Vladimir Nabokov's Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
February 5, 2010 5:43 PM   Subscribe

The New York Times called it "a great work of art" (NYT login required). Martin Amis called it "a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat". You can judge for yourself by reading an annotated, hyperlinked edition. This timeline and this geography might help. (For extra credit, here are texts mentioned in the story.)
posted by Joe Beese (29 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
several of the links I clicked in the concordance link (antiterra) go to defunct geocities sites, alas.

Joe, I think this is coming at the right time for me. Heretofore I've been too young to properly appreciate either Nabokov or Amis, but it's winter here.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:13 PM on February 5, 2010

the amis piece is unbelievable.
and ADA is a big fav... amazing book.
posted by frankbooth at 6:24 PM on February 5, 2010

There's some wonderful madness on display here. I've attempted Mount Ada three times, and three times been driven back by storms of obscurity, opaque hints, and elliptical temporality. If this were printed in book form, I'd give it another try.
posted by Faze at 6:25 PM on February 5, 2010

Martin Amis! You are a coil of crap that thinks it is a snake. Either way may you get trod on.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 6:52 PM on February 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

Are you saying that ADA is more daunting than GRAVITY'S RAINBOW or DHALGREN? It took me months to read each one of those.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 6:57 PM on February 5, 2010

Awesome - thanks for this, Joe Beese.

Now if only somebody can get me an online edition of Bend Sinister. That's the one I really want to dive into at the moment.
posted by koeselitz at 7:29 PM on February 5, 2010

Guy_Inamonkeysuit: I've read Ada, Gravity's Rainbow, and Dhalgren, and found them each to be difficult in a different way. But if I remember correctly, Ada was the fastest of those three reads for me, if sheer speed matters.

The thing about Ada is that if you were to know certain things about the novel's setting right off the bat, it'd be easier to understand, but part of the pleasure of reading it for the first time is figuring out for yourself what weirdness is going on with the setting. For that reason I think it's struggling through it without spoilers for the initial trip through the book, reading just for the sound of the sentences even if you don't understand every single thing, and then going back through it again with assistance from annotations after having read a couple of articles about it. The second reading of Ada is like reading it again for the first time.
posted by Prospero at 7:33 PM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I mean to say: For that reason it's worth struggling through it...
posted by Prospero at 7:35 PM on February 5, 2010

Are you saying that ADA is more daunting than GRAVITY'S RAINBOW or DHALGREN?

If you have to ask...
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 7:57 PM on February 5, 2010

I can't believe this... this is possibly the best thing I've ever seen on Metafilter. THANK YOU.

David Simon regarding difficult reads.
posted by nímwunnan at 8:23 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Holy crap, this is great. Thank you.
posted by brundlefly at 9:15 PM on February 5, 2010

If Boyd survives long enough, I'd love to see this properly published as a sort of concordance, similar to companion volumes to Ulysses. I've pushed through this book 6 times in my life -- twice in one semester, when it nearly drove my professor and myself mad -- and know that it can bear the weight of many, many more readings. I think the last paragraph says enough:

Not the least adornment of the chronicle is the delicacy of pictorial detail: a latticed gallery; a painted ceiling; a pretty plaything stranded among the forget-me-nots of a brook; butter-flies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.
posted by ford and the prefects at 11:15 PM on February 5, 2010

I hate to say it, but I'm with Amis on this one. Ada never coheres; the gamesmanship never comes together.
posted by taliaferro at 11:31 PM on February 5, 2010

"a waterlogged corpse at the stage of maximal bloat"

Sockpuppet account ahoy!
posted by turgid dahlia at 11:31 PM on February 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

I cannot believe that login-only links are permitted here. How is a white page that says "Log in now" the "best of the web"??
posted by mr. strange at 2:13 AM on February 6, 2010

Log in now, light of my life, best of the web. My sin, my soul. Looog eeeeen nooooow: the tip of the tongue taking two trips to the palette to tap, on two, now.
posted by stavrogin at 2:31 AM on February 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

I think Ada is among Nabokov's best. I can see that some its qualities might be repellent to some, but even on the most unsympathetic reading the 'corpse' thing is a really silly piece of hyperbole.

"Both novels seek to make a virtue of unbounded self-indulgence; they turn away, so to speak, and fold in on themselves. Literary talent has several ways of dying. With Joyce and Nabokov, we see a decisive loss of love for the reader – a loss of comity, of courtesy."

The first part of this, the self-indulgence, the folding in, is dead right - though it's far from unprecedented. Nabokov was always filling his stuff with allusions which the reader could not be expected to understand, or in some cases even to notice, as he himself explained. The second part, the loss of love for the reader, I don't see. The reader has to do a bit of work if they want to understand how Nabokov's parallel world differs from our own; but not an outrageous amount, and if they can't be bothered, they can read the story without worrying about the odd geography and the absence of electricity.

At the risk of being bitchy, Martin Amis of all people should be wary of writing about novelists outliving their talent. Nabokov never wrote a book as disappointing as "Yellow Dog", a book that makes you go back and review your pleasure in all the earlier novels, that makes you ask yourself whether what you thought was talent was just a long run of luck and touches of malicious wit.
posted by Phanx at 3:28 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Amis seems to be well aware of his failing talents and in his most recent novel, he attempts to show that he still has it. Alas, thus far the reviews don't confirm this. But his critique of Nabkov is not fiction and ought to be judged on its own merits rather than saying the novelist is no longer great and so we dismiss what he says here.

I have yet to see any critique of the Nabkov's unfinished novel that was very complimentary. As for Ada, you like it or you don't. Proust? like it or not. I could not get through Gravity, nor Ada...but I tend to like realism in my fiction and a strong and interesting plot. Bellow is a great writer and weak on plot etc etc.

I notice that when reviewers praise a novelist's skills, they often associate that writer with Nabokov as a tribute to greatness. But then, as Amis does, perhaps you have to pick and choose even among a master's body of work, discounting some that others love, and focusing upon those that work for you.
posted by Postroad at 4:48 AM on February 6, 2010

I love Nabokov, and admire him more than I can say. But I would plead, if you've never read him, start with something else. Lolita, of course. I also enjoy The Real Life of Sebastian Knight quite a bit---that book has its secrets too, and if you ask me I think Boyd applied his theory about ghosts to the wrong book--- or Pale Fire if it's the brain-stretching difficulty that appeals to you. But starting with Ada is like having your first Joyce be Finnegan's Wake; there are flashes of his inveterate genius in it, but on the whole it's Nabokov at his most florid and curlicued and self-indulgent. The premise itself is a kind what-if, what if the lost of world of Russia that he loved had never been murdered but had aged and rotted instead....
posted by Diablevert at 5:55 AM on February 6, 2010

1. Amis is right in observing that Ada turns its back on the reader. Nabokov was a creature of his time, and the affectation of contempt for the reader was the sort of dandyish gesture you could see him making at the height of his fame -- a backhanded gift to his poor, proud younger self.

2. Martin Amis could be heir to Nabokov and the light of letters in our age. But he needs to find God. Right now, he's down in the dark basement with atheist plodders like Ian McEwan, searching for the broken pipe, while upstairs, all is light, and curtains are billowing in a fresh breeze through an open window.
posted by Faze at 5:56 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you, thank you, thank you! Perfect timing, as Ada is sitting on my bookshelf, the last of the unread English language Nabokov novels (excepting Original of Laura, which may not count).
posted by seventyfour at 6:26 AM on February 6, 2010

Love, love, love Ada and loved reading it. It was like Nabokov took all the Tolstoy and assorted other (bloated in their own right) Russian czarist bourgeois novels I read as a teenager, mashed them up, added a pinch of schizophrenia, and then cooked it up in a nightmare.
posted by oinopaponton at 6:31 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

That was an interesting read. I didn't realise N had used the pedophilia them so often.

When I was younger I was a great fan of the novel Lolita. The mischievous unreliable narrator worked really well for me.
Almost all other novels seemed to be insufferable to me on account of the florid prose (lots of adjectives, repeating several descriptions of the same thing etc), the pompous Nabokov alter egos and the obsessive themes I don't care about (chess, butterflies, synesthesia).

Whatever the merits of Amis as a novelist that was a great article.
posted by joost de vries at 6:36 AM on February 6, 2010

Damn. . .the the FPP led me to believe that there was a new Hirst project.
posted by Danf at 7:41 AM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ada, Ada, Ada. I read it while falling in love and I read it to the point of memorization. Most wonderful book ever.
posted by jfwlucy at 8:21 AM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

I read Ada when it came out and loved it; I've been looking forward to rereading it now that I've read and assimilated much of the material, Russian and otherwise, that Nabokov referred to in constructing it, and the hyperlinked edition will be a great help. Martin Amis, a fine writer, is full of shit when it comes to this book, but you can't trust writers talking about other writers, especially great ones—I was shocked recently to discover that Joseph Brodsky thought Andrei Bely a "bad writer." Otherwise, what Phanx said: a great comment, and (nearly needless to add) a great post.
posted by languagehat at 8:59 AM on February 6, 2010

Oh goodness. Tears of excitement streaming down my face. This might be one of the best things I've seen.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 9:16 AM on February 6, 2010

I once spent a summer reading all of Nabokov's English/translated novels in order of publication, so perhaps I was in the perfect state to "get" Ada, but I thought it was absolutely wonderful. Lolita is more coherent/accessible, Pale Fire is more fun, but Ada still stands out.

WAY less daunting than Gravity's Rainbow, no comparison.
posted by Fin Azvandi at 2:37 PM on February 6, 2010

I admit to having been introduced to V.N. by Ada, largely due to its paperback cover with boobies (and at an age where Van Veen was a peer, so it wasn't automatically creepy; anyway, this was the seventies, and the social forces of Something About Amelia had not yet coalesced). I love it in many ways, but the descent into metaphysics has always frustrated me.

I haven't read the other late works he covers, but most of Amis seemed spot on here, and wonderfully balanced betwixt being critical and forgiving. I think it's too harsh to say that his genius failed him, though. Not all of an author's works are great, and greatness can be an albatross.
posted by dhartung at 5:12 PM on February 6, 2010

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