A sentence copied into a commonplace book and never pursued: “She smelled of damp cotton, axillary tufts, and nenuphars, like mad Ophelia.” I’m reminded of a park ranger who told me flowering cottonwoods smell like freshly ironed linen. It’s evocative but not helpful. Our naturalist/author is Vladimir Nabokov in Part One, Chapter 32 of Ada. Nine years ago, when David Myers and I were assembling “Best American Fiction, 1968–1998,” I lobbied hard for inclusion of Nabokov’s late masterpiece, while objecting to his efforts to include Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew and anything by Philip K. Dick. For once, I won an argument with David.
First, “axillary tufts,” a botanical term. Nabokov was a professional and hobbyist lepidopterist, but his learning in natural history was broad and deep, and he loved using words with precision. Here he refers to a feature found on the abaxial – that is, underside – of many tree leaves. Patches of fuzz sometimes grow where the veins intersect. Each patch is an axillary tuft. Axillary means of or relating to the armpit. Is Van saying Ada smells, in part, like a hairy armpit? There’s a technical name for the related fetish: maschalagnia.
A nenuphar, according to the OED, is “a water lily, esp. the white water lily, Nymphaea alba, or the yellow water lily, Nuphar luteum." In his annotations to Ada, Brian Boyd writes:
“Nenuphars or water lilies are not among the flowers Ophelia picks just before she drowns, but could be compared to the way her `clothes spread wide, / And mermaid-like they bore her up,' in Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s death, one of Nabokov’s favorite passages in Hamlet.”
In Gertrude’s speech, Shakespeare mentions only “crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples.” His contemporary, Robert Burton, uses nenuphar in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “To refrigerate the face, by washing it often with rose, violet, nenuphar, lettice, louage waters and the like.” Here’s Nabokov’s context:
“Was she really beautiful? Was she at least what they call attractive? She was exasperation, she was torture. The silly girl had heaped her hair under a rubber cap, and this gave an unfamiliar, vaguely clinical look to her neck, with its odd dark wisps and strags, as if she had obtained a nurse's job and would never dance again. Her faded, bluish-gray, one-piece swimsuit had a spot of grease and a hole above one hip—nibbled through, one might conjecture, by a tallow-starved larva—and seemed much too short for careless comfort. She smelled of damp cotton, axillary tufts, and nenuphars, like mad Ophelia. None of those minor matters would have annoyed Van, had she and he been alone together; but the presence of the all-male actor made everything obscene, drab and insupportable.”
I first read Ada in 1969, when it was published, and have read it again three times. The novel at first gave me the mingled sensations of delight and incomprehension, useful to novice readers. With time, the former overtook the latter, but I still hadn’t until now looked into nenuphars.