Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Triumph of Nabokov's "Lolita"

The novel begins and ends with "Lolita" but it is really about Humbert Humbert and his attempt to fix, in writing, the sublime effect of nymphets. Or is it? The challenge for Nabokov is to show, through an obsessive and self-reflexive narrative, the moral reality of what actually happened. Can fiction reveal truth? Not in the naive realist style that takes language as some kind of glass that needs only a good scrub for the world to come into full and accurate view. But fiction, suspicious of its own artifice, its own lies, its own egotism, that sees language as a fun-house of mirrors, uproarious one moment, terrifying the next, can that kind of fiction (for, after all, that is the only honest kind that can be written after Modernism and the World Wars) make the reader feel, not for the narrator, not for himself-in-the-narrator, but for others?

This is the triumph of Lolita. All the cunning that Humbert (and Nabokov) poured into the construction of this ambitious work pays off in the reunion scene, when Humbert meets Lolita, married and now called Mrs. Dolly Schiller, and realizes the damage his impossible love has caused. Humbert writes of the moment after he left the Schillers:

At this solitary stop for refreshments between Coalmont and Ramsdale (between innocent Dolly Schiller and jovial Uncle Ivor), I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant's drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust that I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me--to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction--that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:
The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.

This passage is morally profound and deeply humane. If we truly understand the harm we have done to another, what forgiveness? To think ourselves forgiven is to render life absurd, a "joke" as Humbert puts it. He has to bear his burden of guilt, just as Lolita has to bear her burden of memory. And art, a supreme value in this artful narrative (which cannot resist making up a poetic couplet and calling it a quotation), is only palliative. Humbert can only maintain this depth of insight, for a moment, before he goes off to duel, in a comical scene, with his double, Clare Quilty.

And if the quoted passage is still too much about Humbert, he moves closer still to moral understanding when he stands on a hill and hears the "melody" of children playing in a town below, and knew "that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord." And so the first-person narrative convicts itself, for in writing itself, it has to silence Lolita.


Shropshirelad said...

I guess you enjoyed the book.

Not bad, is it?

Jee Leong Koh said...

Not bad, not bad at all.

Shropshirelad said...

Pale Fire is pretty good, too. And it has a very funny scene involving a boy's bottom and a flashlight...

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the rec, Eric. I am now deep into Updike's Rabbit Redux.