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Beginning with an inversion of Tolstoy's remark that all happy families are alike, its early chapters plunge forward on rubble created by assaults on the mannerisms of regional romance and dynastic memoir. Science fiction, sexual symbolism, popular novels that get turned into movies come under fire. So do impressionistic translations. Characters mimic Jane Austen and Dickens. Poets Auden and Lowell are spliced into a modern entity called "Lowden, a minor poet and translator." The celebrated Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges is yawned offstage as Osberg, a contriver of "mystico-allegoric anecdotes." Meanwhile, the children's flabby governess is writing Maupassant's "The Diamond Necklace" and Jean Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles", an indication of Nabokov's opinion of both.
To prÚcis "Ada" as a love story is like describing "Lolita" as a cautionary tale for Girl Scouts. But the literary brickbats, too, as well as the snatches of Russian, the quadrilingual puns, the satiric undercuts, are all embellishments -- provided partly to tease scholars, who are now so far behind Nabokov's accumulation of literary clues and "culs de sac" that it will take years of footnoting to catch up. (Ardis, the family seat, becomes Arrowhead Manor, "Le Chateau de la Fleche", Flesh Hall.)
Nabokov's text, as often before, is disguised as an unpublished manuscript. It ostensibly reflects Van Veen's memories of his 83-year-long affair with Ada. Yet, anyone who thinks that "Ada" is Van's book need only rearrange the letters of VAN'S BOOK until they spell NABOK0V'S. Once the creator's name has been uttered, "Ada's" profoundest purpose comes into view. "Lolita" displays more human feeling. But "Ada" is the supreme fictional embodiment of Nabokov's lifelong, bittersweet preoccupation with time and memory. Nabokov is acutely aware that it is only through memory that we possess the past. But how fragile that hold is -- and how much art and individuality depend upon it! In "Speak, Memory", his mesmeric autobiography, he wrote without his customary protective irony:
"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Nature expects a full-grown man to accept these two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature."
Tricks with time, thoughts on time, even a chapter on "The Texture of Time" interweave "Ada". The love story does not "really" start until page 555, when a phone call from Ada to aging Van causes a chain reaction in his memory, linking the images of his youth and transforming the past into a "glittering now." Appearing late in the novel, the "Texture" essay is a recondite attempt on Van's part to caress the essence of time with the same ardor with which he once possessed Ada.
It is futile. One can almost hear Van's creator sighing at these efforts to have carnal knowledge of the infinite. "You lose your immortality when you lose your memory," Van remarks at one point "And if you land on Terra Caelestis [Heaven], with your pillow and chamberpot, you are made to room not with Shakespeare or even Longfellow, but with guitarists and cretins."
"Ada" cannot rightfully be separated from its language, from the chaos of literary allusions, the geographical and genealogical data. But its glory, rises from the fragrance of things that have been lost but cannot be forgotten. Central to its timelessness is the anachronistic world of Ada and Van's youth. Known as Antiterra, it is physically like a mixture of pastoral 19th century Russia and Canada and the modern U.S.
Antiterra's "current events" rove timelessly between an imagined future, in which Mississippi is run entirely by Negroes, and a fabled past, in which the Crimean War, occurring in 1886, is fought with modern war planes. For a while, space and time are suspended. Ultramodern "dorophones" ring, planes fly, and magic carpets skim cool glades without so much as a patent pending.
En route, some of the characters perish by fire, water and air -- fleeting reminders of a return to elemental states. Age comes finally. Time reasserts itself. As the artifice is revealed, one almost expects to hear the snap of Prospero's wand. For this is Nabokov's autumnal fairy tale. Though not his finest book, it is certainly his most brilliant attempt yet to ransack the images and thoughts of his own past and shape them into a glittering now of the imagination.
Any critic foolish enough to exclaim "Aha!" over gross parallels between Nabokov's experience and his literary creations is viewed by the author with scorn. Yet the soft, pervasive breath of "Paradise Lost" that whispers through "Ada" is more than an echo of Everyman's lost ardor. It is a transmogrified version of Nabokov's own lost private Eden in the Russia of his childhood. With his wealthy and gifted family, he lived in a town house in prerevolutionary St. Petersburg, and at Vyra, an idyllic, rambling country estate. For Nabokov, his two brothers and two sisters and their parents, life, especially at Vyra, seems to have been the living lesson in love, order and responsibility that all "ancien regime" childhoods should have been but so seldom were.