For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I start with number 10: Vladimir Nabokov’s epic, Ada, or Ardor.
#10: ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE, Vladimir Nabokov
One of the best things my mother did when I was young was set me free in the library. Unlike most of the homeschooling parents in our community, my parents never censored my reading; they never told me, “You have to read these types of novels; you can’t read these types.” When confronted by other parents about this liberated policy, my mother’s response was always, “She reads way faster than I do. It would be impossible for me to read everything she’s reading and screen it first. If I had to do that, she would never get to read anything at all.” And so I read everything. By early middle school, I had positively devoured the entire young adult section of the local library, to the point that the librarians were on a first-name basis with me and I was responsible for writing 75 percent of the YA book reviews on the library website. This literary freedom allowed me to discover good and bad authors and a large range of genres. My independence also introduced me to messages and themes—e.g., sex, crime, obscene language— that I’m sure my parents would have objected to if they had known what I was reading. But they didn’t. So I kept reading, good and bad.
I relate this episode to try to explain why this novel by Vladimir Nabokov is on my top 10 list for 2010. Because, frankly, if I told a stranger on the street the plot of this novel—a fantasy-tinged family epic about a brother and sister from a fake planet who are involved with each other in a passionate love affair—I’d get more than just a few raised eyebrows. I’d probably get a strong, “You LIKED it? What is WRONG with you?”
Probably a few things, but yes, I did like it. Here’s why. This book thwarts expectations of the novel and does so in a sprawling, complicated, thoroughly messy way—and yet it’s beautifully done. Ever since reading Lolita (which, coincidentally, made my Top 10 list for 2009), I have been fixed on reading as much Nabokov as possible. I am mesmerized by Nabokov as a person—for his genius, for his disturbing and repetitive themes, for his ability to make all of his twisted characters somehow transparent and compassionate.
I ended up taking Ada, or Ardor on our honeymoon. It was certainly not a thematically appropriate book for the occasion: this 900-page monolith of a novel is about, more or less, a brother and sister who fall in love with each other and continue their all-consuming, destructive love affair even after the discovery that they are blood siblings. It is Nabokov, after all. From what little I know about his body of work, I know that you are going to find incest and pedophilia featured. Ada, or Ardor features the life story of Van Veen, a young man who grows up in the imaginary Russo-American world of Antiterra, and his romance with his sister, Ada. The novel takes the form of Van’s memoirs, which he is supposedly writing when he is about 90. His love for Ada has not dimmed, even though their lives have now grown apart. But the plot is not what matters about this book. And the characters’ actions are not the primary vehicles for the movement of the novel. It’s why you can read this book without endorsing pedophilic/incestual relationships—in the same vein of why you can read Harry Potter without becoming Wiccan or why you can read The Bell Jar without descending into madness yourself. Ada is about a love affair between siblings, but it is less about them and more about the pattern of their lives, the way daily events intersect to form a fabric of memory. As a whole, therefore, this book carries a distinct whiff of Proust; something perhaps Nabokov was aware of; I really don’t know.
Joining the theme of complicated memory and the retelling of the past, accurate or not, Nabokov’s diction is compelling. His language is so complex that it’s almost unbelievable. His sentences are rigged with Anglo-Russian neologisms, various puns, and allusions so dense that almost every line requires annotation (as demonstrated by this now-abandoned website). The language itself is part of the journey of Ada and one of the main reasons why I enjoyed myself throughout it. If you approach it with an open mind—as Nabokov flatly demands of all of his readers, of this book or any other—I think you would have a similar experience.