I recently read Nabakov’s “Ada (or Ardor)” and I feel compelled to discuss it. I’m sure thousands of English lit students have dissected this dense cheesecake since its publication in 1969, making me a mere snowball in the avalanche. But since I’ve read a lot of Nabokov I wanted to place it in the hierarchy.
First, the overview: It’s about a wealthy family wherein kissing cousins do a lot more than kissing and are actually a lot more than cousins. Their summer tryst blooms from a reckless dalliance to an era-spanning romance that directs both their lives. Their story is told as an autobiography, albeit a disjointed and surreal autobiography.
The story takes place on an alternate Victorian-era Earth-like planet. On this planet called Antiterra, the late 19th century occurs in a near-parallel with our Earth (“Terra”), a planet which the Antiterrans consider a myth. Only weirdos believe Terra exists. On Antiterra, North America has a deep Russian and French influence. Advanced aircraft and automobiles exist in Antiterra in 1880. People use water-powered mechanical devices for communication, as electricity has been renounced as dangerous. Geographic places and names are often allegorical or altogether invented, but occasionally there are direct correlations.
Antiterra is so similar/dissimilar to Earth that discerning what is real on Antiterra and what might be mere flights of fancy in Nabokov’s mind becomes difficult. This makes things very confusing, and I wonder if Nabokov did this to purposefully unsettle us or simply as an amusement.
Regardless, Nabokov employs his signature style brilliantly. Endless wordplay, myriad puzzles (linguistic and otherwise), and piles of carefully encoded nods to literary works. As ever, he gives you the option of fretting over every fiendish bon mot or just letting it flow over you. I selected the latter.
(The title itself is the first of his little games; Ada is pronounced “Ah-dah”, which is a homonym for the British non-rhotic pronunciation of “Ardor”, which means devotion/passion. Such begins a veritable tidal wave of word play and double-meanings.)
“Ada” is difficult literature, and reading difficult literature is like having a printed word aperture open in your mind. You can only handle so much at any given moment and then only incorporate so much of it into short term memory. For instance, a pulp novel has a wide aperture where the reader easily digests entire chapters into one comprehensible event. Conversely, “Finnegan’s Wake” is such obscurantist gibberish that one’s aperture can only handle fractions of a paragraph at a time. “Ada” finds a mean to those extremes, though it does narrow my aperture quite a bit, causing me to take time when reading.
The first four chapters are extremely challenging as little of it makes sense. Everything seems off-kilter, misspelled, or nonsensical. I went into this book cold so I had no preparation or guide. I eventually read some background so I could fully understand what the hell was going on. (I’m not alone; most reviewers found the first four chapters bewildering.)
Most confounding of all, time seems to have slipped on Antiterra. We should be in the Victorian era, and while characters largely conform to Victorian mores in behavior, they are not bound by our understanding of the era. Nabokov gives them leeway to escape the droll and hopelessly small world of Emily Brontë. A 14-year-old boy can seamlessly expound on complex subjects in three languages with pithy (Nabokovian?) precision. Intercontinental air travel compresses events. It’s surreal yet historically familiar, like “Game of Thrones”. The straight-arrow of history is bent and re-imagined and sometimes wholly warped.
It can be discombobulating, but once you get it, you get it.
Our protagonist (Ivan “Van” Veen, aka V.V. – Vladimir Vladimirovich!) is one of the believers in Terra, which makes him a kook on Antiterra. In 1884, teenage Van falls in love with his pubescent cousin, and as summers become decades their secret romance ebbs and flows between torrid adoration and bitter heartbreak. The years become eras, which is something we can all relate to. We all look back with warm nostalgia or stinging regret all those moments we created in our years. We wonder how it all fits into the bigger picture, whether we’ve been pulled along by the current or whether we’ve stamped our initials on the Universe. One can go mad thinking about time and its succession of moments and chasms of centuries, just as one can go mad thinking about space with its inscrutable quarks and unimaginable stretches of blackness. Instead, we internalize and obfuscate to suit our own ends. The past becomes our non-threatening fable and the Universe is our city district.
From the novel:
“The direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time, here is something that looks useful to me one moment, but dwindles the next to the level of an illusion, obscurely related to the mysteries of growth and gravitation. The irreversibility of Time (which is not heading anywhere in the first place) is a very parochial affair: had our organs and orgitrons not been asymmetrical, our view of Time might have been amphitheatric and altogether grand, like ragged night and jagged mountains around a small, twinkling, satisfied hamlet. We are told that if a creature loses its teeth and becomes a bird, the best the latter can do when needing teeth again is to evolve a serrated beak, never the dentition it once possessed. The scene is Eocene and the actors are fossils. It is an amusing instance of the way nature cheats but it reveals little relation to essential Time, straight or round, as the fact of my writing from left to right does to the course of my thought.”
Which brings me to Nabokov’s greatest skill: mastery of the stream of consciousness. Once again, Nabokov nimbly explores thoughts, feelings, and motivations down to the smallest detail of how we experience a wall clock or a gnarled tree or a young man beholding the exposed shoulder of his true love. We delve miles deep into the human mind. When Van Veen’s mother becomes insane, the description of her internal schizophrenic dialog is absolutely heartbreaking. Taken out of context, it reads like Joyce-quality gibberish. But in the narrative it’s a punch to the gut. There is so much of this stuff in “Ada” and his other works that I can’t begin to express how talented he is at describing our thought processes, our perception of stimuli, and our reactions to events. At this Nabokov has no equal.
Sometimes, the skeptic in me sees Nabokov’s Antiterra as a convenient vehicle for the writer to describe once again his own life experiences and affection for language. We once again explore characters who have roots in Russian, French, and Anglo cultures, as Nabokov can only write about what he knows and that list pretty much describes his life. (His family were wealthy Russians who escaped the Bolshevik revolution and ran off to Switzerland. Nabokov then studied in France and England and eventually moved to the US. Thus he is fluent in Russian, German, French and English. And his novels often involve Russian emigres with troubled love lives.)
So in one sense, this is just more Nabokov. (Lukewarm fans of “Lolita” would probably agree.) But there’s a lot more to “Ada” than word games and taboo sex explorations. Like his other romantic novels, Nabokov scrutinizes those moments when flirtation gels into something infinitely greater, when the mind fixates on the mundane to the exclusion of all else, and the striking differences between a heart pounding from the joy of erotic love and a heart pounding from the agony of heartbreak.
Unlike most readers, I didn’t come to Nabokov via “Lolita”. One winter I got really sick and for some reason glommed onto a copy of “Glory” and read it, bed-ridden, in two days. It blew my mind. It was the first time I had read about unrequited love with such murderous detail. The prose wasn’t just good. It was luscious. I consumed that book between sneezes, my head in that weird fevered place, delirious with the flu.
When I eventually came around to reading “Lolita”, I was (like most readers) initially duped by Humbert Humbert’s passionate defense of his evil behavior. As the tragedy unfolds, we find his unreliable narration far worse than merely unreliable. He is, in fact, a monster.
In “Ada”, however, our much friendlier narrator seamlessly transforms between personalities. He is alternately an omniscient third person (Nabokov, who may or may not know the characters personally) and Van Veen himself speaking in the first person, writing aloud his autobiography. Ada herself sometimes pops in to add parenthetical comments (or to correct Van, who tends to remember things a bit too selfishly). These narrators seem to meld and swap effortlessly. At no point does Nabokov confuse you about who is who, and instead employs them as he sees fit with each one ultimately “him”, Nabokov himself. In the end, there’s no ambiguity that Nabokov is Veen, any less than he is Martin in “Glory” or Franz in “King, Queen, Knave”.
Ultimately, “Ada” is about how being alive (on Terra or Antiterra) is to experience time and how the events we create or endure add texture to that time. We have the emboldening thrill of it and the miserable tragedy of it. We love to dwell on our details but in doing so we re-paint them. The final product is the created world we acknowledge as true. That’s the nub of it. It’s what describes art and artists, politicians and history, academics and culture. We shake out the rug of existence, beat it with a tennis racket, then place it in the sitting room and call it good.
This is how 94-year-old Van Veen constructs his life story. Every second spent with his beloved Ada is a yawning century of joy, and every year without her is a dismal hour of pain. Van’s time is neither straight nor an arrow. It is a jumble of events that must be shuffled and sieved to be understood. His adoration of Ada is simultaneously unbreakable and marred with insecurity. That should sound familiar.
Nabokov liked to position himself among the pantheon of great writers. He makes no bones about writers he admires (Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust) and those he feels are beneath him (Conrad, Faulkner, Pasternak). A famously prickly critic, he admirably applies that laser-like reproof to his own writing. One is hard-pressed to find a single word misapplied, or “replaced by its first cousin”, as Twain would say. “Ada” is dense, lush, and strikingly beautiful, if sometimes self-indulgent and haughty.
If you choose to read “Ada”, don’t do it for the explicit eroticism. Do it to explore all those contradictions and moral ambiguities in yourself.