I am only now realizing the extent to which I was indirectly caused to buy into the party line as concerns Vladimir Nabokov. When I say 'party line' I mean nothing other than the Soviet Communist Party, which of course took his work to fall entirely outside of anything that might be considered a part of the history of Russian literature. He was a White Russian, an aesthete, and a bit of a pervert. What's more, he wrote mostly in English. And this was not as when, say, a grudgingly exiled Brodsky makes forays into English; this was a full métamorphose américaine, as he described it at some point. For Nabokov, English had the phonetics and the vocabulary to make it --again, in his words-- the most valuable linguistic treasure at his disposition.
So when I was a student of Russian literature Nabokov was certainly not on the list of required reading. They had us reading Sholokhov and Gorky and crap like that just because, at least at the time, the syllabi of American university courses on Russian literature continued to echo the Soviet conception of the canon. So we had the most dreary and predictable sotsrealizm, stuff that may be of interest to the political historian but with absolutely no value as literature, rather than the most talented Russian author of the 20th century, whose language of choice was only one, I think relatively minor, reason for his exclusion.
It strikes me now that in fact Nabokov was drawing more on the richness of the Russian language when he was writing in English than the party-sanctioned authors were when they were writing directly in Russian. Ada, or Ardor, in particular, is a trilingual novel (French being the third, and certainly lesser of the three components), and to say that it was written in English doesn't really do justice to Nabokov's project. It was written through English, mostly, but there would be nothing left of the endeavor if the Russian and French vocabulary, along with the interlinguistic jeux de mots that straddle more than one of the three languages, were to be eliminated. It is through English, but it is about the way different natural languages connect up or fail to connect up with one another. It is about the way language limits expression, and it is an attempt to push through those limits.
One thing Nabokov makes me think is this: it is ridiculous that I, myself, should continue to attempt to string words together at all. I can't even tell a story, but to write an entire novel in which every single word seems simultaneously to be playing the role of vehicle for moving the narrative along as well as being exquisitely selected for its poetic qualities and its multiple layers of signification: that's quite as far beyond my reach as advanced mathematics.
There is a well-known, perhaps apocryphal story of the advice given by Nabokov to a Cornell student who sought tips on how to become a good writer. Learn the names of trees, Nabokov said. This makes me think that Nabokov is writing through English, but that what he's really after is something like what in the early modern period was conceived as 'the Adamic language': the original, perfect system of words, words that zapped right into the essences of the things they named. The cross-linguistic play of a novel like Ada is a sort of exploration, to see which corrupted language brings us closer to the original Adamic one. If there is one thing that Nabokov loves more than language it's the world itself: the proliferation of instances of nature's infinite variety of kinds. As, for example, butterflies.
Working back to the world through the perfection of language: that's real realism for you, and I would be willing to impose it, if I could, as the party line for literature.
But of course in Nabokov there is also the famous work of synaesthesia, which doesn't seek the real names of things, but instead makes private connections between things, connections that we can't expect other people to see. We all do this, most of us more in childhood than later on (I still place Thursday, the color brown, and the state of Tennessee in the same private drawer), but Nabokov cultivated it and built complex worlds out of it throughout his life (coding colors with letters, for example). This seems impossible to square with the realism I just identified, but I think Nabokov may have believed that he, himself, was getting at the genuine correspondences between things, that his private synaesthesia was at the same time a recovery of the Adamic language. Again, the multilingualism of the project is just part of the method of recovering the 'right' word through cross-linguistic comparison. Repeatedly, Nabokov offers examples of the process of corruption in action, of the rate of drift from the Adamic essences of things as we move carelessly from one language to the other (rather than with care, as he moves). Thus for example he has Ada say:
--the nuance of willows, and counting the little sheep on her ciel de lit which Fowlie turns into 'the sky's bed' instead of 'bed ceiler.' But, to go back to our poor flower. The forged louis d'or in that collection of fouled French is the transformation of souci d'eau (our marsh marigold) into the asinine 'care of the water' -- although he had at his disposal dozens of synonyms, such as mollyblob, maybubble, and many other nicknames associated with fertility feasts, whatever those are.
I suppose that Nabokov saw Russian very differently than I do; for him, Russian, English, and French were familiar already in the crèche; for me, they are the impossible objects of an adult learner's struggling. They are too late.
Cross-linguistic playfulness with Russian seems particularly difficult to me because Russian continues to appear as an entirely closed system. Even to see it transliterated into the Latin alphabet is to see something that ought not exist, an impossible adaptation. One of the jokes of Ada, which takes place in another possible world that is mostly like ours except with respect to certain of its geographical, chronological, and linguistic features, is that the Cyrillic alphabet was abandoned at some earlier point in history, and now Russian speakers are unable to so much as read old texts with the backwards 'R's and the letters that look like beetles, such as the one that begins the very word for beetle in Russian: Жук.
The transliteration scheme of this fictional Latinized Russian is based on English orthography; thus, я хочу comes out as 'ya hochu', rather than as 'ja hotschu', as it would be in a German-based system, or 'ia hotchou', as it would be if one's starting point were French (and there's no good way of handling the aspiration there, so for all intents and purposes one may as well write 'ia otchou').
Russian, I mean to say, cannot be transliterated, at least not without anchoring it to some other language that can have no claim to authority over an unrelated East Slavic tongue. But to the extent that it is not transliterated, it cannot really be made to play with English or French. Nabokov does his best, but I wonder if he had any sense of this barrier to cross-fertility, or whether it's just my own problem.
Perhaps my favorite Anglo-Russian play on words, as being the most successful, involves the name of the title character, which in the nominative case (Ada) is identical to the genitive of the word, a masculine noun, for 'hell' (ad). One possibility that Nabokov declines to pursue here arises from the fact that ad also has an unusual ending in the prepositional case, an -u rather than the more usual -e. Thus 'in hell' is v adu, which as it happens is identical to the accusative construction v Adu, which is to say, 'into Ada'.
I don't know what work this might have done for Nabokov in the novel, but he could have made it work if he wanted to.
Let me finish with a long and stunning sentence that to my mind summarizes all of the points I've been making here. In it, Nabokov urges the return to nature's richness through the mastery of language, he moves through several languages, and the only moments at which this motion seems to stall are, I think, at those clunkily, Anglocentrically transliterated fragments of Russian:
The details that shine through or shade through: the local leaf through the hyaline skin, the green sun in the brown humid eye, tout ceci, vsyo eto, in tit and toto, must be taken into account, now prepare to take over (no, Ada, go on, ya zaslushalsya: I'm all enchantment and ears), if we wish to convey the fact, the fact, the fact-- that among these billions of brilliant couples in one cross section of what you will allow me to call spacetime (for the convenience of reasoning), one couple is a unique super-imperial couple, sverhimperatorskaya cheta, in consequence of which (to be inquired into, to be painted, to be denounced, to be put to music, or to the question and death, if the decade has a scorpion tail after all), the particularities of their love-making influence in a special way two long lives and a few readers, those pensive reeds, and their pens and mental paintbrushes.