Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

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...

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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 Little Demon (1916). Sologub’s The Created Legend (1916) is partly situated in Russia during the revolution of 1905 and partly on a distant imaginary planet reminiscent of Antiterra. Karlinsky’s article provided a preliminary “skeleton key” for the intellectual plot of Ada. Also, nineteenth century European diabolism and the Don Juan myth could be seen at the core of Ada—rightly so, as Ada herself acts in a mediocre film, Don Juan’s Last Fling, and during the closing pages of the novel she and Van watch it half a dozen times with absorbed interest. Karlinsky, Alfred Appel, Jr., Carl Proffer, and others have pointed out other allusions in Ada; the novel begins with a parody of the opening of Anna Karenina, and there are numerous references to Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, Aleksandr Griboyedov, Miguel de Cervantes, John Milton, Lord Byron (again Don Juan), Chateaubriand, Marcel Proust, and many others, among them T. S. Eliot (“Solemn Kithar Sween, a banker who at sixty-five had become an avant-garde author; in the course of one miraculous year he had produced The Waistline, a satire in free verse on Anglo-American feeding habits”).

There are three main purposes behind the allusions: high spirits in keeping with the multiple puns and plays on words in the novel, the extension of the “chronicle” of Antiterra deep into the past, and the criticism—by parody—of the only-too-familiar traits of Antiterra embodied in literary tradition. There is no question about it: An abundant literature about Antiterra already existed. It turned out to be right under our noses.

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Critical Evaluation