Monday, November 14, 2011

"Lolita," 1958: "poor panting Humbert Humbert"

"But let us be prim and civilized. Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really and truly, he did." (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov)

Nabokov's Lolita was published in August 1958, in Paris. Below is an excerpt from the New York Times review -- one of the first -- by Elizabeth Janeway on August 17, 1958, which expresses both the "opinion and reputation" of the book as well as its humor and ultimate sadness. In another 1958 review Robert R. Kirsch, writing for the L.A. Times, called it "an almost perfect comic novel."

Much of the novel's humor is in the clash of Humbert's "spoiled" European manners and the pretensions of the small northern college town of Ramsdale. Nabokov was a lecturer at Cornell in upstate New York in the mid-1950s. It would be hard to mistake the cultural gulf between the professor and his bourgeois landlady, Charlotte Haze, as a fictional reflection of Nabokov's own chafed expectations in Ithaca, NY.

... Lolita is one of those occasional books which arrive swishing behind them a long tail of opinion and reputation which can knock the unwary reader off his feet. Is it shocking, is it pornographic, is it immoral? Is its reading to be undertaken not as a simple experience but as a conscious action which will place one on this, or that, side of a critical dividing line? What does the Watch and Ward Society say of it? What does Sartre, Graham Greene or Partisan Review?

This is hard on any book. “Lolita” stands up to it wonderfully well, though even its author has felt it necessary to contribute an epilogue on his intentions. This, by the way, seems to me quite as misleading as the purposely absurd (and very funny) prologue by “John Ray Jr., Ph. D.,” who is a beautifully constructed caricature of American Academic Bumbledom.

But in providing a series of trompe-l’oeil frames for the action of his book, Vladimir Nabokov has undoubtedly been acting with intent: they are screens as well as frames. He is not writing for the ardent and simple-minded civil-libertarian any more than he is writing for the private libertine; he is writing for readers, and those who can read him simply will be well rewarded.

... Humbert is a close-to-40 European, a spoiled poet turned dilettante critic, the possessor of a small but adequate private income and an enormous and agonizing private problem: he is aroused to erotic desire only by girls on the edge of puberty, 9-to-14- year-old “nymphets.” Julliet, Dante’s Beatrice and Petrarch’s Laura all fell within this age range, but to poor panting Humbert Humbert, the twentieth century denies the only female things he really desires.

Nabokov (1958)

Then, as in a fairy tale, his wish comes true. Lolita is its fulfillment. She is the quintessence of the nymphet, discovered by total accident in an Eastern American small town. To get her, Humbert puts himself through a pattern of erotic choreography that would shame a bower-bird. He is grotesque and horrible and unbearably funny, and he knows it. He will settle for anything, and does. ...

Fate, however, intervenes. (McFate, Humbert calls him, envisioning him as an old, lavish and absent- minded friend addicted to making ambiguous gifts, a sort of deified Bernard Goldfine). Charlotte is killed in an accident. Dream come true! With his little stepdaughter (he drops the “step” to strangers), Humbert sets out on an odyssey of lechery that approaches the flights and “fugues” of schizophrenia.

It turns into a nightmare. ...

In his epilogue, Mr. Nabokov informs us that Lolita has no moral. I can only say that Humbert’s fate seems to me classically tragic, a most perfectly realized expression of the moral truth that Shakespeare summed up in the sonnet that begins, “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action”: right down to the detailed working out of Shakespeare’s adjectives, “perjur’d, murderous, bloody, full of blame.” Humbert is the hero with the tragic flaw. Humbert is every man who is driven by desire, wanting his Lolita so badly that it never occurs to him to consider her as a human being, or as anything but a dream-figment made flesh 3/4 which is the eternal and universal nature of passion.

... If there is one fault to find, it is that in making his hero his narrator, Mr. Nabokov has given him a task that is almost too big for a fictional character. Humbert tends to run over into a figure of allegory, of Everyman. When this happens it unbalances the book, for every other character belongs in a novel and is real as real can be. Humbert alone runs over at the edges, as if in painting him Mr. Nabokov had just a little too much color on his brush; which color is, I suppose, the moral that poor Humbert is carrying for his creator.

Never mind. This is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year. As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences.

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