Happy Families

Vladimir Nabokov
Vladimir Nabokov; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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