Tag Archives: Lolita

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 Bookshop

  • This week a guest blog from my wife Maria about a gem of a film entitled, The Bookshop

The film The Bookshop, upon a second and third viewing, has brought to light some details that I hadn’t noticed before, based on the 1978 novel by Penelope Fitzgerald. Our main character, a widow Mrs. Florence Green, arrives in a nondescript small seaside town in the late-fifties to open a bookshop. In a tug of war with the local banker and solicitor our heroine finds the courage to bunk all the hints to give up on her dream of opening a bookshop in an abandoned home in which she will live and work.

The film gives small clues throughout, like a murder mystery: You might say Hitchcockian, or a family favorite The Wicker Man, (the 1970’s version with Christopher Lee). The locals play a role in aiding the town matriarch (bully) Violet Gamart in order to steer Mrs. Green in a new direction and ultimate failure of the business.

Violet believes the village requires an arts center that will have lectures in the winter and concerts the rest of the year. Violet believes the ideal location should be in the home that will house the bookshop and she uses politics, law, and her wealth in order to control the village whose citizens don’t know any better. She effectively uses the illusory truth effect, a phenomenon in which a listener primarily comes to believe something because it has been repeated so often. Sound familiar? The best example occurs at an exclusive party hosted by Violet in which she and her husband are circulating amongst guests and repetitively suggesting the arts center cause.

Our heroine would like to sell Lolita in her book shop at the height of Lolita’s success and controversy. Mrs. Green seeks the advice of the town recluse and first customer, Edmund Brundish, on whether she should sell the book in her shop. Mrs. Green would like to order 250 copies which seems may either make or break her shop.

Mrs. Green hires a village girl, Christine, who works in her shop as an assistant, who emphasizes the fact that she is not interested in reading. Our heroine maneuvers Christine into reading a book, making a bargain with her that if Christine reads one book in her life, A High Wind in Jamaica, she will receive a black lacquered tray that she admires. Upon my research, the content in the novel A High Wind in Jamaica, which is replete with themes of piracy, murder, and sex, doesn’t seem to be appropriate for a ten year old. Nevertheless, High Wind is on a list of the top one hundred books to read; moreover, it heralds a theme of brave witnessing from unlikely sources.

There are clever references to novels that avid book readers may recognize. Milo North, a prowling ally of Violet Gamart, seems to represent a character from Lolita, and therefore hebephelia, when he encounters Christine while substituting for Mrs. Green as manager of the shop one day. There are hints that Christine has read A High Wind in Jamaica, so she confronts Milo by suggesting that she is aware of the actions the town is taking against Mrs. Green. Milo responds strangely and refers to Christine as a child then as a woman, reflecting the Lolita subtext. Milo even takes on a wolfish persona when he first meets Mrs. Green, in her ” Little Red Riding Hood” dress, in which she stands out at Violet’s party. The granny cottage Milo lives in on the Gamarts property takes on this brothers Grimm quality; Lolita echoing “Little Red Riding Hood”.

There is an overall theme of standing up to authority in response to censorship as well as subtler coercions that often escape notice: this includes repressing the education of a community by denying access to literature–this is also a reference and nod to Ray Bradbury’s novel, Fahrenheit 451.  It’s a message that should never be forgotten. Christine takes things into her own hand by setting the bookstore on fire as a protest against the usurping of the shop by the villainous Violet Gamart. Destitute, Mrs. Green is forced to leave the town. In the end, holding the copy of A High Wind in Jamaica, and out of breadth, Christine manages to get to the dock to say goodbye just as Mrs. Green’s boat is pulling away.

“You’re so kind Mrs. Green. You’re so bloody kind.”

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