Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (Vladimir Nabakov)

Most books can be read; some books have to be studied. For example, I signed up to join an Independent Study on Ulysses in college because I wanted to read it, and I knew I’d never read it on my own. (What I hadn’t realized is that I couldn’t have read it on my own. Wow.)

Ada is one of those books that fits in both categories. There are parts that I could follow, parts that at times made me feel Lolita-icky, and parts that were just utterly incomprehensible to me. And the thing is, I did not find myself too interested in re-reading them. They are like the parts about whales in Moby Dick, except those are more organized and therefore easier to scan. I could see some connections between what was going on in these passages and what was happening in the narrative, but I didn’t think that made either part more profound.

It’s clear that Nabakov is a master stylist. He pretty much empties a complete bag of tricks here – different forms, different languages, etc.. What’s even more impressive is that unlike folks like Arthur Phillips or David Mitchell, it is not him imposing his style on whatever the plot is. Unlike those other two, he’s not being clever for the sake of cleverness. Having read three other Nabakov books (Lolita, Pale Fire, Pnin), it’s clear to me that Nabakov matches his style to his purpose.

So why the fireworks here? Well, his characters are certainly the witty upper-crust set. At times, the characters seemed right out of Gatsby – drinking too much, being reckless with their lives and the lives of others.
It’s certainly a memorable story. There are set pieces that will resonate with me. But I didn’t much care for the characters or the story. And I get the sense from this book and the others that Nabakov was not much interested in the notion that an author needs to make sure his readers identify with or care for his characters. Maybe I’d appreciate Nabakov and this book more if I studied it. But I have no plans to do that.

Charles Ellenbogen is the author of the teaching memoir, THIS ISN’T THE MOVIES: 25 YEARS IN THE CLASSROOM, and teaches high school English in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Shaker Heights, Ohio with Kirsten, his wife, Zoe, their daughter, Ezra, their son, Lincoln, their dog, and Chocolate Scales, their snake