David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: vladimir nabokov

Kinbote Triumphant in Hell: The Riddle of Nabokov’s Ada

1. The Riddle

I loathe Van Veen.

Vladimir Nabokov

Ada, or Ardor (1969) (full text available here) is Nabokov’s very long novel about brother-sister incest in an alternate reality. Most people don’t consider it one of his best.

The book declares itself as the memoirs of Van Veen, spoiled and successful aristocrat, describing his upbringing on the family estate of Ardis, his long-running love affair with his sister Ada, his other sister Lucette’s unrequited love for him, and the family’s other affairs and intrigues on the planet Antiterra, a variant of our Earth. After many delayed reunions, they finally reunite for good in their 50s and live out nearly another half-century together in incestuous bliss.

The riddle of Ada is explaining these two facts:

  1. The novel is off-putting and unlikable, as are its main characters Van and Ada Veen.
  2. Nabokov must have been aware of Fact #1.

At the time, John Updike wondered in his negative review whether Nabokov was aware of just how unpleasant the self-satisfied Van Veen was, and how he lacked any of the sinister charm of Humbert Humbert or the insane desperation of Charles Kinbote (or whomever). The quote at the top should answer that question, but even that quote is unnecessary: Nabokov was a narrow writer in many ways, but he was not stupid as to how his characters would appear to people.

So, the question: why has Nabokov put us in the company of two characters, Van and Ada, who are both unappealing and uninvolving, and why for so long? Why has he made the trappings so uninviting? Even the opening paragraphs are clearly designed to turn away a reader:

“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (“Dolly”) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called “Russian” Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with “Russian” Canady, otherwise “French” Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

Compared to the opening of Lolita, Pnin, or really any other Nabokov novel, this is not only repellent, but boring.

Brian Boyd has stressed the moral character of the novel and focused on the character of Ada’s sister, Lucette. Lucette falls in love with Van, but Van and Ada treat her like garbage, and she eventually commits suicide. And certainly I see no reason not to condemn Van and Ada both for their treatment of Lucette, over which both express some tepid regret. But this answer is far from sufficient.

First, Lucette’s story just doesn’t take up that much of the book, certainly not enough to make her the heart of the book. Second, as Nicole at Bibliographing has observed, Lucette is a bit too much of a lamb to the slaughter to bring out one’s sympathy, and a brat as well. Van and Ada are terrible, but Lucette’s infantile and cringeworthy behavior doesn’t exactly set her in stark relief. Poor Charlotte Haze is far more touching than the vaguely sketched Lucette. Boyd also fails to explain the fundamentally uninvolving character of the book, which I think cannot be denied. What then?

2. Don Juan and Don Quixote

I want to attempt a structural explanation because working at the level of characters and plot cannot produce a satisfactory explanation for the alienating effect of the book.

As Nabokov tells us very early on in Chapter 3 of Part 1, Ada is Russian for hell, or more precisely “of hell” (ада, genitive of ад). Antiterra is also called Demonia, Van’s father is nicknamed Demon, and infernal references abound. It’s a peculiar hell though, since it’s devoid of the major catastrophe of Nabokov’s life, the Russian Revolution, and despite some tormented drama, Van has it pretty good, eventually ending up with Ada in blissful love for quite a number of years. The memoirs mostly do not cover this, however, though they do mention the eventual and seemingly hard-to-fathom success of his book The Texture of Time, a rather uninvolving philosophical treatise which is forms the penultimate section of the book.

Here is one key to the nature of this hell:

When, in the middle of the twentieth century, Van started to reconstruct his deepest past, he soon noticed that such details of his infancy as really mattered (for the special purpose the reconstruction pursued) could be best treated, could not seldom be only treated, when reappearing at various later stages of his boyhood and youth, as sudden juxtapositions that revived the part while vivifying the whole. This is why his first love has precedence here over his first bad hurt or bad dream. (31)

What is the special purpose, and what really matters? Van, in constructing his memoir, is picking out pleasing experiences which “really matter,” rather than the painful ones. He means the whole to be love, not hurt or dream. That should be enough to tell us that Van is an unreliable narrator. The book is all hurt and dream, none of it love. The special purpose is some sort of delusion, some kind of avoidance of reality.

Consider the key scene in Part 3, just before Lucette commits suicide, when Van refuses Lucette’s advances after he happens to see a film that conflates Don Juan and Don Quixote (the character is Don Juan, but he and Leporello are riding past windmills). Ada plays a part in the movie that was not in the original book, a character named Dolores (also Lolita’s real name). She embraces Don Juan and causes him to climax, and this turns out to be the revenge of the Stone Cuckold, the statue that drags Don Juan down to Hell. Ada is of Hell.

After seeing Ada, Van flees from Lucette, masturbates twice, then brushes her off when she calls him on the phone:

In a series of sixty-year-old actions which now I can grind into extinction only by working on a succession of words until the rhythm is right, I, Van, retired to my bathroom, shut the door (it swung open at once, but then closed of its own accord) and using a temporary expedient less far-fetched than that hit upon by Father Sergius (who chops off the wrong member in Count Tolstoy’s famous anecdote), vigorously got rid of the prurient pressure as he had done the last time seventeen years ago. And how sad, how significant that the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm, while the unlockable door swung open again with the movement of a deaf man cupping his ear, was not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush.

No doubt he was morally right in using the first pretext at hand to keep her away from his bed; but he also knew, as a gentleman and an artist, that the lump of words he brought up was trite and cruel, and it was only because she could not accept him as being either, that she believed him:

Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?” asked Lucette.

Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),” answered Van.

A small pause followed; then she hung up. (490)

Then Lucette drowns herself.

For all the fuss about memory, Van’s real purpose is clear here: to forget, to “grind into extinction.” Ignoring Lucette for the image of Ada was the most consequential avoidance of reality for projected fantasy, but even in chronicling the event, here he is doing it again, projecting himself into the third person after a very brief detour back into the first (a rare event in the book). Lucette is a victim, mostly forgotten by Van, reduced to stale caricature as an infantile masochist. Ada is the seemingly innocuous agent of punishment, and an inserted character who is just a pretense for solitary masturbation. Van is both Don Juan and Don Quixote.

3. Hell

I’m won’t attempt to figure out precisely what is real and what is not in the book because I don’t think I stand much of a chance, but I will make some broad guesses. I am inclined to be extremely skeptical of the mostly unchronicled decades of happiness with Ada, as well as of the success of Van’s book. The happier the events, the more dubious I am. The tragic events–Lucette’s death being the central one–most likely hold greater reality. Ada’s intrusions throughout, but especially at the end of the book, seem more likely to be a voice within Van, not an actual person. I think it highly unlikely that Van and Ada are ever happily reunited. Nabokov did not intend to redeem Van Veen through suffering, but particularly in the later novels, Nabokov’s rotten characters do tend to be spared any real happiness. I strongly suspect that to be the case here.

The idyllic, hermetic, and very long Part 1 is a pastiche or a parody of the 19th century Russian novel. Inverting Tolstoy’s maxim turns it into a joke. Hence from the beginning Van is protecting himself and not being straight, and the offputting nature of the whole text is a reflection of Van’s solipsism. He is building a sealed coffin for himself that he intends no one to penetrate. He will avoid unpleasantness as much as possible, even at the cost of making himself unpleasant.

With each subsequent section things get more miserable, the length gets shorter, and different strategies of avoidance are invoked. The late years of happiness with Ada are more likely years of self-torture, any success in love or life a delusion on Van’s part. By Part 4, he has abandoned plot in favor of mere allusions to wish-fulfillment and philosophical self-indulgence. At his supposed happiest he is least able to describe anything that happened to him.

To the best of my knowledge, all of Nabokov’s alternate worlds are revealed to be explicit fantasies within the text: the unnamed country in Invitation to a Beheading, Zembla in Pale Fire, Badonia in “Terra Incognita,” and Padukgrad in Bend Sinister. It is unlikely that Antiterra is any different, even more unlikely that it is some kind of afterlife. It is the fantasy world of someone. Van has mysterious access to our world Terra, which he writes a novel about. It is unsuccessful; Antiterra doesn’t want to hear about the real world. There is probably some greater significance to that failed novel, but I have not figured that out.

Instead, his dreary, solipsistic treatise The Texture of Time (which forms Part 4) becomes a bestseller, unlikely enough in any world. It is a reality-denying book in which ideas take precedence over people. Nabokov loathed this appraoch, dismissing ideas as worthless to writing. And so they are; they only distract Van Veen for a while before the voice of Ada interrupts him at the very end of the section to drag him back down to his own private hell.

One idea of The Texture of Time is significant though, which is Van’s insistence that the Future is nothing more than a part of the Present.

What we do at best (at worst we perform trivial tricks) when postulating the future, is to expand enormously the specious present causing it to permeate any amount of time with all manner of information, anticipation and precognition. At best, the “future” is the idea of a hypothetical present based on our experience of succession, on our faith in logic and habit. Actually, of course, our hopes can no more bring it into existence than our regrets change the Past. (560)

This isn’t a serious idea, of course. It is the bitterness of a man who has no future, for whom no possibility of hope remains, and who has been forced by desperation into attempting (and failing) to reimagine the past as something less horrible than it was. Van’s attempt is more successful than Charles Kinbote’s in Pale Fire, as Kinbote had to contend with the opposing force of Shade’s poem and his inability to dispose of the vexing torments in any sort of convincing way. Van succeeds rather well to a point, but this only exacerbates and prolongs his ultimate failure. He is Kinbote triumphant, but in hell.

4. The End

The true end of Ada is not clear. If, as I suspect, Van Veen dies at the end of Part 4, just as he is (supposedly) reunited with Ada, then the remainder of his life after 1922 (please see this Ada timeline) may be entirely fantasy, a projection from the present into the (false) future. Part 5, which announces itself as the “true introduction” to Ada, may have been written by Van before the rest of the book, not after it.

This is significant because by the order of Van’s writing, it would mean that Part 5, having been written first, would be the most delusional of all. Certainly the ebullient rapture of Part 5 marks a reversal from the growing sadness that went before and a jarring break from both Part 3 and Part 4.

In Nabokov’s stories that concern alternate worlds, the revelation of the fantasy tends to take place at the very end of the tale, often only on the last page. (This is arguably true even of the non-linear Pale Fire. What does the last page bring us here? An aggressively fatuous description of Ada itself in trite, sarcastic prose.

The protagonist, a scion of one of our most illustrious and opulent families, is Dr. Van Veen, son of Baron “Demon” Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure. The end of an extraordinary epoch coincides with Van’s no less extraordinary boyhood. Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Arcadian innocence with the “Ardis” part of the book. On the fabulous country estate of his art-collecting uncle, Daniel Veen, an ardent childhood romance develops in a series of fascinating scenes between Van and pretty Ada, a truly unusual gamine, daughter of Marina, Daniel’s stage-struck wife. That the relationship is not simply dangerous cousinage, but possesses an aspect prohibited by law, is hinted in the very first pages.

In spite of the many intricacies of plot and psychology, the story proceeds at a spanking pace. Before we can pause to take breath and quietly survey the new surroundings into which the writer’s magic carpet has, as it were, spilled us, another attractive girl, Lucette Veen, Marina’s younger daughter, has also been swept off her feet by Van, the irresistible rake. Her tragic destiny constitutes one of the highlights of this delightful book.

The rest of Van’s story turns frankly and colorfully upon his long love-affair with Ada. It is interrupted by her marriage to an Arizonian cattle-breeder whose fabulous ancestor discovered our country. After her husband’s death our lovers are reunited. They spend their old age traveling together and dwelling in the various villas, one lovelier than another, that Van has erected all over the Western Hemisphere.

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.

The distasteful, dust cover copy about Lucette’s death is a pained joke. The whole thing is painted not only as fictional, but as cliched and generic. It is as delusional as the idea of The Texture of Time becoming a bestseller. And I believe this is what we are meant to take from it: this is Van’s fantasy, not “ninety-seven percent true, and three percent likely” as he protests at the beginning of Part 5, but something only vaguely resembling cruel reality. This is the pulling back of the curtain.

Only the final paragraph, which leaves behind the fatuousness for a series of remembered images, rings true: these are presumably bits of Van’s real memory that have attached themselves to his fantasies.

5. Who Is In the Coffin?

One recurrent theme in Nabokov’s novels–indeed, a typical principle of their construction–is of a protagonist/narrator who struggles to sustain a badly-desired fantasy, be it love, power, patriotism, or just having a decent life. The struggle to assert this fantasy in the face of the world’s rejection or malice constitutes the narrative, and the inevitable failure of the fantasy comes at the end of the book. In most cases the fantasy gives way to reality reasonably easily, as people like Humbert Humbert and Pnin are not literally delusional. But in the case of Cincinnatus C, Kinbote, and others, the fantasy bears more on the book’s contents than the reality.

Ada is Nabokov’s most extreme treatment of this theme, not the least because we don’t see anything pushing back against Van Veen. All opposing forces tend to dissolve away sooner or later. The marshaling of fantasy to defy reality becomes a structuring principle of the book even to the point of alienating readers from it, lest they crack open Van’s coffin and discover his secrets. Where there is little reality, there is little sympathy to be had, hence the uninvolving nature of so many of the characters, not least Van himself. While Van puts up a good front to a point, ultimately he knows he’s not fooling anyone with his “happy family chronicle.” What starts off in Part 5 as the joyous introduction ends with solipsistic torment in a self-fashioned hell. And what better analogy for a solipsistic world than incest?

The exact nature of Van’s real-life sins remains ambiguous to me. Lucette’s death is almost certainly one of them, but there remains a greater question which I can only guess at: who is Van Veen? Just as it appears Charles Kinbote was himself a fantasy identity of the seemingly ancillary character V. Botkin in Pale Fire, I’m not at all certain that Van Veen, if he even exists in the “real world” of Ada, is the author of Ada as it appears to us.

Who if not Van? Perhaps Andrey Vinelander, Ada’s husband for for almost 30 years. He is an Arizonan rancher, and a cuckolded rube. Van and Lucette hold him in total contempt, yet Ada stays with Andrey through years of sickness. Though she means to leave him for Van, she refuses to do so until he is well. Yet he never recovers, and only with his death in 1922, mentioned at the end of Part 3 and Part 4, are Van and Ada finally reunited, just as Van finishes The Texture of Time–and perhaps when Van dies. This all seems very suspicious to me, enough to suggest some deep link between Van and Andrey. If Van is Don Juan and Don Quixote, is he also the Stone Cuckold himself?

1922 was also the year the Soviet Union was established. I do not think that is a coincidence either.

I’m sure there are plenty of clues I have not found that will either support or disprove aspects of my interpretation here. But I am done with Ada for now. Even under this interpretation, I’m not sure if the book justifies itself. But this is the best account I can manage.


Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

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