Monday, July 7, 2014

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

Despite the mountain of recently purchased and unread paperbacks in my study, in the last week of June I checked out a college library's 1969 hardcover copy of Vladimir Nabokov's formidable 626 page novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle.  I fell in love with the volume: the black cover with the gold print on the spine and the indented text on the front, the feel of the paper, the size and style of the typefaces.  The top edges of the pages are a soothing green, reminding me of the green of a decoration on a 34th street apartment's balcony, far above the sidewalk, which I would admire when walking between the 33rd street subway station and the office.

It is fortunate I find the physical presence of the book congenial, because the project of reading Ada turned out to be a long term relationship.  I started Ada on the 25th of June, and finally finished it on July 6th, having been delayed by holiday plans and other distractions.

In some ways Ada is a traditional novel, reminiscent of Proust: set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at such locales as a country estate, a Manhattan penthouse, European luxury hotels and a transatlantic ocean liner, Ada tells the story of the love affair between two aristocratic cousins, Ivan ("Van") Veen and Adaleida ("Ada") Veen.  Van and Ada, both of them beautiful geniuses, go through various tribulations and subplots as they pursue their careers in the arts and academia, and are surrounded by a multitude of other characters who act as distractions from and impediments to their relationship.  As with Proust, a major theme of the novel is sexual jealousy: the promiscuous cousins rarely resist the many temptations that come their way.

In other ways, Ada is strange, a sort of science fiction novel set on an alternate Earth where, among other things, the United States has a strongly Russian and French character, and much wider borders: on the first page of text (page 3) we learn that Van and Ada's maternal grandmother "was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d'Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country...."  New England towns have names like Kaluga and Ladoga.  The British conquered and annexed France at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, causing mass immigration of Frenchmen to America.  People say "Thank Log" instead of "Thank God." Electricity is more or less outlawed, and people communicate via the "hydrophone," a telephone that somehow uses water as a medium. 

Nabokov piles up many odd details about the world of Ada, many of them twisted versions of people places and events from our own world, many of them conveyed to the reader through wordplay and puns.  Canada is called "Canady," Maine is "Mayne," the phrase "New York" is never used: that major city is always called "Manhattan."  A two piece bathing suit is called a "bickny."  We find a wackier example on pages 29 and 30, where we learn about the staff of a mental hospital where Aqua Veen nee Durmanov, Van's mother and Ada's aunt, commits suicide.  One of the doctors there is a Dr. Froid, an emigre from Vienne, Isere, another Teutonic head shrinker is Dr. Sig Heiler.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the world of Ada is that its inhabitants, who call their planet  Demonia or Antiterra, have an inkling of the existence of our own world, which they call Terra.  Some people doubt the existence of Terra, but both scholarly works and science fiction novels (which the people of Demonia call "physics fiction") speculate about Terra, and it is widely believed that the souls of the dead go to Terra. 

The book can be rough going, especially the first three chapters (pages 3 to 32) which are a sort of background to Van and Ada's family, and a late philosophical chapter (pages 569-599) about the nature of Time.  There are many characters and they have various nicknames, and sentences can be long and include phrases in Russian or French, as well as rarely seen English words.  On the very first page we are confronted by "granoblastically."  On page 389 we encounter "prasine."  (When I googled "prasine," the first webpage to come up was the word's page on wiktionary, and the example of usage provided was the very sentence in Ada I had before me.)

Hubba hubba editions of Ada from Penguin
There are also many learned references, for example to painters Bronzino (page 34) and Bosch (page 463.)  Proust, Tolstoy and Chekov are referred to numerous times, sometimes obliquely.  (Nabokov's own books, Lolita prominently, are also alluded to.)  How similar are the real Bronzino and the real Proust to the Antiterran versions of these luminaries?  The Bronzino painting Nabokov seems to be referring to is known as "Venus, Cupido and Satyr," but in the text Nabokov makes no reference to Venus, instead calling that character simply "a lady."  More jarringly, the Proust in Ada's world, we are told on page 79, was "crusty" and "liked to decapitate rats when he did not feel like sleeping."  

Adding to the challenges presented by Ada is the fact that we have an unreliable narrator.   Nabokov's narrative, though mostly written in the third person, is in fact a manuscript written by Van in the 1960s and read by Ada, and includes marginalia from Ada as well as notes from an unnamed editor (perhaps Violet Knox) who points out some of Van's typographical errors.  Before I had quite realized this I suffered a disconcerting surprise.  I swore on page 37 we were told there was nobody waiting for Van at the train station, even though he had hoped to find a saddled horse there, and so he had to ride a horse drawn carriage driven by a coachman to Ardis Hall.  But on page 38 when Van gets to Ardis Hall we are told that "A servant in waiting took his horse."  This nagged at me for over a hundred pages, and then, sure enough, when Van left Ardis Hall at the end of the summer on page 168, Nabokov played the same trick.  Van departs in an automobile with a driver and stops halfway to the train station to pick flowers.  When he is finished collecting the flowers he climbs "back" on a horse!

Another aspect of the novel that some might find "challenging" is all the sex.  There is a ton of sex in Ada, and almost all of it is somehow transgressive or subversive, be it incestuous, adulterous, or between prostitutes and johns.  I didn't find the sex in Ada particularly titillating or arousing, but such judgements are very subjective, and perhaps Ada's erotic content would appeal to people with incest fetishes or a fascination with underage sex, or who are into voyeurism and exhibitionism; poor Lucette, Ada's jealous little sister, as well as a photographer, often observe Ada and Van's couplings.

Despite all the challenges presented by Ada, I enjoyed it.  The human drama--people falling in love, getting jealous, committing suicide and participating in duels--is good.  There are lots of fun characters and incidents I haven't mentioned.  I liked the odd alien surprises, like the flying carpets, and enjoyed trying to figure out the mysteries of politics and history on Demonia.  Nabokov's style, full of puns and vivid images as well as allusions to other artists and writers, is good.  Ada may not be a novel to be picked up lightly, but it is definitely worth the effort.  I can easily see myself rereading this one in a few years, and I may spend the next few days looking up some of the no-doubt numerous reviews and analyses available online and at nearby college libraries. 

Family tree from edition I read

Below the fold find a synopsis of the plot:

PART ONE (pages 3 to 345)

Chapters 1 - 3:  These chapters provide a background to Van and Ada's family, the descendents of Prince Vseslav Zemski (Van and Ada's great-great-grandfather.)  On my first read I found these chapters a bit confusing and boring, but a second reading, after I had finished the entire book and had a handle on who was who, was rewarding.  It is perhaps important to keep in mind that Van's mother, Aqua the suicide, is the twin sister of Ada's mother, Marina Veen nee Durmanov, and that Van's father, Demon Veen, is first cousin to Marina's husband, Daniel Veen.  Demon Veen has been having a passionate affair with Marina, and so Ada is most likely Demon's daughter, making Ada and Van half-siblings, and, genetically, practically siblings.

Chapters 4 - 43:  These 300 or so pages are the heart of the novel, and the most entertaining (to me, at least), full of interesting characters and incidents, memorable images and fun sentences.

At age 14, in 1884, Van spends a summer at Ardis, the country estate of his aunt Mirana and uncle Daniel.  He and Mirana's daughter, Ada, age 12, fall in love and have sex countless times in the woods, and in various parts of the house.  Van and Ada are both irresistibly beautiful, and geniuses who read hard books and study science and philosophy; Ada is an expert on botany and entomology, Van is interested in psychology.  Ada's (half-)sister, Lucette, age 8, is very jealous of this affair.

The lovers part at the end of the summer, and continue their schooling.  Van, who is very tall and very strong, and has been trained by an Oriental guru, takes time off from his studies to play the role of a masked acrobat in a carnival stage show, his specialty being to walk and run and dance on his hands.  

In 1888 Van spends a second summer at Ardis.  Van and Ada have both been unfaithful, and when this becomes apparent it causes a terrible rift; Ada and Van are through, and Van leaves the estate and pursues revenge on some of Ada's admirers.  Ironically, these rivals die of illness or while in military service during a war in Eastern Europe, while Van is wounded in a duel with a man who doesn't even know Ada.  Van recovers, but loses his ability to walk on his hands.

PART TWO (pages 349 to 473)

Years pass; Ada sends letters to Van, which he does not respond to.  Van studies psychology, and writes a novel about Terra which is ignored by the public.  (Insane people, it appears, have visions of Terra and provide most or all of the information available about the mysterious sister planet.)  Ada takes up a career in Hollywood as an actress.  Chapter 3 is a strange interlude about the design, construction, and history of a chain of upscale brothels.  Lucette comes to visit Van's Manhattan penthouse, bringing with her an ultimatum from Ada.  Van relents, and lickety split, Ada and Lucette move in with him.  Ada brings an album of photos from their Ardis days, taken by a blackmailer, and the three reminisce.  Lucette becomes too painfully jealous; she physically desires both Ada and Van, and leaves the menage.

When Dan Veen, Ada and Lucette's father (or "father"), dies in 1893, Demon, Van's father, convinces Van to break off his affair with Ada, so she can marry Andrey Vinelander, a businessman. 

PART THREE (pages 477 to 565)

In 1901 Lucette pursues Van on an ocean liner, but Van rejects her, partly because playing on the ship is a film in which Ada has a role; the sight of her reminds Van that Ada is his true love.  Lucette takes pills and jumps into the ocean, where she drowns.  In 1905 Demon dies and Ada and Van renew their affair; Van not only cuckolds Ada's husband, but injures him in a duel.   

PART FOUR (pages 569 to 599)

This is mostly a discussion of Time which had my eyes glazing over and my mind wandering.  There is a little plot, however.  In 1922 Andrey Vinelander dies, and Ada moves to Switzerland to be with Van.   

PART FIVE (pages 603 to 626)

A sort of epilogue.  Van and Ada live a happy life together into the late 1960s.  Demonia is spared the cataclysms suffered in our own world, such as the World Wars and the Russian Revolution.  There is tension between the West, led by the US and Great Britain, and the Orient, ruled by "Tartary" and hidden behind a "Golden Veil," but the 20th century on Antiterra is peaceful and stable.  Van's late career as a writer of important books is described, and how his almost unknown book about Terra from the start of his career is made into a hit movie.  The last two pages of the novel are a sort of positive review or advertisement for the book we have just read, Ada or Ardor.  

No comments:

Post a Comment