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)
In a letter of June 28, 1892, to Lika Mizinov Chekhov calls Lika (who wore a yellow jacket when she was Chekhov's guest in Melikhovo) Kantalupa (cantaloupe, a variety of melon) and "kukuruza dushi moey" ("the Indian corn of my soul"):
Канталупа, я знаю: вступив в зрелый возраст, Вы разлюбили меня.
Ну, до свиданья, кукуруза души моей. Хамски почтительно целую Вашу коробочку с пудрой и завидую Вашим старым сапогам, которые каждый день видят Вас.
Van to Cordula: 'Lucette,' he said, 'Lucette takes or took piano lessons. Okay. Let's dismiss Kalugano. These crumpets are very poor relatives of the Chose ones. You're right, j'ai des ennuis. But you can make me forget them. Tell me something to distract me, though you distract me as it is, un petit topinambour as the Teuton said in the story. (1.42) Topinambour is a tuber of the girasole. If I understand Van's pun on pun (calembour) correctly, he means that Cordula (who is not a virgin anymore) excites him.
In a letter of June 7, 1892, to Franz Schechtel, Chekhov thanks his friend for the seeds of horse-tail that Schechtel (the architect who built for Stanislavsky and Nemirovich the Moscow Art Theater) gave him:
Благодаря окаянному зелью, которое Вы подарили мне, вся моя земля покрылась маленькими членами in erecktirtem Zustande. Я посадил зелье в трёх местах, и все три места уже имеют такой вид, как будто хотят тараканить.
Chekhov compares the sprouts of horse-tail (Equisetum) on the flower-bed near the veranda of his Melikhovo house to roused males organs. Note the German phrase used by Chekhov. I suspect that "the Teuton" mentioned by Van is von Koren, the zoologist in Chekhov's story The Duel (1892). Von Koren is a Russian whom, according to Dr Samoylenko (a former Dorpat student), the Germans have spoilt.
Tarakanit' ("to cockroach," the verb used by Chekhov in his letter to Schechtel) is old Moscow slang for "to fuck." Chekhov also mentions it in a letter of June 12, 1894, to Suvorin:
Женщины, которые употребляются, или, выражаясь по-московски, тараканятся на каждом диване, не суть бешеные, это дохлые кошки, страдающие нимфоманией. Диван – очень неудобная мебель. Его обвиняют в блуде чаще, чем он того заслуживает. Я раз в жизни только пользовался диваном и проклял его.
Chekhov compares the nymphomaniacs who are being "cockroached" on every divan ("a very inconvenient piece of furniture") to old cats. Van and Ada make love for the first time in the Night of the Burning Barn (1.19) on the "Vaniada" divan in the library of Ardis Hall. Cordula's mother is an old actress who once picked up and fondled a fireman's cat that had strayed into Fast Colors in the middle of her best speech (1.42).
Van first possesses Cordula (in whose car Van escapes from the Kalugano hospital where he recovered from the wound received in a duel with Tapper) on the car's back seat, in Luga:
Cordula told Edmond: ‘Arrêtez près de what’s-it-called, yes, Albion, le store pour messieurs, in Luga’; and as peeved Van remonstrated: ‘You can’t go back to civilization in pajamas,’ she said firmly. ‘I shall buy you some clothes, while Edmond has a mug of coffee.’
She bought him a pair of trousers, and a raincoat. He had been waiting impatiently in the parked car and now under the pretext of changing into his new clothes asked her to drive him to some secluded spot, while Edmond, wherever he was, had another mug.
As soon as they reached a suitable area he transferred Cordula to his lap and had her very comfortably, with such howls of enjoyment that she felt touched and flattered.
‘Reckless Cordula,’ observed reckless Cordula cheerfully; ‘this will probably mean another abortion — encore un petit enfantôme, as my poor aunt’s maid used to wail every time it happened to her. Did I say anything wrong?’
‘Nothing wrong,’ said Van, kissing her tenderly; and they drove back to the diner. (1.42)
A Daughter of Albion (1883) and Tapyor (The Ballroom Pianist, 1885) are stories by Chekhov. The editor of Niva (a literary magazine The Corn-Field) and author of Pollice verso (a novel in four novellas, 1900) A. A. Tikhonov (whose penname Lugovoy comes from Luga) lived in Luga. Percy de Prey, about whose address Van asks Cordula, is Cordula's second cousin. One of Chekhov's cousins lived in Kaluga. The maid of Praskovia de Prey (poor Percy's mother) is Blanche's sister (and one of Percy's lovers) Madelon. A French maid at Ardis, Blanche (who later marries Trofim Fartukov, the coachman in "Ardis the Second") is a lover of Bouteillan and of his bastard Bout.
Marina came in a red motorcar of an early 'runabout' type, operated by the butler very warily as if it were some fancy variety of corkscrew. (1.13)
The butler's name, Bouteillan, hints at "bottle." Chekhov used to compare music and alcohol to a corkscrew that always opened up his soul. In a letter of 22 January 1899 to Lika Mizinov Chekhov remarks that if Lika attempts one day to commit suicide, she will use a corkscrew:
И если Вы когда-нибудь вздумаете покуситься на свою жизнь, то тоже прибегнете к штопору.
Btw., in this letter Chekhov informs Lika that he sold his works to Adolf Marx (who published the books of Russian classics, but also the Niva magazine). Marx père (a play on Shaxpere) in mentioned in Ada:
Van Veen [as also, in his small way, the editor of Ada] liked to change his abode at the end of a section or chapter or even paragraph, and he had almost finished a difficult bit dealing with the divorce between time and the contents of time (such as action on matter, in space, and the nature of space itself) and was contemplating moving to Manhattan (that kind of switch being a reflection of mental rubrication rather than a concession to some farcical 'influence of environment' endorsed by Marx père, the popular author of 'historical' plays), when he received an unexpected dorophone call which for a moment affected violently his entire pulmonary and systemic circulation. (2.5)
Chekhov signed the above-quoted letter of June 28, 1892, to Lika Mizinov Tsar' Midiyskiy (Median King). Media is an ancient country south of the Caspian sea corresponding to NW Iran. According to the Babylonian chronicles (discovered at the end of the 19th century), the Persians defeated the Medians in the sixth year of Nabonidus (550/549 B. C.). Professor Nabonidus of Babylon College, Nebraska, is mentioned by Ada:
'Yes - so as not to forget. Here's the formula for our correspondence. Learn this by heart and then eat it up like a good little spy.'
'Poste restante both ways; and I want at least three letters a week, my white love.'
It was the first time he had seen her in that luminous frock nearly as flimsy as a nightgown. She had braided her hair, and he said she resembled the young soprano Maria Kuznetsova in the letter scene in Tschchaikow's opera Onegin and Olga.
Ada, doing her feminine best to restrain and divert her sobs by transforming them into emotional exclamations, pointed out some accursed insect that had settled on an aspen trunk.
(Accursed? Accursed? It was the newly described, fantastically rare vanessian, Nymphalis danaus Nab., orange-brown, with black-and-white foretips, mimicking, as its discoverer Professor Nabonidus of Babylon College, Nebraska, realized, not the Monarch butterfly directly, but the Monarch through the Viceroy, one of the Monarch's best known imitators. In Ada's angry hand.) (1.25)
Chekhov loved Chaykovski's music, particularly Eugene Onegin. The writer dedicated to the composer (who asked Chekhov to make a libretto of Lermontov's story Bela) his collection of stories Khmurye lyudi ("Gloomy People").
Stumbling on melons, fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop, Van returned to the Forest Fork. Morio, his favorite black horse, stood waiting for him, held by young Moore. (ibid.)
Moore is an anagram of Romeo. Romeo and Juliet is mentioned in "The Duel" by von Koren. Laevsky (who loves to talk about sex) replies that Romeo is merely an animal:
"Why?" asked Laevsky. "The impression is better than any description. The wealth of sights and sounds which every one receives from nature by direct impression is ranted about by authors in a hideous and unrecognisable way."
"Really?" Von Koren asked coldly, choosing the biggest stone by the side of the water, and trying to clamber up and sit upon it. "Really?" he repeated, looking directly at Laevsky. "What of 'Romeo and Juliet'? Or, for instance, Pushkin's 'Night in the Ukraine'? Nature ought to come and bow down at their feet."
"Perhaps," said Laevsky, who was too lazy to think and oppose him. "Though what is 'Romeo and Juliet' after all?" he added after a short pause. "The beauty of poetry and holiness of love are simply the roses under which they try to hide its rottenness. Romeo is just the same sort of animal as all the rest of us."
"Whatever one talks to you about, you always bring it round to. . ." Von Koren glanced round at Katya and broke off. (chapter VI)
In his pistol duel with von Koren Laevsky (who discharges his pistol in the air) receives a superficial wound, merely a scratch. It is the deacon Pobedov who secretly came to watch the duel and who, at the moment von Koren is taking aim, cries out "he will kill him!" saving Laevski's life.
The Captain [Tapper, Van's adversary in a pistol duel in the Kalugano Forest] was a first-rate shot, Johnny said, and member of the Do-Re-La country club. (1.42)
They found a convenient clearing, and the principals, pistol in hand, faced each other at a distance of some thirty paces, in the kind of single combat described by most Russian novelists and by practically all Russian novelists of gentle birth. As Arwin clapped his hands, informally signaling the permission to fire at will, Van noticed a speckled movement on his right: two little spectators - a fat girl and a boy in a sailorsuit, wearing glasses, with a basket of mushrooms between them. It was not the chocolate-muncher in Cordula's compartment, but a boy very much like him, and as this flashed through Van's mind he felt the jolt of the bullet ripping off, or so it felt, the entire left side of his torso. He swayed, but regained his balance, and with nice dignity discharged his pistol in the sun-hazy air. (ibid.)
The chocolate-muncher in Cordula's compartment is a grandson of Dr. Platonov. Platonov is the main character in Chekhov's juvenile P'yesa bez nazvaniya (<Play without a Title>). Btw., Chekhov liked to go mushrooming. Ada uses mushrooming as a pretext and alibi for her sylvan trysts with Percy de Prey:
A moment later, however, Van remarked: 'I think I'll take an Alibi - I mean an Albany - myself.'
'Please note, everybody,' said Ada, 'how voulu that slip was! I like a smoke when I go mushrooming, but when I'm back, this horrid tease insists I smell of some romantic Turk or Albanian met in the woods.' (1.38)
Alibi is repeatedly mentioned by Dyukovski, a young detective in Chekhov's story The Swedish Match (1883).
The melancholy young German [Lucette's teacher of music Philip Rack, the composer, and another lover of Ada] was in a philosophical mood shading into the suicidal. He had to return to Kalugano with his Elsie, who Doc Ecksreher thought 'would present him with driplets in dry weeks.' He hated Kalugano, his and her home town, where in a moment of 'mutual aberration' stupid Elsie had given him her all on a park bench after a wonderful office party at Muzakovski's Organs where the oversexed pitiful oaf had a good job. (1.32)
Ada's Chekhovian husband Andrey Vinelander is an Arizonian farmer. Van's Russian conversation at dinner with Ada, her husband and her sister-in-law Dorothy is a parody of Chekhov's mannerisms. (3.8)
On the morning of his duel Van was roused by the night porter who put a cup of coffee with a local 'eggbun' on his bedside table, and expertly palmed the expected chervonetz. He resembled somewhat Bouteillan as the latter had been ten years ago and as he had appeared in a dream, which Van now retrostructed as far as it would go: in it Demon's former valet explained to Van that the 'dor' in the name of an adored river equaled the corruption of hydro in 'dorophone.' Van often had word dreams. (1.42)
The adored river is Ladore, but Dorothy also has 'dor' in her name. Dorothy Vinelander asks Van to call her "Dasha" (a diminutive of Daria). Katya and Dasha are the Bulavin sisters in A. N. Tolstoy's trylogy Khozhdenie po mukam (The Road to Calvary, 1921-40). The title of its first part (written in the emigration), Khmuroe utro (The Overcast Morning), brings to mind Chekhov's collection Khmurye lyudi. Note that in the old Russian alphabet letter L was called lyudi.
Daria (Dolly) Durmanov is the mother of Van's, Ada's and Lucette's mother Marina, poor mad Aqua's twin sister. Her surname comes from durman (thorn-apple; drug, intoxicant). In Chekhov's play The Seagull (1896) Treplev tells to his uncle Sorin that his mother (Sorin's sister), the elderly actress Arkadina, can not live in the country without durman (the intoxicant) of stage.
Speaking of "dorophones" (hydraulic telephones used on Antiterra after the banning of electricity as a result of the L disaster in the middle of the 19th century):
Marina's contribution [at the picnic on Ada's twelfth birthday] was more modest, but it too had its charm. She showed Van and Lucette (the others knew all about it) the exact pine and the exact spot on its rugged red trunk where in old, very old days a magnetic telephone nested, communicating with Ardis Hall. After the banning of 'currents and circuits,' she said (rapidly but freely, with an actress's désinvolture pronouncing those not quite proper words - while puzzled Lucette tugged at the sleeve of Van, of Vanichka, who could explain everything), her husband's grandmother, an engineer of great genius, 'tubed' the Redmount rill (running just below the glade from a hill above Ardis). She made it carry vibrational vibgyors (prismatic pulsations) through a system of platinum segments. These produced, of course, only one-way messages, and the installation and upkeep of the 'drums' (cylinders) cost, she said, a Jew's eye, so that the idea was dropped, however tempting the possibility of informing a picnicking Veen that his house was on fire. (1.13)
"A Jew's eye" brings to mind Mr Eliot, a Jewish businessman who bought Raduga (i. e. "Rainbow"), the Durmanovs' favorite domain:
Poor Dan's erotic life was neither complicated nor beautiful, but somehow or other (he soon forgot the exact circumstances as one forgets the measurements and price of a fondly made topcoat worn on and off for at least a couple of seasons) he fell comfortably in love with Marina, whose family he had known when they still had their Raduga place (later sold to Mr Eliot, a Jewish businessman). (1.1)
Tea was served in the drawing room, and everybody was rather silent and subdued, and presently Uncle Dan retired to his study, pulling a folded newspaper out of an inner pocket, and no sooner had he left the room than a window flew open all by itself, and a powerful shower started to drum upon the liriodendron and imperialis leaves outside, and the conversation became general and loud.
Not long did the rain last - or rather stay: it continued on its presumable way to Raduga or Ladoga or Kaluga or Luga, shedding an uncompleted rainbow over Ardis Hall. (1.11)
In a letter of 21 January 1895 to Suvorin Chekhov says that he had few romances and that in his life he was a shop-assistant rather than master:
Фю-фю! Женщины отнимают молодость, только не у меня. В своей жизни я был приказчиком, а не хозяином, и судьба меня мало баловала. У меня было мало романов, и я так же похож на Екатерину, как орех на броненосец.
In a letter of 22 February 1892 to V. A. Tikhonov (Lugovoy's brother who asked Chekhov for some details of his biography) Chekhov says that he learned the secrets of love at thirteen: Тайны любви постиг я, будучи 13 лет.
Van learns the secrets of life at about the same age:
He had just turned thirteen. He had never before left the comforts of the paternal roof. He had never before realized that such 'comforts' might not be taken for granted, only occurring in some introductory ready-made metaphor in a book about a boy and a school. A few blocks from the schoolgrounds, a widow, Mrs Tapirov, who was French but spoke English with a Russian accent, had a shop of objets d'art and more or less antique furniture. He visited it on a bright winter day. Crystal vases with crimson roses and golden-brown asters were set here and there in the fore part of the shop - on a gilt-wood console, on a lacquered chest, on the shelf of a cabinet, or simply along the carpeted steps leading to the next floor where great wardrobes and flashy dressers semi-encircled a singular company of harps. He satisfied himself that those flowers were artificial and thought it puzzling that such imitations always pander so exclusively to the eye instead of also copying the damp fat feel of live petal and leaf. When he called next day for the object (unremembered now, eighty years later) that he wanted repaired or duplicated, it was not ready or had not been obtained. In passing, he touched a half-opened rose and was cheated of the sterile texture his fingertips had expected when cool life kissed them with pouting lips. 'My daughter,' said Mrs Tapirov, who saw his surprise, 'always puts a bunch of real ones among the fake pour attraper le client. You drew the joker.' As he was leaving she came in, a schoolgirl in a gray coat with brown shoulder-length ringlets and a pretty face. On another occasion (for a certain part of the thing - a frame, perhaps - took an infinite time to heal or else the entire article proved to be unobtainable after all) he saw her curled up with her schoolbooks in an armchair - a domestic item among those for sale. He never spoke to her. He loved her madly. It must have lasted at least one term.
That was love, normal and mysterious. Less mysterious and considerably more grotesque were the passions which several generations of schoolmasters had failed to eradicate, and which as late as 1883 still enjoyed an unparalleled vogue at Riverlane. Every dormitory had its catamite. One hysterical lad from Upsala, cross-eyed, loose-lipped, with almost abnormally awkward limbs, but with a wonderfully tender skin texture and the round creamy charms of Bronzino's Cupid (the big one, whom a delighted satyr discovers in a lady's bower), was much prized and tortured by a group of foreign boys, mostly Greek and English, led by Cheshire, the rugby ace; and partly out of bravado, partly out of curiosity, Van surmounted his disgust and coldly watched their rough orgies. Soon, however, he abandoned this surrogate for a more natural though equally heartless divertissement.
The aging woman who sold barley sugar and Lucky Louse magazines in the corner shop, which by tradition was not strictly out of bounds, happened to hire a young helper, and Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord, quickly ascertained that this fat little wench could be had for a Russian green dollar. Van was one of the first to avail himself of her favors. These were granted in semi-darkness, among crates and sacks at the back of the shop after hours. The fact of his having told her he was sixteen and a libertine instead of fourteen and a virgin proved a source of embarrassment to our hell-raker when he tried to bluster his inexperience into quick action but only succeeded in spilling on the welcome mat what she would have gladly helped him to take indoors. (1.4)
The name of Van's first love, little Miss Tapirov, and the homosexual orgies Van witnesses at Riverlane, bring to mind Tapper. In Kalugano Van, before his duel with Tapper, recalls his first platonic love:
When Van arrived in front of the music shop, he found it locked. He stared for a moment at the harps and the guitars and the flowers in silver vases on consoles receding in the dusk of looking-glasses, and recalled the schoolgirl whom he had longed for so keenly half a dozen years ago - Rose? Roza? Was that her name? Would he have been happier with her than with his pale fatal sister? (1.42)
Interestingly, botanically-minded Ada dislikes roses:
'I dared not hope... Oh, I accept with great pleasure,' answered Percy, whereupon - very much whereupon - the seemingly forgetful but in reality calculating bland bandit marched back to his car (near which a last wonderstruck admirer lingered) to fetch a bouquet of longstemmed roses stored in the boot.
'What a shame that I should loathe roses,' said Ada, accepting them gingerly. (1.39)
The gay plays at Riverlane, Van's boarding school, are matched by lesbian pleasures at Brownhill, Ada's school for girls:
On the same day (the two nasty little incidents thus remained linked up in his mind forever) Van happened to answer the 'phone - a deep hollow voice which he thought was a man's wanted Cordula, but the caller turned out to be an old schoolmate, and Cordula feigned limpid delight, while making big eyes at Van over the receiver, and invented a number of unconvincing engagements.
'It's a gruesome girl!' she cried after the melodious adieux. 'Her name is Vanda Broom, and I learned only recently what I never suspected at school - she's a regular tribadka - poor Grace Erminin tells me Vanda used to make constant passes at her and at - at another girl. There's her picture here,' continued Cordula with a quick change of tone, producing a daintily bound and prettily printed graduation album of Spring, 1887, which Van had seen at Ardis, but in which he had not noticed the somber beetle-browed unhappy face of that particular girl, and now it did not matter any more, and Cordula quickly popped the book back into a drawer; but he remembered very well that among the various more or less coy contributions it contained a clever pastiche by Ada Veen mimicking Tolstoy's paragraph rhythm and chapter closings; he saw clearly in mind her prim photo under which she had added one of her characteristic jingles:
In the old manor, I've parodied
Every veranda and room,
And jacarandas at Arrowhead
In supernatural bloom. (1.43)
Another girl at whom Vanda used to make constant passes was no doubt Ada. The name Vanda Broom is covertly present in Ada's poem:
veranda + room + bloom = Vanda Broom + Romeo/Moore + L
In her mature years Ada, who was, like Van, a Wunderkind, speaks of her pustotsvetnost' ("my acarpous destiny"). (1.35)
Alexey Sklyarenko
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