'By the way, do fireflies burn one if they fly into you? I'm just asking. Just a city boy's silly question.' (Ada, 1.8)
The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end. Van watched them with the same pleasurable awe he had experienced as a child, when, lost in the purple crepuscule of an Italian hotel garden, in an alley of cypresses, he supposed they were golden ghouls or the passing fancies of the garden. Now as they softly flew, apparently straight, crossing and recrossing the darkness around him, each flashed his pale-lemon light every five seconds or so, signaling in his own specific rhythm (quite different from that of an allied species, flying with Photinus ladorensis, according to Ada, at Lugano and Luga) to his grass-domiciled female pulsating in photic response after taking a couple of moments to verify the exact type of light code he used. (1.12)
In Gorky's The Life of Klim Samgin (Part One, chapter 3) Samgin mentally compares his mistress Nekhaev to a female firefly: Значит, Нехаева только играла роль человека, заражённого пессимизмом, играла для того, чтоб, осветив себя необыкновенным светом, привлечь к себе внимание мужчины. Так поступают самки каких-то насекомых. (It means that Nekhaev was only playing the part of a person infected with pessimism, in order to attract a man's attention by illuminating herself with an unusual light. So do the females of some insect.)
Insects are important both in Ada and in Gorky's LSK (see in The Nabokovian #58 my article "The Fair Invention in Nabokov's Ada and Gorky's LSK").
The apotheosis of Van's first summer in Ardis ("Ardis the First") is the Night of the Burning Barn (1.19). Interestingly, Gorky is the author of Pozhary (The Fires, 1922). Its character Sasha Vinokurov says that "the fire is a spectacle that everybody enjoys and all people fly headlong to the flames, like nocturnal butterflies." Another character in the stroy, Kapiton Sysoev (whom the narrator meets at the lawyer Venski*), never throws away his pared fingernails but (following the advice of an old witch, presumably a gipsy) waits until there is a fire in the city and then casts them into the flames: - Я бросил в огонь ногти мои, остриженные ногти, - смешно? Я с девятнадцати лет сохраняю остриженные ногти мои, коплю их до пожара, а на пожаре бросаю в огонь. Заверну в бумажку вместе с ними три, четыре медных пятака и брошу.
I wonder if Ada (whose fingernails are badly bitten when Van first meets her) asked Kim Beauharnais, her main accomplice in the arson, to burn her epidermis in the doomed Baronial Barn? Note that Kim (perhaps, a son of Arkadiy Dolgorukiy, the hero and narrator in Dostoevski's The Adolescent who attempts to set on fire a wood pile) has two "gipsy" helpers:
'Look, gipsies,' she whispered, pointing at three shadowy forms - two men, one with a ladder, and a child or dwarf - circumspectly moving across the gray lawn. They saw the candlelit window and decamped, the smaller one walking à reculons as if taking pictures. (1.19)
*the name comes from Vena (Russian name of Vienna)
Alexey Sklyarenko
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