Vladimir Nabokov

corpuscles of Van's bloodstream & Mr Nekto's ripe boil in Ada

By Alexey Sklyarenko, 30 June, 2022

Describing his novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the corpuscles of his bloodstream and a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton:


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. (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.


In his poem Ya umer i zasmeyalsya (“I died and burst out laughing,” 1922) Velimir Khlebnikov says that he recognized the Universe inside his krovyanoy sharik (blood cell):


Я умер и засмеялся.
Просто большое стало малым, малое большим.
Просто во всех членах уравнения бытия знак «да» заменился знаком «нет».
Таинственная нить уводила меня в мир бытия, и я узнавал Вселенную внутри моего кровяного шарика.
Я узнавал главное ядро своей мысли как величественное небо, в котором я нахожусь.
Запах времени соединял меня с той работой, которой я не верил перед тем как потонул, увлеченный ее ничтожеством.
Теперь она висела, пересеченная тучей, как громадная полоса неба, заключавшая текучие туманы, и воздух, и звездные кучи.
Одна звездная куча светила, как открытый глаз атома.
И я понял, что все остается по-старому, но только я смотрю на мир против течения.
Я вишу как нетопырь своего собственного я.
Я полетел к родным.
Я бросал в них лоскуты бумаги, звенел по струнам.
Заметив колокольчики, привязанные к ниткам, я дергал за нитку.
Я настойчиво кричал «ау» из-под блюдечка, но никто мне не отвечал, тогда закрыл глаза крыльями и умер второй раз, прорыдав: как скорбен этот мир!


Nekto 1917 (Someone 1917) is the last line of Khlebnikov’s Vzor na 1917 god (“A Look at Year 1917”) included in Poshchyochina obshchestvennomu vkusu (“A Slap in the Face of Public Taste: Russian Futurist Manifesto,” 1912). Nekto v serom (Someone in Gray) is a character in Leonid Andreyev’s drama Zhizn’ cheloveka (“The Life of Man,” 1907). At the Goodson Airport Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) asks Van why he wears a gray overcoat:


Demon, flaunting his flair, desired to be told if Van or his poule had got into trouble with the police (nodding toward Jim or John who having some other delivery to make sat glancing through Crime Copulate Bessarmenia).

‘Poule,’ replied Van with the evasive taciturnity of the Roman rabbi shielding Barabbas.

‘Why gray?’ asked Demon, alluding to Van’s overcoat. ‘Why that military cut? It’s too late to enlist.’

‘I couldn’t — my draft board would turn me down anyway.’

‘How’s the wound?’

‘Komsi-komsa. It now appears that the Kalugano surgeon messed up his job. The rip seam has grown red and raw, without any reason, and there’s a lump in my armpit. I’m in for another spell of surgery — this time in London, where butchers carve so much better. Where’s the mestechko here? Oh, I see it. Cute (a gentian painted on one door, a lady fern on the other: have to go to the herbarium).’ (2.1)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): poule: tart.

komsi etc.: comme-ci comme-ça in Russ. mispronunciation: so-so.

mestechko: Russ., little place.


Sig Leymanski is an anagram of Kingsley Amis. Sig is Russian for “whitefish.” In his poem Voin morshchinistolobyi (“A Soldier with Wrinkled Forehead,” 1917) Khlebnikov mentions glaz siga s Chudskogo ozera (the eye of a whitefish from Lake Peipus):


Воин морщинистолобый
С глазом сига с Чудского озера,
С хмурою гривою пращура,
Как спокойно ты вышел на битву!
Как много заплат на одеждах!
Как много керенских в грубых
Заплатах твоего тулупа дышит и ползает!
Радости боя полны, лезут на воздух
Охотничьи псы, преломленные сразу
В пяти измерениях.


Van begins and ends his work on Letters from Terra living in Cordula’s Manhattan flat on Alexis Avenue:


Van spent a medicinal month in Cordula’s Manhattan flat on Alexis Avenue. She dutifully visited her mother at their Malbrook castle two or three times a week, unescorted by Van either there or to the numerous social ‘flits’ she attended in town, being a frivolous fun-loving little thing; but some parties she canceled, and resolutely avoided seeing her latest lover (the fashionable psychotechnician Dr F.S. Fraser, a cousin of the late P. de P.’s fortunate fellow soldier). Several times Van talked on the dorophone with his father (who pursued an extensive study of Mexican spas and spices) and did several errands for him in town. He often took Cordula to French restaurants, English movies, and Varangian tragedies, all of which was most satisfying, for she relished every morsel, every sip, every jest, every sob, and he found ravishing the velvety rose of her cheeks, and the azure-pure iris of her festively painted eyes to which indigo-black thick lashes, lengthening and upcurving at the outer canthus, added what fashion called the ‘harlequin slant.’ (1.43)


His main industry consisted of research at the great granite-pillared Public Library, that admirable and formidable palace a few blocks from Cordula’s cosy flat. One is irresistibly tempted to compare the strange longings and nauseous qualms that enter into the complicated ecstasies accompanying the making of a young writer’s first book with childbearing. Van had only reached the bridal stage; then, to develop the metaphor, would come the sleeping car of messy defloration; then the first balcony of honeymoon breakfasts, with the first wasp. In no sense could Cordula be compared to a writer’s muse but the evening stroll back to her apartment was pleasantly saturated with the afterglow and afterthought of the accomplished task and the expectation of her caresses; he especially looked forward to those nights when they had an elaborate repast sent up from ‘Monaco,’ a good restaurant in the entresol of the tall building crowned by her penthouse and its spacious terrace. The sweet banality of their little ménage sustained him much more securely than the company of his constantly agitated and fiery father did at their rare meetings in town or was to do during a fortnight in Paris before the next term at Chose. Except gossip — gossamer gossip — Cordula had no conversation and that also helped. She had instinctively realized very soon that she should never mention Ada or Ardis. He, on his part, accepted the evident fact that she did not really love him. Her small, clear, soft, well-padded and rounded body was delicious to stroke, and her frank amazement at the variety and vigor of his love-making anointed what still remained of poor Van’s crude virile pride. She would doze off between two kisses. When he could not sleep, as now often happened, he retired to the sitting room and sat there annotating his authors or else he would walk up and down the open terrace, under a haze of stars, in severely restricted meditation, till the first tramcar jangled and screeched in the dawning abyss of the city.

When in early September Van Veen left Manhattan for Lute, he was pregnant. (ibid.)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): the last paragraph of Part One imitates, in significant brevity of intonation (as if spoken by an outside voice), a famous Tolstoyan ending, with Van in the role of Kitty Lyovin.


He devoted a couple of months at Chose to copying in a clean hand his scarecrow scribblings and then heavily recorrecting the result, so that his final copy looked like a first draft when he took it to an obscure agency in Bedford to have it secretly typed in triplicate. This he disfigured again during his voyage back to America on board the Queen Guinevere. And in Manhattan the galleys had to be reset twice, owing not only to the number of new alterations but also to the eccentricity of Van’s proofreading marks.

Letters from Terra, by Voltemand, came out in 1891 on Van’s twenty-first birthday, under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage’ in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris’ in London. (2.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Abencerage, Zegris: Families of Granada Moors (their feud inspired Chateaubriand).


In VN’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) Sebastian’s half-brother V. mentions the futurist poet Alexis Pan with whom Sebastian traveled to the East in 1917:


We did not hear from him very often, nor were his letters very long. During the three years at Cambridge, he visited us in Paris but twice – better say once, for the second time was when he came over for my mother's funeral. She and I talked of him fairly frequently, especially in the last years of her life, when she was quite aware of her approaching end. It was she who told me of Sebastian's strange adventure in 1917 of which I then knew nothing, as at the time I had happened to be on a holiday in the Crimea. It appears that Sebastian had developed a friendship with the futurist poet Alexis Pan and his wife Larissa, a weird couple who rented a cottage close to our country estate near Luga. He was a noisy robust little man with a gleam of real talent concealed in the messy obscurity of his verse. But because he did his best to shock people with his monstrous mass of otiose words (he was the inventor of the 'submental grunt' as he called it), his main output seems now so nugatory, so false, so old-fashioned (super-modern things have a queer knack of dating much faster than others) that his true value is only remembered by a few scholars who admire the magnificent translations of English poems made by him at the very outset of his literary career – one of these at least being a very miracle of verbal transfusion: his Russian rendering of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'.

 So one morning in early summer seventeen-year-old Sebastian disappeared, leaving my mother a short note which informed her that he was accompanying Pan and his wife on a journey to the East. At first she took it to be a joke (Sebastian, for all his moodiness, at times devised some piece of ghoulish fun, as when in a crowded tramcar he had the ticket-collector transmit to a girl in the far end of the car a scribbled message which really ran thus: I am only a poor ticket-collector, but I love you); when, however, she called upon the Pans she actually found that they had left. It transpired somewhat later that Pan's idea of a Marcopolian journey consisted in gently working eastwards from one provincial town to another, arranging in every one a 'lyrical surprise', that is, renting a hall (or a shed if no hall was available) and holding there a poetical performance whose net profit was supposed to get him, his wife, and Sebastian to the next town. It was never made clear in what Sebastian's functions, help or duties lay, or if he was merely supposed to hover around, to fetch things when needed and to be nice to Larissa, who had a quick temper and was not easily soothed. Alexis Pan generally appeared on the stage dressed in a morning coat, perfectly correct but for its being embroidered with huge lotus flowers. A constellation (the Greater Dog) was painted on his bald brow. He delivered his verse in a great booming voice which, coming from so small a man, made one think of a mouse engendering mountains. Next to him on the platform sat Larissa, a large equine woman in a mauve dress, sewing on buttons or patching up a pair of old trousers, the point being that she never did any of these things for her husband in everyday life. Now and then, between two poems, Pan would perform a slow dance – a mixture of Javanese wrist-play and his own rhythmic inventions. After recitals he got gloriously soused – and this was his undoing. The journey to the East ended in Simbirsk with Alexis dead-drunk and penniless in a filthy inn and Larissa and her tantrums locked up at the police-station for having slapped the face of some meddlesome official who had disapproved of her husband's noisy genius. Sebastian came home as nonchalantly as he had left. 'Any other boy,' added my mother, 'would have looked rather sheepish and rightly ashamed of the whole foolish affair,' but Sebastian talked of his trip as of some quaint incident of which he had been a dispassionate observer. Why he had joined in that ludicrous show and what in fact had led him to pal with that grotesque couple remained a complete mystery (my Mother thought that perhaps he had been ensnared by Larissa but the woman was perfectly plain, elderly, and violently in love with her freak of a husband). They dropped out of Sebastian's life soon after. Two or three years later Pan enjoyed a short artificial vogue in Bolshevik surroundings which was due I think to the queer notion (mainly based on a muddle of terms) that there is a natural connexion between extreme politics and extreme art. Then, in 1922 or 1923 Alexis Pan committed suicide with the aid of a pair of braces. (Chapter 3)


Describing his meeting with Sebastian in Paris, V. mentions a boil at the back of Sebastian’s neck:


Towards the end of that week he rang me up and we dined together at a Russian restaurant. I had not seen him since 1924 and this was 1929. He looked worn and ill, and owing to his pallor seemed unshaven although he had just been to the barber. There was a boil at the back of his neck patched up with pink plaster. (Chapter 11)


Van compares Andrey Vinelander (Ada's husband who contracted tuberculosis) to Keats:


As had been peculiar to his nature even in the days of his youth, Van was apt to relieve a passion of anger and disappointment by means of bombastic and arcane utterances which hurt like a jagged fingernail caught in satin, the lining of Hell.

‘Castle True, Castle Bright!’ he now cried, ‘Helen of Troy, Ada of Ardis! You have betrayed the Tree and the Moth!’

‘Perestagne (stop, cesse)!’

‘Ardis the First, Ardis the Second, Tanned Man in a Hat, and now Mount Russet —’

‘Perestagne!’ repeated Ada (like a fool dealing with an epileptic).

‘Oh! Qui me rendra mon Hélène —’

‘Ach, perestagne!’

‘— et le phalène.’

‘Je t’emplie ("prie" and "supplie"), stop, Van. Tu sais que j’en vais mourir.’

‘But, but, but’ — (slapping every time his forehead) — ‘to be on the very brink of, of, of — and then have that idiot turn Keats!’

‘Bozhe moy, I must be going. Say something to me, my darling, my only one, something that might help!’

There was a narrow chasm of silence broken only by the rain drumming on the eaves.

‘Stay with me, girl,’ said Van, forgetting everything — pride, rage, the convention of everyday pity.

For an instant she seemed to waver — or at least to consider wavering; but a resonant voice reached them from the drive and there stood Dorothy, gray-caped and mannish-hatted, energetically beckoning with her unfurled umbrella.

‘I can’t, I can’t, I’ll write you,’ murmured my poor love in tears. (3.8)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): phalène: moth (see also p.111).

tu sais etc.: you know it will kill me.

Bozhe moy: Russ., oh, my God.


The inscription on Keats's tombstone reads: "Here lies one whose name was writ on water." In Khlebnikov's poem Pen pan ("Master of Foams," 1915) the author's name is whispered by air:


У вод я подумал о бесе
И о себе,
Над озером сидя на пне.
Со мной разговаривал пен пан
И взора озёрного жемчуг
Бросает воздушный, могуч меж
Большой, как и вы.
И много невестнейших вдов вод
Преследовал ум мой, как овод,
Я, брезгая, брызгаю ими.
Моё восклицалося имя -
Шепча, изрицал его воздух.
Сквозь воздух умчаться не худ зов.
Я озеро бил на осколки
И после расспрашивал: «Сколько?»
И мир был прекрасно улыбен,
Но многого этого не было.
И свист пролетевших копыток
Напомнил мне много попыток
Прогнать исчезающий нечет
Среди исчезавших течений.


Air is the element that destroys Demon (who in March, 1905, perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific):


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)


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)


Van never finds out 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.