Miss Cleft & Brownhill in Ada

Submitted by Alexey Sklyarenko on Tue, 08/09/2022 - 13:57

According to Miss Cleft (the headmistress of Ada’s school for girls), a thorn is always close to a bud:


The rules of her school were old-fashioned and strict to the point of lunacy, but they reminded Marina nostalgically of the Russian Institute for Noble Maidens in Yukonsk (where she had kept breaking them with much more ease and success than Ada or Cordula or Grace could at Brownhill). Girls were allowed to see boys at hideous teas with pink cakes in the headmistress’s Reception Room three or four times per term, and any girl of twelve or thirteen could meet a gentleman’s son in a certified milk-bar, just a few blocks away, every third Sunday, in the company of an older girl of irreproachable morals.

Van braced himself to see Ada thus, hoping to use his magic wand for transforming whatever young spinster came along into a spoon or a turnip. Those ‘dates’ had to be approved by the victim’s mother at least a fortnight in advance. Soft-toned Miss Cleft, the headmistress, rang up Marina who told her that Ada could not possibly need a chaperone to go out with a cousin who had been her sole companion on day-long rambles throughout the summer. ‘That’s exactly it,’ Cleft rejoined, ‘two young ramblers are exceptionally prone to intertwine, and a thorn is always close to a bud.’

‘But they are practically brother and sister,’ ejaculated Marina, thinking as many stupid people do that practically’ works both ways — reducing the truth of a statement and making a truism sound like the truth. ‘Which only increases the peril,’ said soft Cleft. ‘Anyway, I’ll compromise, and tell dear Cordula de Prey to make a third: she admires Ivan and adores Ada — consequently can only add zest to the zipper’ (stale slang — stale even then).

‘Gracious, what figli-migli’ (mimsey-fimsey), said Marina, after having hung up. (1.27)


In Sonnet XXXV Shakespeare says that roses have thorns and that loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud:


No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud:
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense,
Thy adverse party is thy advocate,
And ‘gainst myself a lawful plea commence:
Such civil war is in my love and hate,
That I an accessary needs must be,
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.


Canker is a destructive fungal disease of apple and other trees that results in damage to the bark and an ulcerous condition or disease of a human or animal. Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother Marina dies of cancer:


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)


In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2.2) Hamlet tells Polonius “you cannot, sir…”:


POLONIUS: My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.
HAMLET: You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life.


In Shakespeare’s play (3.4) the Queen tells Hamlet that he has cleft her heart in twain:


Queen Gertrude: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!
Hamlet: O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half!
Good night. But go not to my uncle’s bed.


As a noun, cleft means "a fissure or split, especially in rock or the ground." In his poem Sashka (1836) Lermontov calls mons pubis of a sleeping courtesan dvoynoy kurgan (the twin hill):


Он руку протянул, — его рука
Попала в стену; протянул другую, —
Ощупал тихо кончик башмачка.
Схватил потом и ножку, но какую?!..
Так миньятюрна, так нежна, мягка
Казалась эта ножка, что невольно
Подумал он, не сделал ли ей больно.
Меж тем рука всё далее ползёт,
Вот круглая коленочка... и вот,
Вот — для чего смеётесь вы заране? —
Вот очутилась на двойном кургане...


Van suspects Cordula of being a lesbian and Ada’s lover. Actually, Ada’s lover at Brownhill is Vanda Broom (whom Cordula calls “a regular tribadka” and whose name is secretly present in a little poem that Ada contributed to her graduation album). When she joins Van in Manhattan, Ada tells him that Vanda was shot dead by the girlfriend of a girlfriend:


Would she like to stay in this apartment till Spring Term (he thought in terms of Terms now) and then accompany him to Kingston, or would she prefer to go abroad for a couple of months — anywhere, Patagonia, Angola, Gululu in the New Zealand mountains? Stay in this apartment? So, she liked it? Except some of Cordula’s stuff which should be ejected — as, for example, that conspicuous Brown Hill Alma Mater of Almehs left open on poor Vanda’s portrait. She had been shot dead by the girlfriend of a girlfriend on a starry night, in Ragusa of all places. It was, Van said, sad. Little Lucette no doubt had told him about a later escapade? Punning in an Ophelian frenzy on the feminine glans? Raving about the delectations of clitorism? ‘N’exagérons pas, tu sais,’ said Ada, patting the air down with both palms. ‘Lucette affirmed,’ he said, ‘that she (Ada) imitated mountain lions.’

He was omniscient. Better say, omni-incest.

‘That’s right,’ said the other total-recaller.

And, by the way, Grace — yes, Grace — was Vanda’s real favorite, pas petite moi and my little crest. She (Ada) had, hadn’t she, a way of always smoothing out the folds of the past — making the flutist practically impotent (except with his wife) and allowing the gentleman farmer only one embrace, with a premature eyakulyatsiya, one of those hideous Russian loanwords? Yes, wasn’t it hideous, but she’d love to play Scrabble again when they’d settled down for good. But where, how? Wouldn’t Mr and Mrs Ivan Veen do quite nicely anywhere? What about the ‘single’ in each passport? They’d go to the nearest Consulate and with roars of indignation and/or a fabulous bribe have it corrected to married, for ever and ever. (2.6)


It seems that the girlfriend of a girlfriend who shot poor Vanda dead was Ada herself (Ada tells Van the truth, but not the whole truth). After his first night with Ada Van mentions a Doughnut Truth:


Yes! Wasn’t that a scream? Larivière blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a great writer! A sensational Canadian bestselling author! Her story ‘The Necklace’ (La rivière de diamants) had become a classic in girls’ schools and her gorgeous pseudonym ‘Guillaume de Monparnasse’ (the leaving out of the ‘t’ made it more intime) was well-known from Quebec to Kaluga. As she put it in her exotic English: ‘Fame struck and the roubles rolled, and the dollars poured’ (both currencies being used at the time in East Estotiland); but good Ida, far from abandoning Marina, with whom she had been platonically and irrevocably in love ever since she had seen her in ‘Bilitis,’ accused herself of neglecting Lucette by overindulging in Literature; consequently she now gave the child, in spurts of vacational zeal, considerably more attention than poor little Ada (said Ada) had received at twelve, after her first (miserable) term at school. Van had been such an idiot; suspecting Cordula! Chaste, gentle, dumb, little Cordula de Prey, when Ada had explained to him, twice, thrice, in different codes, that she had invented a nasty tender schoolmate, at a time when she had been literally torn from him, and only assumed — in advance, so to speak — such a girl’s existence. A kind of blank check that she wanted from him; ‘Well, you got it,’ said Van, ‘but now it’s destroyed and will not be renewed; but why did you run after fat Percy, what was so important?’

‘Oh, very important,’ said Ada, catching a drop of honey on her nether lip, ‘his mother was on the dorophone, and he said please tell her he was on his way home, and I forgot all about it, and rushed up to kiss you!’

‘At Riverlane,’ said Van, ‘we used to call that a Doughnut Truth: only the truth, and the whole truth, with a hole in the truth.’

‘I hate you,’ cried Ada, and made what she called a warning frog face, because Bouteillan had appeared in the doorway, his mustache shaved, coatless, tieless, in crimson braces that were holding up to his chest his well-filled black trousers. He disappeared, promising to bring them their coffee.

‘But let me ask you, dear Van, let me ask you something. How many times has Van been unfaithful to me since September, 1884?’

‘Six hundred and thirteen times,’ answered Van. ‘With at least two hundred whores, who only caressed me. I’ve remained absolutely true to you because those were only "obmanipulations" (sham, insignificant strokings by unremembered cold hands).’ (1.31)


Like Brownhill, Riverlane (Van’s school for boys) has erotic connotations.