Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ada, or Ardor

Vladimir Nabokov, ADA, OR ARDOR.  New York: Vintage International, 1969.

Acquired at a Borders somewhere.  New.

True Confession(z):  I bought, and started, this book over a year and a half ago.  What can I say?  Nabokov has really florid, dense prose; this book is really long; I've been busy with grad schoolish activities; I have no tenacity.  I'll say all of those things.

Continuation of Confession:  I am still not done.  I am on page 353.  There are 589 pages.  I am ashamed.

Let it be known, here and now (shame acknowledged; moving on), that Vladimir Nabokov is without any doubt My Favorite Author.  I have read two of his novels (Pnin and Lolita), and his very long collection of short stories (The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, natch), and, well, roughly 59.9% of Ada or Ardor.  I can honestly say that I have never encountered such beautiful, spellbinding prose anywhere else.  I love the John Updike quote that appears on the backs of his Vintage editions: "Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." (emphasis mine.)  I think that is very apt.

Speaking about Nabokov with my boyfriend, we argued over whether his novels and stories really meant anything, or more broadly, whether novels and stories need to mean anything, which, of course, never got settled.  Speaking about him with another friend, we noted the way he privileges aesthetics and wordplay over content and narrative, how he saw the book as a work of art rather than a didactic device, a painting more than a folk tale.  I can see how that would bother some people, and seriously, I am all for content and narrative.

But there are passages in Nabokov where, as I am reading, I have actually vocalized- you know, like gone, "oh!" or "hah!" to myself- because I found what he wrote so affecting, so brilliant.  (Note: I'm quiet.  I don't vocalize unless it's necessary.)  It's gorgeous, gorgeous stuff.  It can be confounding and demanding of the intellect- as in, I read this paragraph five times before I understood it because in the middle my eyes kept crossing.  But it can also be impressionistic and extremely intuitive- where it seems like he just flipped his pen and out spilled a few words that didn't so much read themselves to you as burn an imprint of an image onto your brain.

Ada, or Ardor is basically Nabokov to the nth degree.  It's longer, it's more confounding, it's more demanding, it's chock-full of the trilingualism and entomological sciences and parenthetical literary criticisms and, yes, sexual deviancy that is only passing in most of his other works.  He makes up fantastic words like "brachiambulist."  He creates "a love story, an erotic masterpiece, a philosophical investigation into the nature of time."  (See this contemporary NYT review.  I had no idea they had these online, and am amazed.)  He evokes wonder and thrill and frustration in equal measure.

So I guess what I'm saying is, I like it.  I really do.  But now I just have to finish the damn thing.  Oh, and thanks for letting me geek out over Vladimir Nabokov.

"'That's not the point,' cried Van, 'the point, the point, the point is- will you be faithful, will you be faithful to me?'

'You spit, love,' said wan-smiling Ada, wiping off the P's and the F's.  'I don't know.  I adore you.  I shall never love anybody in my life as I adore you, never and nowhere, neither in eternity, nor in terrenity, neither in Ladore, nor on Terra, where they say our souls go.'" (158)


  1. I find it difficult to invest myself in a story whose arc isn't so well defined, though this is largely in his short stories, and, through recent reflection and discussion, I've come to appreciate what I remember of those works. I have to agree with you that Nabokov's command of composition itself is unparalleled.

  2. I think you can frame it in broader terms than aesthetics versus narrative. E.M. Forster pointed out how many novelists allow characterization and rhythm to suffer in their efforts to achieve a compelling plot. In other words, authors who reject an emphasis on aesthetics in favor of conveying meaning through plot often fail on their own terms. Most of the "meaning" in Mervyn Peake's Titus Groan, for instance, comes from the gothic atmosphere of castle Gormenghast and not the plot, which is fairly static.

    Nabokov wasn't a pure aesthete, of course, despite his famous dismissals of literary heavyweights like Dostoevsky and Eliot. If you read his Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature, it's obvious he's an incisive reader who's capable of detailed, sustained criticism. Like every good critic, he's a close reader: he draws a detailed map of Bloom's June 16th journey through Dublin, he spends pages discussing exactly what sort of creature Gregor Samsa was, and he notices the improbable fact that Emma Bovary isn't sore after riding on horseback for several hours with Rodolphe. Really gives you a lot of insight as to what Nabokov was all about.

    As do his interviews, which you can find on a mysterious Russian website called

  3. Thought you might enjoy a bit from one of my favorites.

    "I believe that today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it has only one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul. It may be that we are doomed, that there is no hope for us, any of us, but if that is so then let us set up a last agonizing, bloodcurdling howl, a screech of defiance, a war whoop! Away with lamentation! Away with elegies and dirges! Away with biographies and histories, and libraries and museums! Let the dead eat the dead. Let us living ones dance about the rim of the crater, a last expiring dance. But a dance!"
    Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer, 1934

  4. Thomas: That's lovely. Never read any Henry Miller, but I feel like we might have similar taste in literature. So I will add Mr. Miller to my list. (I always get Henry Miller confused with Henry James. I think 'cause Henry James wrote a book called Daisy Miller? And the Henry part, of course.)

    Paul: Glad you are finally (kind of) coming around :)

    Raghav: My understanding of an aesthetics vs. narrative, form vs. function framework was more in the sense of two hypothetical ideals. Obviously most authors can't be said to have conformed strictly to one or the other... but it's part of my own personal engagement with Nabokov that I characterize and understand his writing style as aesthetic and painterly, despite (or coexistent with?) the fact that he was also a gifted literary critic, professor of literature, all-around genius etc. etc. Thanks for the encyclopedic contribution though.

  5. Lovely addition to your blog, Liz! And because critical literary analysis is not my primary field (I dabble, perhaps, but poorly!) I won't force an opinion where I have none and then delve into a rampant meta-analysis of my blatant ignorance on this topic.

    But I did find your resonance with his "florid, dense prose" rather intriguing. Are you aware that he was a synesthete? Perhaps, in a sense, part of his prosaic talent was the ability to evoke this response in those without this particular neurological disposition.

  6. Vanna: That's interesting! I'd actually had a similar idea but I think you put it much better than I was thinking it. However from what I know about synesthetism(?) it seems to be more literally about color, while my impression of Nabokov's style being "painterly" was more figurative- not so much associated with describing or evoking color, as scenes, mannerisms, etc. But it is interesting to think that maybe somehow his way of seeing the world/putting it into words was that much more nuanced because of it...?

  7. p.s. critical literary analysis is far from my primary field as well, so dabble away :)

  8. I don't have my copy of Pale Fire on me, so I'm going by memory, but in the introduction Nabokov is quoted as saying that later generations will remember him as a moralist, and not an aesthete. Reading _Lolita_ and _Pale Fire_, I have to agree: his writing is full of moral judgment.

  9. Liz- "Pale Fire" is one of my ALL TIME favorites. You know I don't read fiction unless its fiction that tilts close to essay and/or reverie. Nabokov is so deeply philosophical, so poetic- and the ideas take precedence over the story. Calvino is like that too, for me at least. LOVING your blog! Keep it up.

  10. Jason, I feel like I'm a bit the opposite, in my non-academic life at least, which is probably why I've been scared to start Pale Fire for so long. But as a Nabokov devotee, and after hearing all its praises, I can't ignore it any longer! It's next on my Nabokov list (after Invitation to a Beheading that is- was on sale at Dog Eared Books).