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.”


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