Thursday, 9 April 2015

Review: Ada or Ardor

“What are dreams? A random sequence of scenes, trivial or tragic, viatic or static, fantastic or familiar, featuring more or less plausible events patched up with grotesque details, and recasting dead people in new settings.”

Title: Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Year: 1969
Pages: 479

Ada is a family chronicle and spans one hundred years. It tells the story of Ivan ‘Van’ Veen, and his life-long love for his cousin Ada. Although at first glance you’d say this would fit in the genre of romance, it is at the same time a fairy-tale, but also philosophical, epic, historical, erotic, and maybe even science-fiction.

It is set in an alternate version of our earth. There are slight differences in world events, and, in short, consequently North-America is a country in which people speak French, Russian, and English. Very convenient for the author, who was fluent in these languages, and felt being able to speak all of these allowed him to express himself best – if a word lacked in the English language, he’d use the French word, etc. (Very contrasting to the way language is used in the dystopian 1984). Although all Nabokov’s novels mix these languages, in Ada it is most prominent and important. At first glance, too, he has provided us with a glossary. Unfortunately, there are no notes, so whenever you stumble upon a foreign word, you’d have to go to the back of the book, and find out whether it’s been translated or not. Quickly enough, you’ll find that you’ve put too much trust in Nabokov. Of course, the easy phrases are the only ones translated, and for the difficult passages, you’d have to use Google Translate. Even more so, there are some words or phrases which are glossed several times, with different meanings. When then you see the notes were written by Vivian Darkbloom , someone who’s read Lolita will understand that this is a character (and a persona of our author – it’s an acronym, you see). Language is the first of many features which makes this novel interesting and dynamic, but at the same time tedious and difficult. Much time is spent trying to figure out what the characters are saying when speaking Russian – French I could often understand - up until the point when you can no longer be bothered checking each and every word, hoping you’ll understand the basic premise without looking it up.

While at first hand the plot seems quite straight forward, it becomes weirder and more morbid throughout. What probably should have creeped me out properly, but frankly only interested me, was the fact that for thirteen-year-olds, Van and Ada know much about sex, and are slightly too interested in it. In my opinion, this resulted mostly in funny or awkward scenes. While I admit, at some parts it could be viewed as erotic, I could not forget about their age which sort of obstructs this genre, in my opinion. There are more instances when the novel gets weird, but I want to remain spoiler-free here. When you get to the very last sentence of part 1 you’ll know what I mean (Although, the very attentive reader will merely regard this as a reference to Madame Bovary, rather than a plot-twist – this had to be pointed out to me, though).

When discussing this in class, I found out most people found the novel boring and too long. While it is indeed the longest novel we had to read, to me, it was the most exciting one (disregarding Lolita here as I’d already read it a year before), mostly because it was so plot-driven. This allowed you to read on, remain interested in what happened, and care for the characters. This also helped me getting through the more confusing and philosophical chapters. I have to agree with most critics that at some point these chapters seem superfluous and make the story drag, but knowing the plot will continue in just a few pages motivated me. I would also be interested in finding out how exactly those chapters fit in - I cannot wait to reread the novel for this purpose.

One last quality I’d like to talk about is the form of the novel. In essence, it’s a memoire, written by Van, reread by both him and Ada, which we can see sometimes when at the end of the chapter there’s a note by either of them. This made the novel even more dynamic.

As I mentioned before, though, it lost me sometimes. Also, the amount of references to other literary works or historical figures became exhausting. You don’t want to come across as ignorant, so in the very beginning of reading Nabokov, you try to understand every single reference. I was lucky enough that I read this novel at the end of a course on Nabokov, which meant I had by now become somewhat familiar with his style. Hence, I did not bother to understand everything. But how much more fun would it have been if I understood every reference? Yet another reason to reread this (in ten or twenty years).

Along with Lolita, my favourite Nabokov.  Also the last one I’ll be reading for a while now. I’ve had my fair share of this author for the year. 

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