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142 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational with many "rippling leitmotives"
"Ada" is an unconventional, sci-fi fantasy (no rockets and spaceships here, don't worry) firmly rooted in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia of Nabokov's birth, that takes place on a planet called Antiterra `parallel' to `our Earth' which is called Terra. Things have happened there in somewhat similar yet oddly different ways than on Terra (earth), including the...
Published on October 9, 2000 by TUCO H.

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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "by turns ecstatic and esoteric..."
I haven't read Lolita, and am now somewhat mystified by my decision to begin reading Nabokov with Ada, his longest and arguably most complex work. The narrative is extraordinarily rich, not so much a generational saga (as the subtitle, "A Family Chronicle" suggests) but the measured, persistently vivacious pulse of a lifelong love affair between the novel's principal...
Published on February 14, 2007 by nonlinearize


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142 of 157 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sensational with many "rippling leitmotives", October 9, 2000
By 
"Ada" is an unconventional, sci-fi fantasy (no rockets and spaceships here, don't worry) firmly rooted in the late 19th and early 20th century Russia of Nabokov's birth, that takes place on a planet called Antiterra `parallel' to `our Earth' which is called Terra. Things have happened there in somewhat similar yet oddly different ways than on Terra (earth), including the fact that the Russian and American land masses are connected.
This set-up allows Nabokov as wide a scope as possible to dig into his own memories and also for prose excursions into uncharted territory. "Ada" is certainly his most comprehensive and difficult novel, and definitely his greatest after "Lolita" ("Pale Fire" die-hards can disagree all they want, but they probably haven't taken the time to delve deep enough into "Ada").
"Ada" is also Nabokov's own twist on Proustian memory investigations. It is being written as `memoirs' by his main character: Van Veen, but also includes certain intrusions by Ada Veen, who is with him as he's writing it (during the time they spend their old age together after years of separation). So, often, especially in the first third or so of the book, two perspectives of the past are provided. Two memories remember certain things they both experienced or saw, each from its special perspective, and sometimes one adds things the other may have forgotten. Towards the end of the book, Nabokov uses Van's slightly demented but deeply observant writings about the nature of Time to capsulize the thought processes that made Van write these memoirs in this `odd' way.
The main event in Van's memoirs is his secret incestuous relationship with Ada, who is his half-sister. Van is in love with Ada who loves him back and their love affair affects the whole course of their lives. Years later, Ada's younger sister Lucette also falls in love with Van, whose love he doesn't reciprocate because he still loves Ada. In addition Ada and Lucette have had a secret Lesbian relationship since they were young girls. Van is at various times a university student and part-time masked circus acrobat, a psychologist, a novelist, and a lecturer in philosophy. He also seems to be addicted to brothels (especially when away from Ada). An unsuccessful sci-fi novel he writes, "Letters from Terra," unexpectedly and years after its initial publication, is made into a hit movie by a famous director.
There's very little that's strictly linear in this book. The best way to look at it is as a gigantic puzzle, the pieces of which are gradually falling into place.
Nabokov uses super-long Proustian sentences to put in every detail he can think of and simultaneously provide wide-scoped connections. The longer paragraphs are universes of their own. They have their own little stories and `sensual delights' going on in them, which no mere cursory examination can reveal. Rereading is a must.
This is what usually happened when I was reading: first of all, I definitely had to take a paragraph by paragraph approach (the book's too complex not to require constant rereading as you're going through it). Upon first reading a complicated paragraph, I was often confused (had to skip the long parentheses and come back and reread them, etc.), on second reading a bit more lucid and fascinated, on the third I would often start laughing, on the fourth I'd often become enchanted. That's right, sometimes it takes four readings to even begin to get the drift of the man's wit, but it's hard work that pays off `big-time.' And every so often, a paragraph doesn't mean much and is just clever wordplay for esoteric readers to figure out. You can ignore some of those, but don't let it become a habit.
As for the endlessly annoying eccentricities sprinkled throughout "Ada"? Well, you either appreciate Nabokov's brand of esoterica or you don't, but that doesn't mean the book is ruined by them---far from it---they're a spice you can take or leave according to your taste. This book is his widest in scope and he allows himself every indulgence he can think of, he covers all his `bases,' so to speak. There are fantastic passages in here that he could never have written if he had stayed more restrained.
The book is filled to the brim with sex. Not only do Ada and Van as adolescents have sex up to 4 times a day but they still have an appetite for outside lovers. Only on Antiterra does this lack of repression and complete insatiability co-exist in an environment that is, in other respects, quite similar to late 19th century Terra (Earth).
Later on we find out that Antiterra has somehow bypassed `modernism' and the tragedies of 20th century Terra (Earth), with its world wars and dictators and carnage. The Antiterrans are fascinated by the sci-fi film "Letters from Terra" based on Van's book, because it deals with the crazy events that happened on that odd planet. Vitry's hit film actually comes very close to describing the actual events that took place on Terra (Earth). Here, Nabokov mocks the absurd history of 20th century Terra (Earth) by making it a subject for a sci-fi film on Antiterra.
The main characters aren't exactly `sympathetic' but not necessarily `immoral' either (as some readers feel it more comfortable to label them). They're a bunch of erudite, stuck-up, pompous Ameri-Russian aristocrats with their quirks and neuroses and perversions, some of them (like Ada and Lucette) more likable than others (Van and Demon), but none without quite a bit of experience in what would be called `sinful' behavior by Christians. However, no mention is ever made of a Christian morality dominating on `Antiterra' where the story takes place. And if some readers base their label of `immorality' only on Van and Ada's incestuous romance (or Ada and Lucette's lesbianism), it is not a closed case at all. How much are Van and Ada hurting themselves or others? They love each other deeply, there's no age-difference manipulation going on like Humbert's with Lolita, they don't plan on having any children that might come out deformed (Van's even sterile), they're not influenced by how society might view them, so what's the big deal? Certainly no one would call it `immoral' if they had been separated and met by chance, not knowing they were related? The only way they can be hurt (or hurt others in their family) is through social ostracism. In fact, that necessary discomfort in maintaining secrecy is their only real hurt. Van's endless philandering over the years (engaged in mainly when separated from Ada) with numerous young prostitutes is much more degrading and 'immoral' than his `pure' case of incest with Ada. And Ada and Lucette's Lesbianism? There's not much manipulation there either. It's mutually engaged in for mutual pleasure. Of course the great thing is that all this is can be seen as one big Nabokovian joke on the hypocrisy, philistinism, and superficiality of some or even most of his readers (who simultaneously love his books but reserve their praise because they don't know how to deal with the `immoral' or wretched characters). Far from trying for some easy 'moral message', Nabokov uses these 'unsympathetic' and semi-grotesque setups because, as he mentions in "Strong Opinions," he likes to "compose riddles with elegant solutions." Once the elegant solutions are found the work transcends any superficial considerations such as 'sympathetic characters.'
To stay detached, understand and laugh at all of society's hypocrisies, and through art, expose, ridiculte and transcend them: this is not easy. Many are pretentious enough to try it but only a few ever succeed. Nabokov succeeds so well, it's SCARY. Even the people who call what he does high-brow pornography are forced to realize how high a brow they're dealing with.
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38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Haunting Summer Romance, July 15, 2003
By 
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This tragic story of love and obsession is written as if it is the true life memoir of fictional character Van Veen. V.V. is a Russian-American aristocrat born to extreme wealth in the late 1800's on a fictional world called Antiterra. Antiterra is almost identical to Earth, except for minor details, such as the place names are different and some conveniences such as airplanes, telephones, and motion pictures were in existence as early as 1884.
That fateful year of 1884 provides the novel with its chief building block. Our narrator spent that summer, his 15th, at his aunt's summer house, Ardis, where he and his 12 year old cousin Ada Veen ended up falling in love with the mad insatiable passion that is typical for teenagers. Shortly after falling in love, though, the pair learns that due to a much more complex family tree than either initially realized, they are actually brother and sister casting a tragic shadow over their intoxicating relationship.
These facts are presented to us, although obscurely, within the first 30 pages of the 589 page book, so don't think that I have just given away any key plot points here. In fact, this novel is all about Van and Ada's refusal (or inability) to ever grow out of their idyllic, though incestuous, summertime romance. The summer of 1884 grows to haunt the rest of their lives, and this book for the most part is the story of that haunting.
The story is remarkable and for those who end up getting emotionally involved in the story, it is the type of novel that will seep into your soul unlike just about any book you may ever read. Unfortunately, a highly complex writing style is likely to act a a very major hurdle that will prevent a lot of people from ever getting through the book. Nabokov fills his novel with many extremely long sentences, complex parentheticals, and a sometimes confusing chronological structure. If you aren't ready to pay attention to what you are reading, then this book is likely to simply confuse you to the point of frustration.
Personally, I read this book while on a week-long beach vacation in Hawaii. It was the perfect setting, because my mind was gloriously free of distraction and I was able to spend the time necessary to digest what I was reading. Being on a beach, however, meant that I was not able to look up every single odd word I came across or investigate all the literary allusions the author included in the book. If you are reading about this book, you are sure to learn that the book is extremely dense with such allusions. I am happy to report that one need not get bogged down with tracking down such literary references in order to appreciate this book.
To find out if the book is right for you, luckily, you only really have to read the first 3 or 4 chapters. The first chapter is typical of the author's densest most complex style. It is a great first chapter, but it will likely take much time and effort to fully comprehend. The second and third chapters are a bit more straightforward and are a very good representation of how most of the rest of the book reads. In my case, after reading the first chapter, I was drawn in because it was exactly the kind of complex writing I was looking for.
There is a lot of French and Russian used throughout the book. In the Vintage paperback edition, there are helpful end notes that provide translations for most of the crucial foreign language passages. I found my knowledge of French to be quite helpful, though, because a lot of the incidental French is not translated. Luckily almost all the Russian in the book is translated in the text itself, so those passages ultimately are not a problem at all.
Suffice it to say that this book is filled with literary wordplay and many puzzles to solve. If that is your cup of tea, then you are likely to love this book. Even if you do not pursue answers to all the literary puzzles presented in the book, you can still be rewarded with an emotionally complex epic tale that at the very least is going to provide you with some very serious food for thought.
If you are like me, however, this book will also provide you with one of the most moving and emotionally harrowing stories you may ever come across. I can't remember feeling so satisfied after finishing a book, nor can I ever remembering finishing a book so ready to re-read it. I recommend it highly.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ongoing delight, July 18, 2004
By 
L. Argiri (Durham, NC United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Be warned, this will not be an intellectual, rigorous review, just a tribute. I read this book first when I was seventeen, and I recently turned forty-six. There are very few things I loved passionately at seventeen and still love now, but this book is one of them: the heaven of the senses and the intellect that I would love to slip into and live in forever, moral ambiguities and incest and all. When I first read it, I was too young to realize that the reader is not meant to love the Veens as I did, but then again this book wasn't written for feverish, frantically bored little seventeen-year-olds. I think the reader is meant, in fact, to fall in love with Ada and Van, then to realize the damage in their wake and become their critic...and finally understand that anything exquisite and transcendent will be paid for - perhaps by the person who gets to experience it, perhaps by someone else. The book gets at this and other hidden, undiscussed moral laws that lurk behind kneejerk notions of sin, punishment, and accountability. Really, this is a novel that has something for everyone, whether his or her stage of life is Innocence, Experience, or any point between.
Ada is surreal and hyperreal...it's like some places which you can inhabit for decades and just keep discovering new beauties, new perils, new complexities in your ongoing contemplation. I don't think it is better than Lolita or Pale Fire, but it's more pleasurable; Lolita is replete with moral outrages, and with monstrousness that has horrible, fully-played-out consequences, and Pale Fire is a bottomless well of sadness and believable grief. (Pale Fire is one of the few books that ever did/still do make me cry. For all its fantastic veneer, it is about no-escape, no-reprieve loss; the kind of severance that happens in real lives and has no transcendent playout, no redemption, and often no real comprehension from others: awfulness that people live with as long as their consciousness extends after the event.) Ada is the one I dip into when I come home clenching my jaw after some particularly hypertensive workday.
I put Ada in a special elite class with The Silmarillion and the poems of Sylvia Plath: literature that enhances my experience over time and keeps me ever-aware of what human talent can produce.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The texture, sadness and joys of memory, April 25, 2004
By 
Daniel McGrath (Brookfield, CT USA) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Adding to this compilation of 40 reviews seems superfluous, and yet I love Nabokov's "Ada" far too much not to recommend it to any who may not yet have read it.

Nabokov actually provides a review of his own in the book's final paragraphs: "Ardis Hall -- the Ardors and Arbors of Ardis -- this is the leitmotiv rippling through "Ada", an ample and delightful chronicle, whose principal part is staged in a dream-bright America -- for are not our childhood memories comparable to Vineland-borne caravelles, indolently encircled by the white birds of dreams?

"Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe in gaze in the ancestral parks; and much, much more."

It's a wonder how powerfully "Ada" connects with readers, since Nabokov seemingly makes no concessions to them and anchors the book so strongly in the unique attributes of his own biography. Drawing heavily on English, Russian and French and employing a complexity of exposition, Nabokov frustrates efforts for a quick or casual reading. Yet his art serves to create a psychological displacement and opens a doorway through which the reader can explore the texture, the sadness and joys of remembrance. This is the point I would stress, since the book's characters and plot are nicely summarized in other reviews you'll find here.

Memories. I recall a first, startling encounter with eight improbable chapters of "Ada" (the night of the Burning Barn!) in the April, 1969 issue of Playboy magazine. Over 35 years, I've enjoyed perhaps six re-readings of the book, with each reading uncovering new depths of the chronicle and each leaving memories of its own. This month, I took "Ada" with me on a business trip to Shanghai. The physical and temporal displacement of the trans-Pacific flight complemented the book's style perfectly. I read the book, literally, from a new place. And that Sunday found me at ease in the midst of my bustling Shanghai hotel's brunch -- sipping champagne and slowly, very slowly, working my way through the book's now familiar prose. In that antiterra, Van Veen may have joined me for a bit.

You'll have guessed this is a favorite book. I particularly recommend to you the Vintage edition of "Ada" with its helpful notes and because it is also the basis for the references in Brian Boyd's "Nabokov's Ada" -- should you eventually wish to compare your reading with that of someone who has studied it deeply.

Please buy and read Nabokov's "Ada" for the memories -- and much, much more
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26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I finished reading this in August..., December 27, 2000
By A Customer
and I'm just getting to a point where I'm detached enough from the reading of this novel to comment on it.
I will never forget the first half of this novel, with its riveting imagery, beautiful descriptions, and bizarre characters. Only Nabokov can make incest seem natural and almost acceptable.
Once Ada and Van got older, I cared less about them. Even though Nabokov wants us to despise them to a certain point, the fact that they are made so despicable made it tougher to slog through the second half, especially that "philosophical treatise on time and space" (as the back cover blurb phrased it) which tantalized me but ultimately shut my limited mind out.
If you haven 't read it yet, I recommend the following--- DO NOT read this novel until you have immersed yourself in Nabokov's earlier work for a long time. He alludes quite often to characters from earlier novels of his (much like Joyce did in Ulysses).
This novel seems to be a summation / recapitulation of Nabokov's life's work. Don't start here and work your way backwards - if you are like me, you'll be frustrated.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great, December 6, 1999
By A Customer
This book arouse my strongest envy for the man who wrote it. Let alone that the author uses the English language with a skill that few people ever had, and not considering the sparks of his cleverness that glitter in every page, and not even mentioning the author's extensive knowledge that shines through every paragraph (on enthomology, literature, ...) and the witty disrespect of the author (he's great when he attributes to Mademoiselle Lariviére - a lessere character of the novel - one of the most silly tales written by Guy de Maupassant, mocking the old lady for having written such a stupid story). What is really disconcerting in this book is Nabokov's skill to see, to recognise and to reproduce beauty, capturing the beautiness of a place, of a day, of a person under the pure and immortal form of the artistic creation. The impression that this book gave me is that the author lived several steps above ground, where we all live. He definitely was a lucky guy.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ada, our ardors and arbors, May 24, 2007
By 
Mark (Glasgow, Scotland) - See all my reviews
"Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle", Nabokov's longest novel, is also, indisputably, his most involute. Without having read his entire oeuvre (nearly half-way through!) I can still assert this with confidence - and I'm sure most Nabokov fans would concur. Those who have read "Lolita" or "Pale Fire" will already be aware of the density of his writing, his penchant for allusions, puns, his rouguish tendency to deceive the reader. Some readers object to this; they like their prose "simple and sincere", easy to digest, as straightforward as possible. I would advise such readers to stay far, far away from this book.

I must concede, my first attempt wasn't a success. I got about half-way through before slamming it down in a frenzied rage (as I am wont to do). It was exhausting. "Nabokov has gone too far," I remember saying. But a few weeks later I had the strange urge to return to it, as if summoned by the characters. I'm glad I did - I'm glad they did.

Even for the Nabokov aficionado, accustomed to the density, "Ada..." proves startlingly abstruse. The first fifty pages in particular - in which he focuses on the genealogy of the family (the prefatory family tree is indispensible) and the Terra/Antiterra business - are apt to bewilder and discourage the ardent reader. It does then become less challenging, as the protagonist and "writer" of the book, Van Veen, travels to Ardis, the magnificent New England manor, where he meets and falls in love with his cousin (whom we discover, in the first chapter, is actually his sister). Their life-long love affair is persistently condemned and thwarted. But keep in mind that Nabokov himself isn't interested in condemning or advocating incest. As he said in an interview: "Actually I don't give a damn for incest one way or another. I merely like the 'bl' sound in siblings, bloom, blue, bliss, sable."

But the book is more than a 600-page cornucopia of enticing allusions and puns. It is an astonishing paean to memory, love and imagination. The prominent criticism of Nabokov's work is that he is so over-concerned with stylistics that his novels lack depth or poignancy (ugly word, but apt!). This accusation is not wholly unjust - at times he goes overboard; maybe he'd even admit that himself - but when he's at his best, Nabokov is unparalleled (well, nearly), both in emotional and aesthetic literary perfection.

I couldn't say that "Ada..." was Nabokov's greatest achievement - "Lolita" remains for me his total masterpiece - but this may well change upon rereading the book, which I most certainly will do.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The summation of an artist's life's work, August 13, 2005
By 
Steve (Massachusetts) - See all my reviews
Yikes. Where does one begin a review of a book like "Ada"? There's no question that this book represents the summation of Nabokov's career as a writer. If you've read most of his earlier work, the experience of reading this book will be similar to watching an ingenious puzzle come together in brilliant colors. Nabokov literally creates his own world (and reality) here. In mind-boggling prose, he tells the love story of Van and Ada, siblings and soul-mates. Along the way, he tinkers with the fabric of time (and even attempts to philosophically define It) as he hurls obstacle after obstacle in the path of his ill-crossed lovers. What emerges is an incredibly rich story that is alternately hilarious and touching (and, of course, thought-provoking). Admirers of "Lolita" will not be surprised to learn that Nabokov tells his story without the slightest trace of moralizing. He is somehow able to accomplish the incredible task of making readers sympathize (and even root for) his self-absorbed siblings without condemning or condoning their behavior. The book feels like a surreal blend of "Anna Karenina" and Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past"--both of which appear in the text itself. It is the crowning accomplishment of a literary legend.

That said, "Ada" is not my favorite Nabokov novel. Because it is the encapsulation of his work, it features both his strengths and his weaknesses. If you grab hold of this book, you'd better steel yourself for 600 pages of perpetual punning and endless alliteration. Be prepared for passages in French and Russian (only some of which are translated). Be prepared for lengthy digressions. Be prepared for Nabokov's calling attention to his own penetrating intellect (tooting his own horn, so to speak). He was not a humble writer (read "Strong Opinions" if you dare) and some of "Ada" smacks of erudition for its own sake. But if you're already a Nabokov fan, none of this will surprise you. You will take the shortcomings with the incredible strengths and be happy you did.

I guess what I'm saying is--don't make this the first Nabokov novel you read. And be prepared to take your time. I'm already anticipating having a second-go at this novel at some point in the not-so-distant future.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a delightful chronicle, April 17, 2000
I love this book far too much to even bring myself to fully talk about it. Really i was just wondering why reviewers continually see the need to bring up Ayn Rand when talking about this novel? She has less than nothing to do with Nabokov and beyond that it is unfair to place her name anywhere near that of Nabokov's. Her socio-economic philosphies would strike Nabokov as first-rate "posh-lust".
Also Nabokov is not a modernist or postmodernist; he is simply Nabokov, a lone lamb. And his shade would probably come back to haunt you if you compared his work to the work of Mann or Faulkner.
Also Andrew Feild cannot be trusted whatsoever as Boyd has wonderfully shown. The man is a charlatan.
And yes Van and Ada are loathsome and some of the high points of this novel are often what happens outside of the focus of their all-consuming love, the forgetten and mistreated Lucette. In fact Boyd has argued (i am not sure if i agree) that Lucette is really the main character of the novel and that her influence haunts the novel till the end. If so this only goes to show that Nabokov again and again appeals to pity and empathy in his writings as a way to escape the prison of our skin.
And when first confronted with the idea that Lucette could come back to haunt this book in some way i was quite skeptical. But then I recalled such ghost stories as The Vane Sisters, Transperent Things, and Pale Fire, and realize that it really might be.
Ultimately however I do think the main highlits are - as Van, that villianous rake writes - the delicacy of pictorial detail and the overwhelming beauty seen through the aching prism of time passing. Beauty plus pity was Nab's definition of Art, because all beautiful things die; they have to. And although Ada in one of the more incredible scenes exclaims that no matter what, this day, these trees, and this sky cannot be taken away,- it will be and was.
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16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pro-Anti-Terra, February 27, 2005
In Ada, Vladimir Nabokov's last novel, it seems to me that he tried to give literary form to a fourfold consciousness that he found himself living in during his final years. In his mind was the Russia, along with its language, of his youth (and to some extent his time as a refugee in other parts of Europe) and the later part of his life in the Untied States, whose language -- including its popular slang -- Nabokov obviously doted on. He surely also experienced a phenomenon well known to anyone who lives long enough -- a simultaneous vision of the present superimposed on recollection of a long-ago past that has largely vanished except in memories that, Nabokov believed, were soon doomed to extinction. Underlying the events in the novel is a persistent questioning of the nature and meaning of time.

To encompass this blend of consciousness, Nabokov chose a literary setting that could be called an alternative history (a concept much less common in the 1960s, when Ada was written, than it is today). The novel takes place in a world he calls Anti-Terra which, at some unspecified point, "branched off" from the stream of history that led to our present world (Terra). Some aspects of Anti-Terra are recognizable from our environment; other aspects, particularly geo-political ones, are radically different. As far as I could piece it together, on Anti-Terra the United States, Europe and Russia represent a single political entity. Place names are different but mostly sly variations on ours.

The mystery of time gets its due, in that the novel is written as recollection by a very aged man in the 1960s. The tale begins in the 1880s, when many of the novel's most significant events start to unfold. These "alternative" 1880s, as well, are a strange mixture of the familiar and the (to us) anachronistic. For instance, motor cars were already in general use in Anti-Terra's late 19th century, and although some technologies there seem to be equivalent to Terra's, they have different names.

I've gone into this much background description (and you can probably read much more of it in other reviews) because the Anti-Terra setting and all its corollaries will represent a problem, at least for a while, for many readers. I freely confess that, without having read any commentaries on the novel, I was missing pitch after pitch for the first couple of hundred pages or so. Still, if you hang in there, much that is baffling does gradually attain some kind of coherence.

Then there are the games Nabokov plays with language. In reading Ada, I was reminded of Malcolm Muggeridge's grousing that Nabokov resembled elderly aristocratic refugees from vanished kingdoms he had known who were living in exile on the Riviera and "who could make puns in five languages." Nabokov conducts word plays in at least three languages (English, French, and no doubt Russian) in this book -- the more you read, the more you notice them -- and as one who loves puns, even I got to feeling after awhile that he was like a child who must constantly show off a trick he's learned. In addition, Nabokov relentlessly tosses in phrases in Russian (translated immediately afterward, so what's the point?) and French (sometimes translated).

For these and other forms of self-indulgence, I have to withhold that fifth star from my rating. Why the four stars that I do award Ada?

If you don't demand "easy," straightforward narrative, and are willing to hurdle obscurities (which as I say often become more comprehensible later), at some point it will dawn on you that you are reading a masterpiece.

The multi-dimensional structure adds a resonance that constantly carries you into parts of your imagination that you may not have visited before. In these pages, people and feelings from long ago and in an alternate world are filtered through a modern viewpoint as well as the perceptions and losses of old age.

As a magician of language, Nabokov knows few equals. He tosses off phrases that are rich, poetic, and yet made from everyday observations. He does it again and again; on almost every page there is a sentence to turn your head, something you want to frame and hang on the wall to keep it nearby. A couple of samples, taken almost at random:

"Ada had a way of hastening to finish a sentence before mirth overtook her, but sometimes, as now, a brief burst of it would cause her words to explode, and then she would catch up with them and conclude the phrase with still greater haste, keeping her mirth at bay ... ."

"Next morning, his nose still in the dreambag of a deep pillow contributed to his otherwise austere bed by sweet Blanche (with whom, by the parlor-game rules of sleep, he had been holding hands in a heartbreaking nightmare - or perhaps it was just her cheap perfume), the boy was at once aware of the happiness knocking to be let in. He deliberately endeavored to prolong the glow of its incognito by dwelling on the last vestiges of jasmine and tears in a silly dream; but the tiger of happiness fairly leaped into being."

Which brings me, finally, to the three main characters: Van, Ada, and Ada's sister Lucette. Unlike some of Nabokov's other books, Ada is actually about something besides verbal fireworks. If you have read any other commentaries on Ada, you know that Van and Ada, whom we first meet when they are 14 and 12, respectively, are cousins who are actually half-brother and -sister besides. And that they embark on a love affair (one that really "dares not speak its name" for much of that time) that carries on through their lifetimes, despite a separation lasting several decades. Lucette plays a major, and tragic, role.

What is extraordinary, among much else in the novel, is how Nabokov doesn't squeeze the situation for cheap incestuous thrills, but instead convincingly details how their mutual attraction is both carnal and intellectual. In short, you are convinced that this is a love story -- saturated with sensual madness, but still arising from a mysterious love -- and not a rebellion-against-society's-rules story. Ada (the book) doesn't include a single four-letter word, and its descriptions of copulation are more metaphor than reportage, yet the book's erotic voltage is higher than that of a panting fictional sexfest.

I disagree with other reviewers who suggest that you must prepare yourself as if for a holy ritual by undertaking background reading before you crack the book. My advice is not to stop and try to interpret everything in it that you don't understand; life is too short. Above all, don't read an academic treatise that purports to trace the origin and parse the meaning of all the author's little in-jokes. Just hop aboard and let it sweep you along in its own good time. I predict it's a journey you'll never forget.
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Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov (MP3 CD - September 20, 2011)
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