Part One, Chapter 21
Throughout, I.21 focuses on the forbidden, especially on what had been forbidden to Ada in the library until Van’s arrival, and then what had become available after Monsieur Verger handed in his notice on August 1, 1884—which, since it coincides with Ada’s suddenly having complete access to any sexually revealing material she likes, would seem to indicate that when Van professes himself unsure of the date when the Barn Burned (“July 28? August 4?” ), he should in fact have chosen July 28. The chapter’s focus on the forbidden reflects throughout Van’s and Ada’s access to the forbidden knowledge, both theoretical and practical, of sex.
But the focus on the forbidden also reflects parodically on the realities of our Earth, on the increasing sexual frankness of literature in English in the decade leading up to Ada. The appearance of Playboy in the 1950s and its prominence in the 1960s (when the magazine included both regular columns on Ribald Classics and regular contributions from Nabokov); the publications of the Olympia Press, including Lolita, before that novel appeared under the imprint of major US and UK presses and on the rungs of the best-seller lists; the ruling of the English courts in November 1960 that D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover was not obscene; the publication and then the US Supreme Court’s overturning of an obscenity charge in 1963 against John Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (Fanny Hill, 1748), which had been banned since 1821; the wider publication of the work of writers like Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs; the revisions of the 1930 Hays Code in 1966 and the weakening of other forms of movie censorship—all these led to a lively intellectual debate on erotica and pornography in the mid-1960s.
In Encounter, to which Nabokov contributed and which he regularly read, George Steiner wrote an essay on “Night Words: High Pornography & Human Privacy” (October 1965), provoking a reply from Lolita’s first publisher, Maurice Girodias (“The Erotic Society”) in February 1966, in the same issue as “Nabokov’s Reply” (to Edmund Wilson’s review of his Eugene Onegin translation), and in the same month as Nabokov began to write Ada. Steiner in turn replied to Girodias (“Pornography & the Consequences”) in the same issue as Jacques Barzun’s “Venus at Large: Sexuality and the Limits of Literature” (March 1966), to be followed a few months later, when Ada was well on its way, by Steven Marcus’s “Pornotopia” (August 1966). Nabokov glances back to I.21, and evokes the liberalizing advances of the early 1960s, later in Ada: “For the sake of the scholars who will read this forbidden memoir with a secret tingle (they are human) in the secret chasms of libraries (where the chatter, the lays and the fannies of rotting pornographers are piously kept) . . . ” (220).
Van and Ada’s falling in love has seemed positively Edenic, but although their first inadvertent sexual contact, in the Fortunate Fall in the Shattal Tree, and their first assignation, in the Baguenaudier Bower, take place in Ardis’s expansive gardens, I.21 moves indoors to the library and its crowded shelves. Nevertheless, Nabokov plays with the garden theme in another key, through a librarian named Monsieur Verger (“garden, orchard”) and his counterpart, Demon’s “infinitely accommodative” librarian and Van’s ally, Miss Vertograd (“garden”). The apparently virginal Verger’s silent fall from a high library ladder (which sounds like the shadow of a door being opened by a eunuch) and his and Miss Vertograd’s silent Christmas cracker stand in pointed parodic contrast to the rambunctious rutting the young Veens have just begun outdoors, indoors, anywhere they can find.
But just as Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights leads us from the left panel of Adam and Eve in their innocence in Eden to the central panel of endless replays of sensual and sexual delight and endless variations on the tempting fruit of the Fall, and thence to an earthly Hell on the right, so Van and Ada move from their initial innocence to the library where they can discover, for all their sense of the unprecedented newness of their love, the whole history of sexuality from the animal to the human, from the scientific to the technical, from the literary to the pictorial. Villa Venus, the dream of Eric van Veen, will include mocking and morbid variations on the repetitiveness of sexual pleasure at Ardis, and the V-V- theme sounds here in the virginal Verger and Vertograd, “Garden” and “Garden,” limiting or allowing access to erotica like The Perfumed Garden.
That the two chaste librarians both suffer from psoriasis stands itself as a parodic variation on Blanche, who in some senses represents Ardis’s sexual activity and cost in its clearest form (see Afternote to I.7; Boyd 1985/2001: 152-58). She declares on Van’s first morning at Ardis that she is almost a virgin (“je suis vierge, ou peu s’en faut”), but she has “the whites” and has to consult Dr. Krolik. In fact, she has gonorrhea, “the rose sore of Eros” (431). She is repeatedly associated with Cinderella, and her “whites” and her fairy-tale quality are softly echoed in the library in the “curious snow-white dust” Verger leaves beneath him as he soundlessly sorts and shelves. Blanche’s child, by one of the many on the Ardis staff she has offered herself to and passed her disease on to, will be born blind; Verger and Vertograd, who work at libraries some distance apart, who cannot be carriers of venereal disease, who do no more than share “a quiet little cracker” at the Braille Club in Raduga, both also share their psoriasis. As he has in Blanche’s case, Dr. Krolik comments on Verger’s condition, here in ways that make it evoke both the “rose sore of Eros” (“Crimson-blotched, . . . their bobo’s protect them from bubas and buboes”) and visions of a medieval hell (“confused with lepers . . . in the Middle Ages, when thousands if not millions of Vergers and Vertograds crackled and howled bound by enthusiasts to stakes”).
Nabokov may be playing here not only with Bosch’s Hell, but also, in the figure of the French librarian Monsieur Verger (a Verger was co-cataloguer for the Bibliothèque de Paris), with the forbidden books of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The section of the Bibliothèque Nationale that was “reserved for books that for various reasons (obscenity, blasphemy, &c.) are enfermés (and shelf-marked ‘enfer.’) and cannot be issued generally” was known as L’Enfer, which usually means “Hell,” though in this context it derives merely from this special abbreviation for enfermé, “locked away” (Oxford Companion to French Literature, ed. Sir Paul Harvey and J.E. Heseltine [Oxford: Clarendon, 1959]).
After Verger hands in his notice, Van helps himself to any books he fancies from the library and heaps them “in Ada’s lap wherever she and Van had their trysts”: Ada’s new free access to books plainly correlates or equates with her free access to sex. Immediately, the novel digresses into its longest discussion of incest, as leading to “one hairless, five-legged, impotent little lamb,” or as comically compounded in Ivan Ivanov’s family: incest not as the superimperial prerogative of the Egyptian royal family, but as the supposedly inadvertent consequence of a peasant family’s sleeping in overcrowded communality. As so often, Nabokov here describes aspects of real history under the guise of fantastic improbability. Another incest-insect transition (from Ivan Ivanov to Serromyia amorata) moves us along the shelves to biology, sociology, literature and then art, which all prefigure or repeat Van and Ada’s sexual preoccupations in ways that again echo the repetitions of Bosch’s central panel.
Overtly, Lucette does not feature at all in this chapter; but as so often, Nabokov implies her covertly. The vert (French “green”) in the names of both Monsieur Verger and Miss Vertograd is emphatically Lucette’s color throughout the novel. Monsieur Verger’s name is close to Blanche’s false claim to be be vierge, but also to verge as “penis” (echoed in Ada’s echo of Blanche, “je suis sur la verge,” 334); Lucette is a virgin right up to her death, and after her introduction to sex at Ada’s hands, she puns obsessively on penis and clitoris. Verger and Vertograd both have a skin problem; so does Lucette, although much milder, her susceptibility to the very sun that alleviates their condition. Their psoriasis is associated with martyrdom and burning at the stake, as Lucette’s fate will be from the “oriflamme” that has already linked her with Joan of Arc (127), through her being tied to a tree in I.23 (and hence catching her first glimpse of Van and Ada making love) to the rue des Jeunes Martyres where Van meets her in Paris just before her suicide.
The library chapter dwells on the Chateaubriand-and-incest and insect-incest themes and the love-making from behind themes strongly associated with Lucette (see Afternote to I.13 and Boyd 1985/2001:125-28 and Afternotes to I.13 and I.18 and Boyd 1985/2001: 134-36, 139-44). But it focuses above all on once-forbidden erotica, and Lucette when she explains to Van about her initiation into sex at Ada’s hands notes that at the time she was “reading a lot, or copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces” (376). When she tells Van about Ada’s introducing her to sex, she cannot help revealing herself, for the first time, as dangerously destabilized by her physical entanglements with Ada and her obsessive emotional entanglement with Van, and right here, it is to the library she reverts in order to introduce the subject: the library, and its Vaniada divan, with at one end “the closet in which you two locked me up at least ten times” (373), and its secret drawer with a minuscule red pawn that she uses as an emblem of the clitoris Ada has rubbed so raw. She explains: “We were Mongolian tumblers, monograms, anagrams, adalucindas.” During the day they were just ordinary sisters, Ada botanizing or learning lines for her next audition, Lucette “copying beautiful erotic pictures from an album of Forbidden Masterpieces that . . . were far more realistic than the scroll-painting by Mong Mong, very active in 888, a millennium before Ada said it illustrated Oriental calisthenics when I found it by chance in the corner of one of my ambuscades” (375-76: italics added), a scene anticipated in I.21 by the “Oriental Erotica prints . . . artistically second-rate and inept calisthenically” that Van and Ada find in the library, with “a Mongolian woman . . . communicating sexually with six . . . gymnasts” (137: italics added).
I.21 ends with a semi-colon series that anticipates the parodic, involuted, retrospective summary of the last paragraph of the novel: “That library had provided a raised stage for the unforgettable scene of the Burning Barn; it had thrown open its glazed doors; it had promised a long idyll of bibliolatry; it might have become a chapter in one of the old novels on its own shelves; a touch of parody gave its theme the comic relief of life.” Now that Van and Ada are frankly and fully together, forbidden knowledge has become knowledge tasted and shared. Now, forward narrative momentum can turn back on itself or aside or give way to endless replay, for Van and Ada as both sexual practitioners and sexual connoisseurs. I.21 will be the first of a number of chapters or passages that reflect, repeat, concentrate and parody the themes of the ardors of Ardis. And in each of them, as in Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, Nabokov evokes the garden of Edenic innocence (here, the comic innocence and harmlessness of Vertograd and Verger), the crowded parade of parodic repetitions (here, the comic display of erotica and sexology) and hints of hellish consequences (here, the links with Blanche and her venereal disease and her compromised myths of love, and with Lucette and her martyrdom in the fires of Van and Ada’s desire).