Nabokov's Most Difficult Book

Garth Risk Hallberg on what is probably Nabokov’s densest, most obscure novel: Ada, or Ardor.

Of the major edifices he erected in English, his last, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969), is his most excessive, both in its difficulty and in the pleasures it affords the (re)reader.

That excess begins with sheer length. At 589 pages (plus endnotes!), Ada is twice the size of your average Nabokov paperback. Nor would it be fair to call Ada a page-turner; even as it hews to the plot of the “family chronicle,” it elaborates on the textual gamesmanship of its immediate predecessor, Pale Fire (1962). Riddles, anagrams, and puns abound. This is not to mention the density of intertextual allusion, which makes Humbert Humbert look like Duran Duran.

What I’ve come to think of (somewhat unfairly) as the grad-school response to such allusiveness – treating each sentence like a puzzle to be solved – isn’t always the best way to approach to a tough text. With Finnegans Wake, for example, a willingness to let things wash over you can be the difference between sublimity and seasickness. With Ada, however, if you aren’t playing along at home with your Nabokov decoder ring, you’re probably missing something. And the anagrammatic annotator “Vivian Darkbloom” has left us a set of valuable hints in the end matter. (A brilliant, if half-complete, online annotation offers further assistance. Would that one of these sites existed for each of our Difficult Books!)

Rereader is right. I read Ada a number of years ago, and I’ve never quite shook off the feeling that with that experience behind me I’m now fully prepared for my first reading of Ada.


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I think that with Ada Nabokov constructed a puzzle similar to that of Pale Fire. But I think with Ada he was too clever by half in that no one has come close to cracking the heart of this puzzle. The surface story of the incestuous aristocratic lovers, Ada and Van, is only mildly interesting, and the same is true of the surface description of the world of Antiterra (although I know some think this love storey beautiful all by itself). There is no depth in either of these facets of this novel. Do we readers really care about the concerns of a couple of self-absorbed rich uber kinder? The Terrors of Terra hold some clue to unravelling who is crazy and who is not, because the whole reality of Antiterra resmbles the escapist-world of some skitzophenic.

Earlier in the week I walked by a used bookstore here in Buenos Aires & saw an old, mass market paperback edition of Ada. The cover was hilarious. It said not “A Family Chronicle”, but “The New Bestselling ‘Erotic Masterpiece’ by the author of Lolita”.

It’s not quite Lolita, but there is a lot of sex, much of it incest sex.

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