Cora Day & Mr. Arshin in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sun, 07/17/2022 - 19:04

On Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth’s twin planet on which VN’s novel Ada, 1969, is set) Charlotte Corday (the girl who stabbed Marat in his bath) is known as Cora Day, an opera singer:


The year 1880 (Aqua was still alive — somehow, somewhere!) was to prove to be the most retentive and talented one in his long, too long, never too long life. He was ten. His father had lingered in the West where the many-colored mountains acted upon Van as they had on all young Russians of genius. He could solve an Euler-type problem or learn by heart Pushkin’s ‘Headless Horseman’ poem in less than twenty minutes. With white-bloused, enthusiastically sweating Andrey Andreevich, he lolled for hours in the violet shade of pink cliffs, studying major and minor Russian writers — and puzzling out the exaggerated but, on the whole, complimentary allusions to his father’s volitations and loves in another life in Lermontov’s diamond-faceted tetrameters. He struggled to keep back his tears, while AAA blew his fat red nose, when shown the peasant-bare footprint of Tolstoy preserved in the clay of a motor court in Utah where he had written the tale of Murat, the Navajo chieftain, a French general’s bastard, shot by Cora Day in his swimming pool. What a soprano Cora had been! Demon took Van to the world-famous Opera House in Telluride in West Colorado and there he enjoyed (and sometimes detested) the greatest international shows — English blank-verse plays, French tragedies in rhymed couplets, thunderous German musical dramas with giants and magicians and a defecating white horse. He passed through various little passions — parlor magic, chess, fluff-weight boxing matches at fairs, stunt-riding — and of course those unforgettable, much too early initiations when his lovely young English governess expertly petted him between milkshake and bed, she, petticoated, petititted, half-dressed for some party with her sister and Demon and Demon’s casino-touring companion, bodyguard and guardian angel, monitor and adviser, Mr Plunkett, a reformed card-sharper. (1.28)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): The Headless Horseman: Mayn Reid’s title is ascribed here to Pushkin, author of The Bronze Horseman.

Lermontov: author of The Demon.

Tolstoy etc.: Tolstoy’s hero, Haji Murad, (a Caucasian chieftain) is blended here with General Murat, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, and with the French revolutionary leader Marat assassinated in his bath by Charlotte Corday.


In Garshin’s story Nadezhda Nikolaevna (1885) Lopatin (the narrator and main character) paints a portrait of Charlotte Corday (Nadezhda Nikolaevna is a prostitute in whom Lopatin finds a model for his portrait). Garshin is the author of Chetyre dnya (“Four Days,” 1877). In 1888 Garshin committed suicide by throwing himself over the banisters. Van’s patients at the Kingston Clinic include Mr. Arshin, an acrophobe (a person who fears heights):


The matter of that important discussion was a comparison of notes regarding a problem that Van was to try to resolve in another way many years later. Several cases of acrophobia had been closely examined at the Kingston Clinic to determine if they were combined with any traces or aspects of time-terror. Tests had yielded completely negative results, but what seemed particularly curious was that the only available case of acute chronophobia differed by its very nature — metaphysical flavor, psychological stamp and so forth — from that of space-fear. True, one patient maddened by the touch of time’s texture presented too small a sample to compete with a great group of garrulous acrophobes, and readers who have been accusing Van of rashness and folly (in young Rattner’s polite terminology) will have a higher opinion of him when they learn that our young investigator did his best not to let Mr T.T. (the chronophobe) be cured too hastily of his rare and important sickness. Van had satisfied himself that it had nothing to do with clocks or calendars, or any measurements or contents of time, while he suspected and hoped (as only a discoverer, pure and passionate and profoundly inhuman, can hope) that the dread of heights would be found by his colleagues to depend mainly on the misestimation of distances and that Mr Arshin, their best acrophobe, who could not step down from a footstool, could be made to step down into space from the top of a tower if persuaded by some optical trick that the fire net spread fifty yards below was a mat one inch beneath him. (2.6)


Garshin’s initial, Г (G) is the forth letter of the Russian alphabet and is followed by Д (D). In the English alphabet D is the fourth letter. Describing Flavita (the Russian Scrabble), Van 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.


Describing the torments of poor mad Aqua (the twin sister of Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother Marina), Van mentions the blank backs of ‘Scrabble’ counters:


Then the anguish increased to unendurable massivity and nightmare dimensions, making her scream and vomit. She wanted (and was allowed, bless the hospital barber, Bob Bean) to have her dark curls shaved to an aquamarine prickle, because they grew into her porous skull and curled inside. Jigsaw pieces of sky or wall came apart, no matter how delicately put together, but a careless jolt or a nurse’s elbow can disturb so easily those lightweight fragments which became incomprehensible blancs of anonymous objects, or the blank backs of ‘Scrabble’ counters, which she could not turn over sunny side up, because her hands had been tied by a male nurse with Demon’s black eyes. But presently panic and pain, like a pair of children in a boisterous game, emitted one last shriek of laughter and ran away to manipulate each other behind a bush as in Count Tolstoy’s Anna Karenin, a novel, and again, for a while, a little while, all was quiet in the house, and their mother had the same first name as hers had. (1.3)


Aqua and Marina are the daughters of Dolly Durmanov (a namesake of Dolly Oblonski, Anna’s sister-in-law in Tolstoy’s novel):


‘All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,’ says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (‘Dolly’) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called ‘Russian’ Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with ‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, however, was Raduga near the burg of that name, beyond Estotiland proper, in the Atlantic panel of the continent between elegant Kaluga, New Cheshire, U.S.A., and no less elegant Ladoga, Mayne, where they had their town house and where their three children were born: a son, who died young and famous, and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares).

On April 23, 1869, in drizzly and warm, gauzy and green Kaluga, Aqua, aged twenty-five and afflicted with her usual vernal migraine, married Walter D. Veen, a Manhattan banker of ancient Anglo-Irish ancestry who had long conducted, and was soon to resume intermittently, a passionate affair with Marina. The latter, some time in 1871, married her first lover’s first cousin, also Walter D. Veen, a quite as opulent, but much duller, chap.

The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns. (1.1)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): All happy families etc: mistranslations of Russian classics are ridiculed here. The opening sentence of Tolstoy’s novel is turned inside out and Anna Arkadievna’s patronymic given an absurd masculine ending, while an incorrect feminine one is added to her surname. ‘Mount Tabor’ and ‘Pontius’ allude to the transfigurations (Mr G. Steiner’s term, I believe) and betrayals to which great texts are subjected by pretentious and ignorant versionists.

Severnïya Territorii: Northern Territories. Here and elsewhere transliteration is based on the old Russian orthography.

granoblastically: in a tesselar (mosaic) jumble.

Tofana: allusion to ‘aqua tofana’ (see any good dictionary).

sur-royally: fully antlered, with terminal prongs.

Durak: ‘fool’ in Russian.


The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, Raduga brings to mind Tyutchev's poem Raduga ("Rainbow," 1865). In his poem Umom - Rossiyu ne ponyat' ("Russia can not be known by the mind," 1866) Tyutchev says that Russia can not be measured arshinom obshchim (by the common rule one arshin in length):


Умом — Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить.


Russia cannot be known by the mind
Nor measured by the common mile:
Her status is unique, without kind –
Russia can only be believed in.

(tr. A. Cigale)


In his poem Den' i noch' ("Day and Night," 1839) Tyutchev says that day is the golden cover thrown over a nameless abyss:


На мир таинственный духо́в,
Над этой бездной безымянной,
Покров наброшен златотканый
Высокой волею богов.
День – сей блистательный покров
День, земнородных оживленье,
Души болящей исцеленье,
Друг человеков и богов!

Но меркнет день – настала ночь;
Пришла – и, с мира рокового
Ткань благодатную покрова
Сорвав, отбрасывает прочь...
И бездна нам обнажена
С своими страхами и мглами,
И нет преград меж ей и нами –
Вот отчего нам ночь страшна!


The spirit world we may not see,
That nameless gulf, is shrouded over
And hidden by a golden cover;
Thus do the gods on high decree.
Day-this most splendid shroud is thee,
Day-for us mortals, animation,
The ailing soul's alleviation,
That men and gods delight to see.

But let day fade and night commence;
The blessed veil is torn, revealing
The fateful world it was concealing,
And hurled incontinently hence...
The gulf lies naked to the sight
With its black horrors of perdition,
'Twixt them and us lies no partition:
And that is why we fear the night!


Btw., The Death of Marat (1793) is a painting by Jacques-Louis David. Le Jeu de paumme: à Louis David, peintre (1791) and Ode to Charlotte Corday (1793) are poems by André Chenier (1762-94). In a footnote to his elegy Andrey Shen'ye ("André Chenier," 1825) Pushkin quotes Chenier's last words on the scaffold: pourtant j'avais quelque chose la (yet, I did have something here [in my head]). Chose is Van's English University:


In 1885, having completed his prep-school education, he went up to Chose University in England, where his fathers had gone, and traveled from time to time to London or Lute (as prosperous but not overrefined British colonials called that lovely pearl-gray sad city on the other side of the Channel). (1.28)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Lute: from ‘Lutèce’, ancient name of Paris.


1880 was the hardest year in the life of Ivan Ilyich Golovin (the main character in Tolstoy's story The Death of Ivan Ilyich, 1886). The surname Golovin comes from golova (head).