Monthly Archives: June 2021

Nabokov

He’s been on my mind recently. It’s a bit cheeky, I’m sure, to cite him as an influence, especially as a non-fiction work entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction would seem to have slim relevance to the author of Lolita. Was Humbert Humbert a sex addict? Is that where I’m going with this? Or a sex offender? That’s a more likely assessment, actually; that is, if we’re going there.

A brief, crude biography: Nabokov had a life before writing Lolita, as a writer and revolutionary. He was part of the provisional government that formed after the October uprising of 1917, but quickly became disillusioned with Leninist politics, the later brutality of Stalin. Marginalized and penniless until long after he’d emigrated to America, and later fell out with fellow Soviet-bloc commentators like Edmund Wilson. Before that, he’d produced notable works like The Gift (1938), a novel in part about proto-revolutionist Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and was undoubtedly one of the most talented Russian writers of his generation, which—as many have observed of Soviet politics—will have helped cause his exile, not spared him from it. Though he fled to the US in the 40s, the publication of his shocking novel of an aged literature professor who seduces (or is seduced, depending on your viewpoint) a 12 year old girl was first published in Paris in 1955, and not in the US until 1967. That should say something about the chaste sensibilities of American publishing, juxtaposed as they were by a prurient readership that would make it one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.

But despite its subject matter, Lolita is not primarily known as an erotic or salacious novel, but rather as a masterpiece of unreliable narration by a literary ironist known for clever wordplay, and wry understatement. The English novelist Martin Amis essayed that Nabokov wrote with a perspicacious eye for cruelty, and above all, that Lolita is a coded study of tyranny, likely an allegory about Leninist/Stalinist Russia. To be sure, if the reader is looking instead for lewd passages, the novel will surely disappoint. Instead, what Lolita offers is a first-person account of seduction and obsession, as told from the viewpoint of the tyrant. Less of a brute than an effete fantasist, Humbert Humbert is an amoral observer, narrating with a detached air, reporting truthfully of events in a general sense, but sparing the reader details, suggesting a distasteful reticence and pretense of civility. In the beginning, we learn the pedigree of the narrator’s hebophilic interest: a long-lost innocent love for a girl named Annabelle, who dies of typhoid at the age of thirteen. HH is candid about the link between Annabelle and Delores Haze (the girl he dubs Lolita), but adds little to sustain consciousness of this psychic link.

Instead, what proceeds is a despairing objectification of the pubescent Delores, who is variably termed the nymphet, the faunet, or just Lolita. Anything but who she actually is. Far from idealized, except in physical terms, HH actually exudes a disdain for the coquette’s gum-smacking, sassy adolescence, and at times acts as if embarrassed before the reader that he’d ever deign to partner such a callow figure as her. His reaction formations intensify as he attempts to play the role of father, following the death of Lolita’s mother. In conversation with a school headmistress, he is protectively heavyhanded, refusing to allow Lolita to participate in a school play, fearful of boys who may be less lascivious than him, actually. Still, what is most offensive about this narrative is not the self-pity of HH but rather the distance the reader feels from Lolita. At no time are we allowed to feel the original Delores. Even as the character finally escapes the clutches of her captor, our attentions and strained sympathy is cornered into the solipsistic mind of HH. As far as we know, we are with him as he writes from within the sanitoriums he mentions only in passing. As much as we may long to know the titular figure, he forces us to think with him, and only him.

And yet, as contemptible as his most famous protagonist is, Nabokov writes in a fashion that is enviably insightful and searching. Having endured the savagery and censoring presence of the communist nightmare, he shows all writers—fiction and even non-fiction scribes—how to write between the lines and tease with his secret knowledge; to avoid tendentious prose, high-hand didacticism, and yet cut into the reader’s heart with cryptic thoughts.  There is no explicit direction in this novel: no “shoulds”; no appeals or morals—no “takeaway” as my patients sometimes ask for. As a reader, one is gripped by human inhumanity, eager to delve into the mind of HH and perhaps hopeful that he and his symbolic antecedents will get their just desserts. Meanwhile, our impression of Nabokov is that he also identifies with the othered and demeaned Lolita, for it seems to us that he will have known all too well a life in the dark, subservient to the macabre wishes of despots. One is left to marvel at how he managed to write so many pages, so many witty, insightful thoughts, and yet reveal so little of himself. That’s the talent of hiding. That’s the talent of a sublime fiction.

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The Crown

That fifty dollar bill was nothing. Within days I’d moved onto other lost objects—parts of self, displacements, etc. Actually, it had started first as a somatic displacement, a pain in my tooth. Once, I might have thought this a problem of intruding bicuspids, misshapen, arrowing into neighbors, causing a throbbing impaction. Not so anymore. These days I am more teeth aware; I am a woke dental patient, so I sprang from my bed and seized a thread of floss, ready for a thorough cleaning session. No holds barred. I’d need to be like my vigorous hygienist on this matter: be ruthless, slice that string through the gaps and dig into those puffy gums. Even if I pop them open and leak blood, I’ll be better off in the long run. Within hours, the throbbing will subside. Those misbehaving, pain-delivering gnashers will relax, settle down like quieted adolescents.

The dislodging was sudden, expulsive, and shocking. Strange that I saw the offender leave its platform and jump from my gaping orifice, not even striking other teeth on its way out. I heard it land but didn’t see where it landed. I looked down, first into the bathroom sink, feeling pessimistic. My eyes shot towards the hole, wondering if that tinkling contact was upon a ceramic basin and not the linoleum floor below. I saw nothing, but soon transitioned my sight to the beige, dirty ground. Improbably, the broken crown stood out, its bottom face up, pointing at me like it was asking to be rescued. I swore. Then I said “really?” in that incredulous way that’s topical these days, and then swore again. That was before the tantrum, which was before the real tantrum because I hadn’t really done anything wrong. Yet. So far, I’d just been unlucky.

The next day, I duly called my dentist, a happy-go-lucky, confident guy with a healthy paunch and a garrulous turn of phrase. I caught him off guard with my call, which he’d once invited me to make if I ever really needed him. He’d made that invitation about twenty years ago when I first hired him to manage my disordered mouth and I think I’ve made use of his Bat-phone one other time over the years. Anyway, he wasn’t garrulous or happy-go-lucky when he picked up my call. “Hi”, he said uncertainly, after which I gave him the news, the play-by-play. When should I come in? I asked awkwardly. Jesus, I thought. I sounded like I was asking for a date. Regardless, he switched quickly to work persona: “Well, the thing is we don’t want you to aspirate, have it go into your lung”. Jesus, I thought a second time. That prospect hadn’t actually occurred to me. “So…come in soon, then”, I replied stupidly. Denial was displacing displacement.

Still, I relaxed over the remainder of the day, having secured an appointment for the next day through his receptionist. I was confident that my dentist—my guy—would take care of me. He was like a good neighbor, and I was in good hands. Therefore, I relaxed too much. That’s what happens sometimes when you’re feeling good; when it seems that everything’s under control and a return to normalcy seems imminent. Yes, that’s right. You f-up. But let me not other myself. Here, of course, I would be the f-up. No question it was down to me. Talking was partly to blame. I was in the middle of reminiscing with my wife about a moment in time, roughly twenty years ago, when I learned that Stanley Kubrick had died because that’s what I thought when I jogged by a newsstand and saw his image all across the front page of a New York Times. There could only be one reason why, I thought, reflecting upon this memory, my associative mind and…

Oh no

My tongue had just made a sideways maneuver, sliding across the molars on my lower east side, there to perform a sweep of cheese residue. The potato blocks had tasted particularly good this evening—crisp, just the right level of salty; smooth yet not mushy in texture. Smoot but not mushy. That will have been the problem, I soon thought as I dropped to the floor, hoping I’d be lucky a second time. Despite evidence to the contrary, I ran my eyes and hands across carpet, hoping I’d catch a glimpse of that familiar off-white crown, again turned on its head, its bottom facing me a second time. But with each passing moment, a sense of justice and punishment was taking over, hovering over my prostate, pitiful search with a pitiless air. I had a meltdown during which a glass jar was sacrificed to the alter of a wall. Then I unleashed an animal’s bray that—had I thought to persist—might have surged the swallowed porcelain from its concurrent path downward.

Surely I had swallowed it, I’d decided. My lungs? If it had sunk in there I’d be coughing, or feeling a hard pain in my chest. After all, the thing wasn’t small. Actually, it was small but it was…no, I didn’t wanna think about it anymore. After a spell of, let’s say, getting things off my chest, I sat out the rest of the evening, languished on a couch, half-exhausted by my on-my-knees recovery effort; otherwise I was humiliated, thinking I’d blown my chance to undo bad luck. My carelessness, hubris—my premature belief that everything was settled and returned to normal—had served me right, as in wrong. In the morning, I’d have to call my guy, my dentist, and tell him that I couldn’t come in anymore for a simple glue-job. I’d have to tell him that I’d lost a tooth, found it and stuck it back in, and then lost it again, having probably eaten it.

There was one possibility left, though I didn’t want to think about it. But I did it. I even talked about it, to him—my guy, that happy-go-lucky persona, who looked at me with a straight face, a sound, tooth-filled mouth, plus a well-acted, sympathetic air. I have to say he was great about it all. Cheerful, philosophical, looking like an affable shrug was the answer to all problems, he did my job, gave me sound counsel: don’t beat up on yourself. The next day, he’d beat up a replacement piece of porcelain, having unearthed the “digital” record of the four-year old stone he’d stuck in me once before, and which he that day determined to be the missing tooth. “I ate it”, I said haplessly. It sounded worse than “I swallowed it”, but more dignified somehow, like I was owning it, the whole thing. It’s like everything I do, I pretended—it was meant to be.

You might wonder how we talked about the excavation, the discovery, the…whatever else I might call that part of the yarn. I know: how about, “looking through pieces of s—t to see if my tooth is buried in it”. Not your typical blog entry title. We didn’t use those words exactly. We were manly about it, but also gentlemanly. Anyway, time, as in too much time, passed (yes, passed) before “it” was…discovered. Then, finally, something even more shameful, yet otherwise wonderful happened. I’ll try to be polite. I passed…something. Then I walked away, half-aware that my guy had likely done his deed already. Meaning, this passing—it would be too late. This was a day and a half later, after two bathroom trips with nothing yet found. My dentist will have already broken out his medieval burner or whatever and scorched a replacement crown chomper by now. But I didn’t get rid of my waste. I know: gross. But love saved the day. An hour after my…you know, I found my wife back in bed, comfortably ensconced in warm sheets, looking satisfied, as if she’d completed a great task. “I found it”, she declared, beaming. Denial returned to my mind. I was poised to ask, “how?”, but managed to restrain that climactic stupidity. Instead, I walked into the bathroom and found my recovered crown on the side of the sink. It was facing up at me again, this time with attitude, for it had just gone through much more than it had ever bargained for.

Talk about displacement.

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