Modern Exile and Spatial Form: Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

Anita Kondoyanidi, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

In one of the interviews given in Switzerland, Vladimir Nabokov says: “I have always maintained, even as a schoolboy in Russia, that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance […]. The writer’s art is his real passport. His identity should be immediately recognized by a special pattern or unique coloration” (63). In other words, the style of a dislocated artist, which is shaped by the exile, is the only identification he has: an alienated artist, in Nabokov’s novels, seems to survive exile and reconcile his present with the past with the assistance of his art, for exile as a state “of not being home,” as a separation from childhood and one’s native tongue, appears to be a spur to Nabokov’s creativity. Just as Nabokov’s characters surmount exile by filling in gaps and imagining time as a complete entity, by putting all the patches of the past and present together, his readers construct the deduced meaning of the novel after several rereadings, connecting disparate parts and making sense of references and cross-references, essentially employing a spatial reading, an idea articulated by Joseph Frank in the forties. More than that, Nabokov himself insists in his Lectures on Literature that readers should employ their imagination in order to visualize images. Bobbie Ann Mason as well as the famous biographer of Nabokov, Brian Boyd, were the first who compared one of the well-known Nabokov novels, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle with Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. This comparison in itself assists readers to approach Ada spatially, to visualize this complex novel, to understand the intricate particulars of it, and ultimately to decipher a hidden message. In this paper, I argue that spatial form (as a way of reading and as a metaphorical device structuring the novel which prompts instantaneous visualization) appears to be a product of the creativity of an exile; for as Frank argues, spatial form becomes more prevalent and manifest in the literary works of modernists by virtue of a simple fact that modern time is marked by escalating alienation and exile.

This spatial construction is very intricate, for understanding “art at its greatest,” according to Nabokov, is a complicated process—a certain mystery. This mystery, however, can be solved by performing a spatial reading, by using imagination. And imagination is paramount for good readers to possess in order to appreciate literary works, for art is enchanting and as Boyd underscores: “[w]hen Nabokov identified a great novel by its power to enchant, he meant by that its appeal to the alert imagination of the reader” (“American,” 540). Nabokov’s Ada is magical, bolstering readers’ play of visualization. As Nabokov paints with words, the audience can imagine his novel as a painting by placing all the details united by a singular motif—the forbidden but enchanting love of Ada and Van. Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, which consists of three paintings: Paradise, Millennium, and Hell, reflects the structure as well as the theme of Ada. The left panel that shows the purity of the Garden of Eden is a mirror reflection of the first summer of Van and Ada, the second panel can be compared with Van’s and Ada’s “garden of sensual delights,” and the third quite eerie and terrifying portrayal of hell seems to suggest the repercussions this forbidden love had.

By analyzing patterns of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, and by comparing it with Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, I will perform a spatial reading, a notion which appears to be a result of the creativity of an exile, for spatial form reflects the process of dealing with the dislocation—a process in which the combination of the play of imagination, constant accumulation of fragments, detection of patterns assists exiles in surmounting the pains of the displacement.