Don Juan Out of Hell

ADA OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE IN FIVE PARTS by Vladimir Nabokov McGraw-Hill, $8.95
Two suicides, Hart Crane and Ernest Hemingway, were born on the same day in 1899. Two other authors, far more similar to each other, were also born that year: Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov. Like that of the Argentinian writer Borges, the fame of Nabokov has grown slowly, but to enormous proportions: today he is unquestionably our senior novelist in craft as well as age; and although lie seems in many ways a young man himself because most of his works reached us so recently, he is conventionally designated as “the old master,” or in Updike’s appropriate chess epithet, the grand master.
Attending a chess tournament in Kalamazoo in 1966, I heard Susan Sontag lecturing on the campus circuit. Responding to my suggestion from the floor that Pale Fire was an experimental, avant-garde novel, Miss Sontag, while admiring Nabokov’s work, could only find it a wave from the past. Neither of us realized then that in the personality of Charles Kinbote, Pale Fire’s homosexual narrator, Nabokov had anticipated almost point for point Miss Sontag’s justly famous “Notes on Camp.” Original art makes itself contemporary, whatever the current fashion. Mary McCarthy found Pale Fire one of the greatest works ot art of our age: Ada, Nabokov’s new and much longer work, will probably not have such imposing claims made for it, but one can safely report that, in accordance with one of the anagram series that goes into the novel’s makeup, sore/rose/eros, there are pleasantly few sores, ample roses, abundant eroses—and no erosions.
Nabokov once claimed that two themes were taboo to American publishers: “a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; anti the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.” Ada has a similarly “impossible” subject (impossible, that is, because of the happy ending) : an incestuous love affair that prospers anti continues until the lovers are in their nineties. The lovers, Ada and Van, appear to be both first and second cousins (their mothers were twins, their fathers were first cousins). It we read with care, we find that they actually have tiie same father (Demon) and mother (Marina: her child born out of wedlock was substituted for her mad sister’s miscarriage—at least one book club has already misunderstood these relationships) ; so they are brother and sister. Perhaps Nabokov’s ideal reader will find a continuation of this trend toward proximity with the siblings suddenly ceasing to exist as separate personalities.
Nabokov’s novels are vivid and sensual, but incest does not outrage. Society is not flouted, it is ignored. Nabokov’s characters carry their morality internally, as private property, and follow or violate norms indifferently, while sex is another part of the friendly universe that Nabokov tells us in his autobiography “was made on a Sunday.” The one scene that is intended to shock us does so because it shocks Ada’s sister, and will continue to have its effect when all the four-letter words of other novels taste like leftover chipdip.
Van and Ada’s affair begins in early adolescence, in an idyllic northern Eden at Ardis (almost Paradise). But while Ada’s name is three fourths of Adam’s, and is a three-letter palindrome like Eve (in Spanish the feminine form of the word lor feminine is another palindrome, adamada), it also means “hell” in the Russian phrase iz ada (“out of hell”). This incest supposedly takes place not on Earth, but on a sister planet called Antiterra, or Demonia (read Dementia), or perhaps on Venus, that also resembles Shaw’s hell in Man and Superman as a fine place for sensual gratification (Shaw’s Don Juan rejects it, being an intellectual). On Antiterra, history and chronology, as we know them, are hopelessly askew: cars and discussions of Proust abound in the 1880s; Russia is an insignificant, impotent Tartary, particularly after a second Crimean War, but Russian is spoken in Alaska and parts of Canada, both of which are part of a United States that embraces all of North and South America. Only the hopelessly insane, safely locked in their asylums, have visions of the “real” world, which they think of as Iteaven. But as Van and Ada glow old, this world begins to impinge on the world of the novel, and we realize that, compared with Nabokov’s characters, we are the ones in hell: safe in their obsession for each other, they have all the fruits of the twentieth century but the bloodshed—and curiously, electricity.
Antiterra provides splendid comic relief, particularly in its dorophones —water-powered telephones that frenzy the plumbing when a call comes through. But Nabokov has also invented Antiterra to tell us something about the nature of time. In “The Garden of Forking Paths,” a story with a similar subject, Borges might be speaking of Nabokov:

He believed in an infinite series of time, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possi Dili ties of time.

Nabokov’s own metaphor is of two chess games with the same opening and the same end game, but with a divergent middle game. Time forked when on Antiterra a committee abolished electricity in the 1860s; on Terra, our world, electricity was developed. Eventually the paths of the two worlds converge again. Our reality (their delusion) slowly overcomes their reality. Telephones appear, and Antiterra fades away, leaving only the novel as evidence.
In interviews, Nabokov has praised the works of Borges, and in Ada he seems to pay Borges the supreme compliment of attributing his own writings to the mysterious novelist “Osberg.” Some of Borges’ themes have always been Nabokov’s own, as in “dime and Ebb,” a story printed in the Atlantic in 1945 which seems to prefigure Ada:
Our [twenty-first century] denominations of time would have seemed to them [the twentieth century] “telephone” numbers. They played with electricity in various ways without having the slightest notion of what it really was—and no wonder the chance revelation of its true nature came as a most hideous surprise. . . .
And Borges is only a marvelous speculative writer (not what Nabokov despises, a “novelist of ideas”— the difference is between a dreamer and a dogmatist). Nabokov is more: a speculative, psychological, comic, and sensual stylist—at his best, the supreme novelist.
Though Van is physically Marina’s son, spiritually he is the son of her twin sister, Aqua, his “water-mother,” whatever Nabokov intends that concept to mean. Van draws his dreams about the real world from Aqua’s delusions. The situation is analogous to that in Pnin, where Pnin is spiritually Victor’s father, and stems from the “metempsychosis” of Ulysses, where Bloom is the father of Stephen. Like Joyce, Nabokov enjoys using myths and literature for ironic and comic effects. In Ada, the servant girl Blanche is clearly and continually designated as Cinderella, but she acquires venereal diseases and eventually a doltish husband named Fartukov. Early in their affair, Van and Ada avidly read Chateaubriand’s tentative stories of adolescent incest. Their governess is Maupassant reincarnate. Several Chekhov plays get confused, and his harmless candid photographer becomes a blackmailer. Someone pronounces Vans name “wann,” Van becomes a professor in England, anti when he is about to take a new mistress, Nabokov—going a long way for a joke—has him see a film, Don Juan’s Last Fling.
While working on this novel several years ago, Nabokov called it The Texture of Time, and it was to be an essay on time, illuminated by metaphors which would gradually take on a life of their own, become a novel, and eventually subside back into the essay. Obviously, Nabokov’s plans changed, but that essay still exists under its old title and is delivered by Van. Considering its former prominence, the essay’s content is disappointing: past time is accumulation, present time is duration (up to several seconds) , future time does not exist. Throughout the novel brief disquisitions—on Chateaubriand’s mosquito, for instance, or on the rise and fall of a worldwide chain of elegant brothels —provide other pleasant excursions.
Ada may be described as a dream in anagrams, and the most extended anagram is scient/insect/nicest/incest. Ada is indeed scient about insects, and her incest is the nicest imaginable. Lepidopterists may be able to follow Nabokov’s games with butterflies and orchids, and natural history apparently provides the book’s “real” chronology. Nabokov’s dreams are not quite like our own.
Nabokov demands that we keep the whole novel in mind at all times —an impossible duty on first reading. But his reader finds special rewards, the unveiling of allusions, the solutions to elegant minor puzzles, on every page. This new work is more arcane than ever, and the successful reader pursues its dazzling structures in the glorious illusion that he, not Nabokov, has invented the art of the novel.