Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
by Vladimir Nabokov
If the first reviews are any indication Ada may become the most over-praised novel of the decade. The ready superlatives of commerce and publicity have joined with the exegetical talents of a new breed of critics to launch an instant masterpiece. This would be curious and revealing even if Ada merely fell short of greatness. Unfortunately the book is a disaster--overblown, overwritten, full of complicity with the reverent explication that it strains to evoke.
We can perhaps best understand the paradox of the book's prodigious ambitions and final imaginative vacancy by scrutinizing Nabokov's aesthetic, which here he carries to its logical conclusion. Nabokov has always conceived of himself as a poet and fabulist rather than a novelist-an inventor, tale-teller and stylist rather than the purveyor of "real" characters and milieus. In his postscript to Lolita he speaks of the problem of "inventing America," which resulted, he claims, in a world "just as fantastic and personal" as his previous European settings. This is far from the truth. The America of Lolita, though refracted
through a brilliant satirical prism, remains perversely real: it is the pop and kitsch junkyard of the early 1950's, the novelistic counterpart of the many alarming visions of "mass culture" current at the time. Nabokov often denounced social and psychological realism and booby-trapped his books with alienation effects and distancing devices, yet his own best work, such as Lolita and Pnin, was done when he struck a truce with realism rather than abjuring it completely as he does in Ada.
Ada takes place on a nowhere-world called Antiterra, in a country named Amerussia ruled by one Abraham Milton. The existence of our world, Terra, is a matter for philosophical speculation and cultist faith. The book's hero, future professor and novelist Van Veen, is a man who likes to walk on his hands, "not for the sake of the trick's difficulty, but in order to perceive an ascending waterfall or a sunrise in reverse"--it is reality inverted by vision, a metaphor for the book as a whole. Van's unusual avocation, we are told, provides him with a rapture "akin to that of artistic revelation." His literary career, of which the autobiographical Ada will be the culminating work, is foreshadowed by his circus performances: "Van on the stage was performing organically what his figures of speech were to perform later in life- acrobatic wonders that had never been expected from them and which frightened children."
The notion of the artist as verbal acrobat, which Nabokov takes all too seriously, is one key to his failure in Ada. In this light his last novel. Pale Fire (1962), can be seen as an antecedent and an ominous portent, as much a stunt as a novel. Pale Fire is at least a unified stunt, and it is partly redeemed by the lively tension between the imaginary poet Shade and the mad commentator Kinbote. Ada, however, abandons not only reality but artistic unity: it performs a different stunt on every page. It is a ragbag of effects, a poor man's Ulysses, one of the most self-indulgent and self-caressing books ever written.
Take the characters for example. Van Veen is a portrait of the artist as stud, philosopher, physical and verbal acrobat. He is also burdened with a wide assortment of Nabokov's own crotchets (previously confined to prefaces and interviews, now defacing the text itself). We are asked to think that Van also
becomes a famous psychiatrist, which gives Nabokov many openings to assault the nonsense of one "Sig" (Dr. Froit of "Signy-Mondieu-Mondieu"--this is the level of the book's satire). Poor Ada, Van's only true love for over four decades, is forced by the author to spend her downy nymphet years as an entomologist. Why? Because Nabokov himself is one: the fictional masks (like Byron's) must be kept loose, the author must bestride the book as almost its only character.
Yet most of Ada half-heartedly pretends to be a story of men and women. Van and Ada are so boringly healthy, so empty; what interest can we have in their "ardor"? We are told that "Ada's letters breathed, writhed, lived." The ones we read are trivial or mildly charming. The secondary characters are hardly worth mentioning. Frequently present but minimally there, they are strictly Grand Guignol--Ada's sister, the hysterical sex-starved virgin Lucette; coarse, sluttish Marina; the mad Aqua; dashing Demon, Van's father. These characters form a backdrop and prop up the action here and there, but they exist mainly for an occasional set-piece of verbal virtuosity by the author (Lucette's suicide, for instance).
Their doings are described in prose whose shade is never far from purple: "Presently, the long sobs of the violins began to affect and almost choke Van and Ada: a juvenile conditioning of romantic appeal, which at one moment forced tearful Ada to go and 'powder her nose' while Van stood up with a spasmodic sob, which he cursed but could not control." This is ironic of course, but only superficially. Nowhere does the novel offer an alternative to the egregious styles it parodies but relies upon. Satire and sentimentality turn out to be near allied. The formula: melodramatic excess manipulated with a knowing leer of satiric superiority. Nabokov talks of "that originality of literary which constitutes the only real honesty of a writer," yet in Ada he trades in his own rich and supple medium for a scrappy texture of parody and put-on. Humbert Humbert's style of exaggeration, at once hilarious and controlled, replete with every nuance of personal and cultural decadence, here finds its unintended caricature. In Van Veen's hands it is truly decadent, a style in search of a subject.
Nowhere is Ada's style more faulty and the comparison to Lolita more unflattering than in the sexual scenes. Nabokov has taken advantage of our new freedom of sexual description, but
what a dubious advantage it turns out to be. Everything is reduced to physiological detail, but rendered in a coy, hothouse language that both titillates and withholds, pants and pleads innocence. Ada touches Van's penis for the first time: "Her index traced the blue Nile down into its jungle and traveled up again." A few moments later; "He groped for and cupped her hot little slew from behind, then frantically scrambled into a boy's sandcastle-molding position; but she turned over, naively ready to receive him as Juliet is recommended to receive her Romeo." The pretentious metaphors and allusions don't conceal, indeed they are central to, the pornographic strategy. If Lolita was about a dirty old man then parts of Ada read as if they were written by one.
It is not Nabokov himself that is at issue but the impoverishment of his writing. Sex in Ada, as in more truly pornographic works, is reduced to squeezes and squirts, to quantities of orgasms, to scratching what Ada calls "an insatiable itch," a "red rash," by means of "the ecstasy of friction." Since it was Van who first stirred that itch, Ada claims the right to be promiscuous when he is not there to soothe it. Van does not agree but deals similarly with his own "ruttish ache" ("he could never go without girl pleasure for more than forty-eight hours"). This means that Nabokov's emotional range, at best narrow if deep and intense, has thoroughly collapsed. John Hollander once wrote that "there is no clinical, sociological, or mythic seriousness in Lolita, but it flames with a tremendous perversity of an unexpected kind." Perversity flares again with Kinbote in Pale Fire but it is merely simulated in the incest-motif of Ada. Van and Ada are brother and sister only by fiat; except for those wayward itches and aches there could hardly be a more well-adjusted couple. When Van's father stumbles upon their love nest and forces them to separate,
we wonder what the fuss is about, since most conduct, sexual and otherwise, in Ada has few human consequences and no moral coordinates. When Van helps drive Lucette to suicide he writes an eloquent explanation which partly suppresses his own role. His father finds the letter beautiful and moving. Ada finds it beautiful and moving. This is the last we hear of Van and poor Lucette. As sex is reduced to friction all behavior is reduced to gesture, aesthetic gesture, art.
Art swallows and redeems everything. The lives of Van and Ada become a book. They "die, as it were, into the finished book, into Eden or Hades, into the prose of the book or the poetry of its blurb." Van describes his narrative as "a series of sixty-year-old actions which now I can grind into extinction only by working on a succession of words until the rhythm is right." Experience into words, that is what art is about, but not all art sees itself as an "extinction" of experience or puts so much stress on getting the rhythm right. This is where Ada is alive--in words, copulating with each other, multiplying likenesses, dancing along a spectrum of sound and sense through several languages. It is fun, but only occasionally does it advance from the bizarre to the profound, when the shock of original metaphor uncovers hidden truth. Lucette tries "to think up something amusing, harmless, and scintillating to say in a suicide note. But she had planned everything except that note, so she tore her blank life in two and disposed of the pieces in the W.C."
Nabokov displays his unique genius in such small touches, but on the altar of that genius he sacrifices many of his best novelistic resources. Nietzsche pinpointed the malady in his description of literary decadence in The Case of Wagner: “The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, the page gains life at the expense of the whole--the whole is no longer a whole … the vibration and exuberance of life pushed back into the smallest forms; the rest, poor in life. … The whole is no longer a whole: it is composite, calculated, artificial, and artifact."
Ada marks the betrayal of the Nabokov who wrote Lolita and Pnin, whose calculations kept touch with human feelings and predicaments, whose aestheticism could therefore issue in artistic and human wholeness. It is the hollow triumph of that other Nabokov, the formal trickster, exotic pedant and language-gamester, the last and perhaps least of the great modernist writers.
By Morris Dickstein