November 15, 2013

The NSFW Files: "Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle," by Vladimir Nabokov

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite being erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)

Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle, by Vladimir Nabokov

Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle
by Vladimir Nabokov
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov, had been on my To Be Read List for quite some time. My knowledge of Nabokov is woefully thin. I have read Lolita multiple times. The first time in high school for purely prurient reasons. To my dismay I discovered a lot of untranslated French passages and utterly lacking in material that would satiate high school lusts. (High school lusts were sated, shocked, and numbed by Naked Lunch.)

The second time I read it I had less prurience in mind, but also a nice set of footnotes to navigate Nabokov's oft-difficult prose. But Nabokov wrote much more than Lolita. He wrote Pale Fire, an epic poem with footnotes written by a delusional madman. He wrote Invitation to a Beheading, a political fable about totalitarianism. And many more novels, besides plays, poems, translations, and lectures.

Ada represents an oddball combination of attributes: an epic novel about incest set in an alternate history. As a fan of the alternate history genre (and erotica), I knew I had to read the book.

The History: Written in 1969, Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle is one of Vladimir Nabokov's lesser known novels. Airing from 2003 to 2006 (and briefly resurrected on Netflix), Arrested Development is a cult hit and known by many. What do these two things have in common? Incest and comedy. Arrested Development is a hyper-dense sitcom, replete with in-jokes, pop cultural references, satire of political and corporate malfeasance, and George-Michael Bluth incurable lust for his cousin Maeby Funke. Ada is a verbally dense, allusive, word-drunk feast of a doorstopper. Over 580 pages of multilingual puns, alternate history, and incest between cousins Ada Durmanov, amateur lepidopterist, and Van Veen, psychologist and time-theorist. Les Cousins Dangereux is, as the poster boasts, "a 'relative' masterpiece of complex eroticism."

As one of Nabokov's last three novels, it symbolizes this twentieth century literary stylist at his creative peak. His last two novels would become even more postmodern, metafictional, and solipsistic. Nabokov would refer to Ada in his next novel, Transparent Things. The fictional bibliography includes the novel Ardis.

It represents his nomadic life, his obsessions, and his monumental talent. Written in Montreux, Switzerland, and published at the end of the Sixties, we see Nabokov as both a relic of a by-gone age and a pioneer of a nascent postmodernism. Nabokov came from a family of St. Petersburg aristocrats who fled Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution. He settled in France and Germany, studied literature at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1923. He fled again, this time to the United States, to escape the Nazi onslaught. (Samuel Beckett studied literature at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1923 to 1927.) Later, after teaching at such places like Stanford, Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard, he returned to Europe in 1961, dying in Switzerland in 1977. Like fellow writers Ivan Klima and Vasily Grossman, Nabokov has witnessed both forms of twentieth century totalitarianism.

Ada came out in 1969. In the United States, the Sixties went down in flames. My Lai, Altamont, and Manson treated Flower Power with carnage, atrocities, and blood. Monty Python's Flying Circus began its first season on BBC. Richard Nixon was in his first term and the decade's idealism would curdle into cynicism and withdrawal. The Sixties and Seventies were the high days of Postmodernism, a literary style endemic of an age where all institutions have proven corrupt, inept, and untrustworthy. There would be Linguistic Turns and New Rights. There would also be erotica and porn. By 1969, one could read Naked Lunch and "Howl" without legal prosecution. The visual arts weren't quite out of the woods, since the Supreme Court still had their "Stag Nights." This involved the Nine Brethren watching porn loops and deeming whether they were obscene or not.

Unlike the new pornographers and the vulgarity-laced youth, Nabokov came from an earlier time. An aristocrat to the end, he held strong opinions, wrote with a ferocious erudition, and commanded respect as a literary stylist. (To be fair, fellow prolific writer Anthony Burgess hated rock and roll music.) Like Burgess and Joyce and Pynchon, Nabokov never won the Nobel Prize for Literature, although he certainly deserved it.

Ada got lost in the sea of time. Only a few years later, Pynchon would release his postmodernist masterpiece Gravity's Rainbow, altering the literary landscape like Rocket 00000.

The Book: Ada begins with a parody of the opening line from Anna Karenina. In many ways, this muligenerational "family chronicle" resembles those old nineteenth century doorstoppers. Although the world is very different than Victorian times, we see characters dominated by class, society, reputation, and manners. All very aristocratic, hyperintelligent, and multilingual. Like their historical Russian counterparts, the family speaks fluent French. The novel even includes a useful family tree. This becomes handy, since Nabokov, ever-playful, has characters with similar names marrying characters also similar names. To summarize: Ivan Durmanov married Daria. They had three children: Ivan, Marina, and Aqua. The other branch of the family had Daedalus Veen marry Countess Irina Garin. Their child is Demetriy (Demon). Daedalus's brother Ardelion married Mary Trumbell. Their son is Daniel. Daniel married Marina Durmanov. They had two daughters, Adelaida (Ada) and Lucinda (Lucette). Demon Veen marries Aqua Durmanov and they have a son, Van Veen.

Following a history of the earlier generations, the storyline follows the lives of Aqua and Marina. Demon, married to Aqua, has an affair with her sister, Marina. Nabokov explains it like this:

"Was there some additional spice? Marina, with perverse vainglory, used to affirm in bed that Demon's senses must have been influenced by a queer sort of "incestuous" (whatever that term means) pleasure (in the sense of the French plaisir, which works up a lot of supplementary spinal vibrato), when he fondled, and savored, and delicately parted and defiled, in unmentionable but fascinating ways, flesh (une chair) that was both that of his wife and that of his mistress, the blended and brightened charms of twin peris, an Aquamarina both single and double, a mirage in an emirate, a germinate gem, an orgy of epithelial alliterations."

Demon's philandering ways become reflected, refined, and intensified with Van Veen's love for Ada. At first the relations between the cousins is purely platonic, one familiar to anyone at family gatherings. But the agape soon turns into eros and their lusts are consummated the night of a spectacular barn fire on the Durmanov property.

Again, since this is an epic tale, I'm going to summarize: They become infatuated with each other, endure separations of various lengths. Lucette falls for Van, turning things into a complicated love triangle. Van goes to college and later becomes an eminent psychologist, while Ada gets married. Time passes.

After the initial chapters do we realize that Van is the author of this family chronicle. Nabokov, again the playful postmodernist, makes the authorship one of rivalry and counter-claims. After certain passages, Ada butts in and gives her opinion. There's also insertions by an Editor.

Amidst the dueling narrators, editor interruptions, and alternate history, the novel comes to a complete halt near the end. At that time, Van Veen writes a long theoretic treatise of the nature of time, smugly confident in the wrongness of Einstein's Theory of Relativity. (One sees this in The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann, where the narrative halts and Vollmann treats the reader to a digression on the nature of bail.)

This all happens in a world called Anti-Terra. Some believe that Terra exists, although those people many consider insane or obsessed. The cult of Terra develops to an extent that people believe one goes to Terra after death. Anti-Terra isn't simply steampunk, although there was a global catastrophe that resulted in the banning of all electrical power. This complicates matters and people end up using the toilet to communicate. (No, that isn't a typo. Anti-Terrans communicate via dorophone, a kind of sewer-based telephonic system.) Politically, things are opposite of Earth. What would be the United States in North America has been colonized by the Russians, although it was discovered by Africa. England conquered France in 1815 (a nice counter-Napoleonic twist). And chronologically, everything appears as it would fifty years hence. So life on Anti-Terra in 1900 would seem like life in 1950.

Is anyone else confused?

The brilliance of Ada is that Nabokov actually pulls it off successfully. The novel finally ends with a brief summation of the novel itself, the once epic bildungsroman folding back on itself in an act of literary contortion.

The Verdict: In the ladies bathroom Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) takes a giant snort of cocaine. "I said God damn! God damn!" That would be my response to reading Ada. It's a big challenging book that will knock your socks off. Literary genius meeting moral depravity the likes of which I can only compare it to the works of the Marquis de Sade and William S. Burroughs.

Ada is one of the Great Books of Literature. It's usually not found on Top 100 lists, but it should be. It is also a word-drunk celebration of language, a monument to excess and playfulness, along the lines of Darconville's Cat by Alexander Theroux, Gravity's Rainbow, Ulysses, and Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe. It is a literary classic and a must-read for those who enjoy erotica, alternate history, and trilingual puns.
Read even more about Ada, or Ardor: a Family Chronicle: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, November 15, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |