August 01, 2005

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita: The Horror of Proximity

I have done it. I have finished reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov within a mere hour of the arrival of Harry Potter 6. Having seen the movie last semester, and given it top marks, and considering the nature and quality of the literary version, I find it is impossible to proceed without writing something in the way of my impressions of the novel, and how I think it compares to the cinematic version.

This is the first (though by no means the last) Nabokov work which I have read, and I was floored by it. The only works of prose fiction that I have found which can compare with the skill and beauty of Nabokov's use of the English language are the "Gormenghast" novels by Mervyn Peake. The opening sentence of the novel is "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins." It proceeds, sometimes in a wild and feverish tone, sometimes in a dry and sardonic conversational tone, as the confession of a heinous sinner who has reached a point of almost ridiculously blunt honesty simply because he has nothing to lose by telling every word of the truth.

And yet English was not Nabokov's first language, nor even his second. Nabokov, like Joseph Conrad, is one of the few authors to gain special renown for their incredible deftness with a language which was not their own. I was quite shocked, in fact, to find this pronouncement by the author himself at the very end of Lolita: "My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody's concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English."

However, some might, and indeed have, argued that the sublimity of Nabokov's prose, while impressive, does not succeed in masking the rotted, amoral heart of the novel's subject matter. Beautiful writing may be all well and good, and certainly there is much to be said for it, but really, at its core, Lolita is simply a book about a 12-year old girl who is forced into two years of sexual slavery to our narrator, who is in almost all other respects a highly sympathetic, intelligent, and good-looking main character. Or is it? Is it really possible to dismiss so lightly something with which we are uncomfortable on merely moral grounds, or does it not rather depend on how the book treats the subject? Obviously, I am siding with the latter choice.

I mentioned earlier that the entire book is narrated by the semi-penitent pedophile, Humbert Humbert. This is not entirely true. Humbert's account takes up approximately 98% of the novel, however it is sandwhiched between an introduction, ostensibly written by an editor selected posthumously by Humbert's lawyer, and an afterword by Nabokov, finally writing as himself. Each of these three voices has something very important to tell us about the book and what it has to say. The first, strangely (considering we see it before the story proper has even begun), is the most detailed of the three. However, it is also the most shallow analysis of what we can take out of Lolita.

Viewed simply as a novel, "Lolita" deals with situations and emotions that would remain exasperatingly vague to the reader had their expression been etiolated by means of platitudinous evasions. True, not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here. If, however, for this paradoxical prude's comfort an editor attempted to dilute or omit scenes that a certain type of mind might call "aphrodisiac" (see in this respect the monumental decision rendered December 6, 1933, by Hon. John M. Woolsey in regard to another, considerably more outspoiken, book), one would have to forego the publication of "Lolita" altogether, since those very scenes that one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis. The cynic may say that commercial pornography makes the same claim; the learned may counter by asserting that "H. H."'s impassiouned confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12 percent of American adult males - a "conservative" estimate according to Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann (verbal communication) - enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience "H. H." describes with such despair; that had our demented diarist gone, in the fatal summer of 1947, to a competent psychopathologist, there would have been no disaster; but then, neither would there have been this book.

This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that "offensive" is frequently but a synonym for "unusual"; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify "H. H." No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

As a case history, "Lolita" will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac - these are not only the vivid characters in a unique story; they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. "Lolita" should make all of us - parents, social workers, educators - apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.

Incidentally, the ruling of 1933 that is referenced above decided that James Joyce's highly controversial Ulysses, which had been successfully kept out of the United States for over a decade, was not pornographic. As such the significance of this ruling should be readily apparent. That interesting tidbit aside, this view of Lolita preserves a very important distance between the audience and Humbert Humbert. We, the "parents, social workers, educators," the moral compass of society, the fine, upstanding citizens should see in Lolita a call to increasing vigilance against the prowling lion.

It is certainly true that the book functions on this level. As Humbert carefully plays out his hand in the acquisition of sole, unrestricted access to the young Dolores Haze throughout part one we see the serious blunders made by responsible adults all around both Lolita and H. H. They could have seen this coming, and they could have prevented it. This element continues throughout the two-year period of captivity in part two. A number of adults enter the lives of Dolly and Hum who might be capable of grasping the enormity of the situation if only their eyes were open. Sadly, they do not. Lolita points with a gnarled and trembling finger at evils which we must constantly guard against, and it does so in a vivid and unforgettable manner.

However, there is still this distance which is maintained in the introduction. That distance is erased from the first sentence of chapter one. Humbert Humbert, who has generously offered to guide us through the dark and twisted paths of his own story, will now attempt to explain himself, his background, his motives, his dark obsessions, addictions, and descent . . . He will reveal all. Or will he? I have very little doubt that H. H. believes that every word he tells us is the absolute truth, but after all, that doesn't mean that it is, does it? We must never forget that every passage of his journey into sexual obsession, manipulation, and finally, domination is viewable only through his own impossibly-biased eyes. Lolita herself, sole witness to most of what transpires in the book, is dead, even were she given the opportunity to speak (which, importantly, she is not). More on this later.

The point here is that now we are fully inside the mind of Humbert, and looking about us we certainly cannot claim to like what we see . . . but do we recoil in disgust and repulsion because we fear his depravity, or because we recognize it? The following passage was, to me, one of the most compelling in the book by far, as it outlines the vicious and never-ending cycle of fall into sin, guilty and remorseful weakness, and renewed temptation.

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her - after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred - I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever - for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) - and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again - and "oh, no", Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven and the next moment the tenderness and the azure - all would be shattered.

A Father Brown book I have recently finished contained the following quote: "There are two ways of renouncing the devil . . . and the difference is perhaps the deepest chasm in modern religion. One is to have a horror of him because he is so far off; and the other to have it because he is so near. And no virtue and vice are so much divided as those two virtues. You may think a crime horrible because you could never commit it. I think it horrible because I could commit it." Humbert Humbert may not be committing an "average" sin, but I would contest that he is certainly the average sinner. He is selfish, dishonest and manipulative, in addition to being addicted to his pedophiliac lusts and being obsessed and consumed by his desire for Lolita. This makes him almost a sympathetic figure.


But I'll get to that in a moment as well. As I mentioned earlier, there is one more narrative voice that casts light on Lolita, that of the author himself. As I have already shown, the book has a great deal to tell us, both about others and about ourselves, but what exactly is it that we are being shown? The answer to that lies in Nabokov's explanation of his original inspiration for the story:

The first little throb of Lolita went through me late in 1939 or early in 1940, in Paris . . . As far as I can recall, the initial shiver of inspiration was somehow prompted by a newspaper story about an ape in the Jardins des Plantes, who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage. The impulse I record had no textual connection with the ensuing train of thought . . .

I cannot say with any certainty that I know how Nabokov got from point A to point B, but consider for a moment the nature of Lolita. The subtitle is "Confessions of a White Widowed Male" and the entire book is (ostensibly) produced by this person. I know of no book that precedes Lolita which does what Lolita attempts to do. It is, in fact, the first novel ever produced by a self-confessed pedophile. And it shows us the bars of his cage. Lolita explains Humbert's every move . . . why he acts as he does, why he makes the decisions he does, where he comes from. It is not a cage from which there is no escape, however Humbert is unwilling or unable to make his escape on his own. This, I think, is one of the most important aspects of the book.

This would be as good a time as any to get back to a few things that I mentioned earlier, and begin my comparison between novel and movie. The movie, in terms of plot, is virtually identical to the book. The only changes I can think of are in things that are omitted from the movie version, either as I time consideration, or to sneak the movie by the censors. On the surface, the movie and the novel relate the events of the story in precisely the same manner. The key difference, which separates the two from each other entirely, is in the point of view.

In the book, we see everything through the eyes of Humbert. In the movie, we see everything through the eyes of the camera. This is a problem. Yes, Humbert is still the storyteller in the movie, and technically we do witness everything from his point of view. However, there is an inherent assumption by the viewer that what is on-screen is unbiased reality. While the novel might make it quite clear that everything we hear from Humbert is being told with his slant on it, the average movie viewer assumes that it is impossible to similarly trick the eyes. What we see on the screen is what is happening, and we believe this and form our opinions of the situation accordingly.

I would like to mention first that reading the book did not diminish my appreciation of the movie in any way. If anything, it had the opposite effect. However, it is important to realize that the movie we are watching is still a filmed version of Humbert's account. Lolita still does not have a voice and cannot speak for herself.

I have spent a great deal of time so far showing the tragedy of Humbert's character . . . his flaws and weaknesses and the damage that these do to his soul as he is trapped in a prison of lust. But all of this does not diminish the fact that Humbert is not the primary victim of tragedy in Lolita. That label goes to the title character alone. Lolita herself is the one deserving of pity and sympathy. Humbert, throughout his final denouement, expresses a great deal of remorse for what he has done, beats himself up over his failings, etc. But once again, as he has stolen Lolita's innocence and childhood and two years of her life, he is attempting to make off with our sympathy for her, to transfer it onto himself. I don't think he even realizes he is doing it. His character is so very manipulative and self-centered that he is incapable of doing otherwise.

But I wasn't fooled. It does not take much effort throughout a reading of Lolita to see that nothing which takes place, no matter what Humbert may say or how he may justify himself, is her fault. Throughout the novel I was captivated by the story, awed by the prose, filled with sympathy by the actions and emotions of the characters, and even somewhat convicted (I, too, can be quite self-centered and manipulative). Lolita is an incredible literary experience, just as it is an intense cinematic experience, and it would be a shame to hate it, or ban it, or dismiss it completely simply because we are uncomfortable with its subject.

Posted by Jared at August 1, 2005 09:00 AM | TrackBack