Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Review: Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

[Note: I'm not sure it's possible to spoil this book, but I do talk about events near the end of the story in relation to the rest of it.]

Lolita, of course, doesn't occupy a savory moral place, and might as well get that right out of the way. There's no forgiveness there, not on my part and not on Nabokov's, when it comes to an evaluation of the novel and its characters. If you could distill it from the language (second language? No fair!), it's a story about the serial rape of a minor by her stepfather, and concludes in a jealous murder, and unlike some recent selections of mine in which inhumanity is hidden by humor and shifts of emphasis, Nabokov never lets Humbert Humbert's depravity out of the reader's sight, and not all of the humor is of the sort that can soften the blow. Lolita is a cousin (though the thought must have the curmudgeonly literary Humbert spinning in his grave) of the Hollywood staple of the colorful and emotionally complex hit man, and it's the beloved daddy of novels about amoral time-traveling torturers and the like. Nabokov is not just manipulating assumptions that the reader makes with respect to the language and the form, he's doing it in a variety of very conscious ways, maybe working up an understanding of those relationships.

The story is told in the first person, and it's hard to sum up narrator Humbert in a paragraph, even if there's a temptation to try (Martin Amis takes a shot or two in the introduction*; the protagonist's fictional executor estate has some words; Humbert himself tries frequently; and Nabokov offers a summary or two of his own in the afterword). He's got a great writing style, a sarcastically lyrical twist, as given to unintentional irony as the intentional sort, full of both self-aggrandization and self-pity. He's the sort of tireless villain that, when easily thwarted, returns to his lab to double down on his calculations (or in Humbert's case, his words) with comic fervor, clamping down on defeat with forced dignity and sarcasm. (Could Peter Sellers have played Humbert? Could Alan Rickman maybe?) His self-regard (with all of its obvious but unspoken doubts) is amusing; his jealousies are comic; his moral double-standards are ridiculous. We spend a lot of time laughing at Humbert, which does help distance us from his predilections, but there's Humbert's power of words for us to contend with too, and so many of his barbs find purchase, and we sometimes laugh with him too. Nabokov pokes at the character in much the same way that Humbert cruelly invests his attention in everything around him.

Humbert's selective attention to detail is essential to the character, as well as the development of the story. He can recall (with a photographic memory, he brags), twenty pages of obsessive journal entries when he first meets twelve-year-old Lolita. He's got an eye for landmarks and names when they can take on a pun or a literary allusion. He remembers episodes of his travels for the poetic or storylike settings. But he's an imbecile when it comes to useful facts, chronologies, or detective-like connections. His pursuit of Clare Quilty, his rival and double, in the last quarter of the book gets a little bizarre, and it's because the intellectual performance it requires is outside of Humbert's skill set. It's remarkably self-centered, this outlook of his, and it also leaves no room for anyone else's humanity. Countervailing points of view are mostly invisible to the man, caricatured and bitingly mocked when Humbert can see them at all. (I really wish I'd encountered Humbert years ago. His spirit occupies a good number of online kooks, even if his writing ability is gifted to so few of them.  In the real world, it's furthermore clear that whatever could make professional monsters like Chuck Buckley or George Will tolerable was a certain Humbertness. What a fine epithet I've missed out on all this time.) It takes a while for the reader to gauge how much Lolita is suffering (or not suffering), because Humbert is incapable of perceiving it. It gradually comes out as he (comically) characterizes her complaints and apathy, or in the briefly-seen opinion of her educators. We can sense a trauma under there, a lost childhood that's eventually spelled out, but there's also a pervasive character that is adjusting to her circumstances regardless, a normal kid, who doesn't know better, dealing with it, sometimes better and sometimes worse. When Humbert is finally overcome with what he has taken from Lolita, he still doesn't get it.

Lolita herself, of course, is the star example of the chasm between Humbert's words and the underlying reality of their relationship. Humbert is furiously writing erotica onto the character. Lolita isn't "innocent" really, maybe a little precocious for a twelve-year-old, and she has heretofore approached sexuality in an age-appropriate fashion. In the moment when her proto-sexuality finally, briefly overlaps with Humbert's over-intellectualized lust, it's uncomfortable, it's a taken advantage and a disturbing rape, but (if Humbert is telling the truth) it's not completely incongruous. Quickly, the relationship returns to its normally skew character paths. Lolita continues as an insolent, indolent tween at every available reveal, and for all the abuse, she doesn't come a jot closer to Humbert's erotic portrait, nor does her stepfather ever approach her child-like level of sexual exploration. Humbert writes a great deal of plot and character onto her, but Lolita never ceases to be a young girl, as revealed by the details that Nabokov cleverly lets slip through Humbert's story. She is never womanly, never complex in a way that Humbert would understand.

The relationship between Lolita and Humbert is ultimately nasty and banal, but really there's a similar pettiness infusing everything that Humbert sees. It's almost embarrassing: the car trips; the shallow, simple people; the cheesy motels; my god, fucking suburbia. Humbert traipses through them like the proverbial Martian examining all the stupid details of existence and mocking them. The symphony of toilet flushes is entertaining, teenagers can be pustulent freaks, and middle age is relentlessly unflattering—it's mordantly funny stuff, but Humbert doesn't rise to assess life on higher terms for most of the novel. In the late scenes, among his imagined revelations surrounding the adult (boring, domestic) Dolores (she's only seventeen, but plenty of cause to grow up fast), she's no less misrepresented by Humbert's bathetic streak. Different subject, but more erotica, Humbert crying the fat hot tears of a poet, gifted with the ability to grant immortality. And the really brilliant part about the ending is that it succeeds in making this sad life beautiful, and fifty years later, Lolita is immortal enough. For all Humbert's evil, it does end up a beautifying sort of evil, which may be what sets him apart (even from the non-criminal but similarly degenerate Quilty).

I can run with this a little. We're reminded frequently that the novel is ersatz reality—there's Humbert as discussed, there's a distancing effect of the silly pseudonyms, there's the fact that most of the characters leave the novel to go off and perish offscreen, there's this obvious metafictional bit with the Enchanted Hunters play (a script fit to the events of the novel), there are revisitiations, doubles, and echoing scenes, there's the effort to sink the whole thing into a frame story. I hate to reduce the novel to some modernist experiment because it's too small a box, but let's imagine Humbert as Writer: is the reality of human existence always lesser and apart from the stories we build up to romanticize it? Is a writer's feeling both cheaper and more poetic than the scripts our lives proffer? Is it still beautiful when we inevitably get it wrong? Even though Lolita works plenty well as a novel, it's not about sexuality exactly, it's about language, observation and life.

*Wish I didn't read the intro, at least not until after I wrote this, but for a novel this famous, it's not very easy to act as an untainted jury. Amis makes a point about Nabokov's cruelty to Humbert (a bit beyond the "sarcasm" I was going with) but he's right and I'm going with it; he points out the significance of some of the where-are-they-nows in the introduction, that I indeed might have missed.


David Marlow said...

I read it once and only once, in 1996. Liked it. Then almost 10 years later I read Fierce Invalids. The comparisons are inevitable, and I think Robbins was fully prepared to wage that battle. Tom, as Switters, was almost obsessively, well, obsessed with the difference between purity and innocence, and when and if they ever overlap. The brothel scene in Indonesia comes to mind.

Nabokov was one of Richard Rorty's favorite novelists. You'll recall Rorty as the famous professor of philosophy at The University of Virginia who renounced his philosophy chair and instead insisted he was simply a professor in the humanities department. His notion was that we can learn more about the meaning of life from novelists and poets than we can from, well, philosophers. He had a point.

I think you're right on, though. And I'd suggest even that every author at some point, whether it's Robbins or Roth, has to come to terms with his or her Lolita moment.

I found Jeremy Iron's Humbert far superior to James Mason's, and Sellers' Quilty was literally a joke, intentional at that, and kind of undercut Nabokov's "thesis statement", in a way, if you follow me.

Though it does continue to astound me when books age right along with us. Fascinating stuff.

Keifus said...

There's a line in Lolita, somewhere near the end where Humbert's imagining the book release after the protagonists' deaths (which actually came a lot sooner than expected), advising some hypothetical reader in the early 2000s on the conventions of his time. Hey!

I wish I thought of Fierce Invalids when I was reading--that's a fun comparison. The sexuality parallels are pretty obvious, and both authors are brilliant with their humor. I'm not sure I'd put Switters too close to Humbert though. We're intended to like Switters, and work through most of our reservations about him, I think. Also, Robbins works hard to make Switters embody adult and child-like opposites--I think a significant thing about Humbert is that fails to make those bridges.

I always figured the movie adaptations were to blame for the popular and wrong image of Lolita as jailbait (it's important that she's still kid-like) and I'm completely unfamiliar with any of them. To play Humbert, you'd need to be able to pull off smarter-than-you eagle-eyed sarcastic prick, comic self-unawareness, sensitivity, lascivousness, handsome-but-not-too-handsome, and just a touch of effete European academic. Not a bad guess with Sellers maybe, but Jeremy Irons sounds like a really great casting choice. (I have Quilty as more or less teh American counterpart to Humbert: burlier and louder probably, and even if his big scene is more slapstick than others, playing him as a straight buffoon sounds like a disservice.)

As far as philosophy goes, I'm ass-ignorant. I suppose I've occasionally been led to rediscover the occasional small nugget here and there...led mostly through reading novels and your better political and science writers. Which I'm sure means something or other.

David Marlow said...

I think you're exactly right. While it might not be a fair comparison, it is, well, yeah, fun. Suzy as Switters' muse, Lolita as Humbert's sacred toy? That"s pretty weak. I'll think of something better.

Humbert is covered at all times in a kind of film of smarminess. Switters doesn't even know the meaning of the word. And, as you so aptly express, Switters' own innocence is somehow reflected in Suzy's. Where Suzy actually likes Switters, Lolita can barely tolerate Humbert.

Been meaning to tell you for awhile that your review of Invalids from a few years ago was absolutely brilliantly right on the money. But your impersonation of "him" is still unmatched.

Keifus said...

Smarminess, now there's a word I could've used. And what the hell am I going to do with this box full of lightning bugs now?



Cindy said...

Read your review, and really loved it. Made me think, and remember, and I agree with you too.

Just not focused enough these days.


Keifus said...

Thanks Cindy, this isn't much worth focusing on. (What a tragedy. Please take care.)