Kaluga-Cayuga & the Goodson River

Submitted by Samuel Reifler on Wed, 11/14/2018 - 15:57

       Hello, Nabokovians, from a non-academic newcomer.

       As an avocational reader and a devout Apollonian, I’m a Nabokovian too.

       Until recently, though, Ada had been a stumbling block for me. Over the last fifty years I picked it up three or four times, only to give up on it after a few pages. Absent from Ada was what I loved most about Nabokov: lucid, transparent sentences glowing with irony.

       Recently, I decided to treat Ada as if it were not by Nabokov, but just something randomly grabbed from my bookshelf.

       That worked. It is a beautiful book, and it is Nabokovian through and through, even without Nabokov’s signature overarching irony (irony is precluded from dreamland) and even with sentences occluded with the wordplay which, in Nabokov’s other novels, is occasional, ornamental, flashing like precious stones. 

       99% of the wordplay in Ada was over my head. In the 1% which was not, I found a couple of word associations which are not mentioned (in so far as I was able to discover) on your website or in Brian Boyd’s splendid annotations (which I first happened upon after having been sent by Google to the website of a reading group in Japan):

       1) To all the other associations for “Kaluga” must be added Lake Cayuga.

       “Kaluga waters” recalls the Cornell alma mater:

                Far above Cayuga's waters,

                With its waves of blue,

                Stands our noble Alma Mater,

                        Glorious to view.

       (I first heard “Far above Cayuga’s waters” as a Columbia student when, before football games with Cornell, wags-manqué would sing,

              Far above Cayuga’s waters

                There’s a mighty smell,

                [Tum-te-tum te-tum te-tum-tum]

                        And it’s called Cornell.)

       The Kaluga-Cayuga connection was noted by John Stark in his The Literature of Exhaustion, 1974. (I found Stark-on-Ada in an excellent compendium of Nabokov criticism on the E-notes website. Well, it seems excellent to this amateur reader; you pros and profs may think otherwise.)

       Kaluga=Cayuga is so obvious – to me, anyway – that if I were writing a novel, Ada, which posed as the critique of a novel by a fictional author, Vladimir Nabokov, the phonetic convergence between a place name from his old world and one in his new world would lead our hero to fancy that he had ended up in an alternative universe. That little whimsy would be the germ of his novel.

       2) Unless you allow for a slub of coincidence in Ada’s linguistic tapestry, one allusion among those embraced by the antiterrestrial name for the Hudson River, the Goodson River, must be to the anthem, “The Lordly Hudson”, by Paul Goodman.

       And a couple of thoughts on the book as a whole; they may or may not have occurred to others:

       1) When, soon after I had begun Ada and had just read about the L disaster and the banning of electricity, my wife asked me about the book, I told her it was a utopian novel, adding that in the case of Ada the Utopia was a personal Utopia, not the socio-political one of typical utopian novels.

       And along the same lines, 2) while Ada is Joycean – so obviously so that Nabokov gets a jump on Ada’s reviewers-to-be by calling it that, himself – in another sense it could be called anti-Joycean. Joyce’s wordplay broadens particulars (a character’s idiosyncrasy or a topographical feature of Dublin, for example) toward the universal. Nabokov’s, in Ada, narrows down particulars (the Cyrillic alphabet or entomological sexuality, for example) away from the universal and toward the intimately personal.


I enjoyed your notes here, and I think your insights regarding Kaluga-Cayuga seem likely indeed. We might remember in LATH! a mention of a town called Casenovia, inspired no doubt by Cazenovia, NY, which is a short drive up Route 13 from Ithaca.

Matt Roth

I've just noticed this: thanks, Samuel, for your suggestions. I'll certainly add a note at AdaOnline 139.09, and at 213.27-28, “bound volumes of The Kaluga Waters and The Lugano Sun” can now be seen to add also a reflection of the Cornell Daily Sun, Cornell’s campus newspaper, in which Nabokov was interviewed (by Gladys Kessler, 25 September 1958) and to which he wrote Letters to the Editor (3 and 20 October, 1958).

You're far from the first Nabokovian to balk at Ada. Martin Amis did too, and despite forcing himself to finish, continued hating it (see his The Rob of Time). Your strategy for overcoming your resistance is new to me, though, and surprising--as you say, the novel is Nabokovian through and through. Glad your strategy worked for you!

Brian Boyd