There's no "or" about this book: it's Ada and ardour, and it's genius.
All right, I'll admit that Mr Nabokov takes some getting into. Accessible he ain't. Delicious, however, delicious he is and this is like a perfect bread pudding: layers coming together to create something you don't know you'll love until you look down and there's your empty plate.
The Penguin edition I bought, with the cattleya on the cover, only enhances Ada's genius. By the time you read what will ultimately become the back cover blurb, Nabokov has already shattered the fourth wall and is proceeding to stomp on the pieces for good measure. It's a manuscript in the guise of a novel shaped like time, apropos for a novel with an entire section on the nature of time. Adolescence is long and sprawling, disillusionment shorter but sizable, the transition between one generation of Veens and the next shorter still. I admit Van's treatise on time (Part Four) feels long, but I haven't a head for hard science and you sort of should in order to properly appreciate it. Then it's Van and Ada in the twilight, implausibly long-lived given the rest of the family.
Indeed, on the back cover, there's the closing few paragraphs, the last few, I imagine, that Van and Ada were able to dictate to Violet Knox; oh, yes, this is the story of their lives as written by them, in their own hands at first and then given over to a secretary as they age into decrepitude.
I lived and loved with them. I hated anyone who tried to come between them at first, as young, hotheaded romantics will -- and I learned to appreciate various come-and-gos like Cordula, though never Andrey or Dasha. Demon certainly lives up to his name. Marina's a mother in the Eve Casson/Topaz Mortmain vein, without their redeeming qualities. Marina never feels quite there, oblivious to anything that doesn't stroke her ego.
Lucette's such a loving little creature that I couldn't help but love her, in the end. She always knows she'll come second to both Ada and Van, yet she suggests, in the face of their separation, that Ada would do best to come away from Andrey and live with herself and Van -- far preferable to seclusion in Arizona. Never mind that if Van married her, it would be a marriage of very little passion. Lucette loves Van. Lucette loves Ada. (For varying definitions of love throughout.) Therefore, if Lucette can bring them together, she will.
But if she could have, there would have been very little story.
Somehow the incest isn't squicky. They keep it in one generation (Van/Ada with incidental Lucette). Demon, if anything, is appalled to see Ada wandering out of Van's bedroom. Bastards are nothing, adultery ditto, but he does draw the line at a brother and sister together. Mind you, he'd have been easier about it if they'd been the cousins they supposedly were. Ada is meant to be the daughter of Marina by Dan, Demon's cousin, and Demon Van's son by Aqua, Marina's twin.
I cannot mention this novel without heaping praise on the wordplay. I appreciated Ada all the more for its hodgepodge of languages. What's more, it's understood that the reader will be fine with all the French; only the Russian is interpreted for our benefit. I squealed when I saw "fûmes" in Cordula's letter. Dizzying, heady, like caffeinated champagne! Even within what we consider "our" languages, we're never far from the reality of this anti-reality. Is that really what the Russian means, or is Nabokov playing tricks? After all, he's managed to construct "muirninochka", Irish Gaelic with a Russian diminutive tacked to the end. It's an exclamation mark of a reminder that yes, we are Elsewhere, in a fantastic example of fantastic fiction.
You will pry my pretty Penguin edition out of my cold, dead hands.