Describing his sexual dreams, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a dream in which Ada and Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister) slake their thirst in the pool of his blood:
Van’s sexual dreams are embarrassing to describe in a family chronicle that the very young may perhaps read after a very old man’s death. Two samples, more or less euphemistically worded, should suffice. In an intricate arrangement of thematic recollections and automatic phantasmata, Aqua impersonating Marina or Marina made-up to look like Aqua, arrives to inform Van, joyfully, that Ada has just been delivered of a girl-child whom he is about to know carnally on a hard garden bench while under a nearby pine, his father, or his dress-coated mother, is trying to make a transatlantic call for an ambulance to be sent from Vence at once. Another dream, recurring in its basic, unmentionable form, since 1888 and well into this century, contained an essentially triple and, in a way, tribadic, idea. Bad Ada and lewd Lucette had found a ripe, very ripe ear of Indian corn. Ada held it at both ends as if it were a mouth organ and now it was an organ, and she moved her parted lips along it, varnishing its shaft, and while she was making it trill and moan, Lucette’s mouth engulfed its extremity. The two sisters’ avid lovely young faces were now close together, doleful and wistful in their slow, almost languid play, their tongues meeting in flicks of fire and curling back again, their tumbled hair, red-bronze and black-bronze, delightfully commingling and their sleek hindquarters lifted high as they slaked their thirst in the pool of his blood. (2.4)
At the end of his sonnet La Fontaine de Sang (“The Fountain of Blood”) Baudelaire says that love is to him only a bed of needles made to slake the thirst of those cruel whores:
Il me semble parfois que mon sang coule à flots,
Ainsi qu'une fontaine aux rythmiques sanglots.
Je l'entends bien qui coule avec un long murmure,
Mais je me tâte en vain pour trouver la blessure.
À travers la cité, comme dans un champ clos,
Il s'en va, transformant les pavés en îlots,
Désaltérant la soif de chaque créature,
Et partout colorant en rouge la nature.
J'ai demandé souvent à des vins captieux
D'endormir pour un jour la terreur qui me mine;
Le vin rend l'oeil plus clair et l'oreille plus fine!
J'ai cherché dans l'amour un sommeil oublieux;
Mais l'amour n'est pour moi qu'un matelas d'aiguilles
Fait pour donner à boire à ces cruelles filles!
It seems to me at times my blood flows out in waves
Like a fountain that gushes in rhythmical sobs.
I hear it clearly, escaping with long murmurs,
But I feel my body in vain to find the wound.
Across the city, as in a tournament field,
It courses, making islands of the paving stones,
Satisfying the thirst of every creature
And turning the color of all nature to red.
I have often asked insidious wines
To lull to sleep for a day my wasting terror;
Wine makes the eye sharper, the ear more sensitive!
I have sought in love a forgetful sleep;
But love is to me only a bed of needles
Made to slake the thirst of those cruel prostitutes!
(tr. W. Aggeler)
One of the sonnets in Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil,” 1857) is entitled Duellum (“The Duel”):
Deux guerriers ont couru l'un sur l'autre, leurs armes
Ont éclaboussé l'air de lueurs et de sang.
Ces jeux, ces cliquetis du fer sont les vacarmes
D'une jeunesse en proie à l'amour vagissant.
Les glaives sont brisés! comme notre jeunesse,
Ma chère! Mais les dents, les ongles acérés,
Vengent bientôt l'épée et la dague traîtresse.
— Ô fureur des coeurs mûrs par l'amour ulcérés!
Dans le ravin hanté des chats-pards et des onces
Nos héros, s'étreignant méchamment, ont roulé,
Et leur peau fleurira l'aridité des ronces.
— Ce gouffre, c'est l'enfer, de nos amis peuplé!
Roulons-y sans remords, amazone inhumaine,
Afin d'éterniser l'ardeur de notre haine!
Two warriors rushed upon each other; their arms
Spattered the air with sparks and blood.
This fencing, this clashing of steel, are the uproar
Of youth when it becomes a prey to puling love.
The blades are broken! like our youth
My darling! But the teeth, the steely fingernails,
Soon avenge the sword and the treacherous dagger.
— O Fury of mature hearts embittered by love!
In the ravine haunted by lynxes and panthers,
Our heroes viciously clasping each other, rolled,
And their skin will put blooms on the barren brambles.
This abyss, it is hell, thronged with our friends!
Let us roll there without remorse, cruel amazon,
So the ardor of our hatred will be immortalized!
(tr. W. Aggeler)
Describing Demon Veen’s sword duel with Baron d’Onsky (Skonky), Van mentions a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance):
Upon being questioned in Demon’s dungeon, Marina, laughing trillingly, wove a picturesque tissue of lies; then broke down, and confessed. She swore that all was over; that the Baron, a physical wreck and a spiritual Samurai, had gone to Japan forever. From a more reliable source Demon learned that the Samurai’s real destination was smart little Vatican, a Roman spa, whence he was to return to Aardvark, Massa, in a week or so. Since prudent Veen preferred killing his man in Europe (decrepit but indestructible Gamaliel was said to be doing his best to forbid duels in the Western Hemisphere — a canard or an idealistic President’s instant-coffee caprice, for nothing was to come of it after all), Demon rented the fastest petroloplane available, overtook the Baron (looking very fit) in Nice, saw him enter Gunter’s Bookshop, went in after him, and in the presence of the imperturbable and rather bored English shopkeeper, back-slapped the astonished Baron across the face with a lavender glove. The challenge was accepted; two native seconds were chosen; the Baron plumped for swords; and after a certain amount of good blood (Polish and Irish — a kind of American ‘Gory Mary’ in barroom parlance) had bespattered two hairy torsoes, the whitewashed terrace, the flight of steps leading backward to the walled garden in an amusing Douglas d’Artagnan arrangement, the apron of a quite accidental milkmaid, and the shirtsleeves of both seconds, charming Monsieur de Pastrouil and Colonel St Alin, a scoundrel, the latter gentlemen separated the panting combatants, and Skonky died, not ‘of his wounds’ (as it was viciously rumored) but of a gangrenous afterthought on the part of the least of them, possibly self-inflicted, a sting in the groin, which caused circulatory trouble, notwithstanding quite a few surgical interventions during two or three years of protracted stays at the Aardvark Hospital in Boston — a city where, incidentally, he married in 1869 our friend the Bohemian lady, now keeper of Glass Biota at the local museum. (1.2)
According to Ada, at Marina’s funeral Demon and d’Onsky’s son, a person with only one arm, wept comme des fontaines:
‘My upper-lip space feels indecently naked.’ (He had shaved his mustache off with howls of pain in her presence). ‘And I cannot keep sucking in my belly all the time.’
‘Oh, I like you better with that nice overweight — there’s more of you. It’s the maternal gene, I suppose, because Demon grew leaner and leaner. He looked positively Quixotic when I saw him at Mother’s funeral. It was all very strange. He wore blue mourning. D’Onsky’s son, a person with only one arm, threw his remaining one around Demon and both wept comme des fontaines. Then a robed person who looked like an extra in a technicolor incarnation of Vishnu made an incomprehensible sermon. Then she went up in smoke. He said to me, sobbing: "I will not cheat the poor grubs!" Practically a couple of hours after he broke that promise we had sudden visitors at the ranch — an incredibly graceful moppet of eight, black-veiled, and a kind of duenna, also in black, with two bodyguards. The hag demanded certain fantastic sums — which Demon, she said, had not had time to pay, for "popping the hymen" — whereupon I had one of our strongest boys throw out vsyu (the entire) kompaniyu.’
‘Extraordinary,’ said Van, ‘they had been growing younger and younger — I mean the girls, not the strong silent boys. His old Rosalind had a ten-year-old niece, a primed chickabiddy. Soon he would have been poaching them from the hatching chamber.’
‘You never loved your father,’ said Ada sadly.
‘Oh, I did and do — tenderly, reverently, understandingly, because, after all, that minor poetry of the flesh is something not unfamiliar to me. But as far as we are concerned, I mean you and I, he was buried on the same day as our uncle Dan.’
‘I know, I know. It’s pitiful! And what use was it? Perhaps I oughtn’t to tell you, but his visits to Agavia kept getting rarer and shorter every year. Yes, it was pitiful to hear him and Andrey talking. I mean, Andrey n’a pas le verbe facile, though he greatly appreciated — without quite understanding it — Demon’s wild flow of fancy and fantastic fact, and would often exclaim, with his Russian "tssk-tssk" and a shake of the head — complimentary and all that — "what a balagur (wag) you are!" — And then, one day, Demon warned me that he would not come any more if he heard again poor Andrey’s poor joke (Nu i balagur-zhe vï, Dementiy Labirintovich) or what Dorothy, l’impayable ("priceless for impudence and absurdity") Dorothy, thought of my camping out in the mountains with only Mayo, a cowhand, to protect me from lions.’
‘Could one hear more about that?’ asked Van.
‘Well, nobody did. All this happened at a time when I was not on speaking terms with my husband and sister-in-law, and so could not control the situation. Anyhow, Demon did not come even when he was only two hundred miles away and simply mailed instead, from some gaming house, your lovely, lovely letter about Lucette and my picture.’
‘One would also like to know some details of the actual coverture — frequence of intercourse, pet names for secret warts, favorite smells —’
‘Platok momental’no (handkerchief quick)! Your right nostril is full of damp jade,’ said Ada, and then pointed to a lawnside circular sign, rimmed with red, saying: Chiens interdits and depicting an impossible black mongrel with a white ribbon around its neck: Why, she wondered, should the Swiss magistrates forbid one to cross highland terriers with poodles? (3.8)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): comme etc.: shedding floods of tears.
N’a pas le verbe etc.: lacks the gift of the gab.
chiens etc.: dogs not allowed.
The Bohemian lady whom d’Onsky married in Boston brings to mind Baudelaire’s sonnet Bohémiens en voyage (Gypsies Traveling):
La tribu prophétique aux prunelles ardentes
Hier s'est mise en route, emportant ses petits
Sur son dos, ou livrant à leurs fiers appétits
Le trésor toujours prêt des mamelles pendantes.
Les hommes vont à pied sous leurs armes luisantes
Le long des chariots où les leurs sont blottis,
Promenant sur le ciel des yeux appesantis
Par le morne regret des chimères absentes.
Du fond de son réduit sablonneux, le grillon,
Les regardant passer, redouble sa chanson;
Cybèle, qui les aime, augmente ses verdures,
Fait couler le rocher et fleurir le désert
Devant ces voyageurs, pour lesquels est ouvert
L'empire familier des ténèbres futures.
The prophetical tribe, that ardent eyed people,
Set out last night, carrying their children
On their backs, or yielding to those fierce appetites
The ever ready treasure of pendulous breasts.
The men travel on foot with their gleaming weapons
Alongside the wagons where their kin are huddled,
Surveying the heavens with eyes rendered heavy
By a mournful regret for vanished illusions.
The cricket from the depths of his sandy retreat
Watches them as they pass, and louder grows his song;
Cybele, who loves them, increases her verdure,
Makes the desert blossom, water spurt from the rock
Before these travelers for whom is opened wide
The familiar domain of the future's darkness.
(tr. W. Aggeler)
According to Van, two gypsy courtesans predicted to him that he would never have children:
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)
Van is sterile but, because love is blind, he does not realize that Andrey Vinelander (Ada’s husband) and Ada have at least two children (who were born after Lucette’s suicide on June 4, 1901, and before Demon’s death in an airplane disaster above the Pacific in March, 1905) and that Ronald Oranger (old Van’s secretary, the editor of Ada) and Violet Knox (old Van’s typist whom Ada calls Fialochka, “little Violet,” and who marries Ronald Oranger after Van’s and Ada’s death) are Ada’s grandchildren.
In his poem Au Lecteur (“To the Reader”) Badelaire mentions une vieille orange (a dried up orange):
Ainsi qu'un débauché pauvre qui baise et mange
Le sein martyrisé d'une antique catin,
Nous volons au passage un plaisir clandestin
Que nous pressons bien fort comme une vieille orange.
Serré, fourmillant, comme un million d'helminthes,
Dans nos cerveaux ribote un peuple de Démons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes.
Like a penniless rake who with kisses and bites
Tortures the breast of an old prostitute,
We steal as we pass by a clandestine pleasure
That we squeeze very hard like a dried up orange.
Serried, swarming, like a million maggots,
A legion of Demons carouses in our brains,
And when we breathe, Death, that unseen river,
Descends into our lungs with muffled wails.
In her old age Ada amuses herself by translating Baudelaire into English and Russian:
Ada, who amused herself by translating (for the Oranger editions en regard) Griboyedov into French and English, Baudelaire into English and Russian, and John Shade into Russian and French, often read to Van, in a deep mediumesque voice, the published versions made by other workers in that field of semiconsciousness. The verse translations in English were especially liable to distend Van’s face in a grotesque grin which made him look, when he was not wearing his dental plates, exactly like a Greek comedial mask. He could not tell who disgusted him more: the well-meaning mediocrity, whose attempts at fidelity were thwarted by lack of artistic insight as well as by hilarious errors of textual interpretation, or the professional poet who embellished with his own inventions the dead and helpless author (whiskers here, private parts there) — a method that nicely camouflaged the paraphrast’s ignorance of the From language by having the bloomers of inept scholarship blend with the whims of flowery imitation. (5.4)
The characters in Griboedov’s play in verse Gore ot uma (“Woe from Wit,” 1824) include grafinya-babushka (Countess Grandmother) and grafinya-vnuchka (Countess Granddaughter).