Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

by Joshua Potter

Considerably longer, denser, and more self-indulgent than his other notable works, Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor is a seriously challenging affair for the reader; all the Nabokovian thrills are there, but the typically brilliant prose occasionally wanders into the realm of the needlessly obtuse.

Vladimir Nabokov / Russo-American / 1969 / 620 pages

I tend to give Nabokov high marks because he messes with me. In Lolita, I found that I rather enjoyed the novel despite its ostensibly inappropriate subject matter; subsequently, I felt bad about myself for forgetting what the book was actually about. But, props for the diversionary tactics. In Pale Fire, I was nearly driven mad by its open-ended conclusion which allows for any number of divergent interpretations. Why are so many very smart people finishing this novel on different pages, so to speak? How do you write a book that prompts critics to argue about whether or not some of the characters were real in the first place!? Even Nabokov’s simpler efforts, like the beautiful and often overlooked Pnin, employ clever prose stylings to tackle characters, their thoughts, and their actions in indirect or sideways capacities. You’ve got to stay on top of every line and allow for pauses between sentences; otherwise, you’ll never have the opportunity for the hundreds of ” … oh, okay, I get it” revelations that are crucial for successfully deciphering (and appreciating) Nabokov’s insanely unparalleled prose.

But the guy might have overdone it with Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, which is a huge tome (by Nabokovian standards) clocking in at over 600 pages with an accompanying series of end notes that may or may not be worth your time to flip through (I have yet to make up my mind on this point). Laced with tracts of Russian and French phrases and substantial discourses tending toward the biological, entomological, chronological, and psychological (that is to say, not literary), Ada is something of an frustratingly labyrinthine exercise with an ultimate thesis along the lines of I am a bigger polymath than you. Considering the fact that this is something I would have granted Nabokov long ago, I cannot say that it required such long-winded substantiation.

All that being said, the novel’s novelties are many and bear mentioning.

The book is more-or-less about a romantic relationship between Van Veen and Ada Veen who, through a quirk of cross-marriage infidelity, are actually brother and sister (a piece of information they discover after consummating their love, i.e. after it is “too late”) rather than first cousins (they were raised by different sets of parents which would have made them, ahem, “kissing cousins” rather than the considerably more incestuous “coital siblings”). So the name of the game is incest and the preponderance of Ada‘s passages might be best characterized as (juvenilely, unfortunately, uncomfortably) erotic in tone. You have to give Nabokov credit (or, perhaps, not give him credit) for returning to such racy material after all the allegations of perversion that Lolita drummed up. Do I think that Nabokov was a pervert? Probably not. Taken together, do Lolita and Ada add up to a significant dalliance with the literature of perversion? Um, yeah.

The novel is divided into five segments, with the first comprising more than half of the novel. Something of an ode to Tolstoy’s novels of the family (like Anna Karenina), the first section is set in an idyllic rural mansion during Van and Ada’s childhood. For all of the weird romantic tension, the landscape and its inhabitants are happy, content, and in many ways are living out the prime years of their lives. The children read great works of literature in the mansion’s expansive library, forage the woods for excellent specimens of butterflies and insect larvae, eat rich meals late at night, and carry on extensive conversations with a rotating cast of distant relatives who visit during holidays. Previous readers of Nabokov will recognize his uncanny ability to drum up such comfortable, idyllic scenery. It really is an event of high nostalgia. The subsequent sections of the novel chart the trials and tribulations of their adulthood and eventually relate the happenings of their old age, where they collaborate on something of a mutual autobiography that is supposed to be the very pages of Ada, or Ardor that rest in the reader’s hands.

But nothing in the Nabokovian universe is simple. Van’s formal education is in psychology and, as he grows older, he begins to specialize in humans’ ability to think back on the past and recall events from their childhood (which is, obviously, the linchpin underlying the entire narrative arch of Ada). The children and all of their relatives — indeed, everyone they know — live on a world called “Antiterra” (or sometimes referred to as “Demonia”) that resembles in many geopolitical senses our “Earth” yet differs in some important respects (like, for example, substantial swathes of North America are inhabited extensively by and, indeed, managed by Russian and Irish immigrants). The names of cities and universities are different than those on “Earth” and the historical development of Antiterra departs dramatically from that of the planet we’ve all grown up on. Furthermore, Van’s psychological patients fall prey to collective, mass illusions of a sister plant — Terra — that has its own history, inhabitants, and geography. Terra, as such, never makes an actual appearance in the novel, but its presence is felt. Many people conjecture that it might be the location of the afterlife once one’s life on Antiterra has expired. Others doubt its existence. Movies are made, books are written, and scholastic energies are devoted to the study of Terra and Van Veen, himself, spends a considerable portion of his career thinking about the mysterious planet.

There are other sleights of hand as well. The book opens with a brief statement that every character in the book is now dead except for Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Oranger. Despite seeming to be of some consequence, this statement ends up being almost entirely meaningless as neither of these characters appear until the last dozen pages of the novel. When they do, it is not at all clear why our attention should have been drawn to them in the first place (my hypothesis is that Nabokov just threw us a red herring). It takes a while before the reader realizes that the setting of the novel is not actually located on “Earth” and the significance of this is also not immediately obvious. Vague and passing mention is made of flying carpets (weird). In an attempt at suicide, Van pulls the trigger of a gun he has pointed at his head only to have it turn into a banana (the most plausible explanation from my perspective is that he’s now found himself in some sort of afterlife with only the faintest of transitions). Later on, he insults a person in a hotel lobby who shoots him in the back. Nabokov writes that Van is now in the “next phase of his existence” but it exactly mirrors his previous state (is he dead again? how many parallel universes are we running through, here?)

If this all sounds needlessly bizarre, then you’ve taken the correct interpretation. Nabokov has always written weird stuff, but I’ve generally found that the weirdness services a broader aim in a pleasantly productive way. Ada, by contrast, comes off as being a bit too self-indulgent: there are too many in-jokes, too many obscure references, and too many hopelessly opaque passages. I have this picture in my mind of Nabokov laughing over a typewriter and, perhaps, calling his wife / editor / assistant Vera into the room to partake in his mirth. I wish I could join in the hilarity, but I don’t know enough about butterflies, biological taxonomy, Russian history, and French grammar. And neither, I would guess, does anyone else.

Rating: 5 / 10

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