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READING LOLITA IN U-SOPHIA IS GATHERING SPEED ...
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http://u-sophia.com/News-Noteworthy/Lolit-a-Vladimir-Nabokov

READING LOLITA IN U-SOPHIA IS GATHERING SPEED
Dan Shorer 06/21/2011 11:11 am

It has been said that Lolita is simultaneously "a love story and a parody of love stories" and that its parody and its pathos are "always congruent." In this series I wish to explore what such a condition—that of being both parodic and authentic at the same time—may mean. The series consists of weekly meetings which are accompanied by copious background material that is distributed through our newsletter and are available on the site.
First, however, I suggest that we best describe Lolita generically not as a love story or a novel of pathos but as a romance. The plot itself is composed of a series of typical romance structures, each one a version of the quest or hunt and each one an embodiment of a specific type of suspense or anxiety. We begin with the pursuit of Lolita, and the anxiety of overcoming sexual obstacles. Next, once Humbert and Lolita are lovers, we have a story of jealousy and possessiveness, as Humbert is beset by fears of rivals and by Lolita's own resistance. Finally, in Humbert's dealings with Quilty, we have a third and fourth type, each with its attendant style and anxiety: the double story and the revenge story. Furthermore, these plot structures are infused with the daimonic (that is, a quality of uncanny power possessed originally by beings, whether good or evil, midway between gods and people), which is a primary characteristic of romance as a literary mode. Lolita is an inherently unpossessable object; her appeal consists partly in her transiency—she will only be a nymphet for a brief time—and partly in her status as a daimonic visitor to the common world. The quest is thus an impossible one from the outset; it is variously presented as a quest for Arcadia, for the past, for the unattainable itself; it is nympholepsy. Even in the rare moments when Humbert is free from his typical anxieties, he is not totally satisfied; he wants to "turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea‐ grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys." Humbert is a believer in the enchanted and the marvelous. Like Spenser's Red Cross Knight, he rides forth on his quest adorned by the image of his guiding principle, in his case a blue cornflower on the back of his pajamas—the blue cornflower being Novalis's symbol of infinite desire. Lolita contains numerous parodic allusions to other literary works, especially to Mérimée's Carmen and Poe's "Annabel Lee," but the real anti-text implied by the allusions and parodies together is the romantic sensibility in general from Rousseau to Proust.
But exactly how seriously are we meant to take Humbert and his quest? The book's complexity of tone and the question of Humbert's reliability as a narrator are the first issues in an investigation of the relationship between the parodic and the authentic.
Nabokov takes great delight in rapid and unpredictable changes in tone; we are never permitted to rest for long in the pathetic, the farcical, the rapturous, or the mocking. One of the clearest examples of tonal complexity is the novel's "primal scene," the seaside love scene with Annabel Leigh. After a buildup of high erotic suspense during which the two children are repeatedly frustrated in their sexual attempts, the famous episode concludes as follows: "I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu." We misread this little rollercoaster ride from the impassioned to the hilarious to the poignant if we take any one of its tonalities as definitive. Certainly this is not simply a satire of the romantic; its effect comes rather from the coexistence of its three tonalities in a single moment. In such a passage, we might expect the romantic to go under, partly because of its inherent vulnerability and partly because, as the dominant tone of the long buildup, it is apparently punctured by the intrusion of the burlesque. Yet the paragraphs that follow return to a tone of erotic rapture in a scene that is chronologically earlier than the seaside scene. The second scene, describing another frustrated tryst, concludes as follows: "That mimosa grove—the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another." If Nabokov had intended to puncture Humbert's rhapsody, it would have been more appropriate for him to arrange the two scenes chronologically so that the ribald bathers would appear at the end of the entire sequence, instead of in the middle. As it is, nothing is punctured; if anything, the romantic has found a new energy after the interruption. It is as if, in the following paragraphs, the romantic has been given the bolstering it needs to be able to hold its own with the jocular.
The novel's narrative point of view is as elusive as its tone. Clearly, when Humbert tells us, as he does repeatedly, that he has an essentially gentle nature and that "poets never kill," he is belied by the destruction he wreaks on Charlotte, Quilty, and Lolita. And when Humbert accuses Lolita of "a childish lack of sympathy for other people's whims," because she complains about being forced to caress him while he is spying on schoolchildren, Nabokov is being sarcastic. Humbert also fails to see things that the reader can pick up; for example, he misses the name Quilty ("Qu'il t'y") concealed in a friend's letter to Lolita. Just as clearly, though, Humbert is sometimes Nabokov's champion, as for example in Humbert's satirical comments about psychoanalysis and progressive education. At other points, Nabokov's attitude toward his persona is quite intricate: Humbert says of his relationship with Annabel that "the spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today"; and Humbert does serve as a serious critic of modern love from the standpoint of a romantic exuberance of feeling, even if his criticism is undercut by his own divided love, in which what he calls his "tenderness" is always being sabotaged by what he calls his "lust."
But if we compare Humbert to another demented storyteller in Nabokov, Hermann inDespair, we see how Nabokov operates when he really wants to make a dupe out of his narrator. Despair is a takeoff on the doppelgänger theme, in which the hero, Hermann, takes out an insurance policy on himself and then murders his double in order to collect; it doesn't work, however, because he's the only one who sees the resemblance. Hermann is among other things a Marxist, a sure sign that Nabokov is using him ironically, and Nabokov puts into his mouth frequent and obvious reminders of his unreliability. "I do not trust anything or anyone," he tells us. His wife's hero worship of him is one of his constant themes, and yet his self-satisfaction and blindness are such that he can find her undressed in the apartment of a man who is her constant companion and not experience a moment's doubt of her fidelity. Nabokov himself, calling both Humbert and Hermann "neurotic scoundrels," does make an important distinction between them, when he writes that "there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann."
Even Hermann, however, at times seems a stand-in for Nabokov, as, for instance, whenever he speaks of outwitting or playing games with the reader. Much has been written of Nabokov's own fondness for game playing, such as the use of the Carmenparallel in Lolita to tease the reader into believing that Humbert will kill his nymphet. In fact, it's difficult to find a Nabokov hero or narrator, however antipathetic, who doesn't at times sound like the author in his nonfiction. Even John Ray, the fool who introduces Lolita, asserts a prime Nabokov theme when he says that every great work of art is original and "should come as a more or less shocking surprise." And many readers have noticed the relationship between the desperate nostalgia of Humbert or that of the crazed Kinbote in Pale Fire and Nabokov's own commitment to the theme of remembrance. Conversely, Van Veen in Ada—who is the Liberated Byronic Hero, among other things, as Humbert is the Enchanted Quester and Hermann the Metaphysical Criminal—although he has been taken as almost a mouthpiece for Nabokov himself, has been condemned by his creator as a horrible creature. The fact seems to be that Nabokov in his fictional and nonfictional utterances has created a composite literary persona, just as Norman Mailer has. His heroes, like Mailer's D. J. and Rojack, tend to be more or less perverse or absurd inflections of his own voice. In two of his own favorite works, Don Juan and Eugene Onegin, we have narrators who keep intruding on their heroes to deliver speeches and who also are at pains to differentiate themselves from those heroes. Nabokov behaves similarly, except that he does so within the range of the single voice. As in the case of tone, we discover an interplay of engagement and detachment, an interplay that is most active and subtle in the most memorable of the characters, like Humbert and Kinbote.
With this general sense of the status of tone and narrator in Lolita, we can turn now to consider what Humbert actually says. Humbert subtitles his story a confession. More accurately, it is a defense. Portraying himself as a man on trial, Humbert repeatedly refers to his readers as his jury. "Oh, winged gentlemen of the jury!" he cries, or, "Frigid gentlewomen of the jury!" But he also frequently addresses us directly as readers; in the middle of a torrid sequence he speculates that the eyebrows of his "learned reader ... have by now traveled all the way to the back of his bald head." And late in the book, in a parody of Baudelaire's "Au lecteur," he addresses the reader as his double: "Reader! Bruder!" The reader is sitting in judgment on Humbert; the purpose of his story is to defend what he calls his "inner essential innocence"; and the rhetoric of the book as a whole, its strategy of defense, is proleptic, an answering of objections in advance. Humbert's self‐ mockery, for example, has to be understood as a proleptic device, and, indeed, to follow the style of Lolita is to track the adventures of a voice as it attempts to clear itself of certain potential charges. As we will see, in many ways the defense is Nabokov's, even more than Humbert's.
At the end of the novel, Humbert sums up his defense by passing judgment on himself; he would give himself "at least thirty-five years for rape" and dismiss the other charges, meaning chiefly the murder of Quilty. But there are further accusations that the novel strives to evade. As a whole, the book defends itself against a utilitarian concept of art. This charge is rather easily evaded by the use of John Ray, who introduces the novel as an object lesson in the necessity of moral watchfulness on the part of "parents, social workers, educators." Nabokov's obvious satire here is intended to remove the allegation of his having a conventional moral purpose. Other accusations are handled within the text itself. In addition to conventional moralists, Nabokov detests psychiatrists and literary critics, and it is against these types of readers—or these metaphors for the reader—that Humbert wages constant war. Anti-Freudianism is one of Nabokov's pet themes, and Humbert is a man who, in his periodic vacations in insane asylums, loves nothing more than to take on a psychiatrist in a battle of wits. His chief defense against a psychoanalytic interpretation of Lolita is to admit it readily and dismiss it as trite and unhelpful. When he describes his gun, he says, "We must remember that a pistol is the Freudian symbol of the Ur-father's central forelimb;" Humbert beats the analysts to the draw and says, in effect, "So what?" At another point, he anticipates a Freudian prediction that he will try to complete his fantasy by having intercourse with Lolita on a beach. Of course he tried, Humbert says; in fact, he went out of his way to look for a suitable beach, not in the grip of unconscious forces but in "rational pursuit of a purely theoretical thrill"; and when he found his beach, it was so damp, stony, and uncomfortable that "for the first time in my life I had as little desire for her as for a manatee."
Ultimately, we have to understand Nabokov's anti-Freudianism in the context of a hatred for allegory and symbolism in general. In Ada, Van Veen says of two objects that both "are real, they are not interchangeable, not tokens of something else. Nabokov is against interpretation; an image has no depth, nothing beneath or behind or beyond; it is itself. Discussing Hieronymus Bosch, Van tells us, "I mean I don't give a hoot for the esoteric meaning, for the myth behind the moth, for the masterpiece-baiter who makes Bosch express some bosh of his time, I'm allergic to allegory and am quite sure he was just enjoying himself by crossbreeding casual fancies just for the fun of the contour and color."
Another of Nabokov's heroes, Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading, is a man whose mortal crime is to be opaque, or inexplicable, while everyone else is transparent. To be inexplicable is to be unrelatable to anything else; Humbert refers to the "standardized symbols" of psychoanalysis, and Hermann, a bad literary critic, points out a resemblance that nobody else can see. Nabokov's hero-villains are often allegorists, like Humbert, who imposes his fantasy of Annabel Leigh on Lolita and turns her into a symbol of his monomania.
Allegory, as Angus Fletcher has shown, is daimonic and compulsive; it is a spell, enchanted discourse. Nabokov, on the contrary, tries to create structures that defy interpretation and transcend the reader's allegorism, Freudian or otherwise; like Mallarmé, he dreams of a literature that will be allegorical only of itself. Thus, Humbert evades our attempts to explain him according to prior codes or assumptions. First of all, he insists that women find his "gloomy good looks" irresistible; therefore, we can't pigeon-hole him as someone forced into perversion by his inability to attract adult women. Then, too, Lolita is not "the fragile child of a feminine novel" but a child vamp who, furthermore, is not a virgin and who, even further, Humbert claims, actually seduces him—a claim that is at least arguable. And finally, when we are forced to compare Humbert to Quilty, a sick, decadent, and cynical man, a man who is immune to enchantment, it becomes impossible simply to categorize Humbert as a pervert like all others. In all these ways, Humbert is not only made to look better than he otherwise would; he is also made difficult to explain and classify, and his uniqueness is a crucial theme of his defense. In Ada, Van Veen acclaims the "individual vagaries" without which "no art and no genius would exist." In Despair, Hermann the Marxist longs for the "ideal sameness" of a classless society, where one person is replaceable by another while his rival, the artist Ardalion, believes that "every face is unique." In fact, even Hermann admits that his double resembles him only in sleep or death; vitality is individuation. It is a favorite theme of Nabokov.We are told in Pnin that schools of art do not count and that "Genius is non-conformity." The author himself always hates being compared to other writers: Spiritual affinities have no place in my concept of literary criticism," he has said. In light of this, it is worth noting that the alienation and linguistic eccentricity of a character like Pnin are, in addition to being poignant and comical, the valuable signs of his singularity. Whatever else they are, heroes like Pnin, Humbert, and Kinbote are recognizable; they are rare birds. Humbert tells us that he is even singular physiologically in that he has the faculty of shedding tears during orgasm.
Humbert's chief line of defense is that he is no "brutal scoundrel" but a poet. Nympholepsy is aesthetic as well as sexual; the nymphet in the child is perceived by the mind. Humbert does not wish merely to tell us about sex, which anyone can do; he wants "to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets"; he wants to fix the borderline between "the beastly and beautiful" in nymphet love. He calls himself "an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy"; he is an explorer of that special romantic domain of sensation, the feeling of being in paradise and hell simultaneously; and he is a sentimentalist who revokes the anti-romantic bias of modernism in a sentimental parody of Eliot's Ash-Wednesday. The problem is that in portraying himself as a romantic dreamer and enchanted poet, rather than as a brutal scoundrel, he leaves himself open to another charge: literary banality. He recognizes his position as a spokesman for values that no one takes seriously anymore and says that his judges will regard his lyrical outbursts and rhapsodic interpretations as "mummery," so much hot air to glorify his perversion. His nymphet, on the other hand, is at best bored by his mummery, and the two often operate as a vaudeville team, in which he is the alazon and she the eiron:
"Some day, Lo, you will understand many emotions and situations, such as for example the harmony, the beauty of spiritual relationship. "
"Bah!" said the cynical nymphet.
Humbert fears Lolita's "accusation of mawkishness," and his madcap and mocking humor defends him against any such accusation by the reader. So too does the presence of Charlotte, a trite sentimentalist whose mode of expression he mocks and against which his own appears unimpeachable. Yet he says, "Oh let me be mawkish for the nonce. I am so tired of being cynical."
If the book's central rhetorical figure is prolepsis, its central structural figure is displacement or incongruity. Often cultural or geographical, incongruity appears in such local details as Charlotte's calling her patio a "piazza" and speaking French with an American accent; but more generally it appears in Humbert's old-world, European manner—aristocratic, starchy, and genteel—set in a brassy America of motels and movie magazines, and in his formal, elegant style of speaking posed against Lolita's slang. But Humbert is not only out of place; he is also out of time, since he is still pursuing the ghost of that long-lost summer with Annabel Leigh. The incongruity is also erotic, in the sexual pairing of a child and an adult and, in the application of romantic rhetoric to child molesting, it appears as a problematic relation between word and thing. The geographical, linguistic, and temporal aspects of Humbert's dislocation are often related to Nabokov's own exile; but I wish to emphasize here another primal displacement, Humbert's status as a nineteenth-century hero out of his age. In this literary dislocation, a romantic style is placed in a setting in which it must appear alien and incongruous. Humbert's problem is to defend his romanticism in a de-idealizing, debunking, demythologizing time.
In Eugene Onegin Tatiana wonders if Onegin is a mere copy of a Byronic hero:
who's he then? Can it be—an imitation,
an insignificant phantasm, or else
a Muscovite in Harold's mantle,
a glossary of other people's megrims,
a complete lexicon of words in vogue? ...
Might he not be, in fact, a parody?
Humbert, in his displaced and belated romanticism, must prove that he is not an imitation. Nabokov's use throughout his work of various doubles, mirrors, anti-worlds, and reflections has been much documented and explored. His heroes are typically set in a matrix of doubleness: the condemned man Cincinnatus in Invitation to a Beheading, for example, is doubled both by his secret inner self—his freedom or his imagination—and by his executioner. Among its many functions, the double serves as a second‐ order reality, or parody. The double Quilty parodies Humbert who parodies Edgar Allan Poe. Humbert is referred to many times as an ape, and an ape is not only a beast but an imitator. Nabokov has written that the inspiration of Lolita was a story of an ape who, when taught to draw, produced a picture of the bars of his cage. So Humbert, the ape, the parody, gives us a picture of his emotional and moral imprisonment and enchantment. To be free is to be original, not to be a parody.
"I am writing under observation," says the jailed Humbert. Once upon a time, observers walked out of the sea to destroy the best moment of his life; before their arrival, he and Annabel had "somebody's lost pair of sunglasses for only witness." Fear of discovery is Humbert's constant anxiety; he feels that he lives in a "lighted house of glass." The observer, the jury, the brother in the mirror represent the reader and also the self-consciousness of the writer. Robert Alter has pointed out in his excellent study Partial Magic that an entire tradition of the "self-conscious novel," stemming from Don Quixote, employs a "proliferation of doubles" and mirror images to present a fiction's awareness of itself as fiction and to speculate on the relation between fiction and reality. Lolita certainly participates in this tradition, but the sense of time expressed by its displacements and its literary allusions suggests that we understand its self-consciousness as specifically historical, as in the theories of Walter Jackson Bate and Harold Bloom. Humbert's jury is the literary past, which sits in judgment over his story. Humbert is both a mad criminal and a gentleman with an "inherent sense of the comme il faut"; self-consciousness figures here as the gentleman in the artist, his taste or critical faculty, his estimation of what he can get away with without being condemned as an imitator, a sentimentalist, or an absurdly displaced romantic.
What is on trial, then, is Humbert's uniqueness and originality, his success in an imaginative enterprise. To what judgment of him does the book force us? Quilty is the embodiment of his limitations and his final failure. He first appears to Humbert in the hotel where the affair is consummated; thus as soon as the affair begins in actuality, Humbert splits in two; and later, practicing to kill Quilty, he uses his own sweater for target practice. Described as the American Maeterlinck, Quilty is a fin-de-siècle decadent and thus the final, weak form of Humbert's romanticism; his plays reduce the themes of the novel to the sentimental and the banal: the message of one of them is that "mirage and reality merge in love." Quilty, who is worshipped by Lolita and who couldn't care less about her, incarnates the ironies of Humbert's quest: to possess is to be possessed; to hunt is to be hunted. In addition, to be a parody, as Humbert is of a romantic Quester, is to be defeated by doubleness: Quilty is an ape who calls Humbert an ape.
In relation to Lolita, Humbert accepts complete guilt. The end of the book is filled with outbursts against himself for depriving her of her childhood. A poet and a lover of beauty, he finishes as a destroyer of beauty. At one point, learning how to shoot, Humbert admires the marksmanship of John Farlow, who hits a hummingbird, although "not much of it could be retrieved for proof—only a little iridescent fluff"; the incident aptly characterizes Humbert's actual relationship to his own ideal. At the end, he recognizes that "even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif." All he can achieve is parody. When he calls himself a poet, the point is not that he's shamming but that he fails. Authenticity eludes him, and he loses out to history. What he accomplishes is solipsism, a destructive caricature of uniqueness and originality, and he succeeds in creating only a renewed sense of loss wherever he turns: of his first voyage across America with Lolita, he says: "We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country." tic exile, Nabokov also points to another, more general kind of displacement. Irving Massey has suggested that many works of literature deal with the problem that "parole is never ours," that we all speak a borrowed idiom in expressing ourselves in the public medium of language. It is also relevant that a writer inevitably speaks in the borrowed language of literary convention. Like so many other writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Nabokov dreams of detaching his representation from the history of representations, of creating a parole that transcends language.
In relation to romance, parody acts in Lolita in a defensive and proleptic way. It doesn't criticize the romance mode, although it criticizes Humbert; it renders romance acceptable by anticipating our mockery and beating us to the draw. It is what Empson calls "pseudoparody to disarm criticism." I am suggesting, then, that Lolita can only be a love story through being a parody of love stories. The most valuable insight about Lolita that I know is John Hollander's idea of the book as a "record of Mr. Nabokov's love affair with the romantic novel, a today-unattainable literary object as short-lived of beauty as it is long of memory." I would add that parody is Nabokov's way of getting as close to the romantic novel as possible and, more, that he actually does succeed in re-creating it in a new form, one that is contemporary and original, not anachronistic and imitative. Further, it is the book's triumph that it avoids simply re-creating the romantic novel in its old form; for Nabokov to do so would be to lose his own personal, twentieth-century identity.
Nabokov has tried to refine Hollander's "elegant formula" by applying it to his love affair with the English language. His displacement of the formula from the literary to the linguistic is instructive. Indeed, both in theory and practice, he is always moving the linguistic, the stylistic, and the artificial to center stage. "Originality of literary style ... constitutes the only real honesty of a writer," says Van Veen, who characterizes his own literary activities as "buoyant and bellicose exercises in literary style."
Language that calls attention to itself relates to romance in one of two ways. Either it becomes—as in Spenser or Keats—a magical way of intensifying the romance atmosphere, or—as in Byron with his comical rhymes and his farcical self-consciousness—it demystifies that atmosphere. As in Don Juan, language in Lolita is used to empty out myth and romance. The novel opens with Humbert trilling Lolita's name for a paragraph in a parody of incantatory or enchanted romance language and proceeds through a dazzling panorama of wordplay, usually more Byronic than Joycean: zeugmas, like "burning with desire and dyspepsia"; puns, such as "We'll grill the soda jerk"; alliterations, such as "a pinkish cozy, coyly covering the toilet lid"; road "that queer mirror side." This is his last dislocation and is symbolic of all of them. We can now address one further form of displacement in Humbert's quest, the displacement of the imagination into reality. The mirror side of the road is fantasy, and Humbert has crossed over. Lolita was a mental image, which Humbert translated into actuality and in so doing destroyed her life and his; but his guilt is to know that she has a reality apart from his fantasy. The narrator of Nabokov's story " ' That in Aleppo Once... ,' " measuring himself against Pushkin, describes himself as indulging in "that kind of retrospective romanticism which finds pleasure in imitating the destiny of a unique genius ... even if one cannot imitate his verse." So Humbert is proud to inform us that Dante and Poe loved little girls. Hermann, in Despair, treats the artist and the criminal as parallels in that both strive to create masterpieces of deception that will outwit observers and pursuers; it is Hermann's failure not only to be found out but to be told that his crime, an insurance caper, was hopelessly hackneyed. Kinbote too confuses imagination and reality in Pale Fire, for he thinks he has written a critique and a factual autobiography, whereas he has really produced a poem of his own. Crime and mythomania are parodies of art; Humbert parodies the novelist who attempts to displace the imagination into actuality, and this would seem to be the judgment of him handed down by the novel itself. Note, however, that this is the way romantic heroes—for example, Raskolnikov, Frankenstein, Ahab—typically fail. Perhaps it is Humbert's deeper failure to think, not that he could succeed, but that he could achieve the same kind of high romantic failure as those heroes of a lost age.
In any case, at the end, Humbert—who was a failed artist early in his career, who tried to translate art into life and again failed, and who then turned a third time to art, now as a refuge, a sad compensation, and a "very local palliative"—sees art as a way to "the only immortality" he and Lolita may share. Having in effect destroyed her, he now wants to make her "live in the minds of later generations." A new idea of art does begin for him in his own imaginative failures. Then, too, he now claims to love Lolita just as she is, no longer a nymphet and now possessing an identity, dim and gray as it may be, that is separate from his private mythology. Thus, unlike Hermann, who will never be paroled from Hell, Humbert is finally able to see beyond the prison of his solipsism.
At this point I wish to turn from Humbert's engagement with the parodic and the romantic to Nabokov's, and I will begin with several points about parody in general. Parody is representation of representation, a confrontation with a prior text or type of text. The mood of the confrontation varies with the instance. We can have parody for its own sake; for example,

in TLS ( January 21, 1977), Gawain Ewart translated an obscene limerick into two prose passages, one in the style of the OED, the second in the style of Dr. Johnson's dictionary. Then we can have parody for the purpose of critique—satirical parody, such as J. K. Stephen's famous takeoff on Wordsworth and his "two voices": "one is of the deep ... And one is of an old half-witted sheep." Lolita includes examples of both types: for instance, the roster of Lolita's class with its delightful names ( Stella Fantazia, Vivian McCrystal, Oleg Sherva, Edgar Talbot, Edwin Talbot ... ) and the Beardsley headmistress's spiel about her progressive school ("We stress the four D's: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating"). But as a whole the novel participates in a third type, parody that seeks its own originality, what Robert Alter would call metaparody: parody that moves through and beyond parody.
When Alter calls parody "the literary mode that fuses creation with critique," he is saying something that is strictly true only of satirical parody. What is common to all three types is that they fuse creation with differentiation. Parodists use a voice different from their own in such a way as to call attention to themselves. Parody is at once an impersonation and an affirmation of identity, both an identification with and a detachment from the other. This sense of displaced recognition, this incongruous simultaneity of closeness and distance, is a primary source of the delight and humor of parody, although it should be noted that parody is not inevitably comic, as in the case of John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman, for example. Some parody, such as Stephen's, emphasizes the distance, but we also need to remember John Ashbery's idea of parody to "revitalize some way of expression that might have fallen into disrepute." It may be true that some aggression is inherent in all parody, no matter how loving, but it is an aggression that is more primal than intellectual critique: it is the kind of aggression that says, "This is me. This is mine."
Page Stegner has said that Nabokov uses parody to get rid of the stock and conventional, and Alfred Appel, Jr., that he uses parody and self‐ parody to exorcise the trite and "to re-investigate the fundamental problems of his art." I think it is finally more accurate to say that he uses parody to evade the accusation of triteness and to elude the literary past in the hope of achieving singularity. Nabokov's parodism is an attempt to control literary relations, a way of telling his jury that he already knows how his book is related to prior work. More than that, it is a way of taking possession of the literary past, of internalizing it. Nabokov has repeatedly noted and critics— most vividly, George Steiner—have often stressed the idea that he writes in a borrowed language. But in his difficult condition of personal and linguis






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