Castles in Spain & sunglasses of much-sung lasses in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 07/03/2022 - 10:30

In his letter to Ada, written after Lucette’s suicide, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) uses the phrase “entered the picture” (and then repeats it in a slightly different form):



I wish to correct and amplify the accounts of her death published here even before I arrived. We were not ‘traveling together.’ We embarked at two different ports and I did not know that she was aboard. Our relationship remained what it had always been. I spent the next day (June 4) entirely with her, except for a couple of hours before dinner. We basked in the sun. She enjoyed the brisk breeze and the bright brine of the pool. She was doing her best to appear carefree but I saw how wrong things were. The romantic attachment she had formed, the infatuation she cultivated, could not be severed by logic. On top of that, somebody she could not compete with entered the picture. The Robinsons, Robert and Rachel, who, I know, planned to write to you through my father, were the penultimate people to talk to her that night. The last was a bartender. He was worried by her behavior, followed her up to the open deck and witnessed but could not stop her jump.

I suppose it is inevitable that after such a loss one should treasure its every detail, every string that snapped, every fringe that frayed, in the immediate precession. I had sat with her through the greater part of a movie, Castles in Spain (or some title like that), and its liberal villain was being directed to the last of them, when I decided to abandon her to the auspices of the Robinsons, who had joined us in the ship’s theater. I went to bed — and was called around 1 a.m. mariTime, a few moments after she had jumped overboard. Attempts to rescue her were made on a reasonable scale, but, finally, the awful decision to resume the voyage, after an hour of confusion and hope, had to be taken by the Captain. Had I found him bribable, we would still be circling today the fatal spot.

As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not hove drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. Impersonally I believe she would have died in her bed, gray and serene, had V. loved her; but since he did not really love the wretched little virgin, and since no amount of carnal tenderness could or can pass for true love, and since, above all, the fatal Andalusian wench who had come, I repeat, into the picture, was unforgettable, I am bound to arrive, dear Ada and dear Andrey, at the conclusion that whatever the miserable man could have thought up, she would have pokonchila soboy (‘put an end to herself’) all the same. In other more deeply moral worlds than this pellet of muck, there might exist restraints, principles, transcendental consolations, and even a certain pride in making happy someone one does not really love; but on this planet Lucettes are doomed.

Some poor little things belonging to her — a cigarette case, a tulle evening frock, a book dog’s-eared at a French picnic — have had to be destroyed, because they stared at me. I remain your obedient servant. (3.6)


In VN’s novel Lolita (1955) Charlotte (Lolita’s mother) tells Humbert that little Lo does not enter the picture at all, at all:


There was a woodlake (Hourglass Lake – not as I had thought it was spelled) a few miles from Ramsdale, and there was one week of great heat at the end of July when we drove there daily. I am now obliged to describe in some tedious detail our last swim there together, one tropical Tuesday morning.

We had left the car in a parking area not far from the road and were making our way down a path cut through the pine forest to the lake, when Charlotte remarked that Jean Farlow, in quest of rare light effects (Jean belonged to the old school of painting), had seen Leslie taking a dip “in the ebony” (as John had quipped) at five o’clock in the morning last Sunday.

“The water,” I said, “must have been quite cold.”

“That is not the point,” said the logical doomed dear. “He is subnormal, you see. And,” she continued (in that carefully phrased way of hers that was beginning to tell on my health), “I have a very definite feeling our Louise is in love with that moron.”

Feeling. “We feel Dolly is not doing as well” etc. (from an old school report).

The Humberts walked on, sandaled and robed.

“Do you know, Hum: I have one most ambitious dream,” pronounced Lady Hum, lowering her head - shy of that dream – and communing with the tawny ground. “I would love to get hold of a real trained servant maid like that German girl the Talbots spoke of; and have her live in the house.”

“No room,” I said.

“Come,” she said with her quizzical smile, “surely, chéri, you underestimate the possibilities of the Humbert home. We would put her in Lo’s room. I intended to make a guestroom of that hole anyway. It’s the coldest and meanest in the whole house.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, the skin of my cheekbones tensing up (this I take the trouble to note only because my daughter’s skin did the same when she felt that way: disbelief, disgust, irritation).

“Are you bothered by Romantic Associations?” queried my wife – in allusion to her first surrender.

“Hell no,” said I. “I just wonder where will you put your daughter when you get your guest or your maid.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Humbert, dreaming, smiling, drawing out the “Ah” simultaneously with the raise of one eyebrow and a soft exhalation of breath. “Little Lo, I’m afraid, does not enter the picture at all, at all. Little Lo goes straight from camp to a good boarding school with strict discipline and some sound religious training. And then – Beardsley College. I have it all mapped out, you need not worry.”

She went on to say that she, Mrs. Humbert, would have to overcome her habitual sloth and write to Miss Phalen’s sister who taught at St. Algebra. The dazzling lake emerged. I said I had forgotten my sunglasses in the car and would catch up with her. (1.20)


Describing the patio party in “Ardis the Second,” Van mentions the sunglasses of much-sung lasses picked up by Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister):


Van left the pool-side patio and strode away. He turned into a side gallery that led into a grovy part of the garden, grading insensibly into the park proper. Presently, he noticed that Ada had hastened to follow him. Lifting one elbow, revealing the black star of her armpit, she tore off her bathing cap and with a shake of her head liberated a torrent of hair. Lucette, in color, trotted behind her. Out of charity for the sisters’ bare feet, Van changed his course from gravel path to velvet lawn (reversing the action of Dr Ero, pursued by the Invisible Albino in one of the greatest novels of English literature). They caught up with him in the Second Coppice. Lucette, in passing, stopped to pick up her sister’s cap and sunglasses — the sunglasses of much-sung lasses, a shame to throw them away! My tidy little Lucette (I shall never forget you...) placed both objects on a tree stump near an empty beer bottle, trotted on, then went back to examine a bunch of pink mushrooms that clung to the stump, snoring. Double take, double exposure. (1.32)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Ero: thus the h-dropping policeman in Wells’ Invisible Man defined the latter’s treacherous friend.


At the patio party in “Ardis the Second” Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) and G. A. Vronsky (the movie man) discuss a screen adaptation of Mlle Larivière’s novel Les Enfants Maudits (“The Accursed Children”):


The shooting script was now ready. Marina, in dorean robe and coolie hat, reclined reading in a long-chair on the patio. Her director, G.A. Vronsky, elderly, baldheaded, with a spread of grizzled fur on his fat chest, was alternately sipping his vodka-and-tonic and feeding Marina typewritten pages from a folder. On her other side, crosslegged on a mat, sat Pedro (surname unknown, stagename forgotten), a repulsively handsome, practically naked young actor, with satyr ears, slanty eyes, and lynx nostrils, whom she had brought from Mexico and was keeping at a hotel in Ladore.

Ada, lying on the edge of the swimming pool, was doing her best to make the shy dackel face the camera in a reasonably upright and decent position, while Philip Rack, an insignificant but on the whole likable young musician who in his baggy trunks looked even more dejected and awkward than in the green velvet suit he thought fit to wear for the piano lessons he gave Lucette, was trying to take a picture of the recalcitrant chop-licking animal and of the girl’s parted breasts which her half-prone position helped to disclose in the opening of her bathing suit.

If one dollied now to another group standing a few paces away under the purple garlands of the patio arch, one might take a medium shot of the young maestro’s pregnant wife in a polka-dotted dress replenishing goblets with salted almonds, and of our distinguished lady novelist resplendent in mauve flounces, mauve hat, mauve shoes, pressing a zebra vest on Lucette, who kept rejecting it with rude remarks, learned from a maid but uttered in a tone of voice just beyond deafish Mlle Larivière’s field of hearing.

Lucette remained topless. Her tight smooth skin was the color of thick peach syrup, her little crupper in willow-green shorts rolled drolly, the sun lay sleek on her russet bob and plumpish torso: it showed but a faint circumlocation of femininity, and Van, in a scowling mood, recalled with mixed feelings how much more developed her sister had been at not quite twelve years of age.

He had spent most of the day fast asleep in his room, and a long, rambling, dreary dream had repeated, in a kind of pointless parody, his strenuous ‘Casanovanic’ night with Ada and that somehow ominous morning talk with her. Now that I am writing this, after so many hollows and heights of time, I find it not easy to separate our conversation, as set down in an inevitably stylized form, and the drone of complaints, turning on sordid betrayals that obsessed young Van in his dull nightmare. Or was he dreaming now that he had been dreaming? Had a grotesque governess really written a novel entitled Les Enfants Maudits? To be filmed by frivolous dummies, now discussing its adaptation? To be made even triter than the original Book of the Fortnight, and its gurgling blurbs? Did he detest Ada as he had in his dreams? He did. (1.32)


Mlle Larivière’s novel was made into movie by G. A. Vronsky as The Young and the Doomed:


After some exploration, they tracked down a rerun of The Young and the Doomed (1890) to a tiny theater that specialized in Painted Westerns (as those deserts of nonart used to be called). Thus had Mlle Larivière’s Enfants Maudits (1887) finally degenerated! She had had two adolescents, in a French castle, poison their widowed mother who had seduced a young neighbor, the lover of one of her twins. The author had made many concessions to the freedom of the times, and the foul fancy of scriptwriters; but both she and the leading lady disavowed the final result of multiple tamperings with the plot that had now become the story of a murder in Arizona, the victim being a widower about to marry an alcoholic prostitute, whom Marina, quite sensibly, refused to impersonate. But poor little Ada had clung to her bit part, a two-minute scene in a traktir (roadside tavern). During the rehearsals she felt she was doing not badly as a serpentine barmaid — until the director blamed her for moving like an angular ‘backfish.’ She had not deigned to see the final product and was not overeager to have Van see it now, but he reminded her that the same director, G.A. Vronsky, had told her she was always pretty enough to serve one day as a stand-in for Lenore Colline, who at twenty had been as attractively gauche as she, raising and tensing forward her shoulders in the same way, when crossing a room. Having sat through a preliminary P.W. short, they finally got to The Young and the Doomed only to discover that the barmaid scene of the barroom sequence had been cut out — except for a perfectly distinct shadow of Ada’s elbow, as Van kindly maintained. (2.9)


According to Van, on this planet Lucettes are doomed. In Don Juan’s Last Fling (a film that Van and Lucette watch in the Tobakoff cinema hall and that Van calls Castles in Spain in his letter to Ada) Ada (the fatal Andalusian wench who had entered the picture) played the gitanilla. On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which Ada is set) VN’s Lolita is known as The Gitanilla, a novel by the Spanish writer Osberg:


For the big picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday and Ida’s forty-second jour de fête, the child was permitted to wear her lolita (thus dubbed after the little Andalusian gipsy of that name in Osberg’s novel and pronounced, incidentally, with a Spanish ‘t,’ not a thick English one), a rather long, but very airy and ample, black skirt, with red poppies or peonies, ‘deficient in botanical reality,’ as she grandly expressed it, not yet knowing that reality and natural science are synonymous in the terms of this, and only this, dream. (1.13)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Osberg: another good-natured anagram, scrambling the name of a writer with whom the author of Lolita has been rather comically compared. Incidentally, that title’s pronunciation has nothing to do with English or Russian (pace an anonymous owl in a recent issue of the TLS).


In a letter to Van (written after Lucette’s suicide) Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) mentions the writer Osberg, who claims the gitanilla sequence was stolen from one of his own concoctions:



I have followed your instructions, anent that letter, to the letter. Your epistolary style is so involute that I should suspect the presence of a code, had I not known you belonged to the Decadent School of writing, in company of naughty old Leo and consumptive Anton. I do not give a damn whether you slept or not with Lucette; but I know from Dorothy Vinelander that the child had been in love with you. The film you saw was, no doubt, Don Juan’s Last Fling in which Ada, indeed, impersonates (very beautifully) a Spanish girl. A jinx has been cast on our poor girl’s career. Howard Hool argued after the release that he had been made to play an impossible cross between two Dons; that initially Yuzlik (the director) had meant to base his ‘fantasy’ on Cervantes’s crude romance; that some scraps of the basic script stuck like dirty wool to the final theme; and that if you followed closely the sound track you could hear a fellow reveler in the tavern scene address Hool twice as ‘Quicks.’ Hool managed to buy up and destroy a number of copies while others have been locked up by the lawyer of the writer Osberg, who claims the gitanilla sequence was stolen from one of his own concoctions. In result it is impossible to purchase a reel of the picture which will vanish like the proverbial smoke once it has fizzled out on provincial screens. Come and have dinner with me on July 10. Evening dress. (3.6)


Yuzlik means in Uzbek “veil.” In his poem Neznakomka (“The Unknown Woman,” 1906) Alexander Blok mentions tyomnaya vual’ (the dark veil):


И странной близостью закованный,
Смотрю за темную вуаль,
И вижу берег очарованный
И очарованную даль.


And entranced by a strange nearness,
I look through her dark veil,
And I see the enchanted shore
And the enchanted distance.


In his essay on Merezhkovski, Tragicheskoe ostroumie (“The Tragic Wit,” 1909), Rozanov quotes Blok’s words about Merezhkovski and mentions vual’ (a veil):


Безо всякого намерения быть остроумным, поэт Блок невольно сострил; и верно оттого, что самое дело, о котором он пишет, заключает остроумие внутри себя, остроумно само по себе... В статье с приглашающим заглавием: «Мережковский», он пишет: «Открыв или перелистав его книги, можно прийти в смятение, в ужас, даже — в негодование. "Бог, Бог, Бог, Христос, Христос, Христос", — положительно, нет страницы без этих Имен, именно Имен, не с большой, а с огромной, что она все заслоняет, на все бросает крестообразную тень, точно вывеска "Какао" или "Угрин" на Загородном, и без нее мертвом поле, над холодными волнами Финского залива, без нее мертвого».


Бог — в тайне. Разве не сказано было сто раз, что Он — в тайне? Между тем Мережковский вечно тащит Его к свету, именно как вот рекламы — напоказ, на вывеску, чтобы все читали, видели, знали, помнили, как таблицу умножения или как ученик высекшую его розгу. Что за дикие усилия! «Бог в тайне»: иначе Его нельзя. Не наблюдали ли вы, что во всем мире разлита эта нежная и глубокая застенчивость, стыдливость, утаивание себя, — что уходит, как в средоточие их всех, в «неизреченные тайны Божия» и, наконец, в существо «Неисповедимого Лица»? От этого все глубокие вещи мира не выпячиваются, а затеняются, куда-то уходят от глаза, не указывают на себя, не говорят о себе. По этим качествам мы даже оцениваем достоинство человека. Но это — качество не моральное, а космологическое, хотя оно простирается и в мораль, властвуя над нею. Мне прямо не хотелось бы жить в таком плоском мире, где вещи были бы лишены этой главной прелести своей, что они не хотят быть видимы, что они вечно уходят, скрываются. Это во всей природе. Брильянты и все драгоценные вещи глубоко скрыты внутри каменной твердыни гор, и без науки, без искусства, без труда, работы — недостижимы, как фараоны, уснувшие в пирамидах. Вот пример этой тайны мира: она начинается в камнях, а оканчивается в человеке, который творит поэзию и мудрость в глубоком уединении, в одиночестве, точно спрятавшись, никогда не на глазах другого, хотя бы самого близкого человека: «Нужно быть одному», — тогда выходит святое, лучезарное, чистое, целомудренное! Но в человеке это еще не кончено: есть Бог, которого «нигде же никто видел», как говорится в книгах. Бог как бы впитал в себя всю мировую застенчивость и ушел в окончательную непроницаемость. Вспомним закон устроения Святого Святых, где было Его присутствие. Вечная тьма там. Никому нельзя входить. Вот — закон. Да, «закон Божий» — застенчивость. Без нее тошно жить, без нее невозможно жить. Цена человека сохраняется, пока он «не потерял стыд», т. е. вот затененности поступков и лица, скромности, вуалированности всего около себя и в себе... Как будто все скрыто под вуалью: есть, действует, но — невидимо. Это и в быте, это и в лице. «Падение» начинается с «наглости», со сбрасывания одежд — не физических, а вот этих бытовых, личных, психологических...


"Castles in Spain" often mean "castles in the air" (vozdushnye zamki, as we call in Russian unrealistic plans or hopes). In The 14th of December (1918), the third novel in Merezhkovski's trilogy Tsarstvo zverya (“Kingdom of the Beast”), General Benckendorf, as he interrogates the Decembrist S. I. Murav'yov-Apostol, speaks of the latter's chateaux d'Espagne:


- Ce sont vos chateaux d'Espagne, qui vous ont perdu, mon ami, - как изволил пошутить надо мной генерал Бенкендорф на допросе в Следственной комиссии. (Part Four, chapter VI, "The Notes of S. I. Murav'yov-Apostol")


One of the five Decembrists who were hanged, Sergey Ivanovich Murav'yov-Apostol was a son of the Russian envoy in Madrid:


Младенчество провёл я в Испании: батюшка мой, Иван Матвеевич Муравьёв-Апостол, был в Мадриде посланником. И вот захотел я повторить младенчество в мужестве, перенести в Россию Испанию. (ibid.)


Murav'yov wanted to transfer Spain of his childhood memories to Russia. In Ada VN transfers Russia of his childhood memories to America:


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

In spite of the many intricacies of plot and psychology, the story proceeds at a spanking pace. Before we can pause to take breath and quietly survey the new surroundings into which the writer’s magic carpet has, as it were, spilled us, another attractive girl, Lucette Veen, Marina’s younger daughter, has also been swept off her feet by Van, the irresistible rake. Her tragic destiny constitutes one of the highlights of this delightful book.

The rest of Van’s story turns frankly and colorfully upon his long love-affair with Ada. It is interrupted by her marriage to an Arizonian cattle-breeder whose fabulous ancestor discovered our country. After her husband’s death our lovers are reunited. They spend their old age traveling together and dwelling in the various villas, one lovelier than another, that Van has erected all over the Western Hemisphere.

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more. (5.6)