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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) by Vladimir Nabokov

photograph of a model who looks like Ada is described as a young woman in the book.
Book Review
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969)
 by Vladimir Nabokov

   Ada is the capstone to Vladimir Nabokov's distinguished career as a novelist, a six hundred fever dream/paean to an incestuous life long relationship between two cousins (who are actually brother and sister) Van, the narrator, and Ada.  The events of Ada take place not on Earth, or "Terra" as it's called, but an "anti-terra" which is exactly like the Earth except all physical locations have different names. Van and Ada come from an impossibly aristocratic family that you would say is Russian-American by way of France, were all the names of places in anti-terra changed.

  Ada is dirty in a way that Lolita is not. Van and Ada are a gleefully depraved pair, and the initiation of their affair when Ada is but 12 years old is beyond the pale of the adolescent Lolita.  The positioning of Ada in Nabokov's parallel universe is disorienting, as is his insistence on utilizing the modernist technique of moving around, backwards and forwards in time, without signaling the reader.   The effect is something akin to either magical realism or post-modernism, although neither term actually describes the impact that Ada has on the reader.

  Their young love is eventually discovered, and they are forced to part.  Ada marries suitably, and Van spends the next half century as a peripatetic professor of psychology.  Like, Lolita, the prurient interest aroused by an illicit love affair between two cousin/siblings is dissipated over the course of 600 pages.  The adult Van bears some resemblance to Lolita's dissipated aristocrat Humbert Humbert, but unlike Humbert, adult Van does not pursue love outside the pale of descent society.  Ada herself disappears almost entirely for the middle 400 pages of the book named after her.

  The ending, while not exactly upbeat, is a happy one in that Ada and Van may or may not die together, after a half century apart.  Ada marks the conclusion of Nabokov's contribution to the 1001 Books project.  The four books included: Ada, Pale Fire (1962), Pnin(1957) and Lolita (1955), followed one another in Nabokov's publication history.  None of his Russian language novels or novellas made it into the 1001 Books, list nor did any of his short story collections or anything published after Ada.  He is certainly a unique figure in 20th century literature, and in my opinion he's one of the top 10 novelists of all time.  Others I would put on that list, roughly half way through the 1001 Books project are Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway and William Burroughs.  I would also want to add Thomas Pynchon, and leave one slot available for unfamiliar authors who published between 1970 and today.

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