Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle is a novel by Vladimir Nabokov published in 1969. It tells a love story troubled by incest. It is also at once a fairy tale, epic, philosophical treatise on the nature of time, parody of the history of the novel, and erotic catalogue.

Ada began to materialize in 1959, when Nabokov was flirting with two projects: "The Texture of Time" and "Letters from Terra." In 1965, he began to see a link between the two ideas, finally composing a unified novel from February of 1966 to October of 1968. The published cumulation would become his longest, arguably richest work. Ada was ultimately given a mixed reception.


Plot summary

Ada tells the life story of Van Veen, and his lifelong love affair with his sister Ada. They meet when she is eleven (soon to be twelve) and he is fifteen, believing that they are cousins (more precisely: that their fathers are cousins and that their mothers are sisters), and begin a sexual affair. They later discover that Van's father is also Ada's and her mother is also his. The story follows the various interruptions and resumptions of their affair. Both are wealthy, educated, and intelligent. Van goes on to become a world-renowned psychologist, and the book itself takes the form of his memoirs, written when he is in his nineties, punctuated with his own and Ada's marginal notes. The story takes place not on Earth but on a world called Antiterra, with a history that is different at various points. North America is mostly a part of Russia, for example, and electricity has been banned nearly since its discovery, so that airplanes and cars exist, but television and telephones (as we know them) do not. The setting is thus a complex mixture of Russia and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Furthermore, our Earth, the real world, is a widely believed in as a sort of fringe religion or mass hallucination. Van's own specialty as a psychologist is with those people who believe that they are in contact with us. This alternate version of Earth possibly offers an explanation for the first line of the book, which appears to be a deliberate misquoting of the famous first line of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. However, this misquote could simply be another example of Nabokov's unreliable narrators.

The novel is divided into five parts, each approximately half the length of the preceding one. As they progress chronologically, this structure evokes a sense of a person reflecting on his own memories, with an adolescence stretching out epically, and many later years simply flashing by. A crude idea of the years covered by each section are provided in brackets, below, but the narrator's thoughts often stray outside of the periods noted.

Part 1: 43 chapters (1863–1888)

The first four chapters provide a sort of unofficial prologue, in that they move swiftly back and forth through the chronology of the narrative, but mostly deal with events between 1863 and 1884, when the main thrust of the story commences. They depict Van and Ada discovering their true relationship, Demon and Marina's tempestuous affair, Marina's sister Aqua's descent into madness and obsession with Terra and water, and Van's "first love," a girl he sees in an antique shop but never speaks to. Some readers regard these first four chapters as being deliberately difficult.

Chapters 4 to 43 mostly deal with Van's adolescence, and his first meetings with his "cousin" Ada—focused on the two summers when he joins her (and her "sister" Lucette) at Ardis Hall, their ancestral home, in 1884 and 1888.

In 1884 they also discover, by a process of deduction, that they are in fact not cousins but brother and sister. Van's father, Demon, is in fact father to them both, and Ada's mother, Marina, is mother to them both. Van's supposed mother, Aqua, is Marina's sister, and Ada's supposed father, Dan, is Demon's first cousin. This makes Lucette the uterine half-sister of both of them.

Van and Ada fall passionately in love, and their affair is marked by a powerful sense of romantic eroticism. This section ends with Van's discovery of her unfaithfulness and his flight from Ardis to exact revenge upon those "rivals" of whom he is aware—Phillip Rack and Percy de Prey. He is distracted by a chance altercation with a soldier named Tapper, whom he challenges to a duel and by whom he is wounded. In hospital he chances upon Phillip Rack, who is dying, and whom Van cannot bring himself to exact revenge upon. He then receives word that Percy de Prey has been shot and killed in Antiterra's version of the ongoing Crimean War. He moves to live with Cordula de Prey, Percy's cousin, whilst he fully recovers. They have a shallow physical relationship, which provides Van with respite from the emotional strain of his feelings for Ada.

Part 2: 11 chapters (1888–1893)

Van spends his time developing his studies in psychology, and visiting a number of the "Villa Venus" upper-class brothels. In the autumn of 1892 Lucette, now having declared her love for Van, brings him a letter from Ada in which she announces she has received an offer of marriage from Andrey Vinelander. Should Van wish to invite her to live with him she will refuse the offer. Van does so, and they commence living together in an apartment Van has purchased from Ada's old school-friend, Cordula de Prey.

In February 1893 their father, Demon, arrives with news that his cousin (Ada's supposed father, but actual stepfather) Dan has died following a period of exposure caused by running naked into the woods near his home during a terrifying hallucinatory episode. Upon grasping the situation regarding Van and Ada, he tells Van that Ada would be happier if he "gave her up"—and what is more, he would disown Van completely if he failed to do so. Van acquiesces, leaves, and attempts suicide, which fails when his gun fails to fire. He then leaves his Manhattan apartment and preoccupies himself with hunting down a former servant at Ardis, Kim Beauharnais, who had been blackmailing them with photographic evidence of their affair, and beating him with an alpenstock until he is blind.

Part 3: 8 chapters (1893–1922)

With Ada having married Andrey Vinelander, Van occupies himself in traveling and his studies, until 1901 when Lucette reappears in England. She has herself booked on the same transatlantic ship, the Tobakoff, that Van is taking back to America. She attempts to seduce him on the crossing, but is foiled when Ada appears as an actress in the film, Don Juan's Last Fling, that they are watching together on the onboard cinema. Lucette consumes a number of sleeping pills and commits suicide by throwing herself from the Tobakoff into the Atlantic. In March of 1905, Demon dies in a plane crash.

Later in 1905, Ada and Andrey arrive in Switzerland as part of a party engaged in uncovering Lucette's fortune, concealed in various hidden bank accounts. Van meets with them, and together he and Ada formulate a plan for her to leave her husband and live with him. This is now considered possible due to the death of Demon. During their stay in Switzerland, however, Andrey falls ill with tuberculosis, and Ada decides that she cannot abandon him until he has recovered. Van and Ada part, and Andrey remains ill for 17 years, at which point he dies. Ada then flies back to Switzerland to meet with Van.

Part 4: Not subdivided (i.e. 1 chapter) (1922)

This part consists of Van's lecture on "The Texture of Time", apparently delivered into a tape recorder as he travels across the width of Switzerland to meet Ada, transcribed. The transcription has then been edited to merge into a description of his and Ada's actual meeting, and then out again. This makes this part of the novel notably self-reflexive, and it is sometimes cited as the "difficult" part of the novel, some reviewers even stating that they wished Nabokov had "left it out." It could conversely be argued that it is one of the most potent evocations of one of the novel's central themes, the relation of personal experience of Time to one's sense of being in and of the world.

At the end of this section, Van and Ada join to live as man and wife.

Part 5: 6 chapters (1922–1967)

This section of the novel is the one most clearly set in 1967, as Van completes his memoirs as laid out in Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. He describes his contentment, such as it is, his relationship with his editor and assistant, the ravages of time on his body, and the continuing presence and love of Ada. This is interspersed with remarks on various events that have occurred since 1922. As cancer develops painfully within him, Van breaks off from correcting his essentially complete but not yet fully polished work, and he and Ada commit mutual euthanasia, and "die into the finished book, into Eden or Hades."

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