Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

When Ada first appeared it was hailed by some, strongly disliked by others. The dislike was not hard to understand—because the entire chronicle is suffused by Van’s special tone of disdainful hyperbole from beginning to end, it is, in effect, “Van’s book,” and the reader has some excuse to think that Van is a stand-in for Nabokov. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement (October 2, 1969) thought that the novel was a form of “self-parody”—like The Golden Bowl (1904), Sordello (1840), Pericles, Prince of Tyre (c. 1607-1608), The Kreutzer Sonata (1890), and Across the River and into the Trees (1950).

Critics and scholars of Russian literature, however, and specialists of Nabokov’s writings knew that this impression was partly misleading. Nabokov had always been a parodist, and the particular tone adopted for Ada was not identical to that of his other books. In an article, Simon Karlinsky sketched the literary allusions of Ada, opening the way to an interpretation of the book as a novel about literature. Antiterra proves to have a strong resemblance to nineteenth and twentieth century Russian literature. The novel’s subtitle points to Sergey Aksakov’s Semeynaya khronika (1856; The Family Chronicle, 1903), Demon Veen’s ancestry goes back to Mikhail Lermontov’s 1841 narrative poem Demon by way of Fyodor Sologub’s The...

(The entire section is 474 words.)