JM to JA: I stand corrected: you are not referring to ordinary reality, but to how VN's characters handle or wave it away and also to Nabokov's observation that he tends "more and more to regard the objective existence of all events as a form of impure imagination" (SO 154). Still, I don't think that VN, like his heroes, is "waving reality away", but striving to enhance his consciousness about the "infinite number of variations" he may experience.
J.A.: I should have been a bit more precise. Nabokov doesn't wave "reality" away, except for interviews where he tried to bog down interviewers by calling into question what they meant by reality, as if he would never stoop to a generalization, though in fact that "from cradle to grave" thing in speak memory, despite the subtle questioning of "common sense" depends upon a pretty firm notion of common sense for its decipherment. Nabokov also said that the imagination was either a plaything for genius, without quotiation marks of course, or a bane to the cracked and the immature. His books, playthings for himself, turn out to be traps for his screwy characters. Certainly Van is waving reality off rather hysterically when he insists vehemently that death need not have anything to do with him, and does not represent a future certainty--if that's not a waving away of reality I don't know what is.
Perhaps he was only speaking from a natural-scientist's point-of-view, or using a mystic intuition. Social life feeds on discourse, propaganda, gossip and lies (Cesar's wife knew that she also needed to look like an honest woman: to be honest is never enough or even... necessary.)
J.A.: So does Nabokov's work, the best part in my opinion. The science is interesting in a biographical sense, but you don't really need science or entomology to understand his works. The larvarium in Ada doesn't seem especially insidery; the arcane literary allusions however, and some of the descriptions, are a lot more of a challenge. (btw: I see your point qua P.Roth's "grayness", with brilliant exceptions).
J.A.: To be fair to Roth, I've only read his early book of short stories Goodbye Columbus and his first sensation Portnoy's Complaint, both of which stylistically were pretty bad. The later stuff everyone's so crazy about I never bothered with. I loved his views on 9/11 and Bush and all of it.
The central issues of "Ada" follow Van's musings and one of these is, indeed, similar to VN's:
Van Veen: "In every individual life there goes on from cradle to deathbed the gradual sharpening and strengthening of the backbone of consciousness, which is the Time of the strong[...] (A, 559)because unconsciousness "envelops both the Past and the Present from all conceivable sides."
VN :"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness." (SM,19)
J.A.: There's definitely an echo, but I'm not sure how to take either of these things. In the case of the Ada quote, I think there is some truth to the notion. The quote from speak memory is simply false. The common sense of most socieities is not atheistic as that statement says, but spiritual. In fact common sense tells us that life goes on after death. I've often thought it would be fun to interepret Nabokov as in fact a kind of wonderstruck nihilist who did not want to believe that down deep he didn't really think "nothing is lost" as he says over and over again, and so invented his involute style as a way of seeming to himself optimistic so he could dramatize darker truths. I've never really understood Van's or Nabokov's or Shade's notion that an ideal eternity would be a kind of museum where their past lives would be enshrined down to their last particles. Why
wouldn't they want to go on to new experiences? And wouldn't this just mean that they would be forced to repeat ad infinitim their loss? And if memory is your immortality then immortality can't amount to much. Perhaps this idea is where Nabokov seems to have started flirting with the silly notion that more brilliant people have more or better valued eternities. If you're shakespeare your afterlife is bound to be boundless, the idea seems to go in Pale Fire. Surely Nabokov didn't entertain this extremely unfortunate conceit in "real" life.
"Flesh and blood existence, wispy dreams, shadows and books" happen in linear calendric time, whereas I always understood "Ada" as a book that was structured self-referentially (there is a suggestion that the albums Ada and Van investigate in the attic, with inkblots, maidenhair and pressed flowers, is the book they will have - and already had - "died into.").
Nabokov reader's choices always reveal a little about who they are: singularities. There's no available common-sense reality to unite their points of view...
J.A.: Well literally, as they're made up characters, they did die into the book or books as you would have it, but the great as if of reading balks at this. Just as in Pale Fire I never was able to believe that any reputable publishing house would have put out Kinbote's nutty and irresponsible edition of Shade's poem, I couldn't help thinking that if Van Veen were a real human being who wrote a memoir that his attempt not to die by just leaving out the scene and claiming that he dissolved into his work would seem like a pathetic sort of delusion. Pathetic because it's more for the reader's benefit than his own. After all if he were a real person he would know that writing a conceit doesn't make it keep you from becoming worm food (in fact Ronald Oranger's editorial note before Van begins makes this absurdly clear) and so it's immortality as rhetorical proxy and therefore meaningless. I
agree with you that how you take the material says something about how you relate to it, but I'm curious about what all this consciouness picking was really about. I've read the book over and over and over and never been fully satisfied, I think because Nabokov is trying to force the satirical, the lyrical, and the pedantic sides of his nature to come together and the effect is much more inscrutable than is necessary, pointing several contradictory directions at once. So perhaps you're right, and the bl in the words siblings which Nabokov claimed was his main interest in the subject of incest then connects up with the word blank.
J.A: "the made up world turns out to be more durable than reality".
JM: "reality" is also made-up, although built by a consensus ( or, as a colleague of Van's once stated,"reality is a shared delusion") what seems to have been "lost, died, faded away" in "Ada" is...a consensus about "Ada"?
J.A.: I do not mean "consensus" when I speak of reality, but merely the concrete limitations in the facts of material mamalian existence, which seem so overwhelming, heavy and immovable by comparison to the fantasies of books. Nabokov and his heroes at times try to wave this sort of thing away--there is no "reality", "reality" is just the invention of philistines and bourgeois journalists,[...]but experience tells us you can't wave those things away[...] The central issues of the book are about the real world vs. the inner creation through imagination, and also mortality[...] Van wants his creation to stand in for flesh and blood existence, but it can't.
Yet oddly, that's all we have in the end, wispy dreams and shadows and books[...]