Part One, Chapter 12


Since this chapter juxtaposes the vividness of the particular, in the bright close-ups of breakfast on the balcony, with the uncertainty of infinity, in Van’s solitary nights outside, its structure recalls Nabokov’s image to an interviewer who had asked him what surprised him most in life: “the marvel of consciousness—that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being” (George Feifer interview with VN, Saturday Review, November 27, 1976, 22).

For Ada, the sunny details, the priceless pleasures of the particular, confirm her and Van’s status as “a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta”: “Natural history indeed! Unnatural history—because that precision of senses and sense must seem unpleasantly peculiar to peasants, and because the detail is all” (71). Ada’s knowledge of natural kinds seems to reflect her maker’s, and throughout his work Nabokov stresses how many diminish their lives by failing to notice or to seek out life’s vivid details, but his attitude has none of Ada’s and Van’s arrogant celebration of superiority. His own affinity is not with the Ada who may seem to speak for him here but with John Shade, who would rather ramble with the modest Paul Hentzner, an uneducated farmer with an intimate knowledge of the local flora and fauna, than with the educated Kinbote who claims he is a former king.

What do we make of Ada’s “Billions of boys” paragraph? Love does make a couple see their relationship as unique, and as allowing them special access to each other by excluding the rest of the world. In the relationship of Van and Ada, here as throughout Ada, Nabokov intensifies that characteristic of passionate love in a way that emphasizes its romantic appeal and seems to invite us to share the thrill, yet in the same moment he shows how this magic can easily tip over into a disenchanting egoism à deux.

In this chapter Van and Nabokov set the infinity of human feeling, the transcendence in love of the loneliness of the self, against the uncertainty of our place in the vastness of space and time. Expressing his hauntedness as a teenager “not so much by the agony of his desire for Ada, as by that meaningless space overhead, underhead, everywhere, the demon counterpart of divine time, tingling about him and through him,” Van suddenly switches to the present and to Ada: “as it was to retingle—with a little more meaning fortunately—in the last nights of a life, which I do not regret, my love.” The effect combines the magic of the “Tamara” chapter of Speak, Memory, the excitement of that first love, with the poignancy of Nabokov’s address to his wife at the end of his autobiography:

Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love—from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter—to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity), the dreadful pitfalls of eternity, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the helplessness, the cold, the sickening involutions and interpenetrations of space and time. . . . It cannot be helped; I must know where I stand, where you and my son stand. . . . I have to have all space and all time participate in my emotion, in my mortal love, so that the edge of its mortality is taken off, this helping me to fight the utter degradation, ridicule, and horror of having developed an infinity of sensation and thought within a finite existence. (SM 296-97)

There are of course sharp differences: the greater smoothness of tone in Speak, Memory, versus the rapidity and instability in this chapter of Ada, its interpenetration of scene and significance, its mixture of the immediate and the distanced, of the winningly attractive and the faintly rebarbative; the relative breadth of Nabokov’s feelings (he addresses Véra but thinks of “my love for a person”: for his wife, his son, and his parents, at least, but presumably for others as well), versus the intense enclosedness—and therefore the high romanticism—of Van’s and Ada’s love.

Even as it introduces “with the young pang of the original joy” Van’s falling in love with Ada, the chapter also introduces the motif that will reappear in counterpoint to the part Ada will play in Van’s life, the philosophical career that will offer him, as he presents it, a kind of poor compensation for the absence of Ada (see Boyd 1979: 353-36, 1991: 558). Here his sense of solitude in the darkness and vastness of the night (the precursor of “the Terror of Terra” and of his reading of Rattner on Terra and Antitterrenus on Rattner in the hammock four years later, as he prepares for a life in philosophy), switches in a flash into the unforgettable radiance of the first morning moments he shares with Ada alone. The human sense of emptiness and incompleteness that drives his philosophy will be the counterpart of the sense of ecstatic fulfilment he finds in his love for Ada, as his philosophical work compensates as best it can for the absence of Ada, until in their last forty-five years he can combine his work and Ada’s presence by his side.

In Ada’s last chapter Van comments on “One great difficulty. The strange mirage-shimmer standing in for death should not appear too soon in the chronicle and yet it should permeate the first amorous scenes. Hard but not insurmountable (I can do anything, I can tango and tap-dance on my fantastic hands).” (584) In a sense he has managed this already in I.7 (see I.7 Afternote), but here he shows both the heat of the amour and the chill of death increasing, as the hammock allows him to evoke the image of his namesake, uncle Ivan, racked by tuberculosis on the same hammock more than twenty years previously. The fireflies, glowworms, or lucifers, and Van’s childish supposition that they are “golden ghouls,” add an enchanted and haunted note to the night scenes.

The first bright blue morning Van and Ada share on a balcony will become part of a pattern of their partings and reunions, marking the rhythm of time, the pulse of their love, the risk of loss, the rapture of recovery, the design etched deep into their lives. For a discussion of the morning pattern, see Boyd 1985/2001: 191-201 and, eventually, the Afternote to Part Four.

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