Vladimir Nabokov’s “Ada, or Ardor”

by Jess

I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up this book. I adore Lolita and was pleased, though perhaps a trifle bored, with Pnin, and so I set out to read more of Nabokov’s works, because I believe he is one of the most masterful wordsmiths to have put pen to paper.

The setting of Ada was tremendously troubling to me for a good portion of the novel. I simply skimmed through the references to Terra and Demonia and Estoty, assuming I’d understand with further reading, but honestly, I didn’t fully grasp where the novel was set in space or in time. The Wikipedia entry on Ada is very helpful in this regard; it lays out the alternate universe pretty clearly.

I also found Garth Risk Hallberg’s essay on the novel helpful, after I’d finished reading. He writes lovingly of the novel, more thoroughly than I could summarize:

The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.

You probably can’t write a review of Ada without mentioning Proust, what with all the references to time, but I found Van Veen’s philosophizing to be a bit clunky. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I wish Nabokov had omitted it (that would be preposterous–how should I presume to know more about Nabokov’s book than does Nabokov?), but I didn’t enjoy reading it. It seemed so out of synch with the rest of the novel, unlike Proust’s languid exposition about time, which, to me, fits perfectly with the rest of his slow and dreamy prose.

I know I missed quite a bit of the puns and allusions that Van and Ada were so quick to throw about, they being wunderkinder and all. I don’t often get the feeling that a book is too smart for me, but, well, let’s say I almost did with this one. Regardless, you can practically feel the prose snapping and popping smartly across the page, as though every word had been carefully considered before being placed in its phrase. And the sensual love scenes are so well crafted, full of unexpected words and sensations, that you forget we’re talking about children!

I’m not clear on how Nabokov intended us to read Van (if, indeed, he had a single impression in mind). I detested him. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on his character.

In short, I’m not sorry to have read Ada, but I don’t suppose I’ll be picking it up again, as I would with Lolita. I would like to read Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. I would like to get inside the head of the man who wrote such amazing things.