The Author: Vladimir Nabokov
The Lessons: buoyancy, luminosity, linguistic intrigue, vocabulary, arrogance, to meld technique and passion, beauty
Like a diver she reads, the fall haphazard or designed, selected by self or recommended by others. She is also thinking of herself, how to glean from the thing she is reading that impulse to write or rewrite, to entice her once more into those dark waters, something to push her back in, this time without a diver’s suit, her eyes closed. She will open them soon enough.
Now, she’s waiting for an amorphous feeling to strike her, a narcissist she surely is. She looks for something to make her more seaworthy, give her own writing a pearlescent shine, or unearth some buried gem—all that and more, until it happens that she becomes engaged by the words and forgets herself, her writer’s self.
It’s only now that I read this way. When I first started writing, I read for my life. I read for something I can’t really put my finger on. It was like oxygen, I guess.
A novel appears before me, in my mind’s eye, paired with a book I will write, compelling me into the world of its creation: Ada by Vladimir Nabokov. This novel inspired me as I wrote my own novel.
I started a novel one day in 1973 with the words, “Start right now.” I was mad, devastated, young. Devastated enough to be suicidal but the memory of a family member’s success in that dark endeavor kept me from doing any harm to myself.
I gave myself a year. I would write a novel. I would think about it again in a year, I said. Thinking about suicide was irrational. Even in my mania, I knew. I’d experienced it, watched my mother implode, watched my aunt turn into a pond.
So, when my time of reckoning came around, there was a large tome that spoke to me, that took me out of my world and brought me into a world of passion on several continents, a world of intriguing linguistic surfaces, whose very sentences and phrases would make my spine tingle, my brain whirl, my heart spin in paroxysms, presenting characters who were eccentric, erotic, precocious, their bodies lit up with beauty in this language that electrified me, drew me in and enveloped me in its world, the arrogance laden within the characters.
Within the narratology itself, was an arrogance I found absolutely seductive. After all, the suicide is an arrogant soul, in some ways, and so is the suicide wanna-be. Also, the narrator-author-persona (Nabokov is nothing if not arrogant) had an awareness of self, and the suicide, or wanna-be, is nothing without her self-preoccupation.
There was a labyrinthine quality to Ada, Nabokov’s follow up to Lolita, and an infinitely better book, a book whose treasures will keep producing, lurking as they are, only to be discovered in a re-reading. At first, it was the nuts and bolts that drew me in, the adjectives, the dizzying way of vocabulary, the way Europe came in and seduced me, with its panoply of languages, the English so obviously refashioned.
To some extent, inspiration, rather than technique, is still where it’s at for me, no matter at what level I am in my writing. I have to be engaged, and I have to love it for something beyond its pyrotechnics, and Nabokov spoke to that bruised heart first, spoke by way of what I would call beauty. It’s a melding of technique and passion.
I suppose I look at it in a different way, now, when I’m not feeding on it for something like light.