(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ada or Ardor is the most luxuriant, playful, difficult, allusive, ambitious, and overblown of Nabokov’s novels. It is a memoir largely written by Van Veen when he is in his nineties that narrates his love for his sister Ada. As “a family chronicle,” it has a hefty nineteenth century range, replete with printed genealogies, thwarted romances, duels, and a happily-ever-after ending in which the venerable Ada is finally reunited with her childhood swain, Van.

The inattentive reader will, however, tread a tortuous path through the text, for Nabokov has laced it with bristling erudition, trilingual puns, ogreish conundrums, and Joycean dislocations of time and space. The work is also insistently self-conscious: Its author frequently comments on the arduous process of creating his book, sometimes implying that its readers will never understand many of its intricacies. He is undoubtedly right.

The central family plot involves two incestuous generations. The two Durmanov sisters, Aqua and Marina, are married to two first cousins, Dementiy (nicknamed Demon) Veen and Daniel (nicknamed Red) Veen. Though Demon is married to Aqua, he has an extensive liaison with Marina. He and Aqua apparently have a son, Ivan (nicknamed Van), who is actually the son of Demon and Marina. To hide the scandal, Demon and Marina take advantage of the mentally disturbed Aqua to switch baby Van for Aqua’s stillborn baby. The fertile Marina is also the mother of Demon’s other bastard child, Ada, as well as of another daughter, Lucinda (nicknamed Lucette), this one of Marina and her husband, Red.

This genealogical maze serves as the prelude to the lifelong love between the ostensible first cousins but actual siblings, Van and Ada Veen. The affair begins in the Edenic arbors of Ardis, the family estate, when Van is fourteen and Ada is twelve. Ardis is a parody of Eden, and Van and Ada parody Adam and Eve. Ardis Park is located in a half-fantastic nineteenth century United States which includes films, automobiles, and a town called Lolita, Texas. The geographies of Russia and America are combined. For example, Ardis Park lies on the boundary of a Russian village called Gamlet, which is full of “kerchiefed peasant nymphs”; in Utah, a motor court preserves Leo Tolstoy’s footprints in clay. Van and Ada inhabit the superior world of Terra, while the rest of the world...

(The entire section is 976 words.)