Part One, Chapter 17
In I.17 Van’s physical intentness and intensity find their match in Ada’s eagerness and energy, even while their age and cousinage still ensures a reserve. Van notes of Ada in 1888: “Amorously, now, in her otherwise dolorous and irresolute adolescence, Ada was even more aggressive than in her abnormally passionate childhood. A diligent student of case histories, Dr. Van Veen never quite managed to match ardent twelve-year-old Ada with a non-delinquent, non-nymphomaniac, mentally highly developed, spritually happy and normal English child in his files” (219.14-20). But despite her eagerness, even at twelve, Ada later feels something dangerous or desperate has been unleashed in her, and writes to Van : “you are responsible . . . [for] having let loose something mad in me when we were only children, a physical hankering, an insatiable itch. The fire you rubbed left its brand on the most vulnerable, most vicious and tender point of my body. Now I have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon. . . . nothing exists any more but the abiding effect of your sting, of your delicious poison” (334.05-14).
Although I.17 naturally excludes Lucette—Van and Ada would hardly begin a phase of messy long kisses with her watching—she recurs frequently throughout the chapter, never on stage, but sometimes pointedly explicit, and often no less pointedly implicit. Describing Ada’s nose, Van cannot help comparing it to Lucette’s. Extolling the lusterless whiteness of Ada’s skin, he cannot help declaring it “incomparably rarer than Lucette’s golden bloom.” But in doing so, he all but announces, for the first time, her early death: her golden bloom “at eight, twelve, sixteen, twenty-five, finis” (104). The elaborate description of Ada, as photographed by Kim Beauharnais, but also as remembered by Van (103), also anticipates again and again a future image of Lucette, also seen as if in a picture: the picture hat, the stress on profile, and the “softness” of “profile,” the evocation of painters (Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec) and the word “remembrance” all prefigure Lucette at Ovenman’s bar, a few days before her death (460-61): see above, 103.21-104.02n. At the same time, the image of the divided flow of Ada’s hair (103) will be recalled with a shock by Van when, seated next to an alluring Lucette in the cinema of the Tobakoff, he sees Ada on screen, her neck showing “white through her long black hair separated by the motion of her shoulder” (489).
Lucette in the pose of a tart in a Toulouse-Lautrec poster also serves as a transition from the first to the second part of I.17, from the catalogue of Ada’s charms, ending with her hands, to the mosquito Culex chateaubriandi Brown, whose emergence forces her to stop biting her nails so that she can “scratch and scratch scrumptiously” (107). The scene that ushers in the transition “can be localized” on a hill from which Van and Ada can “hear the pre-tunnel toot of the two-two to Toulouse” (105). Behind the comic sound-play, the doubling (like the allusions to Demon) evokes the “two-two” pattern of Aqua and Marina, and their two cousins Walter D. Veen and Walter D. Veen (Demon and Dan), and the fatal entanglement of two sisters that prefigures the cases of Lucette and Ada, while the pointed “Toulouse” (in North America!) signals especially the extended passage modeled on a Toulouse-Lautrec poster in III.3.
At one level, the extended Culex chateaubriandi Brown passage that follows is a parody of all “symbolic” or emblematic literary appropriations of nature (see the amusing critque of Herman Hesse’s poem “Butterfly in Late Summer” in Zimmer 2001: 14). On the one hand, unlike most natural emblems, it shows an intricate knowledge of natural detail, even down to the tussles between taxonomists, and despite its evoking a purely invented species; on the other, its sustained and intricate analogy between Ada’s epidermal and erotic itches manages to be both exact and outrageous.
At another level, it persistently involves Lucette. Culex is a cousin, at once a mosquito and a cousin, an echo of the insect-incest theme that began with anagrams (insect-scient-nicest-incest) at the picnic on Ada’s twelfth birthday, immediately after which Lucette slays “the first bad mosquito of the season” on Ada’s leg (85). The anagrams prefigure the Scrabble game by which Lucette obliquely, through her scrambling of the letters in “KLITOR” (or “CLITORIS”) divulges to Van “the depravation of your poor Lucette at fourteen in Arizona” at Ada’s hands (374) (see Johnson 1985, “The Scrabble Game in Ada, or Taking Nabokov Clitorally”).
The Chateaubriand theme, which at first seems merely a playful echo of the theme of incest in Chateaubriand’s fiction, turns out also, from the first, from her St. Malô fisher-song at the picnic, to involve Lucette, not least because of Chateaubriand’s love for his sister Lucile and her suicide (see Boyd 1985/2001: 125-28). Here in I.17 Chateaubriand’s mosquito has “an insatiable and reckless appetite for Ada’s and Ardelia’s, Lucette’s and Lucile’s (multiplied by the itch) blood” (106).
The Chateaubriand mosquito has been given its scientific named by Professor Brown. One day at Ardis in August 1884, Van entices Lucette to leave him and Ada alone to make love by challenging her to learn a poem by “Poet Laureate Robert Brown” (145), and she still recalls it in 1901, in a letter she sends for Van to read in case she fails to win him over and therefore feels she has to take her own life. The real early nineteenth-century figure Robert Brown was the foremost botanist of his day.
In 1888 Ada thinks up a plan “that was not simple, was not clever, and moreover worked the wrong way. . . . The idea was to have Van fool Lucette by petting her in Ada’s presence, while kissing Ada at the same time, and by caressing and kissing Lucette when Ada was away in the woods (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’). . . . The three of them cuddled and cosseted so frequently and so thoroughly . . . ” (213). Ada reproaches Van in 1890 with “having let loose something mad in me when we were only children, a physical hankering, an insatiable itch. . . . . Now I have to pay for your rasping the red rash too strongly, too soon.” (334)
That itch, to judge by Culex chateaubriandi Brown, began as early as the “kissing phase” of her intimacy with Van: “a fiery irritation would set in, which . . . the weak, the adorable, the voluptuous took advantage to scratch and scratch and scratch scrumptiously (canteen cant)” (107). But despite her complaint to Van in 1890, Ada has already, in 1888, awakened a similar itch in her sister through her plan to have Van caress and kiss twelve-year-old Lucette while she, Ada, “botanizes.” And even prior to that, it appears, Ada has already satisfied her own itch in Van’s absence, in the all-girls environment of Brownhill College, with the lesbian Vanda Broom (323: see also 158, and the “scratch and scratch and scratch scrumptiously (canteen cant)” above). If Professor Brown named Culex chateaubriandi, the real Robert Brown named the orchid genus Vanda (Mason 85; Tom and Marion Sheehan, An Ill ustrated Survey of Orchid Genera, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1994, 368, cited in Liana Ashenden, Mimicry, Mimesis and Desire in Nabokov’s Ada, unpub. MA thesis, University of Auckland, 2000: 68).
Then, in the American Southwest in 1890, just after she writes reproachfully to Van, Ada satisfies her own itch, in Van’s absence, when she herself rasps fourteen-year-old Lucette’s red rash too strongly, too soon.