I had heard about Nabokov’s Lolita for decades—that it was one of the great novels of the twentieth century, that its “transgressive” nature had stirred repeated attempts at suppression, etc., etc. My imaginary scenario of the work, based on hearsay, had a fortyish European gentleman of leisure swooning for a girl of fifteen or sixteen whom he encountered on the French Riviera… or something in that line. Didn’t really care enough about the whole matter to drop a few bucks and waste valuable time reading the tome. And yet, one likes to be informed.
My stratagem in recent years when a book interests me but doesn’t quite reach my threshold for sacrificing precious hours to it is to see if I can find a translation into some language that I’m trying to keep in repair. I had read Nevil Shute’s On the Beach in Italian last year; why not accommodate this “classic of the twentieth century” in the same way?
The gambit was neither as outlandish nor as simple as it would appear. Nabokov wasn’t a native Anglophone, so reading his novel in another language hardly did him a grave injustice, in a way. Since so much of Humbert Humbert’s interminable rumination slides into urbane French, you’d be licensed to say that neither the novel’s author nor its fictive narrator cares one helluva lot for English. But then, inasmuch as HH’s narrative manner is so persistently, invincibly “precious” (from pretiosum, “stilted, groomed with highly cultivated artifice”), I found my Italian frequently being challenged. Not sure I could have followed the old boy even in English copy.
This isn’t a book review, so let a single example suffice. If you don’t know the “story” at all, don’t fret: there isn’t one. More on that later… but, essentially, the fortyish academic marries a widow to get closer to her twelve-year-old daughter. (Or was she eleven at the start? She was certainly nowhere near sixteen.) Widow reads pervert hubby’s diary, gets herself run over in a panicked sprint to the mailbox, pervert takes his “daughter” to see the USA in a Chevrolet (depositing DNA on the bedsheets of every cheap motel from Palm Beach to Spokane) and eventually guns down the pervert filmmaker who stole his underaged geisha from him at one of said stops. Anyway… I recall a passage where HH is vacantly admiring the picturesque countryside of an idyllic town in Ohio or Indiana or Whereverana, preoccupied with his jealous concern about just what Lolita is up to at the pool or on the phone… and he remarks the unicorn grazing in a manicured, sunswept pasture beyond the hotel. Or so he writes, with the kind of muted contempt that characterizes the entire narrative. “Snarky” is the word one hears today.
Why snarky? Because there’s always a tension between the minute details of tedious middle-American suburban living with which Humbert infuses his account and the implicit stinking rot of the whole society. Marquees and billboards advertising paradise constantly thrust themselves from the interminable silver ribbon of highway. The unicorn was a jab at that false capitalist paradise: be the morning ever so beautiful and the hamlet ever so postcard-perfect, it’s all still phony. HH (Humbert Humbert: the bourgeois convention of naming parodied—get it?) is still forced to sustain a façade as he flees from unknown village to unknown village for a nightly ravishing of his pre-adolescent houri.
It isn’t the pedophilia that gripes me about this book (I’m sure Nabokov would wish that it were, and would suppose that it would be) so much as its flaccid, invertebrate, snarky style. We all know very well that American “culture”—the shopping malls, the fast-foot alleys, the Disneyworlds and Casino Cabanas—can be nauseatingly crass. Nabokov has exploited the damage which that coarseness must do to any thoughtful, tasteful person’s sense of aesthetics: he has leaned heavily upon what might be a shared distaste in his readership to parade a deeply sick and sickening lifestyle. Let me be clear: yes, pedophilia bothers me immensely. But the author has counted on my “prudish” response so that he may simper, “I should have expected nothing else from a denizen of these boroughs where neon ice cream cones draw families of four on Saturday nights. À chacun sa chimère.”
Grant that girls’ schools claiming to produce cultured young ladies are often a hypocritical sham whose veneer conceals more sexual adventures than Hugh Hefner could imagine: how does that reduce the crime of someone who kidnaps and rapes one of the girls in her plaid uni with Latin insignia? Why does the commercialist crap in which we daily forage mitigate the designs and snares of a sociopathic predator?
A sensible answer to this question would go a long way to validating the vast majority of what our intellectual community considers great literature… but there is no sensible answer. The failings of bourgeois society do not and cannot somehow license the celebration of topsy-turvy anomia (the utter absence of nomos, of rules and order). Lolita is no more than this celebration—a tired and tiresome book considered by its creator and his cult, however, to be brilliantly subversive. My thumbnail description of the “plot” above may make it sound like a murder mystery; but the killing is rushed in out of the blue (or out of an alcoholic haze) during the final pages, and the terms and tempo of its relation belong to burlesque rather than to high drama or tragedy. For one disjointed chapter, HH misses or grazes his half-dressed, hung-over target in a meander at gunpoint through the victim’s mansion as the latter tries to remember his assailant, offers him bribes and publicity, and reads—under duress—a poetical death verdict written out in rancid imitation of Apollinaire. No doubt, this scene is a fully intended burlesque. “You stupid, vulgarian Americans… you expected a plot? Maybe a murder—will that satisfy you after fifty thousand words of my getting Lolita to spread out for me again and again when bribed with candy or a movie? So here, have your murder scene. Not what you expected? I’m so sorry!”
The author’s postscript to his magnum opus, in fact, sneers that American editors rejected Lolita only because their small minds were conditioned by porn to see clichés at every turn… clichés which failed to materialize in this little chef d’oeuvre. And, yes, the postscript is one long sneer of precisely the sort that Humbert Humbert would have written: any hope that Nabokov had brilliantly created a character with whom he has nothing significant in common evaporates at once. Author and character are identical. The former (in the style of the latter) explains that pedophilia is one of the three subjects an American publisher will never touch—the other two being a black man marrying a white woman and an atheist dying happily at the age of 106. Can it get any snarkier?
This is a man, mind you, who emigrated to America with his socialist-intellectual friends because he found the atmosphere of the Soviet Union uncongenial to his libertine tastes… and yet Lolita had to be published first in Russian, thanks to our priggish, stultifying standards of “decency”. I found myself frequently wondering if the misunderstood genius grasped why the Soviet establishment would be very happy to circulate his novel: certainly not because the official view of pedophiles was more indulgent!
Unintended propaganda… yes. Triumphantly transgressive art… really? On the street, I believe the phrase runs, “You got no game.” Nabokov—and the contemporary academy that adores him—have no game. They don’t have a message, an alternative. The author resentfully, disdainfully rejects his need, as an artist, to have any message at all. Such an expectation is another of those insipid Yankee Puritan trespasses into the realm of the spirit. “For me,” he sniffs, “a narrative work exists only if it procures for me what I will call frankly an ‘aesthetic will’—that is, the sense of being in contact in some way with other states of being (curiosity, tenderness, benevolence, ecstasy) where art is the norm.” Yeah, okay… what? Doesn’t any related chain of events to which human beings contribute imply choice, moral will—and in doing so, doesn’t it imply magnetic polarities of right and wrong? Does not such magnetizing imply meaning? Tenderness and benevolence, whatever Nabokov may have wished to convey by such words, are not “states” accessed as one contemplates fluffy clouds—or produces the fluff from his reefer. They require some up-and-down, light-and-dark orientation. Or would our author have accepted the Marquis de Sade’s assumption that his victims enjoyed their torture, or the Aztec priest’s conviction that the girl under his knife experienced ecstasy in offering up her yet throbbing heart to his hands? In the frozen frame, the most hideous acts imaginable can turn picturesque.
The “snapshot” variety of narrative, where a sequence of acts is aestheticized into a luxuriant pose purged of squalid attendant circumstances, contradicts the essential nature of narrative. One thinks of the gorgeous canvases of Delacroix representing wholesale rapine and slaughter in rare tones of rich red. Decadent art has had the same qualities for centuries, and they are always a tip-off to deep cultural malaise. I should say that, in Nabokov’s case (for at least Delacroix’s medium was static, not a lubricious traducing of dynamism into stasis), the sickness revealed in our intellectual culture is far more virulent than the superficial tawdriness of our shopping malls and infomercials.
For here’s the point that I wished to reach, and where I will finish: though an ideological offspring of the post-war years, Nabokov remains symptomatic—and even prophetic—of our ailing intellectual culture today. Our educated elite view complex moral issues in the framework of a “selfie”. What appeared to be the corpse of a toddler on a beach softened up Europe to receive tens of thousands of restless young Muslim immigrants in search of welfare-state largesse. None of the “journalists” or “commentators” who tweaked his culture’s conscience over this photo thought to ask why no footprints were pressed into the sand, as would surely have been left if anyone had checked the toddler’s condition. A five-second YouTubed clip of a young black man being cuffed by three or four cops suffices to throw major American cities—stirred up by talking heads and editorialists—into deadly chaos: no one waits to reconstruct the context of the arrest. A mere mention of date rape or unwanted groping is enough to bring lynch mobs out of the woodwork: accurate supply of previous events leading up to the camera’s click (or the emoji’s upload, in many of these cases) is a stall, a concession to the ravening perpetrator.
How “aesthetic”: how evocative of “another state where art is the norm”! But to live in and by such fantasies is the program of a lunatic. Indeed, to conceive of art itself as serving such fantasy is the notion of a tasteless, depraved decadent.
I thought this sick, sloppy wet dream of an expatriate solipsist would never end. What a relief, that even “narratives” produced to mock the purposeful passage of time cannot continue forever in this world! The place where that happens is called Hell.