In VN’s novel Ada (1969) the element that destroys Demon Veen (Van’s and Ada’s father who perishes in a mysterious airplane disaster above the Pacific) is air:
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. (3.1)
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (2.2) to Polonius question “Will you walk out of the air, my lord” Hamlet replies “Into my grave:”
[Aside] Though this be madness, yet there is method
in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?
Into my grave.
Indeed, that is out o' the air.
How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will
leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of
meeting between him and my daughter.--My honourable
lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.
You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life.
Hamlet’s words “you cannot sir” bring to mind “you can, sir” in Van’s verbal nightmare:
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)
According to Ada, at Marina’s funeral Demon told her that he will not cheat the poor grubs:
‘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.
In Shakespeare’s play (4.3) Hamlet tells the King about Polonius’ death and says “we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots:”
Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?
At supper! where?
Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain
convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your
worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all
creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for
maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but
variable service, two dishes, but to one table:
that's the end.
On the other hand, the poor grubs mentioned by Demon bring to mind Hamlet's exclamation "Alas, poor Yorick!" In Chapter Two (XXXVII: 6) of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin Lenski visits the grave of Dmitri Larin (Tatiana's and Olga's father) and mournfully utters: "Alas, poor Yorick!" Refusing to visit Dr Krolik’s grave, Van tells Ada that a roly-poly old Pole may feed his maggots in peace:
He could swear he did not look back, could not — by any optical chance, or in any prism — have seen her physically as he walked away; and yet, with dreadful distinction, he retained forever a composite picture of her standing where he left her. The picture — which penetrated him, through an eye in the back of his head, through his vitreous spinal canal, and could never be lived down, never — consisted of a selection and blend of such random images and expressions of hers that had affected him with a pang of intolerable remorse at various moments in the past. Tiffs between them had been very rare, very brief, but there had been enough of them to make up the enduring mosaic. There was the time she stood with her back against a tree trunk, facing a traitor’s doom; the time he had refused to show her some silly Chose snapshots of punt girls and had torn them up in fury and she had looked away knitting her brows and slitting her eyes at an invisible view in the window. Or that time she had hesitated, blinking, shaping a soundless word, suspecting him of a sudden revolt against her odd prudishness of speech, when he challenged her brusquely to find a rhyme to ‘patio’ and she was not quite sure if he had in mind a certain foul word and if so what was its correct pronunciation. And perhaps, worst of all, that time when she stood fiddling with a bunch of wild flowers, a gentle half-smile hanging back quite neutrally in her eyes, her lips pursed, her head making imprecise little movements as if punctuating with self-directed nods secret decisions and silent clauses in some sort of contract with herself, with him, with unknown parties hereinafter called Comfortless, Inutile, Unjust — while he indulged in a brutal outburst triggered by her suggesting — quite sweetly and casually (as she might suggest walking a little way on the edge of a bog to see if a certain orchid was out) — that they visit the late Krolik’s grave in a churchyard by which they were passing — and he had suddenly started to shout (‘You know I abhor churchyards, I despise, I denounce death, dead bodies are burlesque, I refuse to stare at a stone under which a roly-poly old Pole is rotting, let him feed his maggots in peace, the entomologies of death leave me cold, I detest, I despise —’); he went on ranting that way for a couple of minutes and then literally fell at her feet, kissing her feet, imploring her pardon, and for a little while longer she kept gazing at him pensively. (1.41)
It seems that poor Doctor Krolik (who lay in his open coffin as plump and pink as in vivo and who is "burrowing again" in Ada's letter to Van) was buried alive.
The element that destroys Lucette (Van’s and Ada’s half-sister who commits suicide by jumping into the Atlantic from Admiral Tobakoff) is water. In a letter to Ada Van describes the last day of Lucette’s life and her death and mentions Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter who goes mad and drowns in a brook):
As a psychologist, I know the unsoundness of speculations as to whether Ophelia would not hove drowned herself after all, without the help of a treacherous sliver, even if she had married her Voltemand. Impersonally I believe she would have died in her bed, gray and serene, had V. loved her; but since he did not really love the wretched little virgin, and since no amount of carnal tenderness could or can pass for true love, and since, above all, the fatal Andalusian wench who had come, I repeat, into the picture, was unforgettable, I am bound to arrive, dear Ada and dear Andrey, at the conclusion that whatever the miserable man could have thought up, she would have pokonchila soboy (‘put an end to herself’) all the same. In other more deeply moral worlds than this pellet of muck, there might exist restraints, principles, transcendental consolations, and even a certain pride in making happy someone one does not really love; but on this planet Lucettes are doomed. (3.6)
Voltemand is the penname (after a courtier in Hamlet) under which Van publishes his novel Letters from Terra:
Letters from Terra, by Voltemand, came out in 1891 on Van’s twenty-first birthday, under the imprint of two bogus houses, ‘Abencerage’ in Manhattan, and ‘Zegris’ in London.
(Had I happened to see a copy I would have recognized Chateaubriand’s lapochka and hence your little paw, at once.) (2.2)
Darkbloom (‘Notes to Ada’): Abencerage, Zegris: Families of Granada Moors (their feud inspired Chateaubriand).
The element that destroys Marina (Van’s, Ada’s and Lucette’s mother) is fire. In VN’s novel Pale Fire (1962) Shade borrows the title of his poem from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. In their old age (even on the last day of their long lives) Van and Ada translate Shade’s poem into Russian:
She insisted that if there were no future, then one had the right of making up a future, and in that case one’s very own future did exist, insofar as one existed oneself. Eighty years quickly passed — a matter of changing a slide in a magic lantern. They had spent most of the morning reworking their translation of a passage (lines 569-572) in John Shade’s famous poem:
...Sovetï mï dayom
Kak bït’ vdovtsu: on poteryal dvuh zhyon;
On ih vstrechaet — lyubyashchih, lyubimïh,
Revnuyushchih ego drug k druzhke...
(...We give advice
To widower. He has been married twice:
He meets his wives, both loved, both loving, both
Jealous of one another...)
Van pointed out that here was the rub — one is free to imagine any type of hereafter, of course: the generalized paradise promised by Oriental prophets and poets, or an individual combination; but the work of fancy is handicapped — to a quite hopeless extent — by a logical ban: you cannot bring your friends along — or your enemies for that matter — to the party. The transposition of all our remembered relationships into an Elysian life inevitably turns it into a second-rate continuation of our marvelous mortality. Only a Chinaman or a retarded child can imagine being met, in that Next-Installment World, to the accompaniment of all sorts of tail-wagging and groveling of welcome, by the mosquito executed eighty years ago upon one’s bare leg, which has been amputated since then and now, in the wake of the gesticulating mosquito, comes back, stomp, stomp, stomp, here I am, stick me on.
She did not laugh; she repeated to herself the verses that had given them such trouble. The Signy brain-shrinkers would gleefully claim that the reason the three ‘boths’ had been skipped in the Russian version was not at all, oh, not at all, because cramming three cumbersome amphibrachs into the pentameter would have necessitated adding at least one more verse for carrying the luggage.
‘Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, the one sitting feet up, in ballerina black, on the stone balustrade, and then everything would have been all right — I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!’ (5.6)