If Ada or Ardor (most commonly known as Ada) is about people—it is subtitled “A Family Chronicle,” and Nabokov supplies a detailed family tree that precedes the novel—it is also a book about literature, a parody. The difficulty for the reader is to judge correctly the proportions of the two. To what extent is it a book about people—above all about two lovers, Ada and Van—and to what extent is it a book about literary works and traditions? Clearly the novel is both. It is an interesting love story about two cousins who fall in love and consummate that love, when Van is fourteen and Ada twelve. The novel follows the vicissitudes of this love affair until the protagonists’ old age. It is also a “chronicle” of the nineteenth and twentieth century novel, with almost as many literary references as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). It is a love story and a roman à clef—or rather aux clés. It can be confidently predicted that graduate students and critics will want to write articles and books about Ada’s literary allusions well into the future. It is questionable, however, whether readers will also continue to come to Ada because of its love story and family chronicle. Interest in the novel will be generated by its literary complexity on the one hand, and by interest in its explicitly erotic passages on the other. Like Joyce scholars, Nabokov scholars will probably continue to say that the general reader cannot appreciate the novel without understanding its multiple literary references. Ada will probably have as few readers who enjoy it without reference to a literary tradition as Ulysses. The erotic passages will attract the curious, yet it is difficult to imagine such an audience reading the novel from beginning to end with satisfaction.
Nevertheless, reading Ada provides a unique kind of experience. The novel can be appreciated as a work of imagination about people, without reference to other books or literary traditions. There are obstacles to this, just as there are similar obstacles in Ulysses, but they are not insuperable. The parody can be understood on the level of personalities and word play; above all, the major imaginative act of the novel can be clearly grasped by a Russianless reader.
Ada does not take place on the familiar Earth; it is set neither in Russia (or the literal context of Russian literature) nor in America. The novel takes place in “Antiterra,” sometimes called Demonia. Terra—our Earth—is a myth, a distant world about which the characters in the book dream; it is an unattainable Utopia. This basic premise of the novel should give pause to the seekers of literary influences. Antiterra has its own laws and its own elements, which are different from those on Terra. Consequently the novel’s protagonists are also different; they are not human in the normal sense, nor is the love of Ada and Van a normal human love. It is their inhuman qualities that are central to the novel. The reader’s recognition...
(The entire section is 1255 words.)