ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945
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The American Novel Since 1945
ENGL 291 - Lecture 5 - Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Chapter 1. Lolita: Initial Student Responses [00:00:00]
Professor Amy Hungerford: Last time I finished up my lectures on Wise Blood by trying to draw together three different ways of reading the novel into one interpretative framework, and what I ultimately argued was that the New Critical formal unity of the novel that is epitomized, I think (in a somewhat, perhaps, heavy-handed way), in Chapter 7 of the novel–that’s book-ended by the symbol of the blinding white cloud–that it’s that unity, in a sense, that replaces the bodily unities that are always blown apart in O’Connor’s fiction. And, in a certain way, what you see is a fiction that is personified in that way, that it takes on the qualities and the values of the person, and for O’Connor that means the person understood in a religious framework as something with transcendent meaning and transcendent value and, indeed, a transcendent life.
There is a very different image of the personified word in Lolita, and I’m going to refer now to an essay, a 1992 essay, by the British novelist Martin Amis. He compares the prose style in Lolita with a muscle-bound man, a man whose body is bulked up purely for aesthetic reasons, for only the purpose of looking a certain way, that the bodybuilder is not that person who’s going to go out and use their muscles to do some job. It is simply there to be looked at, to be oiled up and presented and displayed. That’s how Amos describes the prose style of Lolita. So, I want you to keep that image in your mind. The question of the relationship between the person and the aesthetic in Lolita is going to be at the heart of my overarching argument about the novel.
Today, you’re not going to see much of that. What I want to do today–since we have three lectures on Lolita–what I want to do today is simply to begin to open the text for you: to give you some ways of reading it; to alert you to certain kinds of questions; to ask you some overarching questions; and also to just get you thinking and into the texture of the novel. First, I want to ask you though, what do you think of this so far? I just want to hear from you. What are you responses? Who really hates this novel so far? Anybody? Yes. Okay. Why do you hate this novel?
Student: I guess it’s because of the fact that he’s doing something that’s really not good, and it almost seems like he’s trivializing it.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. What about it trivializes that crime?
Student: I guess it’s just that there’s no moral lens that we’re looking at it through. It’s just his view of the world.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Okay. So, Humbert’s lack of a moral vocabulary to understand what he’s doing makes it seems like it’s trivialized. Okay. Other thoughts on this? Who else is really put off by this subject matter? Even if you like the novel, who else is really put off by this? Yes.
Student: I agree with her. It’s disturbing how much we identify with Humbert, how we’re made to see the world through his eyes, and we kind of– even I–grew to like him a lot. At least, the way he’s presented, he’s a very likable character. And then, it’s kind of like the things that he does are kind of on the side, when you think about it in a very….The whole telling of the story is not objective at all, and when you think of it in an objective sort of way, it’s a completely different story.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. So, you’re suggestion is that what’s so disturbing about this is that we actually like this guy; we actually come to like Humbert. How many of you– now, I asked you this question about O’Connor’s characters–would you like to sit down to dinner with any of them? Would you like to sit down to dinner with Humbert? (And I would say this knowing that all of us are outside the nymphet age range.) So, given that, who would like to sit down with Humbert and why? Okay. Yes, you. Why?
Student: Well, simply because I would argue that Humbert in fact does have a moral vocabulary and tells us how terrible the things he’s doing are. And yet, you like him anyway, and I think that’s the power of the novel, and that’s why I think he’s such a [compelling] character.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Do you think that Humbert really believes that his actions are terrible? Do you believe him when he says, “Oh, I was so ashamed. I was so awful.” Do you believe him?
Professor Amy Hungerford: Oh, you don’t. Okay. All right. Does anyone believe him? Yes.
Student: Well, sometimes he brings up these classic figures that, he argues, would have the same interest. He mentions Virgil and Dante, and it seems like the desperation of bringing up such grand figures makes me think that he does have doubts.
Professor Amy Hungerford: About what he’s doing. Uh huh. Uh huh. So, the authority of the canon that he invokes to defend himself in fact suggests perhaps that he has some doubts? Yes.
Student: That’s interesting. I took those same references the exact opposite way, ’cause I thought that essentially he’s referring to the temporality of our moral structure, and how it’s just this arbitrary code which our society has decided upon. And, at one point in time, he laments the end of the old Latin world and the B.C. world, when people could have these child slaves.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Right. Right. Yeah. Okay. So, this evidence is very possible to see in diametrically opposed ways, and you’re certainly not the first two students that I’ve seen have those two different reactions to the same thing. What else does this novel bring out in you: what other thoughts, what other responses? Does anyone absolutely love this novel? Okay. Lots of you. Good. Why? Who wants to tell me why? Yes.
Student: The beauty of the language and symmetry, the sentence structure, the word choice: I guess going away from the theme, more of just the language.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Uh huh. Okay. The language, yeah, absolutely.
Student: Even more about the language: it’s not just that it’s beautiful. It sort of draws attention to the power of words, because you’ve tried to ask us whether or not we find him sympathetic, and I think in this book we’re sort of reminded of how words can make us feel things and make us believe things that are repugnant to us, and sort of mask–it sort of takes the mask off literature and shows us the way we are convinced.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. “Takes the mask off literature.” I actually want to change that around, if I might, and play with that, because that’s a really useful image for us: “takes the mask off literature and reminds us how we come to be sympathetic or how we come to think something.” Think back to Richard Wright, who wants words to disappear, to be completely transparent and to leave you just with your response. In a certain way, I would want to flip your image around. It’s as if Nabokov allows us to see the mask of literature, to actually see it there palpably doing its work, so we can become self-aware of how we respond. But, how many of you didn’t experience it as understanding why you were having that response to Humbert, but just having it? Were any of you sort of experiencing this more like Wright wants us to experience literature, to just have the response? Anyone really seduced? Yes.
Student: Well, I found that, while I might have found the prose more or less relentless…it was very difficult to escape into my own reaction, and I was more or less in his head.
Professor Amy Hungerford: Okay. Yes. Do we ever escape from his head? You’re saying that you don’t- you didn’t feel like you ever could, in the world of this prose. This is going to be an important question for us as we think about what happens to Lolita over the course of the novel. Do we ever escape from the subjectivity of Humbert? Is there any way to access the subjectivity of Lolita herself? So, this is one question you want to ask yourself. And, if there are moments when something like Nabokov’s voice or point of view shades into Humbert’s, what are those moments, if you think there are some? What are the moments when that subjectivity, the sort of prison of that subjectivity, wavers? Where do you see those? I’ll leave that as a question for you.
Chapter 2. Historical Context: A Brief Biography of Nabokov [00:09:49]
Well, let me give you a little bit of background. It’s very helpful for me, as I address you, to think about what you’re seeing in the text, and that helps me to think about what I want to say to you. So, before I get in to that, let me just give you some background. Some of you probably know a little bit about Nabokov’s life. He was born in 1899, and his life, to me, is fascinating because he was one of the last generation raised in the old aristocratic chateau life of Russia. And it wasn’t just a Russian aristocracy; it was really a very cosmopolitan European aristocracy. He lived in the summers on a country estate outside St. Petersburg, in a beautiful chateau. And his uncle owned the chateau down the road, and actually left it to him when he was a very young man. So, he actually owned for a short time this huge chateau, and other relatives and friends lived in estates surrounding theirs. It had huge parks as part of its land, where he first learned to hunt butterflies and mount them. And he became a serious lepidopterist as he grew older, and was very early in his life passionate about collecting and classifying butterflies. In the winters he lived in the city in a beautiful town house in St. Petersburg, and he attended school only later in his life. When he was young, as was the custom, he had tutors. So he had a French tutor who lived with the family for a long time. He had Russian and English tutors that came in succession; he had drawing masters and so on, to cover the range of education thought to be appropriate to a young man of his station.
His father was a democrat in czarist Russia, and he was quite a reformer. At the time that the Bolsheviks took over in 1919, there was a brief window of time prior to the family’s flight. The family left Russia in 1919. So, the revolution, I think, starts in 1917. And things are quite complex in those early days, so there’s more than one anti-czarist factor. And his father was a democrat but not a Bolshevik; so, he was anti-czarist, but he was not a Bolshevik. His father wrote for revolutionary newspapers, and he continued to write and publish a newspaper even as an émigré. He was assassinated in 1922 in Europe on account of his publishing activities. Nabokov was very, very fond of his parents. He has these luminous, luminous essays about his life as a child in this sort of perfectly intact aristocratic world, and in that picture his mother and father loom very large and in a very fond light. Nearly invisible are his siblings. He had two brothers and two sisters, and it’s amazing, when you read his memoirs, how invisible they are. This is one thing I find striking about those memoirs, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder as we think about Lolita. It’s the image of a person who is profoundly–at least in his representation of himself–profoundly occupied with what’s going on in his own mind. His parents were very much absent from his growing-up life. He spent a lot of time with his nannies and tutors and nurses when he was younger. His parents would travel, and his father was often away in the city on political business when they were in the country. So his parents loomed large: but not so much as physical figures, people he would interact with in a daily sense, but almost as icons, or as figures of the imagination, for him. The real people he was, sort of, with–certainly his brother, Sergey, who he was educated with (his sisters were educated in a different way and were somewhat younger than him)–even Sergey is sort of invisible to him.
He wrote literature in Russian, novels in Russian, when he was in Europe. And then, when he moved to the United States, he began to write in English, and took America as his adopted land and English as his adopted language. English was a native language, in a certain way, because English was spoken in his household all the time, and he was trained by an English governess as a young child. So, it’s a language that goes deep in his upbringing. It’s not really analogous–well, I’m not going to get in to that–it’s not analogous to, say, Conrad, who is Polish and learned English. And you can see the marks in Conrad’s fiction of his having learned English and then, it comes across as a sort of clotted style in Conrad. Some of the difficulty of Conrad’s style is the difficulty of writing in this acquired language. Nabokov has none of that.
Chapter 3. Blurring Narrative Layers: Locating the Author in John Ray Jr.’s Forward [00:15:33]
So, what I want to do now is, with that background in mind, I want to take this up and just open up the first few pages. And I urge you not to neglect the foreword by John Ray Jr., so I hope you read it, the little italicized foreword. And I want to focus especially on pages 4 and 5. Now, a foreword is of course supposed to suggest how you should read the text that’s coming. And so, if we take it on in that role, let’s see what we see. I’m going to read a little bit of this. This is on page 4 and 5:
First, let me point you to this notation about Mrs. Richard F. Schiller. I’m not going to tell you who that is, but I want you to figure it out. Okay? So make a note in your notebook. By the end of the novel, I would like you to know who this is. Vivian Darkbloom: if you take those letters, you can spell Vladimir Nabokov. Vivian Darkbloom is one of Nabokov’s palindromic versions of his name. He inserts these even in his autobiography, by the way. He attributes certain things to Vivian Darkbloom and other kinds of characters of such names. So, here, you can’t avoid the sense that, even though this is attributed to John Ray, in fact there is some other voice here, and it’s a voice that can’t help but drop the name of Vladimir Nabokov into the prose. So, right away, in this moment of layered narratives, a framed narrative around another narrative, there is a sort of instability in the layers. Where is Nabokov here? There is also the question of what kind of reader we are that this preface brings up and sort of puts in front of us. Are we the kind of reader who is interested in the real persons? Well, it gives the story that’s to follow that sense of being true, because it suggests its fictionality as a thin veneer and that the real is something that we can know about. And I would suggest to you that we can connect this with Humbert’s moment of wondering what happens to the little girls whose images he is excited by. This is on page 21, the beginning of chapter 6:
Both Humbert and John Ray suggest that the tissue between the fictional, between the imagination and the real, is very light: that it can be pierced somehow, that one can affect the other. And I want to point you to a kind of language that also permeates between the preface and the story proper. And this is on page 5; this is the middle paragraph:
Do you see that word “throbs”? “A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession.” “Throbs” is a word that Nabokov brings out over and over again, in multiple contexts, always connected somehow with this novel. So, I’m going to ask you to read the afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita.” When you read that, you’ll notice that the word “throbs” comes back. The first impulse to write this novel is described as a throb. The throb is of course undeniably associated with Humbert’s rising desire in that physical way, and there is that emotionalized version of that, the throbbing heart of romantic cliché. It comes back and forth in his memoirs too. In Speak, Memory that word appears. It’s interesting. As the essays move chronologically–they were written over a period of time–as the essays that were written near Lolita come into the book, that word appears, also, describing various things. It’s as if that word really embodies the feel of this novel, and so, like “Vivian Darkbloom,” that word suggests the permeability–not just of fiction and the real–but of these narrative layers. Where is Nabokov? And I think he’s there in that throb.
Chapter 4. Seduction and ClichÈ [00:23:49]
Now, I want to ask a question that we’re going to need to think about, and addresses the response of–actually–the two of you sitting up front here, when I was asking you how you responded to it. Can we have a moral response to this novel? And what would that look like? Well, John Ray asks us to, and I want to just read part of that language of morality that he uses. I’m going to start on 4, and then I’m going to skip down to the bottom of 5:
In this part, he suggests the possibility of the tale ending in a moral tale, a moral apotheosis. But that’s grounded, also, or hedged around by the sense of psychiatry offering other ways of understanding what we think of as deviance. But this is hard to take seriously for a number of reasons, not least the Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann who is referred to here. It is, of course, Dr. “White Blackman,” and it’s referring to the Kinsey Report, the famous Kinsey Report on the sexual habits of Americans. It came out in the 1950s. Dr. Black Whiteman: it suggests that these are matters of the heart that have been reduced to a black-and-white set of statistics, and you feel the absurdity of that 12%, that number, appearing in that sentence right here. And I’m just going to skip down to the bottom of 5 now:
Well, aren’t those ringing words from John Ray? Nabokov ensures that the very idea of taking a moral lesson from this novel is unavailable to us because it’s already been ridiculed. He not only makes us see the psychiatric evasion of morality as ridiculous, as banal, as reductive, reductive to the black and white; he ensures, too, that the language of morality is the language of cliché.
The status of cliché in this novel is one with which we’re going to have to struggle, and I want to move in that direction, now, by turning to our first hearing of Humbert’s voice. What can we say about Humbert’s style? If John Ray’s style is full of certain kinds of clichés that we can classify in the ways that I have just done, what about Humbert’s style? Where does it come from, and why is it so enchanting? So, let’s just begin with that first chapter, the tiny chapter, Chapter 1. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-li-ta. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap at three on the teeth: Lo-li-ta.” The first thing he does is make us feel words in our bodies, and especially in the mouth and in the tongue, in that very sensuous way. So, that’s the first thing that his style does for us: it makes us align ourselves–in the way that some of you were talking about earlier–not just to identify our minds with the point of view of this particular person, this particular character, but actually to move your body, and to feel something bodily that he wants you to feel, to share that sensuous experience with him. It’s just the first little temptation. He wants to draw us into the “special experience” that he documents in his story:
I’m seduced. Are you? He’s feeding us questions. This is another thing to notice. He’s not just making us experience Lolita’s name the way he does; he’s assuming that there are certain kinds of questions that we will ask. “Did she have a precursor?” Why is this the first question that you would ask? If someone was telling you this story, is that the first question you would ask? So did she have a precursor? No, probably not. Okay. Why? Why does he want to plant this question with us? Well, he’s working towards something that he will also in some ways backhandedly discredit. He’s counting on us to analyze him in somewhat Freudian terms. So, even though he will make a habit later on of playing with psychiatrists–staying at clinics extra weeks just to bother the newcomers by giving them made-up dreams and primal scenes to read and interpret–even though he’s going to do that, he’s still manipulating us, because he knows how deeply those kinds of exculpatory narratives run with his audience. So, she had a precursor. So what? Does that make any difference? Does that make any difference to how we’re to judge him? And we are the judges: “ladies and gentlemen of the jury.” We are, in a way, invited to judge, even though he’s begging us not to at every moment.
So, it’s a choice on Nabokov’s part to foreground the question of judgment from moment one, and then for him to invoke multiple kinds of exculpatory narratives. He’s planting them in there for us to find. “Oh, when?” In childhood. By safely locating that precursor in his own childhood when, as he says, he was her equal, where there was no crime, only a kind of infantile passion that nobody would blame him for, he invites us to think of Humbert as somehow still retaining a kind of innocent purity, that that passion itself is the innocent purity that flames at the heart of childhood.
Chapter 5. Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee” [00:34:22]
Then we get these allusions, and if you have the annotated Lolita or if you already know Poe, Annabel Lee is a famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe, and “the princedom by the sea” is a feature of it. And so, I’m going to read this to you, and there’s a reason why I want to read the whole thing. So, it’ll just take a minute, but here we go. This is Annabel Lee:
So, that’s the whole poem. Humbert is drawing on a nineteenth-century Romantic tradition that still has a certain power. You can hear that incantatory voice of Poe’s speaker in the poem making this doomed love into something aesthetic, but it’s also a kind of cliché. If John Ray works with the clichés of psychiatry and of social work and, in a way, of politics–progressive politics–“bring up a better generation for the future”– Humbert has truck with the clichés of the literary. So, his is a vocabulary of very high-born clichés. It’s interesting. When you read Speak, Memory, Nabokov’s autobiography, he talks about his own experiments with this kind of poetry when he was young and especially when he was beginning to fall in love with girls that he would meet around St. Petersburg. He represents them as overheated attempts at literature, as dripping with a kind of excess, romantic excess, as essentially unable to do more than repeat a tradition.
What Humbert has found, and I guess Nabokov has given him, in the Poe, is not only that kind of overheated Romantic poetic referent; he’s also chosen, of course, someone who married a very, very young bride. So, Poe, I think at the age of about twenty or twenty one, married his fourteen-year-old cousin. So, for that reason Poe becomes a kind of model, and he’s the model in both ways: both as a pedophile and as someone who imagined himself and his young love fully clothed in the language of romance. So, it’s a kind of fairy tale. Now the fairy tale language that is invoked here, “the princedom by the sea,” is brought back for us vividly in the scene where Humbert first sees Lolita. This is on page 39. So, he’s walking through the house. The “Haze woman” is giving him his tour of the house:
This is a remarkable passage to me. He occupies in this passage every subject position of the fairy tale: the nurse, the hounds and the king. He’s the nurse recognizing the beloved child. He’s the king after her, and the hounds really after her. At the same time, I think we feel the freshness of this prose, and we feel the humor of it, the self-parody. So, even though he is counting on us to be seduced by the romantic language, that incantatory trance of Annabel Lee, there is a certain way in which it’s refreshed for us, like when he says, “The twenty-five years I have lived since then tapered to a palpitating point and vanished.” That is not from the fairy tale. That’s his own voice.
One thing that Nabokov does–and I think this is related to the way words like “throb” and the layers of fiction and reality, how these things permeate into different texts and different layers of the story–he always mixes originality with cliché. He mixes the bad with the good. He has a real disdain for the black and the white, that sense of simplicity. And so, you’re going to find–even at moments where I think we’re meant to understand Humbert’s prose as overwrought, that muscle-bound man that Amis talks about–you’re also going to find in those passages, while you’re being just brought to the sense of parody, just to the edge of what you can tolerate in that vein, you’re going to get a sharp sentence; you’re going to get a sharp piece of very original prose style. This is part of Nabokov’s talent, is to manipulate you. This is another way of manipulating you, is to make you see the cliché and then to draw back from it to something that surprises you. So, this is part of the strategy. And then watch what happens to the prose style and the difference in tone:
And I think there’s a reason why there are quotations around that princedom by the sea and why it’s Poe: a fatal consequence–not just of his early love for Annabel Lee–but a consequence of the poetry. This is another kind of defense: “the poetry made me do it.” It’s the romance that’s being offered in the poetry that lends his life its course. So, here the rationales for his guilt, and our forgiveness of it, begin to multiply.
Chapter 6. Morality and Manipulation [00:45:54]
Now, I want to draw back from just being immersed in those details of the text for a minute to suggest to you that this question of morality is something that Nabokov deliberately courts. When Nabokov was an exile in Europe, he spent a lot of time composing chess problems. These are setups of pieces on the chess board that have particular solutions. And they’re very complex, and they have a kind of aesthetic form to them. And he would aim for certain kinds of elegance in them. He never wanted to have an alternate solution. He always wanted to have a single kind of solution. There are certain themes in chess that refer to different kinds of strategic movements that he would bring out through these little arrangements, and he would spend inordinate amounts of time organizing them. Let me read to you how he describes the action of setting one of these things up:
Lolita is, I think, for Nabokov, a kind of chess problem. The chess problem is: how can Nabokov make us identify with a pedophile? How can he produce, from these debased ingredients, what Lionel Trilling called it–and you have this blurb on your back cover– “the greatest love story of our time”? That’s a question for you: is it the greatest love story of our time? Was Lionel Trilling–a great mid-century literary critic–was he seduced by Humbert? What would it mean to be the greatest love story of our time? But certainly Nabokov has in mind the rhetoric of love stories, the shape of love stories, and he’s using those, with all the skill he can muster, to try to make us enter in to the ecstasy that he describes at the heart of this kind of logical problem, the setting up of this logical problem. So, in a way we are the solvers of this problem for him; we are the other half that completes the aesthetic experience; we are there to participate in it with him.
And, on the handout that I have given you [I’m not going to read it now ’cause we’re running out of time; I’d like you to read that at home and I’m going to refer to it later] the world of imagination and of the aesthetic is very much on the surface of this text. And you can see it in lots of ways, too, just in that little bit of the first chapter that I read to you, that sense of fancy: “a fancy prose style.” So, you want to think of “fancy” not just as a sort of effeminate ornamentation, but as that older-fashioned sense of the word: “the fancy”, the imagination. So, imagination is a privileged realm for Nabokov, and it is a realm that always has about it that golden glow. And as you read Lolita, try to notice how much light imagery there is. For Nabokov, sunlight, goldenness–all those midges, the golden midges, the downy golden hair on Lolita’s limbs, her tawny skin–all of that goldenness is very much of a piece with the world of imagination. So, it’s as if imagination makes everything glitter, and its color is that of the most aesthetic of metals, of gold. So, keep these things in mind as you read, and in the next couple of lectures you’ll see more of the development of argument about the book, but I hope this gets you started.
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