Thursday 4 June 2009

'I shall not exist if you do not imagine me'

by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Are there three more provocative syllables? Just typing the word Lolita is enough to set off the decency filters on most search engines and give you a bit of a shock if they're turned off. Nabokov struggled to find an American publisher for his taboo breaking novel until the European sensibilities of Olympia Press in Paris brought it to the public's attention in 1955. Since then it has never failed to be controversial, spawning two film adaptations, several spin-off books and ideas and a unique memoir a few years ago, Reading Lolita in Tehran, where the book formed a central role in the social and cultural awakening fo a group of femal students living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.

For the reader today, fifty years after its publication (and indeed nearer the time when its narrator expected it to be read - 'In its literary form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first years of A.D. 2000' - after the death of its subject) it is questionable whether it still has the same shock value. We live in a society filled with media stories about paedophiles and it was only a few years ago that the News of The World's 'name and shame' campaign led to angry mobs marching the streets and one poor paediatrician coming home to find 'paedo' spray-painted on her front door (no one has yet suggested that far from being ignorant the graffittist had read Lolita, where Humbert calls himself a paediatrician, and simply failed to note the ironic tone). The hysteria which attends the reporting of these stories might lead you to believe that paedophilia has spread through the internet with the virulence of a computer virus, all of which allowed Chris Morris to make such an impact with his Brass Eye special (Paedogeddon!). The power of a work of art of course is to cut through all the nonce-sense (thank you Chris) and provide an insight into forbidden desire.

Writing anything in response has been far from easy though, I've stumbled over it for days, for what can one possibly bring to the discussion of a book so well known, so notorious, its strengths so well known and written about and its weaknesses far better analysed by others I'm sure? Well, we'll see.

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets'.

And so another word is coined and the cool explanations of Humbert begin; uncomfortable to read for so many reasons. Having questioned the shock value I think it's fair to say that Humbert remains one of the most extraordinary narrators in literature. Not only expressing abhorrent views but completely unapologetic with them, he is also one of the smartest, wittiest men you could hope to meet, causing a small moral dilemma. Or perhaps not, because whatever he may be, I never found Humbert likeable for a single moment. In fact the witticisms, the puns, the plays with words in many languages became increasingly annoying, especially when combined with his wicked scheming.

When Humbert goes to the home of Charlotte Haze as a potential lodger he has his first encounter with her daughter Dolores. Spotting her as she reads magazines in the garden he is struck by her image (well captured on the front of the film tie-in cover above), bringing back his memories of Annabel, the girl he loved passionately as a child before she died prematurely of Typhus (this unfulfilled love and trauma providing the psychological explanation for his growing fascination with nymphets). He is plotting almost immediately, imagining how to capitalise on the attentions of Charlotte to get access to the real object of his desire. Very quickly he is fantasising of marriage and drugging both of them to enjoy nights of fondling 'with perfect impunity'. Later he addresses the gentlewomen of the jury to defend his reasoning, his policy of stealth is there to spare 'her purity'. Even worse is when he considers the possibility of having a child with Lolita so that when she grows out of her nymphet stage he will have something of that preserved for his future as a pederast, even going as far as to imagine a granddaughter too. And a cold shiver works its way down your spine.

We do get to understand the driving forces in their relationship, or at least from Humbert's point of view. Frank about his mental instability, his stays in mental institutions, we can observe his slow breakdown as the pressures of jealousy ('Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically indistinguishable from a madman's fancy') and the fear of losing her or being caught take their toll ('I often felt that we lived in a lighted house of glass, and that at any moment some thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window to obtain a free glimpse of things that the moset jaded voyeur would have paid a small fortune to watch'). What we don't get enough of for me is a real insight into the title character. This may be a book about Lolita but she is treated so much as the object rather than the subject of the book that Humbert himself realises later how little he really knows about her.

... I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.

But it's all about the language. In his afterword Nabokov corrects the suggestion that Lolita is a record of his 'love affair with the romantic novel' to one with the 'English language'. Every sentence is a joyful expression of that love, each word well chosen and expressive, each image replete with colour and meaning even if it is to show how Humbert through his actions is sullying the great country that he travels through with Dolores. Part two in particular begins with florid descriptions of the American countryside, long sentences filled with commas so that they extend like the mountain terrain he describes, which by the end of their journey they 'had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime'. He is not interested in moral instruction or metaphor or of explaining why he had to write this particular book. It stands as it is, our reaction to it the interesting thing and there is something intriguing about going somewhere uncomfortable, like playing with a scab. If you've read it and want to push yourself a bit further then A.M Homes caused a similar stir with her novel The End of Alice which details the correspondence between a woman fascinated by a young boy and a convicted paedophile in prison. How's that for taboo?

My reason for reading this book was as preparation for another novel, which I hope will fill in those spaces. To give an idea of how it feels to be an adolescent girl dimly aware of her growing power to allure, to tantalise, to provoke.


John Self 4 June 2009 at 09:14  

"My reason for reading this book was as preparation for another novel, which I hope will fill in those spaces. To give an idea of how it feels to be an adolescent girl dimly aware of her growing power to allure, to tantalise, to provoke."

Watch Me Disappear by Jill Dawson, then?

Yes, Lolita is a hard one to comment on, since like so many masterpieces it seems to contain everything. You say you never liked Humbert, but does that mean you didn't feel even the slightest twinge of sympathy for him at the end, when Mrs Richard F Schiller has left him behind? I thought Nabokov's cleverest trick was to make the predatory paedophile ultimately rather sympathetic.

William Rycroft 4 June 2009 at 12:03  

Top of the class, Mr Smartypants. I so enjoyed The Great Lover that I wanted to read some more of Jill's work, it also providing me with a chance to read a classic book that I hadn't ever read.

There is of course an element of sympathy, it is at the end of it all a rather sad and pathetic tale, perhaps pity is a better word. But whilst I could appreciate the style, the brilliance of the writing, I found the book much harder to get through because of it, if that makes sense.

Anonymous,  4 June 2009 at 22:09  

I am very impressed at the way that you plan reading "campaigns" leading up to a particular book (and equally impressed that John Self can usually figure them out). While I have done it on occasion, mine are usually much more prosaic, or at least less imaginative. I'll be giving it a try.

bobblog 5 June 2009 at 04:17  

I think one thing about Lolita is that, in it's own way, the first half of the book is quite humorous. Obviously i mean it's not laugh out loud funny but Humbert's description of things does have a black snidey undercurrent.

I think that's the reason why Kubrick decided to take that aspect for his adaptation.

William Rycroft 5 June 2009 at 10:31  

When I know that a book has been heavily influenced by another (usually classic) book, one that I haven't yet read, then it gives me the double pleasure of filing in some gaps in my reading. With the influence so fresh in my mind it often makes the reading of the new book a much richer experience.

John can usually guess because he's reviewed and made me by the book in the first place!

I haven't seen either of the film adaptations Robert, would you recommend them?

bobblog 5 June 2009 at 10:41  

Without doubt Kubrick's version is the better one. Peter Sellers pulls off a sterling performance and there's an addictive quality to the whole movie. I would also say that it contains Kubrick's finest camera work, there are some shots and poses that are stunning.

Adrian Lyne's version is more faithful to the book but it lacks spark and becomes a bit dreary halfway through. Jeremy Iron performance is a bit wooden and even Swain as the bratty seductive Lolita doesn't really carry the role well.

John Self 5 June 2009 at 15:58  

It is indeed a very funny book. For laconic wit it's hard to beat "(picnic, lightning)" on page 2 (I think) or the paragraph that ends, "Nurse that tooth."

I haven't seen Adrian Lyne's film but as he's a well-known schlockmeister it would be hard to believe that Kubrick's (excellent) version wouldn't be better. Sellers excels but James Mason is good too.

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