so, it’s a love story. it’s a perverse, amoral, self-satirising, deeply romantic & generally iridescent love story.
the premise: a romance between a brother & sister. completely unabashed. given the same narrative treatment as any conventional romance, if you overlook, of course, the plot obstacles presented by the illegality of marrying one’s sibling. &, you know, the fact that the narrator is of course (this being a nabokov novel) a fellow of enjoyably dastardly unreliability.
it’s also a book of layers upon layers. puns in english, russian, french & latin, often snidely half-explained in nabokov’s own notes on the text. there’s a meta element- the novel is written within the novel by van veen, the narrator, & edited by ada veen, his lover/sister, so that every so often- usually after a particularly provocative passage- there’ll be a little [really, van] or [this isn’t how i remember it at all]. then there’s the part where the novel actually takes place in a weird alternate universe called antiterra- i’ll admit this puzzled me for about three hundred pages, during which i did a lot of flicking back & forth wondering why there were cinemas & fast cars when van veen kept repeating, insistently, that the year was 1884, & what the whole deal was with electricity, for that matter (a forbidden topic, it seems, on antiterra).
then there’s a tolstoyish digression on the texture of time, which i found both heavy going & distinctly tongue-in-cheek; the funniest if-you’re-reading-this-it’s-too-late note i’ve ever seen; transgressive sexual weirdness (alternately sumptuous, farcical or coolly ironic) that only seems less shocking than that of lolita because of how casual van veen is about it; & several doctors all mysteriously named rabbit in various languages.
there’s such an imaginative richness to nabokov’s prose, & i’d rather excerpt it than pick it apart. this bit’s from part one, which centres on van & ada’s first summer together.
“In this our dry report on Van Veen’s early, too early love, for Ada Veen, there is neither reason, nor room for metaphysical digression. Yet, let it be observed (just while the lucifers fly and throb, and an owl hoots – also most rhythmically – in the nearby park) that Van, who at the time had still not really tasted the Terror of Terra – vaguely attributing it, when analyzing his dear unforgettable Aqua’s torments, to pernicious fads and popular fantasies – even then, at fourteen, recognised that the old myths, which willed into helpful being a whirl of words (no matter how silly or mystical) and situated them within the gray matter of the star-suffused heavens, contained, perhaps, a glowworm of strange truth. His nights in the hammock (where that other poor youth had cursed his blood cough and sunk back into dreams of prowling black spumas and a crash of symbols in an orchal orchesta – as suggested to him by career physicians) were now haunted not so much by the agony of his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time, tingling about him and through him, as it was to retingle – with a little more meaning fortunately – in the last nights of a life, which I do not regret, my love.”
i mean, look at that- it cartwheels through parody, wordplay, phantasmagoria, musicality, & ends up half a love letter.
ridiculously, unsurprisingly, i found myself rooting for the ada-van love story. the novel should be an act of moral contortionism, but van, as narrator, brushes the incest pretty much aside, & so any such wrangling is left to the reader. oh, & van is a complete ass, by the way- aggressive & absurd, often thoughtless, sometimes cruel. & passionate, & sometimes even compassionate, & with a dark distinct sense of humour.
ada is a funny one, more impenetrable than van- they share a certain thread of moral bankruptcy, but she seems even dreamier, even more out-of-time than van; arrogant, a little wild, obsessed with orchids & insects. (i love these little passions nabokov’s characters have.) both ada & van are complex, frustrating, funny; they make whimsical references to mansfield park, execute bizarre ploys to lock their little sister up so they can go & bang each other in peace, write each other letters in insanely convoluted codes…
& then there’s lucette, the novel’s ophelia, who might be my favourite character- her plotline is strange & tragic & wonderful & has true moral gravitas, i think. there’s a scene where she & van, meeting for the first time in years, spend hours talking in a dingy bar, & she starts to emerge as someone who could have been good had life not ruined her- one of zweig’s ‘god’s stepchildren who have no hope, but feel that their earthly existence can be justified only by loving and being loved.’ & nabokov lets her talk & talk:
“‘I enjoy- oh, loads of things,’ she continued in a melancholy, musing tone of voice, as she poked with a fork at her blue trout which, to judge by its contorted shape and bulging eyes, had boiled alive, convulsed by awful agonies. ‘I love Flemish and Dutch oils, flowers, food, Flaubert, Shakespeare, shopping, sheeing, swimming, the kisses of beauties and beasts- but somehow all of this, this sauce and all the riches of Holland, form only a kind of tomen’kiy-tonen’kiy (thin little) layer, under which there is absolutely nothing, except, of course, your image, and that only adds depth and a trout’s agonies to the emptiness. I’m like Dolores- when she says she’s “only a picture painted on air.”‘”
the whole book’s wonderful, but there’s something special about the lucette plotline to me. nabokov devotes a peculiar compassion to unrequited love- & it’s visible here perhaps even more clearly than in lolita & pale fire.
it’s a hard book to talk about because there’s subterranean treasure in every page. where do you even start? i loved it, of course. it’s a huge novel, lit by stars & spilled diamonds- the kind where every human being is also a firebird, a conjoined water-nymph, a monster with black wings. it didn’t move me the way pale fire did, but that’s an unfair comparison; i’m not sure anything’s ever moved me quite the way pale fire did. ada or ardor is its own brand of fantastical.