I have read at least half a dozen Nabokov novels at least half a dozen times. [A novelist reading a novelist is a marvelous thing. Bellow reading Joyce, Amis reading Nabokov, Foster Wallace reading DeLillo… You know they’re not really reading; they’re grazing. Slowly, repeatedly, they’re nourishing themselves, they’re ruminating, chewing on this phrase and that figure. The Amis essay is terrific in part because it’s all about this special sensibility: The hyper-receptive writer working a verbal field. Nobody knows another writer as well as another writer.] And at least half a dozen times I have tried, and promptly failed, to read Ada (“Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle“). My first attempt took place about three decades ago. I put it down after the first chapter, with a curious sensation, a kind of negative tingle. [For what it’s worth, our own UD, mad lover of Nabokov, bought, when she was an undergrad, the black hardback of this novel and opened it all agog. Fifty pages later, weary and vaguely embarrassed, she closed it.] Every five years or so (this became the pattern), I picked it up again; and after a while I began to articulate the difficulty: “But this is dead,” I said to myself. The curious sensation, the negative tingle, is of course miserably familiar to me now: it is the reader’s response to what seems to happen to all writers as they overstep the biblical span. The radiance, the life-giving power, begins to fade. Last summer I went away with Ada and locked myself up with it. And I was right. At 600 pages, two or three times Nabokov’s usual fighting-weight, the novel is what homicide detectives call “a burster”. It is a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat. [First, there’s the reader’s purely visceral rejection response. Then — and this is what’s so good about Amis — there’s the explanation. Listen up.]

When Finnegans Wake appeared, in 1939, it was greeted with wary respect – or with “terror-stricken praise”, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges. Ada garnered plenty of terror-stricken praise; and the similarities between the two magna opera are in fact profound. Nabokov nominated Ulysses as his novel of the century, but he described Finnegans Wake as, variously, “formless and dull”, “a cold pudding of a book”, “a tragic failure” and “a frightful bore”. Both novels seek to make a virtue of unbounded self-indulgence; they turn away, so to speak, and fold in on themselves. [Old people – and old, venerated writers, tend to do this, no? Withdraw from the world, indulge more and more deeply in their own fantasies, give themselves license to do any old thing because they’re don’t care about or can’t deal with the world outside themselves anymore.] Literary talent has several ways of dying. With Joyce and Nabokov, we see a decisive loss of love for the reader – a loss of comity, of courtesy. The pleasures of writing, Nabokov said, “correspond exactly to the pleasures of reading”; and the two activities are in some sense indivisible. In Ada, that bond loosens and frays. [This is crucial, I think. Julian Barnes writes that there’s a “strange, unwitnessed, yet deeply intimate relationship between writer and reader,” and it’s just that delicate and profound transaction that gets betrayed when writers fold in on themselves. The writer no longer makes the courteous effort to conceive, as he writes, the existence of a creature, a consciousness, separate from his own. Perhaps he tells himself he’s so powerful a writer that he’s creating a new consciousness in the reader, bringing the reader to greater heights of awareness, to a form of understanding analogous to the writer’s own, in forcing the reader to enter the writer’s hermeticism. But every careful reader instinctively senses the difference between a jarring aesthetic sensibility that changes her as she makes the effort to enter into it, and a sort of plugged-up verbal belligerency.]

There is a weakness in Nabokov for “partricianism”, as Saul Bellow called it (Nabokov the classic émigré, Bellow the classic immigrant). In the former’s purely “Russian” novels (I mean the novels written in Russian that Nabokov did not himself translate), the male characters, in particular, have a self-magnifying quality: they are larger and louder than life. They don’t walk – they “march” or “stride”; they don’t eat and drink – they “munch” and “gulp”; they don’t laugh – they “roar”. They are very far from being the furtive, hesitant neurasthenics of mainstream anglophone fiction: they are brawny (and gifted) heart-throbs, who win all the fights and win all the girls. Pride, for them, is not a deadly sin but a cardinal virtue. Of course, we cannot do without this vein in Nabokov: it gives us, elsewhere, his magnificently comic hauteur. In Lolita, the superbity is meant to be funny; elsewhere, it is a trait that irony does not protect.

In Ada nabobism disastrously combines with a nympholepsy that is lavishly, monotonously, and frictionlessly gratified. Ada herself, at the outset, is 12; and Van Veen, her cousin (and half-sibling) is 14. As Ada starts to age, in adolescence, her tiny sister Lucette is also on hand to enliven their “strenuous trysts”. On top of this, there is a running quasi-fantasy about an international chain of elite bordellos where girls as young as 11 can be “fondled and fouled”. And Van’s 60-year-old father (incidentally but typically) has a mistress who is barely out of single figures: she is 10. This interminable book is written in dense, erudite, alliterative, punsome, pore-clogging prose; and every character, without exception, sounds like late Henry James.

In common with Finnegans Wake, Ada probably does “work out” and “measure up” – the multilingual decoder, given enough time and nothing better to do, might eventually disentangle its toiling systems and symmetries, its lonely and comfortless labyrinths, and its glutinous nostalgies. [Lovely writing from Amis here in this list of items — and at this point, who could miss the alliterative sweetness of each? The letters T and S played out in the first; L in the second, G in the third — along with the devil-may-care making of neologisms — nostalgies… Sounds a bit French, which does nicely for Nabokov… Or, okay, not so much a neologism as the opposite: nostalgies is archaic.] What both novels signally lack, however, is any hint of narrative traction: they slip and they slide; they just can’t hold the road. And then, too, with Ada, there is something altogether alien – a sense of monstrous entitlement, of unbridled, head-in-air seigneurism. Morally, this is the world for which the twisted Humbert thirsts: a world where “nothing matters”, and “everything is allowed”.

But again, as Amis notes, Lolita will condemn everything is allowed, while the self-important convolution of Ada will appear to endorse it.

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