pustotsvetnost’ & in vivo in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Sat, 07/23/2022 - 06:28

Describing his visits with Ada of the little Caliph Island in the summer of 1888, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions the first faint shadows of what Ada would later term ‘my acarpous destiny’ (pustotsvetnost’):


Her brilliance, her genius. Of course, she had changed in four years, but he, too, had changed, by concurrent stages, so that their brains and senses stayed attuned and were to stay thus always, through all separations. Neither had remained the brash Wunderkind of 1884, but in bookish knowledge both surpassed their coevals to an even more absurd extent than in childhood; and in formal terms Ada (born on July 21, 1872) had already completed her private school course while Van, her senior by two years and a half, hoped to get his master’s degree at the end of 1889. Her conversation might have lost some of its sportive glitter, and the first faint shadows of what she would later term ‘my acarpous destiny’ (pustotsvetnost’) could be made out — at least in back view; but the quality of her innate wit had deepened, strange ‘metempirical’ (as Van called them) undercurrents seemed to double internally, and thus enrich, the simplest expression of her simplest thoughts. She read as voraciously and indiscriminately as he, but each had evolved a more or less ‘pet’ subject — he the terrological part of psychiatry, she the drama (especially Russian), a ‘pet’ he found ‘pat’ in her case but hoped would be a passing vagary. Her florimania endured, alas; but after Dr Krolik died (in 1886) of a heart attack in his garden, she had placed all her live pupae in his open coffin where he lay, she said, as plump and pink as in vivo. (1.35)


In Tolstoy’s novel Voyna i mir (“War and Peace,” 1869) Natasha tells Countess Mary that Sonya is pustotsvet (a sterile flower):


Однажды она разговорилась с другом своим Наташей о Соне и о своей к ней несправедливости.

— Знаешь что, — сказала Наташа, — вот ты много читала Евангелие; там есть одно место прямо о Соне.

— Что? — с удивлением спросила графиня Марья.—

«Имущему дастся, а у неимущего отнимется», помнишь? Она — неимущий: за что? не знаю; в ней нет, может быть, эгоизма, — я знаю, но у нее отнимется, и все отнялось. Мне ее ужасно жалко иногда; я ужасно желала прежде, чтобы Nicolas женился на ней; но я всегда как бы предчувствовала, что этого не будет. Она пустоцвет, знаешь, как на клубнике? Иногда мне ее жалко, а иногда я думаю, что она не чувствует этого, как чувствовали бы мы.

И несмотря на то, что графиня Марья толковала Наташе, что эти слова Евангелия надо понимать иначе, — глядя на Соню, она соглашалась с объяснением, данным Наташей. Действительно, казалось, что Соня не тяготится своим положением и совершенно примирилась с своим назначением пустоцвета. Она дорожила, казалось, не столько людьми, сколько всей семьей. Она, как кошка, прижилась не к людям, а к дому. Она ухаживала за старой графиней, ласкала и баловала детей, всегда была готова оказать те мелкие услуги, на которые она была способна; но все это принималось невольно с слишком слабою благодарностию...


Once she had a talk with her friend Natásha about Sónya and about her own injustice toward her.

“You know,” said Natásha, “you have read the Gospels a great deal—there is a passage in them that just fits Sónya.”

“What?” asked Countess Mary, surprised.

“‘To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken away.’ You remember? She is one that hath not; why, I don’t know. Perhaps she lacks egotism, I don’t know, but from her is taken away, and everything has been taken away. Sometimes I am dreadfully sorry for her. Formerly I very much wanted Nicholas to marry her, but I always had a sort of presentiment that it would not come off. She is a sterile flower, you know—like some strawberry blossoms. Sometimes I am sorry for her, and sometimes I think she doesn’t feel it as you or I would.”

Though Countess Mary told Natásha that those words in the Gospel must be understood differently, yet looking at Sónya she agreed with Natásha’s explanation. It really seemed that Sónya did not feel her position trying, and had grown quite reconciled to her lot as a sterile flower. She seemed to be fond not so much of individuals as of the family as a whole. Like a cat, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home. She waited on the old countess, petted and spoiled the children, was always ready to render the small services for which she had a gift, and all this was unconsciously accepted from her with insufficient gratitude. (Epilogue, Part I, chapter 8)


Actually, it is Van who is absolutely sterile:


What laughs, what tears, what sticky kisses, what a tumult of multitudinous plans! And what safety, what freedom of love! Two unrelated gypsy courtesans, a wild girl in a gaudy lolita, poppy-mouthed and black-downed, picked up in a café between Grasse and Nice, and another, a part-time model (you have seen her fondling a virile lipstick in Fellata ads), aptly nicknamed Swallowtail by the patrons of a Norfolk Broads floramor, had both given our hero exactly the same reason, unmentionable in a family chronicle, for considering him absolutely sterile despite his prowesses. Amused by the Hecatean diagnose, Van underwent certain tests, and although pooh-poohing the symptom as coincidental, all the doctors agreed that Van Veen might be a doughty and durable lover but could never hope for an offspring. How merrily little Ada clapped her hands! (2.6)


In Kim Beauharnais’s album that Ada brings to Manhattan there is a photograph of Van’s and Ada’s little Caliph Island:


In an equally casual tone of voice Van said: ‘Darling, you smoke too much, my belly is covered with your ashes. I suppose Bouteillan knows Professor Beauharnais’s exact address in the Athens of Graphic Arts.’

‘You shall not slaughter him,’ said Ada. ‘He is subnormal, he is, perhaps, blackmailerish, but in his sordidity, there is an istoshnïy ston (‘visceral moan’) of crippled art. Furthermore, this page is the only really naughty one. And let’s not forget that a copperhead of eight was also ambushed in the brush’.

‘Art my foute. This is the hearse of ars, a toilet roll of the Carte du Tendre! I’m sorry you showed it to me. That ape has vulgarized our own mind-pictures. I will either horsewhip his eyes out or redeem our childhood by making a book of it: Ardis, a family chronicle.’

‘Oh do!’ said Ada (skipping another abominable glimpse — apparently, through a hole in the boards of the attic). ‘Look, here’s our little Caliph Island!’

‘I don’t want to look any more. I suspect you find that filth titillating. Some nuts get a kick from motor-bikini comics.’

‘Please, Van, do glance! These are our willows, remember?’


‘"The castle bathed by the Adour:

The guidebooks recommend that tour."’


‘It happens to be the only one in color. The willows look sort of greenish because the twigs are greenish, but actually they are leafless here, it’s early spring, and you can see our red boat Souvenance through the rushes. And here’s the last one: Kim’s apotheosis of Ardis.’

The entire staff stood in several rows on the steps of the pillared porch behind the Bank President Baroness Veen and the Vice President Ida Larivière. Those two were flanked by the two prettiest typists, Blanche de la Tourberie (ethereal, tearstained, entirely adorable) and a black girl who had been hired, a few days before Van’s departure, to help French, who towered rather sullenly above her in the second row, the focal point of which was Bouteillan, still wearing the costume sport he had on when driving off with Van (that picture had been muffed or omitted). On the butler’s right side stood three footmen; on his left, Bout (who had valeted Van), the fat, flour-pale cook (Blanche’s father) and, next to French, a terribly tweedy gentleman with sightseeing strappings athwart one shoulder: actually (according to Ada), a tourist, who, having come all the way from England to see Bryant’s Castle, had bicycled up the wrong road and was, in the picture, under the impression of accidentally being conjoined to a group of fellow tourists who were visiting some other old manor quite worth inspecting too. The back rows consisted of less distinguished menservants and scullions, as well as of gardeners, stableboys, coachmen, shadows of columns, maids of maids, aids, laundresses, dresses, recesses — getting less and less distinct as in those bank ads where limited little employees dimly dimidiated by more fortunate shoulders, but still asserting themselves, still smile in the process of humble dissolve.

‘Isn’t that wheezy Jones in the second row? I always liked the old fellow.’

‘No,’ answered Ada, ‘that’s Price. Jones came four years later. He is now a prominent policeman in Lower Ladore. Well, that’s all.’

Nonchalantly, Van went back to the willows and said:

‘Every shot in the book has been snapped in 1884, except this one. I never rowed you down Ladore River in early spring. Nice to note you have not lost your wonderful ability to blush.’

‘It’s his error. He must have thrown in a fotochka taken later, maybe in 1888. We can rip it out if you like.’

‘Sweetheart,’ said Van, ‘the whole of 1888 has been ripped out. One need not bb a sleuth in a mystery story to see that at least as many pages have been removed as retained. don’t mind — I mean have no desire to see the Knabenkräuter and other pendants of your friends botanizing with you; but 1888 has been withheld and he’ll turn up with it when the first grand is spent.’

‘I destroyed 1888 myself,’ admitted proud Ada; ‘but I swear, I solemnly swear, that the man behind Blanche, in the perron picture, was, and has always remained, a complete stranger.’

‘Good for him,’ said Van. ‘Really it has no importance. It’s our entire past that has been spoofed and condemned. On second thoughts, I will not write that Family Chronicle. By the way, where is my poor little Blanche now?’

‘Oh, she’s all right. She’s still around. You know, she came back — after you abducted her. She married our Russian coachman, the one who replaced Bengal Ben, as the servants called him.’

‘Oh she did? That’s delicious. Madame Trofim Fartukov. I would never have thought it.’

‘They have a blind child,’ said Ada.

‘Love is blind,’ said Van.

‘She tells me you made a pass at her on the first morning of your first arrival.’

‘Not documented by Kim,’ said Van. ‘Will their child remain blind? I mean, did you get them a really first-rate physician?’

‘Oh yes, hopelessly blind. But speaking of love and its myths, do you realize — because I never did before talking to her a couple of years ago — that the people around our affair had very good eyes indeed? Forget Kim, he’s only the necessary clown — but do you realize that a veritable legend was growing around you and me while we played and made love?’ (2.7)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): foute: French swear word made to sound ‘foot’.

ars: Lat., art.

Carte du Tendre: ‘Map of Tender Love’, sentimental allegory of the seventeenth century.

Knabenkräuter: Germ., orchids (and testicles).

perron: porch.


Because love is blind, Van fails to see that Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s husband) and Ada have at least two children and that Ronald Oranger (old Van’s secretary, the editor of Ada) and Violet Knox (old Van’s typist who marries Ronald Oranger after Van’s and Ada’s death) are Ada’s grandchildren. In a letter (that Van’s and Ada’s half-sister Lucette brings to Kingston) Ada informs Van about a proposal of marriage that has been made to her and says that Krolik (whose brother Karol was Ada’s first lover) is burrowing again:


O dear Van, this is the last attempt I am making. You may call it a document in madness or the herb of repentance, but I wish to come and live with you, wherever you are, for ever and ever. If you scorn the maid at your window I will aerogram my immediate acceptance of a proposal of marriage that has been made to your poor Ada a month ago in Valentine State. He is an Arizonian Russian, decent and gentle, not overbright and not fashionable. The only thing we have in common is a keen interest in many military-looking desert plants especially various species of agave, hosts of the larvae of the most noble animals in America, the Giant Skippers (Krolik, you see, is burrowing again). He owns horses, and Cubistic pictures, and "oil wells" (whatever they are-our father in hell who has some too, does not tell me, getting away with off-color allusions as is his wont). I have told my patient Valentinian that I shall give him a definite answer after consulting the only man I have ever loved or shall ever love. Try to ring me up tonight. Something is very wrong with the Ladore line, but I am assured that the trouble will be grappled with and eliminated before rivertide. Tvoya, tvoya, tvoya (thine). A.’ (2.7)


Describing his work on his novel Letters from Terra, Van compares the strange longings and nauseous qualms that enter into the complicated ecstasies accompanying the making of a young writer’s first book with childbearing:


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. (1.43)


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.


Van's novel was made into a movie by Victor Vitry, a brilliant French director:


Ada, who resented the insufficiency of her brother’s fame, felt soothed and elated by the success of The Texture of Time (1924). That work, she said, always reminded her, in some odd, delicate way, of the sun-and-shade games she used to play as a child in the secluded avenues of Ardis Park. She said she had been somehow responsible for the metamorphoses of the lovely larvae that had woven the silk of ‘Veen’s Time’ (as the concept was now termed in one breath, one breeze, with ‘Bergson’s Duration,’ or ‘Whitehead’s Bright Fringe’). But a considerably earlier and weaker work, the poor little Letters from Terra, of which only half a dozen copies existed — two in Villa Armina and the rest in the stacks of university libraries — was even closer to her heart because of its nonliterary associations with their 1892-93 sojourn in Manhattan. Sixty-year-old Van crustily and contemptuously dismissed her meek suggestion to the effect that it should be republished, together with the Sidra reflections and a very amusing anti-Signy pamphlet on Time in Dreams. Seventy-year-old Van regretted his disdain when Victor Vitry, a brilliant French director, based a completely unauthorized picture on Letters from Terra written by ‘Voltemand’ half a century before.

Vitry dated Theresa’s visit to Antiterra as taking place in 1940, but 1940 by the Terranean calendar, and about 1890 by ours. The conceit allowed certain pleasing dips into the modes and manners of our past (did you remember that horses wore hats — yes, hats — when heat waves swept Manhattan?) and gave the impression — which physics-fiction literature had much exploited — of the capsulist traveling backward in terms of time. Philosophers asked nasty questions, but were ignored by the wishing-to-be-gulled moviegoers.

In contrast to the cloudless course of Demonian history in the twentieth century, with the Anglo-American coalition managing one hemisphere, and Tartary, behind her Golden Veil, mysteriously ruling the other, a succession of wars and revolutions were shown shaking loose the jigsaw puzzle of Terrestrial autonomies. In an impressive historical survey of Terra rigged up by Vitry — certainly the greatest cinematic genius ever to direct a picture of such scope or use such a vast number of extras (some said more than a million, others, half a million men and as many mirrors) — kingdoms fell and dictatordoms rose, and republics, half-sat, half-lay in various attitudes of discomfort. The conception was controversial, the execution flawless. Look at all those tiny soldiers scuttling along very fast across the trench-scarred wilderness, with explosions of mud and things going pouf-pouf in silent French now here, now there!

In 1905, Norway with a mighty heave and a long dorsal ripple unfastened herself from Sweden, her unwieldy co-giantess, while in a similar act of separation the French parliament, with parenthetical outbursts of vive émotion, voted a divorce between State and Church. Then, in 1911, Norwegian troops led by Amundsen reached the South Pole and simultaneously the Italians stormed into Turkey. In 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and the Americans tore up Panama. In 1918 they and the French defeated Germany while she was busily defeating Russia (who had defeated her own Tartars some time earlier). In Norway there was Siegrid Mitchel, in America Margaret Undset, and in France, Sidonie Colette. In 1926 Abdel-Krim surrendered, after yet another photogenic war, and the Golden Horde again subjugated Rus. In 1933, Athaulf Hindler (also known as Mittler — from ‘to mittle,’ mutilate) came to power in Germany, and a conflict on an even more spectacular scale than the 1914-1918 war was under way, when Vitry ran out of old documentaries and Theresa, played by his wife, left Terra in a cosmic capsule after having covered the Olympic Games held in Berlin (the Norwegians took most of the prizes, but the Americans won the fencing event, an outstanding achievement, and beat the Germans in the final football match by three goals to one). (5.5)


The director’s name seems to hint at in vitro (Lat., in the glass), a phrase used by scientists. In vitro studies are conducted using components of an organism that have been isolated from their usual biological surroundings, such as microorganisms, cells, or biological molecules. Colloquially called "test-tube experiments", these studies in biology, medicine, and their subdisciplines are traditionally done in test tubes, flasks, Petri dishes, etc. In contrast, studies conducted in living beings (microorganisms, animals, humans, or whole plants) are called in vivo.


One is tempted to assume that poor Doctor Krolik (who lay in his open coffin as plump and pink as in vivo) was buried alive. Krolik is Russian for “rabbit.” Za grobom ("After the Coffin," 1909) is a poem by Alexander Blok (whose grandfather Beketov was a celebrated botanist). In his poem Neznakomka ("The Unknown Woman," 1906) Blok mentions p’yanitsy s glazami krolikov (the drunks with the eyes of rabbits) who cry out “In vino veritas!” (in wine is truth):


А рядом у соседних столиков

Лакеи сонные торчат, 

И пьяницы с глазами кроликов

In vino veritas кричат.


And drowsy lackeys lounge about

Beside the adjacent tables

While drunks with rabbit eyes

cry out: "In vino veritas!"


At the family dinner in “Ardis the Second” Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father) uses the phrase s glazami (with the eyes) and mentions Dr Krolik:


'Marina,' murmured Demon at the close of the first course. 'Marina,' he repeated louder. 'Far from me' (a locution he favored) 'to criticize Dan's taste in white wines or the manners de vos domestiques. You know me, I'm above all that rot, I'm...' (gesture); 'but, my dear,' he continued, switching to Russian, 'the chelovek who brought me the pirozhki - the new man, the plumpish one with the eyes (s glazami) -'
'Everybody has eyes,' remarked Marina drily.
'Well, his look as if they were about to octopus the food he serves. But that's not the point. He pants, Marina! He suffers from some kind of odïshka (shortness of breath). He should see Dr Krolik. It's depressing. It's a rhythmic pumping pant. It made my soup ripple.'
'Look, Dad,' said Van, 'Dr Krolik can't do much, because, as you know quite well, he's dead, and Marina can't tell her servants not to breathe, because, as you also know, they're alive.'
'The Veen wit, the Veen wit,' murmured Demon.

‘Exactly,’ said Marina. ‘I simply refuse to do anything about it. Besides poor Jones is not at all asthmatic, but only nervously eager to please. He’s as healthy as a bull and has rowed me from Ardisville to Ladore and back, and enjoyed it, many times this summer. You are cruel, Demon. I can’t tell him "ne pïkhtite," as I can’t tell Kim, the kitchen boy, not to take photographs on the sly — he’s a regular snap-shooting fiend, that Kim, though otherwise an adorable, gentle, honest boy; nor can I tell my little French maid to stop getting invitations, as she somehow succeeds in doing, to the most exclusive bals masqués in Ladore.’

‘That’s interesting,’ observed Demon.

‘He’s a dirty old man!’ cried Van cheerfully.

‘Van!’ said Ada.

‘I’m a dirty young man,’ sighed Demon.

‘Tell me, Bouteillan,’ asked Marina, ‘what other good white wine do we have — what can you recommend?’ The butler smiled and whispered a fabulous name.

Yes, oh, yes,’ said Demon. ‘Ah, my dear, you should not think up dinners all by yourself. Now about rowing — you mentioned rowing... Do you know that moi, qui vous parle, was a Rowing Blue in 1858? Van prefers football, but he’s only a College Blue, aren’t you Van? I’m also better than he at tennis — not lawn tennis, of course, a game for parsons, but "court tennis" as they say in Manhattan. What else, Van?’

‘You still beat me at fencing, but I’m the better shot. That’s not real sudak, papa, though it’s tops, I assure you.’

(Marina, having failed to obtain the European product in time for the dinner, had chosen the nearest thing, wall-eyed pike, or ‘dory,’ with Tartar sauce and boiled young potatoes.)

‘Ah!’ said Demon, tasting Lord Byron’s Hock. ‘This redeems Our Lady’s Tears.’ (1.38)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): ne pïkhtite: Russ., do not wheeze.


In March, 1905, Demon Veen perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific (3.7). Van does not realize 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.