Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0009006, Wed, 10 Dec 2003 11:11:46 -0800

Patricia Highsmith and Lolita's road trip
EDNOTE. Rodney Welch has sent in a long review of books by and about the late Patricia Highsmith that appeared in THE NEW REPUBLIC (the bible of my youth). The review, entitled "The ICK Factor," is by Terry Castle who offers the odd thought that there might be a connection between LOLITA's road trip and a portion of the Highsmith novel. It appeared in the Nov. 10, 2003 three issue. I excerpt the relevant passage below.


Re-reading The Price of Salt with the Senn story in mind, it is hard not to fixate on the book's darker, even unwholesome, elements. It's not only that the love story itself at times seems unwholesome--though female homosexuality is always a tough sell, in literature as in life. Even now, it is extremely difficult for writers to present lesbian desire in an unabashedly positive light: Proust could not do it, nor could Woolf or Henry James. At some fairly deep psychic level--an archetypal one?--lesbianism still seems, alas, reflexively bound up with the themes of loneliness, sterility, unnaturalness, and genetic abnormality. Highsmith's lovers are far more attractive and appealing than those, say, in Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, but that doesn't rule out a subliminal ick factor that may be intrinsic to the subject.

Highsmith seems to have been well aware of the difficulty. She even takes perverse advantage of it. When Carol gives Therese a supposedly comforting glass of hot milk early in their relationship, the imagery is disquieting: "the milk seemed to taste of bone and blood, of warm flesh, or hair, saltless as chalk yet alive as a growing embryo." Elsewhere she hints broadly at the quasi-incestuous nature of the women's liaison. At such moments you don't have to be straight (and hung up) to feel slightly nauseated.

Yet most tellingly, perhaps, the stalking motif also re-appears, and in a portentous literary form. I have long had a theory that Nabokov knew The Price of Salt and modeled the climactic cross-country car chase in Lolita on Therese and Carol's frenzied bid for freedom in the earlier novel. Humbert's panic-stricken flight through the Midwest with his adored "Lo," the crazy-sinister detective Quilty in hot pursuit, is one of the great emblematic sequences in modern American literature, combining mania, danger, and paranoia (and tacky highway scenery) with rhapsodic taboo romance.. Yet the whole disturbing combination is quintessentially Highsmithian. Highsmith was the first writer to mix roadside Americana, transgressive sex, and the impinging threat of a morals charge--and she went about it as masterfully as anyone.