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...
(The entire section is 1078 words.)