Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Annotated Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov (Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr.)

To kickstart what deserves to be one of the truly momentous posts on Flying Houses, I submit to you a (n expurgated) journal entry dated March 9, 2002:

"3.9.02 2:10 PM (on a bus)
Iowa is dreary. I am not really in Iowa yet, still in Illinois actually, but this landscape is exactly what Iowa will be like, and it is dreary.
I am on my way to Iowa to visit (...) I think we are still in Illinois. This writing interrupts my reading of Lolita, so it must be worth it. Ideas pondering lately:
-What is fiction or drama? I mean, what is the purpose in it?
I was expecting a beautiful sunset (Ed. corrected author's error of "sunrise") amongst the barrenness of Iowa and I hope the stars are out tonight.
1. What is fiction? There seems to be no point to fiction. If you ask a person who loves fiction as much as I do, they will say fiction is about the evocation of beauty. What is beauty? Empathy + hope + present-time happiness + an unfading beautiful memory + ephemeral joy + (we are in Princeton, IL now, I saw the sign. I have heard of this place before but I have never seen it until now. That can be construed as a thing of beauty.) inspiration + justice (circled with an arrow pointing to the squared passage 'why everyone loves a happy ending, because we love the character so and we see they deserve the best.') + brilliant observations + respect + fun and happiness w/out the knowledge that it will end!
Thus, beauty is proof of a divine presence, and to see or experience beauty is to see or experience God or whatever construct we have created. Two things:
-I believe in myself (for I see the world through my eyes and I know I am experiencing whatever life I create and so on.)
-I believe in God because everything that is must have been created (Before Big Bang, unmovable mover (Aquinas said that), etc.) Everything else (in the world) can either be:
a) logical and mundane
b) divinely influenced
A) There is logic to everything. Logic of human emotions (which seem mysterious and divine) can be unlocked by looking into the chemicals of your body. The mind, I, is really the only mysterious/divine thing about the human being that cannot be unlocked by science or explanation. We have this much to go on for proof of divinity. If part two to "two things" does not suit you, do not believe it. It is obscenely logical almost so much that we might discount it. But perhaps b/c of my Christian upbringing, my view of the depths of the universe, etc. I suppose that even of God's existence I cannot be sure, but if he does exist, there is a more hopeful view of humanity to be had, since the will to create is always a benign one (at least to oneself) and for the best of your creation. People do not have babies to torture them, usually. Authors do not want their books to fail, usually. It is these "usuallies" that reveal why part 1 of "two things," Descartes philosophy, is the most true thing we can hope to learn. Part two is a mystery that we cannot be fully sure of, I suppose. But we are sure of ourselves.
In the search for God, the knowledge that "I exist" will prove to be the most fruitful of any other explanations we can come up with. The only other explanation that I can find for proof of God, is randomness and randomness may be just that, but it could also be proof of a divine presence or predestination or whatever you call it. 8.18.01, which nearly began this once-black book, and now appears near the end, is an example of that randomness. If the encounter had happened on the most remote point on planet Earth, then I would be inclined to say that predestination is true, though unbelievers would still be able to call it chance/randomness. I will talk about the other things at a different time. My hand hurts. I will mention that handwriting yields better writing than typing because I believe there is an automatic filter in your brain that forces you to say exactly what you want to say in the fewest words. It's called laziness."

Why include this bizarre philosophical tangent in a review of Lolita? This was my first time reading the book. I read it a second time at some other undisclosed point (sophomore year in college--a year later?) and now several years later read it a third time, after purchasing this annotated edition from a Barnes & Noble in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. I cannot resist:

"3.11.02 5:00 PM (on express Metra train to Wilmette)
Made it back from Iowa. Read Lolita the entire time! Had = 40 pages left - got through about 20. Was thinking too much. Nabokov = great writer. Everything falls into place perfectly. Commercial work of art! (Note: FSF is not in small bookstores where the likes of Heller and Nabokov are...FSF is less popular, is he not as good?) I read 20 pages of Lolita for about 5 hours. That is 4 pages per hour or 15 minutes per page. The fact that I did not get bored at that rate shows just how good Nabokov is. Mind you I had other distractions. Nonetheless, quite an experience."

Have you read Lolita? Of course you have. If you haven't, go to the library now, or the bookstore now, and borrow or buy a copy. It is a necessary experience. I will address those who are vaguely aware of its existence and yet shun it based upon its subject matter later. Of course, if you don't care about literature then you need not read it, but I don't feel that you would be reading this if you didn't care about literature.

I include these excerpts from my first ever "serious" journal to illuminate the process that a great work of literature can have upon a less articulate mind--total exhilaration. To witness Nabokov at his peak is to feel the desire to achieve one's own peak as well. Before I enter into proper review mode (as much of a joke as that may be from the concept of this blog) I would like to point out the fact that, while reading Pale Fire (almost exactly one year ago from today, on lunch breaks at work at "J & C" in L.A.--also one of the first posts on Flying Houses), my co-workers would ask me, "What are you reading?" And I would explain the book, which has a complicated plot, and then try to interest them slightly by saying, "It's the follow-up to Lolita (which may or may not be accurate)." And they would say, "What's Lolita?" And I would say, "What?!" I went around the office and asked everyone if they had heard of the novel, and to my amazement none of them had. My partner, a Filipino barely a year into the United States, came closest when he said, "Isn't she a porn star?" One of my other co-workers who had majored in English vaguely recalled it, and said she had never read it, saying, "Why would I ever want to read about a pervert anyway?" More on this later. Needless to say, a generous portion of the present-day American populace is probably unaware that the novel even exists, further proof that we are responsible for the current mess we all find ourselves mired within in this dismal post-2000 A.D. world.

In case you are culturally uneducated, Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a man who writes this "confession" or "memoir" from a prison cell as he awaits his trial for the murder of a man that need not be spoiled by reviews. He recounts his early life, his first love, his first marriage, and his subsequent emigration to America in the 1940's, where he had been assigned a teaching position at a certain college named Beardsley, and how he had become a boarder at a home in New England for the summer before he was to begin, and how he had fallen in love at first sight with a "nymphet," the daughter of the woman renting him his room. He recounts how he would try to get closer to the girl, eventually going so far as to marry her mother, and to even consider drowning her in a lake, until Fate takes matters into its own hands and grants him his wish. What follows is a long road trip across the United States with the girl, a temporary stop for employment at Beardsley, another road trip, and finally, loss and disillusion. What follows after that I had even forgotten about this time around--a more appropriately-aged girlfriend, a plan for revenge, and a "moral apotheosis." The story should be well-known but perhaps has faded into a vague cultural myth. Two films have been made from the novel, which may be addressed later, and significant scholarship has followed the novel over the past fifty plus years.

What makes Lolita so great? Well, the story for one, is very delicately and perfectly imagined. The characters are quite unforgettable as well. But ultimately, few will disagree that the primary strength of the text is Nabokov's use of language. There are almost no other novels that can compare with the dazzling display up for interpretation here. He truly "puts on a clinic," to use a rather hackneyed phrase. There are moments of heartrending beauty--lines I cannot forget like the closing lines of the book--"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita." (309) Closing lines that can even put the great last lines of The Magic Mountain to shame. There is also the last meeting with Lolita, one of my personal favorite scenes in the novel--"hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already 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." (277) Words that send shivers down my spine as I read them. "'Lolita, I said, 'this may be neither here nor there but I have to say it. Life is very short. From there to that old car you know so well there is a stretch of twenty, twenty-five paces. It is a very short walk. Make those twenty-five steps. Now. Right now. Come just as you are. And we shall live happily ever after.'" (278) Words that give a higher-meaning to life. "I covered my face with my hand and broke into the hottest tears I had ever shed. I felt them winding through my fingers and down my chin, and burning me, and my nose got clogged, and I could not stop, and then she touched my wrist. 'I'll die if you touch me,' I said. 'You are sure you are not coming with me? Is there no hope of your coming? Tell me only this.' 'No, she said, 'No, honey, no' She had never called me honey before." (279) I could go on quoting parts from every single section of the novel, but just recognize, you are unlikely to read a novel as emotionally satisfying, despite its ignominious qualities, as this one.

Which makes Appel's notes somewhat disturbing. What he uncovers is a whole other book's worth of material. Appel was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell in the early 1950's, while he was about to write this great novel, and himself is still a professor (an aging one but as far as I am aware, still active) at Northwestern University--which on a more personal note, really attracted me to their PH.D program in English--only I am not enough scholar for academia, as badly as I would like that opportunity. He wrote the excellent introduction to the text from Wilmette, IL on May 21, 1990, when I was no more than several blocks away, a 7-year-old playing in my parent's front yard. What is disturbing about Appel's notes are not the erudition he displays in unlocking the hundreds, maybe a thousand, allusions to other literary texts, true stories, 1940's and 1950's culture, Edgar Allen Poe, Lewis Carroll, Carmen, Robert Browning, Freud, Shakespeare (as we find out, Nabokov is obsessed with him--which is fitting as he is arguably the greatest writer since him), and surprisingly and most interestingly of all, James Joyce and Ulysses. There is a reference to the Ulysses trial on obscenity charges. There are references to stream-of-consciousness literary stylings. Appel supplies tantalizing stories about Nabokov's and Joyce's friendship:

"In a 1966 National Education Television network interview, Nabokov said the 'greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses, Kafka's Transformation, Bely's St. Petersburg; and the first half of Proust's fairy tale, In Search of Lost Time.' 'On fait son grand Joyce after doing one's petit Proust,' reads a parenthetical statement in Ada, added to the manuscript by gently derisive Ada herself. 'In [her] lovely hand (p. 169). When Vera Nabokov saw some of the opened pages of the annotator's copy of Lolita, the typeface barely visible beneath an overlay of comments in several colors of pencil and ink, she turned to her husband and said, 'Darling, it looks like your copy of Ulysses.' Although there are strong artistic affinities between Joyce and Nabokov, he dismissed the possibility of formal 'influence.': 'My first real contact with Ulysses, after a leering glimpse in the early 'twenties, was in the 'thirties at a time when I was definitely formed as a writer and immune to any literary influence. I studied Ulysses seriously only much later, in the 'fifties, when preparing my Cornell courses. That was the best part of the education I received at Cornell' (Wisconsin Studies interview) (407)

From there, Appel tells the story of their abbreviated friendship, and it is hard not to wonder what Joyce would have thought of Lolita, as I think it fairly ranks alongside his masterwork confidently. What is disturbing about Appel's notes are that, Nabokov is such a genius, that he overshadows anything anyone else believes they could ever capably accomplish--and he does so with such gusto, such confidence, such dare-I-say arrogance--that one begins to have a more complete picture of the artist than one would like--and it can be depressing for a reader that has writing dreams of their own to witness someone with such contempt for so many otherwise well-appreciated literary works (I am thinking of a couple flippant comments about Thomas Mann--don't speak badly of my Thomas!). To top it all off, he is a butterfly expert, and Lolita is not about wanting to sleep with underage girls so much as it is about using that subversive context as a kind of challenge to oneself, to write about appalling items so beautifully that it can rank as a cultural landmark. The fact that Nabokov never received the Nobel Prize for Literature (or even the Pulitzer, I believe) goes to show that, once again, people are idiots:

"Such recondite materials reminds one of Lolita's reputation, among non-readers, as a 'pornographic novel,' and also underscores how Nabokov has had the last laugh in more ways than one. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov writes about the 'delusive opening moves, false scents, [and] specious lines of play' which characterize the chess problem. The subject matter of Lolita is in itself a bravura and 'delusive opening move'--a withdrawn promise of pornography. The first one hundred or so pages of Lolita are often erotic--Lolita on H.H.'s lap, for instance--but starting with the seduction scene, Nabokov withholds explicit sexual descriptions, while H.H., trying to draw the reader into the vortex of the parody, exhorts us to 'Imagine me: I shall not exist if you do not imagine me' (p.129). 'I am not concerned with so-called 'sex' at all,' H.H. says (p.134); Nabokov, on the contrary, is very much concerned with it, but with the reader's expectations rather than H.H.'s machinations.

'Anybody can imagine those elements of animality,' he said, and yet a great many readers wished that he had done it for them--enough to have kept Lolita at the top of the best-seller list for almost a year, although librarians reported that many readers never finished the novel. The critics and remedial readers who complain that the second half of Lolita is less interesting are not aware of the possible significance of their admission." (441)

This finally brings me to my final point concerning "prudish" readers: I think ultimately it is more suspicious to avoid reading it because of its subject matter than it is to praise it to the heavens, as I am doing. Though there may be a few passages (probably about 3) that might be difficult to get through due to disturbing content--there is one indisputable truth about perverse confessions: the reader may be satisfied that the narrator is keeping nothing secret. "Nothing is sacred" goes a cliche, and so none of Humbert's emotions strike one as being false. These kinds of books, as I may have stated before (see Black Postcards review), are ultimately more revealing and "useful" than other more typical romance stories, which always is sure to make a significant contingent of its audience to groan at its maudlin, saccharine, potentially fake, or false overtones. It is rather difficult to be cynical about Lolita.

One final note concerning the annotated edition--if you have never read Lolita before, I would highly recommend reading the text without reading the notes first. The notes are the truly wonderful pleasure of this edition, but if you are obsessed with reading the notes (I am thinking of my experience with Infinite Jest) you run a sharp risk of getting frustrated with moving so slowly through the story. Read it once, note-free, then read it again, note-enhanced. This will always rank in my top 5 favorite books of all time. I hope at this point, after everything has been said, it doesn't reflect poorly on me as a human being. One wonders about the rights we enjoy as Americans if that thought is too deeply fixed in our minds.

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