Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

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I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)

 

NOTES

Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.


Jun 11 2010

What’s So Literary about Life?

D. G. Myers of A Commonplace Blog (whom Bookbread almost always agrees with) recently observed:

The American continent no longer compels [American novelists] into an aesthetic contemplation they neither understand nor desire. What moves them are the envies and ambitions, the disdains and irritations, of their class.

Thus all their characters sound like literary intellectuals. Thus they cannot even imagine what their own non-writing spouses, nor anyone else for that matter, do every day at work.

I couldn’t disagree more when Bookbreads primary motivation for reading fiction is to escape the experience of things like “every day at work.” Bookbread seeks enchantment, as in “Good Readers and Good Writers” where Nabokov points out how:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” [01]

C. S. Lewis will call these three categories: “the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet,” in The Allegory of Love (1936). Lewis goes on to explain, in a large paragraph worth quoting in full, how the enchanter is a modern phenomenon [02]:

But the lasting consequence of all these writers, for the history of imagination, is far more certain than any assessment of their individual merits. In all of them alike, as I hinted above, we see the beginnings of that free creation of the marvellous which first slips in under the cloak of allegory. It is difficult for the modern man of letters to value this quiet revolution as it deserves. We are apt to take it for granted that a poet has at his command, besides the actual world and the world of his own religion, a third world of myth and fancy. The probable, the marvellous-taken-as-fact, the marvellous-known-to-be-fiction—such is the triple equipment of the post-Renaissance poet. Such were the three worlds which Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton were born to London and Warwick, Heaven and Hell, Fairyland and Prospero’s Island—each has its own laws and its appropriate poetry. But this triple heritage is a late conquest. Go back to the beginnings of any literature and you will not find it. At the beginning the only marvels are the marvels which are taken for fact. The poet has only two of these three worlds. In the fullness of time the third world crept in, but only by a sort of accident. The old gods, when they ceased to be taken as gods, might so easily have been suppressed as devils: that, we know, is what happened to our incalculable loss in the history of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Only their allegorical use, prepared by slow developments within paganism itself, saved them, as in a temporary tomb, for the day when they could wake again in the beauty of acknowledged myth and thus provide modern Europe with its ‘third world’ of romantic imagining. And when they rose they were changed and gave poetry that which poetry had scarcely had before. Let us be quite certain of this change. The gods—and, of course, I include under this title that whole ‘hemisphere of magic fiction’ which flows indirectly from them—the gods were not to paganism what they are to us. In classical poetry we hear plenty of them as objects of worship, of fear, of hatred; even comic characters. But pure aesthetic contemplation of their eternity, their remoteness, and their peace, for its own sake, is curiously rare. There is, I think, only the one passage in all Homer; and it is echoed only by Lucretius [Odyssey, vi, 41 & Lucretius De Rerum Nat. iii, 18]. But Lucretius was an atheist; and that is precisely why he sees the beauty of the gods. For he himself, in another place, has laid his finger on the secret: it is religio that hides them. No religion, so long as it believed, can have that kind of beauty which we find in the gods of Titian, of Botticelli, or of our own romantic poets. To this day you cannot make poetry of that sort out of the Christian heaven and hell. The gods must be, as it were, disinfected of belief; the last taint of the sacrifice, and of the urgent practical interest, the selfish prayer, must be washed away from them, before that other divinity can come to light in the imagination. For poetry to spread its wings fully, there must be, besides the believed religion, a marvellous that knows itself as myth. For this to come about, the old marvellous, which once was taken as fact, must be stored up somewhere, not wholly dead, but in a winter sleep, waiting its time. If it is not so stored up, if it is allowed to perish, then the imagination is impoverished. Such a sleeping-place was provided for the gods by allegory. Allegory may seem, at first, to have killed them; but it killed only as the sower kills, for gods, like other creatures, must die to live.

Only enchantment lets readers escape the ennui of modern life.

Notes

[01] Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982).

[02] Lewis, C. S.. The Allegory of Love. (1936). Reprinted with corrections (1946). Oxford UP. pp. 82–83.


Feb 5 2010

Occupied with Occupations

In a Jan. 29, 2010 column of the London Telegraph, “When Fiction Breaks Down,” John Lanchester argues that readers rarely come across a story that focuses on a character’s occupation because modern jobs are too complicated for novel readers and their writers.

Initially this sounds absurd, but as an American, Bookbread often misses implied or understated references to the institutional caste-class-clashes of merry ole England. Perhaps there is sense to be made of Lanchester assuming the majority of modern day workers engage in their productivity via complicated, non-novelistic jobs.

But just because Lanchester reduces readers of novels to crass careerists (unworthy of mention in fictional long form) doesn’t imply that twenty-first century writers should delve into the peasant’s trough to discover and recover the details of homesteading, as younger readers encounter in the Little House books of Laura Ingalls Wilder. No, Bookbread must countercheck and ask: Aren’t most of today’s jobs uncomplicated, boring, tedious—all the things a writer tries to avoid in his or her writing—and that one of the principle responsibilities of novelists is to enchant the reader by escaping that boredom?

In “Good Readers and Good Writers,” Nabokov observes:

There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer. . . .The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.”

Yes, sometimes such enchanting requires fantasy and absurdity peppered with philosophy, but that doesn’t mean novelists should omit writing about the occupations of characters that readers can then relate to. Otherwise there would be no need to read about the surveyor’s inability to measure in Kafka’s The Castle (1926), nor The Old Man and the Sea (1952) and Hemingway’s focus on Cuban fishermen, nor the duties of butlering described in Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989).

Bookbread was not the first to recognize that nobody works for a living in Ulysses (1922), but because Lanchester’s entire exordium waxes nostalgic—how writers don’t have real bosses—readers quickly conclude the rest of the article contains little beyond remembrances of literary things past, things that really have no relevance to current and would-be twenty-first century writers or their readers.

Lanchester, however, does preach a bit of literary gospel when he explains:

The world is full of interesting things that don’t fit inside traditional fictional forms. That is because a novel has to seem true. It doesn’t have to be factually or literally true and the kind of truth it seeks can be fantastical, wild, unearthly, illogical, dreamlike, incoherent, even mad—but it does have to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world, on that world’s own, mysterious, innate terms.

Alas, Lanchester tries (and fails) to create a formula via Venetian voodoo:

Freud said that the two criteria of mental health were the ability to love and to work. The first of those impulses is amply chronicled in the world of fiction—indeed, exhaustively so, since there are shelves and shelves of books that are essentially all about love. The world of work barely features.

UPDATE:

D.G. Myers’s “Sex and the Novel” on A Commonplace Blog goes completely against Lanchester’s Freudian formulation, claiming that when it comes to sex:

Few novelists have treated it as an idea. At best it represents a getaway from ideas.

Myers then creates his own formula in a follow up:

The twentieth-century novel became an either/or. Either it included plenty of sex scenes, or it ignored human sexuality altogether.

The issue concerns what (if any) ideas have been conjured by the word “sex” in a context of twentieth-century English language fiction.  Perhaps (like work) sex in the twenty-first century is something too inane or complicated for novel readers and writers to expose themselves to.

Being that Bookbread comes from the Miller/Mailer school, the question beckons:  Who are we to blame for “genital friction”?  Freud?  Joyce?  Henry Miller?  Bookbread want a scapegoat for the novelistic proliferation of belly slapping.

In other readings:  An essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” Jennifer Schuessler of Sunday New York Times Book Review provides a recent example of a novelist writing about occupations, and becoming bored:

In April 2011, the limits of literary boredom will be tested when Little, Brown & Company publishes “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace’s novel, found unfinished after his suicide in 2008, about the inner lives of number-crunching I.R.S. agents. An excerpt that appeared last year in The New Yorker depicts a universe of microboredom gone macro: “He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and ID number. . . .”

Whatever to make Wallace, at least Schuessler gets it right in her conclusion:

After all, if it weren’t for all the boring books in the world, why would anyone feel the need to try to write more interesting ones?

NYR: Franz Kafka, The Castle / David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “Good Readers and Good Writers.” Lectures on Literature. (1980). Ed. by Fredson Bowers. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, NY. (1982). pp. 5–6