Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0002269, Tue, 5 Aug 1997 08:36:38 -0700

Charlotte's End (fwd)
This message submitted by J.Goodenough@UEA.AC.UK

DN's recent message pointing out the recurrence of a gross 'Oddieism' concerning
the fate of Lo's momma forces me to write to you, since there is too much of
this sort of thing going on. As evidence I supply the following two examples
from Britain.

1) 'The Guardian' newspaper carried an interview with Jeremy Irons on July 22.
Mr I is somewhat embarrassed by his earlier threat to leave the country if
'Lolita' isn't released here. (Badly timed - the threat energed at about the
same time as a number of show-biz figures were threatening to leave the country
if Labour won the election. None of them did, but how we would have missed
Andrew Lloyd-Webber....) But he comes over as a passionate defender of the film
and says that he tries to portray Humbert as a good father as well as Lo's
lover, and wants the audience to be shocked by the constant tension between
these two roles that HH has to play. But the interviewer (NOT Mr I) spoils it
for me by referring to Humbert's murder of Charlotte.

2) Nigel Nicolson's autobiography, 'Long Life: Memoirs' (published in the UK by,
of course, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is due out on 11 August. In extracts previewed
in the press, NN relates how the firm published 'Lolita' and what problems it
caused him. (At the time Nicolson was a Conservative Member of Parliament and
was also engaged on the Parliamentary Select Committee considering the law on
obscene publications, which afterwards gave birth to the Obscene Publications
Act of 1959 - the major statute on obscenity in force in England & Wales today.)

NN says: "I had not read the book before the contract was signed, and when I did
I was shocked by it. It seemed to me saturated with lust. I implored George
Weidenfeld and his two new partners, Nicolas Thompson and Anthony Marreco, to
test legal opinion by some form of token publication, and to say publicly that
if the authorities made it clear that they would prosecute us we would abandon
the idea completely."

Nicolson's defence of the book remained lukewarm, and he later wrote to
Weidenfeld "If I have to choose between 'Lolita' and my career, I will choose my
career. But the test case obviates the choice." In fact, with the new act in
force and a more liberal climate generally, W&N's test printing went
unchallenged, despite a previous warning by the truly appalling
Attorney-General, Sir Reginald Manningham-Buller, that "If you publish 'Lolita'
you will be in the dock." It was made known to Nicolson informally that the
book would not be prosecuted, and W&N went on with a full printing and sold
100,000 copies. Shortly afterwards Nicolson was de-selected by his local party
association and so his political career was terminated. Given the narrowness of
the vote, he feels that the Lolita affair may just have tipped the balance
against him with his more conservative Conservative party-members.

But one must assume that Nicolson was so shocked by the great amounts of lustful
saturation he found that he was incapable of reading properly. He writes of
Humbert "He marries and then murders Lolita's mother in order to gain access to
the child".

It seems to me (as a mere philosopher) that the fact that Humbert does NOT
murder Charlotte, despite his previous homicidal raging and fantasising, that
Charlotte is removed by a purely gratuitous accident caused only indirectly by
her discovery of what is going on, is a crucial psychological point in the book.
And it is a point where Nabokov's narrative most clearly echoes the thinking of
real-life paedophiles. All too often such people seek to lay off the
responsibility of their actions on to others, on to fate or God or whatever.
Humbert can do the same. Fate gives him the green light with its removal of Mrs
Haze, a sign that his relationship with Lo is somehow meant to be.

Does this alter Humbert's moral status? This, I suppose, depends on whether we
feel from all we know about the man that he would genuinely have attempted to
murder his wife. (And whether, as the later grotesque Quilty episode shows, he
could ever have had the competence to succeed at the job!) Perhaps it is
precisely because this question is left open that Humbert remains such an
interesting character - we're never quite sure just how evil he really is.

One question: can anyone who has seen the new film or read a final script say
how Charlotte's end is handled? Does the Lyne movie make it clear that she dies
accidentally? (Or does he, strange thought, have HH kill her? Film-makers don't
always stick to the book!) In the book it is handled so subtly, amidst such a
crisis of passions, that apparently quite literate people seem to misread the
episode entirely. A tribute to Humbert's powers of persuasion, perhaps, that so
many should come away seeing the world through his eyes and desires to the
extent of being unable to read the words on the pages before them.

Dr. Jerry Goodenough
Philosophy Sector
School of Economic & Social Studies
University of East Anglia
Norwich NR4 7TJ