Kinbote Triumphant in Hell: The Riddle of Nabokov’s Ada

1. The Riddle

I loathe Van Veen.

Vladimir Nabokov

Ada, or Ardor (1969) (full text available here) is Nabokov’s very long novel about brother-sister incest in an alternate reality. Most people don’t consider it one of his best.

The book declares itself as the memoirs of Van Veen, spoiled and successful aristocrat, describing his upbringing on the family estate of Ardis, his long-running love affair with his sister Ada, his other sister Lucette’s unrequited love for him, and the family’s other affairs and intrigues on the planet Antiterra, a variant of our Earth. After many delayed reunions, they finally reunite for good in their 50s and live out nearly another half-century together in incestuous bliss.

The riddle of Ada is explaining these two facts:

  1. The novel is off-putting and unlikable, as are its main characters Van and Ada Veen.
  2. Nabokov must have been aware of Fact #1.

At the time, John Updike wondered in his negative review whether Nabokov was aware of just how unpleasant the self-satisfied Van Veen was, and how he lacked any of the sinister charm of Humbert Humbert or the insane desperation of Charles Kinbote (or whomever). The quote at the top should answer that question, but even that quote is unnecessary: Nabokov was a narrow writer in many ways, but he was not stupid as to how his characters would appear to people.

So, the question: why has Nabokov put us in the company of two characters, Van and Ada, who are both unappealing and uninvolving, and why for so long? Why has he made the trappings so uninviting? Even the opening paragraphs are clearly designed to turn away a reader:

“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 novel (Anna Arkadievitch Karenina, transfigured into English by R. G. Stonelower, Mount Tabor Ltd., 1880). That pronouncement has little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle, the first part of which is, perhaps, closer to another Tolstoy work, Detstvo i Otrochestvo (Childhood and Fatherland, Pontius Press, 1858).

Van’s maternal grandmother Daria (“Dolly”) Durmanov was the daughter of Prince Peter Zemski, Governor of Bras d’Or, an American province in the Northeast of our great and variegated country, who had married, in 1824, Mary O’Reilly, an Irish woman of fashion. Dolly, an only child, born in Bras, married in 1840, at the tender and wayward age of fifteen, General Ivan Durmanov, Commander of Yukon Fortress and peaceful country gentleman, with lands in the Severn Tories (Severnïya Territorii), that tesselated protectorate still lovingly called “Russian” Estoty, which commingles, granoblastically and organically, with “Russian” Canady, otherwise “French” Estoty, where not only French, but Macedonian and Bavarian settlers enjoy a halcyon climate under our Stars and Stripes.

Compared to the opening of Lolita, Pnin, or really any other Nabokov novel, this is not only repellent, but boring.

Brian Boyd has stressed the moral character of the novel and focused on the character of Ada’s sister, Lucette. Lucette falls in love with Van, but Van and Ada treat her like garbage, and she eventually commits suicide. And certainly I see no reason not to condemn Van and Ada both for their treatment of Lucette, over which both express some tepid regret. But this answer is far from sufficient.

First, Lucette’s story just doesn’t take up that much of the book, certainly not enough to make her the heart of the book. Second, as Nicole at Bibliographing has observed, Lucette is a bit too much of a lamb to the slaughter to bring out one’s sympathy, and a brat as well. Van and Ada are terrible, but Lucette’s infantile and cringeworthy behavior doesn’t exactly set her in stark relief. Poor Charlotte Haze is far more touching than the vaguely sketched Lucette. Boyd also fails to explain the fundamentally uninvolving character of the book, which I think cannot be denied. What then?

2. Don Juan and Don Quixote

I want to attempt a structural explanation because working at the level of characters and plot cannot produce a satisfactory explanation for the alienating effect of the book.

As Nabokov tells us very early on in Chapter 3 of Part 1, Ada is Russian for hell, or more precisely “of hell” (ада, genitive of ад). Antiterra is also called Demonia, Van’s father is nicknamed Demon, and infernal references abound. It’s a peculiar hell though, since it’s devoid of the major catastrophe of Nabokov’s life, the Russian Revolution, and despite some tormented drama, Van has it pretty good, eventually ending up with Ada in blissful love for quite a number of years. The memoirs mostly do not cover this, however, though they do mention the eventual and seemingly hard-to-fathom success of his book The Texture of Time, a rather uninvolving philosophical treatise which is forms the penultimate section of the book.

Here is one key to the nature of this hell:

When, in the middle of the twentieth century, Van started to reconstruct his deepest past, he soon noticed that such details of his infancy as really mattered (for the special purpose the reconstruction pursued) could be best treated, could not seldom be only treated, when reappearing at various later stages of his boyhood and youth, as sudden juxtapositions that revived the part while vivifying the whole. This is why his first love has precedence here over his first bad hurt or bad dream. (31)

What is the special purpose, and what really matters? Van, in constructing his memoir, is picking out pleasing experiences which “really matter,” rather than the painful ones. He means the whole to be love, not hurt or dream. That should be enough to tell us that Van is an unreliable narrator. The book is all hurt and dream, none of it love. The special purpose is some sort of delusion, some kind of avoidance of reality.

Consider the key scene in Part 3, just before Lucette commits suicide, when Van refuses Lucette’s advances after he happens to see a film that conflates Don Juan and Don Quixote (the character is Don Juan, but he and Leporello are riding past windmills). Ada plays a part in the movie that was not in the original book, a character named Dolores (also Lolita’s real name). She embraces Don Juan and causes him to climax, and this turns out to be the revenge of the Stone Cuckold, the statue that drags Don Juan down to Hell. Ada is of Hell.

After seeing Ada, Van flees from Lucette, masturbates twice, then brushes her off when she calls him on the phone:

In a series of sixty-year-old actions which now I can grind into extinction only by working on a succession of words until the rhythm is right, I, Van, retired to my bathroom, shut the door (it swung open at once, but then closed of its own accord) and using a temporary expedient less far-fetched than that hit upon by Father Sergius (who chops off the wrong member in Count Tolstoy’s famous anecdote), vigorously got rid of the prurient pressure as he had done the last time seventeen years ago. And how sad, how significant that the picture projected upon the screen of his paroxysm, while the unlockable door swung open again with the movement of a deaf man cupping his ear, was not the recent and pertinent image of Lucette, but the indelible vision of a bent bare neck and a divided flow of black hair and a purple-tipped paint brush.

No doubt he was morally right in using the first pretext at hand to keep her away from his bed; but he also knew, as a gentleman and an artist, that the lump of words he brought up was trite and cruel, and it was only because she could not accept him as being either, that she believed him:

Mozhno pridti teper’ (can I come now)?” asked Lucette.

Ya ne odin (I’m not alone),” answered Van.

A small pause followed; then she hung up. (490)

Then Lucette drowns herself.

For all the fuss about memory, Van’s real purpose is clear here: to forget, to “grind into extinction.” Ignoring Lucette for the image of Ada was the most consequential avoidance of reality for projected fantasy, but even in chronicling the event, here he is doing it again, projecting himself into the third person after a very brief detour back into the first (a rare event in the book). Lucette is a victim, mostly forgotten by Van, reduced to stale caricature as an infantile masochist. Ada is the seemingly innocuous agent of punishment, and an inserted character who is just a pretense for solitary masturbation. Van is both Don Juan and Don Quixote.

3. Hell

I’m won’t attempt to figure out precisely what is real and what is not in the book because I don’t think I stand much of a chance, but I will make some broad guesses. I am inclined to be extremely skeptical of the mostly unchronicled decades of happiness with Ada, as well as of the success of Van’s book. The happier the events, the more dubious I am. The tragic events–Lucette’s death being the central one–most likely hold greater reality. Ada’s intrusions throughout, but especially at the end of the book, seem more likely to be a voice within Van, not an actual person. I think it highly unlikely that Van and Ada are ever happily reunited. Nabokov did not intend to redeem Van Veen through suffering, but particularly in the later novels, Nabokov’s rotten characters do tend to be spared any real happiness. I strongly suspect that to be the case here.

The idyllic, hermetic, and very long Part 1 is a pastiche or a parody of the 19th century Russian novel. Inverting Tolstoy’s maxim turns it into a joke. Hence from the beginning Van is protecting himself and not being straight, and the offputting nature of the whole text is a reflection of Van’s solipsism. He is building a sealed coffin for himself that he intends no one to penetrate. He will avoid unpleasantness as much as possible, even at the cost of making himself unpleasant.

With each subsequent section things get more miserable, the length gets shorter, and different strategies of avoidance are invoked. The late years of happiness with Ada are more likely years of self-torture, any success in love or life a delusion on Van’s part. By Part 4, he has abandoned plot in favor of mere allusions to wish-fulfillment and philosophical self-indulgence. At his supposed happiest he is least able to describe anything that happened to him.

To the best of my knowledge, all of Nabokov’s alternate worlds are revealed to be explicit fantasies within the text: the unnamed country in Invitation to a Beheading, Zembla in Pale Fire, Badonia in “Terra Incognita,” and Padukgrad in Bend Sinister. It is unlikely that Antiterra is any different, even more unlikely that it is some kind of afterlife. It is the fantasy world of someone. Van has mysterious access to our world Terra, which he writes a novel about. It is unsuccessful; Antiterra doesn’t want to hear about the real world. There is probably some greater significance to that failed novel, but I have not figured that out.

Instead, his dreary, solipsistic treatise The Texture of Time (which forms Part 4) becomes a bestseller, unlikely enough in any world. It is a reality-denying book in which ideas take precedence over people. Nabokov loathed this appraoch, dismissing ideas as worthless to writing. And so they are; they only distract Van Veen for a while before the voice of Ada interrupts him at the very end of the section to drag him back down to his own private hell.

One idea of The Texture of Time is significant though, which is Van’s insistence that the Future is nothing more than a part of the Present.

What we do at best (at worst we perform trivial tricks) when postulating the future, is to expand enormously the specious present causing it to permeate any amount of time with all manner of information, anticipation and precognition. At best, the “future” is the idea of a hypothetical present based on our experience of succession, on our faith in logic and habit. Actually, of course, our hopes can no more bring it into existence than our regrets change the Past. (560)

This isn’t a serious idea, of course. It is the bitterness of a man who has no future, for whom no possibility of hope remains, and who has been forced by desperation into attempting (and failing) to reimagine the past as something less horrible than it was. Van’s attempt is more successful than Charles Kinbote’s in Pale Fire, as Kinbote had to contend with the opposing force of Shade’s poem and his inability to dispose of the vexing torments in any sort of convincing way. Van succeeds rather well to a point, but this only exacerbates and prolongs his ultimate failure. He is Kinbote triumphant, but in hell.

4. The End

The true end of Ada is not clear. If, as I suspect, Van Veen dies at the end of Part 4, just as he is (supposedly) reunited with Ada, then the remainder of his life after 1922 (please see this Ada timeline) may be entirely fantasy, a projection from the present into the (false) future. Part 5, which announces itself as the “true introduction” to Ada, may have been written by Van before the rest of the book, not after it.

This is significant because by the order of Van’s writing, it would mean that Part 5, having been written first, would be the most delusional of all. Certainly the ebullient rapture of Part 5 marks a reversal from the growing sadness that went before and a jarring break from both Part 3 and Part 4.

In Nabokov’s stories that concern alternate worlds, the revelation of the fantasy tends to take place at the very end of the tale, often only on the last page. (This is arguably true even of the non-linear Pale Fire. What does the last page bring us here? An aggressively fatuous description of Ada itself in trite, sarcastic prose.

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 Arcadian 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 ancestor 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 descried from marble steps; a doe at gaze in the ancestral park; and much, much more.

The distasteful, dust cover copy about Lucette’s death is a pained joke. The whole thing is painted not only as fictional, but as cliched and generic. It is as delusional as the idea of The Texture of Time becoming a bestseller. And I believe this is what we are meant to take from it: this is Van’s fantasy, not “ninety-seven percent true, and three percent likely” as he protests at the beginning of Part 5, but something only vaguely resembling cruel reality. This is the pulling back of the curtain.

Only the final paragraph, which leaves behind the fatuousness for a series of remembered images, rings true: these are presumably bits of Van’s real memory that have attached themselves to his fantasies.

5. Who Is In the Coffin?

One recurrent theme in Nabokov’s novels–indeed, a typical principle of their construction–is of a protagonist/narrator who struggles to sustain a badly-desired fantasy, be it love, power, patriotism, or just having a decent life. The struggle to assert this fantasy in the face of the world’s rejection or malice constitutes the narrative, and the inevitable failure of the fantasy comes at the end of the book. In most cases the fantasy gives way to reality reasonably easily, as people like Humbert Humbert and Pnin are not literally delusional. But in the case of Cincinnatus C, Kinbote, and others, the fantasy bears more on the book’s contents than the reality.

Ada is Nabokov’s most extreme treatment of this theme, not the least because we don’t see anything pushing back against Van Veen. All opposing forces tend to dissolve away sooner or later. The marshaling of fantasy to defy reality becomes a structuring principle of the book even to the point of alienating readers from it, lest they crack open Van’s coffin and discover his secrets. Where there is little reality, there is little sympathy to be had, hence the uninvolving nature of so many of the characters, not least Van himself. While Van puts up a good front to a point, ultimately he knows he’s not fooling anyone with his “happy family chronicle.” What starts off in Part 5 as the joyous introduction ends with solipsistic torment in a self-fashioned hell. And what better analogy for a solipsistic world than incest?

The exact nature of Van’s real-life sins remains ambiguous to me. Lucette’s death is almost certainly one of them, but there remains a greater question which I can only guess at: who is Van Veen? Just as it appears Charles Kinbote was himself a fantasy identity of the seemingly ancillary character V. Botkin in Pale Fire, I’m not at all certain that Van Veen, if he even exists in the “real world” of Ada, is the author of Ada as it appears to us.

Who if not Van? Perhaps Andrey Vinelander, Ada’s husband for for almost 30 years. He is an Arizonan rancher, and a cuckolded rube. Van and Lucette hold him in total contempt, yet Ada stays with Andrey through years of sickness. Though she means to leave him for Van, she refuses to do so until he is well. Yet he never recovers, and only with his death in 1922, mentioned at the end of Part 3 and Part 4, are Van and Ada finally reunited, just as Van finishes The Texture of Time–and perhaps when Van dies. This all seems very suspicious to me, enough to suggest some deep link between Van and Andrey. If Van is Don Juan and Don Quixote, is he also the Stone Cuckold himself?

1922 was also the year the Soviet Union was established. I do not think that is a coincidence either.

I’m sure there are plenty of clues I have not found that will either support or disprove aspects of my interpretation here. But I am done with Ada for now. Even under this interpretation, I’m not sure if the book justifies itself. But this is the best account I can manage.


7 thoughts on “Kinbote Triumphant in Hell: The Riddle of Nabokov’s Ada

  1. Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze saved Nabokov from himself. He did recognize that it was the book that he’d be remembered for.

    Friends of mine delighted in Ada, but I couldn’t even finish Pale Fire. I’ve recently become all too aware of the essential fakery of realist fiction, but you need something besides ingenuity to make me care about a novel.

    Why it should be the pedophile Humbert-Lolita couple that forced/allowed Nabokov to write something people could care about, or allowed me to care…. that’s the kind of Freudian question Nabokov and I hate. Everything else of his seems so brittle.

  2. I partly agree (Nabokov isn’t a favorite of mine), but I think Pnin and *especially* The Eye have a great deal of humanity in them. The Eye is a little masterpiece and my favorite book of his.

    But many of the others do as well: The Defense, Glory, Sebastian Knight, and so on. In some ways Ada reads as the first total break with open pathos and psychologically real characters.

    The two novels that followed it, Transparent Things and Look at the Harlequins, do follow in that line, though they’re a bit more personable. But it says something that Nabokov said that he thought most highly of Invitation to a Beheading, which is probably the least emotive of the early books.

  3. I’m one of those odd people who actually found Ada straightforwardly enjoyable — certainly much more so than Pale Fire, which just bored me. A lot of my enjoyment was solely due to the style of the prose. People talk a lot about the density of wordplay in Nabokov’s prose, but Ada is the only work of his I’ve read where the wordplay and verbal virtuosity were often impressive enough in themselves to make otherwise dull stretches readable. (I agree that the first few paragraphs, and indeed much of the first 50 pages or so, seem designed to be ugly and difficult to read, but things improve drastically after that.)

    And for me those verbal pleasures actually synergized in a certain way with the ugliness of the plot and characters. The experience was one of witnessing a powerful but strange sort of beauty that felt eerily divorced from anything resembling “human feeling” as traditionally conceived — like the feeling one might get from looking at the strange, elaborate forms of deep sea creatures or other exotic organisms. The “happy” ending, and the oddly brief, vague way in which it is presented, contributed to this feeling by bolstering the sense that Van and Ada’s sense of “the good life” was so different from mine — so divorced from moral emotions and so focused on a certain sexualized, quasi-mystical aestheticism — that I would find a detailed and thorough account of their happy years literally unintelligible. (The last few paragraphs simply mock an imagined naive reader for expecting a sentiment-focused narrative — “tender fate,” etc.)

    I too am dissatisfied with Boyd’s focus on Lucette, particularly since it sets up the book as a moral criticism of characters who seem to have been designed to be transparently loathsome. I’m not sure where Boyd gets the idea that a typical reader would be “taken in” with Van and Ada on first reading and only recognize their flaws upon re-reading, but I have a hard time believing such an oblivious response is really so common.

    Anyway, this was a very interesting post. I’ve heard it proposed that much of the novel is Van’s (or “Van’s”) invention, but I’ve never seen the idea spelled out in much detail. And it had never occurred to me to single out the success of The Texture of Time as a suspicious detail. It does seem bizarre, even by the standards of the novel’s odd “reality.”

  4. nostalgebraist: I think that’s a perfect description of the book. It certainly applies to many of Nabokov’s books, but never to the extent that it is in Ada (only Transparent Things and Harleqeuins come close). I do agree that the first couple chapters are especially daunting.

    I think I had a harder time squaring the remoteness/ugliness with any happiness for Van, no matter how foreign. But reading Part 5 Chapter 3, which spends more time chronicling how Van is resisting the temptation to cheat on Ada rather than how happy he is with her, the mystical happiness seems less remote than it does nonexistent.

    Not just the success of The Texture of Time, but also the failure of Letters from Terra. Those details deserve much closer attention, as well as how Ada mysteriously ends up on the mythical Terra and is published there. Terra seems to have more corroborating evidence for its existence than Antiterra.

  5. I read this book ages ago, certainly not nearly as closely as you did (for someone who was “uninvolved” by the book, you sure read the hell out of it!). I enjoyed it at a superficial level, I’d say. But whenever I thought about the book, I was troubled by the Antiterra/Terra relationship. After reading your take, it strikes me that the mere fact that Antiterra is named as it is is a massive, none-too-sutle, yet apparently easy to miss, clue in plain sight that Terra is the real world. “Anti-“?

  6. Wow, David, this is cool. I can’t believe you were able to spend this much time with this book, which as you know I can’t really stomach — it always seemed like Nabokov just got way too self-indulgent, in his old age. Thank you for getting to all that for someone like me! Because it sounds RIGHT, on some sort of gut level. Though, I always thought that the structure of the book was also a meditation on time — in that, our childhood (and we all know Nabokov was obsessed with childhood!) takes up, you know, half the book, and then later periods of our lives take up less and less, well, space, I guess, narratively, because since we’ve lived longer, the years simply aren’t as long as they were when we had only lived a few years — ack, I’m doing a bad job explaining this, but it struck me as true and the only good and really cool thing about the book, and I still think back to it, since I’ve now actually experienced how clock time doesn’t equal TIME at all, and how in actuality and (more importantly maybe, for Nabokov at least) in memory, for example, one 3 week period actually can stretch out and be an eternity. Does this make sense? I am sorry, I am rushing a bit. In any event, it’s been awhile, but I remember thinking that all the ideas on time in part four actually explained, at least in part, the insufferable amount of time the book spends on Van’s childhood and the obnoxiousness of the prose (for me, the prose isn’t beautiful anymore as it is in others of his books, it’s just self-indulgent and, well, TOO MUCH.) But I couldn’t spend enough time with the book to get to all that you’ve gotten to (in fact, I have a real aversion to picking it up again, like a visceral reaction against it, when I think about it). So your idea about the fantasy and the solipsism actually being the point of the book really does make a lot of sense in light of all of his other work. Do you still agree, though, that the book, for READERS at least, is a failure? I agree with you that I don’t think “the book justifies itself.” But if this is what he was trying to do, well, then, it at least makes me less dismissive of it AS a failure! Helps to put it in context of his other books, too, you know? Because it does seem to just not fit for someone who loves pretty much all of his other books, even Look at the Harlequins.

    Interesting that you think of “Invitation to a Beheading” as the “least emotive” of his books. I don’t think I agree! I have a lot of strong feelings about poor Cinncinatus C. and his world, and I think Nabokov does, too, letting him walk out there, at the end…ah, but that’s another topic, I suppose!

  7. Hey, it’s been a while, but since you brought it up …
    My reading is that it’s not Van alone that’s delusional: Antiterra is the non-Soviet Russia, the diaspora that constructed its own alternate reality, and Van’s version is consonant with that mass delusion (and such aspects of the diaspora as its incestuousness) and so nothing to work against it. I also think in this context “The Texture of Time” stands out from the rest of the novel.
    (I’ve not read Andrea Pitzer’s book, too much decoding subtext whatever her insights, but I don’t deny the subtext is there, only the code)

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