Part One, Chapter 1


Since the action of the opening three chapters of Ada largely precedes the births of the hero and heroine, these chapters, quite distinct from the rest of the novel, form a sort of prologue which not only prepares the basis for the plot that follows but also (see especially I.2 Afternote) foreshadows its structure.

The first of the three chapters of the prologue explains Van and Ada's discovery that they are full brother and sister, though they have been brought up as if cousins, Van as the son of Demon and Aqua, Ada as the daughter of Dan and Marina. Discovering a newspaper photograph of Dan and Marina's wedding that shows they were not married until December 16, 1871, the children realize that if, as the microfilms of his travel reveal, Dan was absent between spring and late fall of that year, then he cannot be Ada's father. They then leaf through the herbarium, from whose meager evidence they deduce that Demon's wife Aqua was not Van's mother, that Demon had also made Marina pregnant, and that unmarried Marina had substituted infant Van for muddled Aqua's lost infant. Blanche's gossip has already suggested to Ada that her father may be her "uncle" Demon, not her ostensible father, Dan. In the light of Dan's absence when Ada was conceived and Demon's extravagant congratulations to Marina on the occasion of Van's birth, the children now have good reason to accept the reliability of Blanche's information, and to infer that Demon may indeed have been Ada's father as well as Van's, while Marina is the mother of them both.

Nabokov makes these deductions so tight, so densely packed, and so dependent on information readers do not yet know or have not yet had time to assimilate, that no first-time reader will be able to follow them. (We do not learn, for instance, that Van's birthday is on January 1, 1870, until 535.17-19 and 547.04-06, and even then only through indirect inferences.) The fact that Van and Ada can make such deductions, as soon as they encounter this slender and indirect evidence, and despite their youth and the distractions of their ardor, establishes their uncanny intelligence.

There is good reason to suspect that Nabokov prepared the difficulty of Ada's opening chapter--the most difficult thing he ever wrote--for an unusual reason. He had a keen sense of the value of childhood innocence--one strong motive, indeed, for writing Lolita. In taking advantage of the increasing frankness of the 1960s to write a novel much more sexually explicit than any he had written to date, he appears to have placed a clasp with a childproof lock on the book. Anyone who could persist through the difficulty of this opening chapter, with its vocabulary (granoblastically, sur-royally, ectoplasmic, heliocolor) and its involved inferences, would already have to be past the age of innocence.

But does Nabokov not run a risk, or misjudge, in making the start of his story so difficult--even if it is already so comical and colorful, and so promising of future complications--and in making Van and Ada so much brighter than us, and so aware of it?

At one level, Ada's first chapter is a parody of the openings of all stories, as its first line is a parody of the opening of perhaps the greatest of novelistic stories, Anna Karenin. Ada I.1 is
nothing less than a parody of the very idea of narrative exposition, of an author carefully unfolding just what the reader needs to know in order to follow the tale about to commence. Information does not come to us a piece at a time, neatly labeled and sorted. Rather, this teeming world assaults us with more than we can assimilate, and Nabokov therefore violates conventional exposition for the very reason that the convention violates life.

His point is a serious one, arising from a considered and consistent epistemology. But that does not preclude his having fun--for after all part of his very epistemology is his sense that life keeps playful surprises hidden for us to find. Like a good nineteenth-century novel, Ada in its attic scene presents us with all the family relationships we must master, only to proffer them in such profusion that the exposition seems to expose nothing--until the ensuing chapters allow us to discover what we need to know. But nothing could be less like a nineteenth-century novel, less like the worlds of meek Fanny Price, Amelia Sedley or Esther Summerson, than an exposition that exposes little Ada standing there naked in the first scene of the novel, before her naked brother and lover.

Nabokov pushes the parody further as he takes aim at two other stock story-telling devices older than Oedipus: a mysterious birth, and the recognition scene that uncovers this mystery. In tragedy, the hero is likely to have already married his mother or his sister when the grim disclosure comes. In comedy or romance, a humble shepherdess may be prevented from marrying her noble lover until she suddenly proves to be of noble origin. Or a more sophisticated kind of comedy may merely toy with tragedy's horrified reaction to incest, leaving the characters aghast--that Fanny should be the sister of Joseph Andrews, that Mrs Waters should be the mother of Tom Jones--even as we recognize from the book's overall comic tone that the relationship will somehow prove not to be taboo. We are doubly caught, by ironic amusement at the unnecessary lamentations of the stricken characters and by tantalized curiosity: how will a second recognition scene dispel the shadow of incest?

Nabokov can parody the tradition of the mysterious birth and the recognition scene in which incest is discovered much more radically than was possible for Fielding. In the best romantic manner the circumstances of both lovers' births have been hidden and are both discovered together. Since they have already become lovers before finding out they are brother and sister, Van and Ada ought to be destined for tragedy. Yet far from being a cataclysmic horror, or even the toyed-with shadow of that horror, the disclosure which would be a dramatic peak in a traditional tale passes almost unnoticed and is quietly dismissed. To Van and Ada it is no more than welcome additional proof of the specialness of their case and of the naturalness of their mental harmony. They will continue to be the passionate and lucky lovers at the center of the tale: not only is their relationship not shattered, but it will endure for more than eighty years to come. Just where Van and Ada flout the oldest of taboos, Nabokov himself upends all the rules of his craft by piling right on top of his exposition the recognition scene that should come only after long delay and steadily rising suspense, to hurtle us down towards a final dénouement.

In an exposition that at first glance seems to refuse to tell us anything, Nabokov lets us in on much more of the plot than we had any right to expect. And just where the characters of a traditional tale would be overwhelmed with revulsion, Ada turns to naked Van and tells him there's still time for another round of lovemaking before tea. (Boyd 1985/2001: 266-67)
Nabokov has ample reasons for making it so difficult for us to deduce at first what Van and Ada see so easily in the attic, but does he nevertheless miscalculate how he presents their discovery? Does he have sufficient distance from his central characters?
As the celebrant of his past, Van in his role as narrator seeks to reveal the uniqueness of young Van and Ada: their brilliance, their uncommon and even uncanny affinity; the carefree quality of their incestuous love. The capacity of this fourteen-year-old boy and his twelve-year-old sister to deduce as much as they do from the very spare, very oblique evidence in the herbarium is awesome, and it is amusing and exactly right that two bright young "cousins" who not long ago were strangers and are still eager to command each other's admiration should engage in this contest of mutual one-upmanship.

Yet there is also something decidedly distasteful about his arcane exchange. Since Ada is consciously trying to outdo her brother, it is perfectly plausible that her "I can add . . . that . . . ; that . . . ; and that . . . " should echo so exactly Van's "I deduce . . . that . . . ; that . . . ; and that. . . . " To Van the narrator, the similarity of the children's remarks proves the singularity of their mental kinship. But to us the similarity can only seem an unattractive basis for the children's love. Van and Ada feel so attracted to each other precisely because they are so unnaturally alike: each has found a duplicate self to worship. Passionate love for someone else proves unpleasantly close to ardent self-love, as if Narcissus were to find that the adoring Echo and the reflection he yearns for are one.

Not only are Van and Ada eerily alike, but their exceptional giftedness also makes them unlike everybody else. That Van and Ada sense this difference and relish it and augment it is evident in every detail of the conversation. They are proud that they can deduce what others could not, proud of their ability to respond to and take even further each other's cryptic concision. They elaborate their sentences as if for an audience that is deliberately being shown it cannot comprehend, as if they wish to stress and savor their superiority to any imaginable listener. Their pride blazes like a ring of fire set to mark out the charmed circle of their understanding and to keep the rest of the world at bay.

Van and Ada's dialogue jars, and . . . it is meant to jar. But why? . . .

Van and Ada submit passages like their exchange in the attic as proof of their own brilliance. Nabokov lets us read them instead as evidence of their self-satisfaction-and their dishonesty. As narrator, Van playfully calls himself and Ada in this scene "Nicky and Pimpernella" or "Pimpernel and Nicolette," in honor of a newspaper comic strip they unearth in the attic, "the now long defunct Goodnight Kids, Nicky and Pimpernella (sweet siblings who shared a narrow bed)." As a character within the scene, young Van responds to Ada's reference to the famous fresco of the flower girl from Stabia, near Pompeii, by calling her "Pompeianella," as if he has overheard the nicknames in old Van's narrative--or as if old Van, pen in hand, has polished and repolished the ostensibly impromptu brilliance of his young self and his sister.

Insisting on absolute fidelity to memory, Nabokov himself kept dialogue out of his memoirs, knowing that no one can recall conversations accurately decades after the fact. Van on the other hand loads his memoirs with masses of extended, intricately elaborate dialogue supposedly recollected eighty years later. Or rather, as we should suspect, he reworks all that direct speech, during the ten years he spends writing the book, in order to exaggerate the flair of the young Veens. As Nabokov commented in an interview, Van Veen could have exerted a good deal more self-control over his memory than he chose to.

Amidst all the enchantment, the romance, the color and comedy of Ada, the book's lapses into smartness of tone or its sudden squalls of exhibitionistic allusion can set the teeth on edge. But Nabokov knows what he is doing. Just as he shows that for the human mind the delights of discovery are inextricably related to the frustrations of opaque fact, just as he portrays glory and grief as inevitably intermingled even in what seems the fairy-tale world of Ardis and Antiterra, so he suggests that even minds with such effortless command and range as young Van and Ada seem to disclose in that attic scene can have their own severe limitations and their blindnesses. (Boyd 1985/2001: 267-69)
Some have felt that in Ada Nabokov has succumbed to the temptations of self-display. In fact he had never concealed so much of his art. Van and Ada may display their brilliance to each other in the attic in 1884, and to their readers in distant retrospect, but Nabokov does not share their sense of themselves. He critiques not only what they say or feign to have said, but especially what they have just done, not with each other, but to an innocent child:
The attic scene introduces us to Van and Ada as lovers not simply unperturbed by their discovery that they are not cousins but brother and sister, but positively smug at the evidence that their closeness excludes the outside world. But this first scene also marks the exclusion of their half-sister Lucette--and her tragic involvement in Van and Ada's affairs.

Lucette receives only one throwaway line in the attic scene: "Another daughter, this time Dan's very own, followed on January 3, 1876." Later we learn how she becomes enmeshed in Van and Ada's fate. As the older siblings make love at Ardis, they have to evade Lucette's natural curiosity. In the desperation of desire, they try all sorts of stratagems. In one scene, perhaps the most fateful of all, Van manipulates Lucette's affections before stealing off with Ada to the attic. Mustering all his charm, he tells Lucette in a conspiratorial whisper that he will present her with his book of "the most beautiful and famous short poems in the English language," "one of my most treasured possessions," if she can go to her room and learn an eight-line poem by heart in an hour.
"You and I" (whispering) "are going to prove to your nasty arrogant sister that stupid little Lucette can do anything. If" (lightly brushing her bobbed hair with his lips), "if, my sweet, you can recite it and confound Ada by not making one single slip--you must be careful about the 'here-there' and the 'this-that,' and every other detail--if you can do it then I shall give you this valuable book for keeps. . . ."

"Oh, Van, how lovely of you," said Lucette, slowly entering her room. . . .

Van hastened to join Ada in the attic.
Van is proud of his stratagem at the time, but he recalls this moment with a grim shiver seventeen years later when Lucette drowns herself out of thwarted love for him.
. . .
At twenty-five . . . Lucette remains a virgin, emotionally frail, compulsively but helplessly in love with Van. Hearing that he has booked a passage on a transatlantic liner, she joins the ship, determined to seduce Van--who has accepted Demon's edict that he must not see Ada while their parents remain alive--or to commit suicide if she fails. Before leaving Paris, she writes a letter to Van's American address, just in case he fails to turn up on the crossing. In that letter, which Van receives only after her death, she cites the whole poem she had proudly learnt at eight--while Van and Ada were in the attic.

Unlike Van and Ada's cryptic exchanges, Nabokov's essential points are not designed to shut others out. They simply require that we observe, remember, and connect. In order to decipher the melodrama in the herbarium for ourselves, we had only to recall and return to the attic scene as soon as we read about Aqua two chapters later. That was an easy clue, an enticement to the kind of active participation that reading Ada demands. The next, more unexpected discovery about the attic scene is a little more difficult--the scene of Lucette being cajoled into learning the poem by heart occurs more than a hundred pages after the attic scene, and three hundred pages before her death--but Nabokov leaves it up to us to discover that what matters most about the attic scene is the little girl shut right out. Van and Ada in that dusty room may celebrate a passion that excludes the rest of the world, but they have already ensnared someone else's fate with theirs. (Boyd 1985/2001: 269-71)
In Ada far more than in any other of his works, Nabokov makes us aware of much that we do not yet understand. But he does so not to exclude or mock his readers but to match "the difficulty and delights of his discoveries as a scientist. . . . Ada's opening chapter, with its extraordinary upending of the conventions of exposition that appears to conceal rather than disclose the necessary information, but ends up by revealing far more than any other expository scene, reflects from the first Nabokov's attention to the frustrations and frissons of apprehending our world." (Boyd 1985/2001: 299).

The beginning of the novel sets up the theme of family relationships, from the garbled echo of Tolstoy at the beginning to Van and Ada's discovery of their own family relationship. But it also examines relationship at many other levels.
As a lepidopterist intrigued by problems of taxonomy, Nabokov had long been concerned with notions of relationship, of identity, resemblance and difference. In Ada the interest in relationship begins before the first sentence, in the chart of relationships set out in the family tree, and expands in the first chapter, with its investigations into the familial relationship between Van and Ada, and the eerie hints, in their first speeches, of their uncanny resemblance. . . . Even the first lines of the novel focus on ideas of resemblance and difference, in a text that curiously resembles and differs from Tolstoy's, and is said to have "little if any relation to the story to be unfolded now, a family chronicle." (Boyd 1985/2001: 298).
The first glimpses of the geography and history of Ada's world raise the question of its relationship to our world, and the relationship of Old World to New World that becomes a motif throughout the novel, in the transposition of places or names across the Atlantic, and in details like Dan's comically unwanted explanations of "how in the course of American history an English 'bull' had become a New England 'bell.'"

Ours mind regularly operate by noticing similarities and differences, but Nabokov makes us word hard--though he pays us well--to notice the differences or similarities between our world and the novel's, or between one phrase or character or incident and another. Liking to take us by surprise, he sometimes baffles us by the very overtness of relationships, as when, within a few lines, he introduces twins Aqua and Marina, who marry cousins Walter D. Veen and Walter D. Veen, Dark Veen and Red Veen, Dark Walter and Durak Walter (their names are almost "water", and so Aqua and Marina over again). The passage obtrudes the pattern, yet makes it seem that these are local freaks for local effects, with no relationship to the rest of the novel--and indeed Durak, Russian for "fool," has no connection with Dark other than misleading sound, and never features again in the novel; Walter never recurs as a name for Demon.

But Nabokov lets us discover that relationships--including family relationships--can be much more complicated than they seem. The intricate, entangled relationships of Aqua and Marina and Demon and Dan, absurdly encapsulated in the Aqua-Marina-Walter-Walter pattern, prefigure the complicated and fatal relationships of Ada and her sister Lucette, and Ada and Van, in the next generation, and the centrality to the whole novel of Lucette and the water she plunges into to her death. For more on this particular nexus, see Boyd 1985/2001: 277-79.

Nabokov creates a unique texture in Ada where the relationship of part and part will often be quite different from what it seems. A local surprise may contain several more. What seems offhand or freakish may connect with other details nearby or distant. What seems there only to fill out a pattern may turn out to have a long-delayed point. Most times, the relationships pay little heed to the formal Part and Chapter structure of the novel. But although the Parts have their own evident logic, in terms of Van and Ada's meetings and partings, Nabokov also builds into the formal divisions an additional invisible architecture.

Ada begins by garbling Tolstoy; it ends with another explicit and misleading reference to Tolstoy: "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" (588). Van invokes a distorted Tolstoy at the start of Ada as if to imply that the Veens are a happy family dissimilar to all others; but Anna Karenin leads to a suicide, as does Ada, and Van knows, despite the parodic triumphalism of the novel's closing blurb, that Ardis has involved pain and will entail tragedy.

Part One opens with Tolstoy, and its first scene ends in an attic with Ada looking at the herbarium "album" and suggesting that she and Van "Destroy and forget" what it contains. Part One closes with a short chapter in another top floor, in a penthouse suite in which there is a graduation "album" containing "a clever pastiche by Ada Veen mimicking Tolstoy's paragraph rhythms and chapter closings" (323); on seeing it, and feeling a stab of anguish at the loss of Ada, Van tries to will the pain away: "It did not matter, it did not matter. Destroy and forget!" (324) and ends the chapter with a sentence in which he parodies a famous Tolstoy chapter ending (see 325.08-09 and n. and Proffer 269).

The opening chapter of the novel focuses especially on the melodrama of Van Veen's conception in 1869 and his birth on January 1, 1870, in Ex en Valais, Switzerland, as recorded in an album of flowers picked partly in the park of the Hotel Florey. Near the center of the novel an unrelated Eric Veen suffers an accident late in 1869 in Ex en Valais. He dies leaving "the draft of an essay entitled 'Villa Venus: an Organized Dream," a dream his grandfather, an architect, realizes by constructing an international chain of exclusive brothels or floramors that briefly seem to promise a paradise of pleasure. Van Veen, a "child of Venus" and a modern Don Giovanni, seems in some weird way to carry on the momentum of the life, or to enact the dying dream, of Eric Veen, whose name reflects Venus Erycina, the Roman goddess of prostitutes. And Van himself will die with Ada, as if "into the finished book," in Ex en Valais.

What do we make of the myths of Venus that the passionate Veens embody? The paradise of passion that Van and Ada enjoy at Ardis, the endless and tireless repetitions of fervent ardor that we catch an advance glimpse of in Ada's first chapter, seem somehow replayed in the "parodies of paradise" of the Villa Venuses, which soon collapse into decay and ruin. Nabokov here deliberately echoes Hieronymus Bosch's troubling triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, its left panel in paradise, its central panel teeming with apparent sexual delights that are also disturbing reenactments of the Fall, its right panel in hell. Ada itself evokes Bosch and details of this triptych in II.10, and outside the novel Nabokov refers to "the Garden of Delights in Ada" (SO 306). Veen evokes Venus, but also the Dutch word veen, "bog," and the bogs and marshes around Ardis seem saturated by Lucette's watery grave in ways that reveal that there is more to Ardis than the paradise Van and Ada proclaim. (See Boyd 2004.)

If the Veens themselves dominate Ada's first chapter and the whole novel, Nabokov shapes the chapter so that first forebears of the hero and heroine to be mentioned are Zemskis, and the last are Temnosiniys: of the land (zemski) and of the sea (temnosiniy, "dark blue," in Van's reference to "the sea, [Demon's] dark-blue great-grandmother") (see D. Barton Johnson, ??). In one sense Nabokov is evoking the incestuous myth of Terra and Coelus, Earth and Sky (see Title Page n.); in another, all creation myths, in this novel that looks at our "Terra" from the cosmic distance of Antiterra; in another, God's separation of the land and the waters in Genesis, as reflected on the outer panels of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights; in another, just a young boy and girl discovering their past as they make the most of their present.

Van and Ada may dismiss the past now, they may say "Destroy and forget," but over the course of their long lives it will become much richer than they can imagine, and impossible to forget, or to relive, or to atone for.

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