Top 10 Books of 2010: #10

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I start with number 10: Vladimir Nabokov’s epic, Ada, or Ardor.

Ada, or Ardor

#10: ADA, OR ARDOR: A FAMILY CHRONICLE, Vladimir Nabokov

One of the best things my mother did when I was young was set me free in the library. Unlike most of the homeschooling parents in our community, my parents never censored my reading; they never told me, “You have to read these types of novels; you can’t read these types.” When confronted by other parents about this liberated policy, my mother’s response was always, “She reads way faster than I do. It would be impossible for me to read everything she’s reading and screen it first. If I had to do that, she would never get to read anything at all.” And so I read everything. By early middle school, I had positively devoured the entire young adult section of the local library, to the point that the librarians were on a first-name basis with me and I was responsible for writing 75 percent of the YA book reviews on the library website. This literary freedom allowed me to discover good and bad authors and a large range of genres. My independence also introduced me to messages and themes—e.g., sex, crime, obscene language— that I’m sure my parents would have objected to if they had known what I was reading. But they didn’t. So I kept reading, good and bad.

I relate this episode to try to explain why this novel by Vladimir Nabokov is on my top 10 list for 2010. Because, frankly, if I told a stranger on the street the plot of this novel—a fantasy-tinged family epic about a brother and sister from a fake planet who are involved with each other in a passionate love affair—I’d get more than just a few raised eyebrows. I’d probably get a strong, “You LIKED it? What is WRONG with you?”

Probably a few things, but yes, I did like it. Here’s why. This book thwarts expectations of the novel and does so in a sprawling, complicated, thoroughly messy way—and yet it’s beautifully done. Ever since reading Lolita (which, coincidentally, made my Top 10 list for 2009), I have been fixed on reading as much Nabokov as possible. I am mesmerized by Nabokov as a person—for his genius, for his disturbing and repetitive themes, for his ability to make all of his twisted characters somehow transparent and compassionate.

I ended up taking Ada, or Ardor on our honeymoon. It was certainly not a thematically appropriate book for the occasion: this 900-page monolith of a novel is about, more or less, a brother and sister who fall in love with each other and continue their all-consuming, destructive love affair even after the discovery that they are blood siblings. It is Nabokov, after all. From what little I know about his body of work, I know that you are going to find incest and pedophilia featured. Ada, or Ardor features the life story of Van Veen, a young man who grows up in the imaginary Russo-American world of Antiterra, and his romance with his sister, Ada. The novel takes the form of Van’s memoirs, which he is supposedly writing when he is about 90. His love for Ada has not dimmed, even though their lives have now grown apart. But the plot is not what matters about this book. And the characters’ actions are not the primary vehicles for the movement of the novel. It’s why you can read this book without endorsing pedophilic/incestual relationships—in the same vein of why you can read Harry Potter without becoming Wiccan or why you can read The Bell Jar without descending into madness yourself. Ada is about a love affair between siblings, but it is less about them and more about the pattern of their lives, the way daily events intersect to form a fabric of memory. As a whole, therefore, this book carries a distinct whiff of Proust; something perhaps Nabokov was aware of; I really don’t know.

Joining the theme of complicated memory and the retelling of the past, accurate or not, Nabokov’s diction is compelling. His language is so complex that it’s almost unbelievable. His sentences are rigged with Anglo-Russian neologisms, various puns, and allusions so dense that almost every line requires annotation (as demonstrated by this now-abandoned website). The language itself is part of the journey of Ada and one of the main reasons why I enjoyed myself throughout it. If you approach it with an open mind—as Nabokov flatly demands of all of his readers, of this book or any other—I think you would have a similar experience.

Nabokov and butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov catching butterflies, LIFE magazine, 1958

I was really delighted today, during my lunch break, to discover two things:

1. This sprawling, fascinating (if a bit outdated; who uses frames anymore?) website: Ada Online. It’s the linked and annotated version of Nabokov’s incredibly difficult novel, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. I don’t know who did it–it appears to belong to a university in New Zealand–but it’s marvelous. What a perfect use of the Internets. It only reaches up through Part I with the annotations, but can you blame them? There’s at least three allusions in practically every sentence (with considerable fractions of Russian, French, and Russo-English!).

2. Nabokov was himself a distinguished lepidopterist, which I learned today means that he studies butterflies. LIFE magazine followed him around in the forest one day, some decades ago, as he sprung about with his net. Knowing this detail about arguably one of the most intelligent writers we can (partially) call our own makes him so much sweeter and gentler in my mind. And so much more interesting. A man who loved butterflies! All of the entomological references in Ada also make a little more sense now.

I have decided that I am going to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima next. And then I will tackle Guermantes Way. Proust is almost too similar to Nabokov and I need something purely opposite–i.e., the razor-sharpness of Japanese prose–to break my mind up a bit.

I’m not very good at introducing myself these days. I generally end up saying all three of my names now, and so end up looking either really pretentious or stupid.

Angela, thanks for the plug on your Tumblr for my calligraphy! You are darling. Your Tumblr updates bring me lots of joy every day. I too want one of the Chinese dogs spray-painted to look like baby pandas.

She had kept only a few–mainly botanical and entomological–pages of her diary, because on rereading it she had found its tone false and finical; he had destroyed his entirely because of its clumsy schoolboyish style combined with heedless, and false, cynicism. Thus they had to rely on oral tradition, on the mutual correction of common memories.

V. Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

One of these days

Sitting in the Pavilion lawn downtown, listening to mediocre local music

This is a very weird predicament, but I feel like I have arthritis in my right index-finger knuckle from all the writing I’ve been doing. It is red and inflamed right now and Husband insisted that I take some Ibuprofen. I hope it helps. I feel like I’m 86 years old.

He is playing the kidney-bean little instrument (also formally known as a charanga) and looking very beautiful right now. I like it when his hair gets like this: a bit too long, standing up in about twenty different directions. It’s sexy.

We went to Fridays at Five last night and I realized that one of the saddest things in the world to me are cover bands composed of men in their late 40s and 50s. That sounds really catty, I know, but I don’t mean it to be. They just make my heart hurt. I want to tell them, very softly and gently, that it’s OK. It’s OK that those jeans don’t fit the way they used to. It’s OK that women are no longer impressed that you can play their favorite country ballad. I told Guion this, and he said, “But at least they’re not trying to feel younger by having affairs against their wives.” I said there wasn’t any proof of that either. But I wanted to tell them: If you’re trying to feel younger, just please don’t make me listen to it.

We’ve been obsessed all day long with the Punch Brothers’ latest teasers from their new album. In fact, Guion is picking out the beautiful little tune from “Alex” on the charanga right now.

Working full time really puts a dent in your reading habits, I discovered. But I also discovered that, since all of my other coworkers eat their lunches in our separate cubicles, I can get a solid 40 pages in during my half-hour break. I’ll find out what’s going to become of Ada, or Ardor in no time.