Monday, September 17, 2012
"A Maniac's Masterpiece:" Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita"
In my reading lifetime, I've missed or overlooked a fairly large chunk of classic works, and one of my many goals for this year was to play catch-up. Some of these works are daunting, not in the sense of literary difficulty, but rather in trying to keep an open, unassuming mind. My recent reading of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is a good example, since, like a lot of universally regarded works, it's impossible to go into it without at least a basic notion of what will unfold. It's almost shocking to read some of the classic lines ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins") in their original context, as well as seeing its influence on other works (the phrase "Picnic, Lightning" is also the title of one of my favorite poetry collections by Billy Collins). When the aforementioned examples appeared on the first two pages of the work, I found myself wondering why it took me so long to get around to it. Add the fact that the name "Lolita" has entered everyday vernacular in a variety of ways (not to mention that Googling "Lolita" for research purposes brings up some pretty unsavory material), and I was slightly worried that I would be keeping an eye out for the book's cultural references, rather than immersing myself in the plot. Luckily, there were many things about the work I didn't know, and I found Nabokov's writing to take several unexpected, delightful turns.
A plot outline is virtually unnecessary, but I'll keep this brief: Lolita is the story of the aging European professor Humbert Humbert and his consuming, obsessive lust for the twelve year-old Dolores "Lolita" Haze. He meets her after renting a room from her mother, and while he aches to leave the house almost immediately. The assessment of Mrs. Haze is one great example of Lolita's unexpected themes: his own lusts aside, Humbert is a hilarious, astute observer of 1950s American culture:
"She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or a bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished (Nabokov 37)."
He changes his mind and stays after seeing Lolita. Earlier passages explore his attraction to young girls (or, as he refers to them, "nymphets"), partly stemming from a girl he loved when he was a child. This obsession turns into In an unexpected turn, Lolita's mother offers Humbert a strange ultimatum: she claims her love for him, but tells him to leave the house unless he plans to marry her. They do end up married, part of Humbert's desire to be close to Lolita at all costs. In an unexpected turn, Mrs. Haze discovers Humbert's illegal, carnal intentions, and not a moment later, she's struck and killed by a car. In most cases, this would seem like a too-convenient plot device, but Nabokov writes the scene astutely and carefully. When Humbert identifies the body, he does so in a very detailed, gruesome manner consistent with his other observations. He's very evasive and suggestive about his sexual activities with Lolita (saying too much with very little), but manages to be delightfully long-winded about every other topic. His assessment of Mrs. Haze's dead body is awful, yet manages to be darkly, terribly funny:
"Three doctors and the Farlows presently arrived on the scene and took over. The widower, a man of exceptional self-control, neither wept nor raved. He staggered a bit, that he did; but he opened his mouth only to impart such information or issue such directions as were strictly necessary in connection with the identification, examination, and disposal of a dead woman, the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair, and blood (Nabokov 98)."
After his wife's death, Humbert becomes Lolita's caretaker, and this quickly escalates into a world of constant road trips, sex, sexual bribery, and his descent into eventual psychosis. His narration balances between unstable, unreliable, and occasionally nonsensical. His most reliable observations are the creepy, detailed longings for Lolita's body; of course, even in clear prose, the reader knows that dark things are brimming just beneath the surface. Given the censorship of the time, and the book's controversial subject manner, Nabokov couldn't go into explicit, more detailed examinations of their sexual encounters. However, by being sly, the narration (as I mentioned before) forces the reader to use his or her imagination, which renders the acts that much more appalling.
"I had not dared offer her a second helping of the drug, and had not abandoned hope that the first might still consolidate her sleep. I started to move toward her, ready for any disappointment, knowing I had better wait but incapable of waiting. My pillow smelled of her hair. I moved toward my glimmering darling, stopping or retreating every time I thought she stirred or was about to stir. A breeze from wonderland had begun to affect my thoughts, and now they seemed couched in italics, as if the surface reflecting them were wrinkled by the phantasm of that breeze. Time and again my consciousness folded the wrong way, my shuffling body entered the sphere of sleep,
shuffled out again, and once or twice I caught myself drifting into a melancholy snore. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing. Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach; and then her dimpled dimness would stir, and I would know she was farther away from me than ever (Nabokov 131)."
Having read very little of Nabokov's other works, and going into Lolita with a hope of discovering something about it I didn't know, I was (delightfully) caught off guard by Nabokov's humor. This work is one of the funniest books I've ever read, and much like the vagueness of the overt sexuality, it's an essential element--with so many illegal and distasteful goings on, the reader needs to laugh to shake off the unpleasantness. As Lolita and Humbert undertake one of their many road trips, he examines the world of motels and lodgings. Humbert's take on the American experience is exaggerated and precise all at once.
"Nous connûmes (this is royal fun) the would-be enticements of their repetitious names--all those Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts, Green Acres, Mac's Courts. There was sometimes a special line in the write-up, such as "Children welcome, pets allowed" (You are welcome, you are allowed). The baths were mostly tiled showers, with an endless variety of spouting mechanisms, but with one definitely non-Laodicean characteristic in common, a propensity, while in use, to turn instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold upon you, depending on whether your neighbor turned on his cold or his hot to deprive you of a necessary complement in the shower you had so carefully blended. Some motels had instructions pasted above the toilet (on whose tank the towels were unhygienically heaped) asking guests not to throw into its bowl garbage, beer cans, cartons, stillborn babies; others had special notices under glass, such as Things to Do (Riding: You will often see riders coming down Main Street on their way back from a romantic moonlight ride. 'Often at 3AM,' sneered unromantic Lo)(Nabokov 146)."
The line between Humbert being Lolita's stepfather and lover is increasingly blurred, for his apprehension about her hanging out with other boys can sometimes stand out as fatherly worry, instead of his being worried about sexual rivals. Humbert's remarks can be sexist at times, and it's difficult to tell if this is part of his makeup or merely part of the societal outlooks and conventions of the time. These blurred lines become increasingly frenetic as the novel works its way into its various climaxes. The humor becomes less frequent, the delusions increase, and the revelations and turns become, for lack of a better word, standard. However, as Humbert becomes increasingly delusional, one has to wonder how many of his actions are being faithfully recalled. By creating him this way, Nabokov adds yet another level of daring to this work: he's creating a character who is a manipulative pedophile, but bizarrely sympathetic. When he meets up with Lolita late in the book (after she leaves him under even more disgusting circumstances, at the hands of another pedophile), he's undergoing a massive mental breakdown, and while it should be his comeuppance for his actions throughout the work, he is instead presented as a sad, hopeless mess:
"'Good by-aye!' she chanted, my American sweet immortal dead love; for she is dead and immortal if you are reading this. I mean, such is the formal agreement with the so-called authorities.
Then, as I drove away, I heard her shout in a vibrant voice to her Dick; and the dog started to lope alongside my car like a fat dolphin, but he was too heavy and old, and very soon gave up. And presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears (Nabokov 280)."
The easiest way to close an essay on this work is to examine the metaphors for Humbert's obsession with Lolita, of which there are many: the battle between European and American actions and sensibilities; the universal desire for youth and immortality, even in perverse ways; and how their travels throughout America reflect both a literal escape and a way for the two to find themselves (the underlying plot of almost any road trip, literary or cinematic). However, I like to think of Lolita as a pursuit of happiness, which can oftentimes take deluded, ill-fated forms. Humbert Humbert is a child molester, and there's no way to soften that or avoid it: both he and Lolita say this explicitly more than once. But Nabokov's work takes untouchable themes and makes them unavoidable. It's a hilarious, unsettling journey, and while no character reaches a happy ending, Lolita remains a timely exploration of a variety of ideas. This essay adds nothing new to its decades-old discussion, but Nabokov creates a world of talking points that will never be tidily summarized or finished. No matter how offended the reader is by Humbert's actions, there's no question that the complexities presented by his obsession with Lolita create philosophical and moral debates beyond a matter of right and wrong. The reader has a lot of big pictures to assess, and the journey is a marvel of storytelling and high comedy. There were many writers tackling controversial subjects and characters at the time, but few would have been able to manage this type of psychological investigation with the same kind of daring, absurdity, and variety.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. Copyright 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov.