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15 June 2010

This is the Meta Book Club Meeting about Lolita This is the Meta Book Club thread about Lolita, and I’m just going to start it off. Please jump in freely – I’m not looking to lead this discussion, just get us going.
Lolita was a book I read with distaste in college. I loved the wordplay I picked up on – though I now know I missed most of it – but I hated Humbert, and what happened to Lolita made me feel ill. This time around, I picked up the Annotated Lolita, and stopped at the end of every chapter to check the annotations. It was as though someone drew a curtain and I could suddenly see the complicated inner works of a beautiful music box. (My favorite annotation was in reference to Quilty’s misquote of Shakespeare to Humbert, “to borrow, and to borrow . . .” as to which the annotator comments that for this pun alone Quilty should die.) I also finally realized that Nabakov manages to both humanize Humbert yet point out clearly how he destroyed Lolita’s voice and childhood.
Immediately after finishing the Annotated Lolita, I read Reading Lolita in Tehran. Because that book is very much about how women were destroyed and silenced in Iran by the outcome of the rightist reactionary revolution there, it was a powerful echo for me of the strongest moral message in Lolita.
What did everyone make of the three Prof. Hungerford lectures? Her first certainly rejects my belief that Lolita does have a moral message at the heart – she says Nabakov treats morality as mere cliché. The second, guest lecture by Goldstone was tough for me to track in full but I wasn’t taken with his thesis that Nabakov was expressing the alienation and nostalgia of a European expatriate. I actually thought the book presented a teasing, satiric, yet affectionate view of America. I did love the third lecture, which I think hit on a lot of critical themes in the book, not least the contrast it draws between nature and artifice (including the artifice that is literature.)
posted by bearwife 15 June | 11:21
I haven't finished all the lectures yet (I'm 20 minutes into the first), but I really appreciated the opportunity to reread Lolita, which I haven't read for 23 years. The language is wonderful and it frequently made me laugh out loud. I look forward to hearing what people have to say here.
posted by matildaben 15 June | 12:52
I am propelled by a strong impulse to be the internet equivalvent of the kid in pigtails at the front of the class, lunging up from the desk at a 45 degree angle, their hard is raised so hard. I shall try and avoid this.

But I don't think Lolita is unconcerned with morality. It's just that's it's concerned with the same moral question Nabokov is always concerned with, solipism...or better say, the borderland where the assertion of the self becomes the obliteration of the other. I'm at work, so I can't run off on this they way I'd like --- after five, cocktail in hand, I may have trouble shutting up....people think it's amoral or immoral because the sin Humbert commits is not having sex with a little girl --- the destruction of her innocence. It's the taking away of her childhood, or her choice, forcing her to act the role of his lover when she didn't love him, that I would say Nabokov considers by far the greater sin. "The absence of her voice from that concord." The interesting thing is that it is through the commission of his sin that Humbert becomes whole enough to perceive the wrong he has done ("I felt as if I were sitting next to the ghost of someone i had just killed"), to see and love Lolita as a person, and not as the living incarnation of his dead girlfriend, a fantasy.
posted by diablevert 15 June | 14:48
I completely agree with you, diablevert. Sadly (gladly?) it is my birthday today and after 5 I WILL have a cocktail in hand and be far from my computer, so let me say now that I'd just add that to me the saddest thing about the book is that by the time Humbert sees his own wrong and regrets it, Lolita is indeed mostly dead in spirit, and soon to be dead in fact, in childbirth.

I'd also add that although Quilty's death is truly humorous, as there's nothing to love about him anyway, Humbert never does come to grips with his role in depriving Lolita of her mother. His diary, relishing his lust for Lolita, as well as his unwillingness to talk to his wife at the moment she confronts him, is the direct catalyst of his wife's death. Humbert can only take so much responsiblity, I guess.

posted by bearwife 15 June | 14:59
Happy Birthday Bearwife.

Diablevert, I understand your pain. There is so much here, and I too, don't want to monopolize the discussion.

But, I haven't finished it, and although this is my third time around, this too is my first with the annotation at hand and a more full appreciation of the breathtaking otherworldly prose-poem daredevilry. I'm literally counting meter and enjoying every stressed syllabic and hear understand the omneopoetics and the ribaldry that's found throughout for the various male female aspects of "the act" and the fruit like allometry of it all. Perhaps I am a perv. But H "The Mural" at "The Enchanted Hunters," is the sexist thing I've ever read and it's all allegory.

Sigh. Yeah so, I'm wallowing, soaking it in. I am such a pig.

I can't believe Nabokov had the balls to write this and publish it when he did. Again and again, I'm stunned by his voice which never wavers or doubts itself for a moment. This was like in 1955. Holy wow!

Some thoughts: I too, am struck how much this idyll is that of an immigrant (or expatriate, as you call him Bearwife), in the promised land, chasing his American Dream of sorts and consummating a life's desire, as ruinous as it is to all involved. The price of Freedom? Is one person's freedom, another's forced captivity?? Is Humbert going through an assimilation of sorts, an extreme assimilation based on his darkest, anti-social needs?? Is that the journey of America? As an immigrant, myself, that stuff really strikes a chord.

Once the fantasy is realized (as you say diablevert), he sees Lolita: "I felt as if I were sitting next to the ghost of someone i had just killed." He has killed someone, actually a few people. He's eclipsed the memory of his childhood love, Annabel Leigh (in a kingdom by the sea). He is once and for all a fully realized Humbert Humbert. He has attained his dream, his fantasy, and everything has changed forever. He is no longer that Humbert Humbert living for his fantasy, for his imagination which keeps him holding on from day to day, and an almost vertiginous nausea overtakes the book. The nausea of the American road trip, with all the aimlessness and generic convenience and trappings that contain and support it. I think many lovers go through this point: That most wanted thing is finally attained and it's like "Now what?" What does one do once the dream of a life time is realized? There is nowhere else for Humbert to go, but to try and relive that moment over and over, and try and keep that dream frozen in stasis, a perhaps even greater perversion than his fetish. Lolita is a living breathing girl reaching towards womanhood and it's crime (against the law and nature, these parallel foundations for the law, and morality are constantly in play and in tension in the book. One pair of many dualities including the name Humbert Humbert) to keep her identified as a "nymphet."

And yes, she dies spiritually, Diablevert, but progressively, not at in an instant after their becoming lovers, at that moment the Ghost of someone Humbert Humbert has murdered is his Annabel Leigh (lee in a kingdom by the sea) and himself. Lolita is actually quite resilient, she's no delicate flower, and even begins to define herself outside of Humbert's sexual needs (with the monies she begins to exact from him for various favors). But Humbert is forever finding an emotional threat to hold against her (in that case orphan-hood and abandonment), which is one of the (many) times, although he is a hilarious sociopath, you want to beat him with a stick.

Butafter their first lovemaking she chides him as a "dirty dirty old man, you've ruined me. I was fresh as a daisy, you dirty dirty old man...etc" I think she's okay pretty much. It's once he throws down the cage around her, by announcing that her mother is dead and begins to play the mind games that she, a child and really no match begins to give in to helplessness.

One last thing, and I'm sorry to be throwing this all up here like this before I've finished all the materials, and this is more in regards to man's place in nature and perhaps the play of fate, within that nature. One could argue that Nabokov when he was simply following his nature was in a healthy mode, and once he began to manipulate it with the perversion of a life he forced unto Lolita and himself, it was the beginning of his undoing. So what I'm saying is what if he hadn't gone on the road with Lolita? What if instead they continued their life in a town away from Ramsdale, and he had adopted her and let her develop naturally, even if they were lovers. I almost think everything would've ended up working in his favor, at 16 or 17 they could marry, I mean it would've been a bit eccentric, but so what?

I guess what I'm saying is, I wonder if there are certain aspects of nature that mankind has perverted with artificial laws and religious hang ups, and certain aspects of nature that express themselves through love and that's the final law and the final real morality.

Humbert wasn't driven by love. He was driven by a pathology. One that told him that he wouldn't be able to lust after Lolita once she left her Nymphet phase, and he painted himself into a corner still too much a prisoner of his imagination and his fantasy.

Almost as if that in his imagination which compelled him forward, and helped him survive, that dream and that fantasy, was finally also his demise. SO the imagination as survival mechanism and fate. A double-edged sword.

Anyhow, I've yet to hear the Hungerford lectures, although I'm hungering to and I hope this discussion goes on for while because. I could happily discuss this book all summer...

Thx, for setting this up BearWife. This is teh awesome!!11!!11
posted by Skygazer 15 June | 16:29
Great comment, Skygazer. I liked the (Freudian?) slip when you said, "One could argue that Nabokov when he was simply following his nature was in a healthy mode . . ." because part of the fascination of this book is its transparency, the way Nabakov is sometimes inside it and part of it.

True confession time: I didn't listen to any of the Hungerford lectures, for this or earlier books in the syllabus. I read them. That worked better for me in terms of comprehension and also in terms of time management.
posted by bearwife 15 June | 16:39
Whoops...thanks for catching that! Total Freudian slip there.

Have a great birthday!

posted by Skygazer 15 June | 16:58
I can only participate via dim memory of having last read the Annotated over a decade ago and gotten through most of the first part about six-seven years back.
posted by dhartung 15 June | 23:58
Skygazer, that's an interesting point about the interplay between nature and fate - in the sense that it wasn't Humbert's nature that ruined him and Lolita, but his deliberate manipulation of the fate that awaited her. By holding on to her nymphet-ness, by refusing to allow her to settle down and grow up, he's doing more than raping her (bad enough, of course) - he's taking away her childhood entirely.

I think it's telling that their first sexual encounter is instigated by Lolita. I read that as Nabokov suggesting that the sexual act itself isn't the destructive aspect of paedophilia.

Perhaps it's fitting that she dies in childbirth, as motherhood is often seen as a signifier of adulthood, and Nabokov's showing that by ruining Lolita's childhood he's wrecked any chance she had of becoming an adult.

(small caveat: these are all relatively half-formed thoughts and will surely change along the way. It's good to be thinking it out though.)
posted by twirlypen 16 June | 04:15
Jump in anyway, dhartung!
posted by bearwife 16 June | 12:01
I pored over The Annotated Lolita and listened to the lectures and talked my partner's ear of about Lolita... and then my blasted wifi was down on the 15th.

I loved the wordplay I picked up on – though I now know I missed most of it – but I hated Humbert, and what happened to Lolita made me feel ill

For me, this is the snare at the book's heart that makes it such a masterpiece: the language is so playful, so powerful, by turns so luxurious and luscious, then barbed and sharp. It's irresistible... but the story is at odds with that, using this rich, potent, enrapturing language to describe a tragedy enacted to sate one man's selfish lust.

In Part 1, Humbert justifies --- to himself, and (he thinks) to us --- his own desires and actions by explicitly denying the humanity of the nymphets (bolded emphasis mine):

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as "nymphets." [part 1, ch. 5]

Note that he also gives himself special dispensation as the rare perceptive person, the discriminating man who can distinguish a true nymphet from a child (and again establishes his belief in the nymphet's inhumanity):

A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs--the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate --- the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.[part 1, ch. 5]

Humbert claims to himself a special --- perhaps a unique --- privilege to identify as inhuman the specific children who arouse him. He also claims that he can see what others cannot, and therefore gives himself blanket permission to treat any child he likes as less than human.
posted by Elsa 17 June | 13:18
It's the taking away of her childhood, or her choice, forcing her to act the role of his lover when she didn't love him, that I would say Nabokov considers by far the greater sin. "The absence of her voice from that concord."

I intended to quote you,diablevert, because my remarks about Humbert's dehumanizing tactics are an attempt take your statement (with which I wholeheartedly agree) a step further: in the book's beginning (but with all the story's action behind him), Humbert is still trying to rationalize and excuse his own use of nymphets (and among them Lolita) by claiming they are something other than fully human. By the book's end, Humbert has reflected upon the events and their emotional content carefully, and he recognizes Lolita as a person, not a nymphet.

Indeed, when he finally sees Delores again in person, he sees her as an adult, and even sees Charlotte in her gestures and appearance. He acknowledges her as a person, as an adult, and he loves her:

[...] and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D.--and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds... but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped.[part 2, ch. 29]
posted by Elsa 17 June | 13:36
I am glad you got here, Elsa. (Sorry about your wifi!!) Your comments are great. I am glad I wasn't the only one swimming in a Lolita sea -- and inflicting an ongoing account of it on my husband!
posted by bearwife 17 June | 13:48
I almost think everything would've ended up working in his favor, at 16 or 17 they could marry, I mean it would've been a bit eccentric, but so what?

Notice that Humbert himself planned (whether in earnest or in fantasy) to marry Lolita... but (at that point in the narrative) not for love. In fact, he talks about the difficulty of "get[ting] rid of" Delores in her adolescence.

But he imagines himself impregnating her in order to provide himself with a self-generated series of replacement nymphets once Delores is too old to satisfy his tastes. He regrets coming to Beardsley rather than
somehow scrambling across the Mexican border while the scrambling was good so as to lie low for a couple of years in subtropical bliss until I could safely marry my little Creole; for I must confess that depending on the condition of my glands and ganglia, I could switch in the course of the same day from one pole of insanity to the other --- from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated --- to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l'age; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a vieillard encore vert --- or was it green rot? --- bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad. [part 2, ch. 3]
posted by Elsa 17 June | 14:21
Hi, bearwife! Thanks so much for setting this up --- Lolita is one of my favorite books, and it's such a treat to hear other viewpoints on the meat of it.
posted by Elsa 17 June | 14:29
Elsa: Humbert claims to himself a special --- perhaps a unique --- privilege to identify as inhuman the specific children who arouse him.

Yes, he is robbing her of her humanity, but he's doing it by deifying her. Proclaiming her a supernatural spirit possessed of unholy powers even she isn't aware of. He is the maniac with the hot bubble of poison in his loins, and the High Priest of here church who holds the key to unlocking her destiny. Her cache of unearthly pleasures.

It's just hilarious. He's taking this twelve yr old girl and imbuing her with the strength and beauty of a thousand suns. Ha ha ha...

Even more funny is Humbert in a insane idyll imagining telescoping (ahem), himself into the future with Lolita 2 and 3 (daughter and daughter/granddaughter, respectively), making deals with time: Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l'age; reassuring himself he will still be a force of virility to unlock all the supernatural powers of his burgeoning flock of Lolita's.

It's terrible I know, but black humor wise, this tickles a terrible terrible place in this reader, and manifests the mans drooling buffoon-like lunacy so well. Beyond nature's law, man's law and most terribly the laws of love.

His fantasy world and imagination feeding on itself and growing ever more monstrous, ever more blind to everything, especially Lolita's humanity and any possibility of love. Being lovable. And therefore becoming fully human himself.

posted by Skygazer 17 June | 17:52
Just to clarify: It tickles a terrible terrible place, because Humbert Humbert's masochistic whacked ideas (and the reader's guilt-free sadistic entertainment of it) is so funny and relentless.
posted by Skygazer 17 June | 19:51
It's terrible I know, but black humor wise, this tickles a terrible terrible place in this reader, and manifests the mans drooling buffoon-like lunacy so well. Beyond nature's law, man's law and most terribly the laws of love.

Oh, absolutely agreed, Skygazer: Nabokov strokes some deep dark places with these ideas, and especially by wrapping them up in such evocative language. That's part of what makes Lolita such a remarkable piece of writing: it retains the ability to shock even after half a century, even after many reading, precisely because it draws the reader into complicity through humor, through Humbert confidence that we are indeed complicit with him, through the sheer delight of rhythm and tone, and by using language that all but urges the reader to sound out the words, (as Hungerford puts it
not just to identify our minds with the point of view of this particular person, this particular character, but actually to move your body, and to feel something bodily that he wants you to feel, to share that sensuous experience with him. [Lecture 5]

It's a tremendously powerful piece of writing, and that's a big chunk of the reason why. Nabokov manages to mix the repugnant, the delicious, the witty, the kneeslappingly hilarious, and the outright horrifying, and all this without fully alienating the reader, driving us out of Humbert's head. It's a remarkable seduction of the reader.

And I don't know if I was clear in my remarks about Humbert's assigning the status of nymphet. My point is not only that he excuses his own behavior (and I think you're right that he evidently thinks that nymphets are are transcendent creatures and that this designation raises them above mere humans), but that it is a powerfully convenient designation: it applies to any child he thinks it applies to, and other people cannot perceive the elements and attributes that he sees so clearly.

ever more blind to everything, especially Lolita's humanity and any possibility of love. Being lovable. And therefore becoming fully human himself.

This sums up how I feel every time I finish the novel: that it's a double tragedy, that Humbert only becomes fully realized, fully human, after he comes to terms with the tragedy he's precipitated in Delores' life, and in his own.
posted by Elsa 17 June | 19:53
Just to clarify: It tickles a terrible terrible place, because Humbert Humbert's masochistic whacked ideas (and the reader's guilt-free sadistic entertainment of it) is so funny and relentless.

I agree that the novel is generally hilarious, but (without disagreeing --- I'm going to turn your idea over in my head next time I re-read it) I find most of it so horribly funny for a slightly different reason. For me, it's the disconnect between Humbert's apparent certainty (at the book's beginning) of the reader's complicity with him and the plainly appalling acts to which he thinks this sympathy extends.

Side note: Lolita is a peculiar book to discuss in public because the subject is so very incendiary. I notice that people are often verrrrrrry careful in their phrasing, especially when talking about sympathy or empathy with Humbert, or about it being funny. I hope we (and here I mean "all of us discussing the book") can take it as given that we are discussing this as a piece of literature and not, say, as a parenting guide, and maybe dispense with some of the guarded caution.
posted by Elsa 17 June | 20:04
Humbert in a insane idyll imagining telescoping (ahem)

Ha! I completely missed the pun!
posted by Elsa 17 June | 20:06
in the book's beginning (but with all the story's action behind him), Humbert is still trying to rationalize and excuse his own use of nymphets (and among them Lolita) by claiming they are something other than fully human. By the book's end, Humbert has reflected upon the events and their emotional content carefully, and he recognizes Lolita as a person, not a nymphet.

Oh, word. But perhaps I cut too much slack because it's kind of a problem you can't get round, technically speaking. First-person narrator, you want to show them growing over the course of a novel, you have to write them shrunk at the beginning. If they demonstrate the fully realized wisdom you want them to have at the end when describing the beginning, then they are obliged to treat their younger selves with a contempt and/or "more in sorrow than in anger" tone that undermines the reader's emotional stake in the very journey you want to take them on.

But Nabokov does slip in a little bit of that very contempt, here and there. ("And now I can cease to mock poor Charlotte for the sake of historical verisimilitude"? Something like that, don't have my copy on me.) Which brings me to the interesting point about poor Charlotte...

The mechanism for Humbert's transition into treating Lolita as a real person is his taking on the role of her father, I would argue (and have, in a term paper once). Charlotte's ghost shows up several times in the second half of the book (usually coupled with an allusion to water) and almost always in the context of Humbert's sham fatherhood.

That's one of the things I find fascinating about the novel, the subtlety of its moral problem....if Humbert had never gotten his way, if Humbert had never had a chance to possess one of his nymphets as he does with Lolita, he'd never have had to live with one, as a girl, to care for her, to fight about clothes and homework and chores. Humbert the obsessive lover is free to keep Lolita a prisoner of his fantasy. Humbert the concerned father has to keep in touch with reality a bit --- her weight, her grades, her pimples, her sulks --- if only to maintain the necessary facade to the outside world. ("In the long run, the parody of incest was the best I had to offer the waif.") It is when he is confronted with his ineptitude at this aspect of their relationship that he comes closest to seeing Lolita as a full and separate human being, and when he kills Quilty he claims he is revenging not the loss of his lover but his daughter...
posted by diablevert 18 June | 00:43
Good point! I think that, in addition to giving us a hint of Humbert's dawning self-contempt, Nabokov quite intentionally pokes a hole in the narrative with that phrase you quote about "historical verisimilitude": he's drawing our attention once again to the fact that the events are not unfolding, that they are in the past and therefore fixed. He wants to remind us that Humbert has already experienced everything he's describing for us, and therefore that
A) all our information is filtered through this narrator
B) that all the real-time change we are witnessing is internal, not external: we see Humbert change simply through the power of memory and reflection on his acts.

And of course this completely contained, quite literally self-centered narrative fits beautifully, because Lolita is in large part about solipsism: the singular imposition of Humbert's desires and Humbert's fantasy upon the world around him, and especially upon the girl in his care. Humbert's fantasy is so persuasive, so seductive, that we allow him to reshape our understanding of who she fundamentally is. The girl Delores (meaning "sorrows") and Dolly (as he mother calls her, as her friends and teachers call her) are almost completely elided by the fantasy creature with Humbert's private pillow-talk endearment: Lolita.

And clearly Humbert knows that she does not identify herself as Lolita: when he asks Quilty if he remembers her, he asks not about Lolita but about Delores Haze, Dolly Haze.
posted by Elsa 18 June | 09:28
Charlotte's ghost shows up several times in the second half of the book (usually coupled with an allusion to water) and almost always in the context of Humbert's sham fatherhood.

I'm going to have to revisit the book with this thought in mind. I was struck by the frequent appearance of water, but didn't pick up on Charlotte reappearing (except in Dolores' gestures as I mentioned above). That notion gives the book yet another dimension; so glad you pointed it out!

It's always such a treat to revisit this book, and every time I notice motifs and subtexts and imagery that had never been clear to me before. This time, for example (and with the guidance of The Annotated Lolita), I noticed the anti-semitism Humbert witnesses and reports throughout the action: Charlotte asking him whether his family had "a certain strange strain" [part 1, ch 18]; their friends complaining about ethnic shopkeepers and then clamming up [ibid.]; the hotel "losing" the reservation for "Professor Humberg" but finding a room for Humbert [part 1, ch 27] --- and The Enchanted Hunters is evidently restricted as well, indicated by the code words "Near Churches" [part 2, 26], and other incidents throughout. I had previously picked up on one or two incidents, but hadn't noticed that it constitutes a minor theme in the novel.
posted by Elsa 18 June | 09:52
I was struck by the frequent appearance of water, but didn't pick up on Charlotte reappearing (except in Dolores' gestures as I mentioned above).

Just to be clear, most of the points I mean are allusive, not so literal as when he sees Lolita smoking a cigaratte. But the motif of Charlotte-as-mermaid gets name-checked a couple times (for example, when Humbert buys Lolita a bunch of clothes before picking her up from camp). "A raindrop fell on Charlotte's grave" as Humbert enters the elevator of the Enchanted Hunters; he dreams of C as a mermaid the first night he spends with Lolita. He hears Chralotte say "waterproof" when Lolita gives up Quilty's name (an allusion to C&H's afternoon at the beach, when he considers murdering her and first alludes to her as a mermaid). I believe there's more.
posted by diablevert 18 June | 12:14
Elsa: Charlotte asking him whether his family had "a certain strange strain" [part 1, ch 18]; their friends complaining about ethnic shopkeepers...

Hmm...I'm hesitant to attribute this element of the book the status of "a minor theme in the novel," as much as it is really a way to illustrate to the reader the type of woman Charlotte is in terms of background and breeding, and how she fits in quite well with Ramsdale "society,"(which, strangely, but again apropos to the place and time, is rather slow to embrace her, being that she's only been there two years, and that she's a single mother.) and that pretty sort of postwar small northeastern town of the 40s, 50s and early to mid 60s (before the baby boomers came of age) with the tree lined streets and white picket fences, country clubs, and the black housekeepers and drivers etc and of course the antisemitism. Think Peyton Place, or Douglas Sirk films, or Mad Men.

/aside: Charlotte casually and pretty shockingly, refers to the black driver, Leslie Tomson, who chauffeurs Humbert to her house when he arrives in Ramsdale, and likes to take an early swim at the lake (and she suspects is fooling around with her housekeeper Louise), as a "savage." (one wonders if maybe Charlotte has inadvertently heard some of Leslie's and Louise's lovemaking, or Leslie has looked at her with a "knowing eye...," she probably both loathes and appreciates). Again, this is probably entirely in keeping with the sort of woman (white, right, tight, conservatively elegant, reading and liking the things approved and recommended by certain magazines..etc) Charlotte aspires to be. Anyhow, Nabokov sort of gives Leslie the interesting role of calling Humbert on the phone, to tell him his wife has been killed. And this is just coming to me now, but who else should announce her death, but a man, she (Charlotte) viewed as a "savage," who by definition is in close proximity to and conscious of not only sex, but death.

posted by Skygazer 18 June | 13:26
Skygazer, if it were only one or two occurrences, or if they occurred at unimportant junctures, I would agree, but it seems to me that the incidents of anti-semitism coincide with crucial events: Humbert's first sexual encounter with Charlotte; Humbert's first arrival at a hotel with Lolita; his return to The Enchanted Hunters in a pathetic attempt to relive his ecstacy; even immediately prior to his murder of Quilty (when Quilty tries to reprimand him with "this is a Gentile's house").

To be clear: I agree with you that these small events do establish elements of the characters and the social background, for sure. I also think the way they dovetail with the most explosive pieces of the plotline suggests they have a more important meaning, too, though I'm not yet sure what it is.

Fascinating points about Leslie Tomson! Nice analysis!

Just to be clear, most of the points I mean are allusive, not so literal

Yes, I think you were nice and clear, diablevert: she doesn't literally reappear, but that he haunts her figuratively. Note that in the lengthy passage when Humbert fantasizes drowning Charlotte and where he describes her as a mermaid, he also imagines her haunting him (whether literally or figuratively):

Were I to catch her by her strong kicking foot; were I to see her amazed look, her her awful voice; were I to go through with the ordeal, her ghost would haunt me all my life. [part 1, ch. 20]

I'll keep an eye out for those Charlotte moments, diablevert --- it will make for good hunting!

There are also echoes of Charlotte elsewhere without water elements --- or, without water elements as far as I can tell. Perhaps I missed the water imagery?

I can only recall a few at the moment:
- Charlie Holmes, the redheaded boy with whom Delores dallies even while Humbert is honeymooning at home with Charlotte. Humbert even uses the same word ["coarse'] to describe Charlotte and Charlie.
- Mrs. Holmes, the red-headed widow who heads Camp Q (as Charlotte headed the Ramsdale household). Her hair is "rusty"; Charlotte's is bronze. She even counts back the pro-rated camp tuition, as Charlotte offered to refund Humbert's pro-rated rent (in the letter she leaves for him).
- Mrs. Hayes, "the brisk, brickly rouged, blue-eyed widow" who runs the motor court where Delores falls ill. Like Mrs. Haze, Mrs. Hayes asks prying questions about Humbert's ethnic and cultural background.
posted by Elsa 18 June | 13:48
Hey Elsa, K. I'm going to keep that in mind moving forward. Perhaps I've dismissed it too readily. Thanks!
posted by Skygazer 18 June | 14:06
You know something else funny about Leslie Tomson, is he's probably one of the few men properly appreciating her fully grown womenly charms right and he's the "savage." While Humbert is a defective parody of manhood, but because he's got the whole exotic aristocratic Northern European academic veneer she imbues him with the illusion of "nobility" and "gentlemanliness" and pretty much all the dreamboat attributes she can lay upon him, yet on the inside he's like this drooling little emotional retard plotting to deflower her barely teenage daughter.

Just too funny. Nabokov will not let up! HA HA!!

You know in a way, Although she's no way near as blinkered and patholgical, Charlotte does to HH, what HH does to Lolita. She makes him the player in a fantasy, one so fully realized she cannot see the reality of it until of course, he deviates from the script she expects them both to abide and cracks the veneer a bit and gets all sort of "I AM THE HE MAN HUSBAND WEARING THE PANTS AROUND HERE AND STOP TELLING ME WHAT TO DO. WE'RE NOT GOING TO EUROPE ETC ETC..." and suddenly Charlotte becomes VERY VERY curious as to what he's actually about and what is he hiding in that locked drawer...little does she know it's the mother of all secret journals...

posted by Skygazer 18 June | 14:27
Again: I thoroughly agree with you that the casual mid-century bigotry is an important --- maybe a crucial--- piece of the descriptive background, and that it was a key concern of Nabokov's, too. I think it works both as a way to establish character and background and as a larger (and for the moment and to me, murkier) theme within the text.

I'm sure I've left out some of the points where anti-semitic implications coincide with key or highly emotional events: off the top of my head, there's Hrs. Hayes' questions (if we're willing to interpret them as potentially discriminatory) about Humbert's nationality and origin in the moments before he discovers Lo is ill --- a course of events that leads to her disappearance.

But I don't think I would have traced out the connections behind those occurrences without this discussion, so again I say: what a treat it is to hear everyone's viewpoints and to explore the edges of ideas I hadn't really seen before!

You know in a way, Although she's no way near as blinkered and patholgical, Charlotte does to HH, what HH does to Lolita.

Yes! Lolita is the fantasy of the nymphet that Humbert projects (almost literally; he's lavish with cinematic references) upon Delores; Humbert is the fantasy of an urbane, polished, educated hazily-nonspecific European lover that Charlotte projects upon her boarder. And yes, as soon as he asserts his own agency, she drops the romantic haze and starts to strong-arm him, just as Humbert strong-armed Lo with empty threats of police and jail.

Aaaaaand she mirrors Humbert in another way: he idealizes, idolizes, and fantasizes about Lolita; Charlotte (according to Humbert, anyhow) diminishes, dismisses, and even despises Delores at every turn.
posted by Elsa 18 June | 14:34
And speaking of Charlotte and her passion for Humbert, here's a tangential (and fairly inconsequential) question:

Humbert the unreliable narrator tells us again and again how very good-looking he is, how swooningly handsome, how like a matinee idol, how he has to keep batting women away lest they tumble into his lap. But he also tells us how simiam, beetle-browed, and hunched he is. It's easy to read this as an internal/external thing, the handsome devil who's a monster inside.

But I have to wonder: is Humbert really as handsome as he tells us, and are women in fact falling for him left and right? Since he perceives adult woman as coarse, grossly sexualized creatures, is he misreading normal social cues (or even gentle, innocent flirting) as abandoned passion?
posted by Elsa 18 June | 15:10
I'm pretty confident Humbert is actually truly handsome, and if not completely handsome, then at least possessing some European charm combined with being tall and broad-shouldered in a way that puts him in that category; from Lolita's crush on him and her poster of a matinée idol above her bed with the letters "H.H." and an arrow pointing to it, to the way Charlotte vies for his attention, and then leaves that silly letter confessing utter swoondom and head over heels love for him ("I am your landlady and I order you to go, sir!!"), to Jean Farlow's curious desperate (pt. 1, very end of sec. 24) kiss, after Charlotte's accident, as HH is preparing to leave Ramsdale and go to Lolita's camp, and her declaration of a something something in the future:

Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other again'

We're informed by Humbert of Jean's unique qualities
although she was hopelessly unattractive to me
, and that in two years time, she will succumb to the cancer inside her and be gone by the age of 33 (Christ's age when crucified, if that means anything at all).

And then he, in a weird move sends his apologies to her into the ether:

(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time- space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).

What the hell does that mean?? Only thing I can come up with is that in some way he, due to his pathology, has blindspots that regularly screw up social conventions and/or perhaps doing something hurtful or gauche in someway and so HH is used to making these random bursts of apologia, followed be even greater bursts of emotional retardation: 'Parenthesis included.' HH's mental retardation is the readers mirth though, and Nabokov's devils pitchfork towards his warped brilliant creation of a character maybe.

Anyhow, one last thing, the Hollywood version of Lolita, directed by a genius in his own right, Stanley Kubrick has the role of Humbert Humbert played by James Mason, who I'd say most women would consider handsome in a slightly creepy sort of way (of course that coulda been his acting, Kubrick's direction and make-up etc.) But I think most of the self-loathing descriptions Humbert makes are an inner conception of himself, and I think no matter what Humbert looks like internally he's the equivalent of a comical, drooling, awkward, horned toad.

One last thing: IN keeping with the mermaid and water motif for Charlotte. At the end of that section above the final paragraph reads (Italics mine):

And presently I was shaking hands with both of them (the Farlows) in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.

We have the deluge (defined in M-W Dict. as: an overflowing of the land by water), a mattress (the empty matrimonial bed) going to "an empty house," and 'dust running and writhing,' (dust to dust) and the running and writhing of a human life, over a 'slab of stone' like Christ in a tomb (?). 'back lashes still wet' with the tears of his, HH's betrayal and like those of a mermaid. 'like yours, Lolita." A resurrection of sorts. Charlotte has been retaken by water and dust, and resurrected in Lolita.


(I think I may need to take a step back from this work. It's always so hard to know how deep to go into interpreting a piece. I'm sure with this masterpiece though probably can't go too over deep. Also I still need to listen to the Hungerford lectures. And celebrate a birthday (June 21st))
posted by Skygazer 19 June | 13:40
I'm not sure what to make of the curious way HH talks about Jean Farlow, either, but there's certainly something there. I'm just feeling out this idea, so bear with me:

Jean is an unknowing almost-witness (and, in a small and completely innocent way, an accomplice) to Humbert's crimes and near-crimes.

It's Jean who "spies" on HH and Charlotte from the shore while Humbert has that long, perfectly imagined fantasy of drowning Charlotte. Only after he finds himself unable to commit the act does Humbert learn that Jean would have seen it all perfectly clearly: she was so close (she points out) that she even noticed the detail of his wristwatch.

It's also Jean who helps Humbert first claim the informal right to parent Dolly. After Charlotte's death, when friends and neighbors start to wonder what's going to happen to Lo (who, after all, has only been his stepdaughter for fifty days or so), Jean perpetuates and spreads Humbert's previous insinuations about Dolly's parentage. When John Farlow tries to step in and help out with Dolly (and asserts his right to interfere by saying "a little bluntly" that he was "Charlotte's friend and advisor," Jean stops him. Jean is the first one to say aloud, "she is his child, not Harold Haze's. Don't you understand? Humbert is Dolly's real father." [part 1, ch. 23]

However unwittingly, Jean is the innocent witness to Humbert's first tentative steps into taking Lolita into his control.
posted by Elsa 19 June | 14:59
A follow-up:

I think the fantasy-of-drowning scene has a much greater importance than I had ever realized before, and that's supported in part by the frequent return (as others have pointed out above) of the mermaid imagery later in the book, and by the unknowing witness of Jean to both acts (the not-drowning of Charlotte and the not-quite-abducting of Dolly), as I described above. I'm just fleshing out this idea, too, but here goes:

There's one passage in the not-drowning scene that jumps out at me:

I was not yet at that stage; I merely want to convey the ease of the act, the nicety of the setting! So there was Charlotte swimming on with dutiful awkwardness (she was a very mediocre mermaid), but not without a certain solemn pleasure (for was not her merman by her side?); and as I watched, with the stark lucidity of a future recollection (you know --- trying to see things as you will remember having seen them), the glossy whiteness of her wet face so little tanned despite all her endeavors, and her pale lips, and her naked convex forehead, and the tight black cap, and the plump wet neck, I knew that all I had to do was to drop back, take a deep breath, then grab her by the ankle and rapidly dive with my captive corpse. [part 1, ch. 20, bolded emphasis mine]

The bolded phrase about "the stark lucidity of a future recollection" is another place where Nabokov pokes his finger through the tissue of the narrative to remind us: this is a story told in retrospect, filtered through a single viewpoint. It comes about a dozen pages (and probably as few days in the story's timeline, given the brevity of their marriage) after the remark Skygazer quoted above about Humbert's current need to insult Charlotte "for retrospective verisimilitude," which has the same effect. In this sense, the passage is a little microcosm of the novel, with Charlotte standing in for her daughter.

Supporting this idea of Charlotte as Lo's stand-in for the moment: the descriptive list of Charlotte's attributes is uncharacteristic, in that it's not outright insulting; elsewhere, he calls her coarse and loud and massive and thick and plain. Here, the language is neutral at worst and maybe tender at best, perhaps because he sees her vulnerability. In any case, this is the kind of tenderly descriptive blason HH is far more likely to lavish upon Lolita than upon her mother.

Even if it isn't a microcosm of the novel (and as I said above, I'm just hammering this idea out now --- I would need to find more textual support before I'd be confident in it), it is a new glimpse into Humbert's motives. Though he claims to be sideswiped by lust, helpless in the face of his predilictions, it's not only his sexual desires that drive him so potently. Drowning Charlotte would be an avenue to satisfying those desires, yes, but the way he lavishly, lusciously fantasizes the act --- and imagines it in present tense, as if it is happening in the moment! --- it's more than just expediency that spurs him to consider it.

I suggest that Humbert enjoys power, enjoys knowing that someone is completely vulnerable to him. We know he has imagined quite brutally kicking and slapping Valeria, and he says he's actually twisted her already injured wrist and plans to "very horribly" hurt her "very vulnerable legs" when he's alone with her --- which he never is again.. We also know he was furious when she left not because he cares for her, but because "matters of legal and illegal conjunction were for me and me alone to decide" [part 1, ch. 8].

I suggest that the drowning fantasy is one of power: Humbert realizes that he can have this unsuspecting defenseless person completely in his power, and (as he has so many times before) he stops to fantasize about how that power can be exercised. It's a very sensuous passage, all about breath and movement and the desire to act, but remaining inactive... as so many of Humbert's previous fantasies have been about breath and movement despite total inactivity.
posted by Elsa 19 June | 15:22
Right, right (I completely missed what HH was implying with that whole story about having met Charlotte before she gave birth to Lolita, and was glad, Jean, as it seems a woman would, caught that right away...). So that would be mean the apology gives her is for the way he manipulated and took advantage of her willingness to see him as good.

Seems also that Jean had a thing for HH and was hoping perhaps once the flame had dimmed from his marriage to Charlotte...

There's an airy resignation about the way she says good bye. About the way she's taking the high road and letting her "noble" and consciously "selfless" qualities rule her quite powerful baser desires at that moment...allowing only the suggestion idea that she and HH might be able to have a dalliance when:

Perhaps, somewhere, some day, at a less miserable time, we may see each other again.


posted by Skygazer 19 June | 15:23
Ah, I think you may have hit it: Humbert is apologizing in part for using her as a tool in constructing his trap for Lo, but he's also apologizing for dismissing and despising Jean herself.

I also think that Jean's airy farewell to Humbert is a little poke at her "type": she paints (badly); she wears trousers or shorts or billowing skirts --- in that time and circle, a nod to Bohemian aspirations despite her middle-class comfort; she's not offended by witnessing nudity (of Leslie Tomson and of Ivor) but she's not above gossiping about it (and about nastier things); she's sensitive enough to interrupt her husband's bigoted remarks in case they might offend HH but not enlightened enough to find the remarks obviously offensive herself, as far as we know.

She's airily resigned, maybe. Or maybe she's using a subtler version of the same tactic Charlotte used in her letter to Humbert: she says she's selflessly letting go, but hoping something else will happen.

But. Here's one small thing that maybe supports your picture of Jean as noble and airily resigned: she's the only adult female (maybe the only female, period) I can recall who is apparently interested in Humbert without some sort of quid pro quo. Charlotte wanted him for a husband, not a lover. So did Valeria. HH's mistresses and prostitutes required various forms of monetary reward. Eventually, so did Dolly. Jean's overtures, if overtures they are, are for the sake of pleasure alone.

Another layer to HH's plea for Jean's forgiveness: I did a quick search of the text for the words forgive, forgiveness, and forgiving. only the first two appear, and only in two passages: the one you quote above, and one passage where Charlotte asks Humbert's forgiveness for making plans without consulting him. Nowhere does Humbert ask Lo's forgiveness, at least not by using that word.

But it is Humbert and Dolly, not Humbert and Jean, who do meet again under circumstances less miserable (at least for her), and it is Dolly, not Jean, whose forgiveness Humbert should really plead for.
posted by Elsa 19 June | 16:04
Someone as insecure and in a perpetual state of terror that his defective sexuality will be discovered, would have to be a power obsessed control freak. Any woman over 18 with a healthy sexuality is Humbert's natural mortal enemy, and liable to, in a moment of insight see right through his guise and undo him. I think that's why he's so unrelentingly misogynist: women are "Coarse, sexually mature, predatory" etc etc..

I think you're right about Nabokov/HH parodying Jean's bohemian pretense.

Also, it's just occurred to me that "Parenthesis" has to be a play on: Parent Thesis. HH is asking forgiveness for, amongst other things, his fiction that he was Lolita's true genetic father. His parent thesis, as it were. Apology in parenthesis of course.

Which is brilliant on Nabokov's part, but an entirely inappropriate pun in ludicrous bad taste that could only come from a sociopathic dork like Humbert Humbert.

posted by Skygazer 19 June | 17:17
Fantastic comments.

There is endless "twinning" in this book -- Humbert/Quilty, Humbert/Charlotte, Charlotte/Lolita, etc -- and these are just a few of the most obvious. I think another role the water motif may play is the idea of reflection.

I think the comments about the falseness of the passage of time are on the money, too. This book is very preoccupied with freezing time, pinning it in place as a butterfly is pinned to a board -- think how Humbert worries about crystallizing and freezing Lolita, and sees her in frozen moments or clips. There is no evolution or progression that is true in this book given that Humbert is delivering his delusions to us at the same time he is supposedly realizing their artifice.

I'd add one more thing -- I loved the anti Semitic references and play, such a bitter and humorous commentary on American society at the time, but also loved how close "Prof. Humberg" is to "Professor Humbug." No way that was accidental. Humbert is truly a fraud, in multiple ways. Pretty on the outside, revolting on the inside.

posted by bearwife 21 June | 19:41

Parent thesis! Hah! Good catch. It is of course, another example of, as below

It's always so hard to know how deep to go into interpreting a piece.

....why Nabokov drives critics batty. The general standpoint is that the author's intent is to be disregarded, because shallow; make one's case from the text, and damn whatever she said the point was. But with Nabokov just when you think you've hit on a new insight you trip over a little in-joke like that and you're never quite, quite certain that it's not deliberate, all part of the little game he's playing with you the reader. Not a new path to the heart of the labyrinth but just another Easter egg he's left for you to find.

And in re Jean Farlow, another quote comes to mind...."women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible topics of parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished." Jean may be more willing to bend the rules than Charlotte, but for the rest I think spot on....
In re the anti-Semitism --- Nabokov's wife was Jewish. In his own family millieu, which was staunchly liberal, this wasn't a big deal, but in most other household of his era and class (turn of the century Russian aristocrats) it would have been mildly to very unthinkable, from what I understand. His alertness to Anti-Semitism crops up in other works as well.
posted by diablevert 21 June | 20:37
I hope people are still checking this. I am, and hope to be back soon with more comments.
posted by Skygazer 03 July | 19:39
I am.
posted by diablevert 13 July | 21:34
posted by Skygazer 03 August | 14:03
Hi there. So, I'm absurdly late to this, and I don't know if anyone will see this comment at this point but what the heck.. (I was unaware of this MeFi book club thing or I would've joined in back in June.)

So, way back 20 years ago in college I had the privilege of twice being assigned Lolita in classes taught by Alfred Appel, Jr., the editor and annotator of The Annotated Lolita. (Really, I must say, one of the best things about going to a big named school is the chance to take a class from the world expert in their topic.)

Appel, as I recall, actually took Nabokov's literature classes at Cornell, and also knew Nabokov personally through his work on annotating Lolita. It's from Appel that I learned that it's pronounced na-BO-kov, not NA-bo-kov. I won't say Appel had the book memorized, exactly, but for any point he ever wanted to make he could give a quote and cite the page number without opening the book, which always amazed me.

Anyway - a couple things I remember him stressing in his lectures. One, that I don't think I've seen mentioned in the discussion above, is the parody of pop-culture language and romantic cliche. "Tristram in movielove." The quote I always remember is "come live with me, and die with me, and everything with me (words to that effect)." It's the "words to that effect" that shows this is Humbert piling on the cliches, even when he doesn't mean them inside.

Or also, the moments when Humbert addresses the reader: "O Reader!" "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury...." It's a sham, though: Humbert is feeding us the pop culture cliches that are always invoked in movies and novels to evoke the sympathy of the audience.

The other moment that has always stuck in my brain - that really caused some synapses to spark when Appel pointed it out in class: Humbert's mother dies in a parenthesis. "My very photogenic mother died in freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three..." Maybe it's just my own reaction, but I've always been in awe of how with just two words "picnic, lightning" a whole short story is contained. Just two words, and yet a whole scene unfolds in the mind's eye. But yet - it's a toss off. It's a massive tragedy, a mother dying when the son is only three, but it's tossed aside in a parenthesis like it doesn't matter. It's also sort of like Humbert attempting to give a nod to Freud - in the interest of playing another heart string of his audience - and yet at the same time a dismissal of Freud's whole theory. (yeah, yeah, mom died, so what.)

I guess what I've always taken from Appel's lectures and from the book is that if you read it for the story, if you get too hung up on the pedophilia and how utterly creepy that is, then you miss the real genius of the novel. I've always felt it was more about the language, and the way the language parodies American culture, that was the real point of interest. (I've not actually seen either movie version all the way through - only parts of the Kubrick one - and I'm not sure I feel like a "movie" of this would really work, because so much of what "happens" in the novel isn't the story, it's the detecting of Humbert lying while he tries to play the heroic lover.)

Now a couple of anecdotes from Professor Appel. You know how many authors speak of how during the process of writing a novel, the characters "take over" the plot and "do things" the author hadn't expected or intended? Apparently someone once asked Nabokov if he'd ever experienced this occurrence which is said to be so common to writers, and he answered "heavens no, it sounds perfectly horrifying." If you've ever read his Pale Fire I think you'll really understand this. I think perhaps Nabokov's books are best approached as something like puzzles: this isn't novel writing or storytelling as we're used to thinking of it. Every word is there with a purpose, part of a plan.

The other anecdote. Due to the scandalous material of the story, Lolita ended up being published by the Olympia Press, which was generally known as a pornography publisher. All Olympia Press titles came out with the same plain green text-only cover. Now, (if I'm remembering this story correctly) Appel was in the army when he read Lolita, and once a fellow soldier saw the book, and taking it for porn, eagerly grabbed it and started reading aloud to the rest of the platoon. "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... Awww shit, this ain't porn, it's goddamn littrachur!"
posted by dnash 16 August | 19:21
dnash, great comment. Appel did put these points in Annotated Lolita, but sadly you were not here to remind us about them when this thread was busier. Please do jump on for the next book.
posted by bearwife 16 August | 23:31
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