- “Ada, our ardors and arbors” – a dactylic trimeter that was to remain Van Veen’s only contribution to Anglo-American poetry – sang through his brain. Bless the starling and damn the Stardust! He was fourteen and a half; he was burning and bold; he would have her fiercely some day!
Before I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor, I planned on reading the famous Russian-American novelist’s oeuvre chronologically. But after detesting his first novel, Mary, I realized that persisting in this foolish plan would undoubtedly poison me against him forever. Therefore I jumped almost his entire oeuvre ahead to a novel from his most renowned period. Readings of Mary (1926) and Ada or Ardor (1969) reveal similarities between both novels, mainly thematically – love and its hardships, the effect of time on memory, the transformative power of memory on distant events. But the stylistic abyss between the two is tremendous! And it’s hardly noticeable that the same mind created one and another. One suffered from insipidness and lack of lustre; the other displayed unrivalled linguistic virtuosity as it set about reinventing love stories.
There’s simultaneously not a lot and everything to say about this novel. Not a lot about its premise, which is about two people falling in love trying to live happily ever after. But everything in the way Nabokov tells it, never running out of linguistic and storytelling surprises in his deployment of an infinite array of puns, anagrams, intertextual references (to himself even: Lolita and Pale Fire are alluded to) alliterations, foreign words, complex syntactic structures, lengthy metaphors and similes, pervasive symbolism, and a vocabulary whose novelty was surpassed only by its breadth and precision. Sometimes it’s a topological pun like Balticomore, or a literary pun like Palace in Wonderland, or attributing the poem The Waistline to one Mr. Eliot. Sometimes it can be an anagram like Osberg (for Jorge Luis Borges, I recently learned). Or it can be a definition of an ordinary thing that comes out of nowhere, unpredictable but sensible:
What are dreams? A random sequence of scenes, trivial or tragic, viatic or static, fantastic or familiar, featuring more or less plausible events patched up with grotesques details, and recasting dead people in new settings.
Nabokov, from what I understand, loved three languages: his Russian mother tongue, the French he used in exile; and the English of his adoptive country. So he melded these three languages into the texture of the book’s reality, creating an alternative world called Demonia. In this world, African navigators have discovered America, which was also extensively populated by Russians, who maintain a lingering aristocracy well into the 20th century. Instead of Canada, there’s a half that is mainly Russian, Estoty, and a French-speaking half, Canady. Asia, meanwhile, has coalesced around an empire called Tartary. Technology has met strange advancements, since vehicles like planes exist, but devices analogous to telephones exist with the difference that they’re powered by a bizarre watery technology. History has run along similar lines, and there has even been a war of independence, an event reflected in the flora: Washingtonias used to be called Wellingtonias. In this world, a branch of psychology called terrology studies the behaviour of people who believe in a world called Terra, a negative image of Demonia (which leads some to call it Antiterra too), with artists and writers constituting many of the patients.
In this fairy-tale world Van, aged 14, spends a summer in his aunt’s house, Ardis Hall, and falls in love with his cousin, 11-year-old Ada. It later turns out they’re actual brother and sister. The novel purports to be old Van’s memoirs (with notes by Van and Ada) of his decades-long endeavour to live freely with Ada. Diverse foils conspire to periodically keep them apart for decades, enjoying brief periods of euphoria in between. Early on there’s Van’s belief in Ada’s infidelity to him, which culminates in a ridiculous attempt at getting revenge on two rivals (complete with veritable 19th century Russian novel duels), then the taboo of incest, which prompts Ada to marry somebody else, and finally her spending seventeen years caring for her ailing husband before she’s free to reunite with her true love. In between there’s also Ada’s sister, Lucette, aged 8 when Van arrives in Ardis Hall, and who falls in love with him, growing up dreaming of seducing him away from Ada, and whose failure leads her to suicide. In spite of the bitter taste poor Lucette’s death leaves, this is an unusually love story in that it ends happily, with both lovers managing to live together until old age, at which point Van starts writing his memoirs. Nabokov is famous for having said that readers should not identify with characters; I can’t say I did, but I found them very likeable, and I for one rejoiced at their success.
I’ve read people call this novel difficult, cryptic, heartless, Nabokov’s least generous novel to readers. I strongly disagree. The reader’s in very good company with Van and Ada. They’re both aristocrats with good taste and a rare nobility of spirit, endowed with intelligence, humour, sensibility and compassion. The character work is sublime. There’s a lot of warmth in Van and Ada’s sexual awakening and the way Nabokov writes about love, not just sex, especially not about sex, but genuine love, the feelings that make two beings feel as one, in pure harmony. Also, Mr. Nabokov is a master of sensuality:
Very lightly he let his parched lips travel down her warm hair and hot nape. It was the sweetest, the strongest, the most mysterious sensation that the boy had ever experienced; nothing in his sordid venery of the past winter could duplicate that downy tenderness, that despair of desire. He would have lingered forever on the little middle knob of rounded delight on the back of her neck, had she kept it inclined forever – and had the unfortunate fellow been able to endure much longer the ecstasy of its touch under his wax-still mouth without rubbing against her with mad abandon. The vivid crimsoning of an exposed ear and the gradual torpor invading her paintbrush were the only signs – fearful signs – of her feeling the increased pressure of his caress.
But it’s not easy to pinpoint this warmth, since it’s everywhere, it’s not a particular passage or pithy line, it’s embedded in the text, diluted, scattered here and there, building up from the book’s first section to the last, leading the reader in small, meticulous changes in the characters’ perceptions and affinities. It’s not a circumspect novel, that’s for sure, Nabokov’s style assaults the senses not with subtleness – the puns are subtle, lots of things go unknown and misunderstood, or not even perceived at all to be misunderstood – but with confident bravado, with unapologetic glee in showing off. And the reader is fine with that because it’s first-rate showmanship.
The novel is divided into five parts, with each part almost half the size of the previous one. This means the first part, dealing with childhood, takes up more than half the book, to show children’s feeling of endless days of fun and care-freeness. Conversely, the final part, encompassing decades, is short of twenty pages. It’s an inspired and apt structure for a novel about time and memory.
Here’s a good passage showing how age and circumstances can change memories, Van taking his first steps into sexuality:
The aging woman who sold barley sugar and Lucky Louse magazines in the corner shop, which by tradition was not strictly out of bounds, happened to hire a young helper, and Cheshire, the son of a thrifty lord, quickly ascertained that this fat little wench could be had for a Russian green dollar. Van was one of the first to avail himself of her favors. These were granted in semi-darkness, among crates and sacks at the back of the shop after hours. The fact of his having told her he was sixteen and a libertine instead of a fourteen and a virgin proved a source of embarrassment to our hell-raker when he tried to bluster his inexperience into quick action but only succeeded in spilling on the welcome mat what she would have gladly helped him to take indoor. Things went better six minutes later, after Cheshire and Zographos were through; but only at the next mating party did Van really begin to enjoy her gentleness, her soft sweep grip and hearty joggle. He knew she was nothing but a fubsy pig-pink whorelet and would elbow her face away when she attempted to kill him after he had finished and was checking with one quick hand, as he had seen Cheshire do, if his wallet was still in his hip pocket; but somehow or other, when the last of some forty convulsions had come and gone in the ordinary course of collapsing time, and his train was bowling past black and green fields to Ardis, he found himself endowing with unsuspected poetry her poor image, the kitchen odor of her arms, the humid eyelashes in the sudden gleam of Cheshire’s lighter and even the creaky steps of old deaf Mrs Gimber in her bedroom upstairs.
His first sighting of Ada is also tinged with the distorting powers of memory, and introduces another theme, how past is viewed differently by two people who share the same event:
A victoria had stopped at the porch. A lady, who resembled Van’s mother, and a dark-haired girl of eleven or twelve, proceeded by a fluid dackel, were getting out. Ada carried an untidy bunch of wild flower. She wore a white frock with a black jacket and there was a white bow in her long hair. He never saw that dress again and when he mentioned in retrospective evocation she invariably retorted that he must have dream it, she never had one like that, never could have put on a dark blazer on such a hot day, but he stuck to his initial image of her to the last.
The matter of the black blazer becomes a running question in the novel. As Van writes in one of his memoirs’ margin notes, “if people remembered the same they would not be different people.” Ada is no less fascinating:
Children of her type contrive the purest philosophies. Ada had worked out her own little system. Hardly a week had elapsed since Van’s arrival when he was found worthy of being initiated in her web of wisdom. An individual’s life consisted of certain classified things: “real things” which were unfrequent and priceless, simply “things” which formed the routine stuff of life; and “ghost things,” also called “fogs,” such as fever, toothache, dreadful disappointments, and death. Three or more things occurring at the same time formed a “tower,” or, if they came in immediate succession, they made a “bridge,” “Real towers” and “real bridges” were the joys of life, and when the towers came in a series, one experienced supreme rapture; it almost never happened, though. In some circumstances, in a certain light, a neutral “thing” might look or even actually become “real” or else, conversely, it might coagulate into a fetid “fog.” When the joy and the joyless happened to be intermixed, simultaneously or along the ramp of duration, one was confronted with “ruined towers” and “broken bridges.”
Van finds out one of these ruined bridges when he discovers Ada’s unfaithfulness during a four-year period away from Ardis Hall. The return is not as happy as the first stay, not just because of suspicions but because Lucette, now aged 12, gets in their way. At the end of his second stay, he becomes obsessed with getting revenge on Ada’s lovers:
Aqua used to say that only a very cruel or very stupid person, or innocent infants, could be happy on Demonia, our splendid planet. Van felt that for him to survive on this terrible Antiterra, in the multicoloured and evil world into which he was born, he had to destroy, or at least to maim for life, two men. He had to find them immediately; delay itself into might impair his power of survival. The rapture of their destruction would not mend his heart, but would certainly rinse his brain. The two men were in two different spots and neither spot represented an exact location, a definite location street number, an identifiable billet. He hoped to punish them in an honourable way, if Fate helped. He was not prepared for the comically exaggerated zeal Fate was to display in leading him on and then muscling in to become an over-cooperative agent.
The matter of Lucette is more complicated. Like Van and Ada, she’s a likeable character, who had potential to be happy if she were not in love with Van, who in turn is madly in love with Ada. One of the themes of the novel, perhaps not the most explored of them, is the pain they cause Lucette. To them Lucette’s love for Van is a trifling, minor subject of no consequence, to be gently mocked. In their lives it’s perhaps the only instance they show selfishness and cruelty. Lucette’s death is a masterpiece of writing. Nabokov puts her aboard a cruise with Van, who’s trying to forget Ada after her marriage; Lucette takes the opportunity to seduce him once and for all – but in the last minute her success is thwarted when Van sees a movie starring Ada, which reawakens all the feelings for her he’d been trying to bottled up. Despondent, Lucette jumps into the water after eating several sleeping pills. Water imagery had been a leitmotif in the novel and in her final sequence it’s turned up to eleven, as each line seems to mock her with previous knowledge of her plunge in the waves, almost as if language itself were pulling her towards death. It’s a remarkable, long passage of which I’ll quote just one of many great possibilities:
The sky was heartless and dark, and her body, her had, and particularly those damned thirsty trousers, felt clogged with Oceanus Nox, n,o,x. At every slap and dash of cold wild salt, she heaved with anise-flavoured nausea and there was an increasing number, okay, or numbness, in her neck and arms. As she began losing track of herself, she thought it proper to inform a series of receding Lucettes – telling them to pass it on and on in a trick-crystal regression – that what death amounted to was only a more complete assortment of the infinite fractions of solitude.
There’s tragedy in the novel, and sadness too. As a love story it has everything one expects from the genre. In fact in the novel’s marginalia I wrote how odd that the line between high art and a soap opera is so tenuous. Because this is a soap opera: people fall in love, there are kindred souls, there’s seduction, there’s jealousy, rivals to get out of the way, obstacles between the two lovers. When I wrote that this novel reinvents love stories, it’s not so much by subverting tropes, it’s because the language elevates every cliché. Everything pans out as one expects, and yet each line and situation seems new and trail-blazing.
If Ada or Ardor is Vladimir Nabokov’s most difficult and divisive novel, as I often see stated, then I suppose things can only get better from here on. I’m not just happy for the novel, I’m thrilled its reading has finally given me the impetus to read his other famous novels. Anyone who’s perused my reading list, posted last week, knows that I already have Pale Fire to read. Expectations are immense, the craving is almost unbearable.