Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0015666, Fri, 9 Nov 2007 15:04:42 -0500

Revisiting a misunderstood masterpiece ...


November 8, 2007

Revisiting a misunderstood masterpiece

“I insist upon proving that I am not, and never was, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel.” Hail Muse. It would make sense to me for an audience of the 1950s to decry “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov as meaningless: it is meaningless in the regard that it comes with no moral lesson, lewdness stains a great number of its pages, and our narrator, Frenchman Humbert Humbert, ends his lusty memoir in the same miserable position as he began. He is as static as the Great Plains.

Beyond this, however, stretches an expanse of merits that perhaps were overlooked by the slew of American publishers that initially refused the work; the first being that “Lolita” the novel is far more than a pornography, as its earliest critics declaimed. The second is that Lolita the character is far more than a young girl, as the narrative might suggest.

“Lolita” is not a didactic novel and it’s not meant to be. The work is one of distinct voice, written by a Russian who mastered English with stunning precision. Nabokov created a piece of such sensual rapture it should have easily eluded its initial banishment (the UK kept the French-published volume out for years). His talent for the language, his wisdom and wit in the medium of English, has tremendous force.

As for its “immorality,” the author wrote: “For me a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.” This idea of “aesthetic bliss,” above all else, is the purpose of this column, to seek beauty in its multiple forms.

And the pages of “Lolita” overflow with examples. Speaking to my second point, the opening scenes of Humbert Humbert’s first love Annabel sweetly explain what develops, over the time, into the grown man’s obsession. As a boy, our humble narrator engages in a erotic relation with a family friend’s daughter, a relation of such fierceness and passion restricted by the limits of their overwrought parents, they enjoy their vacations seeking any scrap of privacy: “There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other: […] sometimes a chance rampart built by younger children granted us sufficient concealment to graze each other’s salty lips; these incomplete contacts drove our healthy inexperienced young bodies to such a state of exasperation that not even the cool blue water, under which we still clawed at each other, could bring relief.”

The next year Annabel dies of typhus in Corfu and Humbert is left with aching, perpetual desire for that pre-pubescent wrestling. He grows, becomes an invincible scholar of French literary translation, and creates Annabel again in another: Dolores Haze. Lo. Lolita.

It is a result of this creation which births a pursuit that characterizes Part I of the novel, and I take from this that Lolita is not just the inappropriate obsession of a grown man, but a symbol of the endless desire in all of us for those things we as humans yearn for; within each heart it’s different, but more: upon receipt, as Part II develops, the thrill is quenched, the fantasy is over, and all that’s left is the reality of the thing. It points towards the danger of romanticizing, but we can’t disregard our hearts: we have to keep dreaming.

When Humbert is exposed to Lo for the first time a gross aberration of Oedipus develops: the male still possesses the desire and bloodlust, but he dons the father position. Humbert is enamored with the little Lolita and wants to kill her mother, Charlotte, for time with the girl. Humbert could consume the novel without his peculiar lust: he really is deranged, and the truth of it haunts us in the narrative’s practical points, but we are so seduced by the writing, by the wit, by Humbert’s eloquence, we forget the violation he is presenting.

Slowly we begin to detest our narrator, that horrid Humbert, for detaining his concubine at such length, all artful speculation has been lost to the reality of violation, and two years of her has not satisfied him. He drives himself along to insanity (he’s been institutionalized more than once before) and we wonder “What are we doing trusting our crazed narrator?” We see the deranged gentleman manipulate so many women with his European charm, and when he turns that charm on us, we’re dumbfounded, caught in his trap. The character, for his dubious practices and rich personality, makes “Lolita” one of the finest works of English fiction.

Seeing her years after she finally escaped from him, 17, pregnant, lost in hillbilly Ohio, he just loves her. It’s no longer pedophilia but unconditional love: “And I looked and looked at her, and I knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” This declaration contrasts the witty, scholarly prose of the rest of the novel; it is a resigned confession of unending, miserable love.

Aakash is a first-year. You can reach him at asuchak1@swarthmore.edu .

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