The last and least of the three-volume edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s American writing published by the Library of America is mostly filled by the very long Ada (orArdor a Family Chronicle).It is followed by the considerably shorter but even more opaque Transparent Things, and the more straightforward Look at the Harlequins. None is easy reading, and the former two have been judged “unreadable” by many of those who have tried. They require a patience and a tolerance that were rare in 1969 and are rarer now.
Ada allegedly takes place on Antiterra, a world “parallel to” the one (called “Terra”) dominated by Russia and America, the places Nabokov live d longest ). What is totally unparallel is the sexual morality of the two planets. Antiterra lacks (or is free of) Christian sexual strictures.
The mix of “memoirs” and reflections also mixes two narrators: Van and Ada Veen. The incestuous half-siblings have been reunited in old age after decades of separation (in which Ada engaged in another kind of incest with her younger sister, Lucette; Lucette also fell in love with Van, but Van loved only Ada… though indulging himself with may brothel visits). Each remembers their distant past differently, or, at least different specifics are salient for each of them. In opining about the nature of Time and in writing very long sentences, Van is at least in part a parody Proust.
In that it is almost certainly his opaque work, Nabokov was flouting with the title Transparent Things (and assaulting them with the obfuscations of his text). R, the author to whom High Pearson, the novel’s sort-of-protagonist, goes to Switzerland to interview pontificates (he thinks he is theorizing) about literature and the unreliability of sense perception. Many of his ideas will be familiar to anyone who has read Nabokov’s musings on literature, psychoanalysis, etc. This was fun in the mad commentaries in Pale Fire, but seems more like going through the motions and repeating himself here.
There is actually a surfeit of plot with wooing, wedding, being humiliated, going mad, being imprisoned, and more in a mere hundred pages, though I would not want to be responsible for sorting out what is supposed to have happened. At the risk of sounding philistine, the puzzle of Nabokov’s fractured, opaque narrative here is not worth the effort to solve. (Hmm, the same feeling I had about Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans, but I read one of the classic “unreliable narrator” texts, The Confessions of Zeno and reassured myself that I have not lost the ability to enjoy reading through such texts.)
Although I did push myself through Nabokov’s last novel, Look at the Harlequins!, in a day, I didn’t much like it. To get all the book’s humor requires not only having read the collected works of Vladimir Nabokov, but all the idiotic things long-forgotten reviewers ever wrote about his work.
Vadim, the Russian émigré narrator is a parody of misconceptions – at least what Nabokov considered misconceptions – of his character, in particular, that he must have been a pederast . Nabokov was playing with various imaginable pasts for someone with his general background, but his play seems to me to be as heavy-handed. His narrator is incapable of happiness in any of his relationships.
Compared to its immediate predecessors (the seemingly endless Ada, and the brief but opaque Transparent Things) Look at the Harlequins is readable, but for me all three ofthe last novels are a marked decline from his earlier masterpieces. There are certainly pleasures in the text and flashes of wit, but, overall, the fictional memoir of a passive cloddish alter ego is a disappointment, a not-very-fun series of games and in-jokes. It seems to me that Vadim understood but cannot implement the title’s injunction. At least he doesn’t manage much enjoyment from those he sees as harlequins there to amuse him.
The publication of Ada was a major event, with a Time cover story, etc. It sold many copies. I would venture the guess that relatively few of the buyers made it through the book. The structural difficulty discouraged some and others were outraged by the amoral sex. The “great love” of Van and Ada bores rather than outrages me. Lucette is more interesting, and according to Nabokov’s biographer, Brian Boyd, is the main character, haunting most of it. Nabokov went on record saying he despised Van Veen. I’m not totally convinced of that, but it’s hard to imagine anyone finding Van more interesting than Ada.
Neither critics nor the large audience for Lolita (or for other earlier Nabokov novels) paid much attention to the two following novels. Nabokov kept doing what he was doing, but few people cared any more, and I don’t think that enshrining his late work in the Library of the Americas is going to lead to a re-evaluation that these are the busywork of a clever and highly educated writer in decline and repeating himself all too mechanically, featuring a series of pompous aristocratic writers disdaining modern societies.
From the heights (Lolita and Pale Fire, in the middle volume of the three volumes of Library of Americas Nabokov, I would recommend going back to the first. Speak, Memory is already canonized, but the novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is one that deserves to be better known (or reread by those who read it long ago). This is something I cannot say about any of the three novels (of vastly unequal length) in the third volume. Getting through even a paragraph of Ada or Transparent Things requires a substantial commitment!