A victoria had stopped at the porch. A lady, who resembled Van’s mother, and a dark-haired girl of 11 or 12, preceded by a fluid dackel, were getting out. Ada carried an untidy bunch of wild flowers. She wore a white frock with a black jacket and there was a white bow in her long hair. He never saw that dress again, and when he mentioned it in retrospective evocation she invariably retorted that he must have dreamt it, she never had one like that, never could have put on a dark blazer on such a hot day, but he stuck to his initial image of her to the last…
They now had tea in a prettily furnished corner of the otherwise very austere central hall from which rose the grand staircase. They sat on chairs upholstered in silk around a pretty table. Ada’s black jacket and a pink-yellow-blue nosegay she had composed of anemones, celandines and columbines lay on a stool of oak. The dog got more bits of cake than it did ordinarily.
observations: This is the first meeting of Van and Ada, in a book whose purpose is to trace their relationship. It reads well enough, doesn’t it? Sounds like a perfectly reasaonable early passage in a family saga.
I have read some very long and complex books in my time. I have read Ulysses and Proust (some of it in French) several times over, and loved them. I quite liked Moby Dick. I do not shy away from the difficult, the elaborate, the exciting new world. I have loved other books by Nabokov, including Pale Fire. I don’t love Lolita, but I admire and respect it.
But this book pretty much defeated me. It is almost 500 pages of a story which is always just off, always just out of reach. It takes place in a parallel world, there is a science fiction side to it. Whenever you think there’s some normal narrative or world here, it will veer off in a different direction. There are 15 pages of notes by Vivian Darkbloom, which I assume (based on familiarity with the Nabokov oeuvre) are part of the book – translations and explanations of foreign phrases. There are constant references to real people eg writers, but with the names subtly changed. This book is exhausting to read.
If it sounds interesting, then I would recommend you look at the very helpful Wikipedia page on the book: it’s the only reason Ada made any sense at all to me.
A dackel is, it seems, a German term for a dachshund.
In support of Ada’s contention, there aren’t many pictures of young women of the era wearing a black jacket over a white dress. This page from a magazine might give some idea of how she would have looked – picture from the NYPublic Library.