NABOKV-L post 0012236, Thu, 22 Dec 2005 09:23:25 -0800

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Fwd: Nabokov in Salon: "Reading 'Lolita' in Alabama
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----- Forwarded message from court_merrigan@yahoo.com -----
Date: Wed, 21 Dec 2005 23:04:10 -0800 (PST)
From: Court Merrigan <court_merrigan@yahoo.com>
Reply-To: Court Merrigan <court_merrigan@yahoo.com>
Subject: Nabokov in Salon: "Reading 'Lolita' in Alabama
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum

http://www.salon.com/books/review/2005/12/22/nabokov/ Reading "Lolita" in
Alabama Fifty years after its publication, and 20 after my first reading,
Nabokov's masterpiece is still dangerous -- but not for the reasons you might
think.
By Allen Barra
Dec. 22, 2005 | Many of the most important relationships in my life have
revolved around "Lolita." In high school in Birmingham, Ala., being a lover of
"Lolita" and other Vladimir Nabokov novels, but especially "Lolita," was
exciting, like being part of some secret society. A gay friend of mine in 12th
grade said that being a Nabokov reader in high school was kind of like being
gay: You never openly admitted it but always looked for telltale signs of those
who were of similar persuasion, often by making furtive eye contact with someone
you saw reading the novel in study hall. Reading Nabokov was one of the only
ways to make friends with gays or would-be poets or just about anyone strange
or different or interesting. I knew of only one other writer who inspired such
an odd cult among high schoolers, Ayn Rand, who, like Nabokov, was a Russian
émigré with an intense hatred of communism. Aside from that, the two could not
have been more different. Rand's novels were the kind of
transparent philosophical tracts that Nabokov loathed as much as he loathed
Marxism. The similarities between the Nabokov and Rand cults was creepy; even
more creepy was that I almost never came across anyone who read both of them.
For that matter, I can scarcely recall anyone in the cult of Nabokov who
joined the cult of any other writer. Whatever others one read and enjoyed, they
took a back seat to Nabokov, who demanded nearly total devotion. In addition to
helping you meet interesting people, working your way through Nabokov's oeuvre
also provided you with a way of spending quality time with yourself. When I was
old enough to drive, I would sneak away on Sunday mornings on the pretext of
going to church and find some lonely place -- a park in good weather, a
fountain in a deserted mall when it was cold or rainy -- to sit and read
"Lolita," "Pale Fire," "Pnin" and whatever other Nabokovian treasures I had
been able to lay my hands on, which in Birmingham was no simple task. You
couldn't check "Lolita" out of a library unless you were over 18 -- and what
looks you got from middle-aged librarians with horn-rimmed glasses and their
hair in buns when you tried! The handful of local bookstores didn't c!
arry many
Nabokov titles. Just about the only way to cope was to hope that the
secondhand-book store had done a fast turnaround in the two weeks since you had
previously been there.
Over the years, I cultivated friendships with nothing more than an exchange of
stories about where and how we stumbled on the hard-to-find Time-Life edition of
"Bend Sinister" or the paperback of "King, Queen, Knave" with its silly, lurid,
'40s noirish cover, which made it look like something by James M. Cain. It was
almost an initiation to see how much of the first chapter of "Lolita" one could
memorize. I could recite the first two paragraphs:
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the
tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at
three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
"She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She
was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Delores on the dotted line.
But in my arms she was always Lolita."
She chewed bubblegum and said things that sounded like a weird mixture of '50s
movie teen and a schoolgirl imitating Grace Kelly: "I must go now, kiddo." She
was, in the words of the monster who loved her, Humbert Humbert, a mixture "of
tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the
snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures; from the blurry pinkness of
adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and
sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial
brothels." She was, I liked to think, all my favorite wrong girlfriends rolled
into one.
She also enticed me into a lifetime of reading. I knew that on some level I
couldn't articulate then, and am scarcely capable of doing now, this was more
than a story about a lecherous old guy and a preteen girl, though, as if
Nabokov were standing over my shoulder, I was afraid to apply terms we were
taught in English like symbol and metaphor, which he disdained. I congratulated
myself for perceiving immediately that Lolita was some sort of turn on "Daisy
Miller" (which we had studied in school prior to my first reading "Lolita") and
the usual Henry Jamesian theme of old Europe corrupting young America. I was
thrilled that I was smart enough to spot references to Poe and Prosper
Merimee's "Carmen" and Shakespeare and Joyce (whom I had just read). I was even
more delighted to find that others had combed the book as I had and uncovered
allusions to, among others, the Marquis de Sade and Verlaine and Rimbaud --
which sent me scrambling to the library to find out what they we!
re all
about. I've never felt so clever in my life as when I figured out that the
doctor, John Ray Jr., who wrote the pompous foreword in defense of "Lolita,"
was actually Nabokov, anticipating not only the book's critics but its
defenders as well. Ray on Humbert: "He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But
how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for
Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!"
With the new Vintage 50th anniversary edition, I'm discovering "Lolita" all
over again, and, much to my surprise and dismay, rather agreeing with Humbert's
doctor. It also has me both enthralled and a bit queasy that, unlike other more
sexually explicit American novels that were once considered scandalous,
"Lolita's" power to shock is undiminished. (The audio version, beautifully
rendered by Jeremy Irons, who played Humbert in Adrian Lyne's ridiculously
solemn 1997 film version, proudly announces the text to be "unabridged,
uncensored.") Well, perhaps shock is not the right word. As a society we have
become, on the whole, more tolerant of just about every other manifestation of
sexual desire, but the notion of a middle-aged man and a very young girl is
something we are no closer to accepting now than we were half a century ago.
Nabokov must have known this would always be true, and in interviews he took
great pains to distance himself from the subject matter. "It was my most
difficult book," he told the BBC in 1962, "the book that treated of a theme
which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a
special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real." He neglected
to mention that he had tried the same distant theme many years before and
abandoned it. "Did she have a precursor?" Humbert asks disingenuously about his
young love at the beginning of the novel. Indeed she did, but Nabokov denied
her. In the postscript, "A Book Entitled Lolita," he wrote that he had tested a
1939 manuscript on some friends, "but I was not pleased with the thing and
destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940." But he did not destroy
it, and years later it was reprinted under the title "The Enchanter."
Of course, there are those to whom the unsavory relationship between Humbert
and Lolita neither excites nor disgusts because they see it not so much in
sexual but more in sociopolitical terms. For instance, Azar Nafisi's 2003
bestseller, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." I have mixed feelings about saying
anything even remotely critical about Nafisi's book, as I feel a kinship with
her through our common love of "Lolita;" she seems, from her book, to be
exactly the kind of person I'd love to have as a friend or neighbor. "We lived
in a culture," she writes of Iran, "that denied any merit to literary works,
considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something
seemingly more urgent -- namely ideology. This is a country where all gestures,
even the most private, were interpreted in political terms."
Yes, one thinks, this is precisely the kind of society Nabokov would have
despised, in fact that he denounced in "Invitation to a Beheading" and "Bend
Sinister." So far, Nafisi and I are in accord. But then she writes of a
"Lolita" that seems to me to have been created in another dimension. To her,
"Lolita" is "the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert
had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed
her. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old
by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual's life by another."
(Emphasis Nafisi's.) Here one takes a deep breath, pauses and wonders what to
say to her. I don't want to imply that she isn't free to take what she wants
from "Lolita," but I say with certainty that her concerns as a reader are not
in the same universe as Nabokov's as an author. Nabokov's art, she feels, "is
revealed in his ability to make us feel sympathy for Hum!
bert's
victims ... without our approving of them. We condemn Humbert's acts of cruelty
towards them even as we substantiate his judgment on their banality. What we
have here is the first lesson in democracy: all individuals, no matter how
contemptible, have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Where to begin? How to tell her that the author she so admired would have
sneered at her praise? Here, again, is Nabokov from that 1962 BBC interview:
"Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of pleasure, for the
sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no
general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant
solutions." Nafisi, at least when she was living in Tehran, was in need of a
great deal more than riddles with elegant solutions. I don't think Nabokov
would have cared much about what she needed. "I don't give a damn for the
group," he told Playboy magazine in 1964, "the community, the masses, and so
forth ... there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from
larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art." And:
"I have neither the intent nor the temperament to be a moralist or satirist."
Mediocrity, he thought, "thrives on ideas." By which, he told Time magazin!
e in
1969, he meant "general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate a
so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated
topicalities stranded like dead whales." This is the nicest way I can think of
to tell Nafisi that Nabokov didn't give a damn about anything -- politics,
feminism, humanism -- that she does, at least not in any of his fiction.
Nabokov's insistence on art as pure artifice, that it be devoid of all social,
political and even philosophical content, guided me to most of the great writing
I would come to know before my college years. He made me forever wary of the
book that could be "explained" in a few choice sentences. Where there was no
ambiguity, he made me understand there was no art.
I would have come to know Gogol, Pushkin, Proust, Joyce and Kafka -- even
Robert Louis Stevenson, whose "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" had
been relegated to kids literature by the time I came of age -- without Nabokov,
but later in life, and if I had read them much later I might have missed out on
a great deal else that they led me to. He steered me away from numerous
so-called giants such as André Malraux, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot,
Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre (whose negative review of an early Nabokov
novel was returned in spades years later in the pages of the New York Times)
and Samuel Beckett (not the novels, which Nabokov loved, but the plays, which
he correctly saw as full of Sartreian ideas). I've never been able to get back
to them.
But, rereading "Lolita" for the fourth time in 20 years, it occurs to me that
I may not have disliked many of the same writers as Nabokov for his reasons.
Most of the writers I stopped reading in my college years were those whose
ideas I found thin or misleading or false. Nabokov disliked all ideas in
literature. He didn't simply reject novelists or poets who expressed what he
regarded as bad philosophical (and yes, even religious) concepts. He disliked
all imaginative writers whose work contained "big ideas," and so it was not
merely Camus and D.H. Lawrence and Faulkner who went into his waste basket but
Balzac, Stendhal and Dostoevski as well -- writers who didn't so much express
ideas as write books that could be explained or illuminated in terms of ideas.
Undeniably great writers might make the cut. Dickens, Tolstoy and,
occasionally, Henry James could be salvaged in part, but only the parts that
excluded concepts and adhered to Nabokov's aesthetics standards. The main point
was that there was no differentiation between the good and bad ideas; for
Nabokov, it was ideas themselves that ruined imaginative work.
At the core of Nabokov's aesthetic was the art of parody, which his narrator
in "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" calls "the springboard for leaping into
the highest region of serious emotion." First-time readers of Nabokov are ill
advised to regard that statement as facetious; Nabokov meant it to be taken
literally. As Alfred Appel Jr., writes in the introduction to "The Annotated
Lolita" (also published by Vintage), "because its references are either other
works of art or itself, parody denies the possibility of a naturalistic
fiction. Only an authorial sensibility can be responsible for the texture of
parody and self-parody. It is a verbal vaudeville, a series of literary
impersonations performed by the author." What pleasure it gave us to reread
"Lolita" over the years and find indications of Baudelaire and Bovary, to find
puns and puzzles we hadn't noticed in previous readings.
And yet, and yet ... I couldn't help feeling that I had gorged on a marvelous
cake but was still hungry for something as prosaic as bread. Can the soul live
on parody alone? What kind of world would it be in which the only literature
was parody and its only virtue irony? If Nabokov's aesthetic were adopted by
every writer -- a ridiculous notion, of course, but given his influence on so
many writers over the last 50 years, a point worth considering -- what would be
the outcome? Literature that alludes to other literature could only feed off
itself to a point of exhaustion. From where would the primary works that would
continue to satisfy this appetite come?
Precisely because of Nabokov's genius for artifice, his characters had touched
something deeper in me than a reaction to verbal and technical dexterity. I
found myself asking: Didn't these characters have a better chance for happiness
than their creator allowed them? And was I being what Nabokov would have
regarded as a philistine for asking such a question?
It was comforting to know I wasn't the only one who felt this way. In his
chapter on Nabokov in "A Window on Russia," Nabokov's one-time friend Edmund
Wilson writes of what he calls an unfortunate characteristic that pervades all
of Nabokov's work: "Everybody is always humiliated." (Wilson intensely disliked
"Lolita," a fact that Wilson's latest biographer, Lewis Dabney, feels was the
real origin of their feud and not, as is popularly thought, their finicky
differences over Nabokov's translation of Pushkin.) I love "Lolita," but I
can't help acknowledging that Wilson was on to something. In the last sentence
of his essay Wilson was writing about Nabokov's last novel, "Ada," but one
suspects he was really referring to "Lolita." "This is brilliance which aims to
dazzle, but which cannot be anything but dull."
"Lolita" is anything but dull -- it may be the most exhilarating novel I've
ever read. But there is something ultimately depressing about it, and I realize
after all these years that it has to do with the author caring so little about
the fact that he made his heroine so realistic to me that I could not accept
her fate as just a literary device. And I deeply resented that her maker would
have held me in contempt for feeling this way. Nafisi, I think, is wrong in
seeing social and political intent in "Lolita," but she is not wrong in wanting
them to be there. Some of you are going to be receiving the 50th anniversary
edition of "Lolita" as my Christmas gift, and I want you to love the book as
much as I do. But it will come with a little card that contains a proviso:
Reading Nabokov can be an unparalleled delight, but idealizing him, accepting
literature on his terms, can negate what you loved about literature in the
first place.




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