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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 976

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,...

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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.

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 incriminating photographs. At twenty-one, Ada contracts a marriage of convenience with an American rancher, Andrey Vinelander, who dies twenty-nine years later. Ada’s half sister Lucette falls in love with Van, but he refuses to exploit her vulnerability. When Lucette despairingly drowns herself, Van and Ada are jolted into awareness of the misery and tragedy besetting the world beyond the greenness of Ardis.

Van and Ada are finally free to spend their remaining lives together when she is fifty to his fifty-two. They must now contend with the reality of their physical failings in the face of approaching death. He has become the artist-philosopher and she the botanist-biologist—all aspects of Nabokov. They discover that collaborative writing will reconcile them to time’s hostility.

In part 4 of the five-part novel, Van summarizes his philosophy in an anti-Einsteinian discourse on time and space which considers past and present as linked by associated, accumulated images captured by memory. This is an arch-Proustian concept, despite Nabokov’s caution to “beware . . . of the marcel wave of fashionable art; avoid the Proustian bed.” The framing devices of Ada parallel those of Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931). At Ada’s end, the reader is informed that Van and Ada have composed the very text that is about to conclude and that most of this work has been a prelude to the very act of creation which the book promises (and summarizes) in its final pages.

On the penultimate page the author gives the assurance that “the story proceeds at a spanking pace.” In fact, the work often saunters self-indulgently as Nabokov treats himself to myriad puns, literary asides, and jokes against jokes in a dazzlingly polyglot glitter of words. He has never been a more agile verbal acrobat. Significantly, Van and Ada delight (as did their progenitor) in playing Scrabble, using a set that was given them by Baron Klim Avidov—an anagrammatically camouflaged Vladimir Nabokov.

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