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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.

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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 resides in Demonia or Antiterra, the hell of human limitations.

Van is Nabokov’s sort of artist: His favorite trick as a youth is to turn the world upside down by walking on his hands, exactly as his creator composes inverted fictions. The word Ada is a palindrome; moreover, read from the middle out in either direction, it spells da, which is the Russian word for yes. The latter may be interpreted as an allusion to Molly Bloom’s many yeses in the concluding chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). “Ardis” may remind some readers of the motto ars gratia artis (art for the sake of art), which would be a fitting emblem both for this novel and Nabokov’s entire career.

In Ada or Ardor, the author offers his private myth of human beginnings, with Van and Ada as his primal humans. Van is Homo poeticus: Writing is his particular talent, and poetic awareness is his especial endowment. Ada, who becomes his sometime collaborator in their later life together, has Nabokov’s passion for natural history, particularly the love of flowers, trees, and butterflies. Together, Van and Ada form a privileged, imperial couple.

Unfortunately, they spend many years apart. Their parents separate them when they discover the youngsters’ affair, thus playing out the Fall. For years, both spend their energetic erotism in numerous amours and are enveloped in the sins of lust, jealousy, and callousness. Van almost murders two of Ada’s lovers and arranges to blind a servant who tries to blackmail him and Ada with...

(The entire section contains 976 words.)

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