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Happy Families

Ardis Hall—the Ardors and Arbors of Ardis—this is the leitmotiv rippling through Ada, an ample and delightful chronicle, whose principal part is staged in a dream-bright America—for are not our childhood memories comparable to Vineland-born caravelles, indolently encircled by the white birds of dreams? The protagonist, a scion of one of our most illustrious and opulent families, is Dr. Van Veen, son of Baron “Demon” Veen, that memorable Manhattan and Reno figure. The end of an extraordinary epoch coincides with Van’s no less extraordinary boyhood. Nothing in world literature, save maybe Count Tolstoy’s reminiscences, can vie in pure joyousness and Areadian innocence with the “Ardis” part of the book. On the fabulous country estate of his art-collecting uncle, Daniel Veen, an ardent childhood romance develops in a series of fascinating scenes between Van and pretty Ada, a truly unusual gamine daughter of Marina, Daniel’s stage-struck wife. That the relationship is not simply dangerous cousinage, but possesses an aspect prohibited by law, is hinted in the very first pages.

In spite of the many intricacies of plot and psychology, the story proceeds at a spanking pace. Before we can pause to take breath and quietly survey the new surroundings into which the writer’s magic carpet has, as it were, spilled us, another attractive girl Lucette Veen, Marina’s younger daughter, has also been swept off her feet by Van, the irresistible rake. Her tragic destiny constitutes one of the highlights of this delightful book.

The rest of Van’s story turns frankly and colorfully upon his long love-affair with Ada. It is interrupted by her marriage to an Arizonian cattle-breeder whose fabulous ancestors discovered our country. After her husband’s death our lovers are reunited. They spend their old age traveling together and dwelling in the various villas, one lovelier than another, that Van has erected all over the Western Hemisphere.

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; butterflies and butterfly orchids in the margin of the romance; a misty view described from marble steps; a doe at graze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.”

These are the last words of the book, which thus provides its own blurb in hideous parody, and perhaps it would have been wiser to leave it at that. All Nabokov’s books are full of such built-in anti-reviewer devices, booby-traps that are not meant to kill or mutilate (Nabokov is not a sadist), but merely to blow the critic’s pants off, leaving him standing in ludicrous half-nakedness, missing something. These traps must be detected; some can be avoided by walking round them gingerly, others must be instantly and as delicately as possible de-fused. On the other hand, the books abound in perfectly fair clues, which if followed up in a straightforward way may lead the reader to a perhaps incomplete but nevertheless satisfactory solution.

One across (the author composed the first [literal] crossword puzzles in the Russian language) is the title. Ada suggests Byron’s daughter, a possibility that we can keep on one side for the moment. Ardor, apart from being, we are told, the Russian pronunciation of ADA must mean hell, sexual heat, and the sacred flame of art. “A family chronicle” is easy: since the book takes the form of an old man’s reminiscences of his long and mainly erotic adventures in a family context, it must bear some relationship to the kind of middlebrow novel Nabokov detests, like Buddenbrooks or The Hindsight Saga. The book begins with three forbidding chapters about family history and dates, and it takes some time before the spatio-temporal setting of Van’s story becomes apparent.

This is based on a now well-known astronomical speculation. Among the billions of stars of this Galaxy, there must be some with a solar system like ours; some of these solar systems must include a habitable earth like ours. If the millions of observable galaxies are considered, there may be at least one “Earth” with a geography, social and political history, even literary history, very much like those of our planet, though the odds against them being exactly the same are impossibly high. It has also been suggested that some of the far-flung galaxies and therefore “Earths” may be composed of Anti-Matter; so that not only may the Terra that resembles ours most closely be so far away that communication with it will be impossible even with any conceivable technical advances, but even if a traveler did get there he would instantly explode into gammarays. (The author does not bother to spell this out.)

It soon becomes apparent that the characters of this book are living in Anti-Terra, a world very much like Terra in geography; in history it differs rather more, since all true “Russians” live in the United States, whether noblemen, intelligentsia or peasants, mingled with colonies of French- and English-speakers, while the other northern continent, called Tartary, is peopled by non-Russian barbarians. Some of the place-names of North American Anti-Terra (henceforward A-T) are therefore Russian: for example, I am now writing this review far above Kaluga’s waters, not far from the scene of the story. The technology of A-T is like T’s with the primitive automobiles and sumptuous railways of the nineteenth century; in the 1880s when Van’s story begins the social milieu is much like the prerevolutionary one described in Speak, Memory, a trilingual Eden of English butlers, French governesses and Russian nobles, or like that of a Great House of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, combined with the American Gilded Age.

The inhabitants of A-T are aware of the possibility that T may exist: it may be an article of religious belief (a place that people go to after they die) or a product of collective neurosis, and certain distorted details of T may be revealed in dreams or through ESP or even in fiction. This may all sound like Science Fiction, and indeed there are some rather tedious bits of SF here and there; but in general it forms a neat allegory of the strange relationships obtaining between the universe of everyday life and ordinary experience and the universe of art. It is one way of expressing the common and strong feeling that characters in fiction can be more “real” than actual acquaintances; and of dealing with the critical problems posed by the biographical interpretation of literature.

These problems become most acute in semi-autobiographical fiction: what is the precise relationship between Proust and Marcel, between Byron and Childe Harold (not to speak of the more difficult case of Don Juan), or between the historical figure of one Nabokov, entomologist, Professor of Literature, and exiled nobleman, as described one supposes truthfully in Speak, Memory, and the fictional person who appears in Pnin, as Vladimir Vladimirovitch, and the person briefly referred to in Ada as “V.V.”? Art (A-T) may be the dream or neurotic fantasy of ordinary T-mortals, but it can just as well be postulated, for the sake of cosmic symmetry, that the ordinary T-world is a dream dreamed by the A-T world of Art, just as the Red King is dreaming of Alice. To put it more obscurely in Platonic terms, there must be a “real” as well as a “phenomenal” world; but which is which? Zembla or Wordsmith? Ardis or Newstead Abbey?

This kind of mirror-play will not surprise readers familiar with Nabokov’s ambidextrous universe (Martin Gardner is known in A-T as an “invented philosopher”) nor will the suggestion that Ada is in some T-AT sense autobiographical. What is remarkable here is the scope of the T-material which undergoes translation into fiction. It is nothing less than the two principal loves of Don Nabokov’s life, which he has described so clearly and movingly in Speak, Memory: his first serious affair with “Tamara,” pursued in the woods of his family estate and in the museums of St. Petersburg, and his long and happy marriage. These are conflated and alchemically transmuted into a wonderfully sustained rococo lyric, celebrating the first and last love of Van Veen for his cousin—half-sister Ada, an affair that begins when he was fourteen and she was twelve (but both fully mature) and continued until their late nineties, when Van writes this book with marginal interpolations by Ada. In the years between first affair and final reunion, however, the writing as well as the characters show symptoms of middle-aged spread and sagging vitality: the ingenuity never falters but the champagne loses its fizz.

The elaboration of this double motif in terms of brother-sister incest may look like perversity but can easily be justified. Just as dog-owners grow to look like their pets, so the partners of a long and happy marriage may come to resemble each other so closely in tastes, opinions, verbal styles, and gestures that they may be mistaken for siblings or can feel themselves to be as closely united as by the ties of blood. But the incest theme has another and deeper meaning. In the last analysis, no matter how affectionate a lover, spouse, or parent one may be, self-love is all. The Platonic halves of a complex and balanced personality can best be figured as wedded brother and sister. Here Ada is the entomologist, Van the acrobat-duellist-professor turned novelist, and despite conflicts and separations they live happily together ever after. There is also a more superficial reason for incest: The Veens are so grand socially and so prodigious intellectually that there are very few others they could possibly think of marrying; as elevated as Ancient Egyptian royalty, they can turn only to each other.

In Nabokov’s universe there are, thank God, no symbols, but everything has a literary archetype. Here the principal one is Byron’s tangled life-and-work: his half-sister and mistress Augusta, his wife Annabella the Princess of Parallelograms, his legitimate daughter Augusta Ada, his illegitimate daughter Alba, later called Allegra, and perhaps Annesley Hall where he had a youthful romance, form a series reflected in the A-s of this chronicle. Nabokov’s Ada is less of a prodigy than Byron’s, a brilliant mathematician who anticipated digital computers, but she is doubtless more charming. Byron wrote up his story in another A, The Bride of Abydos, in which hero and heroine, believing themselves erroneously to be brother and sister, meet, love, and die. It is possible that I have already fallen into one of the traps set for careless readers, and that among the confusing biographical data there may be proof that Van and Ada are not really siblings after all, but that Van’s true sister is Lucette, the one woman he inexplicably cannot bring himself to sleep with.

Halfway through the book Byron is named at last: in the course of an elaborate dinner party (which is the precise moment when everything changes from idyllic to nasty) a very special wine is produced called “Lord Byron’s Hock.” It is not further described but I should guess it is a Hocheimer Adelschloss Riesling Spätlese 1798 (Erste Terrasse), and is the last of the bottles that Byron used to drink with soda water, the morning after. Van, Ivan, (J)uan is also the Byronic hero and the traditional Don Giovanni: the latter appears toward the end of the book, in the account of a movie in which Ada has a bit part: the A-T scriptwriters have mixed up the Stone Cuckold’s Revenge with the adventures of another Don who sees everything as a courtly romance. Van, endlessly chasing skirts round the world, cannot love anyone except Ada: to this obsessive monogamist all the others in the catalogue are but whores.

Another such obsession is the theme of Flaubert’s Education sentimentale, which is mentioned somewhere and elegantly quoted in the first words of Part Three: “He traveled…” Since this is a very upper-class story, there are echoes and parodies of other upper-class writers, Proust in particular but also late James and Nabokov. Although Van owns a fine jolls joyce motor-car, there is not as much joycing as in Lolita; some of the rhythms of Finnegans Wake make a ghostly appearance.

Ideal readers with ideal insomnias (who according to the author should be “a lot of little Nobokovs”) will find allusions hidden within allusions, and solve the “fairy chess” problems (where you try to get yourself mated instead of mating), the anagrams that start with INSECT-INCEST and culminate in a game of meta-scrabble; less ideal readers may suspect that Van, an expert in chirambulism, card-sharping, and cryptography, may have been too self-indulgent in his old age. A great deal of Russian is quoted and translated; sometimes I see the point, but more often I am left muttering the only Russian I know; ne ponimayu (“I do not understand.”)

Any sympathetic review of Nabokov begins to look like Kinbote’s demented commentary on Shade; so it needs to be said simply that despite a proliferation of puns and puzzles this book contains Nabokov’s finest writing. The evocation of Ardis, especially of the picnics in its woods, is magical, and the erotic lyricism is of the highest order. It is quite appropriate that a long extract should have appeared in Playboy, billed as Nabokov’s sexiest work since Lolita; though that is misleading since it is much sexier in a wholly straightforward way. Taking advantage of current freedoms, Nabokov has written an explicitly sensual prose-poem of first love, as well as a parody of various vulgar and ludicrous types of pornography. He has achieved ravishing effects of visual purity, by drawing on his evidently great knowledge of painting: his is the most highly trained eye in modern literature. Painting is itself a major theme (the older Veens are art dealers and collectors, reflections of the great Duveen), and one luminous scene after another is based on the Venetians or the Impressionists, above all on Renoir; while the grotesque and demonic aspects of the story are portrayed through the images of Hieronymous Bosch.

That the novel does have such aspects should not be forgotten by sentimental readers. The other name for Anti-Terra is Demonia (van Diemen’s Land, upside down?) and whatever the precise role of Van’s hypergentlemanly father “Demon” may be, he is certainly a most unpleasant character, whose evil influence permeates the book. Ada and Veen are affected by it: they torture each other, and as they eventually admit, they have literally teased their sister Lucinda-Lucette to death. They prefigure the Children of Darkness ranged against the Child of Light; yet at their worst they stand for many things that are wholly good. And of these things the highest is love of the visible world, a love persisting through and made the more intense by decay and mortality. ” ‘But this,’ exclaimed Ada, ‘is certain, this is reality, this is pure fact—this forest, this moss, your hand, the ladybird on my leg, this cannot be taken away, can it?’ (it will, it was)…”

After many years Ada and Van are redeemed (and again one must use such an expression in a very simple and non-religious sense) by their devotion to each other and to the physical universe and by their pursuit of scientific truth. They are allowed to float into an untroubled old age, high above Lake Leman’s waters, observing the elegant pairing rituals of the monogamous grebes. Their last comfort is the blessed science of ethology in a happy world where Lawrence’s fox has been replaced by Lorenz’s goose. Finally they move into a region of pure memory, where the problems of Time that Professor Van has expounded in an ingenious lecture cease to exist. The book moves in a cycle outside time back to its first words (caveat lector):

All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike,” says a great Russian writer in the beginning of a famous Russian novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina)….

Letters

Inventions July 10, 1969

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