Monday, February 16, 2009

Books: Ada, by Vladimir Nabokov

It is rare that I admit I’m not smart enough to enjoy a book—usually, I simply dismiss the author as too obtuse. But Nabokov presumes too much. In Ada, at least after its introductory and obfuscating thirty pages (enough to turn away even the most committed of readers), a legible tale of young (and incidentally incestuous) lust promises genuine quality—somewhere behind the bandied phrases in French and Russian (only a few of which anagrammatic Vivian Darkbloom deigns to translate in a set of arch end notes*). Not only does the author demand a minimum of trilingual fluency, though, he also expects us to be intimate with Anna Karenina (the Veens, the family to which our lovers belong, seem distant relatives of both Tolstoy and the Karenins, if such a thing is possible), the works of Chekov (and a few other Russian literati), and the oeuvre of Proust.

Not that I haven’t dipped into these novels, and fairly recently, but my gosh! Nabokov also assumes that we’re familiar with his own oeuvre, Ada being in a way an extended reworking of the introductory section of his most well-known novel Lolita. The term “nymphet,” coined in Lolita, appears repeatedly without definition, the reader's comprehension taken for granted. The word “Lolita” appears as well, explained in the footnotes by “Darkbloom” once as a city in Texas, and another time as a long, full skirt. Ada is a Lolita herself, a vixenish, pubescent twelve year old who doesn’t wear underpants, who immediately becomes fourteen year old Van Veen’s lover, heedless of their consanguinity.

In fact, because this tale spans the lovers’ entire lives, during which they are often separated, both by circumstance and, eventually, family intervention, there is ample time provided (seventeen years) for Van to pose as Humbert Humbert and diddle the actual, poor Lolita—the entirety of that novel could fit between Ada’s parts two and three.

But it’s unquestionable, though I’m not clever enough to catch half the man’s inside jokes and references, that this is a brilliant man’s novel for other brilliant men, for insiders. It’s a comp lit PhD candidate’s wet dream, tightly packed with fodder for research and investigation. Nabokov swings from epic Russo family history to pants-wetting lusty eroticism (with bonus x-rating for double pedophilia) to wandering philosophical tome (a challenge of Space by Time—dare I say he is writing a parody? If I could penetrate it, I might! But perhaps that is the point. . .) to, yes, a memoir, in which the book collapses on itself, with editorial notes throughout by Ada Veen, who we see is revising the manuscript as an aged Van Veen writes it (awkwardly, both in first and third person). All of this cleverness distracts us from any apprehension we might feel about Nabokov’s creepy-old-man-ness.

Most readers love Nabokov for his glittering gem sentences, but tire of his full-scale work; Ada is no exception to the rule. And so, I can never list him as one of my favorites, even though I keep reading his darned books. Too bad he didn't decide to just be a poet.

*Note: I positively loathe end notes, particularly those that are not indicated. I do, on the other hand, love footnotes.

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