Sleptsov comes from slepets (a blind man). There are in Ada three blind characters. One of them is Kim Beauharnais, a kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis whom Van blinds for spying on him and Ada and attempting to blackmail Ada. A child or dwarf whom in the Night of the Burning Barn Van and Ada see from the library window walking à reculons as if taking pictures is Kim Beauharnais whom Ada (who wanted to spend the night with Van) has bribed to set the barn on fire. Trofim Fartukov (the Russian coachman in "Ardis the Second") and Blanche (a French handmaid at Ardis who is associated with Cendrillon and who loses her shoe in the Night of the Burning Barn) have a blind child:

 

Nonchalantly, Van went back to the willows and said:

‘Every shot in the book has been snapped in 1884, except this one. I never rowed you down Ladore River in early spring. Nice to note you have not lost your wonderful ability to blush.’

‘It’s his error. He must have thrown in a fotochka taken later, maybe in 1888. We can rip it out if you like.’

‘Sweetheart,’ said Van, ‘the whole of 1888 has been ripped out. One need not be a sleuth in a mystery story to see that at least as many pages have been removed as retained. I don’t mind — I mean I have no desire to see the Knabenkräuter and other pendants of your friends botanizing with you; but 1888 has been withheld and he’ll turn up with it when the first grand is spent.’

‘I destroyed 1888 myself,’ admitted proud Ada; ‘but I swear, I solemnly swear, that the man behind Blanche, in the perron picture, was, and has always remained, a complete stranger.’

‘Good for him,’ said Van. ‘Really it has no importance. It’s our entire past that has been spoofed and condemned. On second thoughts, I will not write that Family Chronicle. By the way, where is my poor little Blanche now?’

‘Oh, she’s all right. She’s still around. You know, she came back — after you abducted her. She married our Russian coachman, the one who replaced Bengal Ben, as the servants called him.’

‘Oh she did? That’s delicious. Madame Trofim Fartukov. I would never have thought it.’

‘They have a blind child,’ said Ada.

‘Love is blind,’ said Van.

‘She tells me you made a pass at her on the first morning of your first arrival.’

‘Not documented by Kim,’ said Van. ‘Will their child remain blind? I mean, did you get them a really first-rate physician?’

‘Oh yes, hopelessly blind. But speaking of love and its myths, do you realize — because I never did before talking to her a couple of years ago — that the people around our affair had very good eyes indeed? Forget Kim, he’s only the necessary clown — but do you realize that a veritable legend was growing around you and me while we played and made love?’

She had never realized, she said again and again (as if intent to reclaim the past from the matter-of-fact triviality of the album), that their first summer in the orchards and orchidariums of Ardis had become a sacred secret and creed, throughout the countryside. Romantically inclined handmaids, whose reading consisted of Gwen de Vere and Klara Mertvago, adored Van, adored Ada, adored Ardis’s ardors in arbors. Their swains, plucking ballads on their seven-stringed Russian lyres under the racemosa in bloom or in old rose gardens (while the windows went out one by one in the castle), added freshly composed lines — naive, lackey-daisical, but heartfelt — to cyclic folk songs. Eccentric police officers grew enamored with the glamour of incest. Gardeners paraphrased iridescent Persian poems about irrigation and the Four Arrows of Love. Nightwatchmen fought insomnia and the fire of the clap with the weapons of Vaniada’s Adventures. Herdsmen, spared by thunderbolts on remote hillsides, used their huge ‘moaning horns’ as ear trumpets to catch the lilts of Ladore. Virgin chatelaines in marble-floored manors fondled their lone flames fanned by Van’s romance. And another century would pass, and the painted word would be retouched by the still richer brush of time.

‘All of which,’ said Van, ‘only means that our situation is desperate.’ (2.7)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Knabenkräuter: Germ., orchids (and testicles).

 

Describing his visit to Brownhill (Ada's school for girls), Van mentions the perils of life or sea:

 

Van was about to march back to the station when Ada appeared — with Cordula. La bonne surprise! Van greeted them with a show of horrible heartiness (‘And how goes it with you, sweet cousin? Ah, Cordula! Who’s the chaperone, you, or Miss Veen?’). The sweet cousin sported a shiny black raincoat and a down-brimmed oilcloth hat as if somebody was to be salvaged from the perils of life or sea. A tiny round patch did not quite hide a pimple on one side of her chin. Her breath smelled of ether. Her mood was even blacker than his. He cheerily guessed it would rain. It did — hard. Cordula remarked that his trench coat was chic. She did not think it worth while to go back for umbrellas — their delicious goal was just round the corner. Van said corners were never round, a tolerable quip. Cordula laughed. Ada did not: there were no survivors, apparently. (1.27)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): la bonne surprise: what a good surprise.

 

After Van’s first summer at Ardis, Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) tells his son that Cordula de Prey will recompense him for playing Blindman’s Buff all summer with the babes of Ardis Wood (Ada and Lucette):

 

“Marina gives me a glowing account of you and says uzhe chuvstvuetsya osen’. Which is very Russian. Your grandmother would repeat regularly that ‘already-is-to-be-felt-autumn’ remark every year, at the same time, even on the hottest day of the season at Villa Armina: Marina never realized it was an anagram of the sea, not of her. You look splendid, sïnok moy, but I can well imagine how fed up you must be with her two little girls. Therefore, I have a suggestion—”

“Oh, I liked them enormously,” purred Van. “Especially dear little Lucette.”

“My suggestion is, come with me to a cocktail party today. It is given by the excellent widow of an obscure Major de Prey—obscurely related to our late neighbor, a fine shot but the light was bad on the Common, and a meddlesome garbage collector hollered at the wrong moment. Well, that excellent and influential lady who wishes to help a friend of mine” (clearing his throat) “has, I’m told, a daughter of fifteen summers, called Cordula, who is sure to recompense you for playing Blindman’s Buff all summer with the babes of Ardis Wood.”

“We played mostly Scrabble and Snap,” said Van. “Is the needy friend also in my age group?”

“She’s a budding Duse,” replied Demon austerely, “and the party is strictly a

‘prof push.’ You’ll stick to Cordula de Prey, I, to Cordelia O’Leary.”

D’accord,” said Van. (ibid.)

 

In Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869) Prince Vasiliy says that Kutuzov is blind and that all he can do is to play zhmurki (blindman’s buff):

 

Вскоре после приезда государя князь Василий разговорился у Анны Павловны о делах войны, жестоко осуждая Барклая де Толли и находясь  в нерешительности,  кого  бы  назначить  главнокомандующим. Один из гостей, известный под именем un homme de beaucoup de merite, рассказав о  том, что он видел нынче  выбранного начальником петербургского ополчения Кутузова, заседающего  в казенной палате для приема ратников, позволил себе осторожно выразить  предположение о том, что Кутузов был бы тот человек, который удовлетворил бы всем требованиям.

Анна  Павловна  грустно  улыбнулась  и  заметила,  что  Кутузов,  кроме неприятностей, ничего не дал государю.

-- Я говорил и говорил в Дворянском собрании, -- перебил князь Василий, -- но меня  не послушали. Я говорил, что избрание его в начальники ополчения не понравится государю. Они меня не послушали.

-- Все какая-то мания фрондировать,  -- продолжал он. --  И пред кем? И все оттого, что  мы хотим  обезьянничать глупым  московским восторгам, -- сказал князь Василий, спутавшись на минуту и забыв то,  что у Элен надо было подсмеиваться над московскими восторгами, а у Анны Павловны восхищаться ими. Но он тотчас же поправился. -- Ну прилично ли графу Кутузову, самому старому генералу  в  России,  заседать в палате, et  il  en restera pour  sa  peine! Разве возможно назначить главнокомандующим человека, который не может верхом сесть, засыпает на совете, человека самых дурных нравов! Хорошо он себя зарекомендовал в Букареште! Я уже не говорю о его качествах как генерала, но разве можно в  такую минуту назначать человека дряхлого и слепого, просто слепого? Хорош будет генерал слепой! Он ничего не видит. В жмурки играть... ровно ничего не видит!

 

Soon after the Emperor's return Prince Vasiliy in a conversation about the war at Anna Pavlovna's severely condemned Barclay de Tolly, but was undecided as to who ought to be appointed commander in chief. One of the visitors, usually spoken of as "a man of great merit," having described how he had that day seen Kutuzov, the newly chosen chief of the Petersburg militia, presiding over the enrollment of recruits at the Treasury, cautiously ventured to suggest that Kutuzov would be the man to satisfy all requirements.

Anna Pavlovna remarked with a melancholy smile that Kutuzov had done nothing but cause the Emperor annoyance.

"I have talked and talked at the Assembly of the Nobility," Prince Vasiliy interrupted, "but they did not listen to me. I told them his election as chief of the militia would not please the Emperor. They did not listen to me.

"It's all this mania for opposition," he went on. "And who for? It is all because we want to ape the foolish enthusiasm of those Muscovites," Prince Vasiliy continued, forgetting for a moment that though at Helene's one had to ridicule the Moscow enthusiasm, at Anna Pavlovna's one had to be ecstatic about it. But he retrieved his mistake at once. "Now, is it suitable that Count Kutuzov, the oldest general in Russia, should preside at that tribunal? He will get nothing for his pains! How could they make a man commander in chief who cannot mount a horse, who drops asleep at a council, and has the very worst morals! A good reputation he made for himself at Bucharest! I don't speak of his capacity as a general, but at a time like this how they appoint they appoint a decrepit, blind old man, positively blind? A fine idea to have a blind general! He can't see anything. To play blindman's bluff? He can't see at all!" (Part Ten, chapter 6)

 

Describing the hasty retreat of the French army out of Russia, Tolstoy compares it to blindman’s buff:

 

Действия русского и французского войск во время обратной кампании от Москвы и до Немана подобны игре в жмурки, когда двум играющим завязывают глаза и один изредка звонит колокольчиком, чтобы уведомить о себе ловящего. Сначала тот, кого ловят, звонит, не боясь неприятеля, но когда ему приходится плохо, он, стараясь неслышно идти, убегает от своего врага и часто, думая убежать, идет прямо к нему в руки.

Сначала наполеоновские войска еще давали о себе знать — это было в первый период движения по Калужской дороге, но потом, выбравшись на Смоленскую дорогу, они побежали, прижимая рукой язычок колокольчика, и часто, думая, что они уходят, набегали прямо на русских.

 

The movements of the Russian and French armies during the campaign from Moscow back to the Niemen were like those in a game of Russian blindman's bluff, in which two players are blindfolded and one of them occasionally rings a little bell to inform the catcher of his whereabouts. First he rings his bell fearlessly, but when he gets into a tight place he runs away as quietly as he can, and often thinking to escape runs straight into his opponent's arms.

At first while they were still moving along the Kaluga road, Napoleon's armies made their presence known, but later when they reached the Smolensk road they ran holding the clapper of their bell tight - and often thinking they were escaping ran right into the Russians. (Book Fourteen, chapter 17)

 

Ivan Goncharov (1812-91) was born in the year of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk). Simbirsk is the home city of both Lenin and Kerenski (the head of the Provisional Government). Interviewed in 1966 by Penelope Giliatt, VN mentioned Kerenski and compared him to Napoleon:

 

“Pasternak?” I asked. At once he talked very fast. “Doctor Zhivago is false, melodramatic, badly written. It is false to history and false to art. The people are dummies. That awful girl is absurd. It reminds me very much of novels written by Russians of, I am ashamed to say, the gentler sex. Pasternak is not a bad poet. But in Zhivago he is vulgar. Simple. If you take his beautiful metaphors, there is nothing behind them. Even in his poems: What is that line, Vera? ‘To be a woman is a big step.’ It is ridiculous.” He laughed and looked stricken.
“This kind of thing recurs. Very typical of poems written in the Soviet era. A person of Zhivago’s class and his set, he wouldn’t stand in the snow and read about the Bolshevist regime and feel a tremendous glow. There was the liberal revolution at that time. Kerensky. If Kerensky had had more luck—but he was a liberal, you see, and he couldn’t just clap the Bolsheviks into jail. It was not done. He was a very average man, I should say. The kind of person you might find in the Cabinet of any democratic country. He spoke very well, with his hand in his bosom like Napoleon because it had almost been broken by handshakes.

 

On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) Pasternak’s novel is known as Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance written by a pastor, Mertvago Forever and Klara Mertvago. Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago bring to mind Les amours secrètes de Lénine : d'après les mémoires de Lise de K. (1937), a book by André Beucler and Grigoriǐ Aleksinskiǐ. Like Lenin, Van Veen was born in 1870.

 

Pushkin's wife Natalia Goncharov (in no way related to the writer) and d'Anthès (the poet's adversary in his fatal duel) were also born in 1812. The mother of Percy de Prey (Ada's lover who goes to a distant war and dies on the second day of the invasion of the Crimea), Praskovia de Prey, née Lanskoy, is a namesake of Pyotr Lanskoy (Natalia Goncharov's second husband).

 

A fine shot, Count Peter de Prey (Praskovia's husband) was killed in a pistol duel on Boston Common. Goncharov is the author of Obyknovennaya istoriya ("A Common Story," 1847). In Goncharov's novel Oblomov (1858) Boston (a card game) is mentioned:

 

Они продолжали целые десятки лет сопеть, дремать и зевать или заливаться добродушным смехом от деревенского юмора, или, собираясь в кружок, рассказывали, что кто видел ночью во сне. Если сон был страшный — все задумывались, боялись не шутя; если пророческий — все непритворно радовались или печалились, смотря по тому, горестное или утешительное снилось во сне. Требовал ли сон соблюдения какой-нибудь приметы, тотчас для этого принимались деятельные меры. Не это, так играют в дураки, в свои козыри, а по праздникам с гостями в бостон, или раскладывают гранпасьянс, гадают на червонного короля да на трефовую даму, предсказывая марьяж. (Part One, Chapter IX "Oblomov's Dream")

 

Van tells Demon that he, Ada and Lucette played mostly Scrabble and Snap. A card game, Snap also brings to mind the snapshots in Kim Beauharnais's album.