Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003506, Sun, 22 Nov 1998 11:23:00 -0800

Addendum to Blackwell IVNS MLA Session
Additional abstract for MLA Panel "Reading Nabokov Reading"
Sunday, Dec 27, 9-10.15pm
Chiasmus in 'Ada': 'Ada' in Chiasmus
Russel J. A. Kilbourn, Univ. of Toronto, St. George Campus

'Ada': the name, the title, is palindromic, reading the same backwards
and forwards. Is it possible to read a novel 'backwards'? Is it
possible to reverse the direction of time? In either case, not
literally, perhaps; but this is not the point. A literary structure
like chiasmus allows for a non-linear, dynamic narrative line. As John
Breck's work on the 'shape' of Biblical language convincingly implies,
a non-scriptural text such as a novel can be composed chiastically, or
with chiasmus as a 'structuring principle,' imparting to the work a
'conceptual centre' or thematic fulcrum on either side of which the
text ebbs and flows, toward not the 'beginning' and the 'conclusion'
as much as one end or the other. What signifies in a strange way is
the central point; the ends of the narrative in a sense circle back on
themselves, 'meeting,' in 'Ada''s case, at the parodic 'blurb' which
could as easily begin as conclude Van and Ada's story. The 'conceptual
centre,' on the other hand, is death itself -- easy to miss and
virtually unnoticed by many critics of 'Ada' precisely because its
value in the text is negative: Van and Ada do not die in the space of
the narrative; they 'die,' if they die at all, 'into the book.' But
Van does 'die,' at least twice, in the course of the narrative -- and
yet he doesn't. These forkings in time are presented in such a banal
manner, however -- as literary flourishes -- that they are not
generally accorded any interpretive weight, despite the amount of
space (an entire chapter) given over to questions of temporality, such
as the non-existence of the future. Indeed, what 'future' the world of
'Ada' has is folded back into the text, in the form of the narrative
of a past remembered and written in the present tense. Nor, for that
matter, does the chiastic counterpart to this world ('Antiterra') --
and this is perhaps Nabokov's greatest contributions to the history of
the novel and fictional semantics -- 'exist' within the text except as
'Terra,' a science fiction or symptom pf madness. 'Outside the text'
(but still within it) 'this' world is granted only a shadowy
existence, the distorted reflection in 'Ada''s mirror.

Breck, John. 'The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the
Scriptures and Beyond.' Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994.
Nabokov, Vladimir. 'Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.' NY: Vintage, 1990.