Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book thoughts: "Ada"

I'm pretty sure most people who read Nabokov's Lolita react in one of three ways:

  1. Be disappointed in its lack of scintillating detail
  2. Fall in love with its beautiful prose style but get weirded out by its implied content
  3. Love the book, implied content, lack of scintillating detail, and all.
People who fall in the #1 group have problems which can be solved easily by the internet. The #2 group would do well to read Nabokov's short stories. I would also recommend #2ers his novel Pnin, which I think was written at around the same time and is clever, tragic, humorous, and beautifully written. Group #3 may want to proceed to Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle. Anybody read it? Ada is a big Crazy Totally Russian Masterpiece, inasmuch as I know anything about novels or literary criticism, which I don't, but I get the feeling that it's the book Nabokov felt free to write only after establishing his success with Lolita, and with his new audience, saw his chance to put out his biggest artistic effort, his Crazy Totally Russian Masterpiece. Okay, so did I like the book? Yeaaaghhnyeahhhhhhss. It has that same kind of thing I get from Beethoven's late string quartets, where it's like, "my, this is long, but this is the work of a genius and has the qualities of a masterpiece, but it's still one of those things written by geniuses for themselves and other geniuses to enjoy, and however poorly I understood it, I'm able to chip away more and more of it over time and there is definitely something there." Ada is a brilliant, beautiful book. And if you're used to Nabokov's humor and cleverness, you have that here, but you also have an almost Joyceian degree of worldplay and poetry. Not a word is wasted; every sentence has mindblowing levels of alliteration and puns (there needs to be another word for "pun" that is like, a poetical use of a word, as opposed to a math teacher's only means of charming humans), every other word in parentheses; some of it made me cackle, but I definitely lacked the erudition to understand a lot of it.

What I did appreciate was the poetic sense of pacing. The story is a "family chronicle" in name, but it's really a fictional autobiography of Van Veen and his lifelong affair with his half-sister Ada. The first part of the novel, taking up the entire first half of the book, a good 300 pages, is devoted to a few years in the sunlit young adulthood of the two protagonists. This is all from the remembered perspective of a man in his late nineties, so he's looking back at events practically a century in the past, but it is the bulk of the story, and it is here that Nabokov practices his notorious art of impressionistic, ecstatic, nostalgic writing. Part Two is about half as long as Part One, and it is all tumult and upheaval (the book is already lighter on the leading-page side before we really get to linear plot motion and conflict), comprising the next ten-or-so years in Van Veen's life. Part Three is maybe 30 years in his life, and is about half the length of Part Two. See the pattern? Part Four: about 50 pages long. Part Five: the final part, the last fifty years of Van's life, about 20 pages. 

In the novel's pacing there is an implied message as clear as the implied behavior of Humbert Humbert: the past is one thing. The future is another, possibly unrelated, thing. For our (what Ada calls the "authorial possessive") protagonists, youth is the thing most worth writing about. Van, as he ages, becomes more and more obsessed with time, and with the human brain's perception of it. "The most accurate timepiece in the world is a joke," I remember him saying somewhere in Part Three. Neither does he dwell upon or particularly fear death. Quite a bit of the book is actually some very dense non-fictional ruminations about time, and though I'm usually an avoider of philosophy, I found these bits interesting.

I don't know who Nabokov's target audience was when he wrote this, probably nobody in particular. But if asked, he would probably not say twenty-something casual readers in Iowa. The themes are big, probably too big for kind-of-young people like me to understand. But I am in my Part Two of life, and I can observe the curving gravity of time, at least better than I could when I was 16. The message sunk in for me, and if you are into Literature With Big Themes I would highly recommend you this book.

You may have noticed that I am writing in this blog more than I used to. Maybe this will continue, maybe not. Maybe if and when I finish my album I'll be just DONE, I'll have said everything I was going to say! Probably not, but it's a nice thought.


James said...

Ah, Nabokov :)

The time scheme sounds not unlike Synecdoche, New York, though that's more future-obsessed, about accelerating horrifically towards death... how small the future is, not how big the past is.

I don't know if it's significant that he wrote his shortest novel (I think?) Transparent Things straight after this, or that it's so concerned with what lies after, beyond, or between waking life, more than the thing itself.

Have you read Pale Fire?

Brian said...

Hmm, I don't know if I've even heard of Transparent Things. Would you recommend it?

I haven't read Pale Fire either, but that's pretty much next on my list! Don't know when I'll get around to it though, I like to space out Nabokov so I can save new stuff to discover later.

James said...

Good strategy. Nabokov is rich meat too, best not eaten every day.

I would recommend TT, though it doesn't have the immediate excitements of his more famous novels. It is very short, but it takes a couple of readings to tune into.

Lydia said...

as opposed to a math teacher's only means of charming humans

(knowing snicker)

Brian said...

There are so many math teachers in my family, none of them will know which one of them I'm secretly talking about. (The answer: all of them.)