by Vladimir Nabokov
Nabokov's Love Affairs
A review by R. W. Flint
Note: R.W. Flint's review of Lolita appeared in the June 17, 1957 issue
The second Anchor Review, a pocket-sized magazine-and-reprint-journal
of high standards, mildly radical leanings and rare appearance, would be something
to buy even without its 90-page excerpt from the notorious Lolita. But
emasculated as it is, this first American edition of Vladimir Nabokov's novel
is a major literary event, worth all the attention we can spare. Circulated
over here in its Paris edition, it moved one critic to say that "it flames with
a tremendous perversity of an unexpected kind..." and is "...just about the
funniest book I remember having read"; another critic to describe its action
as "remorseless, simple and inevitable, like a Greek tragedy; or else a mass
of absurdities, coincidences and perverse exfoliations, like a Greek tragedy";
a third critic to decide that "Lolita is partly a masterpiece of grotesque
comedy, partly an unsubdued wilderness where the wolf howls a real wolf howling
for a really Red Riding Hood."
When Nabokov's first English novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, appeared during the forties, Edmund Wilson wrote:
If I say that Nabokov, who was educated in England...turns out to
be a master of English prose the most extraordinary phenomenon of the kind
since Conrad this is likely to sound incredible. If I say that Nabokov is
something like Proust, something like Franz Kafka, and, probably something like
Gogol, I shall suggest an imitative patchwork, where Nabokov is as completely
himself as any of these others a man with a unique sensibility and a unique
story to tell.
To complete my chorus of witnesses, here is Mr. Nabokov himself (from an amusing essay on Lolita included by Anchor):
After Olympia Press, in Paris, published the book Lolita, an
American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair
with the romantic novel. The substitution "English Language" for "romantic novel"
would make this elegant formula more correct. But here I feel my voice rising
to too strident a pitch. None of my American friends have read my Russian books
and thus every appraisal on the strength of my English ones is bound to be out
of focus. My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anyone's
concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich and
infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid
of any of those apparatuses the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop,
the implied associations and traditions which the native illusionist, frac-tails
flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.
This unwarranted fit of modesty on Mr. Nabokov's part at least gives us a special clue as to the genius of his book. Since he could not develop a style of this imputed weight, he did the next best thing and forged a prose of spectacular vitality and full of surprises. His Nicolai Gogol (New Directions, 1944) is the best treatise on comedy I know of and a kind of book, one must remember when comparing the two men, that Gogol could not conceivably have written himself. In a test with Gogol, Mr. Nabokov makes up in learned wit what he lacks in poetry or control. He is nothing if not intelligent; the parallel with Gogol has to be found behind yet another set of ironic baffles, in a really fiendish, lyric delight in the bottom absurdity of things. But the parallel need not be drawn too far; Nabokov warns against it. He presents Gogol, in fact, as a monster of self-delusion as well as one of the supreme masters of Russian fiction. But he also shows, in this model of critical biography, a standard of comedy ("...one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant...") that springs to wonderful life in Lolita.
What makes the book "flame," I think, is first of all a love affair with the real America. ("Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity. ... I chose American motels instead of Swiss hotels or English inns only because I am trying to be an American writer and claim only the same rights that other American writers enjoy.") It is an America where language and event make a seamless web of wonders, terrors, revelations and portents. English, for Mr. Nabokov, is an instrument for the wildest and most mysteriously fitting shifts of tone, the most cheerfully extroverted, slang-relishing, literate verbal tomfoolery.
Since the Anchor Lolita is purged of its fleshier parts, since the
author defends himself very ably, and since to dwell on the book's more lurid
side is to connive with witlessness, I shall skip all this. Suffice it here
to say that Lolita's chief actor, Humbert Humbert, a Swiss "salad of
racial genes," is afflicted with about equal degrees of wit, ennui, taste and
a hideously overt form of nympholepsy; the disease of Ruskin and Lewis Carroll
given free and tender rein in a wilderness of American motels, suburbs and progressive
institutions. Lolita is a burlesque of Freudianism that Freud would have
had to enjoy. I can respect Fred Dupee's view, in his Anchor Preface to the
book, that "there is frequently a disquieting note of unresolved tension"; but
am inclined to think that the burlesque takes one more turn, at least, than
we would expect of any previous example of the "confessional novel" or "roman
noir" (Mr. Dupee's terms). All Mr. Nabokov has to confess, I think, is imagination
enough to project the charms of a Phedre or Cleopatra into the skin of an odious
suburban bobby-soxer. How perverse this is each reader must decide for himself;
but few milder absurdities would have suited Mr. Nabokov's mad purposes so well.
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