Commentary Magazine

Nabokov's Ardor

Vladimir Nabokov possesses what is probably the most finely cultivated sense of form of any living writer, and so there is a satisfying justness in the fact that not only his individual works but also the sequence of his books should evince a formal harmony. In his 1956 afterword to Lolita, Nabokov warned that any assessment of his writing was bound to be out of focus without an awareness of his Russian work; since then, the translation or reissue in English of seven of his nine Russian novels has in fact demonstrated that Lolita, far from being a brilliant sport, was merely the most radiant and engaging in a line of books that for three decades had explored the paradoxical intertwinings of imagination and reality, the artist and his world, through athletically allusive, involuted, and parodistic fictional forms. These same concerns were then given even more original and intricate formal expression in Pale Fire, while a new central emphasis in Lolita on the quest for a paradisiac past (Humbert Humbert's golden “princedom by the sea”) appeared in oblique refraction through Kinbote's longing for his lost kingdom. Now, in his seventieth year, at an age when most novelists one can think of are already gone sadly to seed, Nabokov has produced a major work that in a purely formal sense culminates most of what he has attempted in over forty years of active writing. Ada1 is the fullest realization of the program for the novel articulated in 1941 in Nabokov's first English book, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; as Sebastian Knight aspired to do, the author of Ada “use[s] parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion,” and thus succeeds in illuminating in new depth and breadth the relation between art, reality, and the evanescent ever-never presence of time past.


Because parody is intrinsic to Nabokov's method, and because he more often parodies plot, situation, and motif than style and narrative technique, a plot-summary of any of his novels is bound to be thoroughly misleading. (To mislead the unsuspecting, of course, is precisely what Nabokov intends: thus, the four concluding paragraphs of Ada are a pitchman's synopsis of the book, the prose of the novel followed by what the narrator, tongue in cheek, calls “the poetry of its blurb.”) Ada, which is surely one of the sunniest works of fiction written in this century, sounds, to judge by the initial outlines of its plot, like a dark drama of fatal, incestuous passion. Van Veen, the retrospective nonagenarian narrator, has an ecstatic affair at the age of fourteen with twelve-year-old Ada, ostensibly his cousin, later discovered to be his sister. The two are irresistibly drawn to each other by their inner nature but are separated by social taboo and the course of outward events. In the two decades from early adolescence to mature adulthood, the lovers enjoy four fleeting periods of illicit ardor together, but each time the subsequent separation is longer, and while Van seeks the simulacrum of his Ada in a thousand whores and mistresses, both he and she are physically thickened and coarsened by the passing years, until at last they come together in late middle age, all passion not spent but certainly muted. In the background, moreover, of their partings and joinings, as the third, unequal angle of a thoroughly incestuous triangle, is the pathetic figure of Lucette, their mutual half-sister, who loves Van relentlessly body and soul, loves Ada, periodically, in a more strictly bodily sense, and finally destroys herself when she is rejected by Van.

All this may sound like rather lurid stuff, especially when one adds that there is a much higher degree of descriptive specification about sexual matters here than anywhere else in Nabokov's fiction. The actual tenor of the novel, of course, is precisely the opposite of what this summary suggests. On a stylistic level, the seeming paradox is easy enough to explain: Nabokov's intricately wrought, elaborately figurative style, with its painterly effects and its perspectivist mirror-games, transmutes objects of description, even the most pungently physical objects, into magical objets d'art. When, for example, the narrator, in a spectacular set-piece, describes all three siblings in bed together (surely a parody of the ménage à trois grapplings that are stock scenes of pornographic literature), he invites us to view the action as though it were reflected in the ceiling mirror of a fancy brothel, and then proceeds to convert the rampant eroticism into a formal contrasting and blending of colors and movements. Physical details are not spared—“the detail is all,” Van Veen had affirmed earlier about the reality of all experience and memory—but, to cite a strategic instance, the exposed sexual fluff of redheaded Lucette and black-haired Ada becomes here a new-fledged firebird and an enchanting blue raven, varicolored birds of paradise in a poet's Wonderland.


When we move from effects of style to the larger narrative patterns of the novel, it is difficult to make full sense of the incestuous complications without attention to the ubiquitous use of literary allusion. In order to talk about the allusions, something first must be said about the setting. The principal action of Ada takes place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries of a world alternately referred to as Antiterra and Daemonia, which has the same geography as our world but a teasingly different though parallel history. The area we call Russia having been conquered some centuries earlier by the Tartars, America has been settled by Russian as well as English and French colonists, and so Nabokov's own three native languages and literary traditions are able to flourish side by side, as complementary parts of a single national culture. From a terrestrial viewpoint (Terra the Fair, by the way, is a supposedly celestial place believed in mainly by the deranged on Antiterra), historical periods as well as cultural boundaries have been hybridized—the Daemonian 19th century combines the quiet country houses of Chekhov and Jane Austen with telephones, airplanes, skyscrapers; a mock-Maupassant figure is contemporaneous with the author of a Lolita-like novel masquerading (anagrammatically) as J. L. Borges. This device of a fictional antiworld gives Nabokov a free hand to combine and permute the materials of culture and history in piquant and suggestive ways, though perhaps it also sometimes tempts him into self-indulgence, so that one begins to feel he is playing his games of anagrams, trilingual puns, coded hints, and conflated allusions for their own sake, not because they have any imaginative necessity in a larger design. (It must be admitted, though, that many of the incidental games, especially those involving literary figures, are so delightful in themselves that one would hesitate to give them up. My own favorite is the treatment of T. S. Eliot, who appears as a truncated version of his own ape-necked Sweeney, “solemn Kithar Sween, a banker who at sixty-five had become an avant-garde author; . . . had produced The Waistline, a satire in free verse on Anglo-American feeding habits”; and who is seen, in most poetic justice for a versifier of anti-Semitic innuendoes, in the company of “old Eliot,” a Jewish real-estate man.)

The most important advantage, in any case, that Nabokov gains through the freedom he allows himself to shuttle across temporal and cultural boundaries is that he is able to compress into the life-space of his protagonist a parodistic review of the development of the novel. The story begins in the classic age of the novel, and, really, everything that happens occurs in purely novelistic time and novelistic space. Ardis Manor, where young Van Veen will meet Ada, is glimpsed for the first time, characteristically, in the following fashion: “At the next turning, the romantic mansion appeared on the gentle eminence of old novels.” The narrative is frequently punctuated with such notations to remind us that everything is taking place against a background of jaded literary conventions, as the view shifts quickly, and not necessarily chronologically, from Romantic récit to Jane Austen, Turgenev, Dickens, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, the pornographic novel, the Gothic novel, Joyce, Proust, and Nabokov beyond them. The “plot,” in fact, is from one point of view comprised of a string of stock scenes from the traditional novel—the young man's return to the ancestral manor, the festive picnic, the formal dinner, a midnight blaze on the old estate, the distraught hero's flight at dawn from hearth and home as the result of a misunderstanding, the duel, the hero's profligacy in the great metropolis, and so forth.

Though the technique of allusion is common to all of Nabokov's novels, there is a special thematic justification for this recapitulation in parody of the history of a genre, for what Van Veen's story represents is a reversal of the major thematic movement of the novel as a genre. The novel characteristically has concerned itself with lost illusions—the phrase, of course, was used as a title by Balzac—from the quixotic knight who finally abandons his pursuit of a Golden Age, a broken man renouncing his chivalric vision and dying; to Flaubert's Emma, spitting out her daydreams of a blue Beyond in the last hideous retches of an arsenic suicide; to Anna Karenina—the first sentence of her story is quoted, in reverse, in the first sentence of Ada—ending her tortured love under the wheels of a locomotive. What “happy endings” one finds in the classic novel are generally a matter of mere acquiescence to convention (Dickens) or sober accommodation of the protagonists to society (Jane Austen, George Eliot). Ada, in direct contrast, is an attempt to return to paradise, to establish, in fact, the luminous vision of youth and love's first fulfillment as the most intensely, per-durably real experience we know. It bears affinities to both Molly Bloom's great lyric recall of first flowering love at the end of Ulysses and to Proust's triumph over time through art in the last volume of his novel, but it is a more concerted frontal attack on Eden than either.


Two key allusions are especially helpful in understanding what Nabokov is up to with his incestuous lovers. One is simple, a mere negative parallel to serve as a foil; the other is complex, being a kind of imaginative model for the whole book and ramifying into other, related allusions. Several passing references are made to Chateaubriand; Ada jokingly calls Van her “René”'; and the first half of the novel's title, Ada or Ardor, looks suspiciously like a parody of that most Romantic title, René ou les effets des passions. René, like Van, is a singular man with an artist's soul who enjoys the rare delights of bucolic ambles with his dear sister until the incestuous nature of her attachment to him forces them to separate. So much for the parallels; all the rest is pointed contrast. René is a book suffused with Romantic mal de siècle, and René and Amélie, unlike the Veen siblings, are anything but “children of Venus”; the paradisiac fulfillment of premoral desire is quite unthinkable for René and his sister, so that the very existence of such desire drives Amélie into a convent and ultimately leads to martyrs' deaths for both of them. In Ada, one can see from the sunlit river Ladore near the Ardis estate a view of Bryant's Castle (Gallicized, Château-Briand), “remote and romantically black on its oak-timbered hill.” The chief quality of Van Veen's world, by contrast, is brightness and intimate closeness, social and sexual, tactile and visual; and its oak trees, as we shall see, are part of a landscape very different from the dark romantic wood. René actively longs for death, even before the revelation of his sister's passion; he sees in it a hazy, alluring ailleurs, as though the concrete objects of this world could not conceivably satisfy the needs of his own swoon of infinite desire. Nabokov's hero and heroine, on the other hand, delight in the concrete particulars of this world, observe and recall them with tender meticulous care, and they both passionately love existence in this world, each being the other's ultimate point of anchorage in it, Van's male V or arrowhead (ardis in Greek) perfectly fitting into its inverted and crossed female mirror-image, the A of his sister-soul (ideogrammatists take note, Freudians beware).

The mirror play of Van's and Ada's initials—underscored at one point when Nabokov finds dramatic occasion to print the A upside-down—suggests that the two are perfect lovers because ultimately they are complementary halves of one self. Indeed, Van's book is really “written” by the two of them, one imagination called “Vaniada” expressing itself in two antiphonal voices. The birthmark on the back of Van's right hand reappears in exactly the corresponding spot on Ada's left hand, for both physically and psychically the lovers are really the two halves of that androgynous pristine human zestfully described by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. According to rabbinic legend, Adam in the Garden before the creation of Eve was androgynous, and it is clear that Nabokov, like the rabbis, has conjoined the Greek and the Hebrew myths, creating in his deliciously intertwined sister and brother an image of prelapsarian, unfragmented man.


A major clue to Nabokov's intention in this respect is the repeated allusion, especially in the Ardis section of the novel, to one of the most splendidly realized experiences of paradise in English poetry, Marvell's “The Garden.” Adolescent Ada tries to translate the poem into French (in her version, an oak tree stands prominently at the beginning of the second line); after the lovers' first separation, the poem, most appropriately, serves as a code-key for the letters in cipher that they exchange. The second stanza of the poem, not quoted in the novel, begins as follows: “Fair quiet, have I found thee here,/And Innocence thy Sister dear!/Mistaken long, I sought you then/In busie Companies of Men.” The lines are, of course, applicable point for point to the novel, a kind of adumbration of its plot, though both “sister” and “innocence” are given rather different meanings. Marvell's poem is a vision of bliss beyond the raging of physical passion; the solitary garden-dweller, however, does revel in the pleasures of the senses, luscious fruit dropping from the trees to delight his palate, while his mind withdraws into the happiness of self-contemplation where it—like the author of Ada?—“creates, transcending these,/ Far other Worlds, and other Seas.” In Ada's ardisiac setting, luscious fruit also comes falling from the branches, when the tree-climbing young Ada slips and ends up straddling an astonished Van from the front, thus offering him an unexpectedly intimate first kiss, since, as we are told several times, she wears no underpants. In a moment Ada will claim that this is the Tree of Knowledge, brought to the Ardis estate from Eden National Park, but her slip from its branches clearly enacts a Happy Fall, for in this garden, as in Marvell's, no fatal sin is really possible. Marvell's poem also gives us a comic image of a Fall with no evil consequences: “Stumbling on Melons, as I pass,/ Insnar'd with Flow'rs, I fall on Grass.” The interlaced limbs of ardently tumbling Van and Ada are similarly assimilated to the premoral world of vegetation, likened to tendril climbers; and Van, rushing away from a last embrace of Ada at the moment of their first separation, is actually described “stumbling on melons,” an allusion which would seem to promise that he will eventually return to his Ada-Ardis-Eden.


It is the concluding stanza, however, of Marvell's “Garden” that offers the most suggestive model for what Nabokov seeks to achieve in Ada. After the garden-dweller's soul, whetting and combing its silver wings among the branches, has experienced ecstasy, the poet glances backward at the first Adam's paradise and then returns us to the “real” world of time, but it is a time now transfigured by art, nature ordered by “the skilful Gardner” in a floral sundial to measure time. The industrious bee, then, no less than man, “computes its time” (in 17th-century pronunciation, a pun on “thyme” and thus a truly Nabokovian wordplay) with herbs and flowers; time the eroder has been alchemized in this artful re-creation of paradise into a golden translucence, delighting palate and eye. Nabokov means to create just such an inter-involvement of art and pleasure transcending time, or rather capturing its elusive living “texture,” as Van Veen calls it, and this, finally, is the dramatic function of the novel's unflagging emphasis on erotic experience. The point is made clearer in the novel by still another allusion. Marvell's “Garden” modulates into several other poems in the course of the narrative, but the most significant is Baudelaire's Invitation au voyage, which is burlesqued in the novel with an oak tree inserted in the second and third line, to establish the cross-link with Marvell. The Baudelaire poem is also a ravishing dream of a perfect world, a world saturated with both generally sensual and specifically erotic delight, but realized, as such bliss can only be realized, through the beautiful ordering of art. Against the background of the novel, the famous opening lines of the poem become an evocation of Ardis, Van addressing Ada: “Mon enfant, ma soeur,/ Songe à la douceur/ D'aller là-bas vivre ensemble!/ Aimer à loisir/Aimer et mourir/Au pays quite ressemble!” (“My child, my sister,/ Think of the delight/ Of going there to live together!/ To love at ease/ To love and die/ In the land that resembles you!”) It is noteworthy that fragments of these lines are bandied about by Ada at the point in the narrative when their first sexual intimacy is recollected; significantly, this is the one moment in the novel when Ada actually says to Van that they are not two different people.

Baudelaire's poem, then, suggests what is also clear in the novel in other ways, that Ada is formed on the paradox of rendering the perfect state of nature through a perfect state of art, self-conscious, allusive, and exquisitely ordered. In this respect, Nabokov also follows the model of Milton (who is burlesqued in tetrameters at one point) in the fourth book of Paradise Lost, where prelapsarian Eden is described through the most finely ostentatious artifice—a natural garden full of sapphire founts, sands of gold, burnished fruit, crystal-mirror brooks, in which the preceding literary tradition of envisioned paradises is incorporated through the cunning strategy of negation (“Not that fair field/ Of Enna . . .,” and so forth). It may be that Ada pays a price as a novel for being an extended poetic vision of Eden: Van and Ada sometimes seem to be more voices and images in a lyric poem than novelistic characters; the excess of perfection they must sustain makes them less interesting individually, less humanly engaging, than many of Nabokov's previous protagonists. In compensation, the expression in Ada of a lover's consummated delight in life and beauty is an achievement that has very few equals in the history of the novel. Let me offer a brief representative instance, in which the lovers' present is juxtaposed with their ardisiac past:

Her plump, stickily glistening lips smiled.

(When I kiss you here, he said to her years later, I always remember that blue morning on the balcony when you were eating a tartine au miel; so much better in French.)

The classical beauty of clover honey, smooth, pale, translucent, freely flowing from the spoon and soaking my love's bread and butter in liquid brass. The crumb steeped in nectar.

The honeyed bread-slice here is very much a Nabokovian equivalent of Proust's petite madeleine and of that more erotic tidbit, the ambrosial seedcake which Molly Bloom puts from her mouth into her young lover Leopold's. Through its sweetness past and present fuse, or, to speak more precisely, they fuse through its sweetness minutely observed and recollected, then distilled into the lucid order of a poem that moves in alliterative music through a poised choreography of dactyls and trochees to the culminating metaphorical paradox of the honey as liquid brass and the final substitution of nectar for the honey, now become “literally” food for the gods.


At several points in the novel the narrator takes pains to inform us that Ada in Russian means “hell.” The point, I would assume, is that Ada and Van in their Eden are in a state before the knowledge of good and evil, when heaven and hell cannot be distinguished. This also suggests, however, that there could be an ambiguous underside of evil in the edenic fulfillment offered Van by his sister-soul, and the suicide to which the two of them inadvertently drive Lucette may indicate that a paradisiac love can have evil consequences when it impinges on the lives of others outside the Garden. In any case, the ultimate sense of the novel is of all threats of evil, including the evil of the corrosive passage of time, finally transcended by the twinned power of art and love. One last clue encodes this idea as a signature of affirmation at the end of the novel. Moving around mysteriously in the background of the concluding section is an unexplained figure named Ronald Oranger. Since he marries the typist responsible for Van's manuscript, and since he and his wife, according to a prefatory note, are the only significant persons mentioned in the book still alive when it is published, one may assume that his is the final responsibility for the text of Ada, he the presiding spirit at the end. All we really know about him is his name, which means “orange tree” in French. No orange trees are explicitly mentioned in Marvell's “Garden,” though they are spectacularly present in “Bermudas,” another remarkable poem by Marvell about a garden-paradise. In any event, “Ronald Oranger” has an anagrammatic look, and could be rearranged as a reversal of the book's title, “angel nor ardor”—which is to say, the fixative force of art, working through the imagination of love, has extracted heaven from hell, Eden from Ada, has established a perfected state that originates in the carnal passions but goes quite beyond them. Fortunately, the code-games and allusions in Ada are merely pointers to the peculiar nature of the novel's imaginative richness, which does not finally depend on the clues. Few books written in our lifetime afford so much pleasure. Perhaps the parody-blurb at the end is not so wrong in proffering the novel as a voluminous bag of rare delights: Nabokov's garden abounds with the pleasurable visions whose artful design I have tried to sketch out here, and, as the blurb justifiably concludes, with “much, much more.”


1 Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. McGraw-Hill, 589 pp., $8.95.

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