Ada, or Ardor is written as if it is a memoir: the autobiography of Van Veen and his lifelong love affair with his sister Ada. (Pronounce the name with long, Russian A sounds, so that it rhymes with “ardor.”) They meet when she is eleven, turning twelve, and he is fourteen, believing they are cousins; only later do they discover the perhaps deliberately-confusing parental tangle that means that their love is completely forbidden. They are both wealthy, educated, and extremely intelligent, and their relationship is as much about finding a match as it is about passion. The story, written mostly in Van’s voice, with marginal notes by an older Van and by Ada herself, follows the various interruptions and resumptions of their affair, through unfaithfulness, tragedy, absence, and aging, until their reunion in the final pages.
Ada is Nabokov’s longest novel. It is dense and complex, and dazzlingly beautiful, and funny and dark and deeply sad, and full, full, full of endless intertextual references, to a few books I have read and many I have not. I have only read a fraction of Nabokov’s novels (Pale Fire, Pnin, Lolita, An Invitation to a Beheading, and now this), but I can say with certainty that this is the one I’ve read that opens itself least on a first reading. Yet I didn’t find that frustrating. Instead, it made me want to finish the novel and begin the delight of re-reading as soon as I could.
The subtitle of the book is A Family Chronicle. I’ve seen this novel described as “a parody of the family chronicle form,” and if you want to take it at its most superficial, you could describe it that way. Ada takes place, or at any rate begins, in the 19th century, on a sort of alternative world called Antiterra or Demonia. Nabokov takes advantage of the alternative history of Antiterra to play endlessly with literary references and structure. The book begins,
“All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R.G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880.) That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).
The whole book is like this: endless references, but turned inside-out and upside-down. Fictional characters make cameos in the novel. The first time Veen sees Ardis, Ada’s home, it is described thus: “At the next turning, the romantic mansion appeared on the gentle eminence of old novels.” A few pages later: “Then Van and Ada met in the passage, and would have kissed at some earlier stage of the Novel’s Evolution in the History of Literature. It might have been a neat little sequel to the Shattal Tree incident. Instead, both resumed their separate ways — and Blanche, I suppose, went to weep in her bower.”
This novel is all about art and life — life mirrored by art, and enhanced by art, and made more (or, sometimes, less) true by art; and then art and work responding to life, as well. Nabokov does all this in incredibly playful ways: puns, and anagrams (there is a writer called Osberg who is the Antiterran version of Borges), and wordplay, and deft allusion, and a kind of swift, weaving dance between Russian and French and English. There are his usual themes, too, of doubling and reflection, and the resulting hall of mirrors only enhances the play of the theme of the novelistic and the true. Nabokov is doing more than parody, here. He is showing us romance as experience — Van’s and Ada’s true, passionate, loving, sexual experience — as genre, and as tradition.
Nabokov is a stylistic genius. Different events in the book call for stylistic shifts, and since he’s playing with romance as genre and as tradition, Flaubert is evoked, and Pushkin, and Tolstoy, and Proust, and dozens of others I could neither identify nor name. When Van is shot in a duel, the writing embodies his dissociation: as the signal is given to fire, Van’s attention is unaccountably taken by the sight of a girl and a boy sitting in the distance. “It was not the chocolate-muncher in Cordula’s apartment, but a boy very much like him, and as this flashed through Van’s mind he felt the jolt of the bullet ripping off, or so it felt, the entire left side of his torso.”
The center of the book, the event toward which everything else tends, like the death in Pale Fire, is the “L disaster” — the suicide of Ada’s younger sister Lucette. This scene is at once a beautiful piece of writing and the first real window out of Van and Ada’s tightly twinned perspective. After suffering one last rejection, Lucette ‘tried to think up something amusing, harmless, and scintillating to say in a suicide note. But she had planned everything except the note, so she tore her blank life in two and disposed of the pieces in the W.C.’ Merging and dancing with Lucette’s confused and drug-addled mind, the language toys with her planned fate. She pours herself a glass of ‘dead water from a moored decanter’; after three vodkas her mind begins to ‘swim like hell’; until finally, after going ‘with hardly a splash through a wave that humped to meet her’, she loses sight of the ship, ‘an easily imagined many-eyed bulk mightily receding in heartless triumph.’
I could write an entire article on this (and I daresay others have), but once Lucette has met her tragic end, there is no longer any escaping the water imagery that pervades the book. From the sisters Aqua and Marina to the hydraulic system that replaces electricity on Antiterra, Lucette was always going to drown. That grief is everywhere, once you know. Yet another reason that re-reading offers more than reading.
I don’t think I’ve quite managed to convey this novel’s quality. Nabokov’s novels always make me feel as if I haven’t caught half the craft he put into them; this novel made me feel that way far more than the others I’ve read. But even so, reading it was an absolute joy. This book was a stunner. The writing was glorious. The characters were vivid and alive. The play in and out of the shade of books I know (and even of those I don’t) was fascinating and beautiful. And at the center of the dazzle and laughter — as at the center of every novel of his I have read so far — there was compassion and sorrow at the nature of things; at the way human beings interact to their damage; at the way people are lost. It was a challenge to read, and so well worth reading.