I. "Nabokov is an unsettling writer as well as a funny one because he is deep where he looks shallow, moving when he seems flippant." - Michael Wood,I. "Nabokov is an unsettling writer as well as a funny one because he is deep where he looks shallow, moving when he seems flippant." - Michael Wood, The Magician's Doubts
II. I've read most of Nabokov's novels and purposefully saved Ada for the end of my initial run. I'm glad I did because I needed the goodwill I'd built up to get through the first 30+ pages which are the most difficult and unappealing of his career. They're fastidiously baroque, smugly preening, and difficult to follow. Almost as if he's weeding out his readers from the jump. The style - in addition to being a parody of 18th Century Russian novels - turns out to reveal much about the narrator Van Veen and the information delivered becomes increasingly crucial to the story. But at first flush, I could understand where naysayers had dismissed my favorite writer as an overly clever bore. Of course, he turned out to be up to much, much more than the opening suggests. Mush on.
III. "To Read Ada is to enter a sickly and elaborate world, a sort of hell which parades as a paradise; or a genuine paradise which is so broken, threatened, haunted, gloated over that it feels like an enhancement of hell." - Michael Wood
IV. Many reviewers on this site have marveled over the Ardis section of the book. After the previously mentioned intro chapters, it takes up the first 200 pages. Set on a bucolic estate, it chronicles the ecstatic summers of love between Ada and Van Veen, cousins and siblings. This is a lush and bravura section, meant to seduce the reader, but I wonder if it's seduced some all too completely. For its genuine beauty and kinky erotic charge, there's something amiss in this supposed paradise, lurking around the edges, continually off-key.
V. "That originality of literary style which constitutes the only real honesty of a writer." - Van Veen
VI. For me, Ada really began to pay off after Ardis. The book shows the first signs of its overall design - the complex investigations into loss, time, memory, what can be retrieved through the artifices of art and what cannot. Some readers miss the gorgeous shimmer of Ardis and think Nabokov has lost the plot -- but this is the point. Ardis has become a paradise that's locked out lovers and readers both. We have to make do with substitutes that become increasingly wan and grotesque, threatening to mar the memory of the supposed idyll. The story here grows increasingly complex, forking in many directions, its ramifications stretching far beyond its narrator's words.
VII. Recently, there have been rumors about Wes Anderson doing a multi-part miniseries of Ada for cable. The matter-of-fact incest, the intricate design, the steam-punk world, the emotion that arrives from oblique angles. It would stretch Anderson, but it could work.
VIII. The last sections of the book - time mercilessly catapulting forward - were by far the most affecting for me. I wasn't prepared for passages that are among the most haunting and heartrending in Nabokov's work. You can feel Ardis turning to dust beneath your fingertips as years advance and pages turn. The watery death of Lucette. The scene of Van and his mother in the hospital. Van's pilgrimages to hundreds of brothels, seeking in vain for another Ada. The encounter of Van and Ada as dumpy 50 year olds. The sublime ending, which serves as preface to the book and redeems the fussy opening pages. These are truly among the finest things I've read, period.
IX. Yes, there are swaths of Ada that are difficult to embrace. The continual puns and correspondences between the Anti-Terra of the novel and our own world being the worst offenders for me. There are times when Van Veen's style annoys as well as enchants. A few plot points seem too easily contrived. But as the book rushed to its conclusion, I realized these were minor quibbles within the design of an artistically grand, morally complicated, and ultimately profound book about... more than will fit in a review. If you can set aside the time, it will repay your efforts. Ada's best sections shouldn't be rated in stars, but in constellations. ...more
So right, this is a minor work. Transitional, you might even say. Young Nabokov is figuring out how to structure a novel from an entire life - ratherSo right, this is a minor work. Transitional, you might even say. Young Nabokov is figuring out how to structure a novel from an entire life - rather than a heightened episode - without shorting his substantial gifts for compression, velocity, and patterning. The initial chapters have a herky-jerk momentum, but the novel eventually finds its footing and races toward an astonishing metaphysical climax that frames all the previous material in a new light.
This is definitely *not* for newcomers or those only mildly invested in Nabokov. It's slightly meandering in some places, uncharacteristically didactic in others, and occasionally too broad in its effects. But I still found it far more electrifying than the work of acolyte Martin Amis, whose London Fields continues to be a relative slog compared to Nabokov's fleet-footed prose, indelible dilations of detail, and swift changes of scenery. At a fraction the length, Glory packs in exotic cruises, international espionage, affairs between married women and young boys, wartime tragedy, nighttime train journeys, ruthless flirts, concealed identities, mysterious mountain paths, bloody bare knuckle boxing, lovesick machinations, and lecherous professors. Not to mention a good chunk of London itself.
VN himself sez: "After all but lapsing into false exoticism or commonplace comedy, it soars to heights of purity and melancholy that I only attained much later in Ada."
Now off to read what Brian Boyd has to say about it.... ...more
Almost every Nabokov novel probably deserves five stars. But while Laughter in the Dark is filled with stunning scenes, it's not one of his bulletprooAlmost every Nabokov novel probably deserves five stars. But while Laughter in the Dark is filled with stunning scenes, it's not one of his bulletproof masterpieces. Still, this might be his most breezy and purely enjoyable book. The plot moves along at a speedy clip, building up to a cinematic climax that's genuine edge-of-the-seat material. The prose is as inventive as ever, but never overly demanding. If you've only had a casual interest in his work, this might be a perfect place to kindle a deeper appreciation. It's the Nabokov book to bring to the beach.
A few quibbles: The coincidence the entire plot hinges upon is a bit creaky. Occasionally you can see the puppetmaster's hands at work and the effect threatens to become moralistic. As the book moves along though, these concerns almost evaporate. The near farcical elements finally resolve into something that approaches both the tragic and the sublime, bringing the novel to an explosive and rapturous close. ...more
This charmingly idiosyncratic book is chock full of odd biographic details about its oddball subject, both celebrating Gogol's strange genius and presThis charmingly idiosyncratic book is chock full of odd biographic details about its oddball subject, both celebrating Gogol's strange genius and presenting his fate as a cautionary tale. There are also brilliantly translated passages from "The Government Inspector," "Dead Souls," and "The Overcoat" - enough to make you wish that some publisher had hired Nabokov to render at least one of these entire works into English. And best of all, Nabokov offers deep readings that shred common perceptions about Gogol and show how his most complex and masterful works achieve some of their dizzying literary effects. ...more
Includes: Hunting expeditions in Tibet; fake executions; nude sunbathing; mysterious disappearances; Siberian exiles; three-way suicide pacts; left-wiIncludes: Hunting expeditions in Tibet; fake executions; nude sunbathing; mysterious disappearances; Siberian exiles; three-way suicide pacts; left-wing censorship; recurring ghosts; Russian emigre life in Berlin; an affecting love story; the secrets of fictional composition; and much, much more. One of Nabokov's greatest masterpieces. ...more
Nabokov's last finished novel isn't a career summation so much as a madcap burlesque of his own work and reputation. The narrator here is a Bizarro woNabokov's last finished novel isn't a career summation so much as a madcap burlesque of his own work and reputation. The narrator here is a Bizarro world version of his creator, a nudist and drunkard who's been married "three or four times" and falls for a nymphette who happens to be his own daughter. You'll want to be familiar with VN's other works to fully appreciate many of the jokes and the metaphysical maneuvers, which somewhat limits the appeal of the story. But if an author hasn't earned the goodwill to try something like this with their last novel, then when?
Brian Boyd sees this novel as an inversion of VN's memoir "Speak, Memory" and a valentine to his wife Vera. He's right, but there's a lot of other odd things hovering around the edges of the story, namely the way the narrator at times seems to be slipping into his own fictions in a way that recalls "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight," a novel alluded to numerous times throughout. There's also the deeply disturbing relationship between the narrator and his daughter, which Boyd reads much more innocently than I did. Like "Lolita," you have to untangle the daughter's psychology from the distorting lines of the narrator's prose. And like Van Veen in "Ada," the narrator's morality here is both troubling and complex. In this thoroughly mirrored funhouse, the reflections are rarely what they seem. ...more
Nabokov as Mandarin, considerably less appealing than in his fictions, dishing out stentorian judgments from on high. The absolute worst place for a nNabokov as Mandarin, considerably less appealing than in his fictions, dishing out stentorian judgments from on high. The absolute worst place for a newcomer to start. For fans, there's no shortage of intentionally provocative opinions that should be taken with a barrel of salt (savaging such "mediocrities" as Doestoevsky, Thomas Mann, etc). He also offers the odd dazzling insight into his own work and brilliantly rips asunder decades worth of received wisdom. Worthwhile but proceed with caution. ...more
Like Kawabata's "House of Sleeping Beauties" this relatively obscure work provides a major key to the author's thematic preoccupations. Nabokov's ofteLike Kawabata's "House of Sleeping Beauties" this relatively obscure work provides a major key to the author's thematic preoccupations. Nabokov's often camouflaged (but always important) metaphysical concerns are laid bare for even the casual reader to explore. Brian Boyd rates this as one of VN's major masterpieces (alongside Defense, Gift, Lolita, Speak Memory, Pale Fire, and Ada) but I'd rank it a relative peg lower. Still an amazing achivement, a taut dystopian mystery and one of the great "dream books." ...more
Relatively speaking, Minor Nabokov. But this charming work does contain one of the absolute great scenes in modern literature set in the aftermath ofRelatively speaking, Minor Nabokov. But this charming work does contain one of the absolute great scenes in modern literature set in the aftermath of a dismal house party, featuring Pnin, a sink full of dishes, and a punchbowl. ...more
One of Nabokov's greatest works, one of the finest novels of the 20th century, a meditation in verse and footnotes on death and what might await us onOne of Nabokov's greatest works, one of the finest novels of the 20th century, a meditation in verse and footnotes on death and what might await us on the other side, full of wicked humor, piercing grief, gentle ghosts, dethroned monarchs, globe-trotting assassins, boat chases out of James Bond, and a heart-stopping finale. ...more