Monday, January 19, 2009


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.


AC said...

I need to find a Hardcore Book Group of my own. Tried to read Bend Sinister last winter and I just wasn't feeling it. Maybe Lolita is a better place to start with Nabokov?

rmellis said...

Lolita is a much better place to start. Or Pale Fire, or King, Queen Knave. I'm not a big fan of some of the more obscure Nabokov. I actively hated Invitation to a Beheading -- it was so lit-critty, like Robbe-Grillet -- though I admired the intelligence behind it.

His non-fiction is all terrific.

Anonymous said...

"Strong Opinions" is a lot of fun, too, and so are the short stories, especially "The Visit To The Museum."

Anonymous said...

"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."
Some thoughts:
Sure glad I never took a class that told me how to read a book; I just read them.
Do well-meaning professors who teach creating writing do similar damage?
Why did it take you until college to read Lolita? I mean, you're a reader, right?
Why are reviews so long? Seems like the reviewer is trying to impress how brilliant he is.
Rmellis - what book is more obscure ("lit-critty") that Pale Fire? And what non-fiction have you read by Nabokov? (You say it's "all terrific.")
Gotta get ready for the inaguration, guys.

Alicia said...

Reading the "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" was really cool. You could see Nabokov meant to writing it on a sort lark and to play around with literary structures, but he gets into it at the end. Nabokov is famous for saying that he's god over his characters, and he tries to prove it in "The Real Life..." but he shows in the end how it's not so true; you're characters are you.

Alicia said...

I didn't read Lolita until college too, probably because I went through an urban public school system. Not to trash my school, my teachers introduced me some great other books but my school was just trying to get kids to read. JR nice to see Pnin on your list. I love the opening scene of Pnin on the train, a hilarious beginning.

the other guy said...

I haven't read "The Visit to the Museum," but I do love "The Vane Sisters."

Anonymous said...

Alicia says:
"I didn't read Lolita until college too, probably because I went through an urban public school system."
But, Alicia - do you have to wait for a teacher to assign a book?
In the house where I grew up there were no books. My father left school at 13, my mother at 16. Why? To work - they had to bring in money.
I grew up in a small town, attended a public school. In junior high a teacher assigned us really good things to read - "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty," "To Build a Fire," Our Town, The Red Pony, etc. Maybe she opened nobody else's eyes, but she opened mine. Every week or so I went to the public library and browsed the shelves. Since I didn't know one author from another, I picked books at random. I looked at the dust jacket, then I read the beginning. If I was interested I checked it out. It was free, I was allowed seven books. It was a hit-or-miss affair, but I got a fair number of hits. I have nostalgia for that time of pure exploration, and I still have an affection for the undiscovered treasure, even if it may be a small one.
Then there were drug stores, and all had a revolving rack with a great variety of titles - and by different authors. They had garish covers, info on the book, blurbs. That's where I found Catcher in the Rye, The Caine Mutiny, The Big Sky, Other Voices, Other Rooms, The Bad Seed, Studs Lonigan - so many.
That's the story of my life.

rmellis said...

Actually I find Pale Fire very charactery, very plotty and funny. The difference could be that I read Pale Fire on my own and I read Invitation to a Beheading in a class full of literature graduate students, and not anything in the books at all.

As for non-fiction, I'm thinking of Speak, Memory and Strong Opinions. I didn't mean to claim that I had read all of it; rather that, based on what I have read, I assume it must all be terrific. Sheesh, the nit-picking round here! ;)

Oh, hey, you can't de-legitimize JR as a writer because he didn't read Lolita until college. That book is wasted on the young. I read Lolita in high school, though I didn't fully get it until I read it as an adult. Incidentally, I read it because my mother -- who left school at 15 -- is a huge Nabokov fan, and we had most of his books (yes, the paperbacks with the lurid covers) in my house.

Your life story seems very heartwarming, Anon. You should write it!

Anonymous said...

Wow, imagine just walking into a library as a child and...choosing random books to read. What courage! Anon, you are a true intellectual hero. As for me, it was all video games, pornography, and petty crime, until Ivy League intellectuals set me straight and introduced me to novels.

What can I say? I owe it all to the elitist establishment.

Anonymous said...

Slim pickings, I'd say.
18 novels. A thick volume of his collected stories.
Non-fiction: 1 autobiographical novel (it uses a novelistic approach); some collected letters, some criticism - and, oh yeah, Notes on Prosody. Did you read that one, rmellis? - Notes on Prosody?
I'm trying to get to your comment "His non-fiction is all terrific."
You could say that about Evan Connell - he's written a lot of non-fiction - but Nabokov was almost exclusively a fiction writer, so to bring up "all" his non-fiction is . . . revealing.
So is jr's "sarcasm."
By the way, I shoplifted those books in the drug store.

Anonymous said...

Max, look out the window! Some kids have thrown their ball into your yard, and they're coming to get it! I think you need to go give them a piece of your mind.

rmellis said...

No, I haven't read Notes on Prosody, thanks for the rec! I'm SURE it's terrific!

I bet in person, Anon, you're really good at finding a person's weak spot and plunging the dagger in, but you're missing your targets here.

Evie said...

I presume you have no reading gaps of your own, anon?

Zachary Cole said...

I refuse to believe "Max/Anon" is a real person. He's like the slighty grumpy minor character in an 80's sictom.

Alicia said...

Lol, hey JR I did walk into a library and chose random books to read. The library held many great adventures for me. I found Robinson Crusoe, devoured every Dickens book on the shelf, and started reading Toni Morrison because I saw her on Oprah but she confused me back then so I stopped and picked up Jane Austen. I think there are so many great and meaningful books to read that it's easy to have holes in one's reading repertoire.

My school was a good school. It just wasn't a school that taught the so-called canon or classics(Ancient Greek or Roman Lit), but we did read Walter Mitty, Catcher in the Rye, and I did fall in love with Updike's A&P. I think people's lives can lead them to different reading lists and there are enough good books out there for them to vary.

Anonymous said...

My high school was pretty good too, considering I come from a sports-obsessed town...most importantly I had two really great English teachers who loved books and knew how to talk about them. I made my way through the Hardy Boys starting in 4th grade...for some reason there was kind of an annex to the library in the music room, and during chorus I would sit by the row of Hardy Boys, surreptitously reading them...and in high school I plowed through Kurt Vonnegut...

I didn't end up discovering most of the stuff I love best now until I was in college, though. Great library at my college, and I'd go there to "study" but actually just hung out in the stacks reading at random. I discovered contemporary literary fiction this way...indeed, my favorite story writer, Alice Munro, I just picked up at random after wondering why I hadn't heard of any Canadian writers. And that led me to Margaret Atwood, and then (back in the US) to Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver.

I was an English major but never really loved my lit classes. I think I was destined to talk about books like a writer and casual reader, rather than as a critic...I got B's in college. These days I do have a lot of respect for my critic colleagues at work, but I still don't fully understand their frame of reference...I am just compelled by different things.

jon said...

No one has mentioned Ada. It's a great book, or at least I thought so in my twenties. I read it twice, once on a bench in Central Park, where I ate lunch every day, and once in the back of a van driving on a 970 mile dirt road in the Australian outback, with a giant black and white spotted dog named moeff and a Danish Phys Ed teacher.

Anonymous said...

Nice! I have not read Ada yet but when I do I'll be sure to try and replicate the circumstances of your reading.

james said...

jrl: nobody's written it better before or since? wow. i love nabokov and have read just about everything he's written, but i still can't say that, in my humble opinion, he's better than joyce.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, well, perhaps that was hyperbole. But as a prose stylist, Nabokov gets me more excited than Joyce (though I think you know I am a huge Ulysses devotee). Sometimes Joyce feels so insular that it's like he's writing in Joycean, rather than English, and I don't just mean the Wake. Nabokov feels so genuinely American to me, too, which counts for a little something in my private literary universe.

I ain't knockin' Dublin Jimmy, though.

GFS3 said...

Every time I read "Lolita" (and I've read it thrice), I come away with a different opinion of Humpbert. He may be the most complex character in modern literature.

I think my reactions to him had to do with my own age and maturity at the time of the reading. When I first read the book in college -- I thought he was a twisted pervert.

In my late 20s, I tackled it again and came away with more sympathies for what Humpbert was tackling.

Then I read it again two years ago and was filled with both sorrow and dread at his illness -- and own self-loathing.

Great book. And, I, too, need to find a hardcore book group. Why are there so few men in book groups anyway?

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