Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024713, Tue, 22 Oct 2013 01:01:48 -0400

great American novel written by a great Russian writer ...


16 October, 16:19
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

A great American novel written by a great Russian writer is, to be sure, not something we often encounter, but the genesis of the novel in question is not the most fascinating thing about it. To answer the obvious question - what is this thing, then? - is not easy. Every great work is both altogether unique and typical of its kind. It’s not the first book to have been considered immoral, even dangerous, to have been banned and to have become a central work of modern literature anyway; it’s not the first book to have dealt with a controversial subject so subtly that the mere thought of exploitation shouldn’t have entered anyone’s mind; and, of course, it’s not the first book about tragic love. But great books defy succession. “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov will forever remain thestory of impossible love, love so idealistic as to border with Platonic.
Informed by this idealism is an account of an affair between a grown man and a girl, recognized as a triumph of language.

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child.

In 1954 “Lolita” was rejected by four American publishers. A year later it was published in France, only to be almost immediately banned for 2 years. In 1958 it was finally published in the US and became a bestseller, allowing Nabokov to quit teaching literature at Cornell University and move to Europe. The book was a career changer, a life changer, and a literature changer. Nabokov had every reason to cherish it, which he did: “Lolita” was his “special favorite.” 10 years after he had written it, he described it as the purest of his books, the most abstract and carefully contrived. Orville Prescott of the “New York Times” would have disagreed strongly: in 1958 he happened to have found the novel “dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion”, and, of course, repulsive. Another critic from the same newspaper was more sensitive:
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. 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.
“Lolita” engendered two movies (one of them directed by Stanley Kubrick), a musical, four plays, an opera, two ballets, a parody by Umberto Eco, a spin-off novel retelling the tale from Lolita’s point of view, a Russian translation made by Nabokov himself, non-literary references made by Woody Allen, Jim Jarmush and Marilyn Manson and an interpretation by Martin Amis. In his book “Koba the Dread” he presents “Lolita” as “a study in tyranny”. Nabokov wouldn’t have approved of that; a master of sophisticated literary play, he wasn’t fond of hidden meanings.

Dmitry Kharitonov

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