Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0022146, Sun, 6 Nov 2011 22:37:40 -0500

Seduced by the prose ...


Seduced by the prose, not the pervert
BY:LOUIS NOWRA From:The Australian November 05, 2011 12:00AM
Cover of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita Source: Supplied
IT was a sentence in the first paragraph of Lolita that sucked me in: "Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth."

I realised as I was reading it that I was unconsciously vocalising Lolita's name and what delighted me was that the description of the tongue's descent through the mouth was pitch perfect. From that moment Vladimir Nabokov had me in his spell.

The novel is a jailhouse confession of Humbert Humbert, a European who arrived in America at the age of 37 only to fall in love with 12-year-old Lolita. (Editor's spoiler alert: the rest of this piece reveals crucial plot details in the novel, including the ending.)

Humbert and Lolita spend a year travelling across the US, only for her to escape his clutches and fall in with another pedophile, playwright Clare Quilty. A few years later Humbert tracks down Lolita who is pregnant to a jock. Humbert blames Quilty for stealing her and sets out to kill him.

The eventual death count is like the last act of a Jacobean play, given that all the main characters die. But even death has no dignity about it. At the end Humbert wants to honour his love for Lolita by murdering Quilty, but the deed is a slapstick mess with a drug- addled Quilty failing to understand he is being shot and a hopeless Humbert almost botching the job.
The novel can be sometimes cruel but it is also often hilarious. Nabokov's supreme art is to create comedy out of such distasteful themes. He reinforces the sense of playfulness by frequently resorting to coincidence and chance, as if daring the reader to see the story as a melodrama when it is really the author as a demigod, delighting in toying with the fate of his characters, especially in the scene where Lolita's mother expires in a serendipitous and very convenient fashion.

There are many pleasures in the novel. The account of Humbert and Lolita's trip across America is a delicious satire on the middle-class pretentions of the late 1940s and early 50s. The kitschy motels and the obsessions of teenage girls are accurately and amusingly described. A highly cultured man such as Humbert is reduced to trying to understand his mercurial nymphet by studying her banal interests (movie stars, pop music and junk food). At these moments it's hard to know whether the experienced European pervert is corrupting the naive American girl or vice versa.

But for middlebrow moralists there is at least the satisfying conclusion that Humbert realises he did truly love Lolita, but by stealing her childhood he became a monster with no chance of redemption.

It's not only the startling story that enthralls but also the exhilarating prose, which is an inimitable fusion of the lyrical, the baroque, the arch and the colloquial.

It's not Humbert who seduces the reader, it is Nabokov's prose, perhaps some of the most exquisite ever written. Quite simply, Lolita is a masterpiece.

Louis Nowra's most recent novel is Ice, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

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