Incest is a dirty word. It makes you shudder and think of the kinds of morally depraved people you would never want to meet. In many countries, incest is a felony, the justification for it being so, the high risk of reproducing genetically disabled offspring.
Part of the reason it is so taboo, too, is because of the prevalence of sexual abuse in such cases. Often, instances of incest arise in non-consensual contexts. But, what if one of the two consenting people in question is infertile? What if both are? If reproduction is an impossibility, and both parties agree to the relationship, where is the crime?
Let us, for the sake of this piece, put aside the perilous implications this law has towards individuals who are born with genetic disabilities: this is not an article about the value of a genetically flawed human life.
Instead, let us turn back to the main argument at hand. Words like love and emotion do not bear much weight in the legal spheres, but when what brings value to the lives of two infertile individuals rests upon a law that is based on an impossibility in their own case, well, that doesn’t sound like the pursuit of justice to me.
Bending The Law
Enter Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada.
I know what you’re thinking. If I have to bring the author of the infamous Lolita in as evidence, my case is already not looking good. But, hear me out.
Lolita is a masterpiece of deception, following the narration of pedophile Humbert Humbert as he develops a fixation for young girls and seduces twelve-year-old Dolores, whom he calls Lolita. Importantly, Lolita’s voice is completely silenced throughout the entirety of the novel. She is objectified and her point of view is suppressed from the reader and from the narrator himself. The power dynamic is clearly in the middle-aged man’s hands.
Ada, on the other hand, is a story of two sexually awakened and consenting children. Yes, they are children and yes, they are extraordinarily young to be engaging in their salacious undertakings. They also happen to be unsuspecting siblings. It’s complicated. But this is the story of two recalcitrant children, Ada and Van, who turn into two consenting adults, nearing clinical insanity for their unruly love for one another.
To top it all off, Van learns that he is sterile. There is no chance of their love resulting in a genetically disabled child, thereby making the legal argument moot. Even more so, the story is told together by both Van and Ada, each of whom have their perspectives shown to the reader.
Stop, Drop, & Think
Where Lolita is an indisputable story of immorality and perversion, Ada is a love story.
In no way am I promoting romantic exploits between our next of kin. Instead, what I’m urging our society to do is to reevaluate our social norms and ourselves before judging others.
The best way I have learned to do that is through literature. And this atypical romantic and ultimately tragic read has led me here.
In short, Ada tells the story of young cousins Van and Ada who fall in love in their summers spent together on the family estate. They commit themselves to each other, despite finding out that they are actually siblings. Yet, when apart, Ada is unfaithful, and Van is heartbroken. Years later, they come together again. But, when Van’s father discovers them and threatens to disown his son, they separate once more.
Mad with grief, Van attempts suicide but the gun misfires. In this period, Ada marries another man, her sister Lucette declares her unrequited love for Van and kills herself as a result. Eventually, when both Van’s father and Ada’s husband die, the two lovers reconnect and vow to spend the rest of their days together.
In his days without Ada, Van exists in absolute turmoil. He pines for her for years, time when they could have just been together. At one point he even fails in executing a suicide attempt, so lost is he in his world without his love.
It’s not that their story was perfect. Ada was, in my opinion, a suspicious character, so sexually charged that even when she and Van were apart she had multiple affairs to satisfy her lust. Putting the morality of their relationship aside, it seems that Van got the shorter end of the stick and that Ada seemed fine in the periods of her life without him.
Picking Up The Pieces
But aside from the imperfections of any given relationship, the question remains: what exactly is wrong here? And who is to say what’s wrong at all?
The writing itself exudes eroticism and the words practically come up in steam from their pages. The lascivious energy of the young lovers creates an atmosphere of tension and prohibition, making it all the more scintillating to read.
Nabokov totally immerses his reader into this lush world of perversion and sin. Yet, he also writes his main character, Van, as a sympathetic man who is head over heels in love with Ada. Anyone who has been in love can relate to his despair when he is apart from her. He is not a depraved sinner or the punch line of a perverted joke. Van is all of us.
I want to be very clear. My point here is not to encourage or advocate for incestual relationships. Like most people, my gut reaction to the blurb on the back of the book was one of disgust and deep suspicion –
As a friend of mine said in response: “Nabokov is such a perv.”
I put Ada at the bottom of my ever-growing pile of fiction, and when I eventually got to this difficult read, I read it with such voracity that I certainly missed most of the artistry in the novel. What I picked up on, though, is that living according to what society expects of us amounts to an amalgamation of agony and torment as a result of social conventions.
Again, this is a specific case study that relates solely to the fictional characters in this particular novel. I hope this piece made you question your own disgust at reading it, and maybe it’ll even lead you to give Nabokov a shot.
Life is not black and white: reality is in the liminal spaces of nuance. Before judging me for daring to write such a piece, let us enter Nabokov’s ethereal world and put into place the same standards of reflection and evaluation I argue that Van and Ada deserve.