Monday, April 12, 2010

Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle - Vladimir Nabokov

An excerpt from The Paris Review interview with Vladimir in 1967 (two years before the publication of Ada):

Interviewer: If you had the choice of one and only one book by which you would be remembered, which one would it be?

Nabokov: The one I am writing or rather dreaming of writing. Actually, I shall be remembered by Lolita and my work on Eugene Onegin.

And yes, in an ideal world, every class in American literature post-World War II or "postmodern" literature would feature Ada and not Lolita. But Ada is 625 pages long--a bit heavy for an undergraduate assignment. Let us hope that grad students at least will study this work for years to come, as it surely makes a larger "statement" than Lolita, or any other book by Nabokov for that matter. You'd have to hold a gun to my head to ask which novel is the best, but the simple answer is time. If you have the time, Ada is the best. If you don't have as much time, Lolita is best. If you have even less time, Pale Fire is best. And if you have even less time than that, Pnin may be your best option. However, Pnin is the only one of those four that may disappoint a reader because it does not reach the heights of the other three. All three are masterpieces, and Ada is the most redoubtable and grandiose of all.

So now--the difficult and fun question--what is Ada about? When I brought it with me into my restaurant of work all of my co-workers expressed intrigue as to the nature of the story of such a big book. If I only had a short time to describe it, I would say, "It's about incest." And if I had a long time, I would say, "It is a one hundred year love story and if you thought Lolita was risque, well, Ada is way worse."

And it's true--Ada does not quite portray illegal sexual abuse as in Lolita--but its descriptions of sex are far more graphic, about twice as crudely clever, and arguably more offensive. Now, why more offensive?

The main character is Van Veen, born in 1870, firmly implanted in my mind after spending three months in his company. Van has a cousin, Ada, whom he meets in 1884. She is two years younger than him. Actually they might be more than cousins. To what degree they are related I will not explain--but let me just admit that it was one of the many points that I was unclear on after finishing the book, and so I had to re-read the first 20 pages, where I did find my answer.

And this is another important point to mention: Ada is probably the most difficult Nabokov book to read. Apart from its intimidating length, the first 50 pages in particular pose a great challenge to the reader. Think 100 Years of Solitude but without the weird magical realism--and keep in mind that though the first 50 pages go as far back as great-great grandparents, of special importance is the description of Van's and Ada's parents--Demon and Aqua, and Daniel and Marina--who it seems incredibly, are 2 twins married to 2 twins, further complicating the family tree.

But who is Van? Van comes from an affluent family. He walks on his hands when he is fourteen. He is an acrobat. He visits his cousins for a summer at Ardis, their estate in the Maine, is it, spelled Mayne?

Van lives on Antiterra (or what we might call "Earth"), in Estotia, which is the U.S. and Russia combined. Much of the time he lives in Manhattan. It's necessary to mention that Ada occurs in a parallel universe, or utopia, and this is hinted at in the very first line of the book, which is a reversal of the extremely famous first sentence of Anna Karenina. Happy families are not all alike--they are actually "more or less dissimilar" (3)--and unhappy families "are more or less alike"(3)--not unhappy in their own way. Ada is not science-fiction though--a reader will primarily notice that something is vaguely askew, and their investigation into the element that alters from "reality" as we know it will often yield epiphanies or profund ruminations on the nature of existence. This topic will be revisited later in the review.

Van goes to visit Ada for the first time in 1884, and lo and behold, they fall in love. This is really the moment at which Ada becomes easier to read. Because up until this point, I had no clue what direction this novel was going to take. The long sequence in Ardis is perhaps the major part of the novel itself, also the most risque part.

Why offensive? Because Van and Ada "discover" each other at an age that most today would deem premature--12 and 14--and the descriptions of their "embraces" hold very little back--in fact, they are probably more explicit than any of the later scenes involving prostitution, which is legalized. There is also the "taboo" nature of their relationship, obviously, but for a clear example, witness the "barn burning" scene (not a reference to Faulkner, I imagine), referenced perhaps a dozen times in the course of the book, with its first display in this nearly unthinkable moment:

"'Van, poor Van,' she went on in the narrow voice the sweet girl used when speaking to cats, caterpillars, pupating puppies, 'yes, I'm sure, it smarts, would it help if I'd touch, are you sure?'
'You bet,' said Van, 'on n'est pas bete a ce point' ('there are limits to stupidity,' colloquial and rude).
'Relief map,' said the primrose prig, 'the rivers of Africa.' Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled up again. 'Now what's this? The cap of the Red Bolete is not half as plushy. In fact' (positively chattering), 'I'm reminded of geranium or rather pelargonium bloom.'
'God, we all are,' said Van.
'Oh, I like this texture, Van, I like it! Really I do!'
'Squeeze, you goose, can't you see I'm dying.'
But our young botanist had not the faintest idea how to handle the thing properly--and Van, now in extremis, driving it roughly against the hem of her nightdress, could not help groaning as he dissolved in a puddle of pleasure.
She looked down in dismay.
'Not what you think,' remarked Van calmly. 'This is not number one. Actually it's as clean as grass sap. Well, now the Nile is settled stop Stanley.'" (126-127)

The "Ardis" section of the book almost exclusively takes this tone, and perhaps this is one of my very few criticisms of the book: this section can nearly firmly be categorized as "erotica." The first two hundred pages of this book (so 1/3 of the whole) follow Van and Ada as very young teenagers trying to figure out different places in the palatial estate to experiment with each other's bodies. It is perhaps worth noting that both characters are ridiculously precocious, to the point that practically no one today would be able to match their intelligence or powers of articulation. See first review ever on Flying Houses for similar example (third paragraph of post):

So it seems to me that during "Ardis" (or Part 1, as it were, which actually goes up to page 350) Nabokov is overly preoccupied with unsettling the reader's expectations, and the episodes become rather repetitive. There is the important introduction of the third major character, Lucette, Ada's younger sister by two years. Eventually Lucette becomes the primary voyeur of their escapades. And it is unclear to what extent she becomes involved in anything resembling or approaching a menage a trois with them, but later on, oh around page 400, she comes to visit Van about fifteen years later in Manhattan, and she reveals a secret that even Van doesn't know about, and to me this constitutes one of the most over-the-top scenes in the book.

After Part 1, the book concerns itself a bit less with sex, and a bit more with Time, the intricacies of Antiterra (and Terra, which we might call "Heaven" or "Mars" (i.e. another planet that could house a civilization)), and the manner in which Ada and Van hope to spend their adult lives. They cannot be married for various reasons they give at many different moments. Ada does marry. Van does not. Van sleeps with hundreds of women (most of them prostitutes). They write letters back and forth. They meet every fifteen or twenty years, often drastically altered by time. Van becomes closer with Lucette for the majority of the remainder of the novel.

A lot happens, but one chapter I cannot figure out (Part 2, Chapter 3) is basically a description of how prostitution came to be legalized in Estotia (or Antiterra? I'm not sure.) -- and it basically has nothing to do with the rest of the story, so I found it amazing. It is quite risque, but also hilarious, particularly the wrinkle introduced into the common paradigm of the "whorehouse":

"One clause in the Rules of the Club seemed to indicate that Eric, though frenziedly heterosexual, had enjoyed some tender ersatz fumblings with schoolmates at Note (a notorious prepatory school in that respect): at least two of the maximum number of fifty inmates in the major floramors might be pretty boys, wearing frontlets and short smocks, not older than fourteen if fair, and not more than twelve if dark. However, in order to exclude a regular flow of 'inveterate pederasts,' boy love could be dabbled in by the jaded guest only between two sequences of three girls each, all possessed in the course of the same week--a somewhat comical, but not unshrewd, stipulation." (369-370)

Also of personal interest: Van attends school at Chose, and this description of "Note" does seem to indicate that the master himself was aware of those bizarre institutions of the northeast selling elitism. Of course, they are the finest schools, and that Van attends one fits perfectly with his character--which is, a spoiled brat, who automatically starts off with more money than he would ever know what to do with. Van is not the most likable character. For one, he has a pretty sketchy major romantic relationship in his life. For two, he is an "arrogant bastard." For three, he seems to take pleasure in psychologically (and intellectually) torturing those closest to him in life. The most likable things about him are that he is an excellent tipper and that he is a scholar and thinker of the highest level.

He retires at an early age and spends the majority of the next decade working on what will become his greatest masterpiece, The Texture of Time. But I am getting ahead of myself: what does Van do? It's rather difficult to pin down, but he is a psychologist that studies bizarre disorders related to the comprehension of time and memory. Nabokov displays learning on the topic, and much derision towards Freud (Froid), which is par for the course. He becomes a doctor at Chose, and lives in Manhattan, while frequently traveling to Switzerland for various examinations, procedures, and investigations.

There is the matter of Ada's sister, and Ada's husband, and many of the other characters in the book: Cordula, Demon, Marina, and Mme. Lariviere, Ada's governess who becomes a famous author that is almost definitely a stand-in for Guy de Maupaussant. But they are incidental. There is one major suicide that takes place near the end of the book that is one of the most effective methods I have ever read of making sure that you will be dead. The scene is horrifying and one might almost call it beautiful.

And there is no shortage of beautiful writing, which is why this is Nabokov's greatest: amongst the greatest quantity in his oeuvre, some of the greatest quality is to be found. One could argue that Lolita is a more concise, consistent, high-quality read, but for its sheer ambition and leisurely methodology, Ada is that all-too-rare book that actually eclipses Lolita. If anyone was going to do it, it would be the man himself!

It is hard to find quotable passages, but there are at least two of incredible beauty. One of them comes from what is arguably the most famous chapter in the book, which is a literary experiment on the level of Joyce or Mann (who eventually we will get around to discussing again), a "chronography" for lack of a better term, highly abstract, potentially positively sleep-inducing, and replete with notions that could be discussed for hours. The other takes place at a crucial moment, whose spoiler will be avoided in the interest of an open view:

"...Hunched up in a last band of low sun, on the bench where he had recently fondled and fouled a favorite, lanky, awkward, black girl student, Van tortured himself with thoughts of insufficient filial affection--a long story of unconcern, amused scorn, physical repulsion, and habitual dismissal. He looked around, making wild amends, willing her spirit to give him an equivocal, and indeed all-deciding, sign of continued being behind the veil of time, beyond the flesh of space. But no response came, not a petal fell on his bench, not a gnat touched his hand. He wondered what really kept him alive on terrible Antiterra, with Terra a myth and all art a game, when nothing mattered any more since the day he slapped Valerio's warm bristly cheek; and whence, from what deep well of hope, did he still scoop up a shivering star, when everything had an edge of agony and despair, when another man was in every bedroom with Ada." (480-481)

The other passage I recall occurs when Van comes to as close a synthesis as his Texture of Time is bound to relate, which bears a slight resemblance to the final scene in Waking Life:

"...This act of attention is what I called last year the 'Deliberate Present' to distinguish it from the general form termed (by Clay in 1882) the 'Specious Present.' The conscious construction of one, and the familiar current of the other gives us three or four seconds of what can be felt as nowness. This nowness is the only reality we know; it follows the colored nothingness of the no-longer and precedes the absolute nothingess of the future. Thus, in a quite literal sense, we may say that conscious human life last always only one moment, for at any moment of deliberate attention to our own flow of consciousness we cannot know if that moment will be followed by another. As I shall later explain, I do not believe that 'anticipation' ('looking forward to a promotion or fearing a social blunder' as one unfortunate thinker puts it) plays any significant part in the formation of the specious present, nor do I believe that the future is transformed into a third panel of Time, even if we do anticipate something or other--a turn of the familiar road or the picturesque rise of two steep hills, one with a castle, the other with a church, for the more lucid the forevision the less prophetic it is apt to be. Had that rascal behind me decided to risk it just now he would have collided head-on with the truck that came from beyond the bend, and I and the view might have been eclipsed in the multiple smash." (585-586)

Nabokov's knowledge of quantum physics or quantum mechanics or the theory of relativity is tested, and while I am unable to ascertain its verisimilitude, it seems clear that real physicists would take issue with some of Van's pronouncements, but on a purely artistic and linguistic level, while proving quite difficult, this chapter is ultimately more essential than any other part in the work.

There is not much else about Ada that requires reportage. It is for mature audiences only, it is a very challenging read (it took me longer than any other book on Flying Houses, though there were mitigating circumstances...)--and on a purely coincidental level, during the course of my reading this novel, my life became rather strange and heartbreaking. I recommend Ada more highly than any other book on Flying Houses--but I have decided, that when I leave, in August, for Brooklyn, I will do a top 10 books on Flying Houses list. All 3 of Nabokov's masterpieces will be included. 3 by Thomas will be there too.

And so our review ends--but it is not quite over because there is this issue to resolve. I would almost do a different post for this discussion but Ada still figures in conversation. Basically I just want to quote more from The Paris Review interview. I will post a link here. Read it. I am perverting all of The Great One's notions. To witness the genius contained in the responses is to regard the enchantment of a bygone era, when writers were more like gods than people.

That is not to say that I do not take issue with any of his responses, and I wish he were able to respond to my accusations/criticisms on this count, because I really would appreciate the education, which is no longer of this earth. In particular, a phrase he has created, so to speak, and that was quoted at length in his obituary in the New York Times in 1977, primarily because it contains the ultimate zinger against Thomas, which is quite rude, I think, to include in an obituary (shame on you, newspapers of the intellectual elite):

Interviewer: What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?

Nabokov: "Poshlust," or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar cliches, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature--these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as "America is no better than Russia" or "We all share in Germany's guilt." The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases as "the moment of truth," "charisma," "existential" (used seriously), "dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and "vocabulary" (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name--that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouves in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots--all of it as corny in its own right as the academic "September Morns" and "Florentine Flowergirls" of half a century ago. The list is long, and of course, everybody has his bete noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious to a young couple--she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canape, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

It is an all too rare occasion that the words of a dead writer from more than forty years ago make me want to cry in defense of another. I cannot stand by silent any longer. I will admit this: Nabokov is probably a better writer than Mann. He has many more books to his name. Both have an equal number of masterpieces (as I have indicated earlier)--and I do have to say that Thomas is the more consistent than the two--you can pick up a Nabokov book and not be sure you're going to "get it" or not--and with Thomas, provided you stick with him the whole way, you will at least "get it." They lived to a similar age. Thomas is older by more than twenty years. They both fled to the U.S. in the wake of totalitarian regimes. They lectured at schools like Princeton and Cornell. And arguably, they wrote very similar "most famous" books about taboo desire-- and evidently, Nabokov thinks Thomas is quite a fraud. Now, I will not argue that Death in Venice is better than Lolita. That's a losing battle I am not willing to fight. But to insist that Death in Venice is "poshlost?" Coming at the end of that tirade makes the statement all the more offensive.

Perhaps Nabokov is actually stating that Death in Venice is his other "bete noire" in the series, in addition to the airline ad, but I doubt it. His contempt for Thomas knows no boundaries. His airline ad, then, is the one element in Ada that I find annoying: Van's virility, his energy, and especially his relationships with all female characters, I find quite offensive. If anybody is interested in prolonging stereotypes about men not being able to be friends with women unless they are sleeping together, or only possible en route to sleeping together, then we have a very difficult "truth" to overturn in our future. I would prefer not to be lumped in with a gender that dictates bodily pleasure accompany regular discourse if it happens to be with the opposite sex. Of course Van does love Ada and does not leer at any other women when they are together. But it's the element in Van, and often Nabokov's other characters that I wish he would not portray with no explanation.

I totally disagree with Nabokov's assertion that Death in Venice is poshlost. Its merits as a work of literature are debatable, but it is certainly not cliched (though many might consider it vulgar), some may consider it "trash" but I don't believe it is "corny," I don't see how it is an imitation of an imitation--it is extremely original and unprecedented--um, just asking, but would Lolita exist without Death in Venice?--it may be "crude" but it is not "moronic," it is the opposite of Philistinism, it may contain "bogus profundities" depending on your view, but I do not find it to be "dishonest pseudo-literature" in any sense. Sometimes I think Nabokov is more interested in piquing the reader's interest with his acid-tongue criticism than giving a more transparent view of his "rules" for "sucessful art." I am hard-pressed to think of a more idiosyncratic figure in relation to criticism of any sort.

That criticism notwithstanding, Nabokov is The Great One and I will continue to worship him as I would a god. I wish he would have a higher opinion of Thomas so that I would not feel so foolish as to canonize him as well. But they belong together, as I lump them in the final page of my second novel, as they complement one another so thoroughly: a German and a Russian, a rebel against the Nazis and a rebel against the Soviets, a Nobel Prize Winner and a notorious iconoclast, intellectual giants both (though one might disagree) and careers that I would be more than happy to experience firsthand. I would have to favor Nabokov's life over Mann's, the Nobel notwithstanding, due to its rather fabulous and incredible nature. Not that either is within my grasp--but I must say--who amongst us bloggers in 2010 America debate the superiority of Nabokov over Mann? Very few, and so I would hope, that while I am sure neither cared much for their "immortal reputation," that if they were able to review blog posts beyond the grave, they would be able to make up and be friends and realize that few others beyond their years were able to equal their heights, and that this comparison would cement their work as essential, in the 21st century.


Joe said...

I think the shamelessly original need to be celebrated from time to time.

Hindi SMS said...

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta.The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps..."
This is a gem of a book.
I read it once, and I am reading it again. Somehow the book has managed to become even more beautiful and entertaining.
An absolute must-read to anyone who loves reading.
Despite the controversial subject matter of the novel, Lolita is a comedy, and simply, a joy to read.