Pervasiveness in the Larvarium Project

Because it’s one of the high points of our civilization, which may or may not feel like they’re passing you by at the moment, or like its greatest moments are in the past, Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. Long live the written word. Part 1, Chapter 8:

On the same morning, or a couple of days later, on the terrace:
“Mais va donc jouer avec lui,” said Mlle Larivière, pushing
Ada, whose young hips disjointedly jerked from the shock.
“Don’t let your cousin se morfondre when the weather is so
fine. Take him by the hand. Go and show him the white lady
in your favorite lane, and the mountain, and the great oak.
Ada turned to him with a shrug. The touch of her cold
fingers and damp palm and the self-conscious way she tossed
back her hair as they walked down the main avenue of the park
made him self-conscious too, and under the pretext of picking
up a fir cone he disengaged his hand. He threw the cone at a
woman of marble bending over a stamnos but only managed
to frighten a bird that perched on the brim of her broken
“There is nothing more banal in the world,” said Ada, “than
pitching stones at a hawfinch.
“Sorry,” said Van, “I did not intend to scare that bird. But
then, I’m not a country lad, who knows a cone from a stone.
What games, au fond, does she expect us to play?”
“Je l’ignore,” replied Ada. “I really don’t care very much how
her poor mind works. Cache-cache, I suppose, or climbing trees.”
“Oh, I’m good at that,” said Van, “in fact, I can even
“No,” she said, “we are going to play my games. Games I
have invented all by myself. Games Lucette, I hope, will be
able to play next year with me, the poor pet. Come, let us start.
The present series belongs to the shadow-and-shine group, two
of which I’m going to show you.”
“I see,” said Van.
“You will in a moment,” rejoined the pretty prig. “First of
all we must find a nice stick.”
“Look,” said Van, still smarting a bit, “there goes another
haw-haw finch.”
By then they had reached the rond-point—a small arena en-
circled by flowerbeds and jasmine bushes in heavy bloom. Over-
head the arms of a linden stretched toward those of an oak, like
a green-spangled beauty flying to meet her strong father hang-
ing by his feet from the trapeze. Even then did we both under-
stand that kind of heavenly stuff, even then.
“Something rather acrobatic about those branches up there,
no?” he said, pointing.
“Yes,” she answered. “I discovered it long ago. The teil is the
flying Italian lady, and the old oak aches, the old lover aches,
but still catches her every time” (impossible to reproduce the
right intonation while rendering the entire sense—after eight
decades!—but she did say something extravagant, something
quite out of keeping with her tender age as they looked up and
then down).
Looking down and gesturing with a sharp green stake bor-
rowed from the peonies, Ada explained the first game.
The shadows of leaves on the sand were variously interrupted
by roundlets of live light. The player chose his roundlet—the
best, the brightest he could find—and firmly outlined it with
the point of his stick; whereupon the yellow round light would
appear to grow convex like the brimming surface of some golden
dye. Then the player delicately scooped out the earth with his
stick or fingers within the roundlet. The level of that gleaming
infusion de tilleul would magically sink in its goblet of earth and
finally dwindle to one precious drop. That player won who
made the most goblets in, say, twenty minutes.
Van asked suspiciously if that was all.
No, it was not. As she dug a firm little circle around a par-
ticularly fine goldgout, Ada squatted and moved, squatting,
with her black hair falling over her ivory-smooth moving knees
while her haunches and hands worked, one hand holding the
stick, the other brushing back bothersome strands of hair. A
gentle breeze suddenly eclipsed her fleck. When that occurred,
the player lost one point, even if the leaf or the cloud hastened
to move aside.
All right. What was the other game?
The other game (in a singsong voice) might seem a little
more complicated. To play it properly one had to wait for p.m.
to provide longer shadows. The player—
“Stop saying ‘the player.’ It is either you or me.”
“Say, you. You outline my shadow behind me on the sand.
I move. You outline it again. Then you mark out the next
boundary (handing him the stick). If I now move back—”
“You know,” said Van, throwing the stick away, “personally
I think these are the most boring and stupid games anybody has
ever invented, anywhere, any time, a.m. or p.m.”
She said nothing but her nostrils narrowed. She retrieved the
stick and stuck it back, furiously, where it belonged, deep into
the loam next to a grateful flower to which she looped it with
a silent nod. She walked back to the house. He wondered if
her walk would be more graceful when she grew up.
“I’m a rude brutal boy, please forgive me,” he said.
She inclined her head without looking back. In token of
partial reconciliation, she showed him two sturdy hooks passed
into iron rings on two tulip-tree trunks between which, before
she was born, another boy, also Ivan, her mother’s brother, used
to sling a hammock in which he slept in midsummer when the
nights became really sultry—this was the latitude of Sicily, after
“A splendid idea,” said Van. “By the way, do fireflies burn
one if they fly into you? I’m just asking. Just a city boy’s silly
She showed him next where the hammock—a whole set of
hammocks, a canvas sack full of strong, soft nets—was stored:
this was in the corner of a basement toolroom behind the lilacs,
the key was concealed in this hole here which last year was
stuffed by the nest of a bird—no need to identify it. A pointer
of sunlight daubed with greener paint a long green box where
croquet implements were kept; but the balls had been rolled
down the hill by some rowdy children, the little Erminins, who
were now Van’s age and had grown very nice and quiet.
“As we all are at that age,” said Van and stooped to pick up
a curved tortoiseshell comb—the kind that girls use to hold up
their hair behind; he had seen one, exactly like that, quite re-
cently, but when, in whose hairdo?
One of the maids,” said Ada. “That tattered chapbook must
also belong to her, Les Amours du Docteur Mertvago, a mystical
romance by a pastor.”
“Playing croquet with you,” said Van, “should be rather like
using flamingoes and hedgehogs.”
Our reading lists do not match,” replied Ada. “That Palace
in Wonderland was to me the kind of book everybody so often
promised me I would adore, that I developed an insurmountable
prejudice toward it. Have you read any of Mlle Larivière’s
stories? Well, you will. She thinks that in some former Hindooish
state she was a boulevardier in Paris; and writes accordingly.
We can squirm from here into the front hall by a secret passage,
but I think we are supposed to go and look at the grand chêne
which is really an elm.” Did he like elms? Did he know Joyce’s
poem about the two washerwomen? He did, indeed. Did he like
it? He did. In fact he was beginning to like very much arbors
and ardors and Adas. They rhymed. Should he mention it?
“And now,” she said, and stopped, staring at him.
“Yes?” he said, “and now?”
“Well, perhaps, I ought not to try to divert you—after you
trampled upon those circles of mine; but I’m going to relent
and show you the real marvel of Ardis Manor; my larvarium,
it’s in the room next to mine” (which he never saw, never—
how odd, come to think of it!).
She carefully closed a communicating door as they entered
into what looked like a glorified rabbitry at the end of a marble-
flagged hall (a converted bathroom, as it transpired). In spite
of the place’s being well aired, with the heraldic stained-glass
windows standing wide open (so that one heard the screeching
and catcalls of an undernourished and horribly frustrated bird
population), the smell of the hutches—damp earth, rich roots,
old greenhouse and maybe a hint of goat—was pretty appalling.
Before letting him come nearer, Ada fiddled with little latches
and grates, and a sense of great emptiness and depression re-
placed the sweet fire that had been consuming Van since the

beginning of their innocent games on that day.