The Great American Novel

I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita during my second semester of college, reading it furtively and fifty minutes at a time during an Old Testament class. (I would take another course from the same professor a few years later and note, to my shame and guilt, that he’d added to his syllabus a new commandment: “No reading during class.”) I was, to understate the case drastically, not ready for Lolita. If I’d started, as I’d been instructed to, with some of Nabokov’s more obviously experimental fiction (Pale Fire, say, or Ada), I’d have been more inclined to read closely, skeptically. But Lolita, though miles of dark rivers flow beneath its surface, is built on such a straightforward narrative—boy meets girl; boy gets girl; boy loses girl—that it’s easy to lose track of what Nabokov is really up to.

Lolita, we must note, is quite possibly the most revolting novel of the twentieth century. It is also among the most beautiful. Its staggering power comes from its prose, written in English by a man who grew up speaking three languages fluently. (In fact, though he was born and raised in St. Petersberg, he could technically consider English as his first language; he read and wrote it before he could read and write Russian.) Lolita is not even his first novel written in English; after writing ten in Russian, he wrote two—The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and Bend Sinister—in the language of his adopted homeland before he produced Lolita. Still, Lolita feels like the work of a man in love with a brand-new language, an impression furthered by Nabokov’s own description of the novel as “the record of my love affair with the . . . English language.” Indeed, his powers of description and analogy are embarrassing to anyone who hopes to describe and compare:

[G]radually the models of those elementary rusticities became stronger and stronger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roots, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-grey cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist.

This passage of two sentences contains at last nine discrete images; in a lesser writer’s hands they would amount to a literary dissonance, twisting and turning before collaping under their own collected weight. In Nabokov, they blend perfectly, surrendering their discreteness to create a slow, rosy fade from the green and gold “tilled plain” to the translucent whiteness of “distant amorous mist.” Writing qua writing doesn’t get any better than Lolita, and it’s no surprise that one finds echoes of its distinctive tone all through the English-language literature of the intervening decades. (I hear it most strongly, to the point of impersonation, in John Updike’s A Month of Sundays, but it’s there in everyone from Pynchon to Rushdie.

But Nabokov has to write, as Updike puts it, “ecstatically”—the word comes from the Greek ekstasis (ἔκστασις), “to stand outside oneself.” The subject matter fairly demands a standing-outside, not only for author (Nabokov was, it seems, the most well-adjusted of our canonical practitioners of American fiction, miles and miles away from the diseased mind of Edgar Humbert Humbert, whose first-person narration he must nonetheless supply), but also for reader, who is sickened by both the plot of the novel, Humbert’s abduction and sexual relationship with one Dolores Haze, aged twelve to fifteen. We condemn him—we cannot help it; we do it instinctively before we even open the novel. For us to make it through Lolita, we must take Humbert’s advice:

Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinite circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages! [He is about to sleep with Lolita for the first time.] Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity; let’s even smile a little.

That plea leads to a postmodern labyrinth of existence/non-existence so twisted that no amount of string can help me find my way back out of it again. But Humbert is right—we must embrace him, however tentatively, if we are to feel the queer and elliptical power of his story. We must transcend ourselves and the moral judgments we instinctually make of Humbert.

The problem is that neither Nabokov nor Humbert will allow us to do so in any kind of full way. Indeed, our narrator repeatedly goes out of his way to remind us that he is both a paedophile and a murderer, and he addresses us on the first page and many other places as “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” We are invited to judge him—he seems, in fact, to demand it—but then begged not to. He begs us for ekstasis, but confounds any attempt at our doing so.

As if that weren’t enough, the novel proper is preceded by a Foreword, ostensibly written by John Ray, Jr., PhD; it is, of course, pure fiction. Ray pushes for judgment, wishing to make this manuscript into a social lesson: “‘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.”

Behind this moral stands Nabokov, and he’s either winking at us or sarcastically sticking his finger down his throat. We are smart enough, he seems to tell us, to see beyond John Ray, Jr.’s simple social moralizing, to see it as the mere stringing together of threadbare clichés that it is—and furthermore, we’re smart enough to dismiss this introduction even though we’d like to read the novel the way “Dr. Ray” does. Nabokov thus introduces the “social moral” reading of Humbert’s life in order to dismiss it; and since it’s actually we who must do the dismissing, the point is made all the more strongly.

And yet Humbert Humbert remains a monster, or, as Nabokov himself later put it, “a vain and cruel wretch.” In other words, this beautiful language, the main character’s pleas for understanding, the a priori rejection of moral readings—these do little to make Humbert more appealing; they just make it harder for us to submit our disgust for authorial approval. In this way, Nabokov withdraws from the novel even though he remains a palpable presence in it, not just through the frequently referenced Vivian Darkbloom (an anagram for “Vladimir Nabokov”) but through his position in the white spaces between the printed words, constantly winking at us and wagging his finger. It is to this simultaneous authorial presence and absence, I believe, that people are referring when they offer Lolita as an early postmodern novel.

Lolita’s postmodernism is indeed undeniable and forms a key to any interpretation of the novel. (I will detour here and note that at this early stage in the movement, postmodernist fiction techniques had not yet reached the level of self-reflexivity they would in a novel like John Barth’s LETTERS; Lolita can thus point outside its pages, at least to a certain degree.) Indeed, the horror and disgust we feel at Humbert the child molester is added to by a particularly postmodern uneasiness. To put it simply, Humbert must constantly stay moving, both in a spiritual and a physical sense—but he demands stasis from those around him. His life is Heraclitean, but his soul is Platonic; in other words, he darts around, but the demands he makes on the other characters betray a baseline desire for ultimate spiritual stability. He is a monster because he wants it both ways. He will define the being of those around him, but he will remain quick on his feet so that he will be able to define his own being. This tyranny of definition is the postmodernist’s worst nightmare.

The preface from John Ray, Jr., as you may have guessed, is a red herring. The educated reader—and, movies or not, Lolita has very few uneducated readers—instinctually suspects that he will receive what Nabokov’s countryman Mikhail Bakhtin praises as heteroglossia (разноречие; literally, “different-speech-ness”)—the multiple voices that set the novel apart from other genres. But all we get is Humbert—and even though the book features conversations between him and other characters, he is careful to note (repeatedly) that these are his words, not theirs. We do get Nabokov’s voice, of course, but as mentioned earlier, he’s not much help beyond defusing certain objectionable readings. So this is a monologue, albeit a monologue with unreliable dialogue sprinkled throughout. Humbert completely controls our experience of his world.

And in possession of that control, he dances. He tells his story in diversions, misdirections, flashbacks, puns, double entendres, untranslated French, and purposely hamfisted foreshadowing (“a bad accident is to happen quite soon,” he says at one point). It all adds up to a postmodern jig of sorts, provided we agree with John Barth’s definition of literary postmodernism as “a smiling nihilism.” For the stakes are quite high here—paedophilia, abduction, murder—and Humbert constantly spins around the big black hole in the center. He doesn’t stand still, even or especially when talking about his lover/victim: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.” If the young woman herself feels this confusion of identity, we’re not made privy to those feelings. This is Humbert’s construction, his glorious confounding of selfhood.

Likewise, he revels in the opaque layers of artifice he piles onto his story. For example, he tells us of his stepdaughter’s gaggle of adolescent friends: “There was Opal Something, and Linda Hall, and Avis Chapman, and Mona Dahl.” These names are striking mostly for their normalcy, especially compared to those in other postmodern novels. (Pynchon, of course, springs to mind immediately, but also Vonnegut and Ishmael Reed and newer practitioners of the art, such as Jonathan Lethem.) But then comes the knight’s move, a parenthetical aside that says, “save one, all these names are approximations.” The names have all been changed by John Ray, Jr., anyway—and besides that, we have no idea which of these false names would be real—were it not false.

Elsewhere, he calls attention to the fact that we are reading his words, that ink and paper will always be a mediator between us and him: “Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Repeat till the page is full, printer.” This instruction has gone unheeded. These layers of artifice are akin to the bobs and weaves of a championship boxer; the hope is to move quickly enough to be not a stationary figure but a blur: unhittable.

The plot itself is a method of escape. It comes in five major divisions (though Nabokov himself gives us 69 chapters in two sections); we might designate them as follows: (1) early and professional life; (2) living with the Hazes; (3) on the road; (4) Beardsley; and (5) Lolita’s escape. (In Nabokov’s divisions, numbers 1 and 2 belong to the first section, and the rest belong to the second.) About the time we seem to be settling comfortably into a period of Humbert’s life, he abruptly changes. So, for example, as we grow used to the tedious puzzles of his academic life, we find ourselves—out of nowhere, almost—living with Charlotte and Dolores Haze. After Humbert marries the mother and waits for the daughter to return from camp so he can begin his systematic defilement of her, we think we can see where this is going: Lolita will be a novel about the suburban monster next door.

But Charlotte suddenly learns of Humbert’s plan, and in what must be the least-satisfying deus ex machina in history, she is abruptly killed, at which point Humbert takes off for the highways and byways of America, with Dolores in tow. They are “lovers,” at this point, to the degree that a middle-aged man can be the lover of a twelve-year-old girl, and Lolita has become a road novel. But even that isn’t enough movement—to keep the pace, Humbert must paradoxically slow down, and he takes a job at a college, where he and his stepdaughter settle into “normal” life. This, as you might have guessed, doesn’t last, either.

All of this is to say that Humbert keeps moving—and yet he doesn’t want to. He is in love with a material form that is by its very definition ephemeral; one can be a nymphet for only so long before one grows into one of the adult women that so disgust Humbert. The solution, of course, is to make a Platonic idol out of Dolores Haze: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.” That’s why it’s not really right to refer to Dolores as Lolita except through Humbert’s eyes—“Lolita” is the spiritual ideal of The Nymphet; Dolores Haze is a temporary manifestation. To love the spiritual ideal through Dolores’s bodily reality, Humbert must discard Dolores as a real individual. And so he does.

While he pursues the static spiritual ideal, he keeps moving, and in order to keep others from catching him, he demands the uttermost stillness from them. Thus, characters like Charlotte Haze and Valeria, his first wife, become little more than stock characters. His neighbors in the Haze home and at Beardsley have no real personalities—they are the essence of what my elementary-school teachers called “static characters.”

But the most obvious example of Humbert insisting on stasis comes when Dolores wants to study acting. “I detest the theatre,” Humbert tells us,

as being a primitive and putrid form, historically speaking; a form that smacks of stone-age rites and communal nonsense despite those individual interjections of genius, such as, say, Elizabethan poetry which a closeted reader automatically pumps out of the stuff.

The irony is that he demands a sort of static acting—perhaps the best way of putting it is to say he expects an acting free of improvisation—from those around him. Dolores, of course, must constantly pretend that she is not being subjected to what she clearly views as rape by her stepfather. Elsewhere, he says of his first wife that she “even showed something like irritation at times, which was quite out of keeping with the stock character she was supposed to impersonate.” We can conclude, then, that what he objects to is not acting qua acting—it’s the actress having control over her acting, choosing her own stasis or lack of it.

As it turns out, he has reason to fear this. Dolores Haze escapes him by virtue of the acting she convinces him to let her do. “By permitting Lolita to study acting,” he moans, “I had, fond fool, suffered her to cultivate deceit.” (I need not point out that “fond fool” is itself a phrase from the theatre, specifically Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale.)  More to the point, the “deceit” the theatre brings about allows her to live a life outside of Humbert; after she refers to her childhood, he thinks, “It was the first time . . . she spoke spontaneously of her pre-Humbertian childhood,” adding, “perhaps, the theatre had taught her that trick.”

The message is clear—to the degree that Lolita, the product of a man who declared that he “detest[ed] symbls and allegories,” can be said to have a message—and it is a distinctly postmodern one. The world, Nabokov seems to tell us, is full of predators who wish to impose their understanding of the world upon us, to pin us like a butterfly in a display case; we must learn to lie, learn to keep moving ourselves, in order to escape them.

With this in mind, the Christian may have more to fear from the philosophical implications of the novel than from any plot-level disgust over paedophilia, but that’s a subject for another post.

11 thoughts on “The Great American Novel

  1. I had forgotten that that family had the surname Haze. In Pale Fire, the family is the Shades. That’s interesting in light of the postmodern language play you mention.

  2. Michial, not sure if you’re aware, but I’m also a TFC grad. My experience with this novel parallels your own; I read it in a compulsory counseling class.

    Your insights into the novel are quite penetrating. Nabokov fought fiercely against any and all manner of “group-think.” Above all, he detested convention and cliche. Brian Boyd has written that all of Nabokov’s novels, Ada in particular, articulate an intricate philosophy of consciousness and perception. Though Nabokov would object, he is maddeningly reluctant to depart from the impressions made on us by our surroundings. For most, a sunset is a sunset. File it away and move on, but Nabokov can’t leave it at that. He is both poet and scientist simultaneously.

    He’s become one of my favorite novelists since, but Lolita remains an artistic failure in my view. Nabokov’s insistence that the novel lacks any moral purpose, and its constant reinforcement by the most sordid means, makes it a rather shrill read for me. In other words, the moral that there is no moral, that this is, plain and simple, gloriously pointless art, ends up sounding like a lot of moralizing to me. As you hinted in your post, I think Pale Fire and Ada are both better places to start, though my personal favorite is Speak Memory. Unfortunately, Lolita gave me a rather jaded portrait of its author.

  3. Cameron:

    Good to hear from you. I think I met you at Homecoming 2007, but I can’t say that for sure.

    That “the meaning is there’s no meaning” thing became a staple of postmodern fiction. I just finished rereading Thomas Pynchon’s “The Crying of Lot 49” (I believe I’ll be speaking forth on it on the podcast tomorrow), a book whose “meaning” if you want to call it that, is very much that we should be satisfied with the shifting of signifiers in the world as it is instead of seeking revelation. Obviously I disagree with this moral–and obviously it became a cliche not long after “Lot 49” came out.

    But historical context is important here–it was a fairly revolutionary thing to say in 1955, and for someone saying something (at least in the fiction world) for close to the first time, I think Nabokov shows considerable restraint in his “preaching.” Pynchon and others would expand the scope of that lesson as the next two decades progressed, but Nabokov sews the seeds, and he does so masterfully, in my opinion.

    In the end, though, I think the book’s greatness lies not so much in its message as in its absolutely incredible prose–it really may be the best book on a pure language level ever produced in America; I haven’t read enough to make such a statement, but I do know that Nabokov puts even a master stylist like Updike to shame. (Updike would agree, I am certain.) This may sound like I’m putting him in the same category as the “art for art’s sake” Decadents of the late 19th-century, but I don’t mean to. He attempts more than that. (So did they, I suppose, particularly Wilde, who’s far more preachy than he claims to be.)

    Your observation about Nabokov’s being simultaneous poet and scientist is well said, and he’s certainly not a “postmodernist” in the sense that he wishes to abdicate logic (though that’s a vast oversimplication of postmodernism and is probably just a flat-out untruth–Derrida, for example, can’t accept the work of Emmanuel Levinas because he believes it contradicts reason). In my opinion, this adds to “Lolita”‘s beauty–it’s as intricately plotted as the best Jane Austen novels, though it’s not so much a Bach piece as a chess problem, with hundreds of violent “knight’s moves” throughout.

    Now: I have not read anything else by Nabokov, other than one of his Russian-language stories that I read for a class during my master’s program and didn’t much care for. I own “Pale Fire” from the merging of my library with my wife’s, but I haven’t gotten around to it yet.

    Thanks for the comment, Cameron!

  4. Very well said, Michial. We did meet in 2007, by the by.

    I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the novel’s prose. I’ve rarely had as visceral of a reaction to a novel, tinged with such thrills of pleasure. As my stomach turned, I couldn’t help but surrender to Nabokov’s details. For its prose alone, the novel is worthy of its place in the canon, a notion which I’m sure would thrill its author.

    My problem as I continue to read Nabokov is his total devotion to detail at the expense of any and all depth (I’m interested to know what you think of him as you read on). James Wood argues that this facet of Nabokov’s writing has overwhelmed so much of the writers who have followed in his wake, with decidedly underwhelming results. Nabokov hated novelists with metaphysical strains, Henry James, Dostoevsky etc. I think your defense of the novel is solid, and has a lot more historical perspective than my comments did. But I guess I see Lolita as emblematic of a turning point in literature, a final secularization, where any kind of “high seriousness,” to use Arnold’s phrase, is jettisoned, and all that remains is the ephemeral as the final stand-in for any transcendence, and where any kind of spiritual musings other than stupefaction may be greeted with nothing more than cynicism.

    Thanks for the great post and I do look forward to your assessment of Pynchon. Suppose I’d better read him soon!

  5. Absolutely. The postmodern novel is marked by its lack of seriousness. Amy Hungerford points this out in terms of “Lolita”; early in the novel, Humbert/Nabokov takes a rather serious poem by T.S. Eliot (“Gerontion”) and turns it into a sick joke about nymphets. (Hungerford’s lectures on American literature are available from iTunes U and are well worth a listen, but don’t listen to the lectures on Roth’s “The Human Stain” before you read the book, lest you ruin one of the best twists in American literature for yourself.)

    I like James Wood a lot, and I suppose his critique has some validity–but John Updike is my main scholarly focus in terms of individual writers, and so I simply CANNOT attack total devotion to detail. 😉 The difference between Nabokov and Updike is that the latter uses that detail as part of a more-or-less complex metaphysical system (the Incarnation, really), whereas the former is describing only the physical world. I don’t think a nonmetaphysical writer, ironically, can sustain that level of detail on philosophical grounds.

    Now, I’m not against the postmodern novelists poking some holes in that “high seriousness,” provided there’s something they still take seriously. (Eliot, a Modernist, does this quite well in both his pre- and post-conversion work. Flannery O’Connor, who writes in the postmodern era but who you can’t REALLY call a postmodernist, does the same.) As to whether there’s an actual postmodernist writer who DOES this…I don’t know. Michael Chabon, maybe? But he’s post-post-modernist, to use a tired joke.

    It may be that you can’t take the world seriously and be considered a “postmodern writer.” John Barth and his “smiling nihilism” are a good example.

    I must say that I don’t see how James is a metaphysical writer. I’ve not read more than a few of his novels, but I see them as more or less on the bare description level, along with Austen (and most English novelists, come to think of it). What’s Nabokov’s justification for putting him in that class?

  6. “I don’t think a nonmetaphysical writer, ironically, can sustain that level of detail on philosophical grounds.” Very shrewd observation. Boyd maintains this regarding Nabokov, and it is, I would say, what ultimately makes him a hypocrite. The sheer level of ecstatic splendor inherent in the details makes them signposts pointing beyond themselves.

    Wood’s contention is that the details get in the way of the narrative, weighing it down, obfuscating more than clarifying. This is, to be sure, largely a matter of taste, but we do seem to have a preference for the sordid these days. I’m not always sure that the emphasis on the darkest recesses of our nature is justified. Ultimately, he lays the blame at the feet of Flaubert…

    James is probably not a metaphysical writer per se, but his novels are quite preoccupied with the psychological aspects of his characters. I have Isabel Archer in mind here. The question of her character’s freedom of will would be an unbearable bore to the man who declared style to be the essence of a novel.

    I agree that humor has been a much-needed tonic to some of the naively ambitious tripe lurking in our textbooks. But I still think Nabokov’s hope was to drive a firm nail into the novel’s exploring either the inward reflections of a character, dare I say, the motions of spirit, as well as any religious convictions doing more than gathering dust. My personal favorite, and hopefully the subject of my post-graduate work, is Cormac McCarthy, who, to be sure, has humor, and a descriptive power rivaling Nabokov’s, as well as an insatiable bloodlust which would put O’Connor to shame. But the religious connotations of his works are deathly serious in manner that cannot be avoided. In a sense, as George Steiner once remarked regarding Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, there is no current critical grammar adequate to deal with such a writer as this. We would need to regain some religious sensibilities in order to come face to face with this vile sage.

  7. Are you already in graduate school, Cameron? Where do you go, or where are you looking at going? Are you studying literature?

    I’ve not read McCarthy–I didn’t read the book I was assigned in a Southern lit course because it was near the end of the semester and I was burned out. I know it is a conspicuous gap in my education.

  8. Not there yet. I’m looking at UGA at the moment. I’m planning on studying literature though I did my undergraduate work in philosophy. Ideally, the one ought to augment the other, but I far prefer literature these days…

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