‘Great novels are great fairy tales,’ Vladimir Nabokov declared in Lectures on Literature, a work of criticism compiled posthumously from his Cornell University teaching notes. Such a statement might be deceptive, until you are familiar with what Nabokov took a ‘fairy tale’ to be. A devout stylist, Nabokov was perhaps the last great exponent of ‘art for art’s sake’. As writer and as reader, he formulated an aesthetic approach — influenced by the formalist school which was in vogue before his exile from Russia — that enabled him to satisfy his taste for style before all else. He was derisive of the politico-historical theories that had invaded American academia by the time he began teaching, and dismissive of any reader who delved into literature for morality or history, or even for emotion.
Nabokov treasured the details of style and visual description. For him, to read was to reconstruct the world of the author’s creation, to ‘notice and fondle details’, and to uncover the craft that formed it; which is why he famously said that the only true reader is a rereader. He recommended fostering an ‘aloofness’, a ‘scientific coolness of judgment’ with which the reader may perceive and appreciate the twists and turns of the author’s invented ‘fairytale’ world: ‘Up a trackless slope climbs the master artist, and at the top, on a windy ridge, whom do you think he meets? The panting and happy reader, and there they spontaneously embrace and are linked forever if the book lasts forever.’
Ada or Ardor, Nabokov’s last and longest novel, may be the ultimate expression of the author’s ideas (out of respect for him, I shall not say ‘theories’) concerning the nature of fiction. The 80-year story of a love affair between a brother and sister, the novel reveals its indifference to the requirements of reality from the outset, slowly introducing us to a ‘fairytale’ world, known (even by its uniquely self-effacing inhabitants) as Antiterra, in which all the features of our own world are present but skewed.
The alternate universe is a familiar trope in fiction, but whereas the other world ordinarily serves some social or political point (usually about Nazis), Nabokov’s anti-earth appears designed solely to appeal to Nabokov’s idiosyncratic interests. Thus we are introduced to an alternate America separated into three main parts: English, French and Russian (conveniently incorporating all of the author’s favourite languages, which mingle decadently through the characters’ speech). Electricity has been mysteriously banned, not only from use but even from discussion; modern conveniences must therefore be replicated by equally mysterious hydraulic means (in one scene, an incoming ‘dorophone’ call causes a minor plumbing malfunction). The rest of society is likewise trapped in a kind of belle époque order of aristocrats and valets and horse-drawn carriages.
Antiterra is no mere excuse for endless multilingual puns (‘…the poisoned point of Ardis. Arrowhead Manor. Le Château de la Flèche. Flesh Hall.’); it is Nabokov’s ultimate fairytale world, a mine of fondle-able detail (particularly, exhaustively, details of sex — after 300 pages or so, this reader had about as much fondling he could stand), a labyrinth of intellectual mysteries that demand rereading, and a mixture of past and present through which he pays homage to the great fiction of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Beyond the curious details of life in this curious world — the geography, the warped literary history — there is the question of the narrative voice, which combines multiple layers of unreliability in a manner roughly familiar from Lolita. First we have the protagonist, Van, whose limited knowledge and perspective, particularly of Ada’s past, we share; above this, there is the narrator (who, it eventually becomes clear, is also Van, with marginal notes by Ada) who knows more than his young self, and occasionally reveals his greater knowledge, but whose perspective is also limited by subjectivity.
Imitation is another of Nabokov’s favourite things, and Flaubert, Proust, Pushkin, Chekhov all are echoed at one point or another. Strangely, over the work as a whole is cast the shadow of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Nabokov dismissed Joyce’s last novel as a failed experiment; but the theme of incest; the imitation of parents by their children; the uncertain, alternating identity of the narrator(s); the part played by the book itself in its own story; all recall Joyce’s work. There is even a chapter challenging Jung’s approach to the interpretation of dreams, effectively refuting the governing logic of the Wake. It’s almost as if Nabokov is trying to correct Joyce’s mistake.
If this all sounds rather cold and cerebral, it is a bit; an impression which is not eased by Nabokov’s style, which, with its anagrams and alliteration and puns often sounds more like a crossword puzzle than a work of literature. Although a stylist, Nabokov had not the freedom of style of his idol Joyce, and his narrators and characters consequently tend to sound like the same supereducated aesthete (even at the age of twelve and fifteen Ada and Van speak with the extended, pedantic syntax of lecturing professors). It may seem unfair to compare Nabokov with the most virtuosic stylist and, inevitably, find him wanting. But how can we not? He has already informed us that craft is the only commodity of value. In interviews and essays, he was endlessly listing authors and works in order of their greatness, and he cannot be excluded from a game that follows his own rules.
But through the allusions and dense speeches, great humanity shines forth. When Van learns of Ada’s numerous infidelities, he maintains control of his feelings only by replacing his thoughts of Ada with ‘a pantomime of rational thought’, acting numbly, automatically, while absurd thoughts of the psychology of ants and the act of donning shorts. When he is shot in a duel, the writing embodies his dissociation: as the signal is given to fire, Van’s attention is unaccountably taken by the sight of a girl and boy watching in the distance. ‘It was not the chocolate-muncher in Cordula’s apartment, but a boy very much like him, and as this flashed through Van’s mind he felt the jolt of the bullet ripping off, or so it felt, the entire left side of his torso.’
But the suicide of their half-sister Lucette, at once a beautiful piece of writing and the greatest window out of Van and Ada’s narcissistic twin perspective, stands as the book’s most poignant passage. After suffering one last rejection, she ‘tried to think up something amusing, harmless, and scintillating to say in a suicide note. But she had planned everything except the note, so she tore her blank life in two and disposed of the pieces in the W.C.’ Merging and dancing with Lucette’s confused and drug-addled mind, the language toys with her planned fate. She pours herself a glass of ‘dead water from a moored decanter’; after three vodkas her mind begins to ‘swim like hell’; until finally, after going ‘with hardly a splash through a wave that humped to meet her’, she loses sight of the ship, ‘an easily imagined many-eyed bulk mightily receding in heartless triumph.’
In moments like this, one can certainly see the magic in Nabokov's fairy tale; but what is this magic? The writer, Nabokov tells us, ‘may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter.’ An implicit hierarchy can be detected in his terminology: the storyteller provides infantile ‘entertainment’, ‘mental excitement of the simplest kind’; while ‘a slightly different though not necessarily higher mind looks for the teacher in the writer’; but the great reader seeks to grasp ‘the individual magic of [the author’s] genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems.’
One cannot help but feel that this schema does a disservice, not only to the writers in the Lectures, but to Nabokov’s own work as well. His analogy with 'enchantment' is peculiar, because it appears to contradict the traditional appeal of magic: not to understand the skill behind the trick, but to fail to understand it. The real work of the magician, successfully disguised, is perceived by the audience as the apparently effortless display of a skill they know to be impossible: making a woman float or an elephant disappear. For a grown adult, who knows that a woman cannot float, an elephant cannot disappear, to be convinced by the evidence of her senses that the impossible has in fact occurred — that is the essence of true enchantment. For the connoisseur, to determine how the trick was carried out provides a particular pleasure of its own, but without that first deception it would be a hollow exercise.
Likewise, it is not our understanding of Nabokov’s craft that makes the finest passages of Ada memorable; it is our experience of their results. It is not Nabokov that we meet on that windy mountaintop; it is the characters — duelling Van, dying Lucette — that he has, through his invisible skill, brought to life before our eyes. In these moments, it is that first reaction, that of the heart, not the head, that recognition of an emotional life analogous to one’s own in the heart of another, which earns the author the title of enchanter.