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Re-reading Nabokov

I wrote in a previous entry that I have been re-reading several novels first read in my youth. Recently, I have read several novels by Russian émigré writer Vladimir Nabokov, including Laughter in the DarkPnin, and now Lolita.

Upon first reading Lolita back in high school, it struck me as one of the funniest books I'd ever read. Now it strikes me as deeply sad, with the brilliant humor serving as a mask barely veiling the sadness. It's the sadness not only of the sexually perverted diarist/narrator, Humbert, but of his 12-year old victim, Lo, who is deceived, exploited and abused by the too-clever-by-a-half European émigré, recalling his sordid adventure from a prison cell.

One reason for the change in my response to this book is a change in my attitude toward literary devices. First time around, I was thoroughly impressed by the author's undeniable and unparalleled linguistic virtuosity, his literary gamesmanship. As editor Alfred Appel writes in his extended introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Nabokov had nothing but scorn for "moral" or "social" interpretations of his work, and was committed to the view that a novel should be experienced as a purely aesthetic object – a brilliantly illusive, shimmering and ultimately self-reflective world of words, sufficient unto itself and not answerable to the world in which we lead our more or less ordinary, dreary and mundane lives.

According to Nabokov, art is nothing more or less than "a game of intricate enchantment and deception." According to Edward Jay Epstein, a student of Nabokov's at Cornell, when the professor assigned reading to this class, "[h]e said we did not need to know anything about their historical context, and that we should under no circumstance identify with any of the characters in them, since novels are works of pure invention. The authors, he continued, had one and only one purpose: to enchant the reader. So all we needed to appreciate them, aside from a pocket dictionary and a good memory, was our own spines. He assured us that the authors he had selected—Leo Tolstoy, Nikolai Gogol, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Gustave Flaubert, and Robert Louis Stevenson—would produce tingling we could detect in our spines." A desire to "enchant the reader" certainly explains the pastiches of well-known literary styles, spoofing pedantry, analysis of passion à la français, Joycean word games, and puns – the array of verbal play that dominates the surface of Lolita, the novel. It's truly an extraordinary performance. Almost any of Nabokov's sentences could be productively studied on its own to learn how the English language works, in the hands of a master. But I cannot help feeling that Nabokov's self-serving descriptions of his own work are themselves deceptive, for the central focus of Lolita lies in the idea of enchantment itself – Humbert's enchantment with the nymphet, and her spine-tingling effect on him, which ultimately drives him to commit murder.

Someone should (and someone probably has) count the number of occurrences of the word "enchant" (and its variants) in Lolita. When Humbert and Lolita arrive at the "Enchanted Hunter" hotel, where their first sexual liaison occurs, Humbert fends off his bad conscience (which is that of a middle-aged pedophile about to defile an innocent 12-year old girl) as follows: "I am not concerned with so-called 'sex' at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets." This is pretty clearly the author's confession (and, simultaneously, his defense against anticipated charges of prurience) of his own relationship to the book we are reading, suggesting that Nabokov's writing was lured on by his desire to "fix once for all the magic" of artistic creation.

If that is true, then we can legitimately question the veracity of Nabokov's denials that his book has any "moral" or "social" significance. In fact, notwithstanding the author's declarations, the story re-tells the oldest moral tale in Western literature since classical Greek drama, namely, the human tragedy of uncontrollable lust. Furthermore, how can one not read Lolita as a kind of parable of Old Europe's moral decay, its seduction and corruption by America's voracious consumer culture in the decades following the Second World War, when the so-called "American Century" began? Who or what is Lolita, with her preference for candy, comic books and movie magazines over Humbert's half-hearted pedagogical efforts to "edify" (while degrading) the girl with literary and artistic offerings drawn from the comically obsolete archives of European culture – who is Lolita if not a perfectly seductive embodiment of mindless, insatiable, American-style consumerism? If the homology involving Humbert/Nabokov – Lolita the enchanting nymphet/Lolita the book has any validity, then one must ask if Nabokov's aestheticism implies some measure of bad conscience.

Nabokov insisted on the distinction between satire and parody: "Satire is lesson, parody is a game."If the author is to be trusted, there are no satirical "lessons" in Lolita, and the writing parodies everything it touches; the reader is sometimes made to feel like the hapless partner in a chess match against an international grandmaster. Although Alfred Appel revels in this kind of gamesmanship, I personally find the hall-of-mirrors approach to literature, including specifically the book called Lolita, to be much less interesting than the moral and social interpretations Nabokov rejected. To think of Lolita, or of any great literary work, as a mere verbal puzzle, however beautiful, is to unfairly restrict the possibilities of art, thus of human achievement.

As is well-known, Nabokov was the privileged child of the Russian aristocracy, forced to flee the homeland following the revolution, first to Europe, then to America, and finally to a hotel in Switzerland. His abiding interest in chess problems, in butterflies, in the supreme value of literary parody as a kind of game all suggest that Nabokov was and remained an Old World aesthete. One of the more annoying threads wending its way through Nabokov's work involves his constant snarky, condescending put-downs of Freud and Dostoyevski (among other major figures) – annoying because, in the absence of argument, the put-downs seem at the end of the day to be less substantive disagreements than expressions of aesthetic disgust. Disregarding their particular failures and triumphs, Freud and Dostoyevski, twin pillars of cultural modernism, represent a deep-seated challenge to traditional Old World hierarchies. Just as Dostoyevski showed how the Czarist Russian aristocracy inadvertently cultivated the seeds of its own destruction by creating a large and unruly underclass, Freud's breakthroughs described the fragility of our civilized veneer in the face of constant eruptions of a sexually charged unconscious. Nabokov snorts at Freud and Dostoyevski as a connoisseur might sniff at inferior wine. Similarly, Nabokov, a Nixon supporter during the early 1970s, objected to the antiwar counter-culture of the '60s for reasons that seem less political than aesthetic – the American counter-culture offended his sensibility, his sense of order and of good form. But, for anyone but a reactionary snob, our stake in Vietnam was not a matter of good form.

In the years that have passed since I first read Lolita, my fascination with artistic intellectualism has waned, and my interest in artistic integrity has grown proportionally. As Stanley Cavell has written, our relationship to the world is closer, more intimate, than can be expressed in the concept of knowledge, implying that philosophical skepticism (which is the cast of mind of a parodist like Nabokov) can neither be justified nor refuted. It follows that our culture's fascination with epistemology – as expressed, say, in the idea of the novel as a verbal puzzle to be solved – cheapens experience. As I read Nabokov today, the image of the artist as a quasi-divine intellect presiding over his or her creation like an infallible shaman trickster seems less compelling to me than that of someone having the courage and talent to reveal truths that leave the writer, and thereby his reader, in some way exposed and unguarded, which means, less concerned with perfection than with possibility and growth.


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