Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0002399, Mon, 29 Sep 1997 15:23:34 -0700

LOLITA's "Chestnut Lodge"
Date: Sat, 27 Sep 1997 16:40:29 -0700 (PDT)
From: naiman@socrates.berkeley.edu

I must confess to being shocked ("really!") by the outrage provoked by
the suggestion that Nabokov might have been interested by and played with
crude language. We are, after all, dealing with the author of Lolita and
Ada and are all, presumably, operating with the same roster of Beardsley
College faculty.
I want to make a few more points about Nabokov's use of "lavatory"
language. In almost every case, offensive terms or ideas are disguised,
either by translation, anagram or -- most often -- via double entendre.
There are several reasons why Nabokov should have played such games;
some have already been suggested. In addition to the
Shakespearean homage and to his own innate playfulness, there is a certain
tour de force inherent in a non-native speaker's using crude language in
such brilliant puns. American students reading Nabokov (ok, and their
teachers, too) are inevitably struck by his vocabulary, usually by
its quite recondite upper register. The use of crude puns is, I suggest, a
comparable feat: "See, I can play on this level, too" our author is
saying, establishing himself as a master of all levels of the language.
As for bathroom humor, let us remember that, aside from Shakespeare
(whose quite bawdy, punning humor, I suppose, would also make him an
outsider immune to poetry and common sense), other candidates for divinity
are suggested in Lolita. Let us remember that "toilets" are numbered
among the points where Humbert's "destiny was liable to catch."
The objections raised by Dolinin and Kartsev assume that the use of
crudeness automatically puts one in the world and at the level of those
Soviet soldiers. Nabokov's world is not one where the generic markers are
quite so clear; the use of a particular word may radically transform the
world in which that word is usually found. If these are bathroom walls,
they are iridescent.
Basic issues of interpretation have been raised by this exchange.
It seems to me that an understanding of Nabokov that refuses to
countenance his use of and play with specific, earthy words is one which
impoverishes the richness and diversity of his work. I can understand the
motivation here; for years scholars have insisted that Lolita is not a
pornographic work. Yet even if it is not pornographic it can still be
bawdy; the trick is that the action is not lewd, but the language is -- in
a manner that is not immediately obvious. Perhaps the eye of THIS beholder
is lewd, but I don't think this makes my reading inappropriate. In a way,
Lolita IS a work of oral sex; we all remember the first sensual contact
between Humbert and Lolita, I suppose, and I trust we all agree that it is
symbolic of interchange between author and reader: his tongue in our
eyes. In order to read that tongue properly, we have to moderate our
sense of reverence and indulge in our sense of play. Above all, with
Nabokov, we should always question obvious solutions -- a crude reading of
Nabokov is one that is not sensitive to his love of misdirection and ALL
levels of double entendre. It's true, to appreciate this novel fully, the
reader must indeed have a dirty mind. (Not all the puns are dirty,
of course. There are some wonderful moments unmotivated by much
other than the author's penchant for play. "People were still going to the
movies." 2:34 At least one such jewel can be found on every
page. Most importantly,the logic of the novel's plot, the reasons for
characters' actions, often has as much to do with how words sound or are
spelled as with what they "ordinarily" signify: we "avoided Florida
because the Farlows were there" (NB incomplete anagram, only the silent w
isn't in that state))

In the meantime, I suppose much more evidence is required to convince
at least some insiders not immune to poetry and common sense that at a
fundamental (note, no definite article!) Lolita is made of language about
the body's lower stratum and is, therefore, to a significant extent a book
about such language. I won't belabor this point any further on the List;
now, before the hermeneutic libido stirs again, I had better follow the
aroused Humbert's lead (I:32) and find "a nice country road where to park
in peace."