Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004665, Sat, 8 Jan 2000 10:11:33 -0800

K. Rutsala (Illinois): More Memoirs from a Mousehole: LOLITA &
Notes from the Underground

More Memoirs from a Mousehole: Lolita and Notes from the Underground

Despite Nabokov's legendary diatribes against Dostoevskij, many of
Nabokov's novels seem to be self-conscious responses to Dostoevskij's
works. Despair, as a parody of and reaction to such works as The Double
and Crime and Punishment, may be the most explicit of these responses.
However, Lolita reveals some striking similarities to Notes from the
Underground which are worth exploring. In particular, the techniques and
devices of narrative in the two novels indicate that Nabokov may well have
intended Humbert Humbert as the literary heir of the underground man.

Both these narrators compose confessions which alternate between candor
and obfuscation, between pronouncements of their guilt and self-justifying
declarations of innocence. Their opinions of their own character traits
and behavior swing from one extreme to another, from arrogance to
self-loathing and back again. Both novels reveal a pronounced tension
between the professed frankness of the narrators and their tendency to
manipulate the telling of events in their own favor.

Both Humbert and the underground man are unreliable narrators, and their
unreliability takes on precisely the same quality. They faithfully record
the basic events of their respective stories; we have no reason to doubt
the facts they describe. Rather than deceiving themselves about factual
information (for instance, Humbert does not delude himself into imagining
that Lolita is really older than twelve), they deceive themselves about
the moral implications of their actions. This tension between the
characters' awareness and their self-deception complicates and enhances
the two novels.

Nabokov and Dostoevskij both choose a first-person narrator; the
underground man and Humbert seem to demand the narration of their own
stories in order to exercise that complete control over the other
characters on the page that they failed to achieve in life. In both cases,
they experience feelings of triumph and success from their ability to
manipulate Liza and Lolita into accepting the roles these narrators have
assigned them. The underground man tries to impose his interpretation of
her role on Liza: he sees her as merely a prostitute whom he alternately
humiliates and imagines redeeming. Similarly, Humbert imposes on Lolita
the role of "nymphet" and reincarnation of Annabel. Yet both female
characters escape this confinement: Lolita runs away with Quilty and Liza
leaves the underground man's apartment without accepting the money he
offers simply to degrade her. Having been outwitted by these young women,
Humbert and the underground man each turn to the one thing that remains in
his control: his story.

Perhaps the most significant "revision" of Notes from the Underground that
is present in Lolita is Humbert's relative success as an artist. The
underground man refers to himself as an anti-hero; he may with equal
justification be called an "anti-writer." Though profoundly influenced by
literature and harboring a certain hope of producing a work of enduring
literature, the underground man nonetheless claims to reject all that
literature stands for. This is demonstrated in his rejection of a
conventional plot structure or narrative voice, and in his intentionally
clumsy diction and syntax. He can no more resolve his conflicts as a
writer than he can any other internal conflict; indeed, his writing is a
vivid representation of these inner conflicts. In contrast, Humbert's
prose can be eloquent, lyrical, and resonant; the structure of his
composition is exquisitely symmetrical. Though his writing is uneven, the
process of creation itself paradoxically allows him to immortalize Lolita
in a work of art and simultaneously recognize that she herself was not an
artistic creation but a human child. While the underground man can only
write in circles, Humbert resolves his own internal conflicts through
genuine art.