Transcript of the Ada Forum, Nov.-Dec. 2002

Brian Boyd and the Kyoto Reading Circle

What follows is an edited transcript of the contributions to the Ada Forum, held in November and December, 2002 via the internet, from the members of the Kyoto Reading Circle and Prof. Brian Boyd. The object of the Forum was to have an informal discussion of the Kyoto Reading Circle's "Annotations to Ada (3)" for Chapters 11-13, published in Krug IV: 1 (December 2002).
The Forum was begun in the hope of not only hearing Prof. Boyd's generous responses to the Circle's findings but also of delving deeper into the text and sharing whatever the participants found interesting, ranging freely into things Nabokovian-which, as it turned out this time, also led us into an interesting discussion of Lolita. The Forum was devised and moderated by Akiko Nakata, who had sent the manuscript of the Circle's "Annotations to Ada (3)" to Prof. Boyd in October. The page and number references to the text, as in the Circle's "Annotations to Ada" in Krug and Boyd's "Annotations to Ada" in The Nabokovian, are from the Vintage International edition. I have taken the liberty of dividing the Forum exchanges into the two works mainly discussed and numbering the exchanges by the particular words debated on. -Shoko Miura

[Akiko Nakata]
Thank you, Brian, for joining us. We look forward to your comments (getting a little nervous).

[Note: As Prof. Boyd could not join the forum for a while, we began talking about LOLITA with the following mail from Tadashi Wakashima, who is the chair of the reading circle and the list.]

On Lolita

(1)"Knight's moves" in Lolita

[Tadashi Wakashima]
I would like to offer this just as a starter, though it is a way off the main topic.

72.23-24: in rows, files, and knight moves
Cf. Lolita Part II, Ch. 9 (Vintage 1997, 192) "one of the latticed squares... - a knight's move from the top - strangely disturbed me."

I am entirely responsible for this item. "Knight's moves" appears again and again in Nabokov's works - The Defense and Bend Sinister come to my mind. Then why did I choose this particular passage from Lolita? To quote the sentence in full:
One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position - a knight's move from the top - always strangely disturbed me. This passage always strangely disturbs me because:
1) "strangely" is a typical Nabokovian marker (equivalent to "somehow" or "for some reason"). It suggests that Humbert himself doesn't know the reason why he feels so, but there must be some subtle psychological explanation for the repression. And
2) this passage is the very last sentence of Chapter 9 and leaves a lingering impression upon the reader.
I have not come up with a likely solution so far. Any idea?

[Akiko Nakata]
The most ordinary, needless to say, interpretation is the knight is for Quilty, who is to get close to Lolita from the next chapter on. For Lolita, Quilty is really a knight who saves her, a persecuted princess, from a monster until she notices that Quilty himself is just another monster. Here HH sees the ruby glass, which reminds us of the red convertible, which will follow HH and Lolita, as well as the other "reds" that accompany Quilty.
On the other hand, the "knight's move" introduces the thread of chess-Mona, a pimp. Before the "knight's move" sentence, Lolita returns and HH, who has been talking with Mona without interest in her, suspects that Lolita plays the pimp. Then he sees the disturbing "knight's move." In the following chapters, Mona sets up an alibi for Lolita while she is seeing Quilty. We see the other combination of chess and Mona playing the pimp in Ch. 14, full of Bovary allusions, where HH plays chess with "Gustave" Gaston, who "swooped down upon" "that juicy queen." Then HH calls up Mona, and she talks "in her humblest, sexiest contralto" about her fault " and so on and so forth as those little harlots say." The queen (Lolita) is going to be taken from HH, who, unlike Gustave Gaston Godin, has been cuckolded without exactly knowing it; Mona has been playing the pimp, not being a harlot herself - strangely reversed. In the next chapter, while HH is reading a letter from Mona, Lolita disappears - she comes back after a while, but apparently she has been with Quilty; there is no chess motif here, though (I am sorry, but the thread is so short). Mona does not appear in the novel any more, but in the screenplay, she approaches HH as a college student, trying to find out whether or not Lolita could write to him: playing the pimp again.
We can trace the Gaston-chess-adultery (the word is not appropriate to Lolita though): in Ch. 17, the latter "Krestovsky" chapter, at Chestnut (chess nut) Court, HH tells about a copper case gift from Gaston. He meant it to replace the broken box of HH's chessmen, but HH keeps his Colt (to shoot Quilty with, needless to say again) in the case, for it is too small for his chess pieces. There must be better ideas. I would like to have your views.

[Shoko Miura]
This is far from giving any positive solutions, but taking off from where Akiko's convincing analysis ended, and taking hints from Tadashi's difficult problem thrown to us, could the mention of "knight moves" in 72.23-24 suggest a forewarning of Van's future rivals, Greg Erminin and Percy de Prey?
We are aware from the passages previous in Chapter 12 that Nabokov is comparing two kinds of light in the night - the fireflies that "softly flew, apparently straight, crossing and recrossing the darkness..." with man-made light of the windows - "The windows in the black castle went out in rows, files, and knight moves." The fireflies, with their "exact type of light code," stand for the signs (of fate? the future?) given by nature, while the light-dark movements of the windows stand for the signs given by man. While the fireflies fill Van with "exhilaration," the chess-like darkening of the windows contrast with his star-fated desire for Ada - "Venus rose in the sky - Venus set in his flesh." Two chapters later, Greg Erminin appears with his black pony. He is also referred to as a knight, "Sir Percy" (p. 276 Vintage) in Chapter 39, after the fight between Van and Percy. Van and Percy almost agree on a duel shortly afterwards.
The Lolita passage given by Tadashi also is a knight's move set in a window, metaphorically seen as a chess board. In The Defense, windows seem to connote a fatal image also. Luzhin sees the bathroom window as a chess board and to drop out of the game is the only way out. There is something intentionally ominous in Van's seeing the lights go out in chess moves in the "black castle's" windows.

[Brian Boyd]
Sometimes I recommend Wordsworth's "wise passivity" to my students and always remember for my own sake Nabokov's warning, "Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint" (SO 66). Before anything else, that ruby square a knight's move from the corner of the window lattice in Lolita II.9 is simply an example of a psychological phenomenon we surely all know: a recurrent detail of our environment that, for no reason that we can assign, catches our attention and bothers us. In this case, it's clearly also related (by simple proximity) to the wariness and distance in Lolita indicated by her here slitting her eyes at Humbert and Mona. Until and unless a more precise answer suggests itself, I think it is wise to leave the matter at that, rather than to force this detail to mean more.

[Akiko Nakata]
Thank you for your reply, Brian. I still believe there is something in the knight's move other than the psychological phenomenon we experience in our daily lives, though I cannot prove it. It must be difficult to say something about the matter after the Dean of Nabokov Studies said that there was nothing special hidden in it, but I would like to hear if others might have any views of this.

[Brian Boyd]
That's just my intuition: that I can't see anything yet, and if there was something to see, it would probably depend on very precise links that would tend to confirm themselves as soon as they were spotted. Please don't let my eavesdropping deter anyone.

[Akiko Nakata]
When Quilty is seen by Humbert (of course without knowing it) for the first time, he is at the parking lot of the Enchanted Hunters driving a red convertible, which is to be often seen in Part II:
A row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough, seemed at first sight to forbid access; but then, by magic, a formidable convertible, resplendent, rubious in the lighted rain, came into motion - was energetically backed out by a broad-shouldered driver - and we gratefully slipped into the gap it had left. I immediately regretted my haste for I noticed that my predecessor had now taken advantage of a garage-like shelter nearby where there was ample space for another car; but I was too impatient to follow his example (Part I, Ch. 27).
I think: "One of the latticed squares" "glazed with ruby" (Part II, Ch. 9) reminds Humbert of the convertible glazed with ruby - so vaguely that he cannot be conscious of it - which he glimpsed in the beginning of their forbidden vacation at the unforgettable hotel, and the ruby latticed square always strangely bothers him. Humbert moves to the place (a square on the chessboard) Quilty has left (he "came into motion") and then notices the opponent has moved to an advantageous place, as Quilty will be doing until the end of the novel.

[Brian Boyd]
Now you spell it out, I think you're probably right about the connection, Akiko.

[Tadashi Wakashima]
I think what you found is a real gem or ruby. Well done, Akiko!

[Shoko Miura]
Bravo, Akiko! I had only associated the ruby latticed square to Carmen-Lolita. The L-shaped course of a knight is exactly how a car moves into a parking space.

[Akiko Nakata]
Thank you, Brian and Tadashi for your approval. And thank you, Shoko, for your beautiful finishing touch on the L-shaped move.
Now I would like to know: whether or not a game of chess (not metaphorical but real) is played in LOLITA as in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS. I cannot trace the hidden game, if any.

[Tadashi Wakashima]
Sorry for my long absence. I had to attend to so many matters of far less Nabokovian nature. Things are getting worse and worse, as our friend Mitsuyoshi Numano once observed in his award-winning book on Russian literature, but now I would like to pay a debt (not in full, I must admit). Before closing the curtain, let me offer a few responses to the past discussions. (Wait a little, Akiko, for I am still behind the curtain and not properly attired yet....)
Sorry, Akiko. I certainly do not want to disappoint you, but I am not so interested in what you call "the hidden game" in Lolita. Rather, my interest lies in analogies between chess problems (not over-the-board games) and Nabokov's works. In chess compositions, any experienced solver surely knows that the mere presence of an innocent pawn can tell the whole story. The same thing can be said of Nabokov's works. Although I must say that Nabokov as a chess problem composer is very mediocre, I always feel that Nabokov's novels are beautiful puzzles or things of beauty just like tightly constructed chess problems.
In fact, I have some chess motifs in Lolita in mind to pursue (the "knight's move" we discussed is one of them), but that is another story.

(2)"Ruby" in Lolita

[Motoko Yoshikawa]
There is another ruby which may have some connection with the ruby glazed window in question. The scratch on Lolita's leg Humbert notices when she returns from Camp Q (Part I, Ch.27):
She was all rose and honey, dressed in her brightest gingham, with a pattern of little red apples, and her arms and legs were of a deep golden brown, with scratches like tiny dotted lines of coagulated rubies, and the ribbed cuffs of her white socks were turned down at the remembered level, ...
I will post this since I promised Akiko I would, but now, rereading the whole passage, I find it difficult to read into it something more than Humbert's intention to describe how she was back to "his Lolita" again, after he thought for a moment that she has changed and lost her nymphet quality while being away from him. "Scratches like tiny dotted lines of coagulated rubies" is by itself so ingeniously put and the connecting it with Quilty somehow seems to weaken the effect. What do you think?

[Akiko Nakata]
Thank you, Motoko, for your valuable find! As you say, connecting the rubies with Quilty might conflict with Humbert's relief, but the rubies-Quilty connection here seems to me to be hidden below the surface, more deeply than the other ruby in the same chapter is, and it does not disturb the surface of the story. What slightly disturbs me is that the rubies are coagulated. In the part of the knight's move, Humbert writes "that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position." It reminds me, say, of the red raw wound on Hugh Person's toe in Transparent Things, but of course, it has nothing to do with our rubies in question.

On Ada

(1)"Hairpin" in Chapter II
[From Brian Boyd's comments on the Circle's Annotations for this issue of Krug, referring to Blanche having once dropped a hairpin in Lucette's cot (69.14)]
This hairpin should be connected with the tortoiseshell comb Blanche wears (48.23-24) on Van's first morning at Ardis, and then loses, probably that day, 53.18-20, and probably because it has been dislodged in her tryst with Bouteillan. There is surely an implication that Blanche could have been doing more than making the bed when she lost her hairpin in Lucette's cot. Has Bouteillan followed her here?

[Akiko Nakata]
Apparently he has. A maidservant and the butler have an affair in the small girl's cot in the nursery-one of the scenes of Ardis' decline. This reminds me of the episode where Van hesitated to use the toilet of the nursery. Van hesitated to disturb the silence, as you wrote, and there could also be a hidden meaning in it: then he had some hesitation in destroying Lucette's innocence, but he would lose it later.

[Tadashi Wakashima]
Which reminds me of another hairpin lost and found in Spring in Fialta:
"One summer morning... I was lolling and smoking in bed when I heard the bell ring with tremendous violence-and there she was in the hall having burst in to leave (incidentally) a hairpin and (mainly) a trunk illuminated with hotel labels, which a fortnight later was retrieved for her by a nice American boy..." (424.21-27)
Please note the subtle move "(incidentally)" which is inserted here in order to make the hairpin inconspicuous to the reader's eye. Presumably Nina loses it just for the same reason as in the case of Blanche.

[Brian Boyd]
Incidentally, looking again at 69.14-15 in view of the white and red of the blood-stained cottonwool, I seem to notice a heady atmosphere of fairy-tale: Blanche as Cinderella (passim); Blanche and Snow White ("Blanche Neige" in French); Little Red Riding Hood (cf. Kinbote's quotation from Freudian Erich Fromm, " 'The little cap of red velvet in the German version of Little Red Riding Hood is a symbol of menstruation'c Do those clowns really believe what they teach?," PF 271); Sleeping Beauty, who is pricked by a needle; and The Princess and the Pea, a princess whose identity is discovered because she is so delicate that she cannot sleep comfortably over the thickest padding even when there so little as a single pea on the bed.
If I am right, why this palimpsest of fairy tale here, in this very un-fairy-tale-like scene? Perhaps in part because Mlle Lariviere, in her reproach to Blanche here (the dangerous hairpin), foreshadows what she thinks the strong note of social reproach in her story "The Diamond Necklace" - which Van and Ada will dismiss as "a fairy tale" (87.19).

[Akiko Nakata]
I noticed only Cinderella here, but yes, there are more fairy tales hidden in this chapter. As I wrote to you before, also in Ch. 24, we see some innocent stories that belong to the nursery - Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Little House (by Virginia Lee Burton), perhaps more - palimpsestic on Proustian degeneration against Demon's rose garden. I think this is something repeated throughout ADA, where innocence and corruption, tenderness and cruelty, bliss and hell coexist.

[Brian Boyd]
75.10: Yes, in my innocence, I missed the force of "When I kiss you here," partly because I did not explicitly connect it with "you kissed me here" at 95.02. Obviously I need to spend more time with the "Jap. & Ind. erot. prints" (111.03) in the Ardis library.

[Tadashi Wakashima]
This is a confession. When I read Ada for the first time (that was more than twenty years ago-how time flies!), the most impressive sentence for me was "Her plum, stickily glistening lips smiled." (75.9) Innocent as I was, I almost swooned by the highly charged eroticism. Of course, I knew what "When I kiss you here" exactly means.
And now, I can fully appreciate the deft continuation by Nabokov after this superb move. The image of Ada's lips dripping honey is immediately followed by that of the wasp whose "body was throbbing." And Ada observes, "We shall try to eat one later...but it must be gorged to taste good."(75.20-21) Yes, that will surely happen later at the end of Chapter 22. Honey and wasp - they are placed side by side contrapuntally. What a pair!
Although I am not an expert on ukiyoe, let me say a few words about this "Geisha with 13 lovers." What attracts my attention here is not this utterly improbable drawing itself but a curious detail in it: "Van located, however, a fifteenth navel thrown in by the generous artist but impossible to account for anatomically." (137.18-19) Can we interpret this extra navel as a signature of the anonymous ukiyoe artist? If you agree with me on this point, then may I suggest further that this "generous" artist is NaVel=VN himself?

[Brian Boyd]
77.12: the French means only "smelling of pine sap," which is exactly what the "pine-smelling" that I pointed to at 86.17-18 indicates.

[Akiko Nakata]
We thought the French meant "lustrous as if she had been pine-sapped." Is the pine scent from the bath soap? Are the scent of pine needles (which I know) and the scent/smell of pine sap (which I do not know) the same?

[Brian Boyd]
The scent of pine needles and sap is the same, as far as my nose can tell. But pine sap tends to congeal and become a dull whitish gum, so wouldn't mean particularly lustrous. And there are many soaps or bath oils with a piney smell, which is surely what VN intends here. The idea of sap on her legs would conjure up an awful gummy stickiness which would seem not how VN wants us to imagine Ada's legs.

[Akiko Nakata]
Some details unfamiliar to us could be most dangerous. Last time we were deceived by the legless cows; this time we were caught in the sticky pine sap. I still would like to stick to "lustrous." If it is "lustrous as if she had been resin-oiled" instead of "pine-sapped," could it be what the "piney" means?

[Brian Boyd]
In view of the "ample pine-smelling skirt" at 86.18, which unequivocally refers to smell, not gloss, precisely because the skirt has been put on while her legs are at 77.12 still "piney" (which to a native English-speaker would always suggest only smell in this context anyway), I am not sure why you insist on a visual effect that unlike the smell would have no consequence for Van later.

[Akiko Nakata]
Just because I cannot easily change a scene I have visualized to something else, even if it is correct. OK, I will leave Ada soaked in her favorite pine's reek.

[Brian Boyd]
86.06: googled here can hardly refer to the cricket term, since to bowl a googly means (of a spin bowler) to release the ball from the back of the hand (so that the ball flies over the wrist) rather from the front. Difficult to understand without a demonstration-which perhaps I can attempt, though I'm no cricketer, when I meet you all in Kyoto.

[Akiko Nakata]
Please show us "bowling googly" when you come to Kyoto! I cannot imagine how to bowl with the back of the hand. Is the "googled" here "goggled"?

Published in KRUG 4. 2 (May 2003)

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