Slowly her tower crumbled – Nabokov’s Ada

I remember a Russian once telling me that when he read Nabokov in Russian it felt like he was eating words. I have since found that imagining that you are doing just that is one of the best ways to read (and imagining that you are dealing with single words may be one of the best ways to eat). Nothing is tastier or takes its place more interestingly in the mouth than the opening paragraph of Lolita :

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

But the book of Nabokov’s which I most relished was Ada, surely pronounced “Ah-da”, otherwise how would Van’s verse quoted below sound right. The following passage is among the most marvellous writing I have ever encountered. I underlined this passage the first time I read it and it has never quite left my mind.


From Ada – Part One,
Chapter Twelve

He would fall asleep at the moment he thought he would never sleep again, and his dreams were young. As the first flame of day reached his hammock, he woke up another man—and very much of a man indeed. “Ada, our ardors and arbors”—a dactylic trimeter that was to remain Van Veen’s only contribu tion to Anglo-American poetry—sang through his brain. Bless the starling and damn the stardust! He was fourteen and a half; he was burning and bold; he would have her fiercely some day!

One such green 
resurrection he could particularize when re-playing the past. Having drawn on his swimming trunks, having worked in and crammed in all that intricate, reluctant multiple machinery, he had toppled out of his nest and forthwith endeavored to determine whether her part of the house had come alive. It had. He saw a flash of crystal, a fleck of color. She was having sa petite collation du matin alone on a private balcony.Van found his sandals—with a beetle in one and a petal in the other—and, through the toolroom, entered the cool house.

Children of her type contrive the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: “real things” which were unfrequent and priceless, simply “things” which formed the routine stuff of life; and “ghost things,” also called “fogs,” such as fever, toothache, dreadful 
disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a “tower,” or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a “bridge.” “Real towers” and “real bridges” were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral “thing” might look or even actually become “real” or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid “fog.”

When the joy and 
the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with “ruined towers” and “broken bridges.”

The pictorial and architectural details of her metaphysics made her nights easier than Van’s, and that morning—as on most mornings—he had the sensation of returning from a much more remote and grim country thanshe and her sunlight had come from.

Her plump, stickily glistening lips smiled.

(When I kiss you here, he said to her years later, I always remember that blue morning on the balcony when you were eating a tartine au miel; so much better in French.)

The classical beauty of clover honey, smooth, pale, translucent, freely flowing from the spoon and soaking my love’s bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar.

“Real thing?” he asked.

“Tower,” she answered.

And the wasp.

The wasp was investigating her plate. Its body was throbbing.

“We shall try to eat one later,” she observed, “but it must be gorged to taste good. Of course, it can’t sting your tongue. No animal will touch a person’s tongue. When a lion has finished a traveler, bonesand all, he always leaves the man’s tongue lying like that in the desert” (making a negligent gesture).

“I doubt it.”

“It’s a well-known mystery.”

Her hair was well brushed that day and sheened darkly in contrast with the lusterless pallor of her neck and arms. She wore the striped tee shirt which in his lone fantasies he especially liked to peel off her twisting torso. The oilcloth was divided into blue and white squares. A smear of honey stained what remained of the butter in its cool crock.

“All right. And the third Real Thing?”

She considered him.
A fiery droplet in the wick of her mouth considered him. A three-colored velvet violet, of which she had done an aquarelle on the eve, considered him from its fluted crystal. She said nothing. 
She licked her spread fingers, still looking at him.

Van, getting no answer, left the balcony. Softly her tower crumbled in the sweet silent sun.








(Here you can find an online, partly annotated version of Ada.)

(Zembla is a website devoted to Nabokov.)


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