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Old 25th Jul 2003, 20:04   #1
John Self
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Default Vladimir Nabokov

I have definitely read Lolita before but when I re-read it this week I realised that I had only a very vague memory of it - it's, like, about this guy, right? - and that it had mostly faded into an impressionistic blur. I hope that won't happen again because I realised this time that it's a staggering and brilliant masterpiece which definitely now hunkers around the edges of my top ten, if not actually in there.

It's also a phenomenon, for all sorts of reasons. It is one of the few literary novels of the 20th century (along with the likes of Catch-22 and Nineteen Eighty Four) that has put a new word or phrase into the common language. It is the work of a man writing in not his first or second, but third language. It is responsible for the worst rhyming couplet in musical history*. And its subject matter, of a paedophile 'relationship' is utterly contemporary - so it doesn't fade and date like other fifty-year-old books (Lucky Jim, anyone?) - and also makes it hard to believe that it was published in the prudish 1950s. Of course, it almost wasn't: like that other great "obscene" novel Ulysses, it was first published in Paris. Nabokov in his afterword writes:

Quote:
[American publishers'] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.
Some of the reactions were very amusing: one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a twelve-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong, "realistic" sentences ("He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy." Etc.)
The other reason why it has not dated is because of its innovative language, which while nowhere near Joycean - or even, to me, Marquezian - complexity, does take a bit of getting used to. (Nabokov described it as "a record of my love affair with the English language.") The supple and witty language is never better displayed than in the scene at the end between Humbert and Quilty, which comes at the start of Kubrick's film version (another distinction: great book becomes great film shocker), and which I had presumed was mostly Peter Sellers' improvisation ("You will only wound me hideously and then rot in jail while I recuperate in a tropical setting"): but it's all there on the page.

Lolita is, as you surely know, and whatever the naysayers may claim, a love story. And there are plenty of naysayers, even in the 21st century, where you might expect sophistication enough to understand the difference between writer, or reader, and character. One saddened Amazon reviewer states "If you want to read erotic descriptions of children and sickeningly-detailed depictions of child molesting, the law is apparently powerless (or at least unwilling) to stop you, but please, please, don't hide behind "art." Admit, at least to yourself, what you're really doing; admit what you are." Needless to say, there are no erotics or sickeningly-detaileds in Lolita. Yes, unsurprisingly, it's all in his mind.

Humbert Humbert relates his love story from jail, where he awaits trial for murder. It has been edited by "John Ray, Jr." after Humbert's death, who also provides a foreword where he gives away all the protagonists' fates without the reader realising. The name Humbert Humbert is significant: it is the narrator's own choice of fictional name - the "double rumble" which Nabokov felt carried the right amount of sinister intent - and reflects his two personas. There is Humbert the rapacious paedophile, with his authentic attention to detail and planning, and his enormous cruelty - the last sentence of Part 1 of the novel packed a punch like I hadn't felt since A Handful of Dust. And there is Humbert the repentant regretter: filled with self-loathing and longing at the end of the book, in an exceptionally moving scene where he realises that he really loves the grown-up Lolita.

Humbert is a mesmerising narrator, charming, repellent, pitiable and witty. Despite its occasional forays into picaresque road-movie territory, there is not a single boring page in the book, for now I know where Martin Amis gets his ambition never to write a sentence that someone else could have written. (As Humbert warns us at the start: "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.") If you're going to read Lolita - and why wouldn't you? - I recommend the annotated version, which will not only give you more background and notation than you will ever require, but also enable you to identify who the hell they're talking about at one crucial point of the plot, and to spot the same character's preshadowings, as he appears and vanishes and vanishes and appears throughout the book's first two-hundred-and-fifty pages before he actually comes centre stage, rather like Brad Pitt in Fight Club.

Time, then, to reacquaint myself with the other Nabokovs I have, and have surely read, but which I can't remember anything about either. They will hardly match the perfection of Lolita, a novel for which I reserve the highest praise: that is, to shut up about it, and leave it to Little Mart:

Quote:
You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalised assent.
---

* "He sees her / He starts to shake and cough / Just like the old man in / That book by Nabokov" - The Police, Don't Stand So Close To Me. For shame!
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Old 28th Jul 2003, 11:01   #2
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Lolita, I'll be honest, has always had for me the whiff of tabloid scandal about it and, even when I assumed I'd grown up, I realised, if I ever thought of it, that somewhere deep down I was still - probably, likely - sniggering.

That's an unfair and woefully inadequate way of looking at things, I know. I've just been too lazy or busy, no, lazy, to redress it. It doesn't help that the most recent reworking of the thing was a film by Adrian Lyne (ferchrissakes!), complete with attendant titillating blanket press coverage.

These simple-minded difficulties are the obstacles that the book will continue to come up against and constitute the best argument I can think of for sitting down and just reading ...

So, thanks for the review John; I shall endeavour to hunt out a copy and beat my ignorance to death with it.
.
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Old 7th Aug 2003, 14:03   #3
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When I first read Lolita, it was shortly after its publication, before any whiff of paedophilia as a social evil was permitted, for example, on the BBC. I read the book at its face value, realising that HH's obsession was totally hopeless because of L's youth, but genuinely accepting that desire for a particular girl or type of girl was quite natural.

I guess what I am saying is that I read Lolita in a different mindset than I would do today, and I think it was published in that mindset. I suspect it would not be published for the first time in today's climate.

As early as the mid-fifties, by contrast, it was common as a schoolboy (at a boarding school) to be warned about older men lusting after us and, indeed, one of my schoolfriends was so approached, and was lavished with quite a lot of pocket money and treats without ever having to do anything other than accompany the older man to the zoo or the cinema. The man was obviously "queer", as we called it, but was content, apparently, just to enjoy my friend's company without molesting him. Such was our naivety in these days that we had no idea what molestation by a homosexual menace might constitute.
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Old 7th Aug 2003, 21:10   #4
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I think Humbert accepts that his desires for "nymphets" are not the done thing, although it's true that his 'bad side' is expressed more by the fact of his abuse of the relationship of trust that Lo has with him, rather than purely by their age difference.

I am sure it would be published today, as A.M. Homes's wildly inferior novel The End of Alice, narrated by a paedophile in jail counselling a pen-pal on how to abuse a young girl, was published a few years ago to only the expected Daily Mail-style furore.

To describe Humbert as a paedophile is probably not strictly true either since Lo is between 12 and 14 when he is in love with her, and therefore post-pubescent at the very least. I don't recall anyone describing Bill Wyman as a paedophile when he shagged 13-year-old Mandy Smith 15 or so years ago.
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Old 18th Aug 2003, 20:19   #5
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The reason for which Lolita is Nabokov’s best book is exactly Humbert's passion for this vulgar 12-year-old American girl, which for once gives Nabokov's wordplay something lifelike to revolve around. It’s not unlike Albertine’s vulgar appearance in Proust’s A La recherche du temps perdu, which Nabokov himself makes clear.
Now, Nabokov himself may deny any interest in 12-year-old girls, but another one of them (even more precocious) is playing the central role in his late masterpiece Ada -- that is, it is a masterpiece as long as the girl is in focus of the brilliant word-juggling story; the other half of it includes a lot of the old aristocrat’s usual whining about Einstein and Freud and whatever.
To get things straight: personally I’m more into wordplay than into underage girls, but that is not necessarily what makes a good novel. (And not the Internet either, as it appears.)
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Old 5th Feb 2004, 22:42   #6
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I have just finished re-reading Pale Fire, Nabokov's post-post-Lolita novel. It is very easy to summarise for what is presumably a very complex book. In summary it surrounds the 999-line poem 'Pale Fire', the last work of an American poet named John Shade, with a foreword and commentary by his 'friend' and neighbour Charles Kinbote. The poem itself is accomplished, a highly autobiographical meditation on death and the afterlife (inspired largely by the suicide of Shade's daughter) and goes something like this:

Quote:
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff - and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make my chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!
And Kinbote, our commentator, is the maddest and most detached of all unreliable narrators that have ever been. He believes himself to be the exiled king of Zembla, 'a distant northern land', and that Shade was murdered by a regicidal Zemblan contract killer called Jakob Gradus, or Vinogradus, or d'Argus, or Jack Grey (curiously close to John Shade itself), who was aiming for him, Kinbote. He also believes that 'Pale Fire' contains many hidden messages which relate to his own story as said exiled king. His notes to the poem - which he effectively stole from Shade's widow - although they refer nominally to specific lines, rarely have any connection with the text and are usually just a springboard for him to tell the parallel tales of his own exile and Gradus's pursuit of him. Shade, despite being author and subject of the poem, barely gets a look in (even in the clever index, he earns only a page of references where Kinbote gives himself two). Here are Kinbote's reflections on suicide:

Quote:
There are purists who maintain a gentleman should use a brace of pistols, one for each temple, or a bare botkin (note the correct spelling), and that ladies should either swallow a lethal dose or drown with clumsy Ophelia. Humbler humans have preferred sundry forms of suffocation, and minor poets have even tried such fancy releases as vein tapping in the quadruped tub of a drafty boardinghouse bathroom. All this is uncertain and messy. Of the not very many ways known of shedding one's body, falling, falling, falling is the supreme method, but you have to select your sill or ledge very carefully so as not to hurt yourself or others. Jumping from a high bridge is not recommended even if you cannot swim, for wind and water abound in weird contingencies, and tragedy ought not to culminate in a record dive or a policeman's promotion.
And now comes the problem. If Kinbote really is entirely detached from reality, and his fantasies are just that, then what significance do they have? They are entertaining and frequently funny (particularly Kinbote's rampant homosexuality from an early age, with his numerous 'ping-pong partners') but do they have any real correspondences to the poem? If not, then we are in Royal Tenenbaums territory, where eccentricity is an end in itself, and how tiresome that very quickly becomes. We know Kinbote is mostly making it up, for sure (otherwise how would he be able to trace his would-be assassin's steps in parallel with his own?), but it does not help us - or me - to find the truth. Unlike in Patrick McGrath's Spider, with its equally deluded narrator, it is never particularly clear to us what is happening as well as what is definitely not.

This, I am guessing, is where Mary McCarthy's essay (neatly prefacing the Penguin Modern Classics edition) comes in. I'll read it any minute now, honest, but a quick scoot of the internet suggests that she put forward a theory in that essay, published just after Pale Fire in 1962, that the book was written by neither Shade nor Kinbote but by a colleague of theirs, Botkin, who is referred to glancingly in the book - but note the allusion also in the extract above, and of course his anagrammatic correspondence with Kinbot(e) himself... Curiouser and curiouser. So I hope there is force in this, that Pale Fire does have endless unplumbed depths - otherwise why would it take Nabokov five years to write? - like the other article I found on the internet referring to it as a book steeped in Shakespeare (the title coming, probably, from the description of moonlight in Timon of Athens - and again see the allusion in the extract above, which I didn't choose for these purposes, honest). So for me it scores highly for its sheer novelty and masterly execution, and for the suggestions of suggestions detailed above, but it also falls down for bringing the suspicion, in me at any rate, that all of those are really just suspicions. It doesn't have the emotional force of Lolita to add to its cerebral challenges, whereas lollypop Lol's got the lot.

EDIT: Read Mary McCarthy's essay 'A Bolt from the Blue' and either the website that summarised it was gloriously off-the-case, or I picked it up wrong. She does say that Botkin is the real narrator but not that he is a third person outside Shade and Kinbote... The essay is worth reading for the first few pages, but the rest of it is increasingly wild attempts by McCarthy to sew in everything she can think of to the Pale Fire cause - astrology, chess, colours - irrespective of how flimsy the evidence is. It turns the book into a crossword clue, an exercise in saying I got that!, a sort of mini-Finnegans Wake. And one of those is enough.
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Old 18th Feb 2004, 10:02   #7
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Since I last wrote here, I've re-read Lolita. And enjoyed it, too. It was, however, quite a lot more explicit than I remembered. I think I enjoyed the first part, up to the start of the summer camp, better than the rest. I marvelled at Nabokov's command of what was a foreign language to him.
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Old 23rd Jun 2004, 10:45   #8
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Talking of Trinity College elsewhere, as we were, reminded me that Nabokov went there.

In fact, just found this on the college website:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Nabokov
Not once in my three years of Cambridge - repeat: not once - did I visit the University Library, or even bother to locate it (I know its new place now), or find out if there existed a College library where books might be borrowed for reading in one's digs. I skipped lectures. I sneaked to London and elsewhere. I conducted several love affairs simultaneously. I had dreadful interviews with Mr Harrison. I translated into Russian a score of poems by Rupert Brooke, Alice in Wonderland, and Romain Rolland's Colas Breugnon. Scholastically, I might as well have gone up to the Inst. M. M. of Tirana.

from Speak Memory (1951)
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Old 23rd Jun 2004, 11:16   #9
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Makes Vlad sound like Jeffrey Archer, that. And to think I had always meant to read Speak, Memory...
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Old 15th Nov 2004, 14:23   #10
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Lolita, finally.

Rather like Bleak House before it, my rendezvouses with the classics this year have been full of surprises, and it bears saying repeatedly that you really don't know them until you know them.

So what did I think Lolita was? A titillating romp? A debauched love story? A bold psychological chunk of pulp filled to the brim with noir-ish brio? I don't know, frankly, I guess if I ever thought about it at all it was with a Carry On smirk and...and that's it. Reading it for real is, it turns out, an education.

When I met up with JS in Cambridge the other week and I told him I'd just started it, he warned me that 'there's a lot of literature in there'. And I realised what that meant as I ploughed through the first 50 pages or so. Nabokov, to use a footballing term, packs the midfield. It's all going on right there in the centre of the park; no sparky turns from a bit player, no real cliffhangers or set pieces. We're talking Ajax here, total literature, everybody doing everything. It's all going on, and it never lets up for a minute. And, I have to admit, for a while, almost the whole of the first third of the book I Didn't Get It.

Not until the car accident that sets Humbert and Lol 'free' (wrong word, really) did it all come together for me. After that the prelims were over - for me - and it was World Cup Final day; Humbert singing both anthems, lust and regret.

There's no end to the colour and spectacle. Driving across the US:

Quote:
Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.
Or the simple act of watching tennis:

Quote:
She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make-believe, although I daresay, for her it was the very geometry of basic reality...Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.
Every page is like this, every sentence suffused by style and elegance. Not everyone would agree, of course: 'there are too many words and the paragraphs are far too long', suggests one Amazon reader. Another, that there are too many French asides (hardly) and that 'no translation is ever given the reader'. Boo hoo. Get an education, mon petit idiot.

It is, of course, the sordidness that effects such disdain. Sordidness without despair or guilt or judgment (or so they would have you believe). Well, then, I would suggest that anyone who thinks that the book 'celebrates' or revels in 'erotic descriptions of child molesting' needs to go back and re-read the damn thing. It does no such thing. For a start - and it's not an answer as such, but needs saying nevertheless - the sex is relatively reserved and minimal. But secondly, and this is the point surely, the condemnation is there all the time. What do these people think Nabokov is getting at when he subtly (ah, maybe that's the problem) mentions Lolita's sobs in the night 'every night, every night'. Or her sudden, explicit grown-womanness when HH sees her towards the end of the book. Humbert's fate is all the more horrible and damning because he creates it himself (scratching his 'very spiritual itch')...

It's taken me an age to read, but that's because I just kept re-digesting paragraph after paragraph, again and again, the whole thing just turning and churning around inside my head.
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