ENGL 291: The American Novel Since 1945

Lecture 6

 - Guest Lecture by Andrew Goldstone


In this guest lecture, Teaching Fellow Andrew Goldstone provides us with some key concepts for understanding Modernism and Nabokov’s relation in particular to his literary forebears T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust. Positing the “knight’s move” as a description of Nabokov’s characteristically indirect, evasive style, Goldstone argues that Nabokov’s parodies of Modernist form in fact reveal his deep commitment to some of the same aesthetic principles. While the knight’s move often indicates a playful attitude towards tradition, it also betrays a traumatic rupture with the past, reflecting a sense of exile that links Nabokov’s art with the violence of Lolita’s protagonist, Humbert.

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The American Novel Since 1945

ENGL 291 - Lecture 6 - Guest Lecture by Andrew Goldstone

Chapter 1. Defining Literary Modernism [00:00:00]

Professor Amy Hungerford: Today it is my very great privilege and pleasure to introduce Andrew Goldstone, a TF in this course. Andrew is going to provide for you today the only relief you will get all term from my voice, so enjoy it! On the syllabus it says that I would be presenting a lecture on censorship in this slot.

Andrew Goldstone: That’s been suppressed, actually.

Professor Amy Hungerford: It’s been suppressed. That’s right.

So, I will talk about censorship somewhat in my last lecture on Lolita, and in preparation for that, for next week I’d like you to finish the novel and then read his essay, “On a Novel Entitled Lolita.” It should be bound at the back of your book. Andrew is a fourth-year student in the Ph.D. program in English, and he is writing a dissertation on the autonomy of the work of art in modernism: on that as a problem, on that as a subject to be questioned and understood in a deeper way than it has been up until now. It’s a wonderful dissertation. It prepares him very well for the lecture he’s going to give you today. So: Andrew.

Andrew Goldstone: Thanks, Amy. So, on Monday we had three main themes that were used to introduce this novel to you. First is the idea that the novel invites ethical questions but also holds them off through parody in the same way that it uses the tropes of romanticism and romantic love and parodies them. Secondly, we looked at Humbert’s techniques of rhetorical seduction and related that to a kind of intellectual problem that Nabokov sets himself of trying to make you identify with this villainous character. And that leads to the third big question we looked at, which is the place of Nabokov in this novel amidst the many layers, whether he crosses them or confuses them. And that’s the question that I’m mostly going to focus on today. I’m going to bracket the ethical question, leave that for Monday’s lecture, and the way I want to approach this question of the style in the novel and the question of aestheticism is by placing Nabokov in the context of literary modernism. So, I’m going to outline for you a little bit what I mean by that term, and then I’m going to look at some specific predecessors that Nabokov refers to, and the way he uses them. And then, at the very end, I’m going to try to connect that to Nabokov’s exile and the themes of exile.

So, let’s start with an example. If you look on page 15, Humbert describes his adolescence, his education:

At first I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion–I am so oppressed, doctor–set in, and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds. [Well, that’s why I’m in graduate school!] Paris suited me. I discussed Soviet movies with expatriates. I sat with uranists in the Deux Magots. I published tortuous essays in obscure journals. I composed pastiches: [Humbert’s poem]: “Fraulein von Kulp may turn her hand upon the door. / I will not follow her. / Nor Fresca. / Nor / that Gull.”

So, this is a spoof of a poem by T.S. Eliot which I’ve given you a piece of on your handout, so let’s look at that for a second, Eliot’s 1920 poem, Gerontion. I’m just going to read a little bit of this so that you have the flavor of the thing that Nabokov is burlesquing:

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
I was neither at the hot gates
Nor fought in the warm rain
Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,
Bitten by flies, fought.
My house is a decayed house.

And the poem goes on, and this is the tone of a poem. It’s a poem of crisis, a poem of a kind of hollow speaker, someone who emerges as, more or less, buried alive. And this is supposed to reflect both personal crisis and a historical crisis. And it comes to a moment where the possibility of rejuvenation is described as devoured by a series of caricatures of Europeans, and that’s this second part on your handout, the people that devour rejuvenation. So:

By Hakagawa, bowing among the Titians;
By Madame de Tornquist, in the dark room
Shifting the candles; Fräulein von Kulp–[There she is–]
Who turned in the hall, one hand on the door. Vacant shuttles
Weave the wind. I have no ghosts,

An old man in a draughty house
Under a windy knob.

What in Eliot is crisis, in Nabokov is just a joke. In other words, these terrifying figures in Eliot–Fraulein von Kulp–are just some of Humbert’s nymphets. A fraulein is just a young woman; Fresca, another Eliot character: the fresh woman, right, a young woman again. So, I called this a burlesque of Eliot’s modernism. It takes something meant to be really serious, and turns it in to a dirty joke. And that’s the first way Nabokov will relate to literary modernism.

That’s quite interesting, that he takes this approach, because Eliot in some ways comes very close to the kind of ideas about art that Nabokov himself holds. Eliot says poems should be autotelic. That means they should be an end unto themselves. Nabokov will say in that afterword you’re going to read, “the novel has as its only purpose to afford aesthetic bliss.” So, the parody is of something very close to home. And this poem that I’ve given you will come back on page 134. You don’t have to turn to that now, but you should think about that return. It’s much more serious and strange. Okay. So that’s enough on Eliot.

Now I want to really clarify for you what I mean by this term “modernism.” It just means the art and literature of the early twentieth century, especially the “high art,” although its roots are definitely in the nineteenth century, especially the French nineteenth century, fiction and poetry. In English it begins with the late novels of Henry James around 1900, in poetry with Eliot and with Ezra Pound. In prose its main exemplars in English would be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf. And you should know about this movement that it had very rapid success. So, although its first centers are London and Paris, it’s already taught as classic literature in American universities before the war; it’s already classic.

So, now, here’s just a list for you: eight features of literary modernism that are all important to Nabokov. Eight features of literary modernism: An obsession with the idea of art’s autonomy, the idea that art is its own law, that it responds to no other laws, that it has no other purpose than its own purposes. In other words, art for art’s sake. That’s Eliot’s autotelic poem. The only purpose of the work of art is to afford aesthetic bliss. Second, a sense of crisis, a radical break in culture, an overturning of conventional artistic forms that goes with a sense that civilization itself is being overturned. Third, the idea that the paradigm of experience is artistic experience, that the norms for everyone should be artistic norms of careful perception, deep reflection, that the idea that culture itself is the saving, most important activity that people can engage in. Fourth–and this goes along with that–a rejection of convention, especially sexual convention, sexual morality, and that’s the obvious connection to this book, the very deep roots of modernism. However, at the same time there’s an idea that the artist is a kind of technician, someone whose values are craft, form and style rather than message, personal expression or wisdom of any kind. Sixth, this is a term from the critic Joseph Frank: spatial form, the idea that in place of a linear narrative you have a system of cross-references and repeated motifs that give the structure of works. In place that is only visible, in other words on rereading, only visible on rereading.

And then, this anticipates my last points: Modernism is self-consciously international. In other words, it will look to international tradition and has as its ambition to be a culture not just for one nation but for many, maybe for all. It goes along with this eighth characteristic that’s important: the artist is seen as a kind of spiritual exile, someone who is alienated from a home society and a home culture, whether or not he or she has actually left it, as Nabokov did. So this is what I mean by International High Modernism. You should add to this list of writers especially Faulkner and Hemingway, and you should remember that there’s a parallel American tradition, the realist tradition that we saw Richard Wright referring to: that is Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, and then going back to the nineteenth century, writers like Mark Twain. I had a teacher who used to compare Lolita to Huck Finn. They are two novels about traveling across America and an unconventional couple. Right?

Chapter 2. The Knight’s Move: Nabokov on Tradition and Originality [00:10:01]

So, anyway. Okay. But now, that modernist tradition is something that Nabokov owes a lot to, but he always tries to distinguish himself from it. For Nabokov, the highest value is originality. He says this in his last Russian novel, The Gift. Or, he doesn’t say it; his autobiographical hero says it: “Any genuinely new trend in art is a knight’s move, a change of shadows, a shift that displaces the mirror.” Okay. Any genuinely new trend is a knight’s move. I just remind you, in chess the knight doesn’t move in a straight line. It starts out in a straight line and then it hops off on a diagonal. Unlike any other piece, it skips over pieces in the way. So the knight, far from going on a straight course, surprises you. You might think of walking in here expecting Professor Hungerford on censorship and getting me instead. But this is a very important idea for Nabokov both as a way of treating predecessors and as a way of writing. And I want to show you that way of writing very early in the book on page 10 now. Let’s take a look at that. This is at the top of the page:

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy had set:

Okay. So this is a knight’s move: from traumatic event of the mother’s death–should be the center of the sentence; it’s just dismissed–hopped beyond into this stylistic wash, a golden haze. And he goes on to describe the sensations of early childhood. So, the strategy of the knight’s move is to frustrate your expectations, to leap over the apparently important events into something else characterized by a kind of aesthetic play, and these parentheses are a real icon of that. A critic has counted 450 sets of them in this novel, the parentheses, an important example of the knight’s move.

And I want to show you another kind of knight’s move, and to do that I’m going to talk just for a moment about Nabokov’s relationship to the French writer, Proust. Proust is the great aestheticist of modernism, the novelist who writes about art, who holds up art as a value, as well as giving a theory of memory–memories are important in Lolita; that really comes from Proust–a theory of memory that has a lot to do with the work of the artist. Nabokov, in 1966 he said this: “The greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose”–this is convenient; take this down–“are, in this order: Joyce’s Ulysses, Kafka’s Transformation“–that is, The Metamorphosis–“Bely’s St. Petersburg,” a pretty obscure Russian avant-garde novel, “and the first half of Proust’s fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time.” I’m not sure the fairy tale should remind you of that first meeting between Humbert and Lolita that we looked at on Monday, described in fairy tale terms. But actually, the thing I want to think about is a crude pun there, a “fairy” tale. Proust is himself gay. One of his big subjects is homosexuality, and Nabokov’s reaction to this is really homophobic. This is not just about Nabokov’s personal prejudice. It’s about a relationship to predecessors who are seen as too similar.

The danger for Nabokov–remember that his value is originality–the danger is that he will fall too in love with something too like himself. He has to hold off this possibility of being too attracted to these male predecessors who are too similar to him. This should cue you to think about the theme of doubling in this novel, to think about the possibility of desire between men here, to think about the word “queer,” the treatment of Gaston Godin, that funny French character in Beardsley, to think about Humbert’s constant protestations that he’s attractive to all women, about his supposed virility. And it should just make you wonder whether pedophilia is in itself a kind of knight’s move from homosexuality. In other words, is there another form of perverted desire hiding behind the one that’s in front of us? Just a suggestion: look on page 20, still in Humbert’s early life, near the bottom:

It happened for instance that from my balcony I would notice a lighted window across the street and what looked like a nymphet in the act of undressing before a co-operative mirror. Thus isolated, thus removed, the vision acquired an especially keen charm that made me race with all speed toward my lone gratification.

So, we have a kind of image there of the autonomous aesthetic pleasure, right, the pleasure of imagination that’s taken alone, according to one’s own thoughts rather than in some broader, more social form.

But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night.

So, the object of this wonderful aesthetic reverie, the nymphet, turns out to be an adult male. And I just want you to ask yourself why that could be.

Chapter 3. The Influence of Joyce [00:15:56]

But, Nabokov’s relationship to this modernist past is not just the burlesque that he visits on Eliot, is not just this complicated attraction and dis-identification that he works on with Proust. An element of admiration is also present, and that’s really part of his relationship to Joyce. Remember that he names Joyce as the greatest master of twentieth-century prose. I’m just going to name for you four features of Joyce’s style that are important to Nabokov: stylistic virtuosity, the ability to imitate any style; at the same time, a scrupulous attention to the banality of everyday life and all its detail; yet, the third characteristic, the constant use of a superimposed structure. So, in Ulysses, famously, Joyce puts the narrative of the Odyssey on top of a day in Dublin, or in Joyce’s earlier novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a linear narrative in which a young boy grows up is structured as a series of structurally paralleled chapters in which moments in each one correspond to the ones in successive chapters. And this comes with a kind of suggestion that that banal reality is redeemed by the artist’s activity. Fourthly, Joyce loves puns. So does Nabokov. This is incredibly important, and there’s a direct glance at that just ahead of where you read, so don’t turn here. I don’t want to spoil what’s coming up, but on page 221 there is a reference to–don’t look, don’t look–to a writer named Vivian Darkbloom plagiarizing from Joyce; Vivian Darkbloom you remember from Monday. That’s the anagram of Vladimir Nabokov, so it’s an explicit recognition. And the thing that’s being plagiarized, I’ve actually given you on the handout. It’s a little piece of Finnegans Wake, which is Joyce’s work in which almost every word is a pun. I’ll just read you a sentence of this so you know what it’s like: “Say them all but tell them apart, cadenzando coloratura! R is Rubretta and A is Arancia, Y is for Yilla and N for greeneriN. B is Boyblue with odalisque O while W waters the fleurettes of no-vembrance.” And that spells out “rainbow.” Right.

The important thing here is that Nabokov acknowledges this debt to Joyce as not just a parody, but a real debt. And so now I want to think at more length about another Joyce allusion which shows how complicated the relationship to his predecessor is. And, with Eliot, I read the Nabokovian version first. This time I’ll give you the Joyce first. So this is on your handout as well from Chapter 2. This describes the hero, Stephen Dedalus, as a young boy trying to write a poem. And eventually in the novel he will succeed in writing a poem, but here he doesn’t manage to. And so, this is a kind of forecast of what will happen later on. The further complication is that here he’s writing a poem and then he remembers an earlier attempt; that layering of memory, and that kind of layering, is actually a prototype for the layering in Lolita:

The next day he sat at his table in the bare upper room for many hours. Before him lay a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise. [Skip a little.] On the first line of the page appeared the title of the verses he was trying to write: “To E– C–.” He knew it was right to begin so for he had seen similar titles in the collected poems of Lord Byron. When he had written this title and drawn an ornamental line underneath, he fell into a daydream and began to draw diagrams on the cover of the book. He saw himself sitting at his table in Bray the morning after the discussion at the Christmas dinner table, trying to write a poem about Parnell on the back of one of his father’s second moiety notices. But his brain had then refused to grapple with the theme and, desisting, he had covered the page with the names and addresses of certain of his classmates: Roderick Kickham, John Lawton, Anthony MacSweeney, Simon Moonan.

The version of this that comes up in the novel is in the midst of Humbert’s diary, and the diary itself, I should say, owes a lot to Joyce. And I’ve given you a piece of that diary to look at on your own on the handout. But this is the moment that directly alludes to Portrait, and it’s really very important for understanding Nabokov’s technique. So, page 51, near the bottom:

Thursday: We are paying with hail and gale for the tropical beginning of the month. In a volume of the Young People’s Encyclopedia I found a map of the States that a child’s pencil had started copying out on a sheet of lightweight paper, upon the other side of which, counter to the unfinished outline of Florida and the Gulf, there was a mimeographed list of names referring, evidently, to her class at the Ramsdale School.

And I think of that front and back of the page as another kind of knight’s move. You think you’re looking at one thing, and you land on another.

It is a poem I know already by heart:
Angel, Grace
Austin, Floyd
Beal, Jack
Beal, Mary
Buck, Daniel… [and so on; I’ll come back to this list, actually; just skip to the bottom on page 52] Talbot, Edgar
Talbot, Edwin
Wayne, Lull,–[a lull in the book, right?]
Williams, Ralph
Windmuller, Louise
A poem, a poem forsooth! So strange and sweet was it to discover this Haze Dolores: she, in its special bower of names with its bodyguard of roses, a fairy princess between her two maids of honor.

That’s the fairy tale again. In a way this is just like the Joyce. A list of names leads up to this aesthetic sensation, the revelation of a poem. The ordinary materials of life become the basis for a kind of artistic achievement. However, obviously this is not like the Joyce, where there is a realistic depiction of a young boy trying to write, getting bored and failing. Here something else is happening, because the list of names is not ordinary. Right. There is that bower of roses. That refers to Mary Rose Hamilton; Haze, Dolores; Hanek, Rosaline. And then there’s Emile Rosado and Carmine Rose–a red rose–Angel, Grace– really!–Stella Fantasia. And then even the ordinary names are kind of plants, because almost every name on this list comes back elsewhere in the book. You could look, for example, for Louise Windmuller or Vivian McCrystal. And then, right in the middle (oh, and then we have Shakespeare too: Miranda Anthony, Miranda Viola) and right in the middle you have a kind of explanation planted: McCoo, Virginia; McCrystal, Vivian; McFate Aubrey.

McFate, which as you know is something Humbert gets kind of obsessed with, is the icon of the difference between the realistic world of Joyce and the already artificial, already aestheticized world of this novel. No one was ever really named McFate. McFate is a kind of parody of real randomness. You might think of it as having the same relation to real fate as Chicken McNuggets do to chicken. In other words, you might think of it as a kind of artificial, processed, bland, easily consumable version of fate. I really mean that. One of the funny things about that debt to Finnegans Wake is, Finnegans Wake as a book of puns is unreadable. Nobody reads it except specialists like me. Lolita was a bestseller. Nabokov made so much money from it he was able to retire to Switzerland. And you should ask yourself what about this novel makes that possible; why is that, that you have this McNugget version of the modernist novel? And I don’t really mean that to disparage the novel, but it makes it clear that there’s some kind of difference between this and the works that Nabokov is looking back to. I want to think a little bit more about this idea of a McFate.

There is a kind of short circuit between the Joycean idea of taking ordinary life and transforming it into an aesthetic order, because the ordinary is already aesthetic in the book. In other words, chance is already fated. The thing that stands for randomness in this book, the thing that looks like ordinary detail, has already been arranged to give you artistic pleasure. That’s why Humbert can be instantly delighted in the list of names. This doesn’t look forward to Humbert’s poem; it already is a poem and it is a poem to the crazed, aroused mind of Humbert. So, the artificial has taken the place of the real here, and this novel really reminds you of that all the time. On 84, Humbert’s thinking of killing Charlotte, and he says, “No man can bring about the perfect murder. Chance, however, can do it.” Chance can do it, and of course the perfect murder does happen. Charlotte Haze dies as if by a total accident, but we’re aware that the accident is so perfect that it was arranged. So, this is the, kind of, hand of Nabokov, taking a narrative of real events and twisting it into something that makes a kind of sense, taking fate and making it McFate.

And I want to show you one more example of that, in the scene where Humbert and Lolita have reached the hotel, the Enchanted Hunter. This is on page 118 near the bottom. “In the slow, clear hand of crime, I wrote ‘Dr. Edgar H. Humbert and daughter, 342 Lawn Street, Ramsdale.’ A key, 342, was half shown to me, magician showing object he is about to palm and hand it over to Uncle Tom.” The coincidence–normally, in real life, it would be a delightful coincidence to go to a hotel room that has the same number as your street address–here it’s a kind of too-easy icon of the correspondence between the place where Humbert meets Lolita and the place where he rapes her. And the book just tells you that, right, in one of those parentheses–“the magician showing the object he is about to palm”– the ordinary event which is really trickery, a suggestion that nothing has been left to chance in the novel; nothing is ordinary.

Chapter 4. Reading Nabokov as an Exile [00:27:35]

Now, as I come to my last section here, what I want to suggest is that this kind of transformation of arbitrary, real fated events into conspicuously artificial tricks (which you might think of a knight’s move on the real: fate; McFate) is a response in particular to exile, in particular to Nabokov’s condition of exile. An exile, living in a foreign country, lives in a kind of denaturalized world, a world where, instead of everything making instant sense everything has to be decoded. Right. Nothing is initially known to make sense; everything has to be figured out and reinvented. In that afterword to this book, Nabokov says he had to invent America. That’s because he didn’t know it already; it wasn’t given to him. Now, in a way this is a terrible state, a state of discontinuity with the world you exist in. But it has a payoff, kind of, a payoff which is the possibility precisely of inventing, and this is visible everywhere in this book. One example is the transformation of housework. This is on page 179. “My west-door neighbor”–west door–“who might have been a businessman or a college teacher, or both, would speak to me once in a while as he barbered some late garden blooms or watered his car, or, at a later date, defrosted his driveway (I don’t mind if these verbs are all wrong).” Of course, the point is that they’re all wrong.

The point is that this clichéd suburban life of mowing the lawn, washing the car and so on has been transformed–precisely because Humbert is a foreigner–into something you can laugh at, something you can enjoy, something that you can apply the knight’s move to. And this is, even a couple pages before, explicitly described as something particular to foreigners. Because, you remember, Gaston Godin says about the school that Lolita’s going to go to, the girls are taught “not to spell very well, but to smell very well.” And Humbert comments that it’s “with a foreigner’s love for such things”; the foreigner’s love for this kind of move is a response to this denaturalized world of the exile.

It’s important, in this connection, to remember that the knight’s move as a way of avoiding obstacles, in particular, keeps skipping over forms of violence. There is that mother’s death at the beginning. There is another moment in which Humbert is tracing his hand along Lolita’s leg and he discovers a bruise there that he’d given her accidentally. That’s early on in the book. In other words, this surprise is a violent surprise. You can even look at the mention of a knight’s move in this book. That’s page 192:

One of the latticed squares in a small cobwebby casement window at the turn of the staircase was glazed with ruby, and that raw wound among the unstained rectangles and its asymmetrical position–a knight’s move from the top–always extremely disturbed me.

The knight’s move–which is just a playful way of describing where the window is, right– the knight’s move is nonetheless a kind of wound or damage. So, even as it’s the prototype for originality, it’s also something very disturbing and harmful. And that conjunction, I want to suggest, that conjunction has to do with the traumatic event of having had to emigrate, having had to take up another language. Nabokov will say that his private tragedy is that, let’s see:

[His] private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, the frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

Here, being in exile prevents Nabokov from making that knight’s move. And you might think about that homophobic attitude to a Proustian past, the fear that it’s too like what he wants to do. But the main point here to think about is that feeling of damage. On the other hand, the critic Michael Wood has pointed out that Nabokov didn’t lose Russian. He didn’t lose it on the way while he was riding the boat; he decided to stop writing in it. And Wood says this: “Nabokov could appreciate language itself only after he had made himself lose a language and had found another in the ashes of his loss.” A kind of economy, a balance between the loss of one language and a particular set of techniques that comes in its place.

These techniques are really I think the source of the most appealing writing in this book, and so let’s look now at one of those evocations of the American landscape which I just think maybe are the closest the book comes just to pure beauty. On page 152–oh, and by the way, this book was written on road trips. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, drove him on thousands of miles of trips around the country while he was writing this novel and hunting butterflies, so think about that–but here is 152, evocation of the landscape:

By a paradox of pictorial thought, the average lowland North American countryside had at first seemed to me something I accepted with a shock of amused recognition, because of those painted oil cloths which were imported from America in the old days to be hung above washstands in central European nurseries, and which fascinated a drowsy child at bedtime with the rustic green views they depicted: opaque, curly trees, a barn, cattle, a brook, the dull white of vague orchards in bloom, and perhaps a stone fence, or hills of greenish gouache.

So, so far the American landscape is already a work of art, already part of a European memory. Then something else happens: “But gradually the models of those elementary rusticities became stranger and stranger to the eye, the nearer I came to know them. Beyond the tilled plain”–in other words, the already worked-over, domesticated plain–“beyond the toy roofs, 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-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist.”

“Inutile loveliness” is kind of the key word of Nabokov’s technique, and he says the novel has as its only purpose to provide aesthetic bliss. So, here is inutile loveliness coming just from seeing the landscape as a stranger. Humbert goes on:

There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot, still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background.  Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quicksilverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.

So, a European artist actually appears again there, with Claude Lorrain, but kind of made strange: given that knight’s move, given a new twist. So–instead of familiar, incorporated into this profoundly strange, vast landscape that gets Humbert’s most appealing rhetoric–the rhetoric of an exile. But, I don’t want you to think that this just means everything’s okay. Of course, everything is not okay. Even Humbert will tell us so. Just a few pages later, on page 175, he talks about his journey:

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour-books, old tires, and her sobs in the night–every night, every night–the moment I feigned sleep.

We have to pair that with that other evocation of the landscape to see this alternate idea, that actually this distanced criss-crossing of the landscape could be damaging. Think of those other violent knight’s moves, like skipping past the mother’s death. Somehow this is skipped past, that–the sobs in the night. There’s another version, yet another version, that relates back to that funny figure of Gaston Godin. And I spoke about Proust; Gaston Godin has a picture of Proust on his wall, and in fact, he has pictures of all great figures of French modernism–André Gide, the dancer Nijinsky–all figures of this kind of aestheticism, this belief in the power of art, and all gay, as Godin himself is. And Humbert has a kind of hatred for that, which he voices on page 173. Sorry, 183:

There he was, devoid of any talent whatsoever, a mediocre teacher, a worthless scholar, a glum, repulsive, fat, old invert, highly contemptuous of the American way of life, triumphantly ignorant of the English language. There he was, in priggish New England–[here are we!] crooned over by the old and caressed by the young, oh, having a grand time and fooling everybody, and here was I.

And the contrast here is between someone who has remained tied to that European past, remained comfortably alienated–and by that very means been able to fit into society–with someone who is in a much more ambivalent position, someone who’s trying to become an American writer, as Nabokov says he’s doing: trying to invent America, trying to bridge the gap between Russian and English, but always finding that English is only a kind of second best. And in fact it’s more than that: he translated Lolita back in to Russian later on, and he added a second afterword where he said this:

That wondrous Russian tongue that, it seemed to me, was waiting for me somewhere, was flowering like a faithful springtime behind a tightly locked gate whose key I had held in safekeeping for so many years, proved to be nonexistent. And there is nothing behind the gate but charred stumps and a hopeless autumnal distance, and the key in my hand is more like a skeleton key.

So, there’s a kind of lost paradise of European culture which he can’t get back, even with this spectacular effort in English. So, that suggests that it’s not all to the good; it hasn’t been saved by taking up these knight’s move techniques, the defamiliarizing techniques; there’s still a record of damage.

And so, I’m going to end a little early, just throwing out an analogy for you. And it’s an analogy that Nabokov himself tries to debunk completely in that afterword. So, you should be skeptical of it, but then you should also ask yourself whether you can really do completely without it. Might it be that Nabokov’s own relationship to American culture, his relationship to the English language that he transforms, is like Humbert’s relationship to Lolita; that is, might it be that it’s a kind of kidnapping of an American innocent by a cosmopolitan European for his own ends, ends which are seen as a kind of perversion? That’s that element of violence that keeps coming back, the trail of slime across this dream of transforming reality, in this Joycean way, into something saved, the dream of turning fate, the fate of a dead mother–or, in Nabokov’s own case, a father killed by assassination, a brother killed in a concentration camp–turning that into this beautifully worked out, playful system, defined by puns, and images, and a spell of rhetoric. In other words, could it be that all of this modernist technique that Humbert succeeds in putting to his own ends–that Nabokov succeeds in putting to his own ends–is not an unambiguous good, but a record of a kind of damage?

Now, on Monday you’re going to hear about this novel’s confrontation with the idea that art could be saving, that it could somehow be redemptive, but here I think is a hint that it’s something that the novel simply laughs at hollowly. And you might think of one last example. all these things I’ve been saying about the delight in words is put in the mouth of that horrible woman, the headmistress of the Beardsley School, Miss Pratt, on page 197. Miss Pratt says to Humbert, “I’m always fascinated by the admirable way foreigners, or at least naturalized Americans, use our rich language.” In other words, that the aesthetic discovery of English is something that just kind of fits comfortably into this prejudice of the dull suburban American. So, I’ll just end there with this thought, this doubt, about Nabokov’s own use of modernist technique in this novel, about the emphasis on the aesthetic here: whether it could be–not just that triumph of the imagination that Humbert sees in the list of the names–but a mark of a wound that can’t be healed.

[end of transcript]

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