Theresa & Flora in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Wed, 07/27/2022 - 19:27

Describing his juvenile novel Letters from Terra, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions Theresa, a character in his novel:


Ada’s letters breathed, writhed, lived; Van’s Letters from Terra, ‘a philosophical novel,’ showed no sign of life whatsoever.

(I disagree, it’s a nice, nice little book! Ada’s note.)

He had written it involuntarily, so to speak, not caring a dry fig for literary fame. Neither did pseudonymity tickle him in reverse — as it did when he danced on his hands. Though ‘Van Veen’s vanity’ often cropped up in the drawing-room prattle among fan-wafting ladies, this time his long blue pride feathers remained folded. What, then, moved him to contrive a romance around a subject that had been worried to extinction in all kinds of ‘Star Rats,’ and ‘Space Aces’? We — whoever ‘we’ are — might define the compulsion as a pleasurable urge to express through verbal imagery a compendium of certain inexplicably correlated vagaries observed by him in mental patients, on and off, since his first year at Chose. Van had a passion for the insane as some have for arachnids or orchids.

There were good reasons to disregard the technological details involved in delineating intercommunication between Terra the Fair and our terrible Antiterra. His knowledge of physics, mechanicalism and that sort of stuff had remained limited to the scratch of a prep-school blackboard. He consoled himself with the thought that no censor in America or Great Britain would pass the slightest reference to ‘magnetic’ gewgaws. Quietly, he borrowed what his greatest forerunners (Counterstone, for example) had imagined in the way of a manned capsule’s propulsion, including the clever idea of an initial speed of a few thousand miles per hour increasing, under the influence of a Counterstonian type of intermediate environment between sibling galaxies, to several trillions of light-years per second, before dwindling harmlessly to a parachute’s indolent descent. Elaborating anew, in irrational fabrications, all that Cyraniana and ‘physics fiction’ would have been not only a bore but an absurdity, for nobody knew how far Terra, or other innumerable planets with cottages and cows, might be situated in outer or inner space: ‘inner,’ because why not assume their microcosmic presence in the golden globules ascending quick-quick in this flute of Moët or in the corpuscles of my, Van Veen’s —


(or my, Ada Veen’s)


— bloodstream, or in the pus of a Mr Nekto’s ripe boil newly lanced in Nektor or Neckton. Moreover, although reference works existed on library shelves in available, and redundant, profusion, no direct access could be obtained to the banned, or burned, books of the three cosmologists, Xertigny, Yates and Zotov (pen names), who had recklessly started the whole business half a century earlier, causing, and endorsing, panic, demency and execrable romanchiks. All three scientists had vanished now: X had committed suicide; Y had been kidnapped by a laundryman and transported to Tartary; and Z, a ruddy, white-whiskered old sport, was driving his Yakima jailers crazy by means of incomprehensible crepitations, ceaseless invention of invisible inks, chameleonizations, nerve signals, spirals of out-going lights and feats of ventriloquism that imitated pistol shots and sirens.

Poor Van! In his struggle to keep the writer of the letters from Terra strictly separate from the image of Ada, he gilt and carmined Theresa until she became a paragon of banality. This Theresa maddened with her messages a scientist on our easily maddened planet; his anagram-looking name, Sig Leymanksi, had been partly derived by Van from that of Aqua’s last doctor. When Leymanski’s obsession turned into love, and one’s sympathy got focused on his enchanting, melancholy, betrayed wife (née Antilia Glems), our author found himself confronted with the distressful task of now stamping out in Antilia, a born brunette, all traces of Ada, thus reducing yet another character to a dummy with bleached hair.

After beaming to Sig a dozen communications from her planet, Theresa flies over to him, and he, in his laboratory, has to place her on a slide under a powerful microscope in order to make out the tiny, though otherwise perfect, shape of his minikin sweetheart, a graceful microorganism extending transparent appendages toward his huge humid eye. Alas, the testibulus (test tube — never to be confused with testiculus, orchid), with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid, is ‘accidentally’ thrown away by Professor Leyman’s (he had trimmed his name by that time) assistant, Flora, initially an ivory-pale, dark-haired funest beauty, whom the author transformed just in time into a third bromidic dummy with a dun bun.

(Antilia later regained her husband, and Flora was weeded out. Ada’s addendum.)

On Terra, Theresa had been a Roving Reporter for an American magazine, thus giving Van the opportunity to describe the sibling planet’s political aspect. This aspect gave him the least trouble, presenting as it did a mosaic of painstakingly collated notes from his own reports on the ‘transcendental delirium’ of his patients. Its acoustics were poor, proper names often came out garbled, a chaotic calendar messed up the order of events but, on the whole, the colored dots did form a geomantic picture of sorts. As earlier experimentators had conjectured, our annals lagged by about half a century behind Terra’s along the bridges of time, but overtook some of its underwater currents. At the moment of our sorry story, the king of Terra’s England, yet another George (there had been, apparently, at least half-a-dozen bearing that name before him) ruled, or had just ceased to rule, over an empire that was somewhat patchier (with alien blanks and blots between the British Islands and South Africa) than the solidly conglomerated one on our Antiterra. Western Europe presented a particularly glaring gap: ever since the eighteenth century, when a virtually bloodless revolution had dethroned the Capetians and repelled all invaders, Terra’s France flourished under a couple of emperors and a series of bourgeois presidents, of whom the present one, Doumercy, seemed considerably more lovable than Milord Goal, Governor of Lute! Eastward, instead of Khan Sosso and his ruthless Sovietnamur Khanate, a super Russia, dominating the Volga region and similar watersheds, was governed by a Sovereign Society of Solicitous Republics (or so it came through) which had superseded the Tsars, conquerors of Tartary and Trst. Last but not least, Athaulf the Future, a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform, the secret flame of many a British nobleman, honorary captain of the French police, and benevolent ally of Rus and Rome, was said to be in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country of speedways, immaculate soldiers, brass bands and modernized barracks for misfits and their young. (2.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Cyraniana: allusion to Cyrano de Bergerac’s Histoire comique des Etats de la Lune.

Nekto: Russ., quidam.

romanchik: Russ., novelette.

Sig Leymanski: anagram of the name of a waggish British novelist keenly interested in physics fiction.


Theresa is a character in Byron’s narrative poem Mazeppa (1819) based on a popular legend about the early life of Ivan Mazeppa (1639–1709), who later became Hetman (military leader) of Ukraine. According to the poem, the young Mazeppa has a love affair with a Polish Countess, Theresa, while serving as a page at the Court of King John II Casimir Vasa. Countess Theresa was married to a much older Count. On discovering the affair, the Count punishes Mazeppa by tying him naked to a wild horse and setting the horse loose. The bulk of the poem describes the traumatic journey of the hero strapped to the horse. The poem has been praised for its "vigor of style and its sharp realization of the feelings of suffering and endurance".


In his essay Vozrazheniya kritikam Poltavy (“Replies to the Critics of Poltava,” 1831) Pushkin mentions Byron’s Mazeppa:


Кстати о «Полтаве» критики упомянули, однако ж, о Байроновом «Мазепе»; но как они понимали его! Байрон знал Мазепу только по Вольтеровой «Истории Карла XII». Он поражен был только картиной человека, привязанного к дикой лошади и несущегося по степям. Картина конечно, поэтическая, и за то посмотрите, что он из нее сделал. Но не ищите тут ни Мазепы, ни Карла, ни сего мрачного, ненавистного, мучительного лица, которое проявляется во всех почти произведениях Байрона, но которого (на беду одному из моих критиков), как нарочно в «Мазепе» именно и нет. Байрон и не думал о нем: он выставил ряд картин одна другой разительнее — вот и все; но какое пламенное создание! какая широкая, быстрая кисть! Если ж бы ему под перо попалась история обольщенной дочери и казненного отца, то, вероятно, никто бы не осмелился после него коснуться сего ужасного предмета.


At the beginng of his essay Pushkin says "Habent sua fata libelli" (books have their destinies):


Habent sua fata libelli. «Полтава» не имела успеха. Вероятно, она и не стоила его; но я был избалован приемом, оказанным моим прежним, гораздо слабейшим произведениям; к тому ж это сочинение совсем оригинальное, а мы из того и бьемся.


In 1940 VN's novel Letters from Terra (1891) was made into film 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 hatted horses in Vitry's film bring to mind the horse to which Mazeppa was tied in Byron's poem and Onegin's broad bolivar (a top hat) in Chapter One (XV: 10) of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin. In O. Henry's story The Roads We Take (1910) Bolivar is Shark Dodson's horse. Shark Dodson's words "Bolivar cannot carry double" with which the story ends bring to mind "you don’t rally need two, d’you?", Flora's words to Van in 'Ursus' (the best Franco-Estotian restaurant in Manhattan Major where Van dines with Ada and Lucette):


Detachedly, merely tactually, as if he had met those two slow-moving, hip-swaying graces only that night, Van, while steering them through a doorway (to meet the sinchilla mantillas that were being rushed toward them by numerous, new, eager, unfairly, inexplicably impecunious, humans), place one palm, the left, on Ada’s long bare back and the other on Lucette’s spine, quite as naked and long (had she meant the lad or the ladder? Lapse of the lisping lips?). Detachedly, he sifted and tasted this sensation, then that. His girl’s ensellure was hot ivory; Lucette’s was downy and damp. He too had had just about his ‘last straw’ of champagne, namely four out of half a dozen bottles minus a rizzom (as we said at old Chose) and now, as he followed their bluish furs, he inhaled like a fool his right hand before gloving it.

‘I say, Veen,’ whinnied a voice near him (there were lots of lechers around), ‘you don’t rally need two, d’you?’

Van veered, ready to cuff the gross speaker — but it was only Flora, a frightful tease and admirable mimic. He tried to give her a banknote, but she fled, bracelets and breast stars flashing a fond farewell. (2.8)


The characters in Letters from Terra include Flora, Professor Leyman's assistant who ‘accidentally’ throws away the testibulus (test tube) with Theresa swimming inside like a micromermaid. Flora brings to mind lanity Flory (Flora's cheeks) mentioned by Pushkin in Chapter One (XXXII: 1) of Eugene Onegin:


Дианы грудь, ланиты Флоры
Прелестны, милые друзья!
Однако ножка Терпсихоры
Прелестней чем-то для меня.
Она, пророчествуя взгляду
Неоцененную награду,
Влечет условною красой
Желаний своевольный рой.
Люблю ее, мой друг Эльвина,
Под длинной скатертью столов,
Весной на мураве лугов,
Зимой на чугуне камина,
На зеркальном паркете зал,
У моря на граните скал.


Diana's bosom, Flora's cheeks, are charming,

dear friends! Nevertheless, for me

something about it makes more charming

the small foot of Terpsichore.

By prophesying to the gaze

an unpriced recompense,

with token beauty it attracts the willful

swarm of desires.

I like it, dear Elvina,

beneath the long napery of tables,

in springtime on the turf of meads,

in winter on the hearth's cast iron,

on mirrory parquet of halls,

by the sea on granite of rocks.


Moy drug El'vina (dear Elvina) makes one think of Elvina Krummholz, in VN's novel Pale Fire (1962) Gordon's mother:


Krummholz, Gordon, b .1944, a musical prodigy and an amusing pet; son of Joseph Lavender's famous sister, Elvina Krummholz, 408. (Index)


A musical prodigy and an amusing pet who shows to Gradus (Shade's murderer) the garden of Villa Libitina, Gordon Krummholz brings to mind George Gordon Byron. Krummholz is German for "elfinwood." Van's novel Letters from Terra was reviewed by the poet Max Mispel (whose surname means in German "medlar"):


The only other compliment was paid to poor Voltemand in a little Manhattan magazine (The Village Eyebrow) by the poet Max Mispel (another botanical name — ‘medlar’ in English), member of the German Department at Goluba University. Herr Mispel, who liked to air his authors, discerned in Letters from Terra the influence of Osberg (Spanish writer of pretentious fairy tales and mystico-allegoric anecdotes, highly esteemed by short-shift thesialists) as well as that of an obscene ancient Arab, expounder of anagrammatic dreams, Ben Sirine, thus transliterated by Captain de Roux, according to Burton in his adaptation of Nefzawi’s treatise on the best method of mating with obese or hunchbacked females (The Perfumed Garden, Panther edition, p.187, a copy given to ninety-three-year-old Baron Van Veen by his ribald physician Professor Lagosse). His critique ended as follows: ‘If Mr Voltemand (or Voltimand or Mandalatov) is a psychiatrist, as I think he might be, then I pity his patients, while admiring his talent.’

Upon being cornered, Gwen, a fat little fille de joie (by inclination if not by profession), squealed on one of her new admirers, confessing she had begged him to write that article because she could not bear to see Van’s ‘crooked little smile’ at finding his beautifully bound and boxed book so badly neglected. She also swore that Max not only did not know who Voltemand really was, but had not read Van’s novel. Van toyed with the idea of challenging Mr Medlar (who, he hoped, would choose swords) to a duel at dawn in a secluded corner of the Park whose central green he could see from the penthouse terrace where he fenced with a French coach twice a week, the only exercise, save riding, that he still indulged in; but to his surprise — and relief (for he was a little ashamed to defend his ‘novelette’ and only wished to forget it, just as another, unrelated, Veen might have denounced — if allowed a longer life — his pubescent dream of ideal bordels) Max Mushmula (Russian for ‘medlar’) answered Van’s tentative cartel with the warm-hearted promise of sending him his next article, ‘The Weed Exiles the Flower’ (Melville & Marvell). (2.2)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): fille de joie: whore.


Van's Letters from Terra is 'a philosophical novel.' Thérèse Philosophe ("Therese the Philosopher," 1748) is a French novel ascribed to Jean-Baptiste de Boyer, Marquis d'Argens. In his working notes for both The Idiot (1869) and Besy ("The Possessed," 1872) Dostoevski referred repeatedly to Thérèse Philosophe. The characters in Dostoevski's epistolary novel Bednye lyudi ("Poor Folk," 1846) include Tereza, a servant woman who brings Makar Devushkin's letters to Varenka Dobrosyolov and Varenka's letters to Makar (the correspondents in Dostoevski's novel live in the same apartment house, their windows facing each other across the courtyard). The phenomenon of Terra appeared on Demonia (aka Antiterra, Earth's twin planet on which Ada is set) after the L disaster in the beau milieu of the 19th century. The Antiterran L disaster seems to correspond to the mock execution of Dostoevski and the Petrashevskians on Jan. 3, 1850, in our world. In the old Russian alphabet the letter L was called lyudi. In the draft of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (Chapter Three) Tatiana's letter to Onegin ends in the lines:


Podumala, chto skazhut lyudi?
I podpisala: Tvyordo, Lyudi.


She wondered what people would say,
and signed T. L.