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Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle Paperback – Unabridged, February 19, 1990
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From the Inside Flap
Published two weeks after his seventieth birthday, Ada, or Ardor is one of Nabokov's greatest masterpieces, the glorious culmination of his career as a novelist. It tells a love story troubled by incest. But more: it is also at once a fairy tale, epic, philosophical treatise on the nature of time, parody of the history of the novel, and erotic catalogue. Ada, or Ardor is no less than the supreme work of an imagination at white heat.
This is the first American edition to include the extensive and ingeniously sardonic appendix by the author, written under the anagrammatic pseudonym Vivian Darkbloom.
About the Author
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov was born on April 23, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Nabokovs were known for their high culture and commitment to public service, and the elder Nabokov was an outspoken opponent of antisemitism and one of the leaders of the opposition party, the Kadets. In 1919, following the Bolshevik revolution, he took his family into exile. Four years later he was shot and killed at a political rally in Berlin while trying to shield the speaker from right-wing assassins.
The Nabokov household was trilingual, and as a child Nabokov was already reading Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Flaubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, and Chekhov, alongside the popular entertainments of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jules Verne. As a young man, he studied Slavic and romance languages at Trinity College, Cambridge, taking his honors degree in 1922. For the next eighteen years he lived in Berlin and Paris, writing prolifically in Russian under the pseudonym Sirin and supporting himself through translations, lessons in English and tennis, and by composing the first crossword puzzles in Russian. In 1925 he married Vera Slonim, with whom he had one child, a son, Dmitri.
Having already fled Russia and Germany, Nabokov became a refugee once more in 1940, when he was forced to leave France for the United States. There he taught at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell. He also gave up writing in Russian and began composing fiction in English. In his afterword to Lolita he claimed: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses--the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions--which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way." [p. 317] Yet Nabokov's American period saw the creation of what are arguably his greatest works, Bend Sinister (1947), Lolita (1955), Pnin (1957), and Pale Fire (1962), as well as the translation of his earlier Russian novels into English. He also undertook English translations of works by Lermontov and Pushkin and wrote several books of criticism. Vladimir Nabokov died in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1977.
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Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.