Vladimir Nabokov

maussade Lebanese beauty & butcher's apron in Ada

By Alexey Sklyarenko, 6 August, 2022

Describing his father’s death in a mysterious airplane disaster, Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) mentions a maussade Lebanese beauty of fifteen sultry summers:


Furnished Space, l’espace meublé (known to us only as furnished and full even if its contents be ‘absence of substance’ — which seats the mind, too), is mostly watery so far as this globe is concerned. In that form it destroyed Lucette. Another variety, more or less atmospheric, but no less gravitational and loathsome, destroyed Demon.

Idly, one March morning, 1905, on the terrace of Villa Armina, where he sat on a rug, surrounded by four or five lazy nudes, like a sultan, Van opened an American daily paper published in Nice. In the fourth or fifth worst airplane disaster of the young century, a gigantic flying machine had inexplicably disintegrated at fifteen thousand feet above the Pacific between Lisiansky and Laysanov Islands in the Gavaille region. A list of ‘leading figures’ dead in the explosion comprised the advertising manager of a department store, the acting foreman in the sheet-metal division of a facsimile corporation, a recording firm executive, the senior partner of a law firm, an architect with heavy aviation background (a first misprint here, impossible to straighten out), the vice president of an insurance corporation, another vice president, this time of a board of adjustment whatever that might be —

‘I’m hongree,’ said a maussade Lebanese beauty of fifteen sultry summers.

‘Use bell,’ said Van, continuing in a state of odd fascination to go through the compilation of labeled lives:

— the president of a wholesale liquor-distributing firm, the manager of a turbine equipment company, a pencil manufacturer, two professors of philosophy, two newspaper reporters (with nothing more to report), the assistant controller of a wholesome liquor distribution bank (misprinted and misplaced), the assistant controller of a trust company, a president, the secretary of a printing agency —

The names of those big shots, as well as those of some eighty other men, women, and silent children who perished in blue air, were being withheld until all relatives had been reached; but the tabulatory preview of commonplace abstractions had been thought to be too imposing not to be given at once as an appetizer; and only on the following morning did Van learn that a bank president lost in the closing garble was his father.

‘The lost shafts of every man’s destiny remain scattered all around him,’ etc. (Reflections in Sidra). (3.7)


In Les Ténèbres (“The Darkness”), the first of the four sonnets of his cycle Un Fantôme (“A Phantom”), Baudelaire calls Night maussade hôtesse (sullen hostess):


Dans les caveaux d'insondable tristesse
Où le Destin m'a déjà relégué;
Où jamais n'entre un rayon rose et gai;
Où, seul avec la Nuit, maussade hôtesse,

Je suis comme un peintre qu'un Dieu moqueur
Condamne à peindre, hélas! sur les ténèbres;
Où, cuisinier aux appétits funèbres,
Je fais bouillir et je mange mon coeur,

Par instants brille, et s'allonge, et s'étale
Un spectre fait de grâce et de splendeur.
À sa rêveuse allure orientale,
Quand il atteint sa totale grandeur,
Je reconnais ma belle visiteuse:

C'est Elle! noire et pourtant lumineuse.


In the mournful vaults of fathomless gloom
To which Fate has already banished me,
Where a bright, rosy beam never enters;
Where, alone with Night, that sullen hostess,

I'm like a painter whom a mocking God
Condemns to paint, alas! upon darkness;
Where, a cook with a woeful appetite,
I boil and I eat my own heart;

At times there shines, and lengthens, and broadens
A specter made of grace and of splendor;
By its dreamy, oriental manner,

When it attains its full stature,
I recognize my lovely visitor;
It's She! dark and yet luminous.

(tr. W. Aggeler)


Baudelaire compares himself to a painter whom a mocking God condemns to paint upon darkness and to a cook with a woeful appetite who boils and eats his own heart . At the beginning of his poem L'Héautontimorouménos (“The Man Who Tortures Himself”) Baudelaire compares himself to un boucher (a butcher):


Je te frapperai sans colère
Et sans haine, comme un boucher,
Comme Moïse le rocher!
Et je ferai de ta paupière,

Pour abreuver mon Saharah,
Jaillir les eaux de la souffrance.
Mon désir gonflé d'espérance
Sur tes pleurs salés nagera

Comme un vaisseau qui prend le large,
Et dans mon coeur qu'ils soûleront
Tes chers sanglots retentiront
Comme un tambour qui bat la charge!

Ne suis-je pas un faux accord
Dans la divine symphonie,
Grâce à la vorace Ironie
Qui me secoue et qui me mord?

Elle est dans ma voix, la criarde!
C'est tout mon sang ce poison noir!
Je suis le sinistre miroir
Où la mégère se regarde.

Je suis la plaie et le couteau!
Je suis le soufflet et la joue!
Je suis les membres et la roue,
Et la victime et le bourreau!

Je suis de mon coeur le vampire,
— Un de ces grands abandonnés
Au rire éternel condamnés
Et qui ne peuvent plus sourire!


I shall strike you without anger
And without hate, like a butcher,
As Moses struck the rock!
And from your eyelids I shall make

The waters of suffering gush forth
To inundate my Sahara.
My desire swollen with hope
Will float upon your salty tears

Like a vessel which puts to sea,
And in my heart that they'll make drunk
Your beloved sobs will resound
Like a drum beating the charge!

Am I not a discord
In the heavenly symphony,
Thanks to voracious Irony
Who shakes me and who bites me?

She's in my voice, the termagant!
All my blood is her black poison!
I am the sinister mirror
In which the vixen looks.

I am the wound and the dagger!
I am the blow and the cheek!
I am the members and the wheel,
Victim and executioner!

I'm the vampire of my own heart
— One of those utter derelicts
Condemned to eternal laughter,
But who can no longer smile!

(tr. W. Aggeler)


In his suicide note written after Demon made him give up Ada Van mentions a painter wearing what looks like a butcher’s apron:


He judged it would take him as much time to find a taxi at this hour of the day as to walk, with his ordinary swift swing, the ten blocks to Alex Avenue. He was coatless, tieless, hatless; a strong sharp wind dimmed his sight with salty frost and played Medusaean havoc with his black locks. Upon letting himself in for the last time into his idiotically cheerful apartment, he forthwith sat down at that really magnificent desk and wrote the following note:

Do what he tells you. His logic sounds preposterous, prepsupposing [sic] a vague kind of ‘Victorian’ era, as they have on Terra according to ‘my mad’ [?], but in a paroxysm of [illegible] I suddenly realized he was right. Yes, right, here and there, not neither here, nor there, as most things are. You see, girl, how it is and must be. In the last window we shared we both saw a man painting [us?] but your second-floor level of vision probably prevented your seeing that he wore what looked like a butcher’s apron, badly smeared. Good-bye, girl.

Van sealed the letter, found his Thunderbolt pistol in the place he had visualized, introduced one cartridge into the magazine and translated it into its chamber. Then, standing before a closet mirror, he put the automatic to his head, at the point of the pterion, and pressed the comfortably concaved trigger. Nothing happened — or perhaps everything happened, and his destiny simply forked at that instant, as it probably does sometimes at night, especially in a strange bed, at stages of great happiness or great desolation, when we happen to die in our sleep, but continue our normal existence, with no perceptible break in the faked serialization, on the following, neatly prepared morning, with a spurious past discreetly but firmly attached behind. Anyway, what he held in his right hand was no longer a pistol but a pocket comb which he passed through his hair at the temples. It was to gray by the time that Ada, then in her thirties, said, when they spoke of their voluntary separation:

‘I would have killed myself too, had I found Rose wailing over your corpse. "Secondes pensées sont les bonnes," as your other, white, bonne used to say in her pretty patois. As to the apron, you are quite right. And what you did not make out was that the artist had about finished a large picture of your meek little palazzo standing between its two giant guards. Perhaps for the cover of a magazine, which rejected that picture. But, you know, there’s one thing I regret,’ she added: ‘Your use of an alpenstock to release a brute’s fury — not yours, not my Van’s. I should never have told you about the Ladore policeman. You should never have taken him into your confidence, never connived with him to burn those files — and most of Kalugano’s pine forest. Eto unizitel’no (it is humiliating).’

‘Amends have been made,’ replied fat Van with a fat man’s chuckle. ‘I’m keeping Kim safe and snug in a nice Home for Disabled Professional People, where he gets from me loads of nicely brailled books on new processes in chromophotography.’

There are other possible forkings and continuations that occur to the dream-mind, but these will do. (2.11)


Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): secondes pensées etc.: second thoughts are the good ones.

bonne: housemaid.


Van blinds Kim Beauharnais (the kitchen boy and photographer at Ardis) for spying on him and Ada and attempting to blackmail Ada. But, because love is blind, 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.


Describing his meeting with Ada (now married to Andrey Vinelander) in October, 1905 (half a year after Demon’s death), Van mentions his father’s portrait by Vrubel (the author of The Demon Seated and The Demon Downcast):


Ardis, Manhattan, Mont Roux, our little rousse is dead. Vrubel’s wonderful picture of Father, those demented diamonds staring at me, painted into me.

Mount Russet, the forested hill behind the town, lived up to its name and autumnal reputation, with a warm glow of curly chestnut trees; and on the opposite shore of Leman, Leman meaning Lover, loomed the crest of Sex Noir, Black Rock. (3.8)


Le Portrait (“The Portrait”) is the fourth sonnet of Baudelaire’s cycle Un Fantôme:


La Maladie et la Mort font des cendres
De tout le feu qui pour nous flamboya.
De ces grands yeux si fervents et si tendres,
De cette bouche où mon coeur se noya,

De ces baisers puissants comme un dictame,
De ces transports plus vifs que des rayons,
Que reste-t-il? C'est affreux, ô mon âme!
Rien qu'un dessin fort pâle, aux trois crayons,

Qui, comme moi, meurt dans la solitude,
Et que le Temps, injurieux vieillard,
Chaque jour frotte avec son aile rude...

Noir assassin de la Vie et de l'Art,
Tu ne tueras jamais dans ma mémoire
Celle qui fut mon plaisir et ma gloire!


Disease and Death make ashes
Of all the fire that flamed for us.
Of those wide eyes, so fervent and tender,
Of that mouth in which my heart was drowned,

Of those kisses potent as dittany,
Of those transports more vivid than sunbeams,
What remains? It is frightful, O my soul!
Nothing but a faint sketch, in three colors,

Which, like me, is dying in solitude,
And which Time, that contemptuous old man,
Grazes each day with his rough wing...

Black murderer of Life and Art,
You will never kill in my memory
The one who was my glory and my joy!