- Vladimir Nabokov's Ada:Art,Deception, Ethics
Van Veen, the third of Vladimir Nabokov's infamous first-person narrators, turns to autobiography after a life spent as a playboy, acrobat, philosopher, psychologist, and writer of science fiction. Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) is the outcome of a collaborative effort with Ada Veen, Van's sister and lover. As a result of a complicated affair between their parents, Demon and Marina, Van and Ada are brought up as first cousins, a domestic ruse that fails to deceive them. They fall in love during their first idyllic summer at Ardis and for the remainder of their lives strive to overcome the obstacles that keep them apart. As an unapologetic celebration of their mutual love and genius, the novel takes the form of an unfinished manuscript penned by Van and glossed by Ada at the end of their long lives. More mutedly, it is also an attempt to assuage their sense that they might be complicit in the death of their half sister Lucette.1
Among Van's recollections of Lucette is a visit she pays him at Kingston University to deliver a letter from Ada. During this visit, [End Page 311] Lucette reminds Van of the past schemes devised by him and Ada in order to snatch a few moments of sexual pleasure apart from Lucette's prying eyes. Whether tying her to a tree in imitation of a fairy-tale plot or locking her in a bath or closet, their seemingly innocent games are, from Lucette's perspective, cruel acts of deception.2 She alludes to a library closet in which Van and Ada locked her up "at least ten times." Van's response is revealing: "Nu uzh i desyat' (exaggeration). Once—and never more. It had a keyless hole as big as Kant's eye. Kant was famous for his cucumicolor iris" (373). This exchange looks back to a moment in Van and Ada's childhood at Ardis, when they "could no longer restrain their amorous excitement, and under the absurd pretext of a hide-and-seek game they locked up Lucette in a closet . . . and frantically made love, while the child knocked and called and kicked until the key fell out and the keyhole turned an angry green" (213).
Van's offhand reference to Kant and his "cucumicolor iris" is another instance of the chronicle's dense allusiveness and dazzlingly sensual diction. But it also provides the reader with an incisive clue about the ethical dimension of Nabokov's work, and the extent to which ethics and aesthetics are always intertwined in his fiction. That Lucette's green eye should conjure up Kant's cucumber-colored eye in Van's guilt-stricken conscience is not surprising given Van's formal training as a philosopher and Kant's fame (much greater than the fame associated with the color of his eyes) for his uncompromising prohibition against all forms of deception.
But to see Kant's moral philosophy as the watermark that lies suspended in Nabokov's fiction seems counterintuitive in the context of a writer for whom art is inseparable from deception.3 According to Nabokov, art is inescapably untruthful—"art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex" (Strong Opinions 33)—but it derives its powers of deception from nature: "Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives" [End Page 312] (Lectures 5).4 In addition to being a kind of natural "first principle," deception is an important philosophical category for Nabokov. The human subject's ability to uncover deception signals the birth of consciousness, that elusive ontological category whose mysteries shape human identity: "It occurs to me that the closest reproduction of the mind's birth obtainable is the stab of wonder that accompanies the precise moment when, gazing at a tangle of twigs and leaves, one suddenly realizes that what had seemed a natural component of that tangle is a marvelously disguised insect or bird" (Speak, Memory 298).
Ever the controversialist, Nabokov sought to refute Darwinian evolutionary theory by arguing that natural mimicry is less a survival strategy than an aesthetic device. This...