Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle – Vladimir Nabokov

ada fawcett crest ted coconisI find it essential to take a break from favorite authors. A nice interim to relish or forget their previous work. Inevitably, tidbits of information will bubble up and thus, a temptation to examine further literary arises. This is especially true with Vladimir Nabokov. Like many, his works Pale Fire and Lolita wowed my senses; Pnin, however, tested my patience. Ada, the author’s longest novel, has been occupying space on my shelf for some time. And lo and behold, after some recent articles on the author, the mood to indulge was again at hand.

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle is the story of Ada and Van Veen. Lovers. No – cousins. Actually: siblings. Over a summer in the late 1800’s, young Van Veen met young Ada at Ladore, Estoy, Antiterra. It was love at first sight. To convey their unmentioned affection, the two engaged in childhood games, much to the dismay of Ada’s younger sister and fellow Van lover, Lucette. Eventually, the games evolved into sexual foreplay, and so on and so forth. This romance lasted for a few summers, until Van was privy to a rumor of Ada’s infidelity. He vowed to avenge his honor, as well as never to speak to his former lover again. This proved to be a difficult dogma to uphold. Thus unfolds the nearly century spanning chronicle of lovers — and siblings — Van & Ada Veen.

Split into five sections, Ada sees the Veen’s from budding pubescence to elderly blossom. Each section is half the length of it’s predecessor, with Part One being nearly a full novel, while Part Five only fills a few pages. Nabokov’s intention, according to the Wikipedia analysis, is to evoke a feeling of  recollection on his readers, with childhood ‘feeling’ epically long while latter years pass with haste.

Carrying us through the lifetime are Ada, Van, and an omnipresent Nabokovian narrator. It is easy to find fault in this tripartite voice. Being his longest novel, Nabokov must have been overly pleased with the words appearing on the page. This type of vanity, even when readers are in the hands of an estimable author, is overbearing. This foible does not mean Ada is not poetic, entertaining, or admirable. Rather the 560 pages occasionally read as if that number had been doubled:

“Two fallacies should be dealt with before we go any further. The first is the confusion of temporal elements with spatial ones. Space, the impostor, has been already denounced in these notes (which are now being set down during half a day’s break in a crucial journey); his trial will take place at a later stage of our investigation. The second dismissal is that of an immemorial habit of speech. We regard Time as a kind of stream, having little to do with an actual mountain torrent showing white against a black cliff or a dull-colored great rive in a windy valley, but running invariably through out chronological landscapes. We are so used to that mythical spectacle, so keen upon liquefying every lap of life, that we end up by being unable to speak of Time without speaking of physical motion. Actually, of course, the sense of its motion is derived from many natural, or at least familiar, sources – the body’s innate awareness of its own bloodstream, the ancient vertigo caused by rising stars, and, of course, our methods of measurement, such as the creeping shadow line of a gnomon, the trickle of an hourglass, the trot of a second hand – and here we are back at Space. Note the frames, the receptacles. The idea that Time ‘flows’ as naturally as an apple thuds down on a garden table implies that it flows in and through something else and if we take that ‘something’ to be Space then we have only a metaphor flowing along a yardstick.”*

Also coming into our purview is the extensive use of Russian and French. Nabokov fans are undoubtedly surprised at this. Devotee scholar Alfred Appel Jr. – who does exist, contrary to Gore Vidal’s claim – notes in his New York Times review “…faithful to verisimilitude, Nabokov includes some Russian and French. The former is transintegrated and usually translated, the latter is not.” Out of the now four Nabokov novels I have enjoyed, Ada ranks highest on the list of multilingual integration. This does not necessarily deter any enjoyment, but may give rise to a headache:

“Maidenhair. Idiot! Percy boy might have been buried by now! Maidenhair. Thus named because of the huge spreading Chinese tree at the end of the platform. Once, vaguely, confused with the Venus’-hair fern. She walked to the end of the platform in Tolstoy’s novel. First exponent of the inner monologue, later exploited by the French and Irish. N’est vert, n’est vert, n’est vert. L’arbe aux quarante ecus d’or, or at least in the fall. Never, never shall I hear again her ‘botanical’ voice fall at biloba, ‘sorry, my Latin is showing.’ Ginkgo, gingko, ink, inkog. Known also as Salisbury’s adiantofolia, Ada’s infolio, poor Salisburia: sunk; poor Stream of Consciousness, maree noire  by now. Who wants Ardis Hall!

Published two weeks after his 70th birthday in 1969,  Nabokov’s Ada seems a challenge to those same moral judges that condemned Lolita. Many of the poetic scenes between young Van and young Ada are more sultry than Henry Miller. Effectively, these moments put the ‘p-o’ in poetry and pornography. Observing Ada in this manner paints Nabokov as a literary ‘shock-jock’. He is. Yet, the fanciful phrases, complexity and innovative style are also a product of such a controversy-driven iconoclast.


So, what drove me back into the Nabokov universe? A few articles recently appeared detailing the author’s politics as well as his opinion on female writers. Both views were surprising. Apparently Nabokov was an ardent supporter of the Vietnam war effort, even penning a letter to post-gall bladder surgery President Johnson wishing him a speedy recover as to continue “the admirable work you are accomplishing [in Vietnam]“.  Hungarian writer Stephen Vizinczey has some choice words on the author’s pro-war stance. In a strange, similar vein, Nabokov held a “prejudice” against women writers, going so far as to sequester them away into a “different class”. Jane Austen received the harshest criticism. Though after reading Mansfield Park, thanks to the urging of Edmund Wilson, Nabokov would “capitulate” and use the novel in his class ‘Masters of European Fiction’ at Cornell.

Much here has been said about Ada, much has been missed; Van’s literary career, Ada’s botanical obsession, etc.. Dedicated readers — which an endeavor like Ada certainly requires — will enjoy these difficulties that Nabokov conjures up. Due to the oscillating narrator and trilingual nature, however, it is unlikely adequate appreciation can be achieved in one reading. Ultimately, Ada stands as a high quality failure – but nonetheless, a recommended read.


*This is taken from the overly metaphysical Part Four. This was a slog to get through, but as Alfred Appel notes, “the entire book can be said to spiral out of Part Four.”

‘Burr’ – Gore Vidal

511MKvzxfoL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We certainly judge historical fiction with a cynical eye here at Living with Lit. Readers will remember our derision of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime for mocking reader’s trust, countered by the effusive admiration we gave Robert Graves fictional autobiography I, Claudius. Gore Vidal’s ‘Burr’ utilizes techniques from Doctorow and Graves but, thankfully, doesn’t propagate fantasy as non-fiction.

Released in 1973, Vidal returns readers to the Tammany Hall laden, rough-and-tumble streets of  New York City. The time is 1834 and Charles ‘Charlie’ Schulyer is law apprentice by day, journalist by night. While the nightlife enthralls Charlie’s imagination (and desire), the daylight hours are never without excitement from his eccentric boss – former Vice President Aaron Burr. Despite being far removed from his younger years, old Burr’s mind is consistent as a well-wound clock. And with the presidential election only months away, Charlie’s editors want their young journalist to glean all the gritty details about Tammany’s tricks from the former Vice President – particularly a rumored filial connection to candidate Martin Van Buren.

Since Burr was published only a year after Ragtime, comparison is too tempting. Both texts utilize the dazzling prose to rehash history that we find so alluring here at Living with Lit (see Dos Passos’ The 42nd Parallel). Yet unlike the congestion of narrative strains in Doctorow’s work, Vidal sticks to clearly separated structured. Burr is composed of Charlie’s personal life, Burr’s reflective memoir spanning 1783 – 1806, and the former vice president’s tumultuous last days. While entertainment is not prejudiced to a sole section, the book is naturally focused on Burr’s memoir. Bounded with Revolutionary War adventure, quotes, and exposé worthy anecdotes, the author proves a fastidious researcher. Certainly an interpretation, Vidal admits in the Afterword, dissenters will have to dig if they seek to refute the stated historical claims. See an embellished, but telling conversation with Jefferson:

“The old face lit up. We were in agreement. We were friends. He could trust me. Out it poured, his fear of the courts, particularly of the Supreme Court in the hands of a monocrat like John Marshall. ‘The issue is so simple! Marshall believes that the courts have the right to set aside acts of Congress. This is intolerable! This strikes at the heart of our system of government! And, by Heaven, the fact that these judges can hold office for life – why, that sort of tenure invites tyranny!'”

Vidal unleashes theatrical prose to reveal (and revel in) the ironies of early American politics. The exchanges between between characters are consistently laced with an urgency frequently seen in dramatic writing. As expected, these passages prove Vidal’s erudite wit, as well as darkly prophetic conclusions. These excerpts are a happy reminder why ‘The Best Man’, the author’s Broadway play, is so celebrated. Much like the hilarious contradictions apparent in that piece, the laughs in Burr are similarly sardonic:

The vice-presidential carriage arrived, splattering us with mud. As the groom descended, Adams turned to me.

“I trust, Sir, that this Congress will be the better for your attendance.”

“As it is better, Sir, for your presidence of our chamber.”

A wide cold start raked my face like grape-shot. “I fear this Congress may be like the first, full of faction. I also fear those members who are too attached to France’s vicious revolution.” 

“I fear all attachments which are excessive.”

Adams took this ambiguity in stride. “We are in danger of government by professional office-holders…”

“Come, John.” Mrs. Adams was impatient and uneasy.

Adams was not finished. “By men of party rather than by men of state.”

“It is sometimes hard to tell the difference.” 

“I can tell.” From inside the carriage Mrs. Adams yanked har at her husband’s arm which was just inside the door.

“Can you also tell change when it comes Mr Adams? And whether it be for good or ill?”

“When it is for ill…”

Mrs. Adams and the groom had now got the Vice-President by sheer force into the carriage.

Mine was the last word as the groom shut the door. “New occasions, Mr. Adams, require new men and new ideas.”

Vidal once admonished historical authors for their appropriation – and occasionally unaffected hagiography – of political leaders. The author’s ‘Narratives of Empire’, which Burr opens*, seeks to rebuke these apropos impressions. “We must now turn to the novel for truth.” Minnesota representative Michelle Bachman found this approach “snotty” and cited the novel as her defining pivot to conservatism. Yet the image conceived of the former vice-president in Burr is not literal history, but the examination of an individual:

“This was the first time I had been alone with Hamilton since the election. Before 1800, I had always thought of him as a friendly rival. Now I knew otherwise. Letters he had written about me had come my way. It seemed that every thought, whim, fancy that came into his irritable mind was sooner or later put in writing. I ought to have hated him, but did not. Some flaw in my nature has made me indifferent to slander – and thus much slandered? Certainly my indifference seems to excite such attentions.”

Apr. 10, 1978: Times staff photo of author Gore Vidal for obit.

Born at West Point in 1925, reared in Washington D.C., the grandson of Oklahoma Senator Thomas Gore, his father a member of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration, it seemed Vidal was apt for a political career. However, the author noted after two unsuccessful campaigns, “An author must tell the truth the way he sees it – while politics is about not giving the game away.” Never a stranger to controversy, Vidal would clash with Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams, and of course William F. Buckley. Posthumous claims of pedophilia, anti-semitism, – even conservatism – swirl around the late author’s legacy. After sifting through offered evidence though, the claims seem unsubstantiated.

Vidal would continue the ‘Empire’ series three years later with ‘1876’, followed by ‘Lincoln’ in 1984, and three more novels – ‘Empire’, ‘Hollywood’, and ‘The Golden Age’ – until the year 2000.


*Burr, though chronologically first, is technically the second of the series – 1967’s Washington D.C. being the first. The previous novel follows the political atmosphere during F.D. Roosevelt’s and Truman’s tenure; subjects expounded upon in the series final novel ‘The Golden Age’.

Black Spring – Henry Miller (1936)

miller - black spruong

It is no secret that Henry Miller is venerated a bit higher than a literary god here at Living with Lit. Our reviews of Sexus and Tropic of Cancer are glowing; they even appeared at the Henry Miller Memorial Library. Thus, every few months a selection from my favorite author’s canon is required. The latest?: the second book from Miller’s Obelisk Trilogy – Black Spring.

Black Spring features Miller at his most surreal. The chapters (if they can be labeled such) are held together by loose strands concerning the author’s childhood in New York and observations throughout Europe, particularly Paris. Miller’s voice and artistic energy acts as the narrative in the novel, which is filled with those characteristic peaks and valleys:

“There is something about the little stretch from the Place Clichy to La Fourche which causes all the grand obsessional walks to bloom at once. It’s like moving from one solstice to another. Supposing I have just left the Cafe Wepler and that I have a book under my arm, a book on Style and Will. Perhaps when I was reading this book I didn’t comprehend more than a phrase or two. Perhaps I was reading the same page all evening. Perhaps I wasn’t at the Cafe Wepler at all, but hearing the music I left my body and flew away. And where am I then? Why, I am out for an obsessional walk, a short walk of fifty years or so accomplished in the turning of a page.”

Miller’s peculiar works of autobiographical fiction are powered with a prose that stampedes, whether the subject be everyday reality or the obscure metaphysical. In Black Spring, life and dreams are too intertwined for consistent enjoyment, but the author occasionally hits the right note. Embracing a mystic voice – something wonderfully prevalent in the following  Crucifixion trilogy – Miller speaks with past writers, his influences:

“So Robinson Crusoe not only found a way of getting along, but even established for himself a relative happiness! Bravo! One man who was satisfied with relative happiness. So un-Anglo-Saxon! So pre-Christian! Bringing the story up-to-date, Larousse to the contrary, we have here then the account of an artist who wanted to build himself a world, a story of perhaps the first genuine neurotic, a man who had himself shipwrecked in order to live outside his time in a world of his own which he could not share with another human being, ‘meme un sauvage’. The remarkable thing to note is that, acting out his neurotic impulse, he did find a relative happiness even though alone on a desert island, with nothing more perhaps than an old shot-gun, and a pair of torn breeches. A clean slate, with twenty-five thousand years of post-Magdalenian ‘progress’ buried in his neurones. An 18th century conception of relative happiness! And when Friday comes along, though Friday, or ‘Vendredi’, is only a savage and does not speak the language of Crusoe, the circle is complete. I should like to read the book again- and I will some rainy day.”

In Black Spring‘s rare moments of entertainment, Miller is an eloquently lucid craftsman, despite the seemingly superfluous subject matter. It is the virile and visceral author, rather than the overly dilated voice seen throughout the novel, that readers search for:

“One of them was the Baron Carola von Eschenbach. He had earned a little money in Hollywood posing as the Crown Prince (of Germany). It was the period when it was considered riotously funny to see the Crown Prince plastered with rotten eggs. It must be said for the Baron that he was a good double for the Crown Prince. A death’s head with arrogant nose, a waspish stride, a corseted waist, lean and ravished as Martin Luther, dour, glum, fanatical, with that brassy, fatuous glare of the Junker class. Before going to Hollywood he was just a nobody, the son of a German brewer in Frankfort. He wasn’t even a baron. But afterwards, when he had been knocked about like a medicine ball, when his front teeth had been pushed down his throat and the neck of a broke bottle had traced a deep scar down his left cheek, afterwards when he had been taught to flaunt a red neck-tie, twirl a cane, clip his mustache short, like Chaplin, then he became somebody. Then he stuck a monocle in his eye and named himself Baron Carola von Eschenbach. And all might have gone beautifully for him had he not fallen for a red-haired walk-on who was rotting away with syphilis. That finished him.” 


Black Spring was published in Paris in 1936 and finally in the U.S. after the infamous 1964 obscenity trial, which “declared Miller’s works to be literature.” Though these three books lack a sequential narrative “the style is totally unique. Fragmentary, with the unities of time and place cracked asunder, and influenced on Miller’s own admission by the prevailing surrealism and existentialism of the thirties…” Like his many other works, the author reads like a pariah yet product of the time.

Miller once labeled the act of writing a ‘bloody orgasm’. To readers of Black Spring, this mad euphoria is overwhelmingly apparent. The writer, though discussing those always intriguing subjects, tests the limits of patience. The chic Surrealist influence swarming through Paris grasps Miller too well, which causes the objective of Black Spring – destroying any memory of past – to be labeled ‘hifalutin pedantry’. Yet, as I finish sifting personally highlighted passages and lauded reviews, opinion wobbles:

“O the wonderful recesses in the toilet! To them, I owe my knowledge of Boccaccio, or Rabelais, of Petronius, of ‘The Golden Ass’. All my good reading, you might say, was done in the toilet. At the worst, Ulysses, or a detective story. There are passages in Ulysses which can be read only in the toilet – if one wants to extract the full flavor of their content. And this is not to denigrate the talent of the author. This is simply to move him a little closer to the good company of Abelard, Petrarch, Rabelais, Villon, Boccaccio – all the fine, lusty genuine spirits who recognized dung for dung and angels for angels. Fine company, and no rari nantes in gurgite vasto. And the most ramshackle toilet, the more dilapidated it be, the better. (Same for urinals.) To enjoy Rabelais, for example – such a passage as ‘How to Rebuild The Walls of Paris’ – I recommend a plain, country toilet, a little out-house in the corn patch, with a crescent silver of light coming through the door. No buttons to push, no chain to pull, no pink toilet paper. Just a rough-carved seat big enough frame your behind, and two other holes of dimensions suitable for other behinds. If you can bring a friend along and have him sit beside you, excellent! A good book is always more enjoyable in good company. A beautiful half-hour you can while away sitting in the out-house with a friend – a half-hour which will remain with you all your life, and the book it contained, and the odor thereof.”