An unexpected comparison

You may have been able to tell from the past two days that Dreyer was my favorite character from King, Queen, Knave. He’s really a sweetheart: gives his weirdo nephew a job, practically adopts him into his home in Berlin, hopes like a little puppy dog for a kiss from his beloved wife, and takes delight in sitting with a dictionary on his knee as he tries to read English books. And thinking about Dreyer this week as I decided to blog the novel some more, I started to think about some unexpected parallels between this one and a much later work from Nabokov—Ada, or Ardor.

Dreyer is concerned with one of the stranger threads of the novel, that of the cosmopolitan inventor and the animated mannequins. Dreyer owns a men’s department store, and he’s approached by European of ambiguous origin who believes he can make moving, walking, plastic mannequins. Dreyer jerks the guy around a bit (because of his whimsical nature, it mostly seems), but he’s very interested in the idea and very interested in making money. So here and there the European pops up again, Dreyer calls him back, Dreyer checks out his progress, etc. It’s not what you’d call science fiction, but then again it is: it’s about an inventor who can make dolls walk! (Sort of.)

It felt sort of “inserted” to me into this rather humdrum story of a love affair, and I don’t think it’s dissimilar from the long section in the middle of Ada on Anti-Terra and all the rest of Van’s theories. I can tell I need to re-read Ada because of how little I remember of the details, but I also know I never really understood the purpose of that aspect of the novel. And the same goes here in KQK.

Dreyer himself also reminds of me another character in Ada, little sister Lucette. As Martin Amis noted (via Anthony), “the vice Nabokov most frequently reviled was ‘cruelty,'” and Dreyer and Lucette are subjected to extremely similar cruelties. Van and Ada exclude her from their activities and consider her largely as an annoyance in the way of their affair; Franz and Martha of course do exactly the same. Lucette is a younger sibling while Dreyer is himself the cuckold, but since the Ada relationship is incestuous Lucette is more betrayed than your average younger sister with a crush on your boyfriend.

One big difference is that Lucette knows she is being treated cruelly. She fights against it for decades, makes herself miserable, and never finds happiness in this life. Dreyer, blind to his wife’s faithlessness, continues in cheerful ruddiness day after day.

Another difference: I hated Lucette. I think Brian Boyd has argued very persuasively that Nabokov ultimately condemns Ada and Van through Lucette, and I do feel some sympathy for her. But she is annoying, where Ada and Van are brilliant (if, to some, overly so). In KQK, instead, we have Dreyer the teddy bear vs. the extremely unsavory Franz and Martha. Maybe this difference is in fact about more than just my personal preference (or my first-child prejudice against younger siblings).

5 comments to An unexpected comparison

  • Like you, I can tell I need to re-read Ada—in my case because the details of the Lucette/Van/Ada relationship are confused in my mind with the details of the Sebastian/Ryder/Julia relationship from Brideshead Revisited. Maybe because there’s a section on ship-board in both cases?

    In any case, interesting parallel here…I’ll keep it in mind when I get to KQK.

  • Oh interesting. I have never read Brideshead Revisited…or any Waugh (shhh!)…but a relationship that could be confused with Van and Ada’s makes it sound like I should bump it up the list a few notches…

  • Well, I don’t know how similar it *actually* is…there’s a subversive element in both, but undercurrents of homosexual attraction displaced onto the beloved’s sister kind of pale in comparison to sibling-sibling incest. It’s fairly inexplicable that I confuse them, but there you go. Like my partner David can’t remember the difference between Brad Pitt & Johnny Depp, even though they look and act nothing alike.

  • Haha, I sympathize with your partner; Pitt and Depp will always be inextricably associated in my mind as well, though I never actually confuse the two. Back in the brief day when I was reading teen girls magazines, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss were quite the item, and then Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow were being billed as like, “grunge couple number two.” Man, the 90s seem far away!

  • Ada has always bewildered me because of exactly the reasons you say. I do not find Boyd’s explanation convincing, because I think it ultimately trivializes the book. (Imagine if Laughter in the Dark were 600 pages long!) That’s not to say that Ada and Van are not narcissistic and selfish, because they clearly are, but I cannot see what happens to Lucette as being absolutely central to the novel in the way that other cruelties are in other Nabokov books. And part of that is, as you say, because Lucette is rather annoying. And I think Nabokov must have intended all of these perceptions, because he was no dummy. John Updike’s nasty review of Ada seems to propose that Nabokov is unaware that some of the prose is offputting–I can’t believe this.

    The question keeps coming back to me: How could the person who wrote Pnin and The Eye write this? How is it that *Charles Kinbote* is more personable than Van and Ada? It’s only very recently that I’ve come up with something approximating a theory, which does relate to the mysterious time treatise in part 4 and to why the book is so damn long. I need to clarify it to myself more and then I hope to post it.