Lawrence Weschler has observed, astutely, that writers tend to move from Romanesque to Gothic. The early work will be thick, solid, even heavy; only with decades of experience does the writer learn to chisel away excess, as the builders of Notre Dame did: to let in the light. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, however, the converse seems to obtain. Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.
That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.
What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)
Ada’s greatest puzzle, in all senses, is its setting. The opening line – a misquotation from “Anna Arkadievitch Karenina” – signals that the world of this novel will be a somewhat garbled translation of our own: an “anti-Terra.” In place of Borges, Anti-Terra has Osberg. In place of French Canadians, it has Russian Estotians. It is sometimes called Demonia. “Our demons,” we are told, “are noble iridescent creatures with translucent talons and mightily beating wings; but in the eighteen-sixties the New Believers urged one to imagine a sphere where our splendid friends had been utterly degraded, had become nothing but vicious monsters, disgusting devils.” In short, Nabokov has thrown us into the deep end, and expects us to stitch our own life preservers.
Doing so means reconstructing the history and geography not only of anti-Terra, but also of “Terra” – the mythical “sphere” alluded to above. This mirror-world turns out to be, from our standpoint, nearer to reality, but from the perspective of of anti-Terra, as far-out as Zembla. Who but those wacky New Believers could possibly credit the existence of Athaulf the Future, “a fair-haired giant in a natty uniform…in the act of transforming a gingerbread Germany into a great country?”
The novel’s other key dyad is Van and Ada Veen – the first cousins-cum-siblings (long story) whose love lies at the heart of the book. The incestuous nature of their affair would seem to present readers with yet another difficulty. But Ada is “about” incest only in the way that Lolita is “about” pedophilia, or Moby-Dick is “about” fishing. Which is to say, it isn’t. In his wonderful book The Magician’s Doubts (which prodded me to pick up Ada in the first place), the critic Michael Wood proposes that the novel’s subject is in fact “happiness” – generally felt to be the hardest thing to write about. And in the face of Nabokov’s superheated imagination, even Wood’s generous reading feels a little reductive. Ada is also about freedom, writing, desire, passion, and what time and distance do to all of the above.
Ultimately, Nabokov manages a kind of Proustian magic trick: he recovers, through evocation, the very things whose losses he depicts. His exquisite, synesthetic sentences render the past present, the time-bound timeless. And they bring this author, not noted for his sympathetic disposition, so close to his hero that the difference disappears. Van Veen’s peculiar ardor becomes universal; to read the description is to share in the experience:
The males of the firefly, a small luminous beetle, more like a wandering star than a winged insect, appeared on the first warm black nights of Ardis, one by one, here and there, then in a ghostly multitude, dwindling again to a few individuals as their quest came to its natural end.
After the first contact, so light, so mute, between his soft lips and her softer skin had been established – high up in that dappled tree, with only that stray ardilla daintily leavesdropping – nothing seemed changed in one sense, all was lost in another. Such contacts evolve their own texture; a tactile sensation is a blind spot; we touch in silhouette.
Aesthetically, intellectually, and even morally, this is a Difficult Book par excellence. It demands a lover’s patience. But sentences like these are our steadfast consolation for submitting to the wiles of Ada.