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Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999) R. J. A. KILBOURN (Toronto) Ada in Chiasmus : Chiasmus in Ada It seemed incredible to me that that day without premonitions or symbols should be the one of my inexorable death. ...was I—now—going to die? Then I reflected that everything happens to a man precisely, precisely now. —Borges, The Garden of Forking Paths,' 20 The shape of consciousness is a chiasmus with death at its centre. —M. Morariu In his History of Reading Alberto Manguel states what may be an obvious truth when he points out that "the way we read a text today in the Western world—from left to right and from top to bottom—is by no means universal" (47). Nor has it always been the case in the West. Nabokov's Ada: the name, the title, is palindromic, reading the same backwards and forwards. Is it possible to read a novel 'backwards'? Is it possible to reverse the direction of time? If one attends closely to Nabokov, the answer to both questions may be yes. To interpret the novel Ada means to find a way to read it which is complementary to the virtuosic exemplarity of its form. The only way to read Ada's apparently circular nanative, as the nanator suggests in the opening chapter, is to 're-read' (19) (the verb 'reread' occurs far more often in the text than 'read'). To reread is of course not to read backwards but to interpret, to engage in a memory-work: the narrator claims to be 'reminding' the 'rereader'—which is only logical—to look backwards while reading forwards. 'Rereading' describes a general approach to nanative fiction, but Ada in 1969 set a new standard in the degree and complexity of its proleptic, retroleptic, 'incestuous' intratextuality1—and not merely intratextual: to read Ada is to 1. Cancogni's distinction between 'intertextuality' and 'intratextuality' has its analogy within the text oÃ- Ada in the anthropological terms of endogamy and exogamy. Cf. Boyd 1985. In general, intertextuality is analogous to 'normal,' exogamous, procreative sexuality,' and intratextuality is analogous 130 Nabokov Studies read or reread many other books, real and not-quite-real, reflected in its multifaceted minor. This does not mean that Ada is somehow not merely quantifiably but qualitatively different from Nabokov's other novels, but rather that it represents a culmination; it is exemplary in the degree of its 'exogamous' intertextual incorporation.2 Ada's nanative (as an increasingly perfunctory chain of reconstructed mnemonic 'events') in fact displays a double-dynamic, to bonow John Breck's terminology from his work on Biblical chiasmus: first, it follows a linear progression, the path of what Van Veen in his treatise on time (Part 4 of the novel) labels 'conventional,' Chronometrie time,3 conesponding to the unfolding of Van's (and Ada's) life. This timeline begins with the 'primal scene' in the Ardis attic, where naked, intercoital Van and Ada, age fourteen and eleven respectively, discover the truth of their shared parentage: they are both cousins and siblings. In a more traditional novel this scene would have constituted the nanative climax. In Ada it is revisited at the end, in a parallel amplification of the ideal moment-out-of-time against which the later Van measures the whole of their intervening time together.4 This one-way model ends with the possibility, broached at the end, of their 'dying into' the book. The nanative telescopes from the 300-plus pages of Part 1 (the first idyllic summer at Ardis, and its inevitably disappointing repetition four years later) through four more sections, each roughly "half the length of the last and conesponding to twice as much chronological 'time'" (Ermarth 1992: 204). "In other words," observes Elizabeth Ermarth, "there is an inverse relation between the length of the book and the history [the intervening eight decades] supposedly 'passing' in it."5 In a manner apparent only after a rereading, the novel's nanative is subject to a double movement: the movement of 'historical time' and its other, the movement of memory, conesponding to Van's notion of 'remembered,' 'pure,' or 'perceptual' time, not external or prior to individual consciousness but determined by it...


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