(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.)

Ada or Ardor Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

If Ada or Ardor (most commonly known as Ada) is about people—it is subtitled “A Family Chronicle,” and Nabokov supplies a detailed family tree that precedes the novel—it is also a book about literature, a parody. The difficulty for the reader is to judge correctly the proportions of the two. To what extent is it a book about people—above all about two lovers, Ada and Van—and to what extent is it a book about literary works and traditions? Clearly the novel is both. It is an interesting love story about two cousins who fall in love and consummate that love, when Van is fourteen and Ada twelve. The novel follows the vicissitudes of this love affair until the protagonists’ old age. It is also a “chronicle” of the nineteenth and twentieth century novel, with almost as many literary references as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). It is a love story and a roman à clef—or rather aux clés. It can be confidently predicted that graduate students and critics will want to write articles and books about Ada’s literary allusions well into the future. It is questionable, however, whether readers will also continue to come to Ada because of its love story and family chronicle. Interest in the novel will be generated by its literary complexity on the one hand, and by interest in its explicitly erotic passages on the other. Like Joyce scholars, Nabokov scholars will probably continue to say that the general reader cannot appreciate the novel without understanding its multiple literary references. Ada will probably have as few readers who enjoy it without reference to a literary tradition as Ulysses. The erotic passages will attract the curious, yet it is difficult to imagine such an audience reading the novel from beginning to end with satisfaction.

Nevertheless, reading Ada provides a unique kind of experience. The novel can be appreciated as a work of imagination about people, without reference to other books or literary traditions. There are obstacles to this, just as there are similar obstacles in Ulysses, but they are not insuperable. The parody can be understood on the level of personalities and word play; above all, the major imaginative act of the novel can be clearly grasped by a Russianless reader.

Ada does not take place on the familiar Earth; it is set neither in Russia (or the literal context of Russian literature) nor in America. The novel takes place in “Antiterra,” sometimes called Demonia. Terra—our Earth—is a myth, a distant world about which the characters in the book dream; it is an unattainable Utopia. This basic premise of the novel should give pause to the seekers of literary influences. Antiterra has its own laws and its own elements, which are different from those on Terra. Consequently the novel’s protagonists are also different; they are not human in the normal sense, nor is the love of Ada and Van a normal human love. It is their inhuman qualities that are central to the novel. The reader’s recognition...

(The entire section is 1255 words.)

Ada or Ardor Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Van Veen briefly sees a girl in an antique shop but never speaks to her. Subsequently, he discovers Ada, his cousin, during a summer at Ardis Hall, his ancestral family estate. He falls passionately in love with her. Van soon gives himself over to the physicality of passion, and the two carry on a love affair. During this period, they also discover that the supposed facts about their family are all an elaborate sham and in fact the two of them are full siblings, making the incestuous nature of their relationship far more serious than if they were merely cousins.

Ada is intensely physical and demonstrates an inability to refuse anyone in sexual need. As a result, she becomes involved with two other young men, Phillip Rack and Percy de Prey. When Van discovers her infidelity, he seeks revenge, only to be distracted and wounded by an extraneous soldier named Trapper. As a result, both of his rivals die by other hands, and Van ends up in a rather shallow physical relationship with Percy de Prey’s cousin Cordula.

During Van’s subsequent youth, he studies psychology and whiles his time away at a chain of brothels called the Villa Venus, the sexual equivalent of a fast-food restaurant. His half sister Lucette declares her love for him despite being courted by one Andrey Vinelander. Van accepts her interest, and they cohabit in an apartment that formerly belonged to Cordula de Prey.

After Dan Veen dies as a result of a hallucinatory...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Ada or Ardor Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Appel, Alfred, Jr., and Charles Newman, eds. Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations, Tributes. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1970. A good introduction to Nabokov’s writing, including a varied sampling of material about the man, about the writer, and about his several unique works. Perhaps a hodgepodge, but an early collection that contrasts dramatically with later criticism, which suggested that Nabokov was a humanist if also a kind of verbal magician.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Vladimir Nabokov. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Nabokov’s handling of time, illusion and reality, and art. There are separate essays on each of his major novels, as well as an introduction, chronology, and bibliography.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1990. The first volume of the definitive biography, fully researched and written with the cooperation of Nabokov’s family. Boyd has an extraordinary command of the origins of Nabokov’s art. This volume includes a discussion of Nabokov’s years in Europe after he left Russia.

Boyd, Brian. Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991. Boyd concludes his masterful biography. As with volume 1, his work is copiously illustrated with detailed...

(The entire section is 455 words.)