Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, by Vladimir Nabokov

adaI did it! I conquered my nemesis book: Ada! It only took me a decade to get through it, but in the end – Nabokov, I sunk your battleship!!!!!

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit too enthusiastic, especially for a book that in the end, I didn’t even like. In fact, the main thing I learned from this experience is that I don’t really like Nabokov’s later books. I love his earlier ones, but as his career advanced, he became very arrogant about his genius (and to be fair, the man was brilliant – he had a reason to be arrogant!), and started sacrificing story to form. The book published directly after Ada is called Transparent Things, and I hated that one. I only disliked Ada. But still, after a decade of trying, I’m so happy to finish. Until this past summer, I’d never gotten past page 2. This summer, I made it through 30 pages before giving up. But I was determined this time, and rammed through all 600 pages of it…and believe me, three weeks to read this book is definitely ramming speed!

So what’s Ada about, you ask? Well, in brief, it’s about the lifelong love affair between Ada and Van Veen, who are supposedly cousins but in actuality siblings. This love affair starts when they are 12 and 14 years old, respectively, and goes until their mutual death.

Awhile back, my brother and I were talking about this book. It’s one of his favorites of Nabokov’s. He hadn’t realized I hadn’t finished it when we were talking, and accidentally gave away the ending…except the ending that he gave me actually didn’t happen in the book. What he said to me was, “At first it just seems like a bunch of people all having sex with each other, until eventually you realize they’re all the same person.” (paraphrased) I was thinking this would be some surreal sort of exploration of existence or perhaps of mental illness, and that really intrigued me. Eventually I would discover that the whole incestuous family only existed in the mind of one character (probably Ada’s or Van’s)!

However, nothing like that happens. I kept waiting and waiting, looking for clues along the way that would point out the eventual ziplining into a single entity. I even read through the footnotes (written by Vladimir Nabokov’s anagrammatic alter-ego, Vivian Darkbloom) and the Wikipedia article looking for any hint of what William told me. Nothing. I thought I’d been spoiled…but apparently not. I’ve got an email out to my brother asking what the heck he was talking about!!

So yeah. I didn’t like the book all that much, especially when it didn’t even redeem itself with a surreal exploration of existence. It felt excessive, especially starting in Part 2 (of 5), and there were sections that were purposely almost unreadable with their difficulty. I’m sure 95% of the book went straight over my head, and I’m not an unintelligent girl. For example, Wikipedia explained to me that this all takes place in an alternate history where Russia was one of the main settlers of North America. I didn’t catch that at all. This is the sort of book that would have been best read over an entire semester with a professor who had studied it laboriously. Maybe I would have liked it then?

Observe, for instance, the following passage:

Van regretted that because Lettrocalamity (Vanvitelli’s old joke!) was banned all over the world, its very name having become a “dirty word” among upper-upper-class families (in the British and Brazilian sense) to which the Veens and Durmanovs happened to belong, and had been replaced by elaborate surrogates only in those very important “utilities”–telephones, motors–what else?–well a number of gadgets for which plain folks hanker with lolling tongues, breathing faster than gundogs (for it’s quite a long sentence), such trifles as tape recorders, the favorite toys of his and Ada’s grandsires (Prince Zemski had one for every bed of his harem of schoolgirls) were not manufactured any more, except in Tartary where they had evolved “minirechi” (“talking minarets”) of a secret make.

That, btw, is the first sentence of Chapter 24, Part 1. I chose the passage not for its particular difficulty – there are passages far more tedious than that – but by randomly opening the book to a page and choosing the first thing that came up. If you can believe it, that longwindedness (which in essence says “Van was sad things such as tape recorders were illegal and therefore no longer manufactured”) is one of the easier-to-understand passages of the book. The first 6 chapters are about 10 times that dense (hence why I’d never gotten too far in the book before).

Nabokov is, no doubt, a certified genius. He does amazing things with words, and in three languages, no less! Sadly, though, the story of this book was, as it seems to be in all the later works of his that I’ve read, pointless. Part of me is a bit irritated that I sat through the whole thing (especially as I kept searching for Ada and Van to become one person). I didn’t get anything out of it, beyond the satisfaction of having finished it. Of course, at the same time, I’m a bit at a loss now that it’s over. I’ve had a nemesis book so long, it feels weird to no longer have one. In the words of my dear Stiffs, Incorporated:

An end to enemy – I’ve no identity.

Without Ada, who am I now? How should I define myself? I need a new nemesis.

So…um, there’s not much else that I can say. I doubt anyone else is going to read this book, and I honestly wouldn’t recommend it. There are plenty of Nabokov books far greater than Ada. I’m just happy I conquered this book, even if I didn’t understand most of it.

Nabokov, though I sunk your battleship, I still admit defeat. I bow to your superiority.

About Amanda

Agender empty-nester filling my time with cats, books, fitness, and photography. She/they.
This entry was posted in 2009, Adult, Prose and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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