Wednesday Book Club: Ada, or Ardor

Wednesday, 10 September 2008 — 2:15pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) by Vladimir Nabokov.

In brief: There are many things I wish I’d known before I started reading this alternate-universe family saga of phenomenology and incest, and Russian is one of them.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Ada, or Ardor, keep reading below.)

What am I to make of this messy, messy book?

In theory, I should have fallen for Ada on so many counts:

  • It couples an intricate structure with a fascinating premise. The novel is presented as the memoirs of psychiatrist-novelist Van Veen, parenthetically annotated by his sister and lover Ada, and set in an alternate Earth full of familiar names and symbols in which our world (“Terra”) is somewhere between an afterlife and a mass neurotic hallucination.
  • On a sentential scale, it is majestically written. With all its attention to assonance and alliteration, Ada demands to be read aloud—though that would be silly, because it also happens to be a 600-page behemoth.
  • Nabokov has a facility for wordplay unlike anything I’ve ever seen: the prose brims with anagrams and puns across three languages (English, French, Russian). Thank goodness I can at least read some French.
  • There is a chapter about Scrabble (here presented as a hypothetical Russian variant called “Flavita”).

So it is with some regret that I make this admission: Ada confirms the worst stereotypes of highbrow philosophical fiction at its most prolix and obtuse. Not commonly am I put in the unenviable position of contending with a stubbornly difficult book, the kind that only excites pleasures of an entirely academic flavour. My tolerance for that sort of thing is usually very high; I didn’t find Ada unreadable, after all—just sporadically dense to the point of terminal ennui.

My diagnosis is that there are too many good sentences at once, all clamouring for attention and dragging the reader into the mire. A precautionary warning to fellow travellers: if you can’t get through the first three or four chapters, you may as well not bother, because you will drown.

There’s a lot to like, mind you. It’s a laudable accomplishment in itself to depict the incestuous trysts of adolescents as something beautiful and worth treasuring, as Nabokov does, in defiance of the expected reader reaction of moral panic. What the book also exploits is the residual evocative power of names, even when we divorce them from their familiar signification. The “Russia” and “Manhattan” of Nabokov’s Antiterra bear no geographic relation to their Terrestrial counterparts; Russia exists because it is a good fit for a novel that opens with a family tree and an inverted misquotation from Anna Karenina, and America is a destination for immigrants-turned-bankers. Temporally, the story is situated in the late nineteenth century (minus electricity, plus hydro-powered technologies corresponding to our early twentieth century) seemingly for the express purpose of permitting country houses and pistol duels.

If anything, there’s a deep futility to evaluating Ada based on how easily it gratifies. This is not a book for people who pick their reading material on those terms. I’m reluctant to fault the book for what might just be the consequence of an ill-chosen reading strategy: Ada is probably best consumed slowly, methodically, and in paragraph-sized doses. On top of that, I’m no more comfortable with literary criticism of the judgmental flavour than I was before I started doing it once a week. I’d much rather inspect the patterns and see if they click, especially in the case of a novel where pattern, not character or plot, is the primary source of depth.

In the course of reading Ada, I kept looking for some common point of connectivity between its major elements—incest, the dual worlds of Terra and Antiterra, and the disorienting swirl of musings on space-time that passes for Nabokov’s metaphysics. I arrived at the conclusion that the novel is, at its core, a much-deserved glove-slap in the face of Sigmund Freud. Nabokov regards dreams (and by extension, storytelling) as far more than a metaphoric displacement of something else. By casting Terra as the dream world and organizing the novel around an incestuous relationship that is anything but repressed, Nabokov argues that metaphors are not non-actual representations of actual sources, but connections between concrete equals.

Here’s how he puts it, as a mock lecture:

The class (1891, 1892, 1893, 1894, et cetera) will carefully note (rustle of bluebooks) that, owing to their very nature, to that mental mediocrity and bumble, dreams cannot yield any semblance of morality or symbol or allegory or Greek myth, unless, naturally, the dreamer is a Greek or a mythicist. Metamorphoses in dreams are as common as metaphors in poetry. A writer who likens, say, the fact of imagination’s weakening less rapidly than memory, to the lead of a pencil getting used up more slowly than its erasing end, is comparing two real, concrete, existing things. […] Now the mistake—the lewd, ludicrous and vulgar mistake of the Signy-Mondieu analysts consists in their regarding a real object, a pompon, say, or a pumpkin (actually seen in a dream by the patient) as a significant abstraction of the real object, as a bumpkin’s bonbon or one-half of the bust if you know what I mean (scattered giggles).

Nabokov makes a bold case, but to this day, the continued persistence of Freudian motifs in literary studies feeds into and grows out of a self-fulfilling cycle. People think of metaphors that way; ergo, they read and write that way. We often think of books as being “about” something, be it history, science, or myth—not necessarily to advance any moral or allegory (I’d sure hope not), but to explore the incumbent complexities of hypothetical possibilities and roads not taken. Stories have premises outside themselves.

But Ada is literature about literature—and that is itself an act of disciplinary incest that lends itself to producing mutant works. Like Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, here we have a novel that rests so firmly on its towers and bridges of literary allusion that it seldom aspires to a freestanding existence. I do not believe this is endemic in literary parody; the greatest one of all, Don Quixote, remains relevant from one century to the next because it has so much to show for itself beyond the Spanish puns and the lighthearted jabs at Amadis of Gaul. Too much intertextual richness makes for a tough slog.

Or, in Nabokov’s own words:

It is a queer enterprise—this attempt to determine the nature of something consisting of phantomic phases. Yet I trust that my reader, who by now is frowning over these lines (but ignoring, at least, his breakfast), will agree with me that there is nothing more splendid than lone thought; and lone thought must plod on, or—to use a less ancient analogy—drive on, say, in a sensitive, admirably balanced Greek car that shows its sweet temper and road-holding assurance at every turn of the alpine highway.

The “something consisting of phantomic phases” is Time, but it may as well refer to the novel itself, and the experience of reading it. One thing you pick up from this ever self-conscious text is that Nabokov knows his readers well—certainly well enough to project that as I arrived at this passage I was, indeed, frowning over these lines and ignoring my breakfast.

Appended to the novel are extensive endnotes by the anagrammatic alter-ego Vivian Darkbloom, in keeping with the illusion that the book is a found manuscript. On one hand, I wish I’d spotted it earlier, as it sheds light on much of the Russian that is left untranslated in the main text. On the other, you know an author is testing our patience with the opacity of his cleverness when he has to explain his own jokes.


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