Before you all start howling at me (as if), I know that this blog is generally politically-themed, but whether you believe it or not I do sometimes read books between searching for material for my latest update. In June, after graduating, I bought a whole raft of books from Blackwells in the mistaken belief that I would read them. It’s now November and the pile has not shrunk appreciably. Last week, though, I started what might be the crowning jewel of this haul, in terms of how much I have wanted to read it and for how long: Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favourite authors.
Ada or Ardor is Nabokov’s longest work, at about 500 pages, and it is probably one of the least well-known, although he wrote so many novels and novellas that this hardly means anything. I have read his two most famous English works (Lolita and Pale Fire) along with Invitation to a Beheading (Приглашение на казнь), but the concept behind Ada intrigued me when I first heard about it. The plot is, essentially, a love story between two cousins, but it is set in a counterfactual version of the late 1800s where most of Russia is taken up with a state called Tartary, the United States includes Canada and the Russian-speaking West Coast province of Estoty, and electricity is banned. Religious belief has died out, but there is a group of people called Terrans who are convinced of the existence of another, parallel world – Terra, which corresponds to our own world (or rather, Nabokov’s contemporary version of it).
I am only about 100 pages in, and most of what I have read has been focussed on the romance between Van and Ada. The initial 20 pages have quite a distinct style from the rest of the novel – the text narrates the history of the Veen family, and as such is significantly less descriptive or florid than the later chapters. There are hints of Pynchonesque internationalism as the narrative follows various members of the family on their escapades around the world. Fundamentally, though, Nabokov seems happier when narrating on a more individual level, and most of the text concerns the day-to-day lives of Van and Ada, with occasional comments from their later selves. Nabokov’s characteristic sense of how the text sounds aloud (which is something that second-language speakers often take more relish in than native speakers) carries through here, although the text is thicker and needs to be unpicked and considered more than, say, Lolita, which flows faster.
Although I am enjoying it, Ada or Ardor does seem in some respects a slightly self-indulgent novel: Nabokov makes no attempt to curb his use of French or Russian (sometimes whole sentences or paragraphs), and has conveniently made Ada into a budding lepidopterist to allow him to share his knowledge of that field too. I have not yet begun to find the French and Russian boring (the day that I find foreign languages boring we know the Apocalypse cannot be far away) but I don’t think my tolerance for insect facts is that high. We shall see. What is certain is that Nabokov’s sphere of cultural reference is far higher here than in Lolita, for example – his placement of the story in a pre-modern upper-class context eliminates much of the low culture that Joyce or Pynchon take such delight in. Painting, opera, and 18th-century literature take precedence here, and the references are often deeply obscure (although a nod to The Perfumed Garden of the Sheikh Nefzawi, an Arabic sex manual, did amuse me).
I’ll leave you with a few quotes from what I’ve read so far which I particularly enjoyed:
Ada sits on Van’s lap during a carriage ride:
With his entire being, the boiling and brimming lad relished her weight as he felt it responding to every bump in the road by softly parting in two then crushing beneath it the core of the longing which he knew he had to control lest a possible seep perplexed her innocence.
A discussion of the fact that Van and Ada are cousins takes a bit of an interesting turn:
If practiced rigidly incest led to various forms of decline, to the production of cripples, weaklings, ‘mutating mutates’, and, finally, to hopeless sterility. Now that smacked of crime, and since nobody could be supposed to control judicious orgies of indiscriminate inbreeding (somewhere in Tartary fifty generations of ever woolier and woolier sheep had recently ended abruptly in one hairless, five-legged, impotent little lamb – and the beheading of a number of farmers failed to resurrect the fat strain), it was perhaps better to ban ‘incestuous cohabitation’ altogether.
Ada’s mother Aqua becomes obsessed with Terra:
Her disintegration went down a shaft of phases, every one more racking than the last; for the human brain can become the best torture house of all those it has invented, established and used in millions of years, in millions of lands, on millions of howling creatures.