Monday, May 5, 2008

Nabokov's "Ada": Book Review

This uneven yet memorable novel combined two earlier Nabokov works, a non-fictional treatise on time and a fantastic tale of an alternate earth, "Letters from Terra." Such a composition, which salvaged parts of these into the novel published a decade later, "Ada," may account for the awkward style, rambling pace, and shifting focus of this intermittently engrossing but ultimately diffused tale of lovers Ada and Veen. I read this after "Bend Sinister" (see my recent review here and on Amazon US-- where this one appeared today), "Pnin," "Pale Fire," and "Lolita." Many readers of Nabokov recommend these before the lesser rewards of the much longer "Ada." I agree.

My interest in the two main characters never sparked until very late. Lucette, by comparison, in her earnest courting of Veen, came alive much more as she pursued a shipboard romance. The tone, the diction, the energy all altered, for the better. I get the impression that such episodes marked a lengthy gestation for this novel, and that Nabokov labored to produce narratives that connected disparate scenes he'd previously worked out more in isolation from each other in terms of a larger plot. The novel certainly takes its time, especially in the first half, to tell you often very little of import. The later parts, curiously, speed up the pace somewhat, but themselves come from attenuated periods scattered throughout Veen's long and often uninteresting, however fantastically imagined in fitful starts, life.

I must say unlike others who've reviewed this novel that I found later sections here and there better crafted than earlier ones, or at least Nabokov capitalized on the emotional payoff for characters who often in earlier chapters fail to involve you, caricatured or stylized as they clunk about. who lives as if some Henry James protagonist in a world where Nabokov appears to ape or mimic Borges (lots of forking paths, and at one unconvincing point Veen is shot dead if only momentarily), Jules Verne, and Proust, as well as countless Continental authors! Nabokov, perhaps like Joyce, never lets you forget the artificiality of the tale that his intellectually superior semi-omniscient narrator (usually Veen, altered by an editorial conceit to tell his tale retroactively, to a point) relates, but unlike Joyce, the texture of the mundane world too rarely enters "Ada," for all its plethora of minute detail.

Yet, although the overwhelming amount of inside jokes (I read the Library of America ed. with Brian Boyd's endnotes as well as "Vivian Darkbloom's" and often tired of flipping back and forth twice over) in Russian, French, English, and various other Terran or Anti-Terran idioms did not entertain me much, parts of this smug, hermetic, and very self-satisfied tale managed to intrigue me at least for a few pages.

Philosophically, time conceived as a fissure or slit along which we move out of the unknowable eternity previous to our life and then back into it as we age was similarly explained in "Bend Sinister," so I'm not sure it needed to be expounded again in "Ada" totalling perhaps at fifty times the length for that topic. (1.42, p. 252. Libr. Amer. ed.) Suffice to say: "Time is memory in the making. . . Life, love, libraries , have no future." Even Veen despite his privileged life finds, in evocative sections towards the end, his own mortality slowing him, as "the Tortoise of the Past will never overtake our Achilles of the future, no matter how we parse ourselves on our cloudy backboards."

Veen sums up his creator's method with his "philosophic prose" about "a treatise on the Texture of Time, an investigation of its veily substance, with illustrative metaphors gradually increasing, very gradually building up a logical love story, going from past to present, blossoming as a concrete story, and just as gradually reversing analogies and disintegrating again into bland abstraction." Ada, for once, shows insight about the worth of all this talk, and for me, of Nabokov's expectation that we should be as enchanted with his often cruel characters as he seems to be-- seems the qualifier. Ada wonders "if the attempt to discover those things is worth the stained glass. We can know the time, we can know a time. We can never know Time. Our senses are not meant to perceive it. It is like--" (so ends part 4, pp. 448-51)

The fragile wonder of life breaks into these thickly scaffolded pages, and their surface glows for a bit before the tedious prose again dulls the effect of their burst, all too true to life! In their old age, which in parts becomes tender when in the past I sensed it supercilious at least as conveyed, Ada "never refused to help him achieve the more and more precious, because less and less frequent, gratification of a fully shared sunset. He saw reflected in her everything that his fastidious and fierce spirit sought in life. (5.3, p. 456) Grudgingly, I in the final episodes began to admire the couple more than I had for most of the previous 450 pages. In their decline at their life's sunset, they became more human, and less artificial.

Van wonders if we are "really" free. He recalls Chinese caged birds who on wakening hurl themselves against their bars as if by wild reflex only to then settle down each day to their routine. (1.20) One's life is imagined as raw film footage that we always think we will have the chance to go back and edit and retouch "before death with its clapstick closes the scene." (1.38, p. 202). Appropriately, one character's last moments attain real poignancy: "what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude." (3.6, p. 396).

So, a meager if sufficient satisfaction that kept me plowing through dozens more chapters in which I frankly cared less about Veen. For a novel set on an alternate earth, there's both too much extraneous material and too little for this aspect to attain vividness. Nabokov appears to have given us his rough draft more than a finished product, but being who he is, I still remain suspicious that as one of the cleverest of authors, he may well know more than I do about his "true" intent. For example, in the middle I began comparing (negatively for me) the novel to Henry James; within a page or so, there's an aside to "Dr. Henry's oil of Atlantic prose" which Boyd glossed for its nod to Jamesian style! (3.5, p. 388) However, if you wonder what James crossed with brother William and blended with steampunk, late-Victorian reveries, Scrabble, and a splendid section (the original kernel of the novel) on that fin-de-siecle's invention of Villa Venus and the "floramor") on what brothels might once have been upon a time, this may be the bedside book you've never known you've been waiting for.

P.S. Now that I finished it, I see it's safe to venture here. I need to know how Ada, and two floramors, divined what the narrator refuses to divulge: how a minute examination of his private parts revealed his infertility! Brian Boyd's annotations get only halfway through the enormous part one, so far, and that passage is in 2.6. So, I must wait. Ada Online

Photos: British Penguin & US Vintage covers; as usual, I prefer the former.

No comments: