Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pleasure on the Surface

In his essay about Vladimir Nabokov in the latest New York Review, John Banville is far from the first to take a dim view of the novel Ada, particularly when compared with Lolita, which he calls "a masterpiece of obliqueness." Banville describes the narrative voice of Ada as "the explicit tone of a dirty old man—an aristocratic dirty old man, it is true, a more hesitant Baron Ochs who yet has not quite the full courage of his raw convictions." This kind of language immediately triggered a series of reflections on my own personal experience with this book.

In the language of my Silicon Valley background, I was an "early adopter" of Ada. I was a graduate student when the book appeared in 1969, and I first encountered it through the review John Updike had written for The New Yorker. Long before it had become fashionable to invoke Roland Barthes' phrase about "the pleasure of the text," Updike made it immediately and abundantly clear that his experiences in reading this novel amounted to a real hoot of cosmic proportions. (I was about to insert "almost" before "cosmic," until I remembered that the book includes an extended interlude in the form of a scholarly discourse on general relativity.) At the time I was still a pretty naive reader, but Updike's enthusiasm inspired me to purchase the hardcover edition of the book. I did not waste any time before jumping in feet first; and, while the "enchantments" of most the book were probably above my head, it did not take me long to appreciate why Updike had experienced such a wild and joyful ride.

My personal narrative around this book now advances a little more than a decade, when I was working for General Research Corporation in Santa Barbara. This was a time when the Department of Defense had decided on the necessity of a single programming language for all of its software, whose design became a long and involved process from which innumerable researchers benefitted from research grants. The language that emerged from this project was christened "Ada," after the Countess of Lovelace (describe in Doris Langley Moore's biography as "Byron's legitimate daughter"), who, through her correspondence with Charles Babbage, had become accepted by the community of computer scientists as the world's first computer programmer. (I wonder if any of my colleagues took the time to read Moore's biography. It turned out that the Countess was a gambling addict with a predilection for playing the ponies. When she grasped the concept of an algorithm, she immediately saw that the right one might help her make better choices at the track!)

Back in Santa Barbara my boss was spending a lot of time finding ways for our "think jar" to drink from the trough of Ada funding; and I was working with her to develop some of those ideas. We got far enough to schedule a trip to Washington to make a pitch; and, while we were making our travel plans, I impishly suggested that Nabokov's novel might make good airplane reading. We had never had any extended conversations about literature. However, my boss knew enough about how my mind worked that I am confident that she knew what she was doing when she accepted my invitation; so Nabokov joined us on our flight. I forgot what I was reading; but I do remember that, for most of the trip, my boss kept succumbing to fits of the giggles. Her experience was not that different from mine as a graduate student. Most of the twists and turns of the book may have eluded her; but the ones that got to her kept advancing her through the 589-page epic with no desire to put it back on the shelf.

I tell this story to make a case for the title of this piece. Neither my boss nor I approached this book as a sophisticated reader. Nevertheless, we were both hooked by it; and I would guess that our memories of the reading experience are equally vivid. No matter how much I may write about the extent to which understanding requires going beneath the surface, there are some surface structures that are so vivid, without in any way being facile, trivial, or tediously predictable, that their virtues can be appreciated in their own right. Whatever flaws Ada may have for "deeper" readers, there is definitely more to its surface appearance than "the explicit tone of a dirty old man!"

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