Category Archives: vladimir nabokov

Nabokov's Most Difficult Book

Garth Risk Hallberg on what is probably Nabokov’s densest, most obscure novel: Ada, or Ardor.

Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.

That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.

What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)

Rereader is right. I read Ada a number of years ago, and I’ve never quite shook off the feeling that with that experience behind me I’m now fully prepared for my first reading of Ada.

The Original of Laura Reviews

David Gates writes an evenhanded, lucid review of The Original of Laura:

But although “The Original of Laura” has, at long last, been properly published — assuming it was proper to publish it at all — there’s not enough of it to be properly reviewed, as Nabokov himself would surely understand. “Not quite finished” with the manuscript? This was a sad under­statement, for public consumption. As his biographer Brian Boyd explains, Nabokov would customarily “envisage a novel in his mind complete from start to finish before writing it down” — on 3-by-5 cards, which allowed him to work on any section he wanted to, then place it “in the sequence he had foreseen, among the stack already written” — and, in the case of “Laura,” “a series of accidents and illnesses would keep him from transferring to his index cards more than a patch or two of his bright mental picture.” The 138 cards we have add up to perhaps 45 printed pages of a novel — of who knows what projected length.

Gates also notes that you have the option to create your own Nabokovian novel:

Dmitri Nabokov, Nabokov’s son and literary executor, has provided not just a transcription of his father’s handwritten notecards (complete with grammatical and spelling errors), arranged in sensible, if debatable, order, but facsimiles of the cards themselves, perforated so they can be detached from the book and reordered by scholars who think they know better, or by general readers with time on their hands.

At the end of the day, though, Gates must succumb to the fact that the novel, well, isn’t really a novel, and aside from some small pleasures the book isn’t that great:

Aside from these small, if genuine, pleasures, “The Original of Laura” probably won’t go over any bigger with real-life readers than it did with that dream audience of peacocks, pigeons and parents. In neither case, of course, would its reception be the author’s fault. I’m willing to believe that the real novel — not the one we now see through a glass darkly — was Nabokov’s last-minute masterwork, but I’m in no hurry to see it face to face.

Writing in The Guardian, Martin Amis is a little less kind, and probably a little more accurate:

Nabokov composed The Original of Laura, or what we have of it, against the clock of doom (a series of sickening falls, then hospital infections, then bronchial collapse). It is not “A novel in fragments”, as the cover states; it is immediately recognisable as a longish short story struggling to become a novella. In this palatial edition, every left-hand page is blank, and every right-hand page reproduces Nabokov’s manuscript (with its robust handwriting and fragile spelling – “bycycle”, “stomack”, “suprize”), plus the text in typed print (and infested with square brackets). It is nice, I dare say, to see those world-famous index cards up close; but in truth there is little in Laura that reverberates in the mind.

And while gently dismissing the book in The Wall Street Journal, Alexander Theroux slams Nabokov’s son:

It is no surprise to discover an author in failing health losing his writerly powers. For son Dmitri, there is no such excuse. He claims English to be his “favorite and most flexible means of expression”—Dmitri, you see, is multilingual—but his introduction is nonsensical, snobbish and cruel and reads as if it has been translated from the Albanian. Of his father’s medical treatment: “The tests continued; a succession of doctors rubbed their chins as their bedside manner edged toward the graveside.”

And now they’ve convinced Dmitri to auction off the notecards to the highest bidder. Hope he has fun spending all that money.

The Original of Laura

Gets turned down by The New Yorker, ends up in Playboy.

Nabokov, by the way, is no stranger to Playboy. As Brian Boyd reports in his massive two-volume bio, Nabokov first battled with Playboy over French publisher Maurice Girodias's (of Lolita fame) article in that magazine about their relationship. But later he was interviewed by the magazine (after receiving an Academy Award for the Lolita screenplay) and later excerpted 8 chapters of Ada therein.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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