Prospero's Progress

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    A Nabokov novel is intended not as a message -- but as a delight. It is also a game in which the alert reader is rewarded by feelings of wonder at the illusiveness of reality. "In a first-rate work of fiction," he argues, "the real clash is not between the characters, but between the author and the world." Nabokov's books are conceived like the chess problems that he has composed during the past half-century. He describes in an early novel the miraculous way in which a flat, abstract contrivance (in chess or art) can take on vitality and light: "Little by little, the pieces and squares began to come to life and exchange impressions. The Crude might of the queen was transformed into refined power, restrained and directed by a system of sparkling levers; the pawns grew cleverer; the knights stepped forth with a Spanish caracole . . . Every creator is a plotter; and all the pieces impersonating his ideas on the board were here as conspirators and sorcerers."

    To see through Nabokov's fun and games to his underlying sadness and seriousness requires an understanding of the unfashionable notion that games can be both creative and profound. The essence of the Nabokov creative method is parody. His creatures are not symbols or branches snatched from "The Golder, Bough". But they are haunted by literary ancestors. Enjoying parody requires knowledge of the literary forms and fashions being spoofed -- which is one reason why Nabokov is difficult. "He is not the kind of novelist," says Anthony Burgess, "whom you sit down to with a Scotch or an apple." In a rare moment of explicit self-exposure, Nabokov once explained! "While I keep everything thing on the very brink of parody, there must be on the other hand an abyss of seriousness, and I must make my way along this narrow ridge between my own truth and the caricature of it."

    Nabokov's truths, and "Ada", will certainly unhouse many readers from the comfort of their passive reading habits.

    As an easy entry on the boy-meets-girl plot level, Nabokov indulges in a tale about Van Veen and his half sister Ada Veen. They fall in love at the respective ages of 14 and twelve and begin an energetic sex life in the nooks and dells of the family's rural estate. Over the years. their floating orgy suffers prolonged periods of inactivity. In their old age, however, Van and Ada reunite and mate -- now in a highly figurative way -- melding into an unbeing that Nabokov calls Vanadis. Licensed allusion hunters will find that Vanadis is an epithet for Freya, the popular Swedish sex goddess who was also close to her brother.

    Nabokov sums up these amorous doings in a mock dust-jacket blurb that closes "Ada" by describing only the book's most superficial aspects. Long before he gets around to that, though, a suspicion has set in that the surface love story is as different from the real "Ada" as a bicycle reflector is from a faceted ruby. More even than "Lolita" and "Pale Fire", "Ada" is studded with assaults and asides directed at literary forms, figures and fashions. Along with its masquerade as a delicious "fin de siecle amour", Nabokov provides the most unconventional commentary on the novel ever written.

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