Ada or Ardor
is Nabokov's biggest novel, and in many ways a summation of his linguistic dexterity as well as his literary themes, with all the pleasures and problems those things imply.
His writing is a constant astonishment. His admirers are sometimes surprised to remember that it's not to everyone's tastes. Nabokov's sentences are exact, yet often long and complicated; they are utterly stripped of cliché; they are very alert to such pleasures as assonance, alliteration, sesquipedalianism and cross-linguistic puns. At their best they provide a sensuous delight which matches the subject-matter; at other times they offer descriptions which seem so unfamiliar, because so new, that a reader feels almost rebuffed (Clive James, discussing Nabokov's over-aversion to familiar phrasing, wrote brilliantly that ‘passages occur in which we can hardly see for the clarity’).
In Ada or Ardor
, most passages are poised somewhere between those two extremes, collapsing either into beauty or awkwardness depending on your mood, or the time of day. On sunset over a lake:
The wide lovely lake lay in dreamy serenity, fretted with green undulations, ruffed with blue, patched with glades of lucid smoothness between the ackers…
On playing Scrabble:
The bloom streaking Ada's arm, the pale blue of the veins in its hollow, the charred-wood odor of her hair shining brownly next to the lampshade's parchment (a translucent lakescape with Japanese dragons), scored infinitely more points than those tensed fingers bunched on the pencil stub could ever add up in the past, present or future.
On an erection:
The tall clock struck an anonymous quarter, and Ada was presently watching, cheek on fist, the impressive, though oddly morose, stirrings, steady clockwise launch, and ponderous upswing of virile revival.
One of his favourite tools is the long sentence, laden with subordinate clauses, which looks rambling but which is actually very precise in its descriptions, and frequently very perceptive in what it chooses to describe. The technique is rather Proustian, albeit employed in the service of a very different tone. Here he is on Ada's habit of scratching her mosquito bites:
The girl's pale skin, so excitingly delicate to Van's eye, so vulnerable to the beast's needle, was, nevertheless, as strong as a stretch of Samarkand satin and withstood all self-flaying attempts whenever Ada, her dark eyes veiled as in the erotic trances Van had already begun to witness during their immoderate kissing, her lips parted, her large teeth lacquered with saliva, scraped with her five fingers the pink mounds caused by the rare insect's bite – for it is a rather rare and interesting mosquito (described – not quite simultaneously – by two angry old men – the second was Braun, the Philadelphian dipterist, a much better one than the Boston professor), and rare and rapturous was the sight of my beloved trying to quench the lust of her precious skin, leaving at first pearly, then ruby, stripes along her enchanting leg and briefly attaining a drugged beatitude into which, as into a vacuum, the ferocity of the itch would rush with renewed strength.
Heady stuff. You see in that passage also this book's propensity to slip from third-person to first-person narration: ‘Van’ and the narrator who says ‘my’ are one and the same – well, more or less. The authorship is confused and overlayed with multiple fictional ‘editors’; and the setting is likewise confused, being a kind of alternate-reality version of our own world, which is superficially similar but whose history and geography differ in certain ways. None of it matters all that much – all Nabokov really cares about, one feels, is that you get a shiver of aesthetic pleasure up your spine when you read his words in the order he uses them.
Given that his writing is such a sensuous thing, it's natural that it comes into its own when he shifts to the erotic mode. The long, dreamy, pastoral scenes of Ardis, the manor where Van falls in love with the titular Ada, are full of hot afternoons, idyllic playfulness, the lazy sexiness of remembered summers. Nabokov can be a very sexy writer – a disconcerting fact when, after a particularly affecting paragraph, you remind yourself that the girl in question is 12 years old, the boy 14, and that they are siblings. I don't know if it is a testament to Nabokov's writing that he still makes this seem somehow sexy, or if it something we should be worried about. Personally I think, given the rest of his work, it is not unfair to conclude that Nabokov's obsession with young girls is something more alarming and disturbing than just a literary conceit.
This isn't the place to get into that, though. Ada or Ardor
throws up some problems and challenges, but if you're the kind of reader who likes revelling in Nabokov's particular brand of liquid prose, this book is likely to be a whole ocean of pleasure.