Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1078

Ada or Ardor (most commonly known as Ada ) is presented as the autobiography of Van Veen, begun when he was in his fifties and completed when he is ninety-seven. It consists of five sections, each successively shorter than its predecessor, told in a lush and dreamlike prose. The first...

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Ada or Ardor (most commonly known as Ada) is presented as the autobiography of Van Veen, begun when he was in his fifties and completed when he is ninety-seven. It consists of five sections, each successively shorter than its predecessor, told in a lush and dreamlike prose. The first section introduces Van’s family in their ancestral estate of Ardis Hall, recounting some basic family history (since this is supposed to be a family chronicle) before actually introducing Van and Ada.

The fifth and final section of the work summarizes the entire story, bringing it up to the point of the elderly Van’s present. He intersperses it with comments upon world events since his reunion with his beloved Ada in a way that suggests the unpleasant realities of the twentieth century, including the rise of a threatening figure whose name echoes that of Adolf Hitler. Van’s story of his last years suggests a disintegration of the comfortable world of his childhood and youth into anxiety, paralleling his own physical decay into the maladies of age, including the cancer that is slowly devouring him from the inside out. When he and Ada commit suicide together, they dissolve into their story and become in a sense immortal.

The novel represents one of the earliest examples of the genre of alternate history, which has since been popularized by such authors as Harry Turtledove and S. M. Stirling. Because Vladimir Nabokov is generally known as a writer of literary fiction, many critics will adamantly deny that Ada is a work of alternate history because of the mass-cultural, nonliterary associations of the genre. However, Ada contains the critical element of alternate history: It represents a departure from historical events and explores the consequences of that departure, generating a fictional world markedly different from the one familiar to readers.

In Nabokov’s work, the Tatar conquest resulted not in submission but in the migration of the Russian people eastward through Siberia into Alaska and Canada. As a result, many of the critical events of Russian history take place in North America, often near important landmarks. For instance, the reforms of Patriarch Nikon result in the mass executions of Old Believers on the shores of Canada’s Great Slave Lake.

Unlike Turtledove or Stirling, Nabokov spends relatively little time on the particulars of history and politics in his imagined world. He offers only glimpses of exactly how the Russians interacted with the English settlers as they arrived upon the eastern seaboard or how precisely the combined American-Russian society developed. It is possible for different readers to argue persuasively either that North America north of the Rio Grande is ruled by a czar (although likely under a constitutional monarchy as a result of English influence) or that it is a republic ruled by the political heirs of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Only one thing can be said for certain about the political landscape of Nabokov’s alternate America—there is no equivalent to the Bolshevik Revolution in Amerussia. If analogues of revolutionaries Vladimir Ilich Lenin and Leon Trotsky exist in that world, they have been coopted by the political establishment.

Similarly, Nabokov devotes relatively little attention to the particulars of how technology has developed differently in his imagined world. Electricity is not used in his society: Its use has been prohibited as a result of a disaster, but the author refuses to discuss the precise nature of the mysterious L disaster. Such matters are only for more mature ears, he warns the reader in a rather Victorian manner, effectively declaring the question closed. Even as he makes this declaration, however, he archly mocks such pruderies through his cheerful wordplay.

Nabokov devotes relatively little attention to the world-building elements that are of such paramount importance to most alternate history authors, because his focus is not upon the great events of history but upon the personal relationships of his protagonists, the Veen family. Thus, a reader learns the particulars of the invention of the dorophone, a sort of hydraulic telephone that enables long-distance communication in a world in which electricity is banned, because it was the work of one of the protagonists’ parents. Moreover, the invention itself is presented as part of Aqua’s descent into madness, which has profound effects upon Van and Ada Veen.

One of the names given to this alternate world by its inhabitants, Demonia, suggests the orgiastic sexuality often attributed to various beings of the spiritual realms. The sexual athletics of the various characters of the novel may bring to mind the ancient Greek gods and goddesses. Both Aqua and Marina Veen can be seen as water nymphs, who were often the objects of the lusts of the Greek gods. Alternatively, they can be regarded as personifications of the feminine nature of water, simultaneously both life-giving and threatening. Both women die young of mental illness, one sliding into lassitude and the other taking her own life in one short, sharp blow. Given this association of its characters with myth and abstraction, the novel admits of a fantastical reading, in which the characters become larger-than-life beings, symbols of indulgence and its power over the human psyche.

Forbidden love and madness are two major themes in Nabokov’s work. While his most famous novel, Lolita (1955), deals with pedophilia, Ada is the story of the lifelong incestuous relationship of the two protagonists. However, this incest is never represented in a prurient fashion but always artistically and indirectly, in myriad delicate details and through the effect it has upon their relationships with each other and with others. Even when those details create a sense of a repellant society in which pleasure becomes horror, there is a compelling beauty that drives readers to go on.

Just as his fixation with the young Lolita drove Humbert mad in Lolita, there is strong textual evidence that his forbidden love for Ada finally drives Van over the edge. In fact, some critics have denied the alternate historical aspect of the novel altogether and have suggested that the fascinating world in which America and Russia have blended into one is the product of Van’s fevered imagination and that he is in fact, like Nabokov himself, a Russian émigré living in America. The novel’s representation of the real world as a hallucination experienced by the inhabitants of Antiterra is in this reading nothing more than Van’s covert acknowledgment of reality even while he seeks to deny it.

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