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Thursday, October 28, 2021

Column: Nabokov’s “nympholepsy”

When I was a kid, my family made regular outings to our local Barnes & Noble to hang out all day and read whatever we wanted. It was fun, free, and my dad knew he would be called over the intercom if one of us yelled or started bleeding. (FYI, we did buy books to make up for our time spent browsing.)

Like everyone does, I had to work up to books of increasing difficulty over time. I don’t remember when I was finally capable of really digesting Rushdie or Woolf, for example, but I do remember the sensation that I had grown, intellectually, when I could.

But one book that as an essentially monolingual, 21st century public school student I don’t think I’ll ever be fully able to appreciate is Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. I think of this novel as his cerebral challenge to English literature, and symptomatic of his constant impulse to bite his thumb at the rest of our puny brains.

In comparison with his previously published (English) novels, Ada is exponentially denser and even more astronomically obscure, especially for those of us educated in the California public school system. Ada is by far the superior of predecessors such as Lolita in terms of word play and allusion. As blogger Garth Risk Hallberg puts it, with an admirably clever pun of his own, Ada’s “density of intertextual allusion … makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.”

Thanks to all the press Nabokov has been getting lately for the posthumous and controversial publication of the notes for his last novel, The Original of Laura, more new analysis than usual has been made of his enduring works. Last year, Martin Amis’ piece in The Guardian, entitled “The problem with Nabokov,” addressed the great author’s morally sticky preoccupation with pedophilia.

Amis, for all his famous devotion to Nabokov, does not restrain himself from criticizing the master. In his piece, he addresses the author’s seeming infatuation with child rape, especially as his career progressed, and does so in detail adumbrated by the healthy utilization of Nabokovian tropes.

” … No human being in the history of the world,” writes Amis, “has done more to vivify the cruelty, the violence, and the dismal squalor of this particular crime [the rape of children].”

The question of Nabokov’s predilections in and of themselves has been one that those who are even slightly familiar with his work often ask. Myself currently in the dizzying, diaphanous process of re-reading Ada, I cannot help but recoil, if not at the many instances of rape (which is, incidentally, almost exclusively of people in the lower classes), then at the least at his romanticizing of what Amis calls “nympholepsy,” the “frenzied desire” caused by the unattainable sexuality of young girls.

Lolita, as ambiguous as it may have seemed to those who censored it at its earliest publications, unequivocally condemns the Humberts, Huberts, Demons and Gastons who sexually prey on children. But in Ada, and in other later works, such as The Original of Laura, this condemnation of rape does not translate so easily. Indeed, Amis explains that after Lolita and The Enchanter – novels with similar plot lines – came Nabokov’s “meltdown of artistic self-possession – tumultuously announced, in 1970, by the arrival of Ada.”

It seems almost as if Amis is equating Nabokov’s literary genius with his capacity for morality – the decrease of one precipitating that of the other. But how to explain the procession of pouty nymphets and available adolescents, especially when you are, like me, nowhere near the intellectual level of so accomplished an author?

For me, it’s still unresolved whether Ada’s intricacies are a masterpiece or the symptoms of aging immorality and the warping of sights set too high. I may not have attained the capacity to decide – yet – but hope one day I will.

HALEY DAVIS wants to nerd out with you over Vladimir Nabokov. She can be reached at hrdavis@ucdavis.edu.

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