The books I love are those tangled and overflowing: their magic is the product of the trust the author puts in his talent
Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle is nothing less than brimming, and it writhes in beauty from first to last; it is difficult to deconstruct its brilliance, which is many-branched.
Ada is the story of cousins and lovers Van an Ada Veen, but it also a story about their family, about intellectual escapism, insects, academia, the danger of memory, and sex.
Van and Ada are born into an ancestry of royalty, insanity, whores, world-famous gamblers, suicides, and thespians. Not surprisingly, they are two incredibly strange and intelligent children. Left largely to their own devices at the family’s summer estate Ardis Hall, the two begin to build a universe which they struggle to return to the rest of their lives.
Ada, or Ardor is certainly a love story, but it achieves an honesty that many don’t, perhaps because it is told in retrospect by Van at the end of his life, with the occasional editorial comment from Ada. Frequently Nabokov indulges in presenting laughably perfect pictures of the two lovers (stopping, for instance, to describe in detail a family picnic: the sorts of berries, the types and colors of silk worn by attendees, exactly how the sunlight hit Ada’s profile) only to question their validity. Ada and Van’s story is long, rich with betrayal, and certainly not without regret. Nabokov never purports that the lovers’ devotion towards each other is good for them, and it clear that the affair, which is off and on their entire lives, is an obsession they indulge in because they must.
Although the prose is cloaked in memory and retrospection, Nabokov keeps the plot linear. Van, responsible for the chronicle, interrupts only to provide parenthetical insight. There are large stretches of time which describe only Van’s intellectual or sexual exploits, which, while independently compelling, are the author’s clever testament to Van’s need for Ada; they are apostrophes to the only one who so fully understands his brain and body. Van publishes sad science fiction novels featuring thinly veiled images of Ada; they are poorly received but his cousin, far away and married to another man, understands and adores them. Ada’s career as an actress peaks and flounders, and Van sits in movie theaters hungrily, waiting for her one scene.
Ada, or Ardor is not hopeful and not kind. It is a book for people who wonder if they love their family enough, for people who have resigned themselves to being haunted, for people who would rather spend the afternoon with their ghosts. The novel is a stunning conversation between past and present which reminds us tenderly that we are creatures of habit, that we have not changed very much at all, that memory is a property as valuable as any.