When Nabokov Went Rococo: Ada, or Ardor

Isometric Systems in Isotropic Space–Map Projections: The Snail, 1978 Ink on rag paper with printed Myar overlay, 24 x 30 inches (Copyright Agnes Denes, Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York)

The 50th anniversary of Ada, or ArdorA Family Chronicle has gone with little fanfare, as opposed to Nabokov’s 1955s succès de scandale, Lolita – its jubilee celebrated by many articles, and a commemorative edition. Investigating the lack of success of a novel, indeed of any artistic creation, is a risky business. But a lapse of fifty years is sufficient, as far as scholarly theory has it, for contemporaneity to turn into history. Perspective offers a measure of detachment, rather than objectivity which remains necessarily unattainable in the arts. When Ada, or Ardor came out, Lolita’s scandal and the frequent appearances of Nabokov in the media were the talk of the day. Now that floods of scandals and broken taboos have run under the bridge, the hype has dissipated. Revisiting Ada or Ardor might shed light on the reasons critics and readers snubbed what Nabokov intended as his masterpiece, and whether they should give the novel a (second) chance.

Ada or Ardor is at its core a love story, the stuff that’s sold reams of pop music, and piles of books. Van, fourteen, falls in love with his twelve-year-old cousin Ada during summer vacation. This premise is possibly the only aspect of Ada or Ardor common to numerous other novels. Van, an unreliable narrator if there ever was one, ostensibly tells the story, while the narrative shuttles seamlessly from a first person to a third person, trust Nabokov the Enchanter to achieve that trick. Soon, the young cousins discover that they are actually brother and sister. Far from being discouraged by the proximity of their genes, they indulge in frenetic sex throughout the summer. Moral norms reprove incest except for gods and pharaohs, since they have access to a reduced pool of peers, and for animals. The incestuous siblings become as animalistic as a mantis devouring her mate after sex, and as divine as Zeus, who impregnated every female in his family. As they eschew their human nature, this reduces in turn their pool of equal partners. When they are in their nineties, Ada annotates Van’s manuscript in her best Nabokovian voice: ‘(She). Billions of boys. Take one fairly decent decade. A billion of Bills, good, gifted, tender and passionate, not only spiritually but physically well-meaning Billions, have bared the jillions of their no less tender and brilliant Jills during that decade, at stations and under conditions that have to be controlled and specified by the worker, lest the entire report be choked up by the weeds of statistics and waisthigh generalizations. No point would there be, if we left out, for example, the little matter of prodigious individual awareness and young genius, which makes, in some cases, of this or that particular grasp an unprecedented and unrepeatable event in the continuum of life or at least a thematic anthemia of such events in a work of art, or a denouncer’s article.’ and more succinctly: “the unique super-imperial couple”. Additionally, their discovery of love turns them into the first man and the first woman, as every first-time lover should experience. Ada spells Adam without the m, and Veen an anagram of Eve with an n added. Adam and Eve were not technically brother and sister, but surely they were as closely related, made as they were from the same dust. Van is a writer and a chess player, and Ada, a lepidopterist, a water colorist, a witty commentator. United, they incarnate Nabokov. As Ada is both Eve and Adam, and so is Van, as both share elements from Nabokov, they combine to form just one entity, similar to the famous spherical being depicted by Plato. The separations they will endure throughout the novel will hurt all the more.

Novels are typically concerned with realistic human beings with whom the reader identifies, and experiences the same emotions. Nabokov roared his disapproval of the concept. Demoniac Van does not invite identification, nor does Ada who keeps her mystery and allure throughout the story. Perusing literature that lacks naturalistic characters is necessarily more esthetic than emotional, turning the page slower than if driven by fear, or ambition, or desire, or any other feeling experienced by proxy. This distancing, common in Virgil or Boccacio or Marivaux, might well deter a modern reader.

Since the two protagonists differ from your regular Homo sapiens (in fact, as gods, as animals, they lack sapience but will eventually learn), it comes as no surprise their world eschews our norms. Just as Adam and Eve merge in Ada and Veen, Heaven and Hell combine in their universe. References to hell flicker around. Ada means “from hell” in Russian, their world is also called Demonia, and their father Demon, while images of paradise and of the Garden of Eden abound. Ada and Veen regularly climb the apple tree to enjoy sex, and depictions of the park, Ardis, where most of their amorous ardor takes place, evoke early paintings of paradise such as Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. This fusion of hell and heaven is found on a planet called Antiterra. On Earth, as a reminder, we are taught that we will only reach hell or heaven in the beyond. Antiterra shares many similarities with our planet in terms of its physical realm, such as plants, humans, and seasons, trains and tea cups, art galleries and the theater. Technology is omnipresent. Nabokov explains that his taste for technology comes from the relationship between man and his tools. Man makes them in his image, as God made man in his: cars have eyes, nails have heads, tables legs. And these tools and technologies are damn useful, even, or particularly for an aristocratic thinker busy with novels, butterflies and chess problems. This embrace of the world in its entirety leads him to describe scrupulously his protagonists’ body functions: they urinate, they menstruate, they burp. Just as on Earth.

The differences between Antiterra and our planet, mainly affecting the nature of time, and political geography, are revealed gradually. In particular the Tatars on Antiterra were not defeated at the battle of Kulikovo in 1380 as they were on Earth. Incidentally, family tradition has it that the Nabokovs’ first recorded ancestor was a Tatar prince in the 1300s. The victory allowed the Tatars to keep their empire on Antiterra and add to it Russia and Northern America: Amerussia. Nabokov thus provides a rationale for the Russian-French-American world of Ada, or Ardor by playing at Historical Fantasy. According to literary scholar Sinclair Frances, these: “alternate histories where the past and present have been significantly changed when an event turned out differently” often inhabit a secondary world. The genre, popular in the 18th century and early 19th century, has known a hyperbolic resurgence recently, since it offers juvenile readers a chance to escape our less than enchanted world. Nabokov never got to read these bestsellers published after his time, but he must have been familiar with early examples of the genre, Voltaire’s Zadig comes to mind, which aimed at satirizing society. Some of these texts, such as The Tales of The Genii, were inspired by the 1704 translation of 1001 Nights, a work to which the novelist refers frequently in Ada, or Ardor.

It is unlikely that his facetious lurch at historical fantasy meant to resurrect a minor genre. Nabokov, who merged two different projects of smaller magnitude to create Ada, or Ardor, had huge ambitions for this novel. It was to be his magnum opus in the vein of Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, Madame Bovary, and Anna Karenina. Numerous allusions are made to these monuments of Western literature, most famously the first sentence of the novel is the inversion of Anna Karenina’s first sentence. Not just his masterpiece, but also his testament. The world of Antiterra is his world: the Russian aristocrat spoke English, French and Russian even before he became an émigré in Germany and France, and later in America. Nabokov telescoped his worlds both in terms of geography and time to nest the narrative of his testamentary work: Russia’s 1900s as experienced by an aristocrat enjoying French maids and picnics and parks and limousines, with the technological universe of modern America including skyscrapers and telegrams, as well as the country estates of vulgar capitalists.

Ada, or Ardor spans 100 years from 1869, the biological conception of its main character Van, to his death in 1969. The period nods ostensibly to the great novels of the 19th century: 1856 for Madame Bovary, 1867 for War and Peace, 1873 for Anna Karenina, early 20th century for Joyce and Proust. It could be deduced that time on Antiterra runs about fifty years earlier than in our world, transliterating the 1920s of the writer and his wife Vera’s romance to the 1870s, but nothing is that simple in Nabokov. For instance, the world does not change perceptively during Ada’s century. From the beginning, the time frame is collapsed, carriages trot alongside motorcycles, people move across oceans on board liners or “fly”, either on devices enigmatically similar to magic carpets, or on board of undefined vessels. Pseudo scholarly explanations aim at confusing rather than enlightening the reader: “A gap of up to a hundred years one way or another existed between the two earths; a gap marked by a bizarre confusion of direction signs at the crossroads of passing time with not all the no-longers of one world corresponding to the not-yets of the other.”

An unrealistic universe can alienate readers, particularly those allergic to science fiction and other fantasy literature. John Updike deplored in his August 1969 review of the novel: “…one reason that an author should not create a nulliverse is that it is difficult to generate on an Antiterra the gravity that even the feeblest terrestrial tale appropriates.” and “the details (…) distract us from the angels and demons, who are, it turns out, meant to be human.” Since Updike’s review, not only has fantasy literature engulfed our young, but magical realism has soared even in the most refined critical spheres. Its birth assigned to the 1930s, magical realism became truly popular once it bridged the Western novel with less rationalistic cultural traditions: Midnight’s Children came out in 1981, Love in Times of Cholera in 1985, The Famished Road in 1991. The genre has now spread through much of global fiction. Typically, the authors paint a realistic world where magic interferes without rationale. Nabokov presents an alternative universe that has its inner logic, if ironical, such as water replacing electricity as a source of power. The point is not that Nabokov kickstarted the enthusiasm for magical realism even if Ada or Ardor flirts with the opulent Russian fairy tale, but that readers now tolerate better alternative realities, and might enjoy better Antiterra.

In this imaginary world, the story of our mythical protagonists develops non-linearly. Ada or Ardor starts with a genealogy, but as incest is suggested amongst its branches, the tree presents inward curvatures from one branch to itself, or convolutions. Once the tree branches to Ada and Veen, who will have no children, the genealogy, or the so-called “family chronicle”, terminates bluntly with their union. Nabokov tries his best to discourage the less committed reader by starting the novel with a tedious narration of the genealogy. Should the reader persevere, they will be rewarded by the digestible, in fact delectable, section that follows: the beginning of Ada and Van’s love. The flow of their lives joins when they are twelve and fourteen for a summer of eroticism. Then they are separated by the usual interferences in children’s lives, such as school and parents, until they reconvene at sixteen and eighteen for repeat summers. But Ada’s infidelities (she can’t help it) are unbearable to Van. He leaves her. They get together again a few years later thanks to Ada’s sister, whose shoulders look remarkably like wings. The convoluted symmetrical motif formed by the narrative, “She had on the back of her left hand the same small brown spot that marked his right one”, is complicated by this third party, Lucette, who is madly in love with Van. As the book progresses, the parts, each tracking the repeated union and separation of the protagonists get shorter, thus creating an involuted pattern: Part One has fourty-three chapters, Part Two eleven, Part Three eighteen, Part Four one (Van’s essay about the structure of Time), Part Five six. Ada and Van experience involution as they go through the loops of their relationship and become better lovers, better humans. Van gives up his womanizing which costs him tremendous efforts, Ada’s emotions seem softer: she chooses to care for her ailing, and dull, husband instead of running off with Van.  Toward the end of their lives, she says of her sister Lucette who committed suicide out of her desperate love for Van: “Oh, Van, oh Van, we did not love her enough. That’s whom you should have married, (..), and then everything would have been all right – I would have stayed with you both in Ardis Hall, and instead of that happiness, handed out gratis, instead of all that we teased her to death!”

Otto van Veen: ‘Amoris Finis Est’ Amorum Emblemata, 1608

Involution is associated with spirituality, in particular with some brands of esotericism. Anthroposophy founder Rudolf Steiner believed in the dual nature of time, which includes involution and evolution. “That period of time devoted to the attainment of self-consciousness and the building of the vehicles through which the spirit in man manifests, is called involution. Its purpose is to slowly carry life lower and deeper into denser and denser matter for the building of forms, till the nadir of materiality is reached”. Nabokov abhorred all schools and creeds: “Who cares about all those stale myths, what does it matter-Jove or Jehovah, spire or cupola, mosques in Moscow, or bronzes and bonzes, and clerics, and relics, and deserts with bleached camel ribs? They are merely the dust and mirages of the communal mind” affirms Van. But Nabokov must at least have been familiar with esotericism when he named the novel Petersburg, written by anthroposophist Andrei Bely, one of the four greatest novels of the 20th century along with The Metamorphosis, Ulysses, and the first part of In Search of Lost Time. He read the esoteric writer’s poetry obsessively as a youth. Nabokov was also interested, and refers in Ada, or Ardor to Gurdjieff. A mystic philosopher, he believed humans live in a state of trance because they do not have a unified consciousness. They can get out of this state by using self-remembrance. And that is certainly one way to look at the couple in Ada, or Ardor, who live in a passionate and hurtful trance until they reach peace in their old age through remembering the volutes of their relationships.

The reader also needs to go through involutions in the narrative, as plot points are rarely revealed linearly. Even Van’s father complains about the intricacies of the text: “Your epistolary style is so involute that I should suspect the presence of a code had I not known you belong to the Decadent School of writing, …” We have become used to non-linearity and fragmentation on the Internet where we spend much of our time, but does that this familiarity outbalance our addiction to narrative drive? One essential clue to Van’s characterization is his attack on Kim Beauharnais, the kitchen hand who blackmailed Ada with photos of the young lovers’ trysts. Clues to this event recur non-chronologically and, when pieced together, reveal that Van tracks down the young man and gouges out his eyes with an alpenstock. Should the reader not play close attention, they would miss Van’s macho violence, and a whole dimension to the novel, where men typically are demons, women angels. This model might come across as stereotypical, but is pretty much backed by murder and physical abuse statistics. Nabokov who always denied stridently that his novel was inspired by his own marriage clearly identified with the demoniac gender. He signed a 1969 letter to his angelic wife Vera as “VN, Ada and Lucette”.

Convolute, generated with assistance of “Model of Shell Growth” from the Wolfram Demonstrations Project / Stephen Wolfram

An involution is a function f : X → X that is its own inverse, and when applied repeatedly, brings the variable back to the starting point. “Few minds so scientific have deigned to serve the gods of fancy; with his passion for precision and for the complex design, he mounted for display the crudest, most futile lurchings of the human heart—lust, terror, nostalgia,” said John Updike, in a New Yorker “comment” on Nabokov’s death. Involution, a form Nabokov mentions in discussing his own work, organizes the structure of shells, and both shells and involutions are a favorite rococo motif. This art movement celebrates the aristocracy, wealth, abundance, and prefers freedom, knowledge and happiness over the religiosity and compliance of Baroque, a close parent. When dramatic light contrasts transcend the religious subjects in the Baroque period, Rococo’s mythological creatures, cupids, mermaids and many, many Greek gods and heroes float in an aura of golden rays. In Ada, or Ardor, Nabokov pushes his ornate style, which has often been described as baroque for its rich intricacies, to the extremes found in Rococo. Ever since the bourgeoisie, with its values of thrift and modesty, gained preeminence in the 19th Century, Rococo has been considered depraved and superficial. Naturalistic fiction, a byproduct of the bourgeoisie’s rise, replaced the myths that had reinforced the cohesion of society. The theme of incest, instead of unifying the audience through outrage, was subverted into a romantic motif as the individual’s ultimate stand against society. The incest motif looms in Byron and Chateaubriand, and possibly in Pushkin too, writers Nabokov refers to throughout the novel. Our dispossessed Russian aristocrat created a novel that parodied the bourgeoisie’s Romantics but belonged more in form and narrative technique to the 18th century, – and indeed Nabokov was a great admirer of Sterne and Swift. One last proof that the book dispenses with Romanticism: the incestuous siblings meet a happy end. In Chateaubriand’s René, the hero is killed in battle, after his beloved sister enters convent to redeem their cursed relationship.

Involute, generated with assistance of “Model of Shell Growth” from the Wolfram Demonstrations Project / Stephen Wolfram

Not only is his style ornate, but he grabs every opportunity, a name, situation or tableau, to pack in a reference. Sometimes the reader needs to unscramble the letters, Osberg for Borges, a game on the level of the Scrabble that Van and Ada indulge, or of the krestoslovica, the Russian crossword invented by Nabokov to survive financially as an émigré. Anagrams, spoonerisms, malapropisms, so much is crammed that it’s hard to keep up with the narrative. Baron d’Onsky is a merge of Onegin and Lensky, the two conflicting heroes of Onegin. The story of Ada’s mother parodies Tatiana’s in the same work. As Nabokov introduces a motif of Cinderella in Marina’s story, one can conclude that he sees the motif in Onegin too, Ada or Ardor as an exegesis of classic literature. The names of Ada and Van carry a number of additional references to those already discussed, as Nabokov did not like to limit himself when it came to alluding to other works or concepts. Ada sounds like “Ardor” pronounced with a Russian accent, and was the only legitimate daughter of Byron. The only famous van Veen on our Earth was an early Baroque painter. A teacher of Rubens, he produced emblem books, in particular The Amorum emblemata which illustrates famous quotes about the supremacy of love. This effort translated into hundred pairs of cupids depicted in action.

Evolute, generated with assistance of “Model of Shell Growth” from the Wolfram Demonstrations Project / Stephen Wolfram

Another example of obscure reference, the name of the most Northern part of the Americas is Estoty, short for Estotiland. This geographic denomination first appeared for real in The Zeno Map in the 16th century. Two Venetian citizens claimed their ancestor discovered the Americas before Christopher Columbus and exhibited this map, supposedly from the 15th century, to prove their assertion. It has been shown to be a hoax, a form of creativity of which Nabokov was particularly fond. Who will get this reference as they read Ada, or Ardor ? A well-read reader might get one out of ten references, an erudite reader maybe seven out of ten. That leaves a fluid portion of the references that 100% of the readers will not get, which implies Nabokov is planting these references for the sake of art, or for himself (as Joyce said of Ulysses: “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.”). Paradoxically, he does not exalt onanism: Ada describes it as “childish practices which she had indulged in before and which had little to do with the glory and tang of individual happiness.” And it’s worse for Van: “Then, for the sake of safety, he repeated the disgusting but necessary act.” If Nabokov indulges his taste for obscurantist references, some readers might not want to watch him pleasure himself. Martin Amis didn’t. He wrote in a Guardian article, The problem with Nabokov: “at least half a dozen times I have tried, and promptly failed, to read Ada (‘Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle’). (…)  But at six hundred pages, two or three times Nabokov’s usual fighting-weight, the novel is what homicide detectives call ‘a burster’. It is a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat.”

The hermeticist games inflating the text might have more meaning to them then just self-gratification. Nabokov emulates God in reproducing the mysteries of the world in his own literary creation. Mysticism was in the air in the 60s, as well as the rejection of institutions, and the quest for freedom and happiness. Involutions and convolutions and other intricate fractals (which only came to be known as such in the early 80s), if not gung-ho rococo, also caught minds: artist Agnes Denes projected globes onto 3D involutions, the esoteric guru Meher Baba shepherded followers into involution as “the inner journey of the spiritual pilgrim back to its origin through higher planes of consciousness.” It might seem farfetched to associate Nabokov with the swinging 60s, when he expressed a frank distaste for hippies, but what did he not express a distaste for? The 60s and Nabokov didn’t jibe in personality, but their hedonism and taste for imaginary worlds coincided. The sexual revolution had also arrived in the United States. Sex was embraced as “good” when it had been condemned as “bad” for many centuries by the Puritan culture, along with self-indulgence. This latter vice enjoyed no such redemption, or not to the same extent. Nabokov was found massively guilty of the literary sin of self-indulgence. Not only did he indulge his own erudition and brilliance in his books, but he presented a persona with a dramatic flamboyance that, while welcome in Russia, contributed to the irritation in America.

The involution of the novel’s structure, plotted with the help of mathematician Numen Rubino.

Interestingly, there are a number of Persian and Arab scholars who have written enthusiastically about Nabokov. Their culture might be more open to Nabokov’s arabesques than our Northern American culture where the Puritan “Plain Style” is the norm. The Pilgrims’ Governor John Bradford stated: “I shall endeavor to manifest in a plain style, with singular regard unto the simple truth in all things; at least as near as my slender judgment can attain the same.” This has been applied to legal documents for good purpose, as it makes them easier to read, and to handbooks, and journalism, and all non-fiction writing. In fact, the complex sentences structures and poetic expressivity in scientific texts from the Renaissance take us aback, just as the mermaids that frolic in between continents in old maps tickle our utilitarian sensibilities. Plain Style also influenced fiction. Hemingway and Wharton worked in pared down styles, whereas Henry James, Faulkner and Pynchon used a more ornate approach to narrative. Ironically, Nabokov claimed to despise James and Faulkner, did not know Pynchon, snubbed women’s novels (save Jane Austin), but so appreciated Hemingway he planned on translating “that fish story” to Russian. It is rather perplexing that “The Old Man and The Sea” with its protestant values of transcendence through effort, resilience, and humility should find favor with the dapper Russian writer.

Nabokov delivered in his lectures what he himself termed “opinions” rather than theories or analysis, with expressions such as “I feel”, “it seems to me”. That kind of language, and the tone of his letters to friends such as Edmund Wilson, contrast with the vocabulary of his public pronouncements replete with “I hate”, “I loathe”. His lack of rigid dogmatism was not picked up by the many critics who expressed their disapproval. Alex Beam has been the most vocal with his hostility. In his article Nabokov was such a jerk, his main argument is that Nabokov suffered from “solipsistic self-reverence”. He jeers at the writer for resenting Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize when Nabokov was never awarded the honor. The decision has been controversial, since Dr Zhivago cannot lay claim to the same realm of excellence as Nabokov’s literature, and the choice of Pasternak in the middle of the Cold War might have served a political agenda. Beam admits that Nabokov helped friends when they went through needy times, which again is something he did in his private life, and never boasted for glory. Nabokov himself, who was born to a life of luxury and privilege, never complained nor glorified the long years of penury he and his family went through until Lolita hit gold. The spoiled young aristocrat gave tennis lessons in Berlin in the 20s to support himself, and soon endured a harrowing flight from the Nazis with his Jewish wife. The man suspected of pedophilia was married for decades to the same woman, a rare feat in the celebrity writers’ world. In private, he was clearly a different man, generous, affectionate, if not utterly modest.

Maybe the options of persona for a writer come down to either humility or bravado, the writers flaunting humility petting privately the belief in their genius, the writers bedecked in boisterousness necessarily doubting their own talent. Public posturing could be seen as a protection. After all, creation is a fragile process, and we know Nabokov, like most great writers, doubted his work at times. He nearly burned Lolita, which was saved literally from the flames by his wife. Also, the man who had been a right Don Juan as a youth, became fat, and bald, and ugly. And so was Van at thirty-five when he joins Ada at a Swiss hotel, “the round rosy face of a recent bellboy, who now wore a frock, greeted fat old Van.” Being deserted by the good looks of his youth might have made the aristocratic esthete more vulnerable, and all the more vociferous. Hitchcock and Welles practiced prancing in the limelight too. Critics might not necessarily recognize their own puritanical attitude to the writer when they come up with such titles as Nabokov, perversely, or The Flaunting of Artifice in Vladimir Nabokov and Jorge Luis Borges, or The Irritating Genius of Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov’s work can be defined as elitist, but he does expressly offer different levels of understanding, some of the puns are easy, some references obvious, such the Chateaubriand moth. It is possible to read Ada, or Ardor without trying to decipher every reference and involute narrative, and accept that it will retain a part of mystery. The inert bulk slows down the reading, but Ada or Ardor is not meant to be a page-turner, unless we are turning back to review a narrative clue, or double-check a reference. Once the reader has hacked through six hundred pages of Nabokov’s prose, this gold nugget can be mined out of the curlicues: “His love for Ada was a condition of being, a steady hum of happiness unlike anything he had met with professionally in the lives of the singular and the insane. (…) He saw reflected in her everything that his fastidious and fierce spirit sought in life. An overwhelming tenderness impelled him to kneel suddenly at her feet in dramatic yet utterly sincere attitudes, puzzling to anyone who might enter with a vacuum cleaner.”

Ada, or Ardor’s Pandora’s box of references and word games makes it the perfect book for the paradigmatic desert island. Whether or not it is the masterpiece ambitioned by Nabokov, and this is a judgment only the individual reader can make, the novel abounds in curios that escape at first read. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book, one can only reread it” Nabokov declared in a lecture. A second read of Ada, or Ardor reveals a surprising number of details, of narrative clues, and of references, that were overlooked the first time round because the clarification came later in the book. More tidbits are bound to surface on subsequent reads. The novel, in turn lyrical, mischievous, elegiac, and mystical, would lift the castaway from the prospects of a grim diet and endless solitude, and offers anyone an antidote to our hurried, hyper-rationalist world and its focus on convenience and productivity.