- "Our Marvelous Mortality":Finitude in Ada, or Ardor
When Lolita's success in 1955 prompted the translation of Vladimir Nabokov's Russian novels, readers were conducted into a foyer of newly appended forewords before gaining admittance to the English editions. Like Alfred Hitchcock in his monitory preambles, the émigré author imposes his poker-faced profile between his audience and the work at hand. He is not concerned, however, to prepare the reader for the moral implications of the ensuing story but to divest him or her of any and all moralizing baggage before entering a world where "it is only the author's private satisfaction that counts."1 In his foreword to The Eye, Nabokov reminds us that his "books are not only blessed by a total lack of social significance, but are also mythproof."2 Freudians and Marxists are advised not only against deep-diving for "general ideas" but also against the teleological pursuit of unveiling "mystery." What matters, always, is "pattern," which in The Eye appears "in a merging of twin images" at the end of a journey "through a hell of mirrors" (iv).
Although Nabokov "disclaims all intention to trick, puzzle, fool, or otherwise deceive the reader" (iv), his characters are perhaps less fortunate in escaping their creator's madhouse of mirrors.3 In his foreword to Bend Sinister,4 Nabokov admits that he took pity on the hapless philosopher Adam Krug as he faces a firing squad by "dismiss[ing] the cast" (xiv) of his persecutors; "death was but a question of style" (241). Krug experiences a "blessed madness" when he realizes he is subject not to a surreal totalitarian state, but to his creator's aesthetic designs: "he suddenly perceives the simple reality of things and knows but cannot express in the words of his world that he . . . and everybody else are merely my [Nabokov's] whims and megrims" (xiv). Krug's inarticulate perception opens "a rent in his world leading to another world of tenderness, brightness and beauty" (xv). This other, timeless world promises what Nabokov calls "aesthetic bliss."5 Here, "curiosity, tenderness, kindness, [and] ecstasy" are "the norm" (315); death is virtually banished.6 But if Krug "understands that he is in good [End Page 377] hands" (xviii), he may only do so under the auspices of madness, condemned to dwell in a breach between two worlds that no language can unite.
If Nabokov's various denials of sincerity and provocation are undoubtedly responses to the havoc wreaked upon his reputation by "Hurricane Lolita," his legendary disavowals of "social significance" are more readily assigned to his disgust with the "primitive and banal mentality of enforced politics" promulgated by "the Soviet police state" that forced his family into exile.7 Writing only "for [him]self in multiplicate" (Strong Opinions 114), the exile finds himself replicated in an "inner prospect" between and beyond national boundaries, in "the absolute abyss yawning between the barbed-wire tangle of police states and the spacious freedom of thought we enjoy in America and Western Europe" (113). However, when asked in 1969 about the "esthetic distance" he has maintained while "witness[ ing] extraordinary changes" (in Russia in 1917 and in 1930s Berlin), Nabokov replied, "I have bridged the 'esthetic distance' in my own way by means of such absolutely final indictments of Russian and German totalitarianism as my novels Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister" (Strong Opinions 156). If politics "leave [him] supremely indifferent" (Bend Sinister xii), he nonetheless offers his two ostensibly political allegories, aberrant though they may seem alongside his tales of private obsession, as a sort of defense against the apoliticism he otherwise habitually and cheerfully touts. Aesthetic distance between worlds may be bridged, ironically, only by absolutely final indictments of monological cruelty. But as we have seen, even the absolute finality of death is excluded from the patterns of Nabokov's art, where time seems suspended in a constellation of reflections. The absolute abyss separating barbarism from freedom, past from present, and life from death cannot be spanned except in the timeless world of art.
Much scholarship has focused on Nabokov's "timelessness" and "other-worldliness," from Alfred Kazin's charge...