Part Two, Chapter 7
1. Viewing Kim’s Album
Pt. 2 Ch. 7, a surprise in itself and full of particular surprises though it is, plays a key role in the structure of Ada as a whole and in the repetitions of Ardis. It contrasts with Ardis the Second’s massive replay of Ardis the First—full of recollections, retrievals, and reenactments, even if also soured by suspicion, jealousy, evasion, and the dubious and dangerous entanglement of Lucette. This time the replay is displaced from Ardis itself to a Manhattan apartment, from many chapters to one, from dynamic and developing to static and shrunken, from richly subjective to objective or at least to Kim Beauharnais’s unfeeling subjectivity, inartistic indiscriminateness, and attempted exploitation.
Lucette’s knocking and entering as Van and Ada made love in Pt. 2 Ch. 6 had been an amusing re-enactment of Ardis, but Kim’s blackmail album of Ardis the First replays that first summer in a diminished and rankling way, crucial to the novel’s structure of shrinkage from the expansiveness of its early romance and its first expansive recapitulation.
Yet Pt. 2 Ch. 7 is also a comic pleasure for us, if certainly not for Van and Ada (“The first item in the evil series” (398), “That ape has vulgarized our own mind-pictures” (406), “It’s our entire past that has been spoofed and condemned” (408), “the matter-of-fact triviality of the album” (409)). We see old scenes anew and new scenes interspersed among the old, and we can test our memory and imagination against the unforeseen angles Kim’s camera offers—like, in the first photograph, the stopped moment of Marina’s and Ada’s return, Marina trying to take off her dustcoat, to gesture welcome to Van, and to contain her delight at her son’s arrival, while Ada bends to flip her flowers at Dack to stop his unheard barks.
The chapter offers a bravura performance in its interplay of the past and the present, flowing memory and frozen visual moment, direct description and more-or-less fanciful running commentary, Van and Ada’s different responses to the images—new to him, familiar by now to her—and to each other then and now. Nabokov admired Flaubertian and Joycean narrative counterpoint; this chapter takes the interplay to new degrees of flexibility. A photograph may lead to bold digression (two Peacock moths in copula take us to a sixteenth-century fresco in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio) or comic amplification (“Ah, drunken Ben Wright trying to rape Blanche in the mews—she has quite a big part in this farrago.” “He’s doing nothing of the sort. You see quite well they are dancing. It’s like the Beast and the Belle at the ball where Cinderella loses her garter and the Prince his beautiful codpiece of glass” (401)) or subjective restoration (Ada’s “very rare, radiant, seemingly uncalled-for smile shone on her practically Moorish lips” and Van’s promise to himself of a future recollection: “” (402).
In a novel so much about time and memory, this chapter offers a unique and attractive refresher, showing the selectivity, particularity, subjectivity, and revivability of memory interacting with the seemingly objective record of past time.
And it ends with another surprise: with Ada’s belated discovery, and now Van’s, that their love had become “a sacred secret and creed” (409) throughout Ladore, impelled by Blanche and the other servants and countryfolk: an ecstatic, romantic, and parodic view of their amours, the ebullient and absurd converse of the cold reductiveness of one lone servant’s stark photographic record.
On rare but telling occasions Nabokov stressed the importance of preparation and transition in the art of storytelling (see e.g. Song of Igor’s Campaign (New York: Vintage, 1960) 10, SL 156-57). Both Kim’s blackmail threat and the rhapsodic myth that “romantically inclined handmaids” have been circulating, as Van notes in his last remark in the chapter, show the dangers he and Ada face, and prepare for Demon’s discovery of his children as lovers at the end of Part 2.
Nabokov’s preparation is thorough even when he makes it immediately colorful and apparently inconsequential. At the start of Pt. 2 Ch. 7 Ada reports Kim’s visit to Ardis to show her his incriminating album: “Uncle Dan, who just then was being wheeled out by his handsome and haughty nurse into the garden where coppery and blood-red leaves were falling, clamored to be given the big book, but Kim said ‘Perhaps later,’ and joined Ada in the reception corner of the hall” (396). The glimpse of Dan with wheelchair, personal nurse, and fading mind prepares for his death and its consequence, Demon’s fateful surprise visit to impart the news, all the more so since the “coppery and blood-red leaves” recalls the translation from Coppée’s “Matin d’octobre” that Van quoted to Demon on his visit to Ardis (“The oak tree by its leaf of copper, / The maple by its blood-red glow,” 247).
But the most specific preparation in Pt. 2 Ch. 7 is for the very close of Part 2, the blinding of Kim, and the burning of his files, to ensure that he can never again trouble Van and Ada with blackmail threats.
Ada naively thinks she has paid Kim off, after he suggests that she should “keep (or destroy and forget, so as not to hurt anybody) the illustrated document now in her pretty hands” (397). Van at once realizes her mistake. A little later, looking at a photograph taken in the kissing phase of their love, he declares: “The scoundrel! . . . I will have to destroy him” (403). After seeing the first compromising stills, of their naked romp the morning after the Night of the Burning Barn, he comments to Ada with feigned casualness “I suppose Bouteillan knows Professor Beauharnais’s exact address in the Athens of Graphic Arts” (406). Knowing Van’s anger and sense of entitled vindictiveness, and knowing why he wants that address, Ada responds: “You shall not slaughter him” (406). Van continues to fume: “I will either horsewhip his eyes out or redeem our childhood by making a book of it: Ardis, a family chronicle” (406). A few minutes on, correcting his tentative identification of a footman in a photograph as “wheezy Jones,” Ada notes: “No, . . . that’s Price. Jones came four years later. He is now a prominent policeman in Lower Ladore” (407). Van then “nonchalantly” returns to the previous photograph and points out that it belongs not to one of his summer trips to Ardis but to a spring visit Ada must have had, presumably not on her own, to the willow islet in the Ladore River, and that the whole photographic record of 1888 has been ripped out of the album.
But while he “nonchalantly” thrusts these implicit reproaches at Ada, he has simultaneously also stored away her information about Jones being a “prominent policeman in Lower Ladore.” After he and Ada have been sundered by Demon, he searches out Jones (445) and offers him his Manhattan penthouse apartment (457) in exchange for his help in tracking down Kim Beauharnais and destroying his blackmailing files while he himself takes to Kim’s eyes with the point of an alpenstock (441, 445), blinding him to ensure he can neither photograph again nor recover negatives to blackmail Ada and him anew. The vicious deed comes later, but the brutal intention forms in Van as soon as he registers the threat that Kim’s photographs pose.
A theme of eavesdropping, eyewitnessing, and spying runs through Ada—unsurprisingly, given Van and Ada’s exuberant and rampant lovemaking around Ardis and Ladore. As a structural theme it also forms part of the novel’s playful homage to the history of the novel, here in parody of the eavesdropping resorted to for narrative convenience by so many novelists, including Lermontov, Proust, and Pasternak.
Introducing his translation of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, Nabokov writes:
A special feature of the structure of our book is the monstrous but perfectly organic part that eavesdropping plays in it. . . .
when a novelist desires to combine the traditional tale of romantic adventure (amorous intrigue, jealousy, revenge, etc.) with a narrative
in the first person, and has no desire to invent new techniques, he is somewhat limited in the choice of devices.
[Since Lermontov] . . . was more eager to have his story move than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion,
he employed the convenient device of having his Maksim Maksimich and Pechorin overhear, spy upon, and witness any such scene as
was needed for the elucidation or the promotion of the plot. Indeed, the author’s use of this device is so consistent throughout the book
that it ceases to strike the reader as a marvelous vagary of chance and becomes, as it were, the barely noticeable routine of fate.
(Translator’s preface, A Hero of Our Time, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1958, 10).
Nabokov then proceeds to tabulate thirteen instances of eavesdropping in Lermontov’s short novel.
In his Cornell lectures, Nabokov commented on Proust: “We find Marcel actually eavesdropping on his aunt’s dream—a very singular event in the annals of literature. Eavesdropping is, of course, one of the oldest literary devices, but here the author goes to the limits of the device” (LL 230). As novelist he makes Kinbote, who compulsively spies on his neighbour, Shade, remark: “Windows, as well known, have been the solace of first-person literature throughout the ages. But this observer never could emulate in sheer luck the eavesdropping Hero of Our Time or the omnipresent one of Time Lost” (PF 87).
After telling an interviewer in August 1966, while he was deep in Ada,that “Doctor Zhivago is false, melodramatic, badly written. It is false to history and false to art,” Nabokov added: “Yet people like Edmund Wilson and Isaiah Berlin, they have to love Zhivago to prove that good writing can come out of Soviet Russia. They ignore that it is really a bad book. There are some absolutely ridiculous scenes. Scenes of eavesdropping for instance. You know about eavesdropping. If it is not brought in as parody it is almost philistine” (TWS 350-51).
In Ada eavesdropping is “brought in as parody”—and as comedy, as romance, and as tragedy. (See Boyd 2011, Ch. 25, especially 365-67, for a suggestion of the early importance of eavesdropping or spying in VN’s gestating the ideas for Ada.)
Ada’s parody of eavesdropping is never more exuberant than in the coda at the end of Pt. 2 Ch. 7, where Ada, “speaking of love and its myths,” reports how “their first summer” at Ardis became, without them realizing, “a sacred secret and creed. Romantically inclined handmaids, whose reading consisted of Gwen de Vere and Klara Mertvago, adored Van, adored Ada, adored Ardis’s ardors in arbors. . . . ” (408-09). The parody points both to Blanche as the source of the secret and catalyst of the creed, and to her “tattered chapbook, . . . Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical romance by a pastor” (53)—to Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago—as a particularly egregious and uncritical exponent of eavesdropping.
In one sense Van and Ada’s insatiable and unflagging venery in woods and by brooks, which gives rise to this orgy of eyewitnessing, eavesdropping, and romantic mythmaking, recalls the central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, with its endless repetitions of naked sensual delight. But there all indulge themselves naked, everyone sees and can be seen by everyone else, without the slightest need to hide. That is not how things are in the real human world, or even in the arbors of half-paradisal Ardis on Antiterra.
From the very first at Ardis, Van is aware that sex can rivet attention: “Would Van like him or a maid to unpack? Oh, one of the maids, said Van, wondering briefly what item in a schoolboy’s luggage might be supposed to shock a housemaid. The picture of naked Ivory Revery (a model)? Who cared, now that he was a man?” (36). Blanche’s ogling that image, indeed, has been captured by Kim’s camera: “Another girl (Blanche!) stooping and squatting exactly like Ada (and indeed not unlike her in features) over Van’s valise opened on the floor, and ‘eating with her eyes’ the silhouette of Ivory Revery in a perfume advertisement” (398-99).
And from the very first moment of real sexual encounter—when Ada’s naked crotch falls on Van’s face in the Shattal Tree—Van and Ada worry about prying eyes, in a way that amplifies the eavesdropping-spying theme. Rattled by that Semi-Fortunate Fall, Van and Ada head off in opposite directions:
Then, by a nice coincidence, both went tearing back to the house to hide their diaries which both thought they had left lying
open in their respective rooms. Ada, who feared the curiosity of Lucette and Blanche (the governess presented no threat, being
pathologically unobservant), found out she was wrong—she had put away the album with its latest entry. Van, who knew that
Ada was a little “snoopy,” discovered Blanche in his room feigning to make the made bed, with the unlocked diary lying on the
stool beside it. He slapped her lightly on the behind and removed the shagreen-bound book to a safer place. Then Van and Ada
met in the passage, and would have kissed at some earlier stage of the Novel’s Evolution in the History of Literature. It might
have been a neat little sequel to the Shattal Tree incident. Instead, both resumed their separate ways—and Blanche, I suppose,
went to weep in her bower. (96)
Note that Ada fears Lucette and Blanche, but not the unobservant governess, and Van fears “snoopy” Ada but discovers instead Blanche reading his diary. Blanche’s “feigning to make the made bed” the first time she learns of Van’s passion for Ada perfectly matches Lucette’s seeming “to have almost disentangled herself” (143) from the skipping rope, the first time she spies on Van and Ada making love.
Lucette’s curiosity there has been aroused by what she has overheard from the Shattal Tree:
One afternoon they were climbing the glossy-limbed shattal tree at the bottom of the garden. Mlle Larivière and little
Lucette, screened by a caprice of the coppice but just within earshot, were playing grace hoops. One glimpsed now and
then, above or through foliage, the skimming hoop passing from one unseen sending stick to another. The first cicada of
the season kept trying out its instrument. A silver-and-sable skybab squirrel sat sampling
a cone on the back of a bench. (94)
In the next chapter, Van reflects:
After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established—high up in that
dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping—nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in
“Ardelia” (meaning “busybody”) is the name Van first confusedly applies to Lucette, when he first sees her at Ardis, and assumes she is the elder of the two sisters (36); this near-homophone of “ardilla” confirms that Lucette has been not leavesdropping but eavesdropping on the Shattal Tree scene.
The interweaving of Lucette and Blanche as spies on Van and Ada begins, then, right from this first mock-Fall. And Nabokov introduced into this scene two other potential observers: “pathologically unobservant” Larivière, whose misconstructions of what goes on among the Veen children she has been governess to at different stages will become another running theme; and Kim and his camera, foregrounded as early as Pt. 1 Ch. 1, only for Nabokov to keep the surprise of just how closely Kim observes Van and Ada’s sexual tumbles concealed until Pt. 2 Ch. 7: “A comparison piece: Ada’s very-much-exposed white thighs (her birthday skirt had got entangled with twigs and leaves) straddling a black limb of the tree of Eden” (401).
I have written elsewhere (Boyd 2011: 366) of the interlacing of Lucette and Blanche as eavesdroppers or spies throughout Ardis the First and Ardis the Second, and even here into Manhattan: the comedy of their so often catching sight of Van and Ada in the heat of passion, Blanche in the overflow of her sexual experience, Lucette in the burning but confused curiosity of her innocence, both fascinated by Van, both even offering themselves to him (Blanche at the end of Ardis the Second, Lucette in a letter at fifteen, a visit to Kingston at sixteen and a drunken confession a week later, and in Paris and mid-Atlantic at twenty-five). Both are damaged by love, Blanche through her eager promiscuity, and the gonorrhea that leaves her child blind, Lucette through her doomed emotional fixation on the one man she cannot have, and the suicide it leads to (see Boyd 1985/2001: 152-58 and Boyd 2011: 366-76).
4. Observing or Not, Feeling or Not
But I have not discussed, because I have not seen until now, the other contrasting pairing of two more characters linked into the “eavesdropping” chain: Mademoiselle Larivière and Kim Beauharnais.
As already mentioned, Ada fears the curiosity of Lucette and Blanche but does not worry about Mademoiselle Larivière, because she is “pathologically unobservant” (96)—a joke in itself, of course, on someone who sets herself up as a novelist. Yet the curious thing is that Larivière’s novel, Les Enfants Maudits, somehow reflects the passions of Van and Ada, even though their activities bypass her attention and recognition. Her novel even almost magically somehow updates itself as the configurations of their love change. And her misconstrual of the danger of Van’s intimate relationship with his cousin, which she shares with Marina, proves to be not wide of the mark, when it turns out that she frets about not Ada’s but Lucette’s having her head turned: in sad retrospect, after Lucette’s death, the governess seems wise despite herself. Mademoiselle Larivière and Les Enfants Maudits form a comic motif throughout Ardis the Second, from Van and Ada’s first night together, both awed at her “blossoming forth, bosoming forth as a great writer” (194), to the adaptation of the novel to film by the pool (I.32), to Mademoiselle Larivière’s “reading with mixed feelings and furious annotations the third shooting script of Les Enfants Maudits” (288) just after eyewitness Blanche has slipped Van the note warning him that he is being deceived and the enfants become maudits in a new way (287).
The end of the chapter by the pool, where Marina and her director are revamping the shooting script of Les Enfants Maudits, shows Van, Ada, and Lucette just beginning their slide into being “accursed” (as the title of the projected film is translated for Percy: “The Accursed Children,” 273). Van storms away from the pool, jealous of Marina’s toy-boy co-star, handsome Pedro, so obviously lusting after and flirting with Ada:
Lucette, always playing her part of the clinging, affectionately fussy lassy, placed both palms on Van’s
hairy chest and wanted to know why he was cross.
I’m not cross with you,” replied Van at last.
Lucette kissed his hand, then attacked him.
“Cut it out!” he said, as she wriggled against his bare thorax. “You’re unpleasantly cold, child.”
“It’s not true, I’m hot,” she retorted.
“Cold as two halves of a canned peach. Now, roll off, please.”
“Why two? Why?”
“Yes, why,” growled Ada with a shiver of pleasure, and, leaning over, kissed him on the mouth. He struggled to rise.
The two girls were now kissing him alternatively, then kissing each other, then getting busy upon him again—Ada in perilous
silence, Lucette with soft squeals of delight. I do not remember what Les Enfants Maudits did or said in Monparnasse’s
novelette—they lived in Bryant’s château, I think, and it began with bats flying one by one out of a turret’s oeil-de-boeuf into
the sunset, but these children (whom the novelettist did not really know—a delicious point) might also have been filmed rather
entertainingly had snoopy Kim, the kitchen photo-fiend, possessed the necessary apparatus. (205)
This leads into Lucette’s most morally dubious entanglement yet in Van and Ada’s desire:
Lucette’s dewy little contributions augmented rather than dampened Van’s invariable reaction to the only and main girl’s
lightest touch, actual or imagined. Ada, her silky mane sweeping over his nipples and navel, seemed to enjoy doing everything to
jolt my present pencil and make, in that ridiculously remote past, her innocent little sister notice and register what Van could not
control. The crushed flower was now being merrily crammed under the rubber belt of his black trunks by twenty tickly fingers.
As an ornament it had not much value; as a game it was inept and dangerous. He shook off his pretty tormentors, and walked away
on his hands, a black mask over his carnival nose. Just then, the governess, panting and shouting, arrived on the scene. “Mais qu’est-ce
qu’il t’a fait, ton cousin?” she kept anxiously asking, as Lucette, shedding the same completely unwarranted tears that Ada had once
shed, rushed into the mauve-winged arms. (205-06)
Lucette as eyewitness and half-participant even has her attention directed by Ada: “seemed to enjoy doing everything to . . . make . . . her innocent little sister notice and register what Van could not control” (205)—in other words, the rising erection under his swimming trunks.
Mademoiselle Larivière does not see what has gone on, but she instinctively comforts Lucette, and her concern aroused here will develop until she divulges her fears to Marina, who summons Van to her room in Pt. 1 Ch. 37 to warn him about turning his cousin’s head. Although Mademoiselle Larivière does not “observe,” she does intuit feelings, rather giving the lie to Van’s “but these children (whom the novelettist did not really know—a delicious point)” (205). The sentence continues: these children “might also have been filmed rather entertainingly had snoopy Kim, the kitchen photo-fiend, possessed the necessary apparatus” (205). Notice here the conjunction of the “pathologically unobservant” governess and the “kitchen photo-fiend,” whose camera had not only been a witness at key moments in Ardis the First, but has already, by this stage, recorded an early phase of Ada’s relationship with Percy de Prey, in the one color photograph of 1888 that Ada absent-mindedly fails to rip out of Kim’s blackmail album. Van has flared with jealous fury at Pedro’s attention to Ada, but Kim’s camera has already recorded evidence of a much more warranted reason for jealousy: Ada and Percy together on the willow islet in the Ladore (407).
Nabokov has set up another pattern: Mademoiselle Larivière, unobservant but emotionally attuned to her little charge Lucette, and even to the Van and Ada she had once taught French, versus Kim, emotionally insensitive but compulsively ready to photograph and indeed to snoop and spy. As author Nabokov deftly links governess and kitchen boy by the motif of film: the adaptation of Larivière’s novel, and the hypothetical movie that Kim could have made of the three children in their complicated, compromising and ominous romp. And he foregrounds Larivière as novelist who almost inadvertently tracks the emotions of the “accursed children,” yet fails to see so much of what goes on between them, while he keeps alive the theme of Kim as “photo-fiend” observing and even filming the children closely, but downplays it, as if it were mere hypothesis, so as not to impinge on the surprise of the blackmail album four years later, with its evidence that Kim has already been tracking Ada closely in 1888, even before Van’s return.
To recapitulate the eavesdropping theme: Nabokov foregrounds and contrasts the apparently only comical eavesdropping of promiscuous Blanche and the eavesdropping-cum-entanglement of innocent Lucette; and he foregrounds Mademoiselle Larivière as the apparently comically unobservant novelist who nevertheless almost magically tracks (with amused authorial assistance) the emotional turmoil of the Veen children, and contrasts her with Kim, the alert, always opportunely present photo-fiend, without allowing us to suspect Kim is closely monitoring Ada and her amours at Ardis. No writer, surely, has ever done so much with eavesdropping, in adjusting and distinguishing the means, motives, abilities and modes of each “eavesdropper,” and in the elegance of the interlocked pairs of contrasted characters.
Unlike in the central panel of the Garden of Earthly Delights, love in the real world, even of Antiterra, involves uncertainties, privacies, jealousy, rivalries, conflicts of interest, concealments, from the moment Van and Ada rush back from their fall in the Tree of Eden, Van to check his diary is safe from “snoopy” Ada (96), Ada because she rightly fears the curiosity of Blanche and Lucette, while “snoopy Kim” (205) has already recorded “very-much-exposed” Ada (401) straddling a limb of the “Tree of Knowledge” (95).
Van and Ada, reckless though they can be in pursuit of “their passionate pump-joy exertions” (286), also recognize the need for concealment, especially after they make their discoveries in the Ardis attic, in between rounds of lovemaking, and deduce that they are full brother and sister:
“Now don’t you think we should resume our shorts and shirts and go down, and bury or
burn this album at once, girl. Right?”
“Right,” answered Ada. “Destroy and forget. But we still have an hour before tea.” (9)
That awareness of the risk of their love being discovered suddenly jumps to an entirely new level in Pt. 2 Ch. 7, with another album that Kim proposes to Ada it might be best “for her to keep (or destroy and forget, so as not to hurt anybody)” (397). Nabokov has prepared for this from his first chapter, but ensures it hits us, as it does Ada and Van, by surprise.
Van seethes with icy indignation. Seeing the first really compromising snapshots, of their “nonstop three-hour kiss Under the Larches immediately afterwards,” he cries: “The scoundrel! . . . He must have been creeping after us on his belly with his entire apparatus. I will have to destroy him” (403). Fearing that he may well mean what he says, Ada tries to divert him in words (“No more destruction, Van. Only love”) and actions (those that follow her next words: “‘Intermission,’ begged Ada, ‘quick-quick,’” 403) and a direct plea: “You shall not slaughter him” (406).
As we have seen, Van mentally stores up, even as he is processing the many unpleasant surprises of the album, key information that he needs to pursue Kim: his lecturing “at the School of Photography in Kalugano” (397) and Jones’s now being “a prominent policeman in Lower Ladore” (407). He will track Kim down, and with Jones’s help, burn his files and “use . . . an alpenstock to release a brute’s fury” (445) on Kim’s eyes, ensuring that he will never be able to wield a camera or sift negatives or prints to threaten them again.
Van’s blinding of Kim will not be mentioned until the last chapter of Part 2, and then only in partial information releases, at moments of dramatic tension focused elsewhere, but it is implicit already in Pt. 2 Ch. 7 in his immediate surge of anger and intent and his feigned nonchalance as he files away information to help him pursue his target.
The future but already implicit blinding of Kim pairs ghoulishly with Ada’s report that Blanche and her Trofim “have a blind child,” Van’s callous response “Love is blind,” and his gentler afterthought, “Will their child remain blind? I mean, did you get them a really first-rate physician?” (408), itself in keeping with the ghoulish “compensation” Van offers for blinded Kim: “‘Amends have been made,’ replied fat Van with a fat man’s chuckle. ‘I’m keeping Kim safe and snug in a nice Home for Disabled Professional People, where he gets from me loads of nicely brailled books on new processes in chromophotography’” (446).
Van’s “Love is blind” leads to Ada’s explanation of the romantic legends that grew up around Ardis the First and the lovers of Ladore:
“Oh yes, hopelessly blind. But speaking of love and its myths, do you realize—because I never did before talking to
her a couple of years ago—that the people around our affair had very good eyes indeed? Forget Kim, he’s only the
necessary clown—but do you realize that a veritable legend was growing around you and me while we played and
She had never realized, she said again and again (as if intent to reclaim the past from the matter-of-fact triviality
of the album), that their first summer in the orchards and orchidariums of Ardis had become a sacred secret and creed,
throughout the countryside. (408-09)
The surprises of Kim’s album segue into the surprise of Ada’s discovery about the myths of love radiating out from Blanche, and the amplified dangers of the disclosure of her and Van’s love that will all too soon materialize in Demon’s edict severing them. And at the same time the mention of Blanche’s child, blind from her mother’s venereal disease, and the anticipations of Kim’s blinding, pair these two eavesdroppers of opposite emotional casts: the romantic would-be extoller of love, the unromantic would-be informer on love.
The central panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights offers a picture of delight without consequence. Like Bosch in the triptych’s hellish right-hand panel, Nabokov knows that that is not an option in the real world. Love can cause pain, one way or another. It often needs privacy, and the breach of privacy can have dire consequences, whether in Kim’s heartless blackmail, or in Blanche’s indiscriminate, promiscuous open-heartedness, which leads both to her passing on to Van the secrets of Ada’s infidelities, and thus to the end of Ardis the Second, and, in a different way, to her venereal disease and the damage to her child.
Blanche’s ill luck, though, is of a morally different order from either Kim’s blackmail or Van’s ruthless response. Demon’s son though he is, and demonic, Van never acts quite so viciously elsewhere. Yet that has been more by chance than by principle or restraint. His anger and his appalling sense he is entitled to act on it have been evident throughout, in the sudden flare-ups of hostility toward his rivals for Ada, whether only hypothetical—“it’s the fellows I’ll kill” (158) at the end of Ardis the First—or actual, as in his thwarted duel with Percy and his planned beating of unduelable Rack, a thrashing “with a strong cane” (294), and, when he loses that, his buying another “rude, stout article with a convenient grip and an alpenstockish point capable of gouging out translucent bulging eyes” (305), only for Rack to be found on his deathbed and Percy to be reported already dead.
Nabokov links Kim particularly closely with the rivals who could also have been the victims of Van’s wrath by making Kim a lecturer “on the Art of Shooting Life at the School of Photography in Kalugano” (397)—where Van would have shot Rack, had he been duelable, and where he faces a duel with Captain Tapper, in the overflow of his anger, and where he confronts Rack already near death, and where, as he departs, he hears the news of Percy’s death that he recounts with such glee and that alone stopped him from pursuing his closest rival.
Van and Ada skip over Lucette in Kim’s album, as they had tried to skip over Lucette in Ardis the First, but Nabokov does not overlook either her or other victims of demonic conduct.
“Skip Lucette skipping rope” (399) Van records, as narrator, echoing himself or Ada as they leaf through the album. Lucette skips rope throughout Ardis the First, but pointedly, she “abandoned her skipping rope to squat on the brink of the brook and float a fetus-sized rubber doll” in the scene by the brook. When Van strips to retrieve the doll after it floats away, and easily-aroused Ada has him tie Lucette up to give them precious moments to prance off and make love, they do so with the skipping rope that she “seemed to have almost disentangled herself” (143) from, but is actually in the process of trying to retie herself, after ogling them in action, when they return. Nabokov ensures that even Van and Ada’s skipping over Lucette in the album, therefore, evokes her as eyewitness in this album of images from a stealthier and nastier spy.
Earlier on the same page, Van as narrator also exhorts, “let’s skip nature shots—of skunklike squirrels” (399). This in fact refers to the “silver-and-sable skybab squirrel” (94) near the shattal tree, when Ada tumbles down onto Van, and “little Lucette, screened by a caprice of the coppice but just within earshot” (94), overhears their exchange after their fall, as confirmed by the “ardilla” or squirrel “leavesdropping” (98) and linked with Ardelia-Lucette in the next chapter. Lucette as eavesdropper, therefore, is implied in the one other set of “skipped” photographs in Kim’s album.
But this squirrel species has also made one earlier appearance. In her suicide note to Demon and Van, Aqua reports that during her last ever picnic, where she has already swallowed a deadly dose of pills, she “noticed exactly the same skunk-like squirrels, Van, that your Darkblue ancestor imported to Ardis Park, where you will ramble one day, no doubt” (29). Pairing the two suicides, Nabokov pointedly links Van and Ada’s thoughtlessness toward Lucette, as witness of their ardors, with Demon’s grosser disregard for frail Aqua, in his renewed passion for her sister.
Kim and Lucette are the two witnesses to Van and Ada’s ardor whose fate is most directly derailed by their having watched the lovers so closely. It might seem difficult to link them, when Van and Ada skip over the only photograph in Kim’s album that involves Lucette. But Nabokov has juxtaposed Kim and Lucette from the first, from the novel’s first chapter and the first mention of either character:
Another daughter, this time Dan’s very own, followed on January 3, 1876.
Besides that old illustrated section of the still existing but rather gaga Kaluga Gazette, our frolicsome
Pimpernel and Nicolette found in the same attic a reel box containing what turned out to be (according to Kim,
the kitchen boy, as will be understood later) a tremendous stretch of microfilm taken by the globetrotter. (6)
A few minutes later Van and Ada will discover the herbarium in the attic, the album that discloses to their precocious powers of inference that Marina is Van’s real mother, and that they realize they need to “bury or burn. . . . Destroy and forget” (9), as Kim now suggests Ada might wish to “destroy and forget” (397) the blackmail album he produces, and as Van will write to Lucette that she should “Destroy and forget” (421) his note of apology to her after she rushes out in deep distress from the débauche à trois.
Although Van and Ada “skip over” Lucette in Kim’s album, Nabokov pointedly juxtaposes Lucette and Kim in Pt. 2 Chs 6 and 7. He presents Lucette as witness of Van and Ada bending over the Manhattan bathtub, a comic distillation of multiple eavesdropping scenes at and around Ardis, right up to Lucette’s last time as a spy at Ardis the Second (see II.6 Afternote), just before the two lovers pore over Kim’s album together that very morning in the same Manhattan apartment. The uniquely swift passage from the end of one chapter to the start of another is no accident, for it contrasts one brief moment of Lucette as “eavesdropper,” yet summing up her in that role through Ardis the First and Second, with all of Kim’s compulsive surveillance of Ardis throughout a whole album.
Most momentous of all is the connection between Kim’s ultimate fate and Lucette’s: he is blinded, she, Lucette, has her “little light,” her life, extinguished.
Van’s focus on himself and Ada above all else leads him to act with inexcusable savagery against Kim snooping on their passion and leads him and heedless Ada to take too little care of the sister they expose to and then entangle into their lovemaking. The fates of both eyewitnesses reveal the tragedy that can surround the rapture of love and what had seemed the comedy of its visibility.
As eyewitnesses, Lucette and Kim could not be more different: she comically involved, or so it had appeared, emotionally and intellectually curious, not seeking her own advantage; Kim apparently comically detached, inconsequential, and indiscriminate, but in fact coolly pursuing only his own gain. In terms of Van’s treatment of them they are equally far apart: Van’s raw brutality to Kim, versus his killing Lucette, as it were, almost with kindness, playing on her affection and admiration, then finding her older self attractive and even tempting but withholding himself in order to spare her, when it is already too late to do so.
The pointed linking of Lucette and Kim throws light on Nabokov’s moral thinking. In philosophical terms his ethics combines deontology, which emphasizes the rightness or wrongness of actions in themselves (the wrongness of Van’s treatment of Kim, regardless even of the wrongness of the blackmail that he wants to end); consequentialism, the appraisal of actions in terms of their effects (the cumulative damage Van and Ada do by their thoughtlessness toward Lucette); and virtue ethics, the ethics of character and moral habit (Van’s focusing so intently on his love for Ada that he treats others with too little concern, except for his utter rage against any who stand in his way, whether rivals in love or blackmailer Kim). No wonder Nabokov thought that the time would come when he would be reappraised as no “frivolous firebird” but “a rigid moralist kicking sin” (SO 193).
7. Variation, Elaboration, and Concealment
In introducing Nabokov’s critique of the temptingly easy device of eavesdropping, I quoted him on A Hero of Our Time: because Lermontov “was more eager to have his story move than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion, he employed the convenient device of having his Maksim Maksimich and Pechorin overhear, spy upon, and witness any such scene as was needed for the elucidation or the promotion of the plot” (HT x). Despite his Cornell lectures and the forewords or afterwords to most of his Russian novels and two of his English ones, Nabokov, unlike Henry James, does not often write about many of the aspects of fiction that matter most to him. Just a few brief references to the art of preparation and transition point to something over which he took extraordinary care. And this reference to Lermontov’s wanting his story to advance more “than to vary, elaborate and conceal the methods of its propulsion” highlights other key elements of the art of fiction on which he expands even less.
Pt. 2 Ch. 7, as we have seen, is preparation for the end of Part 2, the consequences for Van and Ada’s relationship of its becoming known to others—crucially, to Demon—and the consequences for Kim of his threatening to make the relationship known. Note how Nabokov pointedly contrasts the consequences that Van dwells on, and uses to shape the structure of his story—his separation from Ada at Demon’s insistence—with the lifelong consequences for Kim that Van chooses to underplay and even laugh off “with a fat man’s chuckle” (446).
But Pt. 2 Ch. 7, although it prepares for new plot developments, also offers a striking lesson in narrative variation, elaboration, and concealment.
Even at Ardis the First Van and Ada already celebrate the past they have so far shared and anticipate their future recollections together: “My sister, do you still recall / The blue Ladore and Ardis Hall?” (138). In Ardis the Second they obsessively compare and contrast the present summer with their previous summer together, a partial recapture and even re-enactment, a partial advance and yet also a reversal and betrayal. In Pt. 2 Ch. 7 the story returns once more to Ardis the First not via Van and Ada’s hot senses and fond or even reproachful memories but through Kim’s cool tabulation, not through natural flow but through unnatural selection, with some moments elaborated (Marina’s and Ada’s reaching Ardis after Van’s arrival, Van and Ada’s first morning’s lovemaking after the Night of the Burning Barn) and many other moments added, missed, or recast.
At Kim’s first photographic evidence of their naked romp together under the trees and in “the lush herbage,” Van declares: “I’m sorry you showed it to me. That ape has vulgarized our own mind-pictures. I will either horsewhip his eyes out or redeem our childhood by making a book of it: Ardis, a family chronicle” (406). Unfortunately, he will end up doing both, but as his announcement makes clear, Ada as a whole is a further variation on their reliving, recalling, and re-exploring their past, within Ardis the First, Ardis the Second, and Manhattan, both in Lucette’s blundering into the bathroom to find them fiercely engaged and in Kim’s album. And Van and Ada’s different responses to the scenes Kim’s camera has recorded offer another kind of variation that anticipates their divergences in the margins or main text of Ada’s typescript as they recall their past after not just eight years but almost eighty.
Kim’s album provides a bold variation not only on the amours of Van and Ada but also on the accompanying theme of the attention others pay to it, as eavesdroppers or eyewitnesses: Blanche, as an experienced and eager hand in matters of love, Lucette as a confused non-initiate yet also dangerously initiated, Mlle Larivière as a comically unobservant recaster of the emotions of “the accursed children,” Kim as, it now turns out, less a comically omnipresent and indiscriminate recorder of Ardis than a coldly menacing snoop. In Pt. 2 Ch. 7 Nabokov almost rounds off the eavesdropping theme with the contrast between Kim’s reductive record and the myth of love that Blanche and other “romantically inclined handmaids” have spread around Van and Ada’s “first summer in the orchards and orchidariums of Ardis” (409). Note, too, Nabokov’s concealment here: although we have often previously seen Kim as photo-fiend and Blanche as amorous observer of Van and Ada’s ardor, he ensures we anticipate neither Kim’s album nor the amplifying echoes of Blanche’s romantic enthusiasm.
I have mentioned, as part of Nabokov’s art of fiction, preparation and transition, as well as variation, elaboration and concealment. Notice Nabokov’s deft transition from Kim’s album to Blanche’s romantic mythmaking (with inbuilt preparation on the theme of blindness, in Blanche’s blind child), in Ada’s “Oh yes, hopelessly blind. But speaking of love and its myths, do you realize—because I never did before talking to her a couple of years ago—that the people around our affair had very good eyes indeed? Forget Kim, he’s only the necessary clown—but do you realize that a veritable legend was growing around you and me while we played and made love?” (408)
And note the sonic elements, after Kim’s silent stills, in “Their swains, plucking ballads on their seven-stringed Russian lyres under the racemosa in bloom or in old rose gardens (while the windows went out one by one in the castle), added freshly composed lines—naive, lackey-daisical, but heartfelt—to cyclic folk songs. . . . Herdsmen, spared by thunderbolts on remote hillsides, used their huge ‘moaning horns’ as ear trumpets to catch the lilts of Ladore” (409)—which prepare for and transition into the opening scene of Pt. 2 Ch. 8, the “Ursus” restaurant, with its Russian romances and gipsy ballads.
Indeed Part 2 of Ada elaborates, in the absence of the expansiveness of Ardis, by becoming almost a compendium of the arts, in addition to the literature and painting that pervade the novel: fiction in 2.2 (Van’s Letters from Terra), architecture in 2.3 (Eric Veen’s grandfather’s parodies of paradise in his worldwide “Villa Venus” floramors); the decorative arts in 2.5 (Lucette’s gueridon, scrutoir, a Chinese stand japanned in red lacquer); Kim’s photography here in 2.7; the sentimental Russian music of 2.8; Ada’s dreams of drama in 2.9. Late in 2.1, Van reports erecting “his famous Lucinda Villa, a miniature museum . . . with a still growing collection of microphotographed paintings from all public and private galleries in the world (not excluding Tartary)” (336). Throughout Part 2 Nabokov highlights art after art by turns, as if to match the global inclusiveness of Ada (and the cosmic vision of Earth when the panels of the Garden of Earthly Delights close over) and the global ambitions of its hero (Van’s dreams of travel on intercontinental trains the length of the Americas and the width of the entire Old World, Eurasia and Africa; his fiction about a whole other planet; his Lucinda Villa with paintings from all public and private galleries) and of its heroine (Ada’s hope for an institution housing of the Fritillaries of the world), and of Van’s strange shadow, Eric Veen, with his dream of “palatial brothels . . . all over ‘both hemispheres of our callipygian globe’” (348).
But as Kim’s album shows, Nabokov’s attention not just to plot but also to variation and elaboration does not mean indulgence in the aloof esthetics of invention and form: it also becomes a mode of ethical inquiry.