Describing his first sexual experience at Riverlane (Van’s prep-school), Van Veen (the narrator and main character in VN’s novel Ada, 1969) calls himself “hell-raker:”
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)
In Eugene Onegin (Six: IV: 9) Pushkin calls Zaretski (Lenski’s second whose name comes from zarechye, “the other side of the river”) glava poves (chieftain of rakehells):
Вперёд, вперёд, моя исторья!
Лицо нас новое зовёт.
В пяти верстах от Красногорья,
Деревни Ленского, живёт
И здравствует ещё доныне
В философической пустыне
Зарецкий, некогда буян,
Картёжной шайки атаман,
Глава повес, трибун трактирный,
Теперь же добрый и простой
Отец семейства холостой,
Надёжный друг, помещик мирный
И даже честный человек:
Так исправляется наш век!
Forward, forward, my story!
A new persona claims us.
Five versts from Krasnogórie,
Lenski's estate, there lives
and thrives up to the present time
in philosophical reclusion
Zarétski, formerly a brawler,
the hetman of a gaming gang,
chieftain of rakehells, pothouse tribune,
but now a kind and simple
a steadfast friend, a peaceable landowner,
and even an honorable man:
thus does our age correct itself!
Pomeshchik mirnyi (a peaceable landowner) brings to mind “peaceful country gentleman” (as Van calls his maternal grandfather, General Ivan Durmanov):
Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (‘Dolly’) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called ‘Russian’ Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with ‘Russian’ Canady, otherwise ‘French’ Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.
The Durmanovs’ favorite domain, however, was Raduga near the burg of that name, beyond Estotiland proper, in the Atlantic panel of the continent between elegant Kaluga, New Cheshire, U.S.A., and no less elegant Ladoga, Mayne, where they had their town house and where their three children were born: a son, who died young and famous, and a pair of difficult female twins. Dolly had inherited her mother’s beauty and temper but also an older ancestral strain of whimsical, and not seldom deplorable, taste, well reflected, for instance, in the names she gave her daughters: Aqua and Marina (‘Why not Tofana?’ wondered the good and sur-royally antlered general with a controlled belly laugh, followed by a small closing cough of feigned detachment — he dreaded his wife’s flares). (1.1)
New Cheshire brings to mind Van’s schoolmate at Riverlane. The name Durmanov comes from durman (thorn-apple; drug, intoxicant). In his poem Tolstomu (“To Tolstoy,” 1818) Vyazemski mentions myatezhnykh sklonnostey durman (the intoxicant of rebellious inclinations) that throws Tolstoy iz raya v ad, iz ada v ray (from paradise to hell, from hell to paradise):
Американец и цыган,
На свете нравственном загадка,
Которого, как лихорадка,
Мятежных склонностей дурман
Или страстей кипящих схватка
Всегда из края мечет в край,
Из рая в ад, из ада в рай!
Которого душа есть пламень,
А ум — холодный эгоист;
Под бурей рока — твёрдый камень!
В волненьи страсти — лёгкий лист!
In a letter of Oct. 14, 1823, to Vyazemski Pushkin says that the epigraph to his poem Kavkazskiy plennik (“The Caucasian Captive,” 1821) was “Under fate’s tempest a hard stone! / In the agitation of passion a light leaf!” (the last two lines in the above quoted fragment of Vyazemski’s epistle to Tolstoy). Pushkin dropped it because he feared that readers would mistake Tolstoy for the prototype of his Captive. In his EO Commentary (vol. III, p. 7) VN points out that some amateurs of prototype wrongly see in Zaretski a skit on Fyodor Tolstoy. According to VN, “Fyodor Tolstoy’s nickname, ‘the American,’ is a good sample of Russian humor: in 1803, while taking part in the first lap of Admiral Krusenstern’s famous voyage around the world, Tolstoy was dumped for insubordination on Rat Island, in the Aleutians, and had to wander back via Siberia, which took him a couple of years” (EO Commentary, vol. II, p. 428). Stern (cf. Krusenstern) is German for “star.” Cheshire (Van’s schoolmate) is a rugby ace. Describing his work on Letters from Terra, Van mentions novels like ‘Star Rats,’ and ‘Space Aces:’
He had written it involuntarily, so to speak, not caring a dry fig for literary fame. Neither did pseudonymity tickle him in reverse — as it did when he danced on his hands. Though ‘Van Veen’s vanity’ often cropped up in the drawing-room prattle among fan-wafting ladies, this time his long blue pride feathers remained folded. What, then, moved him to contrive a romance around a subject that had been worried to extinction in all kinds of ‘Star Rats,’ and ‘Space Aces’? We — whoever ‘we’ are — might define the compulsion as a pleasurable urge to express through verbal imagery a compendium of certain inexplicably correlated vagaries observed by him in mental patients, on and off, since his first year at Chose. Van had a passion for the insane as some have for arachnids or orchids. (2.2)
Van, Ada and Lucette are the children of Marina Durmanov. The last note of Marina’s twin sister Aqua (Demon’s poor mad wife) was signed “my sister’s sister who teper’ iz ada (now is out of hell)” (1.3). In her last note Aqua twice repeats the word chelovek (human being). In Six: IV: 13 of EO Pushkin calls Zaretski chestnyi chelovek (an honorable man).
According to VN, the name of Lenski’s estate corresponds to English “Fairhill:”
Five versts from Krasnogórie: Anglice, “Three miles from Fairhill” (EO Commentary, vol. III, p. 6).
While Van’s prep-school, Riverlane, seems to hint at Lenski’s second, Ada’s school for girls, Brownhill, brings to mind Lenski’s countryseat.
In the same note to Six: IV: 3 VN writes: ‘Whether Pushkin desired it or not, the not-uncommon name of Lenski’s countryseat has more links with myths and enchantments than matter-of-fact “Fairhill” would have.’
In Ada VN manages to add subtle erotic connotations to the not-uncommon matter-of-fact “Riverlane” and “Brownhill.”
Marina’s husband, Daniel Veen (Lucette’s father), is known in society as Durak Walter or Red Veen:
The ‘D’ in the name of Aqua’s husband stood for Demon (a form of Demian or Dementius), and thus was he called by his kin. In society he was generally known as Raven Veen or simply Dark Walter to distinguish him from Marina’s husband, Durak Walter or simply Red Veen. Demon’s twofold hobby was collecting old masters and young mistresses. He also liked middle-aged puns. (1.1).
An obsolete word for “fair,” krasnyi means today “red.” Durak is Russian for “fool.” Describing Zeretski (Six: VI: 2), Pushkin says that he umel morochit’ duraka (knew how to gull a fool):
Бывало, он трунил забавно,
Умел морочить дурака
И умного дурачить славно,
Иль явно, иль исподтишка,
Хоть и ему иные штуки
Не проходили без науки,
Хоть иногда и сам впросак
Он попадался, как простак.
Time was, he bantered drolly,
knew how to gull a fool
and capitally fool a clever man,
either for all to see or on the sly;
though some tricks of his, too,
did not remain unchastised;
though sometimes he himself, too, got
trapped like a simpleton.
“Capitally fool a clever man” brings to mind “capital,” a word repeated twice by Demon (Van’s and Ada’s father) before the family dinner in Ardis the Second:
I don’t know if you know,’ said Van, resuming his perch on the fat arm of his father’s chair. ‘Uncle Dan will be here with the lawyer and Lucette only after dinner.’
‘Capital,’ said Demon.
‘Marina and Ada should be down in a minute — ce sera un dîner à quatre.’
‘Capital,’ he repeated. ‘You look splendid, my dear, dear fellow — and I don’t have to exaggerate compliments as some do in regard to an aging man with shoe-shined hair. Your dinner jacket is very nice — or, rather it’s very nice recognizing one’s old tailor in one’s son’s clothes — like catching oneself repeating an ancestral mannerism — for example, this (wagging his left forefinger three times at the height of his temple), which my mother did in casual, pacific denial; that gene missed you, but I’ve seen it in my hairdresser’s looking-glass when refusing to have him put Crêmlin on my bald spot; and you know who had it too — my aunt Kitty, who married the Banker Bolenski after divorcing that dreadful old wencher Lyovka Tolstoy, the writer.’ (1.38)
Inye shtuki (some tricks) of Zaretski that did not remain bez nauki (unchastised) bring to mind a game of poker that Van plays with Dick C. (a cardsharp and cousin of one of Van’s Riverlane schoolmates, 1.28) and the French twins at Chose (Van’s English University). A word that rhymes with shtuka (trick, thing, etc.), nauka means “science.” Chose is French for “thing.”
As a Chose student, Van performs in variety shows dancing on his hands as Mascodagama. Before the family dinner in Ardis the Second Van mentions his stage name and Demon asks Van if he likes Ardis Hall:
‘I say,’ exclaimed Demon, ‘what’s happened — your shaftment is that of a carpenter’s. Show me your other hand. Good gracious’ (muttering:) ‘Hump of Venus disfigured, Line of Life scarred but monstrously long...’ (switching to a gipsy chant:) ‘You’ll live to reach Terra, and come back a wiser and merrier man’ (reverting to his ordinary voice:) ‘What puzzles me as a palmist is the strange condition of the Sister of your Life. And the roughness!’
‘Mascodagama,’ whispered Van, raising his eyebrows.
‘Ah, of course, how blunt (dumb) of me. Now tell me — you like Ardis Hall?’
‘I adore it,’ said Van. ‘It’s for me the château que baignait la Dore. I would gladly spend all my scarred and strange life here. But that’s a hopeless fancy.’
‘Hopeless? I wonder. I know Dan wants to leave it to Lucile, but Dan is greedy, and my affairs are such that I can satisfy great greed. When I was your age I thought that the sweetest word in the language rhymes with "billiard," and now I know I was right. If you’re really keen, son, on having this property, I might try to buy it. I can exert a certain pressure upon my Marina. She sighs like a hassock when you sit upon her, so to speak. Damn it, the servants here are not Mercuries. Pull that cord again. Yes, maybe Dan could be made to sell.’ (ibid.)
The name Ardis suggests paradise. On the other hand, Ardis means in Greek (as pointed out by Mlle Larivière, Lucette’s governess, 1.36) “point of an arrow.” In his last poem (EO, Six: XXI: 9) Lenski mentions strela (the arrow):
Стихи на случай сохранились;
Я их имею; вот они:
"Куда, куда вы удалились,
Весны моей златые дни?
Что день грядущий мне готовит?
Его мой взор напрасно ловит,
В глубокой мгле таится он.
Нет нужды; прав судьбы закон.
Паду ли я, стрелой пронзённый,
Иль мимо пролетит она,
Всё благо: бдения и сна
Приходит час определённый,
Благословен и день забот,
Благословен и тьмы приход!”
The verses chanced to be preserved;
I have them; here they are:
“Whither, ah! whither are ye fled,
my springtime's golden days?
What has the coming day in store for me?
In vain my gaze attempts to grasp it;
in deep gloom it lies hidden.
It matters not; fate's law is just.
Whether I fall, pierced by the arrow,
or whether it flies by,
all’s right: of waking and of sleep
comes the determined hour;
blest is the day of cares,
blest, too, is the advent of darkness!”
The stanza’s first two lines are quoted by Van before the family dinner in Ardis the Second:
‘Old storytelling devices,’ said Van, ‘may be parodied only by very great and inhuman artists, but only close relatives can be forgiven for paraphrasing illustrious poems. Let me preface the effort of a cousin — anybody’s cousin — by a snatch of Pushkin, for the sake of rhyme —’
‘For the snake of rhyme!’ cried Ada. ‘A paraphrase, even my paraphrase, is like the corruption of "snakeroot" into "snagrel" — all that remains of a delicate little birthwort.’
‘Which is amply sufficient,’ said Demon, ‘for my little needs, and those of my little friends.’
‘So here goes,’ continued Van (ignoring what he felt was an indecent allusion, since the unfortunate plant used to be considered by the ancient inhabitants of the Ladore region not so much as a remedy for the bite of a reptile, as the token of a very young woman’s easy delivery; but no matter). ‘By chance preserved has been the poem. In fact, I have it. Here it is: Leur chute est lente and one can know ‘em...’
‘Oh, I know ‘em,’ interrupted Demon:
‘Leur chute est lente. On peut les suivre
Du regard en reconnaissant
Le chêne à sa feuille de cuivre
L’érable à sa feuille de sang
‘Yes, that was Coppée and now comes the cousin,’ said Van, and he recited:
‘Their fall is gentle. The leavesdropper
Can follow each of them and know
The oak tree by its leaf of copper,
The maple by its blood-red glow.’
‘Pah!’ uttered the versionist.
‘Not at all!’ cried Demon. ‘That "leavesdropper" is a splendid trouvaille, girl.’ He pulled the girl to him, she landing on the arm of his Klubsessel, and he glued himself with thick moist lips to her hot red ear through the rich black strands. Van felt a shiver of delight. (1.38)
Van recites his own version of Coppée’s poem that Mlle Larivière wanted Ada to translate four years ago, in Ardis the First:
After she too had finished breakfasting, he waylaid her, gorged with sweet butter, on the landing. They had one moment to plan things, it was all, historically speaking, at the dawn of the novel which was still in the hands of parsonage ladies and French academicians, so such moments were precious. She stood scratching one raised knee. They agreed to go for a walk before lunch and find a secluded place. She had to finish a translation for Mlle Larivière. She showed him her draft. François Coppée? Yes.
Their fall is gentle. The woodchopper
Can tell, before they reach the mud,
The oak tree by its leaf of copper,
The maple by its leaf of blood.
‘Leur chute est lente,’ said Van, ‘on peut les suivre du regard en reconnaissant — that paraphrastic touch of "chopper" and "mud" is, of course, pure Lowden (minor poet and translator, 1815-1895). Betraying the first half of the stanza to save the second is rather like that Russian nobleman who chucked his coachman to the wolves, and then fell out of his sleigh.’
‘I think you are very cruel and stupid,’ said Ada. ‘This is not meant to be a work of art or a brilliant parody. It is the ransom exacted by a demented governess from a poor overworked schoolgirl. Wait for me in the Baguenaudier Bower,’ she added. ‘I’ll be down in exactly sixty-three minutes.’ (1.20)
In EO (Six: XXXV: 14) Zaretski’s horses fly like an arrow from the site of the duel:
В тоске сердечных угрызений,
Рукою стиснув пистолет,
Глядит на Ленского Евгений.
«Ну, что ж? убит»,— решил сосед.
Убит!.. Сим страшным восклицаньем
Сражён, Онегин с содроганьем
Отходит и людей зовёт.
Зарецкий бережно кладёт
На сани труп оледенелый;
Домой везёт он страшный клад.
Почуя мёртвого, храпят
И бьются кони, пеной белой
Стальные мочат удила,
И полетели как стрела.
In anguish of the heart's remorse,
his hand squeezing the pistol,
at Lenski Eugene looks.
“Well, what — he's dead,” pronounced the neighbor.
Dead!... With this dreadful interjection
smitten, Onegin with a shudder
walks hence and calls his men.
Zaretski carefully lays on the sleigh
the frozen corpse;
home he is driving the dread lading.
Sensing the corpse,
the horses snort and jib,
with white foam wetting the steel bit,
and like an arrow off they fly.