RHC 2018: Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Vladimir Nabokov

Read Harder Challenge 2018

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2018 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read an assigned book you hated (or never finished).

I usually get my assigned reading done, and it’s rare for me to really hate a book. So the only thing that came to mind when I saw this task was a title that made my shoulders slump: Ada, or Ardor thoroughly bested me in college. I was in a Nabokov senior seminar at the time, so it’s not like I wasn’t entirely primed for some intense textual gamesmanship, but I stalled out no later than a third of the way through. In class, our professor asked how many of us had failed to finish the reading. The ten or so of us English major Carleton kids (a species that typically finishes its reading) glanced nervously at each other. I don’t know who raised their hand first, but we all sheepishly followed suit.

The professor shrugged amiably. “This wouldn’t be okay normally [it really wouldn’t have been okay normally. – ed.],” he said, “but I expect it with this one.”

It’s a tough book, and I knew it was tough going in. But I was feeling pretty good after wrestling with The Sound and the Furywhich was also tough but wound up being a really rewarding experience. However, the difference between Ada and The Sound and the Fury’s difficulty is that S&F doesn’t require any specialized knowledge, just patience and a willingness to throw yourself into the stream and see what streaks by on its banks. Ada, well… it would help to speak Russian and French, which aren’t always translated, and I suspect more than a passing familiarity with Proust and Pushkin would help too. Oh, and everything Nabokov had written beforehand, including Pale Fire and Lolita. There’s a very thorough and fairly bewildering online annotated edition that you can poke around if you want to see how deep this baroque rabbit hole goes.

I finished Ada this time,and it took me about six weeks. I hate to say this, but my assessment is basically, “just read Pale Fire.” Pale Fire is tough, too, but it’s significantly shorter, twistier without being more obtuse, and more beautiful. Less uncomfortable, too. There’s a lot of child sex in Ada, much more than I remember, and that was harder for me to read than the incest.

I looooooooooooooooooooooove Pale Fire, to a “most life changing most favoritest most important read” level, and I’ll gamely defend Lolita whenever I can. I’ll also try to talk people into reading the oddly sweet Pnin or my other, very different favorite – Invitation to a Beheading. I named my pet snake after Cincinnatus C., and the paper I wrote about the pattern of double negatives in that novel was easily my best moment of academic writing. So truthfully, I was disappointed that Ada didn’t transport me this time around. I did my best to be patient and to not get in a hurry, to look up the words I didn’t know (brachiate, dackel, catocalid, charabanc, anadem, incunabulum, bewgest, prasine…), and to try to put up with the ten-year-old whores presented as choice pleasures. But when I finished the final pages today, I was exhausted and glad it was over.

That said, though, that final paragraph helped quite a bit. The novel concludes with Van Veen summarizing his own memoirs, which form the text of the novel, and ends with this:

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butter-flies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.

Nabokov was not big on false humility. Or real humility for that matter. But that paragraph did help bring into focus what I did enjoy about Ada – all the wonderful details tucked into the corners. For example, we see a “tiny tremulous poodlet” with “glistening eyes like sad black olives.” I can shake out my magic carpet (Speak. Memory being my third favorite) and ride along for that, I suppose.

And then there’s the fact that novel is technically steampunk. It takes place on a sort of reflection of our world where electricity has caused some sort of major disaster and has been outlawed (incidentally, this is easy to miss if you’re not paying attention). Nabokov, who proposed the first gen emoticon in a New York Times interview decades before the internet, wrote a book in which water powers everything in a world that strongly resembles the late nineteenth century decades before the term steampunk was coined. Another fun little Nabokov-as-seer moment involves an offhanded mention of a communication medium called “Instantagram.”

There were also passages that ached and that landed for me.

Nothing happened, or perhaps everything happened, and his destiny simply forked at that instant, as it probably does sometime at night, at stages of great happiness or great desolation, when we happen to die in our sleep, but continue our normal existence, with no perceptible break in the faked serialization, on the following, neatly prepared morning, with a spurious past discreetly but firmly attached behind (445).

Or early on, the narrator exclaims, “we are visitors in a strange universe, indeed, indeed” (107).

In other words, it wasn’t a complete wash. I do wish I had Professor Smith on hand to help me with it, and I wish I had enough time to dig in to explore all the references. It’s been a long time since I read Nabokov, and there were more than a few spots in Ada I recognized with a lot of pleasure what I loved about him in college. I’m going to wrap this up with one more quote and call this reading challenge complete.

One can be a lover of Space and its possibilities: take, for example, speed, the smoothness and sword-swish of speed; the aquiline glory of ruling velocity; the joy cry of the curve; and one can be an amateur of Time, an epicure of duration. I delight sensually in Time, in its stuff and spread, in the fall of its folds, in the very impalpability of its grayish gauze, in the coolness of its continuum. I wish to do something about it; to indulge in a simulacrum of possession. I am aware that all who have tried to reach the charmed castle have got lost in obscurity or have bogged down in Space. I am also aware that Time is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors (537).

Happy New Year!


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