Ada, Or Ardor: Literature’s Great Incest Story

Just as film has incestuous works of art in the likes of The Dreamers and Girl, Interrupted and television has it in Arrested Development, Ada, Or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (for added cringe factor) by Vladimir Nabokov is the answer to the adroit portrayal of incest in literature. Unlike Nabokov’s other more notoriously salacious novel, Lolita, Ada, Or Ardor sees the author at the truest version of himself–in his most honest writing style. Considering the book was released during the third act of his career, in 1969, it’s hard to know how this novel would have been received if it had been put out into the world when Nabokov was still struggling to make a name for himself–though it’s unlikely he would have managed such a feat as an unknown.

French cover of Ada
French cover of Ada
With the majority of the novel taking place during Van’s adolescence spent at Ardis Hall, there is an insular, sequestered feel to the story–as though Ada and Van, two cousins who quickly realize they’re brother and sister–exist in their own iniquitous bubble. Ada’s father, Daniel Veen, is the first cousin of Demon Veen, the father of Van. Each one marries two twin sisters who are their second cousins, Marina and Aqua. It is later revealed that both Ada and Van are the products of Demon’s and Marina’s ongoing affair. Ada’s sister, or rather, half-sister, Lucette, is four years younger, quickly taking a similar shine to Van in spite of his overt ardor for Ada.
Nabokov, an obvious perv
Nabokov, an obvious perv
Unlike Flowers in the Attic, that other great literary homage to incest, Ada is told with a lushness and seriousness that can only be paid respect–no matter how tedious you find the ranting, oratory nature of Nabokov’s writing style. From the alternate world called Demonia, or Antiterra, to the skewing of modern time, Nabokov has very clearly created this work purely for his own enjoyment. The reader is secondary in his mind, as he writes purely for pleasure, and maybe even sadism.
Ada's fucked up family tree
Ada’s fucked up family tree
Van’s mother (for all intents and purposes, since Marina gave Van to her at birth), Aqua, something of a weak link in the already questionable family tree (presented conveniently at the beginning of the book, intended to be Van’s memoir) is in direct opposition to the type of woman Ada represents–strong, confident and self-assured. Speaking from an Oedipal standpoint, Van breaks the mold, seeking instead someone rational and intelligent. Aqua, conversely, is fixated on the theory of Terra, a “hallucinatory alternate reality” that follows modern history’s timeline as opposed to the contorted version of history Nabokov has presented in the narrative. She also, appropriately, has an obsession with water.
More alternate covers
More alternate covers
After their first passionate summer/sexual awakening together in 1884, Van and Ada reunite again in 1888, though with, to a certain extent, less enthusiasm as Van innately senses that Ada has been unfaithful to him–and then there’s the nuisance that is Lucette inserting herself (no pun intended) into their love triangle much to Ada’s visible jealousy. After losing out in a duel, Van finds himself in an infirmary with one of Ada’s lovers, but can’t bring himself to take vengeance on him as he had originally planned. Instead he hollowly consoles himself via a tryst with Cordula de Prey, the cousin of one of the men Ada cheated on Van with.
The Dreamers, like Ada but with two men instead of two women--and somehow less creepy
The Dreamers, like Ada but with two men instead of two women–and somehow less creepy
Upon Demon discovering the affair that’s been going on between Ada and Van–after informing them of Daniel’s (Ada’s presumed father) death–he forbids Van from persisting in his romance with her. Parting ways for the foreseeable future, Ada marries Andrey Vinelander, a wealthy enough basic who doesn’t hold quite the same allure to her as Van. In the meantime, Van can’t even kill himself properly, a testament to how non-functional he’s become in his state of heartbreak. To make matters worse, Lucette can’t let go of her unrequited love for him, finding herself aboard a boat called the Tobakoff to travel with Van back to America from England (Van had been there to further his study in psychology, his chosen field of expertise). Nearly able to cajole him into her seduction, Lucette is thwarted when Van sees Ada in movie called Don Juan’s Last Fling. Van’s refusal to indulge her even on a cursory level prompts her to overdose on sleeping pills and jump overboard.
Another contender for best incest literature
Another contender for best incest literature
The manner in which the rest of the story plays out is both predictable and unexpected–predictable in that Van and Ada reunite and stay together well into old age and unexpected for the same reason. As far as incest stories go, Ada, Or Ardor sets the precedent for a somewhat happy ending, albeit a macabre one as Van and Ada digress mentally and physically into old age. It is something of an ironic full-circle, as they enjoy one another most during the bookends of their lives–starting at their physical ripening (pardon the cliched fruit allusion) and ending at their rotting. Whether or not Ada, Or Ardor would be half as captivating without the forbidden nature of it is arbitrary. However, as it is, this is the most romantic, poetic rendering of incest we have in literature. So why not appreciate Nabokov’s penchant for the perverse? Otherwise, we’d have no great masterpiece is this genre.