Letters from Terra as philosophical novel in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 05/21/2022 - 09:22

The narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada (1969), Van Veen is the author of Letters from Terra, ‘a philosophical novel:’

 

Ada’s letters breathed, writhed, lived; Van’s Letters from Terra, ‘a philosophical novel,’ showed no sign of life whatsoever.

(I disagree, it’s a nice, nice little book! Ada’s note.)

He had written it involuntarily, so to speak, not caring a dry fig for literary fame. Neither did pseudonymity tickle him in reverse — as it did when he danced on his hands. Though ‘Van Veen’s vanity’ often cropped up in the drawing-room prattle among fan-wafting ladies, this time his long blue pride feathers remained folded. What, then, moved him to contrive a romance around a subject that had been worried to extinction in all kinds of ‘Star Rats,’ and ‘Space Aces’? We — whoever ‘we’ are — might define the compulsion as a pleasurable urge to express through verbal imagery a compendium of certain inexplicably correlated vagaries observed by him in mental patients, on and off, since his first year at Chose. Van had a passion for the insane as some have for arachnids or orchids.

There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —

 

(or my, Ada Veen’s)

 

— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. Moreover, although reference works existed on library shelves in available, and redundant, profusion, no direct access could be obtained to the banned, or burned, books of the three cosmologists, Xertigny, Yates and Zotov (pen names), who had recklessly started the whole business half a century earlier, causing, and endorsing, panic, demency and execrable romanchiks. All three scientists had vanished now: X had committed suicide; Y had been kidnapped by a laundryman and transported to Tartary; and Z, a ruddy, white-whiskered old sport, was driving his Yakima jailers crazy by means of incomprehensible crepitations, ceaseless invention of invisible inks, chameleonizations, nerve signals, spirals of out-going lights and feats of ventriloquism that imitated pistol shots and sirens.

Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua’s last doctor. When Leymanski’s obsession turned into love, and one’s sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair.

After beaming to Sig a dozen communications from her planet, Theresa flies over to him, and he, in his laboratory, has to place her on a slide under a powerful microscope in order to make out the tiny, though otherwise perfect, shape of his minikin sweetheart, a graceful microorganism extending transparent appendages toward his huge humid eye. Alas, the testibulus (test tube — never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is ‘accidentally’ thrown away by Professor Leyman’s (he had trimmed his name by that time) assistant, Flora, initially an ivory-pale, dark-haired funest beauty, whom the author transformed just in time into a third bromidic dummy with a dun bun.

(Antilia later regained her husband, and Flora was weeded out. Ada’s addendum.)

On Terra, Theresa had been a Roving Reporter for an American magazine, thus giving Van the opportunity to describe the sibling planet’s political aspect. This aspect gave him the least trouble, presenting as it did a mosaic of painstakingly collated notes from his own reports on the ‘transcendental delirium’ of his patients. Its acoustics were poor, proper names often came out garbled, a chaotic calendar messed up the order of events but, on the whole, the colored dots did form a geomantic picture of sorts. As earlier experimentators had conjectured, our annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents. At the moment of our sorry story, the king of Terra’s England, yet another George (there had been, apparently, at least half-a-dozen bearing that name before him) ruled, or had just ceased to rule, over an empire that was somewhat patchier (with alien blanks and blots between the British Islands and South Africa) than the solidly conglomerated one on our Antiterra. Western Europe presented a particularly glaring gap: ever since the eighteenth century, when a virtually bloodless revolution had dethroned the Capetians and repelled all invaders, Terra’s France flourished under a couple of emperors and a series of bourgeois presidents, of whom the present one, Doumercy, seemed considerably more lovable than Milord Goal, Governor of Lute! Eastward, instead of Khan Sosso and his ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds, was governed by a Sovereign Society of Solicitous Republics (or so it came through) which had superseded the Tsars, conquerors of Tartary and Trst. Last but not least, Athaulf the Future, a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform, the secret flame of many a British nobleman, honorary captain of the French police, and benevolent ally of Rus and Rome, was said to be in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country of speedways, immaculate soldiers, brass bands and modernized barracks for misfits and their young. (2.2)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Cyraniana: allusion to Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des Etats de la Lune.

Nekto: Russ., quidam.

romanchik: Russ., novelette.

Sig Leymanski: anagram of the name of a waggish British novelist keenly interested in physics fiction.

 

The subtitle of Van’s novel and the heroine’s name bring to mind Thérèse Philosophe (“Therese the Philosopher,” 1748), a novel ascribed to Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d’Argens (1703-71). Marquis d’Argens (who spent much of his life in exile at the court of Frederick the Great) was a close friend of Voltaire. Van’s penname, Voltemand, hints at a courtier in Hamlet, but also brings to mind Voltaire. Dostoevski referred repeatedly to Thérèse Philosophe in his working notes for both The Idiot (1869) and The Possessed (1872). The characters in Dostoevski’s novel Bednye lyudi (“Poor Folk,” 1846) written in epistolary form include Theresa, an old servant woman who brings Makar Devushkin’s letters to Varenka Dobrosyolov and Varenka’s letters to Makar (the correspondents in Dostoevski’s novel live in the same apartment house, with their windows facing each other across the courtyard). In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. The phenomenon of Terra appeared on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) after the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century:

 

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. (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.

 

The Antiterran L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850 (NS), in our world. In Dostoevski’s story Son smeshnogo cheloveka (“The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” 1976) the narrator shoots himself dead in his dream and an angel takes him to Earth’s twin planet. One of the essays in Annenski’s Kniga otrazheniy (“Book of Reflections,” 1906) is entitled Dostoevskiy do katastrofy (“Dostoevski before the Disaster”). Innokentiy Annenski’s penname, Nik. T-o (“Mr. Nobody”), brings to mind a Mr Nekto whose ripe boil was newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. Annenski’s “Book of Reflection” and “The Second Book of Relection” (1909) remind one of Van’s Reflections in Sidra, a book mentioned by Ada in her letter to Van:

 

He greeted the dawn of a placid and prosperous century (more than half of which Ada and I have now seen) with the beginning of his second philosophic fable, a ‘denunciation of space’ (never to be completed, but forming in rear vision, a preface to his Texture of Time). Part of that treatise, a rather mannered affair, but nasty and sound, appeared in the first issue (January, 1904) of a now famous American monthly, The Artisan, and a comment on the excerpt is preserved in one of the tragically formal letters (all destroyed save this one) that his sister sent him by public post now and then. Somehow, after the interchange occasioned by Lucette’s death such nonclandestine correspondence had been established with the tacit sanction of Demon:

 

And o’er the summits of the Tacit

He, banned from Paradise, flew on:

Beneath him, like a brilliant’s facet,

Mount Peck with snows eternal shone.

 

It would seem indeed that continued ignorance of each other’s existence might have looked more suspicious than the following sort of note:

 

Agavia Ranch

February 5, 1905

I have just read Reflections in Sidra, by Ivan Veen, and I regard it as a grand piece, dear Professor. The ‘lost shafts of destiny’ and other poetical touches reminded me of the two or three times you had tea and muffins at our place in the country about twenty years ago. I was, you remember (presumptuous phrase!), a petite fille modèle practicing archery near a vase and a parapet and you were a shy schoolboy (with whom, as my mother guessed, I may have been a wee bit in love!), who dutifully picked up the arrows I lost in the lost shrubbery of the lost castle of poor Lucette’s and happy, happy Adette’s childhood, now a ‘Home for Blind Blacks’ — both my mother and L., I’m sure, would have backed Dasha’s advice to turn it over to her Sect. Dasha, my sister-in-law (you must meet her soon, yes, yes, yes, she’s dreamy and lovely, and lots more intelligent than I), who showed me your piece, asks me to add she hopes to ‘renew’ your acquaintance — maybe in Switzerland, at the Bellevue in Mont Roux, in October. I think you once met pretty Miss ‘Kim’ Blackrent, well, that’s exactly dear Dasha’s type. She is very good at perceiving and pursuing originality and all kinds of studies which I can’t even name! She finished Chose (where she read History — our Lucette used to call it ‘Sale Histoire,’ so sad and funny!). For her you’re le beau ténébreux, because once upon a time, once upon libellula wings, not long before my marriage, she attended — I mean at that time, I’m stuck in my ‘turnstyle’ — one of your public lectures on dreams, after which she went up to you with her latest little nightmare all typed out and neatly clipped together, and you scowled darkly and refused to take it. Well, she’s been after Uncle Dementiy to have him admonish le beau ténébreux to come to Mont Roux Bellevue Hotel, in October, around the seventeenth, I guess, and he only laughs and says it’s up to Dashenka and me to arrange matters.

So ‘congs’ again, dear Ivan! You are, we both think, a marvelous, inimitable artist who should also ‘only laugh,’ if cretinic critics, especially lower-upper-middle-class Englishmen, accuse his turnstyle of being ‘coy’ and ‘arch,’ much as an American farmer finds the parson ‘peculiar’ because he knows Greek.

P.S.

Dushevno klanyayus’ (‘am souledly bowing’, an incorrect and vulgar construction evoking the image of a ‘bowing soul’) nashemu zaochno dorogomu professoru (‘to our "unsight-unseen" dear professor’), o kotorom mnogo slïshal (about whom have heard much) ot dobrago Dementiya Dedalovicha i sestritsï (from good Demon and my sister).

S uvazheniem (with respect),

Andrey Vaynlender

 

Furnished Space, l’espace meublé (known to us only as furnished and full even if its contents be ‘absence of substance’ — which seats the mind, too), is mostly watery so far as this globe is concerned. In that form it destroyed Lucette. Another variety, more or less atmospheric, but no less gravitational and loathsome, destroyed Demon.

Idly, one March morning, 1905, on the terrace of Villa Armina, where he sat on a rug, surrounded by four or five lazy nudes, like a sultan, Van opened an American daily paper published in Nice. In the fourth or fifth worst airplane disaster of the young century, a gigantic flying machine had inexplicably disintegrated at fifteen thousand feet above the Pacific between Lisiansky and Laysanov Islands in the Gavaille region. A list of ‘leading figures’ dead in the explosion comprised the advertising manager of a department store, the acting foreman in the sheet-metal division of a facsimile corporation, a recording firm executive, the senior partner of a law firm, an architect with heavy aviation background (a first misprint here, impossible to straighten out), the vice president of an insurance corporation, another vice president, this time of a board of adjustment whatever that might be —

‘I’m hongree,’ said a maussade Lebanese beauty of fifteen sultry summers.

‘Use bell,’ said Van, continuing in a state of odd fascination to go through the compilation of labeled lives:

— the president of a wholesale liquor-distributing firm, the manager of a turbine equipment company, a pencil manufacturer, two professors of philosophy, two newspaper reporters (with nothing more to report), the assistant controller of a wholesome liquor distribution bank (misprinted and misplaced), the assistant controller of a trust company, a president, the secretary of a printing agency —

The names of those big shots, as well as those of some eighty other men, women, and silent children who perished in blue air, were being withheld until all relatives had been reached; but the tabulatory preview of commonplace abstractions had been thought to be too imposing not to be given at once as an appetizer; and only on the following morning did Van learn that a bank president lost in the closing garble was his father.

‘The lost shafts of every man’s destiny remain scattered all around him,’ etc. (Reflections in Sidra). (3.7)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): And o’er the summits of the Tacit etc.: parody of four lines in Lermontov’s The Demon (see also p.115).

le beau ténébreux: wrapt in Byronic gloom.

 

The element that destroys Demon Veen (Van's and Ada's father who dies in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific) is air:

 

Numbers and rows and series — the nightmare and malediction harrowing pure thought and pure time — seemed bent on mechanizing his mind. Three elements, fire, water, and air, destroyed, in that sequence, Marina, Lucette, and Demon. Terra waited. (3.1)

 

Van does not realize that his father died because Ada (who could not pardon Demon his forcing Van to give her up) managed to persuade the pilot to destroy his machine in midair. The characters in Dostoevski's novel Brothers Karamazov (1880) include the patricide Smerdyakov. The action in Brothers Karamazov takes place in Skotoprigonievsk, a town whose (fictitious) name brings to mind Scotty, Marina's impresario who brought the Russian dancers all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty:

 

Marina’s affair with Demon Veen started on his, her, and Daniel Veen’s birthday, January 5, 1868, when she was twenty-four and both Veens thirty.

As an actress, she had none of the breath-taking quality that makes the skill of mimicry seem, at least while the show lasts, worth even more than the price of such footlights as insomnia, fancy, arrogant art; yet on that particular night, with soft snow falling beyond the plush and the paint, la Durmanska (who paid the great Scott, her impresario, seven thousand gold dollars a week for publicity alone, plus a bonny bonus for every engagement) had been from the start of the trashy ephemeron (an American play based by some pretentious hack on a famous Russian romance) so dreamy, so lovely, so stirring that Demon (not quite a gentleman in amorous matters) made a bet with his orchestra-seat neighbor, Prince N., bribed a series of green-room attendants, and then, in a cabinet reculé (as a French writer of an earlier century might have mysteriously called that little room in which the broken trumpet and poodle hoops of a forgotten clown, besides many dusty pots of colored grease, happened to be stored) proceeded to possess her between two scenes (Chapter Three and Four of the martyred novel). In the first of these she had undressed in graceful silhouette behind a semitransparent screen, reappeared in a flimsy and fetching nightgown, and spent the rest of the wretched scene discussing a local squire, Baron d’O., with an old nurse in Eskimo boots. Upon the infinitely wise countrywoman’s suggestion, she goose-penned from the edge of her bed, on a side table with cabriole legs, a love letter and took five minutes to reread it in a languorous but loud voice for no body’s benefit in particular since the nurse sat dozing on a kind of sea chest, and the spectators were mainly concerned with the artificial moonlight’s blaze upon the lovelorn young lady’s bare arms and heaving breasts.

Even before the old Eskimo had shuffled off with the message, Demon Veen had left his pink velvet chair and proceeded to win the wager, the success of his enterprise being assured by the fact that Marina, a kissing virgin, had been in love with him since their last dance on New Year’s Eve. Moreover, the tropical moonlight she had just bathed in, the penetrative sense of her own beauty, the ardent pulses of the imagined maiden, and the gallant applause of an almost full house made her especially vulnerable to the tickle of Demon’s moustache. She had ample time, too, to change for the next scene, which started with a longish intermezzo staged by a ballet company whose services Scotty had engaged, bringing the Russians all the way in two sleeping cars from Belokonsk, Western Estoty. In a splendid orchard several merry young gardeners wearing for some reason the garb of Georgian tribesmen were popping raspberries into their mouths, while several equally implausible servant girls in sharovars (somebody had goofed — the word ‘samovars’ may have got garbled in the agent’s aerocable) were busy plucking marshmallows and peanuts from the branches of fruit trees. At an invisible sign of Dionysian origin, they all plunged into the violent dance called kurva or ‘ribbon boule’ in the hilarious program whose howlers almost caused Veen (tingling, and light-loined, and with Prince N.’s rose-red banknote in his pocket) to fall from his seat. (1.2)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Raspberries; ribbon: allusions to ludicrous blunders in Lowell’s versions of Mandelshtam’s poems (in the N.Y. Review, 23 December 1965).

Belokonsk: the Russian twin of ‘Whitehorse’ (city in N.W. Canada).

 

The characters in Dostoevski's novel The Idiot include starukha Belokonskaya (old dame Belokonski). At the dinner in Bellevue Hotel in Mont Roux Dasha Vinelander (Ada's sister-in-law) mentions dear Aunt Beloskunski-Belokonski:

 

It went on and on like that for more than an hour and Van’s clenched jaws began to ache. Finally, Ada got up, and Dorothy followed suit but continued to speak standing:

‘Tomorrow dear Aunt Beloskunski-Belokonski is coming to dinner, a delightful old spinster, who lives in a villa above Valvey. Terriblement grande dame et tout ça. Elle aime taquiner Andryusha en disant qu’un simple cultivateur comme lui n’aurait pas dû épouser la fille d’une actrice et d’un marchand de tableaux. Would you care to join us — Jean?’

Jean replied: ‘Alas, no, dear Daria Andrevna: Je dois "surveiller les kilos." Besides, I have a business dinner tomorrow.’

‘At least’ — (smiling) — ‘you could call me Dasha.’

‘I do it for Andrey,’ explained Ada, ‘actually the grand’ dame in question is a vulgar old skunk.’

‘Ada!’ uttered Dasha with a look of gentle reproof. (3.8)

 

Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): terriblement etc.: terribly grand and all that, she likes to tease him by saying that a simple farmer like him should not have married the daughter of an actress and an art dealer.

je dois etc.: I must watch my weight.

 

Skuns (cf. Aunt Beloskunski-Belokonski) is Russian for "skunk" (family Mephitidae), also called polecat, black-and-white mammal, found primarily in the Western Hemisphere, that uses extremely well-developed scent glands to release a noxious odour in defense. In Brothers Karamazov Smerdyakov (the murderer) is the son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and Lizaveta Smerdyashchaya (the Stinking).