EDNOTE: Ran across this by chance. For many people probably their first exposure to ADA.


May 1, 1969
The Nobel-est Writer of Them All

ADA: Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. By Vladimir Nabokov.

Here is Vladimir Nabokov's first new novel in seven years, twice as long as any book he has ever written before, and 14 times as complicated. Naturally, the reviewer approaches it scared to death. Nabokov's prose is always booby-trapped, and if Edmund Wilson can get bombed (the "sapajou" joke in the Pushkin translation), mere mortals want to stay at home with the comic strips. Which is too bad. For there is more pleasure to be derived from a Nabokov novel than from anything else available in contemporary literature, or even, for that matter, from any mixed- media group-grope of deracinated starvelings desperate to groove the East Pillage obscene. Why leave the explication to the exegetes? Or the execration to those radical critics who keep trying to put N. down as some sort of recidivistic White Russian ingrate?

He is, as he once wrote about something else, "a goblet of rays of light and pus,/a mixture of toad and swan." He is, as well, our only living literary genius. Nobody else could have written an antideterministic masterpiece, contemptuous of Freud (there is no guilt) and Marx (there are no politics, no economics, not even any history), that is at once a sexual and philosophical romance, a brilliant science-fiction, an awesome parody and a gigantic punundrum that would wake up Finnegan.

Tentative Explications

Let me risk some tentative explications.
"Ada" is:

(1) The anthropological description of an alternative world. N., by deciding that certain ancient wars, which were lost, should have been won, has rearranged history to suit himself. There are Russians all over North America, and, because all Russians speak French, they go about obsessively coining trilingual puns. N's world is called Antiterra. "Our" world, Terra, is apprehended only by madmen, philosophers and science-fiction writers. The two worlds are out of technological phase, allowing N. to pump away on his narrative as though it were a slide rule.

(2) A theory of time, which makes time the plaything of the artist. rudely speaking, time for Proust was a repertoire of smells, an olfactory septic tank. For N., it is a safe-deposit box full of images, summoned according to whim or compulsion by the artist, in whatever order is convenient or necessary. Time is always present, and the instant becomes eternal insofar as it engages and freezes consciousness into metaphor. (Intense love, for instance, is such a frozen slab of consciousness, always available for a quick fry in the imaginative oven.) Unfortunately, it's a theory of time that only works for geniuses; the rest of us must live in an empirical funk. But N. may just be parodying Tolstoy's "great man in history" essay. (See Explication No. 3.)

(3) A parody of "Anna Karenina" in particular, the Russian novel in general, and the evolution of The Novel in universal. (I am indebted to Nabokov scholar Alfred Appel Jr. for this interpretation, and it works. Not all scholars fail to see the crypt for the cryptograms.) N. opens "Ada" with a reversal of Tolstoy's opening "Anna" paragraph, and then manages in one book to recapitulate the various fecundations and despoliations that great Earth Mother of prose has had to endure from an army of ravishing innovators.

(4) A love story. "Ada" is, really, the memoir of a philosopher who, at age 14, fell in love with his cousin, age 12. But the cousin, Ada, turns out to be his sister, and they spend seven decades solving the togetherness problem. During those decades Ada sleeps around and the philosopher, Van, writes the treatises ("catching sight of the lining of time...the best informal definition of portents and prophecies") which account for Explications 1 to 3.

It should be pointed out right here that Ada, as a character, is lovable. There are those critics who—resenting the fact that N. enjoyed a happy childhood—complain of his cerebral chill. They have ignored Pnin, Fyodor, Luzhin, Krug and even Humbert Humbert in the earlier novels; but if they ignore Ada, there isn't a lyric spark in their gray clay hearts.

Incidental Games

It should also be pointed out, before I give the one and only true explication of "Ada," that the book is full of incidental games: N. makes fun of existentialism, of his own annotators, of Jorge Luis Borges, of Balzac, Kafka, Proust, Joyce, John Updike (very affectionately), and especially himself: "Her spectacular handling of subordinate clauses, her parenthetic asides, her sensual stressing of adjacent monosyllables...all this somehow finished by acting upon Van, as artificial excitements and exotic torture- caresses might have done, in an aphrodisiac sinistral direction that he both resented and perversely enjoyed."

Exactly. And what he's done in "Ada" is write his own artistic autobiography, a companion piece to "Speak, Memory," a treatise on his own internal Antiterra. He has constructed an entire shimmering culture out of his exile and wanderings, a language out of his own experience. Combine Van (chess-playing, tone-deaf "old wordman") with Ada (butterfly-collector, amateur botanist); superimpose them on a Russian America; add masks, deceit, memory, dreams, conjuring, apostasy, the zoo and the cage and the acrobatics; celebrate the crime (which was that of Cincinnatus C.) of being opaque in a transparent world—and you have the elusive N., "like a bifurcated spectre/like a candle between mirrors sailing off to a sunset."

He has written elsewhere that "the future is but the obsolete in reverse," and that "the only real number is one, the rest are mere repetition." "Ada," dedicated to his wife, is his jeweled butterfly, singular, timeless, the man himself. If he doesn't win the Nobel Prize, it's only because the Nobel Prize doesn't deserve him.

Home | Site Index | Site Search | Forums | Archives | Marketplace

Quick News | Page One Plus | International | National/N.Y. | Business | Technology | Science | Sports | Weather | Editorial | Op-Ed | Arts | Automobiles | Books | Diversions | Job Market | Real Estate | Travel

Help/Feedback | Classifieds | Services | New York Today

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company