Marina’s new director of artistic conscience & entendons-nous in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 07/19/2022 - 08:15

In one of her letters to Van written after Van left Ardis forever Ada mentions Marina’s new director of artistic conscience:


[Los Angeles, 1889]

We are still at the candy-pink and pisang-green albergo where you once stayed with your father. He is awfully nice to me, by the way. I enjoy going places with him. He and I have gamed at Nevada, my rhyme-name town, but you are also there, as well as the legendary river of Old Rus. Da. Oh, write me, one tiny note, I’m trying so hard to please you! Want some more (desperate) little topics? Marina’s new director of artistic conscience defines Infinity as the farthest point from the camera which is still in fair focus. She has been cast as the deaf nun Varvara (who, in some ways, is the most interesting of Chekhov’s Four Sisters). She sticks to Stan’s principle of having lore and role overflow into everyday life, insists on keeping it up at the hotel restaurant, drinks tea v prikusku (‘biting sugar between sips’), and feigns to misunderstand every question in Varvara’s quaint way of feigning stupidity — a double imbroglio, which annoys strangers but which somehow makes me feel I’m her daughter much more distinctly than in the Ardis era. She’s a great hit here, on the whole. They gave her (not quite gratis, I’m afraid) a special bungalow, labeled Marina Durmanova, in Universal City. As for me, I’m only an incidental waitress in a fourth-rate Western, hip-swinging between table-slapping drunks, but I rather enjoy the Houssaie atmosphere, the dutiful art, the winding hill roads, the reconstructions of streets, and the obligatory square, and a mauve shop sign on an ornate wooden façade, and around noon all the extras in period togs queuing before a glass booth, but I have nobody to call.

Speaking of calls, I saw a truly marvelous ornithological film the other night with Demon. I had never grasped the fact that the paleotropical sunbirds (look them up!) are ‘mimotypes’ of the New World hummingbirds, and all my thoughts, oh, my darling, are mimotypes of yours. I know, I know! I even know that you stopped reading at ‘grasped’ — as in the old days. (2.1)


Marina’s new director of artistic conscience brings to mind Hélène Bezukhov’s directeur de conscience in Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869):


Они сидели в гостиной у окна. Были сумерки. Из окна пахло цветами. Элен была в белом платье, просвечивающем на плечах и груди. Аббат, хорошо откормленный, с пухлой, гладко бритой бородой, приятным крепким ртом и белыми руками, сложенными кротко на коленях, сидел близко к Элен и с тонкой улыбкой на губах, мирно — восхищенным ее красотою взглядом смотрел изредка на ее лицо и излагал свой взгляд на занимавший их вопрос. Элен беспокойно улыбалась, глядела на его вьющиеся волоса, гладко выбритые чернеющие полные щеки и всякую минуту ждала нового оборота разговора. Но аббат, хотя, очевидно, и наслаждаясь красотой и близостью своей собеседницы, был увлечен мастерством своего дела.

Ход рассуждения руководителя совести был следующий. В неведении значения того, что вы предпринимали, вы дали обет брачной верности человеку, который, с своей стороны, вступив в брак и не веря в религиозное значение брака, совершил кощунство. Брак этот не имел двоякого значения, которое должен он иметь. Но несмотря на то, обет ваш связывал вас. Вы отступили от него. Что вы совершили этим? Péché véniel или péché mortel? Péché véniel, потому что вы без дурного умысла совершили поступок. Ежели вы теперь, с целью иметь детей, вступили бы в новый брак, то грех ваш мог бы быть прощен. Но вопрос опять распадается надвое: первое…

— Но я думаю, — сказала вдруг соскучившаяся Элен с своей обворожительной улыбкой, — что я, вступив в истинную религию, не могу быть связана тем, что наложила на меня ложная религия.

Directeur de conscience был изумлен этим постановленным перед ним с такою простотою Колумбовым яйцом. Он восхищен был неожиданной быстротой успехов своей ученицы, но не мог отказаться от своего трудами умственными построенного здания аргументов.

Entendons nous, comtesse, — сказал он с улыбкой и стал опровергать рассуждения своей духовной дочери.


They were sitting in the twilight by a window in the drawing room. The scent of flowers came in at the window. Hélène was wearing a white dress, transparent over her shoulders and bosom. The abbé, a well-fed man with a plump, clean-shaven chin, a pleasant firm mouth, and white hands meekly folded on his knees, sat close to Hélène and, with a subtle smile on his lips and a peaceful look of delight at her beauty, occasionally glanced at her face as he explained his opinion on the subject. Hélène with an uneasy smile looked at his curly hair and his plump, clean-shaven, blackish cheeks and every moment expected the conversation to take a fresh turn. But the abbé, though he evidently enjoyed the beauty of his companion, was absorbed in his mastery of the matter.

The course of the Father Confessor’s arguments ran as follows: “Ignorant of the import of what you were undertaking, you made a vow of conjugal fidelity to a man who on his part, by entering the married state without faith in the religious significance of marriage, committed an act of sacrilege. That marriage lacked the dual significance it should have had. Yet in spite of this your vow was binding. You swerved from it. What did you commit by so acting? A venial, or a mortal, sin? A venial sin, for you acted without evil intention. If now you married again with the object of bearing children, your sin might be forgiven. But the question is again a twofold one: firstly...”

But suddenly Hélène, who was getting bored, said with one of her bewitching smiles: “But I think that having espoused the true religion I cannot be bound by what a false religion laid upon me.”

The director of her conscience was astounded at having the case presented to him thus with the simplicity of Columbus’ egg. He was delighted at the unexpected rapidity of his pupil’s progress, but could not abandon the edifice of argument he had laboriously constructed.

“Let us understand one another, Countess,” said he with a smile, and began refuting his spiritual daughter’s arguments. (Book Eleven, chapter 6)


Entendons nous, comtesse (“Let us understand one another, Countess”), the words of Hélène’s Father Confessor, make one think of one of Ada’s notes in the margin:


Revelation can be more perilous than Revolution. Sick minds identified the notion of a Terra planet with that of another world and this ‘Other World’ got confused not only with the ‘Next World’ but with the Real World in us and beyond us. Our enchanters, our demons, are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils, with the black scrota of carnivora and the fangs of serpents, revilers and tormentors of female souls; while on the opposite side of the cosmic lane a rainbow mist of angelic spirits, inhabitants of sweet Terra, restored all the stalest but still potent myths of old creeds, with rearrangement for melodeon of all the cacophonies of all the divinities and divines ever spawned in the marshes of this our sufficient world.

Sufficient for your purpose, Van, entendons-nous. (Note in the margin.) (1.3)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): entendons-nous: let’s have it clear (Fr.).


In his book Dusha Tolstogo (“The Soul of Tolstoy,” 1927) Ivan Nazhivin quotes the words of Tolstoy to one of his followers: “you are not novovery (the New Believers), you are nevery (the Non-Believers):’


Были среди толстовцев люди, которые идею об опрощении жизни доводили до пределов безумия: одни из них селились в дуплах старых деревьев, другие устраивались в дольменах, которых столько у нас рассеяно по северному Кавказу. Двое из наиболее смелых реформаторов поехали в Индию, на Цейлон, чтобы поселиться там в лесах среди обезьян и жить совсем естественной жизнью. Выгрузились они с парохода уже под вечер и сразу же направились в леса. Быстро наступили сумерки. В лесу послышались ночные лесные шорохи, засверкали глаза зверей, послышался их рев, шелест змей, и оба молодца, не теряя золотого времени, бросились назад в порт и с первым же пароходом вернулись благополучно в жизнь менее естественную, но более привычную...

Но это были все же редкие исключения, - большинство же толстовцев, а в особенности богатеньких, жили в неизбывной лжи, и все дни их были одним сплошным больным надрывом: того покоя, той радости, которые обещал им учитель, они не нашли. Идеалы, которые они старались поднять на свои хрупкие плечи, были явно не по силам им, и вот долгие годы надрывались они под непосильным бременем, и изворачивались, и лгали и себе, и людям. И Толстой чувствовал это бессилие учеников своих: "вы не нововеры, - писал он раз одному из них в горькую минуту, - вы - неверы...".


Nazhivin mentions the two followers of Tolstoy who went to India, to Ceylon, in order to settle there in the woods among the monkeys and live a natural life. In a conversation about religions in “Ardis the First” Marina wants to steer the chat to India:


Now Lucette demanded her mother’s attention.

‘What are Jews?’ she asked.

‘Dissident Christians,’ answered Marina.

‘Why is Greg a Jew?’ asked Lucette.

‘Why-why!’ said Marina; ‘because his parents are Jews.’

‘And his grandparents? His arrière grandparents?’

‘I really wouldn’t know, my dear. Were your ancestors Jews, Greg?’

‘Well, I’m not sure,’ said Greg. ‘Hebrews, yes — but not Jews in quotes — I mean, not comic characters or Christian businessmen. They came from Tartary to England five centuries ago. My mother’s grandfather, though, was a French marquis who, I know, belonged to the Roman faith and was crazy about banks and stocks and jewels, so I imagine people may have called him un juif.’

‘It’s not a very old religion, anyway, as religions go, is it?’ said Marina (turning to Van and vaguely planning to steer the chat to India where she had been a dancing girl long before Moses or anybody was born in the lotus swamp).

‘Who cares —’ said Van.

‘And Belle’ (Lucette’s name for her governess), ‘is she also a dizzy Christian?’

‘Who cares,’ cried Van, ‘who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter — Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind.’

‘How did this idiotic conversation start in the first place?’ Ada wished to be told, cocking her head at the partly ornamented dackel or taksik.

‘Mea culpa,’ Mlle Larivière explained with offended dignity. ‘All I said, at the picnic, was that Greg might not care for ham sandwiches, because Jews and Tartars do not eat pork.’

‘The Romans,’ said Greg, ‘the Roman colonists, who crucified Christian Jews and Barabbits, and other unfortunate people in the old days, did not touch pork either, but I certainly do and so did my grandparents.’

Lucette was puzzled by a verb Greg had used. To illustrate it for her, Van joined his ankles, spread both his arms horizontally, and rolled up his eyes.

‘When I was a little girl,’ said Marina crossly, ‘Mesopotamian history was taught practically in the nursery.’

‘Not all little girls can learn what they are taught,’ observed Ada.

‘Are we Mesopotamians?’ asked Lucette.

‘We are Hippopotamians,’ said Van. ‘Come,’ he added, ‘we have not yet ploughed today.’

A day or two before, Lucette had demanded that she be taught to hand-walk. Van gripped her by her ankles while she slowly progressed on her little red palms, sometimes falling with a grunt on her face or pausing to nibble a daisy. Dack barked in strident protest. (1.14)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): un juif: a Jew.


Greg Erminin tells Marina that both Aunt Ruth and Grace (Greg’s twin sister) were laid up with acute indigestion:


Greg, with a well-bred boy’s easy apologies, had brought Marina’s platinum lighter which his aunt had discovered in her own bag.

‘Goodness, I’ve not even had time to miss it. How is Ruth?’

Greg said that both Aunt Ruth and Grace were laid up with acute indigestion — ‘not because of your wonderful sandwiches,’ he hastened to add, ‘but because of all those burnberries they picked in the bushes.’ (ibid.)


In Tolstoy’s story Yagody (“The Berries,” 1906) the children suffer acute indigestion after eating too much berries in the woods. “All those burnberries” mentioned by Greg bring to mind Neopalimaya kupina (“The Burning Bush”), the second title of Nazhivin’s book on Tolstoy. The element that destroys Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother Marina (who dies of cancer) is fire:


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.

For seven years, after she had dismissed her life with her husband, a successfully achieved corpse, as irrelevant, and retired to her still dazzling, still magically well-staffed Côte d’Azur villa (the one Demon had once given her), Van’s mother had been suffering from various ‘obscure’ illnesses, which everybody thought she made up, or talentedly simulated, and which she contended could be, and partly were, cured by willpower. Van visited her less often than dutiful Lucette, whom he glimpsed there on two or three occasions; and once, in 1899, he saw, as he entered the arbutus-and-laurel garden of Villa Armina, a bearded old priest of the Greek persuasion, clad in neutral black, leaving on a motor bicycle for his Nice parish near the tennis courts. Marina spoke to Van about religion, and Terra, and the Theater, but never about Ada, and just as he did not suspect she knew everything about the horror and ardor of Ardis, none suspected what pain in her bleeding bowels she was trying to allay by incantations, and ‘self-focusing’ or its opposite device, ‘self-dissolving.’ She confessed with an enigmatic and rather smug smile that much as she liked the rhythmic blue puffs of incense, and the dyakon’s rich growl on the ambon, and the oily-brown ikon coped in protective filigree to receive the worshipper’s kiss, her soul remained irrevocably consecrated, naperekor (in spite of) Dasha Vinelander, to the ultimate wisdom of Hinduism.

Early in 1900, a few days before he saw Marina, for the last time, at the clinic in Nice (where he learned for the first time the name of her illness), Van had a ‘verbal’ nightmare, caused, maybe, by the musky smell in the Miramas (Bouches Rouges-du-Rhône) Villa Venus. Two formless fat transparent creatures were engaged in some discussion, one repeating ‘I can’t!’ (meaning ‘can’t die’ — a difficult procedure to carry out voluntarily, without the help of the dagger, the ball, or the bowl), and the other affirming ‘You can, sir!’ She died a fortnight later, and her body was burnt, according to her instructions. (3.1)