four D's in Lolita & in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 07/16/2022 - 07:32

According to Humbert Humbert (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Lolita, 1955), at his first interview with Mrs. Pratt (the headmistress of Beardsley School for girls) the latter told him that they stressed the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating:


I had hoped Beardsley School for girls, an expensive day school, with lunch thrown in and a glamorous gymnasium, would, while cultivating all those young bodies, provide some formal education for their minds as well. Gaston Godin, who was seldom right in his judgment of American habitus, had warned me that the institution might turn out to be one of those where girls are taught, as he put it with a foreigner’s love for such things: “not to spell very well, but to smell very well.” I don’t think they achieved even that.

At my first interview with headmistress Pratt, she approved of my child’s “nice blue eyes” (blue! Lolita!) and of my own friendship with that “French genius” (a genius! Gaston!) and then, having turned Dolly over to a Miss Cormorant, she wrinkled her brow in a kind of recueillement and said:

“We are not so much concerned, Mr. Humbird, with having our students become bookworms or be able to reel off all the capitals of Europe which nobody knows anyway, or learn by heart the dates of forgotten battles. What we are concerned with is the adjustment of the child to group life. This is why we stress the four D’s: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating. We are confronted by certain facts. Your delightful Dolly will presently enter an age group - where dates, dating, date dress, date book, date etiquette, mean as much to her as, say, business, business connections, business success, mean to you, or as much as [smiling] the happiness of my girls means to me. Dorothy Humbird is already involved in a whole system of social life which consists, whether we like ti or not, of hot-dog stands, corner drugstores, malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and even hair-fixing parties! Naturally at Beardsley School we disapprove of some of these activities; and we rechannel others into more constructive directions. But we do try to turn our backs on the fog and squarely face the sunshine. To put it briefly, while adopting certain teaching techniques, we are more interested in communication than in composition. That is, with due respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books. We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a gynecologist feeling a tumor. We thing, Dr. Humburg, in organismal and organizational terms. We have done away with the mass or irrelevant topics that have traditionally been presented to young girls, leaving no place, in former days, for the knowledges and the skills, and the attitudes they will need in managing their lives and - as the cynic might add - the lives of their husbands. Mr. Humberson, let us put it this way: the position of a star is important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be even more important to the budding housewife. You say that all you expect a child to obtain from school is a sound education. But what do we mean by education? In the old days it was in the main a verbal phenomenon; I mean, you could have a child learn by heart a good encyclopedia and he or she would know as much as or more than a school could offer. Dr. Hummer, do you realize that for the modern pre-adolescent child, medieval dates are of less vital value than weekend ones [twinkle]?to repeat a pun that I heard the Beardsley college psychoanalyst permit herself the other day. We live not only in a world of thoughts, but also in a world of things. Words without experience are meaningless. What on earth can Dorothy Hummerson care for Greece and the Orient with their harems and slaves?”

This program rather appalled me, but I spoke to two intelligent ladies who had been connected with the school, and they affirmed that the girls did quite a bit of sound reading and that the “communication” line was more or less ballyhoo aimed at giving old-fashioned Beardsley School a financially remunerative modern touch, though actually it remained as prim as a prawn. (2.4) 


D is the fourth letter of the English (and the fifth letter of the Russian) alphabeth. Describing Flavita (the Russian Scrabble), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the ten A’s and the four D’s:


The set our three children received in 1884 from an old friend of the family (as Marina’s former lovers were known), Baron Klim Avidov, consisted of a large folding board of saffian and a boxful of weighty rectangles of ebony inlaid with platinum letters, only one of which was a Roman one, namely the letter J on the two joker blocks (as thrilling to get as a blank check signed by Jupiter or Jurojin). It was, incidentally, the same kindly but touchy Avidov (mentioned in many racy memoirs of the time) who once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter’s lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one’s name in order to use it as a particule, at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa.

By July the ten A’s had dwindled to nine, and the four D’s to three. The missing eventually turned up under an Aproned Armchair, but the was lost — faking the fate of its apostrophizable double as imagined by a Walter C. Keyway, Esq., just before the latter landed, with a couple of unstamped postcards, in the arms of a speechless multilinguist in a frock coat with brass buttons. The wit of the Veens (says Ada in a marginal note) knows no bounds.

Van, a first-rate chess player — he was to win in 1887 a match at Chose when he beat the Minsk-born Pat Rishin (champion of Underhill and Wilson, N.C.) — had been puzzled by Ada’s inability of raising the standard of her, so to speak, damsel-errant game above that of a young lady in an old novel or in one of those anti-dandruff color-photo ads that show a beautiful model (made for other games than chess) staring at the shoulder of her otherwise impeccably groomed antagonist across a preposterous traffic jam of white and scarlet, elaborately and unrecognizably carved, Lalla Rookh chessmen, which not even cretins would want to play with — even if royally paid for the degradation of the simplest thought under the itchiest scalp.

Ada did manage, now and then, to conjure up a combinational sacrifice, offering, say, her queen — with a subtle win after two or three moves if the piece were taken; but she saw only one side of the question, preferring to ignore, in the queer lassitude of clogged cogitation, the obvious counter combination that would lead inevitably to her defeat if the grand sacrifice were not accepted. On the Scrabble board, however, this same wild and weak Ada was transformed into a sort of graceful computing machine, endowed, moreover, with phenomenal luck, and would greatly surpass baffled Van in acumen, foresight and exploitation of chance, when shaping appetizing long words from the most unpromising scraps and collops.

He found the game rather fatiguing, and toward the end played hurriedly and carelessly, not deigning to check ‘rare’ or ‘obsolete’ but quite acceptable possibilities provided by a loyal dictionary. As to ambitious, incompetent and temperamental Lucette, she had to be, even at twelve, discreetly advised by Van who did so chiefly because it saved time and brought a little closer the blessed moment when she could be bundled off to the nursery, leaving Ada available for the third or fourth little flourish of the sweet summer day. Especially boring were the girls’ squabbles over the legitimacy of this or that word: proper names and place names were taboo, but there occurred borderline cases, causing no end of heartbreak, and it was pitiful to see Lucette cling to her last five letters (with none left in the box) forming the beautiful ARDIS which her governess had told her meant ‘the point of an arrow’ — but only in Greek, alas.

A particular nuisance was the angry or disdainful looking up of dubious words in a number of lexicons, sitting, standing and sprawling around the girls, on the floor, under Lucette’s chair upon which she knelt, on the divan, on the big round table with the board and the blocks and on an adjacent chest of drawers. The rivalry between moronic Ozhegov (a big, blue, badly bound volume, containing 52,872 words) and a small but chippy Edmundson in Dr Gerschizhevsky’s reverent version, the taciturnity of abridged brutes and the unconventional magnanimity of a four-volume Dahl (‘My darling dahlia,’ moaned Ada as she obtained an obsolete cant word from the gentle long-bearded ethnographer) — all this would have been insupportably boring to Van had he not been stung as a scientist by the curious affinity between certain aspects of Scrabble and those of the planchette. He became aware of it one August evening in 1884 on the nursery balcony, under a sunset sky the last fire of which snaked across the corner of the reservoir, stimulated the last swifts, and intensified the hue of Lucette’s copper curls. The morocco board had been unfolded on a much inkstained, monogrammed and notched deal table. Pretty Blanche, also touched, on earlobe and thumbnail, with the evening’s pink — and redolent with the perfume called Miniver Musk by handmaids — had brought a still unneeded lamp. Lots had been cast, Ada had won the right to begin, and was in the act of collecting one by one, mechanically and unthinkingly, her seven ‘luckies’ from the open case where the blocks lay face down, showing nothing but their anonymous black backs, each in its own cell of flavid velvet. She was speaking at the same time, saying casually: ‘I would much prefer the Benten lamp here but it is out of kerosin. Pet (addressing Lucette), be a good scout, call her — Good Heavens!’

The seven letters she had taken, S,R,E,N,O,K,I, and was sorting out in her spektrik (the little trough of japanned wood each player had before him) now formed in quick and, as it were, self-impulsed rearrangement the key word of the chance sentence that had attended their random assemblage. (1.36)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): particule: ‘de’ or ‘d’’.

Pat Rishin: a play on ‘patrician’. One may recall Podgoretz (Russ. ‘underhill’) applying that epithet to a popular critic, would-be expert in Russian as spoken in Minsk and elsewhere. Minsk and Chess also figure in Chapter Six of Speak, Memory (p.133, N.Y. ed. 1966).

Gerschizhevsky: a Slavist’s name gets mixed here with that of Chizhevki, another Slavist.


In Chapter Six of his autobiography Speak, Memory (1951) VN describes butterfly hunting and mentions the world-famous grandmaster Wilhelm Edmundson:


When, having shaken off all pursuers, I took the rough, red road that ran from our Vyra house toward field and forest, the animation and luster of the day seemed like a tremor of sympathy around me.
Very fresh, very dark Arran Browns, which emerged only every second year (conveniently, retrospection has fallen here into line), flitted among the firs or revealed their red markings and checkered fringes as they sunned themselves on the roadside bracken. Hopping above the grass, a diminutive Ringlet called Hero dodged my net. Several moths, too, were flying—gaudy sun lovers that sail from flower to flower like painted flies, or male insomniacs in search of hidden females, such as that rust-colored Oak Eggar hurtling across the shrubbery. I noticed (one of the major mysteries of my childhood) a soft pale green wing caught in a spider’s web (by then I knew what it was: part of a Large Emerald). The tremendous larva of the Goat Moth, ostentatiously segmented, flat-headed, flesh-colored and glossily flushed, a strange creature “as naked as a worm” to use a French comparison, crossed my path in frantic search for a place to pupate (the awful pressure of metamorphosis, the aura of a disgraceful fit in a public place). On the bark of that birch tree, the stout one near the park wicket, I had found last spring a dark aberration of Sievers’ Carmelite (just another gray moth to the reader). In the ditch, under the bridgelet, a bright-yellow Silvius Skipper hobnobbed with a dragonfly (just a blue libellula to me). From a flower head two male Coppers rose to a tremendous height, fighting all the way up—and then, after a while, came the downward flash of one of them returning to his thistle. These were familiar insects, but at any moment something better might cause me to stop with a quick intake of breath. I remember one day when I warily brought my net closer and closer to an uncommon Hairstreak that had daintily settled on a sprig. I could clearly see the white W on its chocolate-brown underside. Its wings were closed and the inferior ones were rubbing against each other in a curious circular motion—possibly producing some small, blithe crepitation pitched too high for a human ear to catch. I had long wanted that particular species, and, when near enough, I struck. You have heard champion tennis players moan after muffing an easy shot. You may have seen the face of the world-famous grandmaster Wilhelm Edmundson when, during a simultaneous display in a Minsk café, he lost his rook, by an absurd oversight, to the local amateur and pediatrician, Dr. Schach, who eventually won. But that day nobody (except my older self) could see me shake out a piece of twig from an otherwise empty net and stare at a hole in the tarlatan. (4)


Edmund Wilson, The Last Patrician (1959) is an essay by Norman Podhoretz. On the other hand, “champion of Underhill and Wilson” brings to mind Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic novel based on the legend of Tannhäuser (a knight and poet who found the Venusberg, the subterranean home of Venus, and spent a year there worshipping the goddess) by Aubrey Beardsley (an English artist and illustrator, 1872-98). “A four-volume Dahl (‘My darling dahlia,’ moaned Ada)” reminds one of Mona Dahl, Lolita’s schoolmate and best friend at Beardsley:


Her girlfriends, whom I looked forward to meet, proved on the whole disappointing. There was Opal Something, and Linda Hall, and Avis Chapman, and Eva Rosen, and Mona Dahl (save one, all these names are approximations, of course). Opal was a bashful, formless, bespectacled, bepimpled creature who doted on Dolly who bullied her. With Linda Hall the school tennis champion, Dolly played singles at least twice a week: I suspect Linda was a true nymphet, but for some unknown reason she did not come - was perhaps not allowed to come - to our house; so I recall her only as a flash of natural sunshine on an indoor court. Of the rest, none had any claims to nymphetry except Eva Rosen. Avis was a plump lateral child with hairy legs, while Mona, though handsome in a coarse sensual way and only a year older than my aging mistress, had obviously long ceased to be a nymphet, if she ever had been one. Eva Rosen, a displaced little person from France, was on the other hand a good example of a not strikingly beautiful child revealing to the perspicacious amateur some of the basic elements of nymphet charm, such as a perfect pubescent figure and lingering eyes and high cheekbones. Her glossy copper hair had Lolita’s silkiness, and the features of her delicate milky-white face with pink lips and silverfish eyelashes were less foxy than those of her likes - the great clan of intra-racial redheads; nor did she sport their green uniform but wore, as I remember her, a lot of black or cherry dark - a very smart black pullover, for instance, and high-heeled black shoes, and garnet-red fingernail polish. I spoke French to her (much to Lo’s disgust). The child’s tonalities were still admirably pure, but for school words and play words she resorted to current American and then a slight Brooklyn accent would crop up in her speech, which was amusing in a little Parisian who went to a select New England school with phoney British aspirations. Unfortunately, despite “that French kid’s uncle” being “a millionaire,” Lo dropped Eva for some reason before I had had time to enjoy in my modest way her fragrant presence in the Humbert open house. The reader knows what importance I attached to having a bevy of page girls, consolation prize nymphets, around my Lolita. For a while, I endeavored to interest my senses in Mona Dahl who was a good deal around, especially during the spring term when Lo and she got so enthusiastic about dramatics. I have often wondered what secrets outrageously treacherous Dolores Haze had imparted to Mona while blurting out to me by urgent and well-paid request various really incredible details concerning an affair that Mona had had with a marine at the seaside. It was characteristic of Lo that she chose for her closest chum that elegant, cold, lascivious, experienced young female whom I once heard (misheard, Lo swore) cheerfully say in the hallway to Lo - who had remarked that her (Lo’s) sweater was of virgin wool: “The only thing about you that is, kiddo…” She had a curiously husky voice, artificially waved dull dark hair, earrings, amber-brown prominent eyes and luscious lips. Lo said teachers had remonstrated with her on her loading herself with so much costume jewelry. Her hands trembled. She was burdened with a 150 I. Q. And I also knew she had a tremendous chocolate-brown mole on the womanish back which I inspected the night Lo and she had worn low-cut pastel-colored, vaporous dresses for a dance at the Butler Academy.

I am anticipating a little, but I cannot help running my memory all over the keyboard of that school year. In the meeting my attempts to find out what kind of boys Lo knew, Miss Dahl was elegantly evasive. Lo who had gone to play tennis at Linda’s country club had telephoned she might be a full half hour late, and so, would I entertain Mona who was coming to practice with her a scene from The Taming of the Shrew.  Using all the modulations, all the allure of manner and voice she was capable of and staring at me with perhaps - could I be mistaken - a faint gleam of crystalline irony, beautiful Mona replied: “Well, sir, the fact is Dolly is not much concerned with mere boys. Fact is, we are rivals. She and I have a crush on the Reverend Rigger.” (This was a joke - I have already mentioned that gloomy giant of a man, with the jaw of a horse: he was to bore me to near murder with his impressions of Switzerland at a tea party for parents that I am unable to place correctly in terms of time.)

How had the ball been? Oh, it had been a riot. A what? A panic. Terrific, in a word. Had Lo danced a lot? Oh, not a frightful lot, just as much as she could stand. What did she, languorous Mona, think of Lo? Sir? Did she think Lo was doing well at school? Gosh, she certainly was quite a kid. But her general behavior was? Oh, she was a swell kid. But still? “Oh, she’s a doll,” concluded Mona, and sighed abruptly, and picked up a book that happened to lie at hand, and with a change of expression, falsely furrowing her brow, inquired: “Do tell me about Ball Zack, sir. Is he really that good?” She moved up so close to my chair that I made out through lotions and creams her uninteresting skin scent. A sudden odd thought stabbed me: was my Lo playing the pimp? If so, she had found the wrong substitute. Avoiding Mona’’ cool gaze, I talked literature for a minute. Then Dolly arrived - and slit her pale eyes at us. I left the two friends to their own devices. One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position - a knight’s move from the top - always strangely disturbed me. (2.9)


In the Venetian dialect mona is a vulgar term to denote female genitalia. Baron Klim Avidov (anagram of Vladimir Nabokov) once catapulted with an uppercut an unfortunate English tourist into the porter’s lodge for his jokingly remarking how clever it was to drop the first letter of one’s name in order to use it as a particule at the Gritz, in Venezia Rossa.


In a game of chess with Humbert Gaston Godin collects Humbert's queen:


Because it supposedly tied up with her interest in dance and dramatics, I had permitted Lo to take piano lessons with a Miss Emperor (as we French scholars may conveniently call her) to whose blue-shuttered little white house a mile or so beyond Beardsley Lo would spin off twice a week. One Friday night toward the end of May (and a week or so after the very special rehearsal Lo had not had me attend) the telephone in my study, where I was in the act of mopping up Gustave’sI mean Gaston’sking’s side, rang and Miss Emperor asked if Lo was coming next Tuesday because she had missed last Tuesday’s and today’s lessons. I said she would by all meansand went on with the game. As the reader may well imagine, my faculties were now impaired, and a move or two later, with Gaston to play, I noticed through the film of my general distress that he could collect my queen; he noticed it too, but thinking it might be a trap on the part of his tricky opponent, he demurred for quite a minute, and puffed and wheezed, and shook his jowls, and even shot furtive glances at me, and made hesitating half-thrusts with his pudgily bunched fingersdying to take that juicy queen and not daringand all of a sudden he swooped down upon it (who knows if it did not teach him certain later audacities?), and I spent a dreary hour in achieving a draw. He finished his brandy and presently lumbered away, quite satisfied with this result (mon pauvre ami, je ne vous ai jamais revu et quoiqu’il y ait bien peu de chance que vous voyiez mon livre, permiettez-moi de vous dire que je vous serre la main bien cordialement, et que toutes mes fillettes vous saluent ). I found Dolores Haze at the kitchen table, consuming a wedge of pie, with her eyes fixed on her script. They rose to meet mine with a kind of celestial vapidity. She remained singularly unruffled when confronted with my discovery, and said d’un petit air faussement contrit  that she knew she was a very wicked kid, but simply had not been able to resist the enchantment, and had used up those music hours - O Reader, My Reader! - in a nearby public park rehearsing the magic forest scene with Mona. I said “fine”and stalked to the telephone. Mona’s mother answered: “Oh yes, she’s in” and retreated with a mother’s neutral laugh of polite pleasure to shout off stage “Roy calling!” and the very next moment Mona rustled up, and forthwith, in a low monotonous not untender voice started berating Roy for something he had said or done and I interrupted her, and presently Mona was saying in her humbles, sexiest contralto, “yes, sir,” “surely, sir” “I am alone to blame, sir, in this unfortunate business,” (what elocution! what poise!) “honest, I feel very bad about it” - and so on and so forth as those little harlots say. (2.14)


Van’s English University, Chose corresponds to Cambridge. In his Universitetskaya poema ("The University Poem," 1927) written after the meter of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (but with its rhyme scheme reversed) VN mentions a four-volume Dahl dictionary that he acquired in Cambridge:


Там мяса розовые глыбы;
сырая вонь блестящей рыбы;
ножи; кастрюли; пиджаки
из гардеробов безымянных;
отдельно, в положеньях странных
кривые книжные лотки
застыли, ждут, как будто спрятав
тьму алхимических трактатов;
однажды эту дребедень
перебирая,--  в зимний день,
когда, изгнанника печаля,
шёл снег, как в русском городке,--
нашёл я Пушкина и Даля
на заколдованном лотке.


There is meat in hunks all pink;
the shiny fishes’ uncooked stink;
and knives and pots; and also jackets
from wardrobes that shall remain nameless;
and, separate, in strange positions,
some crooked stands where they sold books
freeze motionless, as if concealing
some arcane alchemistic treatise;
one time I happened through this rubbish
to rummage, on a winter day,
when, adding to an exile’s sadness,
it snowed, as in a Russian town –
I found some works by Pushkin, and
some Dahl upon a magic counter. (5)


The name of Van’s University, Chose seems to hint at the French phrase quelque chose (something). At the beginning of EO (One: V: 1-2) Pushkin says that all of us had a bit of schooling in something and somehow:


Мы все учились понемногу
Чему-нибудь и как-нибудь,
Так воспитаньем, слава богу,
У нас немудрено блеснуть.
Онегин был по мненью многих
(Судей решительных и строгих)
Ученый малый, но педант:
Имел он счастливый талант
Без принужденья в разговоре
Коснуться до всего слегка,
С ученым видом знатока
Хранить молчанье в важном споре
И возбуждать улыбку дам
Огнем нежданных эпиграмм.


All of us had a bit of schooling

in something and somehow:

hence in our midst it is not hard,

thank God, to flaunt one's education.

Onegin was, in the opinion

of many (judges resolute and stern),

a learned fellow but a pedant.

He had the happy talent,

without constraint, in conversation

slightly to touch on everything,

keep silent, with an expert's learned air,

during a grave discussion, and provoke

the smiles of ladies with the fire

of unexpected epigrams.