IN 1969, Vladimir Nabokov published Ada, his fifteenth novel. He was then 70. In his youth he had identified and attached his name to a new species of butterfly, created the first Russian crossword puzzle, and translated Alice in Wonderland into his native tongue. Later, in the thirties, under the pseudonym V.V. Sirin, he had written what many critics consider the finest Russian novel of the century, The Gift. In the fifties, with a book called Lolita, he had put the word "nymphet" into the dictionary. Ada's masterful complexity seemed a natural culmination to the long list of novels, stories, poems, and plays.
Now, three years beyond the fullness of three score and ten, Nabokov has published Transparent Things, a slim silver volume beside Ada's black bulk, a novelistic speculation on art and time scarcely a hundred pages long. The new novel appears to take its departure from the "texture of time" section of Ada, perhaps even from the specific question asked there. "Has there ever been a 'primitive' form of Time in which, say, the Past was not yet clearly differentiated from the Present, so that past shadows and shapes showed through the still soft long, larval 'now'?"
One has to understand Nabokov's peculiar conceit about time: he refuses to believe in the future or in a "flow" from moment to moment. We can sense the present and picture the past, but we can never prove the future. It is "but a figure of speech, a specter of thought." Some things are more likely to happen than others, to be sure, but none are certain. So the world of Transparent Things is revealed entirely in the present, but a present which is transparent to the past. The narrating guide instructs us how to approach this new mode of being: "When we concentrate on a material object, whatever its situation, the very act of attention may lead to our involuntarily sinking into the history of that object. Novices must learn to skim over matter if they want matter to stay at the exact level of the moment. Transparent things, through which the past shines!"
BUT RIGHT AWAY we slip through the present's thin veneer and are submerged in the whole history of an object--in this case, a simple pencil. The entirety of one of the earliest of Nabokov's brief chapters is devoted to illustrating the past visible in that anonymous pencil, from the grinding of its graphite and the felling of the pine for its case to the final implement, all in a discovered second of perception.
The person whose story we follow through this curious world is named Hugh Person, sometimes mispronounced "you person." The young agent of a New York publisher, he is inclined to somnambulance and sexual self-doubts. The story itself consists of four visits which Person makes to the Swiss town of Witt, layered upon each other and made transparent to the narrating eye. So that there will be no future--only chunks of present and past--the last visit sandwiches the previous ones by beginning and ending the novel.
Person returns to Switzerland for the last time to seek out the memory of his dead wife in places they had been together. On the first visit, Person's father dies and releases him into a feeling of his own freedom. On the second, a business trip to see the famous writer R., Person meets his wife-to-be, Armande, an outdoorsey, faintly bitchy, feelingless woman. The third visit brings him back to the aging, corpulent R., only a few days before Person strangles his wife in his sleep, dreaming that he is saving her from fire. And then we glide back to the present.
AS THE LAYERS OF TIME turn translucent before us, Nabokov's own past comes shining through as well. All his favorite themes and fancies are here, each sketched out in a stroke or two. Butterflies (now obligatory in Nabokov novels) make their appearance high on a Swiss hillside. There is tennis, Nabokov's favorite sport. There are little games and word puzzles offering one verbal move after another.
Several books within the bock inform its action things happen "as they do in one of R.'s novels." In the aging writer, writing on in the work of his creator, there is just a touch of self-parody, but a good deal more of sarcasm directed at critics who have falsely imputed to Nabokov several of old R.s' eccentricities, e.g., lusting after young girls.
Freud has always irritated Nabokov, offended his deep sense of psychological subtlety. Here his satire of "the Viennese quack" and his "Sigmundian school" is refined into a brief parody of dream research. Of "some two hundred healthy jailbirds" investigated, "one hundred seventy-eight of the men were seen to have powerful erections during the stage of sleep called HAREM ("Has A Rapid Eye Movement") marked by visions and causing a lustful opthalmic roll, a kind of internal ogling."
With pun and allusion Nabokov turns words themselves transparent, making meanings flicker through each other. In the light of a bit of high school physics, watch what happens to the sentence: "An electric sign, DOPPLER, shifted to violet through the half drawn curtains..." Several pages later, a woman standing by the same window "wore a Doppler shift over her luminous body."
Language is for Nabokov a realm in itself, where, for instance, "by some mnemoptical trick" something cherry-red is remembered as applegreen. A new word brings a new kind of reality. The writer's language constructs a wonderland of possibility--witty, dreamy, tidy--somewhere in the gap between language and every day life. What kind of world would it be if the word "tralatitions," which makes the title of R.'s book, were as common as its synonym, "metaphor"? What it there were a town in Switzerland where present objects bulged transparent with their parts?
NABOKOV IS among the most "writerly" of writers, consciously making use of a whole series of poses and tones to tell his transparent tale, intervening to remind the reader of the creator behind it all. For a man who despises the novel of ideas, the telling is everything. Here it is accomplished through the voice guiding us within the transparent world, through bits of the psychoanalytic interrogation Person goes through after his crime, through a letter from old R., through a single quotation from Person's prison journal. The prose slips seamlessly from tone to tone, now reportorial, now lyrical; from the generality of years rushing by to the specificity of a detailed moment. The author willingly admits that a part of the narrative is "pretty boring" or depicts himself looking over Person's shoulder, perceived by the hero as "an umbral companion," "a larger, incredibly wiser, calmer and stronger stranger, morally better than he."
True to form, Nabokov has said that he likes his novels to end in infinite self-reflection. Appropriate metaphors would be two mirrors facing each other, or pictures within endless pictures, but also the "ultimate vision of a book...grown completely transparent and hollow." Art imitates and criticizes itself into a kind of reality where the whole gleams through at every point.
The basis of the writer's art, a closed world with that infinity inside, remains inexplicable. When, in the last chapter of Transparent Things, Person dies in a mysterious fire which re-enacts the dream in which he strangled his wife, does it mean that the being of the novel parallels that state of dreaming? Nabokov's last sentence tells of the death of the hero but also takes leave of the strange realm the novel has created: "This is, I believe, it: not the crude anguish of physical death but the incomparable pang of the mysterious mental maneuver needed to pass from one state of being to another."
Transparent Things is not an old man's book. It is that of an author at the height of his style, and the full complexity of his artistic understanding. It is the skilled work of a man who is still one of the two or three best authors writing English today, and a book which fits its author's own definition of a novel as something to be re-read.