Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Strange Experience: Reading "Lolita"

The first thing you should know I didn't know about Vladimir Nabokov is he was funny. This humorous bent shows itself especially in the tongue-in-cheek portrayal of his narrator in "Lolita," the woeful, ostentatious pedophile Humbert Humbert. The novel as a whole is surprisingly funny, too. I guess I'd always had Nabokov pegged as a writer too stodgy and turgid (this was without actually reading him) to make such complete mockery of his protagonist, but evidently I had him pegged incorrectly. The ostensible skepticism with which he proffers Hum's claims, usually these acting as segues to subtle boasts, is scorching. Don't let the people who don't know tell you otherwise, because they're liars whereas I'm telling you the truth. Comedy abounds in "Lolita."

Humbert's eventual tutelage and subsequent journeys with his nymphetic ward, Lolita, provide countless situations one could rightfully construe as being hilarious. I'm glad Nabokov takes full advantage of this interplay between father and daughter, and the forbidden lovers they are in private. It relieves tension in one sense, and provides the story with important dimension in another. It also undermines the seriousness of Humbert's arguments, which has him seeming much more unreliable in his telling the story than most first-person narrators seem. He is much more compromised by his own poetic interpretation of events, a fact that does come to light more clearly as the novel reaches its climax.

First, the relationship, which starts with Lolita, or Dolores Haze, as a girl of about 12 and spans her coming of age to her late teens, is one that provides the reader frequent moments of discomfort and confusion. Their physical intercourse, described in terms more florid than truly graphic by Humbert Humbert, impels a response -- at least in this reader -- that is deeply conflicting. Call it arousal, call it titillation, call it whatever makes you comfortable, any scene in fiction depicting sex or sexuality usually inspires one of the aforementioned terms as reaction. I think we can all agree it's a deeply human reaction. I at least can agree for you all, and you're free to lie and say that it isn't. Go right ahead.

The great fun of Lolita is at any moment that this sensation would typically occur you're left to remember that this is a pubescent girl -- if you somehow manage to lose yourself in the narrative and forget this fact (very hard to do), Humbert is always there to avail you with a reminder that Lolita is still categorically in every way not a woman. The book forces you to consider your visceral urges much more forthrightly, and consider them while reminding yourself that pedophilia simply is not your thing, hence the discomfort. (Similarly, a friend recently reminded me that Chabon's "The Mysteries of Pittsburgh" forces you to consider whether being gay or bisexual is your thing.) At the risk of sounding a little glib, Nabokov writes pedophilia as tastefully but as comprehensively as I suspect is possible.

But what's stranger than that is how funny Nabokov manages to be, making good use of the desired seriousness Humbert wishes the reader will take him with, oozing from his every sentence . "Lolita" is definitely in part a fantastic black comedy. I know I'm probably beginning to sound overly surprised by this fact, that humor has any place in "Lolita," but what needs to be clarified is I'm someone who first became acquainted with "Lolita" by watching the previews on TV for the 1997 film version starring Jeremy Irons. My dim memory of this is filled primarily with images of stuffy romance, and I was made mildly curious by the significant margin of age separating Lolita from Humbert. But that's it. So after about 12 years of letting that idea ferment, and for some reason never conversing with anyone about the story beyond a superficial understanding of the pair's sordid relationship, I had a deep-rooted impression of what the story must be. Nabokov then turned my notions of his novel upside down, which was a nice surprise.

Comedy can be used as an effective build up to the acme of tragedy. This is especially true when one character (e.g. Humbert Humbert) proves hopelessly in denial about the harm his actions are doing to another character (e.g. Lolita). "Lolita" may be the best tragedy I've ever read as well as being one of the best black comedies, then. Not to give the ending away (and so a SPOILER ALERT!!! BIG TIME FROM HERE ON OUT!!! is appropriate), but after Humbert tracks down Lolita following their long separation at the meddling hands of Clare "Cue" Quilty, an interesting subplot I nevertheless won't veer into, he discovers her much as he left her. She's visibly the same, with the noted differences of being three years older, seventeen, and made gravid by her husband, Dick Schiller, a veteran who is hard of hearing because of injuries inflicted during whatever conflict he participated in. So she's actually considerably different, but externally isn't the half of it. She's clearly more mature than when we left her, at that time still a precocious youth possessing a sharp and acerbic wit. She now has an idea of what she wants in life, to move with Dick to his nebulous employ with an unnamed agency somewhere in Alaska. (Does appear like a voluntary exile, yes.)

Humbert is instead confronted with the fact that Lolita honestly wants nothing to do with him. He begins to realize that if she ever thought anything of their relationship it was purely transactional, a quid pro quo. He meanwhile understands that she longed covetously for a relationship with a father like that which her friends enjoyed. Humbert describes the example of her friend Avis and Avis's father, and one particular visit of theirs, as follows:

Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father's neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita's smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then, jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was gone -- to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing.
Humbert concludes this candidly deprecating but simultaneously immodest show of delayed sympathy for his ward with the following remarks, which sums their relationship up fairly well:

It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.
Now if you want my opinion, what proves Humbert's insincerity or, at least, vanity is his insistence on getting his revenge against Cue Quilty, whom he only knows as the man who lured Lolita away while his back was effectively turned. Were Humbert truly sorry and sure of his own certain culpability he would never waste time looking for the straw man Quilty inevitably becomes. He wouldn't need to destroy the embodiment of all he loathes in himself because he would understand that there is no extricating the one from the other, that what he has done to Lolita is inextricably who he is, Humbert 1 AND Humbert 2. We know he understands this distinction between himself and Quilty when nearing the end of his last visit with Lolita ever, during which he does attempt semi-seriously to get her to leave with him, the following is disclosed by each:

"Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this."

"No," she said. "No, honey, no."

She had never called me honey before.

"No, she said, it is quite out of the question. I would sooner go back to Cue. I mean --"

She groped for words. I supplied them mentally ("He broke my heart. You merely broke my life").

Of course, Humbert's ego was also bruised by Quilty, who evaded detection by signing his name at various hotel stops under aliases that made it impossible for Humbert to determine his true identity and thus where he might have taken Lolita. Regardless of that frivolous little distress imposed (Quilty himself later pointing out: ". . . my dear Mr. Humbert, you were not an ideal stepfather . . ."), Humbert, who is narrating throughout "Lolita" from the custody of a sanitarium and awaiting trial for Quilty's murder (he does kill him), never seems to truly understand his role and the distinction between himself and Quilty, as the final lines of his story read like an ego-maniacal, self-penned epitaph, to wit:

And do not pity C. Q. [i.e. Quility]. One had to choose between him and H. H., and one wanted H. H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.
Mostly, he's a real jag-off. Pardon my coarseness.

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