Part One, Chapter 8


This chapter’s comedy of adolescent awkwardness begins when Mlle Larivière instructs Ada to take Van by the hand to play. Van disengages himself, perfectly naturally for a boy of fourteen, by bending down to pick up a cone to throw. But this moment when he detaches himself from Ada foreshadows the end of Ardis the Second, when he flees from Ardis after having heard of her affairs with Philip Rack and especially Percy de Prey and keeps himself bitterly apart from her for years.

In 1892 Van and Ada, reunited, look together over the album of photographs kitchen boy Kim Beauharnais took of this as of so many moments when they were unaware of his presence: “ ‘Zdraste, Ivan Dementievich,’ said Van, greeting his fourteen-year-old self, shirtless, in shorts, aiming a conical missile at the marble fore-image of a Crimean girl doomed to offer an everlasting draught of marble water to a dying marine from her bullet-chipped jar.” (399) What Van means by this is that the photograph anticipates his reaction to the report that Percy de Prey, after being wounded in the Second Crimean War in 1888, was shot and killed by a smiling old Tartar, thus obviating the need for Van to kill him in a duel.

Van imagines Percy’s death in a way that serves as a kind of taunting revenge, a substitute for the unenacted duel, as he suggests what Percy’s last thoughts might have been: “I’m alive--who’s that?--civilian--sympathy--thirsty--daughter with pitcher--that’s my damned gun--don’t . . . et cetera or rather no et cetera. . . . But, of course, an invaluable detail in that strip of thought would have been--perhaps, next to the pitcher peri--a glint, a shadow, a stab of Ardis.” (320)

The first time Van had seen Percy de Prey at Ardis had been on the day Van arrived unannounced at Ardis the Second. Van walks straight into a formal party where he sees Ada but cannot talk to her privately. About to freshen up in his bedroom upstairs, he sees Percy on the lawn below not letting go of Ada’s hand soon enough: “she stood speaking to him and tossing her head in a way she had when nervous or displeased. De Prey kissed her hand. That was French, but all right. He held the hand he had kissed while she spoke and then kissed it again, and that was not done, that was dreadful, that could not be endured.” (189) Four years earlier, in I.8, taking Van’s hand, Ada “tossed back her hair” in a “self-conscious way,” before Van finds his pretext to release his hand (50); in 1888 she is self-conscious again, knowing that jealous Van might be watching Percy’s possessive farewell, and tosses her head as Percy refuses to release her hand.

She manages to convince Van that there is nothing between her and Percy. The last time Van sees Percy is at the picnic on Ada’s sixteenth birthday, when he still knows for sure only that Percy feels he has some kind of claim on Ada, and not yet that he has in fact been conducting an affair with her. Just before the two undeclared rivals lurch into a jarring fight, they stand together chucking pebbles at an old signboard (274). The report that Van makes of Percy’s Crimean death harks back to their uncompleted tussle and unfought duel at the picnic, and to the stone-throwing beforehand, and to Van’s throwing a cone (as Ada sees it, “stone”) four years earlier at a “woman of marble bending over a stamnos.” (50)

After hearing of Ada’s infidelities, Van reels away from Ardis the Second in pursuit of his rivals and refuses to answer her imploring letters. Four years earlier, here at the beginning of I.8, Van’s detaching himself so quickly from Ada’s hand in the very scene where their feelings make first contact anticipates Van’s severing himself bitterly from Ada in the fiercest of all their separations.


At the start of I.8, Van’s throwing a cone at a statue in the park appears natural in context, and poses us no problem until we find it much later recorded as his “aiming a conical missile at the marble fore-image of a Crimean girl.” The larvarium at the end of I.8 on the other hand immediately poses us problems of resolving the relationship between each caterpillar and its later transformation. But while it invites us to pay close attention to detail and to design, the larvarium passage conceals far more than it reveals.

The larvarium reflects Ada’s position on the border between child and adult, her change from a pre-sexual creature at the beginning of the summer to a sexual one by its end, just as her larvae themselves have changed. Her rearing of lepidopteral larva is innocent in itself, doubly innocent in view of her ignorance of human mating, and her motives in inviting Van to see her secret hoard are themselves innocent, though not unrelated to an excitement in his presence that she cannot yet understand. But her larvarium involves her mating female and male insects together by hand; the Cattleya Hawkmoth has grossly phallic implications; the literary sophistication which allows her to read Proust gives her at least a proxy awareness of the complexities of human desire.

Nabokov and Van play on the fact that Ada’s innocent interest in insects has little to do with incest--and soon will have everything to do with it. Her invitation to Van to visit her larvarium reflects for the first time the stimulus she feels in his company that will soon metamorphose in ways she does not yet understand into something far less innocent. Soon they will be mating more frenziedly than her insects, and incestuously at that. A pattern of insects and incest runs through the novel, from Ada’s word-games with Grace Erminin (who suggests “insect,” only for Ada to reply with “scient” and then “incest,” 85), to “Chateaubriand’s mosquito” (105-08) and beyond. The larvarium, at the very start of the special interest Van and Ada arouse in each other, serves as a kind of overture to the insect-incest opera.


If the larvarium for the moment is innocent, it connects with a past and a future far less so. Nabokov links Van’s visit to Ada’s larvarium on the second floor at Ardis with Van and Ada’s investigation, a little later in the summer, of Marina’s herbarium in Ardis’s attic. Herbarium and larvarium attest to a shared mother-daughter passion for collecting (not unlike the relationship Nabokov sketches in Speak, Memory between his mother’s passion for collecting mushrooms and his own for collecting butterflies). Nabokov highlights the connection by having Dr. Lapiner (from French lapin, “rabbit”) contribute a specimen of a rare species to Marina’s collection (“Gentiane de Koch, rare, brought by lapochka [darling] Lapiner from his ‘mute gentiarium’,” 8) and having Dr. Krolik (from Russian krolik, “rabbit”) bring rareties for Ada’s larvarium (55.25-29, 79.20-27). Both passages play elaborately on Proust and specifically on the Guermantes strain in Proust’s novel (9.24-30, 57.01-02), and where the herbarium contains a butterfly orchid from Demon for Marina, the larvarium contains what we could call an orchid moth, the Cattleya Hawkmoth, associated with Marina and Demon. Why this insistent connection?

In Ada’s final chapter, Van and Ada are putting the final touches to Ada as they die as it were into each other and into the story of their love, “as it were into the finished book” (587). They are in Ex, the mountain resort where Marina had once collected the flowers in her herbarium and given birth to Van, and a third “Dr. Rabbit,” Dr. Lagosse (from Greek lagos) now attends on them and presumably administers the painkillers that allow them to die together.

In this last chapter Van notes: “One great difficulty. The strange mirage-shimmer standing in for death should not appear too soon in the chronicle and yet it should permeate the first amorous scenes. Hard but not insurmountable (I can do anything, I can tango and tap-dance on my fantastic hands).” (584) He says he wants a hint of death to pervade the first amorous scenes, and he implies he has done it. Where, how, why?

I.8 is the earliest of the amorous scenes, moving from Van and Ada’s first touch of flesh to flesh and from Van’s sense of “sweet fire” (54.22) to their first shared secret, the larvarium. A reference to Aqua’s death strangely interrupts the description of the caterpillars there:

The two Puss Moth larvae had assumed a still uglier but at least more vermian and in a sense venerable aspect: their pitchforks now limply trailing behind them, and a purplish flush dulling the cubistry of their extravagant colors, they kept “ramping” rapidly all over the floor of their cage in a surge of prepupational locomotion. Aqua had walked through a wood and into a gulch to do it last year. A freshly emerged Nymphalis carmen was fanning its lemon and amber-brown wings on a sunlit patch of grating, only to be choked with one nip by the nimble fingers of enraptured and heartless Ada. (56)

Perhaps Aqua’s suicide appears here simply because the word “cage” triggers Van to think of his mother “in a cage of her own” (38.27), but perhaps there is more. After all, this is no stream of consciousness but a carefully crafted retrospect.

The Nymphalis carmen butterfly playfully echoes Lolita (see 56.29-30n), and in preparation for her suicide Aqua collects sleeping pills, including “a plump purple pill reminding her, she had to laugh, of those with which the little gypsy enchantress in the Spanish tale (dear to Ladore schoolgirls) puts to sleep all the sportsmen and all their bloodhounds at the opening of the hunting season.” (27-28; see 27.33-28.03n)

If the Nymphalis carmen connects strongly with Aqua’s death, the Puss Moths and their “diabolical anal appendages” and “pitchforks now limply trailing behind them” as they “ramp” across the floor seem pointedly to anticipate the death of Daniel Veen: his crawling over the ground, thinking he is ridden by a devil, and trailing a red towel from his rump (see 56.24-29n).

The Cattleya Hawkmoth or Odettian Sphinx that Marina refuses to hold refers emphatically to Proust’s Odette, and via her to Marina, whose relationship with Demon so strongly echoes that of Odette and Swann. The caterpillar becomes a “mummy with a comically encased trunk,” and this degrading transformation seems (again, reinforced by Swann’s reaction to the aging Odette) to reflect Demon’s distaste for the aging Marina (“ Marina, essentially a dummy in human disguise . . . , ” 252-53), and even to anticipate her penultimate transformation, just before her death, into a “mummy-wizened” (452.07) “dummy-mummy” (583.02-03).

Van seems to have described three kinds of caterpillars in Ada’s larvarium so as to evoke the “strange mirage-shimmer standing in for death.” Perhaps the other three, the sharkmoth caterpillar, the Lorelei Underwing and the Persian Vaporer, also imply the deaths of other characters crucial in Van and Ada’s lives (Demon, Lucette, Andrey Vinelander?), but any positive identifications seem forced.

Yet the association of the caterpillars and death is insistent here. Why caterpillars? “Worms” are natural emblems of death--both as larvae (especially maggots) and as earthworms--and the vermian aspect of these caterpillars is twice stressed ( Marina’s “ Normal young ladies should loathe snakes and worms,” Van’s “had assumed a still uglier but at least more vermian and in a sense venerable aspect,” 56). The association of these caterpillars with death becomes still stronger when we learn that Ada, who collects them with the help of Dr. Krolik, after his death in 1886 places “all her live pupae in his open coffin where he lay, she said, as plump and pink as in vivo” (219).

After Van hears about Ada’s affairs with Philip Rack and Percy de Prey, he strides away from Ardis the Second without turning back, but retains in his mind “a composite picture of her standing where he left her.” (296) “Worst of all” the images that make up this composite is the recollection of his brutal outburst

triggered by her suggesting--quite sweetly and casually (as she might suggest walking a little way on the edge of a bog to see if a certain orchid was out)--that they visit the late Krolik’s grave in a churchyard by which they were passing--and he had suddenly started to shout “You know I abhor churchyards, I despise, I denounce death, dead bodies are burlesque, I refuse to stare at a stone under which a roly-poly old Pole is rotting, let him feed his maggots in peace, the entomologies of death leave me cold, I detest, I despise--”); he went on ranting that way for a couple of minutes and then literally fell at her feet, kissing her feet, imploring her pardon (297).

(The “roly-poly old Pole” is both Krolik and Polonius, who, Hamlet explains to Claudius, after he has killed him, is “At supper. . . . Not where he eats, but where ’a is eaten; a certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots,” 4.3.17-23.)

Given this contempt for death, Van appears to use the caterpillars as a way of introducing death early into his story and simultaneously denying its finality, hinting that it is a metamorphosis rather than a termination. In his own early work Nabokov himself had used such images much more explicitly than Van (“My--gusenitsy angelov” [“We are the caterpillars of angels”] in a 1923 poem, “Net, bytie--ne zybkaia zagadka”; the Attacus moth that breaks free of its chrysalis in the 1925 story “Rozhdestvo” [“Christmas”] and seems to suggest that the hero’s son lives on beyond death). In his last novel before Ada, Nabokov actually links a larvarium like Ada’s violet-filled one with preparation for the beyond, when John Shade writes of the Institute of Preparation for the Hereafter, or I.P.H.: “Iph / Was a larvorium and a violet, / A grave in Reason’s early spring.” (52, ll. 515-17) And during the writing of Ada, Nabokov told an interviewer “I also intend to collect butterflies in Peru or Iran before I pupate.” (Interview with Dieter Zimmer, Die Zeit, November 1, 1966) Van seems to introduce death by way of the larvarium so that its “mirage-shimmer” implies some hazy beyond.


Krolik dies midway between Ardis the First and Ardis the Second. He appears to have been Ada’s first lover other than Van, before Philip Rack and then Percy de Prey. Confessing his own passion for Ada, which Van had resented at the time, Greg Erminin lists others: “Percy de Prey who boasted to me about her, and drove me crazy with envy and pity, and Dr. Krolik, who, they said, also loved her, and Philip Rack, a composer of genius--dead, dead, all dead!” (454-55).

Ada’s biological collecting is repeatedly associated with her lovers other than Van. Van will describe her pointedly, over her objections, as “not an easily frightened or overfastidious little girl (‘Je raffole de tout ce qui rampe’),” 97), recalling her first remark on introducing him to the larvarium (55), which looks like a “rabbitry,” as if in homage to “Krolik,” who is then mentioned on the next page as “dear Crawly” (56). Seeing a photograph of him, Van cries out that “he looks much less furry and fat than I imagined. In fact, darling, he’s a big, strong, handsome old March Hare! Explain!” (405)--and presumably has the sexual drive that led to the expression “mad as a March Hare.” The first caterpillar mentioned as his contribution to her larvarium is a Nymphalis carmen, in allusion to Lolita and the disparity between Humbert’s age and Lolita’s, as between Krolik’s and Ada’s (she is only fourteen when Krolik dies).

During 1888, her botanizing is linked again and again with her infidelity, since it turns out to be a cover for her meetings with Percy de Prey (“you will still see me going out alone, to wander alone in the woods and return alone with a little lone lily,” 193; “when Ada was away in the woods (‘in the woods,’ ‘botanizing’),” 213; “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,” 260; “Now listen, listen! Those walks in the woods meant nothing. Wait, Van! I was weak only once or twice when you had hurt him so hideously, or perhaps three times in all,” 296; “the whole of 1888 has been ripped out. . . . I don’t mind--I mean I have no desire to see the Knabenkräuter [orchids, testicles] and other pendants of your friends botanizing with you,” 408).

Ada first mentions Andrey Vinelander, whom she marries, in a letter to Van: “If you scorn the maid at your window I will aerogram my immediate acceptance of a proposal of marriage that has been made to your poor Ada a month ago in Valentine State. . . . The only thing we have in common is a keen interest in many military-looking desert plants, especially various species of agave, hosts of the larvae of the most noble animals in America, the Giant Skippers (Krolik, you see, is burrowing again)” (385).

Ada’s biological collecting, then, which is introduced on the very day her and Van’s mutual attraction starts, also indicates her partners other than Van, and the resulting separations that mar their love. Her relationship with Krolik presumably develops into a sexual liaison during Van’s four-year absence from Ada; her affair with de Prey leads to the bitter separation between 1888 and 1892; her marriage to Andrey Vinelander keeps him from her until he turns 52.

By the time Van writes of the larvarium, he and Ada are almost slipping into death together, trying to avoid the aloneness of death (cf. Lolita’s “You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own,” Lolita 286); but he brings death into the account of the start of their love, and at the same time Ada’s infidelity, to stress the separation that prefigures the normal solitude of death.

In the herbarium in the attic, “lapochka [darling] Lapiner” brings Marina a rarity, a Gentiane de Koch (and it is surely not wrong to hear a double entendre in the name, in this herbarium found in a “cockloft”). In Ada’s larvarium, she has a rare Nymphalis carmen from “dear Crawly.” Both donations reflect the closeness of the donors to the collectors, mother and daughter, and hint at the women’s active love-lives. Marina and Demon, despite the intensity of their first passion, will be separated through Demon’s jealousy at her infidelity and despite more than one reunion they will remain apart to the point where, as Van senses, Demon looks on in wonderment and near-revulsion at his utter lack of connection with the woman he once adored. In the larvarium, Van stresses Marina’s role as an aging Odette, remote from her Swann.

Van too is separated from Ada because of his jealous rage at her infidelity, and he too when he sees her again at 50 after nearly two decades apart finds her at first unappetizingly metamorphosed. But they overcome their estrangement, they remain together, they live together, they die together into the story of their love.

The only time Van sees Marina and Demon together, when he witnesses his father’s estrangement from his mother, Demon leaves saying “Partir c’est mourir un peu, et mourir c’est partir un peu trop.” (261) Van and Ada themselves part, and die a little, but in the end they manage to die together. Van introduces the start of his love for Ada in terms that evoke death and the separation that can seem like a death before death itself, in order to contrast it with the triumph of his and Ada’s relationship over all their separations, and perhaps over death itself.

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