Prison Diary November, 2009: Nabokov and Lolita

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

Vladimir Nabokov, 1972

Reading Lolita, enjoying it but also by turns annoyed and bored. It’s a peculiar book, makes me think that Nabokov was so afraid of his theme that he was unable to handle it with complete freedom—though it is, in fact, franker than I remembered. Perhaps when I first read it I missed or misunderstood the euphemisms and circumlocutions. I’m sure the many French insertions weren’t translated, which certainly would have diminished my enjoyment that time. I must admit that the writing is often excellent, but you’ll pardon me if I don’t share the ecstasies of the critics. Characterization is also excellent for the three principals so far… with the exception, on second thought, of D.H. [Lolita] herself. There are glimpses here and there, but she is mostly “worshipped from afar” rather than “closely observed,” at least in effect. That’s vague, but I don’t know how to clarify it. The satire so far (p. 82) is pretty thin, unless one takes the whole as a satire—which I think is not justified by the text, unless one does not believe in H.H.’s level of passion. I don’t disbelieve it.

Finished reading Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, in Novels 1955-1962, The Library of America, New York, 1996. A puzzling and very annoying book; comments I noted during the slog: exquisitely tedious, a steady diet of treacle (whatever that is), flabbily (flaccidly) humorous, if he wanted it in French, why didn’t he write it in French?

Mostly I was bored and irritated, and somewhere around page 230 or 240 I started skimming and skipping ahead, but only a few pages, really. The whole is only 291 pages, so you can see that I had to get pretty impatient to start skipping so late in the book. The basic problem is the way Humbert expresses himself. In the Afterword Nabokov describes this aptly—I think he said something like “bombastic and moldy” or perhaps “pedantic and sodden”—I couldn’t find it again. Certainly Humbert-Nabokov is a serious craftsman and a despicable snob. He has done just about everything he could do to ensure that the very minimum number of readers will like his book, thus ensuring that a troop of PhD candidates will worship him forever, like Joyce.

He calls it “a very moral book.” Certainly Humbert agonizes over his sins when he isn’t gloating over them. In this sense he’s right, I suppose. No doubt it’s an important question (a question I will not attempt to define precisely), and one I will have to face myself in Seff or otherwise.

The hard question for me is, what do I think of this book? Certainly there are moments that I enjoyed, and one or two that made me pause in thought; some of both I have not seen anywhere else and so seem uniquely valuable [?]. But so much of the rest was so painfully boring that on the whole I didn’t like it and looked upon it while I was reading it as a burden and a waste of time.

At one point Lolita says to Humbert: “… do you mind very much cutting out the French? It annoys everybody.” p. 228. I wish indeed he had done so, but some of it was interesting, as “fruit vert” which he defines as “unripe females attractive to ripe gentlemen.” p. 875. And there is one longer quote I need to copy:

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them.” p. 82. So, on to Pnin.

Something provocative from Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Diary, Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, New York (etc.), 1954-1981: “Yeats and Aldous [Huxley] agreed, the other day, that their great aim in writing is to avoid the ‘literary.’ Aldous said how extraordinary the ‘literary’ fetish had been among the Victorians. Yeats said that he wanted only to use the words that real people say. That his change had come through writing plays. And I said, rashly, that all the same his meaning was very difficult. And what is the ‘literary.’ [sic]” p. 228.

On thinking this over I tend to agree to an extent. I want to use the words that come naturally to me; I don’t want to strain for an “elevated style” through use of obscure words or neologisms (an obscure word?), but I do intend to labor to produce apt metaphors and vigorous expression.

And I think my use of “airy vastness” to describe the emptiness of the sky where the battle of the birds takes place [sic]. Certainly this was a “straining for effect” on my part, but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing—the bad thing is looking like you’re straining for effect.

{11/14/09} If Nabokov really wanted to write a “very moral book,” Lolita should have turned Humbert in to the law or at the very least, verbally flayed him with white-hot anger. Instead, “all is forgiven” to H.H. by Lolita, the author, and (sometimes) himself. This is certainly “out of kilter.”

One could argue that the pathetic Quilty represents “the real Humbert” as viewed by an outsider, but I’m unpersuaded. If that was Nabokov’s thought, Quilty at some point should say, “In shooting me you are shooting yourself.” It’s possible such a parallel was drawn and I forgot it; but it doesn’t matter. I’d have to say this is a slightly moral book.

I just spent an hour looking into Pnin and Pale Fire and what did I find? Two more Humberts, that is, two more middle aged prissy esthetes of dubious sexuality. Um, no, thank you.

The poem in Pale Fire is probably quite good—the little I read (about half a page) seemed imaginative and skillful, though I quickly got bored. On another day I might like it well; I had gotten impatient with the Humbertian Introduction and decided to glance ahead. My glance at the first part of the Commentary convinced me immediately that I couldn’t possibly read the whole book. It was an effort to finish even the Introduction. With some regret I must wash my hands of Vladimir Nabokov. But I must wonder: is he really trying to display his erudition on every page? Or is that his natural style, his real voice?

Pnin would probably be more tolerable, but, eh. On to Ulysses, though perhaps I should reread the Odyssey first. I read it quite recently, but I get all his petty goddesses confused—Calypso and the other (or others?), and Nausicaä, who I think is a mortal.

Copyright 2021 by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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