Nabokov’s Ada is at times sublime, at other times silly. It is both a soaring accomplishment, and a bit of a scam. It is a bit of everything, and reviewing it is difficult.
This is a novel that defies easy categories. It is a family novel, a tale of life-long erotic love and incest, an alternate history, a romp through language - this novel has them all in abundance.
In Ada, Nabokov's imaginative capacities are on full display. The characters in this novel live in a world called Antiterra. Yet some have visions of a place called Terra, which closely resembles our earth and our history. Van Veen, a psychiatrist, studies these visions. He does not believe in the physical reality of Terra, but he still ponders the meaning of this world. In this passage, both Veen and Nabokov come as close as possible to summarizing this maddening, complex novel:
“He wondered what really kept him alive on terrible Antiterra, with Terra a myth and all art a game, when nothing mattered any more since the day he slapped Valerio’s warm bristly cheek; and whence, from what deep well of hope, did he still scoop up a shivering star, when everything had an edge of agony and despair, when another man was in every bedroom with Ada.”
Ada proves something I have always believed: the extreme plasticity of this form we call the novel. There are seemingly an infinite number of permutations the novel can take; Ada, despite its challenges, is certainly a prime example of one of its more imaginative forms.