ADA, OR ARDOR
Pronunciation: As V.N. tells us in an interview, ‘Vladimir’ rhymes with ‘redeemer’.
For ‘Nabokov’, think of ‘knock your block off’. Both names accented on midsyllable.
For Ada, her mother Marina recommends AH-dah..
A critical paper by
Ada, written by the greatest 20th century prose stylist in English at the top of his form, is a complex and monumental work, bursting with wit and erudition. Is this a book about the nature of time? Is it about literature, a parody of Anna Karenina, a playful celebration of the author’s favorite books? Is it about people – a family epic of love and obsession, cruelty and indifference? The whole book is crammed with word-play, puzzles, puns, parodies, literary allusions, hidden quotations, alliteration, history, science fiction, and, in its own last words, “much, much more”.
The World of Ada
We find ourselves on the planet Antiterra, mirror image of our own Terra, which also seems to exist somewhere, if only in the minds of dreamers and madmen. There are many historical, geographic and other differences between the two planets, notably a time lag of about fifty years. In addition, Antiterra in the late 1800’s is a fanciful jumble combining the best of aristocratic old Russia and 20th century America, with flying carpets, planes and cars, central heating, and a dozen other convenient anachronisms. One notable difference: all things electrical are banned, its not entirely clear why. This leads to some hilarious stopgaps, notably the dorophone that runs on water. The world has some very unpleasant characteristics, too, as we shall see.
The basic recipe of the plot is simple: boy meets girls, girls love boy, boy loves girl. Add an amorous pinch of incest, pour in a shot from a dueling pistol, a splash of mid-Atlantic ocean, and let simmer for 500 pages. Van Veen, the narrator, is obsessed with his sister Ada, and wants to recreate in his chronicle the Ardis, or paradise, of his youth with her. Van and Ada are presented as perfect physical and mental, if not moral, specimens, inhabiting a perfectly delightful world-within-a-world.
Does this planet of Antiterra exist? We who live in Cleveland know that it does not. Van, I believe, knows it too. As his character unfolds, we find him egotistical and prone to self-delusion, exaggeration, and the manipulation of time and memory. Cold-hearted brutality and insensitivity might be added. And those are some of his better qualities! The central fact of his life, sibling incest, arouses both guilt and self-justifying resentment of disapproving authority. Antiterra, or Demonia, is Van’s creation, a dark world ruled by his father Demon, within which lies the sanctuary of Ardis, a Garden of Eden where Ada and Van play Adam and Eve, and all (even incest) is innocence and bliss. Of course, Antiterra is also Nabokov’s creation, and he designs his fantasy world to suit himself. Large parts of North America are Russian, and everyone speaks Russian, French and English, just as a Russian intellectual would wish. This also triples the possibilities for puns; there are some excellent Anglo-French ones, and I don’t know how many Russian. But, as we gradually learn, there is a dark side to this world. Everyone on Antiterra is sexually precocious and voracious, prostitution is respectable, even fashionable, deviant practices are common and casual. Both Demon and Dan are, over the years, increasingly pedophiles (though it must be admitted that, in due course, Demon is admirably disapproving of his son and daughter cohabiting). Lustful passion rules, at the expense of the warm affectionate love of family and friends. We are frequently reminded that parents do not love their children, and vice versa. If Demon loves his spawn (Van and Ada), and they him, this may reflect a love of self as perceived in the other. Antiterra is beautiful and cruel, a place where the wealthy and privileged lead lives of luxury and indulgence at the expense of the weak.
By the way, we should not confuse the two creators of this world: Van and V.N. The reviewer for The New York Review of Books (May 22, 1969), made the mistake of assumed that Van and Ada’s love affair was modeled after Nabokov’s own marriage. Nabokov’s response: “I do object violently to your seeing in reunited Van and Ada (both rather horrible creatures) a picture of my married life. What the hell, Sir, do you know about my married life? I expect a prompt apology from you.”
The Lovers Meet
The gene-crossed lovers meet in the summer of 1884 when Ada is almost-twelve and Van almost-fifteen, believing that they are cousins, and begin a sexual affair. They soon discover that they are full brother and sister. No matter. After a passionate four months, they separate for four years, then resume their frenzied love-making in another ardent Ardis summer, though the innocence is gone, the dark clouds of foreboding already are gathering and as Van remarked, that summer was so much sadder than the other. The story follows the various interruptions and resumptions of their affair. Both are enormously wealthy intellectual prodigies, insanely precocious (they have read Proust before the age of ten!). Their love endures through long separations, despite Van’s violent jealousy and Ada’s marriage of 29 years. Van goes on to become a brilliant athlete, a world-renowned psychologist, hyper-sexed seducer, and all-around black magician. One should add “to hear him tell it”, as the book takes the form of his memoirs, written when he is in his nineties, punctuated with his own and Ada's marginal notes. They do finally in their fifties join to live as man and wife.
The two of them were good at everything except, symbolically, the artistic and creative; she failed as an actress, he as poet and novelist. They were also unable to have children. Van seems to view his own sterility with indifference; it is nothing but an added inducement to offer the ladies for their ‘seducement’.
We are warned early to look out for Van “… in the days when Van was still being suckled by a very young wet nurse … who was to go mad …for no sooner did all the fond, all the frail come into close contact with him (as later Lucette did …) than they were bound to know anguish and calamity, unless strengthened by a strain of his father’s demon blood.” We’ll have more to say about Lucette, the younger half-sister of the couple, anon.
As Van describes his first sight of Ardis, “the romantic mansion appeared on the gentle eminence [note double meaning] of old novels”. He notes “the variety, amplitude and animation of great trees” and “recognized Ardis Hall as depicted in the two-hundred-year-old aquarelle that hung in his father’s dressing room.” (35) Whether such grand old country houses existed in 1684 in, say, anti-Virginia (Ardis lies at “the latitude of Sicily” (53), we are told) is debatable, but they form the setting of many nineteenth century English/ French/Russian novels, from which Van (i.e., Vladimir) clearly draws inspiration. (Count Leo and our immortal Marcel lead all the rest, but Jane Austen and others rate honorable mention). He is preoccupied with the vegetation, especially the trees, of the garden. His one line of if-you-want-to call-it-poetry, of which he is inordinately proud, is “Ada, our ardors and arbors”. The branches of a tree are the setting of their sexual initiation. In fact, as Ada said, it was “really the Tree of Knowledge … imported last summer … from The Eden National Park.” Well, that’s according to Van; Ada later denies having said it. The willow trees form a bower for their illicit affair, and later for Ada’s betrayal of Van. As little Lucette becomes corrupted by her siblings, she too begins to regard trees as secret shelters for forbidden activities.
Van arrives to discover an Ada with a great scientific interest in nature, and a true love of all natural things. She is especially fascinated by butterflies and orchids, whose references, images and metaphors pervade the book (even Van’s black bow tie is a ‘butterfly’.). She tells of holding butterflies in order to mate them. She has a larvarium, and dreams of having “a special Institute of Fritillary larvae and violets – all the special violets they breed on. I would have eggs or larvae rushed to me here by plane from all over North America, with their foodplants …’ (57) Her diary is filled with wonderfully detailed and vivid observation.
Orchids are the other major metaphor drawn from nature. Ada is as passionate and knowledgeable about them as about butterflies; she loves to draw them in colored inks. Her prominent lower lip, and various prominent parts of Van’s anatomy, are compared to the parts of an orchid blossom. Van sees her as a white orchid. Finally, in the album the two children find in the attic that reveals their consanguinity, they discover the petal of an orchid, on of ninety-nine that Demon sent Marina when, unmarried and pregnant with Van, she was “hibernating” in Switzerland. It was a butterfly orchid, uniting the two symbols.
Van does not share the interests of the scholarly young naturalist. He sees her admiration for “everything that crawls” (54) as disgusting, her pedantry boring, her sunshine-shadow games stupid. However, as physical attraction develops, he seduces her from the natural world into an incestuous magical Ardis where their two minds reflect only each other, and each adores him/her self in her/him. The Ardis estates, with its forests and orchards, its butterflies and orchids, become merely settings, and places of concealment, for their guilty passion. Under his influence, Ada gradually loses interest in natural science. At the death of her teacher in biology, Dr. Krolik, she abandons her larvae. Four years later, she tells Van, “I know I shall never be a biologist, my passion for creeping creatures is great, but not all-consuming” (193). Instead, she now has “the great ambition” to be an actress, in which pursuit she ends up playing bit parts in X-rated films.
How real is Antiterra?
Evidences of unreality: place names, internal inconsistencies (plane as a fanciful shark-like thing dreamed of on Terra, and taken for granted), wild fantasies (dorophones, flying carpets)
As I wrote when discussing Loving by Henry Green, also set in a great country house, there is “… a sense of timeless unreality. Things happen ‘another morning’ or ‘some days later’. One section starts ‘It may have been a few days later’”. In Ada, Part 1, compare the start of Chapter 8: “On the same morning, or a couple of days later” (50), or again Chapter 14 which begins “Next day, or the day after, …” (89).
Four years younger than her sister Ada (actually a sort of half-sister), Lucette is the tag-along pest of those early summers. V and A’s incestuous secret isolates them from conventional society, and they desperately try to shut out Lucette. She soon penetrates their dark secret, and from the age of eight seeks to be included in their ardent games, spying on them with great tenacity and ingenuity. Lucette is bribed and scolded, tortured and teased, tied up and locked in closets, to facilitate their dalliance. Her innocent curiosity about sex gradually turns into an obsessive desire for V. Seeing so much of V in A, Lucette love her, too, in a more-than-sisterly way. A responds by initiating her, slightly later as a teen-ager, into the Lesbian practices she had learned in boarding school. A’s pet name for Lucette is “Pet”, and so she treats her. She tantalizes Lucette with promises of V’s caresses, then casually rejects her. V in turn repeatedly allows himself to be enticed by growing-up Lucette to the very brink of surrender, only to pull back at the last instant. He has no intention of satisfying the girl’s desires. He is unwilling to involve her in incest, a sensible and virtuous position to take. Still, his response to her pain and tears is cold and unfeeling, even deliberately tormenting. For one who so casually and frequently frequents whore houses, his rigid morality in this case, his refusal to respond in any way to her needs, her love for him, is more cruel than caring. At last, after one last attempt to seduce him on a transatlantic voyage, at age twenty-five, Lucette jumps overboard and drowns.
Lucette’s plight and eventual fate are of great significance to Van. He largely sublimates any feelings of guilt and remorse, but, though he tries to stress his blissful memories, they are always penetrated by sad reminders of Lucette. She comes to symbolize the natural world, from which he seduced the young naturalist Ada. Lucette is associated with the color green (her eyes and usual attire), along with russet (her hair). (Demon, of course, is always in black, Van usually so. Ada also favors colorless attire, black and white, in keeping with her own coloring; at climactic moments, she seems to favor black and yellow.) .
The last words spoken by either V or A are A’s: “Oh, V, oh V, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, … and then everything would have been all right – I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!” Unrealistic, but heartfelt. The dying Van observes a bit later: “ Rather humiliating that physical pain makes one supremely indifferent to such moral issues as Lucette’s fate”. With all due sympathy for his suffering, “moral issue” is a bit abstract.
Even more revelatory of his insensitivity to other’s feelings or his own guilt, is the comment on the very last page of this memoir, which quite abruptly becomes a parody blurb promoting itself, as though Violet, his secretary, had typed up a publicity release, and then carelessly set the manuscript on top of it. It reads in part, “ … another attractive girl, Lucette Veen, … has also been swept off her feet by Van, the irresistible rake. Her tragic destiny constitutes one of the highlights of this delightful book.”
There are a number of references to Andrew Marvell, in particular his poem “The Garden”, a paean to the beauty and fecundity of nature. The lovers use it as the basis of their secret code. It ends “Stumbling on melons as I pass, ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.” At one point in Ada we read, “Stumbling on melons, fiercely beheading the tall arrogant fennels with his riding crop, Van returned to the Forest Fork” (159). The phrase has quite a different meaning here. Van stumbles with an oath, Marvell with a laugh. Marvell’s melon, incidentally, is later compared to “the backside of an occupied lad” (405).
Ada or Ardor: a Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov, McGraw-Hill, 1969
Nabokov’s Garden – A Guide to Ada, by Bobbie Ann Mason, Ardis, Ann Arbor, 1974
Questions for Discussion
1. How much are we supposed to believe in Antiterra? That is, do you think that Van literally lived in this fanciful world, or sincerely deluded himself into the belief that he did, or made it up as a place to escape into?
2. To what extent is this novel, as written by Van Veen, a genuine family chronicle, and how much if any of it is invented by Van to escape the truth? Were there time when you thought “That’s not Van (or Ada) talking, whether being truthful or fantasizing; that’s V.N. speaking to me directly.”?
3. Is Van really as callous and indifferent to suffering as he appears, when in old age he looks back on his life? Or is he trying to conceal the pain of his guilt and remorse?
4. Van was cruel to Lucette, but how should he have treated her?
5. There are many aspects of this monumental novel that I did not have time or inclination to discuss. It has been called “a discourse on the nature of time and space”, climaxing in Part 4. Do you find this a central element of the novel? Is the Texture of Time necessary? Or helpful? Or enjoyable? Is it one more parody of academic pomposity?
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