Lindsay Heller's Reviews > Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov
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Jan 13, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: 2012, strange-familial-relations, favorites

This is one of those books that came in sideways and blindsided me with adoration. I loved it. I expected to LIKE it. I expected a level (rather high level, actually) of deviancy, I expected sex, and I expected overly verbose, didactic passages that weaved between plot. All of that was present, and how. But, beyond that I found that I really cared about these characters, necessary and ancillary, despite all their glaring flaws. In brief, since a description of this novel is nearly impossible in my inadequate words, this is the story of a one Van Veen and his lifelong love affair with his sister Ada Veen. The story is told in five parts starting in the year 1884 when the protagonist and titular character meet. He is an intelligent fourteen, already believing himself a man, and she is a precocious eleven. They believe they are cousins in a already twisted family tree, but soon discover they are both the product of the long affair between her mother, Marina, and his father, Demon. One would think this new information would put a pause of their already sexual relationship, but as he later states; they were young and they simply didn't care, and then it was too late. The rest of the story has them meet, meet again, be forced apart, but never forget each other.

But then this is the plot and doesn't even begin to cover what the book is really "about". It's also a beautifully crafted meditation on time and memory. Each part of the novel is half the length of the previous, with Part One (often, so I read, considered the last great Russian novel, and it does read with the same fervency as the likes of Tolstoy) taking up approximately half of this six hundred paged tome. 'Ada', also, seems to meditate on literature itself, following melodramatic patterns of great novels but never failing to add elements of the absurd. And don't get me wrong; there were parts of this story that had me laughing out loud.

There's also the setting. This is not science fiction or fantasy, not in my estimation, but it does take place in a sort of parallel universe, on a planet called Demonia or, often, Antiterra. The existance of Terra (our world) is a perception left to superstition and religion (though the later element is wisely left out of a book with this sort of plot). The majority of Europe is part of England, while North America has been divided by the French and Russians into Canady (French) and Estoty (Russian). Asia is a wild place called Tartary. Antiterra is much like our world, with small exceptions.

'Ada, or Ardor' is a notoriously difficult book to read. The first four chapters are hard to get through and Part Four, essentially a dictated essay written by Van on Time melded briefly into his final re-connection with Ada, was arduous though rewarding. But, barring those examples, this book was enormously satisfying and will likely sit on my shelf as one of my favorite novels of all time.
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Quotes Lindsay Liked

Vladimir Nabokov
“Dear dad,
In a consequence of a trivial altercation with a Captain Tapper, of Wild Violet Lodge, whom I happened to step upon on a corridor of a train, I had a pistol duel this morning in the woods near Kalugano and am now no more. Though the maner of my end can be regarded as a kind of easy suicide, the encounter and the ineffable Captain are in no ways connected with the Sorrows of Young Veen. In 1884, during my first summer in Ardis, I seduced your daughter, who was then twelve. Our torrid affair lasted till my return to Riverlane; it was resumed last June, four years later. That happiness has been the greatest event in my life, and I have no regrets. Yesterday, though, I have discovered she had been unfaithful to me, so we parted. Tapper, I think, may be the chap who was thrown out of one of your gaming clubs for attempting oral intercourse with the washroom attendant, a toothless old cripple, veteran from the first Crimean War. Lots of flowers, please.
Your loving son, Van
He carefully reread his letter – and carefully tore it up. The note he finally placed in his coat pocket was much briefer.

Dear dad, I had a trivial quarrel with a stranger whose faced I slapped and who killed me in a duel near Kalugano. Sorry!
Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

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