Well it was an argument about Nabokov in a bar on the Strip, but somehow nothing could have been more appropriate—or more surreal. But as much as anything this is a story of envy. Who do you really envy—and for what— in this world? I envy certain writers for various reasons ranging from talent to advances. But I hadn’t fully realized how it’s possible to envy readers as well.
There were six of us, I had just finished my reading at Book Soup, a stone’s throw from the iconic, now bankrupt, Sunset Strip Tower Records. It was a chilly evening; far away the last of the summer wildfires was burning itself out in Cabezon. We were at a bar that shall remain nameless, in a glassed in outdoor enclosure which had heat lamps susepended above our table, so although it felt like fall we were bathed in glowing metallic-coil summer heat from above. We were both inside and outside. We were drinking and watching the sidewalk freak show of throwback glam-rock types come and go past the velvet rope of a club nearby, when Nabokov came up.
I love the Strip. Some of my fave LA moments have taken place on both sides of it. East at the old Contiental Hyatt, west at Barney’s Beanery. And close to this spot was the now re-named diner called Ben Frank’s. When I was interviewing Bob Dylan over the course of a week, I was staying at the Sunset Marquis, halfway down the slope from the Strip, a hipster hotel carved cavelike into the hillside, a place I remember for it’s underground acquarium-green-like glow.
I’d spend the day tryng to tease coherent thoughts out of Dylan and the nights doing painstakingly over-earnest exegeses of Dylan’s four and half hour film/nervous breakdownRenaldo and Clara in between breaks to walk up to the Strip for the green-chilli cheese omelettes at Ben Franks. So good!
Anyway, it was a group of freinds and strangers all of whom I liked: my friend Naomi, her boyfriend Ned, her friends Steve and Stacie, my friend Claudia.
When we seated ourselves the waitress warned us that we really should move because the other big table in the enclosure was reserved for a party that she knew would be smoking a lot of weed.
“And your point is?” someone in our party said. We decided to stay where we were and risk the contact high. Do your worst, second-hand smoke! I personally was finding the whole outdoor cafe/heatlamp experience strangely rewarding, did not want to give up our heatamps and recall discoursing at great length on the way they should be improrted to New York to turn chillly winter evening nights into nights outon the sidewalks.
In the interim Claudia made a remarkable disclosure. Let me briefly introduce Claudia, (a close friend of an ex girlfriend) and her eclectic background: she has a Ph. D. in marine biology (she never eats seafood), she was a Hollywood set designer who had shifted over to cinematography and was now working as an assistant camera-person on Spiderman 3. Claudia was also the person who first introduced me to another of my fave LA spots much further east on Sunset, Jumbo’s Clown House. Someone recently told me the column I’d done on Jumbo’s (and, allegorically, Bill Clinton) the last time I was out in LA is still pasted on the wall behind the bar there. My finest product placement. (if you know Jumbo’s I don’t think I have to explain, if you don’t, I’d rather not , although you might be able to find my column in the labyrinths of the New York Observer archives).
Anyway I knew Claudia read Nabokov,and was familiar with my fave VN work, Pale Fire because when we exchanged e-mails shortly before I left for the coast this time, she noted the “palefire” in my e mail address and wrote “will you be wearing a fake bear?”.
Yes, “fake bear”. She meant to write”fake beard”, since fake beards figure in the fantastical story of the escape of Charles the Good, the deposed King of Zembla in Pale Fire (all his followers disguised themselves in fake Charles-style beards when the new regime was attempting to hunt him down, in order to throw off the chase).
Anyway, we agreeed, the “fake bear” slip had a nice Nabokovian ring to it. Then at the restaurant as the Other Table, the smokin’ hispters filed in, we segued into a discussion over whether Pale Fire or Ada was VN’s greatest novel.
For Claudia it was Ada. I confessed that I’d turned all the pages at one time or another but didn’t feel I’d really grasped the novel, or ever would. It was Too Much of a Muchnesss, the way Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, was. To me anyway. Especially after the svelte perfection of The Crying of Lot 49. I felt that crystalline perfection in Pale Fire in relation to Ada., but Claudia proceded to describe a way of seeing into Ada, seeing through its crytpograms to some essence in a dimension slightly beyond, behind, beneath, the text.
She was absolutely convincing. Maybe the hipsters’ second hand smoke helped me, but I think I caught a glimpse of what she was describing—the pleasure she got from Ada that was beyond my ken, one I felt it would always be beyond me. Maybe it’s possible that with VN there are certain novels that resonate with certain people and not others. I feel the equal of any reader of Pale Fire.(see my essay, “In the Nabokov Archives” in The Secret Parts of Fortune) But I wanted Ada the way Claudia had Ada.I gave it another try when I got back from LA and was reminded that the full title is Ada, or Ardor. But I didn’t lack ardor. I just lacked that vision, those x-ray spex for it that Claudia had. I was bitterly envious. Not of another writer but another reader. Reader-envy: a new way to make myself unhappy! Well at least a worthy reason to be unhapppy. I’m always on the lookout for those.