I was supposed to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada for the latest Classics Club spin, but after attempting to read it, I substituted Look at the Harlequins!, the last novel published before Nabokov’s death. Sometimes I encounter a novel that really makes me feel stupid, or perhaps intellectually lazy, and such was the case with Ada. It was so full of literary allusions and wordplay that I felt I didn’t know what was going on half the time. In addition, it focuses on some of the same themes as Lolita, and while I found Lolita fascinating, the delights of prepubescent girls are not really what I want to read about.
Look at the Harlequins! is a more straightforward fictional autobiography. Many critics consider it a parodic biography, in which Nabokov twists the events of his life to make them meet public expectations of his character. For example, his family’s exit from Russia after the Revolution was relatively uneventful, while Nabokov has his alter ego, V. V., shoot a Red soldier on the way out. Similarly, although in life Nabokov was monogamous, he gives V. V. four wives and a salacious extra-marital career.
His literary career, however, is reflected in the novel, as is, to some extent, his academic career. I believe he transfers events involving his wife Véra to characters such as his fictional daughter Bel and a briefly mentioned assistant. In any event, he addresses his novel to an unnamed “you,” who we may assume is Véra’s alter ego.
We still don’t avoid the theme of prepubescent girls, though, as V. V. fondles an 11-year-old daughter of friends (whom he has an affair with when she is in her 20’s and he is in his 70’s), has such a questionable relationship with his daughter Bel that friends advise him to send her away to school (he fatefully decides to remarry instead), and ultimately marries a woman his daughter’s age. Obviously, this sexual focus on girls was a motif for Nabokov, but I find it disturbing.
It’s hard to evaluate this novel on a literary level. It has none of the beautiful language of Lolita. It is told in a facetious manner and focuses several times on what the narrator considers a mental aberration. Each time we have to endure a description of the problem, which actually seems like a silly one that obsesses the narrator more than it should. V. V. opens the subject each time he decides to marry but describes the problem over and over. I’m not sure what the point of it was.
Because of its facetious tone, however, the novel lacks highs and lows. Instead, it is full of puzzles, anagrams, and self-references. It is entertaining enough but ultimately unsatisfying.