The Hardcore Book Group took a break this month from the rigors of The Bard in order to reacquaint ourselves with Ithaca's most famous amateur lepidopterist, Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita was written, in part, at 802 East Seneca Street, a modest hillside house near Cornell's campus which has since been converted to student rentals. It was here, the story goes, that Vera rescued the work-in-progress from the trash incinerator; I myself have walked around in the back yard, looking for the footprint of this long-gone landmark. No dice.
The first time I read this book was in college, where a well-meaning professor tried to teach it as a clever code that needed to be cracked; we dutifully logged instances of chess imagery and anagrams, and I became convinced I didn't like Nabokov at all. I read it again in grad school, after reading Pale Fire, and this time I loved it, as I have loved all of Nabokov since. This week was my third, and most satisfying, read.
I think it's best to understand Nabokov first and foremost as a comic writer, and a writer with a carefully constructed and deeply ironic literary persona. At any given time, he is putting on a show. Nowhere is this more apparent than here, in this great, great novel; he is "Vladimir Nabokov" (the version of himself he presents in the now-ubiquitous afterword), who presents "John Ray, Jr, PhD," who presents Humbert Humbert, who presents Lolita. The Lolita we see is so painfully mediated that we are asked to create her out of scraps of rumor and possibility; in the end we figure the difference between the pregnant 17-year-old at the book's end, whose simplicity is filtered through one incarnation of the monstrous Humbert, and the 12-year-old of its opening pages, who is filtered through another. And somehow, in spite of everything, she comes through as one of the great characters in American literature: a cipher, a negative space whom Nabokov has somehow managed to persuade us to create. Maybe much of the controversy surrounding this book (and people's misunderstanding of the girl's manipulations) has to do with our reluctance to own her, to have thought her up ourselves.
I'm shocked at how shocking I found Lolita this time around: I did not remember Humbert being so horrible in the first half, and I didn't remember him being so sympathetic at the end. There is a scene, right after he leaves the "adult" Lolita and her husband, and sets out to murder Quilty, when he spends the night in a small empty town, and describes, in the book's most unadorned prose, its nocturnal existence. We see the blinking neon lights, the advertising signs, a passing airliner. Humbert misses Europe and leaves weeping, and we are inclined to weep with him.
Nabokov made a big deal about his forced alienation with the Russian language, and his supposed discomfort with English. But that, I think, was part of the dog and pony show. He loved American English. Nobody wrote it better before or since. Nabokov had a way of making baroque elaboration seem like plain speaking--he is the only writer I can think of who managed to increase clarity by adding words. He loved wordplay (including, yes, anagrams), and his best metaphors were utterly unexpected. In the pregnant Lolita's ramshackle house: "She closed her eyes and opened her mouth, leaning back on the cushion, one felted foot on the floor. The wooden floor slanted, a little steel ball would have rolled into the kitchen. I knew all I wanted to know." Not, "the wooden floor was slanted," but rather "The wooden floor slanted." The house itself is given agency; it is slanting as we watch. And this steel ball--it doesn't exist, but if it did, it would have rolled. He creates this crystalline, sad image in Humbert's mind, drops it neatly into an artful comma splice, and we know all we want to know.
Or this, one of my favorite lines in the entire book, which we read as Humbert arrives at Pavor Manor (aka, House of Fear), Quilty's lair: "...the sun was visible again, burning like a man, and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees." Like a man? Who, exactly? Like Humbert himself, like all men bent upon violence. The only other writer I can think of who can throw strikes out of left field like that is Denis Johnson ("and you, you ridiculous people, you expect me to help you"), and rarely with Nabokov's incredible, effusive precision.
The HCBG now seems destined to read all of Nabokov, presumably interspersed with Shakespeare, starting with the Ithaca books (this one, Pnin, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory) and then heading back to the Russian novels and working our way through the rest. I don't think the twentieth century came to grips with the guy, to be honest; he was too good at too many things and, like Conrad, reinvented himself so completely that he resists any straightforward analysis. Maybe we'll do better in an age when the postmodern is passe, and reinvention of the self is considered an American birthright. Tomorrow, a black man with a Muslim middle name will be sworn in as President with an 80% approval rating: I suppose anything's possible.