Wednesday, 22 July 2009

The cheapest of cheap cuties

So the woman who puts the 'hick' in 'chick lit', Nina L, was going to guest-write this post, whacking on here a dashed-off undergraduate triumph about Nabokov and his relation to something-or-other (she mumbled it to me, but it sounded intelligent). Sadly, she realised it was on the wrong computer and couldn't get to it or something (also mumbled, but sounded plausible) the ball's back in my court.

As i get the sad, paranoid feeling that approximately one person other than me reads this (hi mum!), it doesn't matter what i write here, and since i'm feeling lazy too, no-one's going to be disappointed if i select some choice quotes from 'Lolita', passively enjoy them, and leave it at that. If anyone genuinely was looking forward to some robust monologue, there'll be some when it comes to current Dusty book '...Oscar Wao'. Cos i have a shit-ton to say about that firecracker. Or Nina can find her essay. It's never too late for an English degree to be useful.

Nabokov is amazing. After his native Russian, English was his second language, and his grasp of it is (insert preferred superlative, i'm all out of interesting ones). In a note on 'Lolita', he said he wrote the novel as a 'record of his love affair with the English language'. (Although he then said English is apparently 'second-rate' compared to the 'infinitely docile Russian tongue' - cheers mate!), but - my god - what a great reason to write a novel, just to play around with nice words. And what a novel to choose to write!

I can't be bothered to discuss sympathy or otherwise for Humbert 'Jeremy Irons' Humbert. The tragedy at the heart of 'Lolita' is its blinding central conceit, and it's devastatingly clear that HH is a child rapist – although Lolita initially seduced him, fairly soon after she was desperate to get out of his clutches and he kept her with him, raping her, occasionally paying her for it (ie. using her as a whore) for two years (the second half of the novel). I find it utterly baffling that anyone could see him as sympathetic...though obviously one of Nabokov's tricks is to have us understand, on one level, that HH cannot help himself - he's just too much of a romantic to resist his 'schoolgirl nymphet'. And it's like he has this big modus operandi only he has the guts to deal he says - 'i am not concerned with so-called "sex" at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavour lures me on: to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets'.

Hmm. I was bored on a plane journey recently, and needed to do something intellectually stimulating to mitigate the fact I'd just enjoyed and cried (a lot) at 'He's Just Not That Into You' and 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2' (which, by the way, is awesome) - and 'Lolita' was the only book I had, and since I'd already read it 1.5 times at that stage, I decided to make a close examination of the language used in their sexual conduct, in order to try to ascertain the levels of self-deception and reader manipulation going on in our narrator. I came to the definitive conclusion that there are numerous instances of rape reported by Humbert Humbert as acts of love. I didn't pick up on them on first reading, but it was a bleak exercise -they're there. I do wonder how much the light, vivid tone causes readers not to see clearly quite the level of cruelty that's played out through the entirety of the novel.

p.185: 'I would lead my reluctant pet to our small home to a quick connection before dinner'.

Quick connection, eh? There's tons of these. The closer you read, the darker it gets.

Anyway, whatever. Got no desire to continue the epic show of pedantry...the point was meant to be that if anyone is actually reading this and hasn't read 'Lolita', read it. As dark as it is, its also hilarious and somehow, incomparably beautiful. Don't limp out and see the film instead - the Adrian Lyne version of the film was so diluted and lacking in comparison it made me remember, cos i sometimes forget, why books will always be superior to films (although I haven't seen the Kubrick version nor the Nabokov script for the Kubrick version, but c'mon!). So lets scamper onwards from the grimness of HH and look at writing instead. Nabokov is the best writer ever. Discuss. Well, in lieu of quoting the whole damn perfect novel, here's my favourite bit, which, in sheer writing terms, is genius:

(It's Humbert describing Lolita playing tennis, p.263 in the Penguin Red Classic edition)
'She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home. Her tennis was the highest point to which I can imagine a young creature bringing the art of make-believe, although I daresay, for her it was the very geometry of reality.
The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke. The ball when it entered her aura of control became somehow whiter, its resilience somehow richer, and the instrument of precision she used upon it seemed inordinately prehensile and deliberate at the moment of clinging contact. Her form was, indeed, an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis - without any utilitarian results. As Edusa's sister, Electra Gold, a marvelous young coach, said to me once while I sat on a pulsating hard bench watching Dolores Haze toying with Linda Hall (and being beaten by her): "Dolly has a magnet in the center of her racket guts, but why the heck is she so polite?" Ah, Electra, what did it matter, with such grace! I remember at the very first game I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation. My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.'

Wow. Especially 'hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm...' So beautiful. But this is one random sentence (albeit from an exceptional paragraph) out of hundreds as equally good in 'Lolita' - the imagery's so vibrant and different and yet still obvious - look at a gorgeous young girl playing tennis - she's not just 'hot', she's gleaming, pristine, burnished, capable of creating her own mini-cosmos. Understanding you can see all that in a simple tennis serve helps me to see the world (yeah, and tennis) more richly. That's what the whole of 'Lolita' is like; fracturing into prismatic brilliance what would be in most other hands another motherfucking mundane view of reality. The scene in the hotel when Humbert gives Lolita the sleeping pill, then, 'somewhere behind the raging bliss, bewildered shadows conferred' (which is my favourite sentence in the whole novel), as he figures out how to get it on with her, having realised the pill ain't that strong, and worrying she's going to wake up cos of the gurgle of the 'manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet', is both poetic heaven AND comedy gold. And when Humbert trips over some chairs and calls them 'incarnadine zebras!' Awesome!

Also, it's kind of frowned upon by the grim masters of domestic realism to use adverbs in fiction, but Nabokov's poetry flows so well that you don't trip over, or find excessive, his use of 'inordinately', 'absolutely', 'infinitely', etc, which would be excoriated in the hands of a lesser poet. Which just goes to show...something.

His accent rocks!

Anyway, enough. i guess it made me realise why i'm such a word slut...when they're used well together, you get comedy and controversy, poetry and beauty, motel paeans and roadside thrills...they're the architecture of other worlds. Pretty cool.


  1. Meta meta meta.

    not much to add to this other than some smug, knowing nods to nabakov's apparent literary gamesmanship. in alasdair gray's mindblowing science-fiction-dystopian-semi-autobigraphical-bildungroman "Lanark", he talks of blockplags, implags and difplags, or in plain english: block plagiarism, imbedded plagiarism and diffuse plagiarism and diffuse plagiarism. block plagiarism is your basic, blatant reproduction of another's words with no attempt to disguise it. imbedded plagiarism is where stolen words are concealed within the body of narrative and diffuse plagiarism is where scenery, characters and actions have been stolen without reproducing the original words. in other words its "homage".

    gray originally coined those vaguely orwellian terms in order to contextualise the similarities "Lanark" had to Charles Kingsley's "The Water Babies", and in turn, the term difplag could be applied to Nabakov's sly nod to Edgar Allen Poe's "Annabel Lee".

    It was many and many a year ago,
    In a kingdom by the sea,
    That a maiden there lived whom you may know
    By the name of Annabel Lee;
    And this maiden she lived with no other thought
    Than to love and be loved by me.

    I was a child and she was a child,
    In this kingdom by the sea:
    But we loved with a love that was more than love -
    I and my Annabel Lee;
    With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
    Coveted her and me.

    And this was the reason that, long ago,
    In this kingdom by the sea,
    A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
    My beautiful Annabel Lee;
    So that her high-born kinsmen came
    And bore her away from me,
    To shut her up in a sepulchre
    In this kingdom by the sea.

    The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
    Went envying her and me -
    Yes! that was the reason (as all men know,
    In this kingdom by the sea)
    That the wind came out of the cloud one night,
    Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

    But our love it was stronger by far than the love
    Of those who were older than we -
    Of many far wiser than we -
    And neither the angels in heaven above,
    Nor the demons down under the sea,
    Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

    For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
    Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
    And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
    Of my darling -my darling -my life and my bride,
    In the sepulchre there by the sea -
    In her tomb by the sounding sea.

    Poe was always rum one, what with his obsession with dead girls and his rampant alcoholism. But I'm getting a little side-tracked. It's clear that Humbert Humbert is in fact the sad, haunted proto-emoboy that narrates Poe's poem. "Lolita" could be seen as a sequel of sorts, charting just what happens to young boys unable to navigate the mental gymnastics required to reconcile oneself to the caprices of love and death. Or as i refer to them: "those things that make life simulatenously unbearable and wonderful".

    Humbert Humbert is, and will forever be stuck in that idyllic "kindgom by the sea", mourning over the loss of his first love Annabel Leigh/Lee, where summer seems to last forever, and bluebirds fly and rainbows and unicorns and la la la.

    additional: my first encounter with poe's poem was actually in the pages of the wonderfully vulgar, wilfully unpleasant "Vault of Horror" comics published by EC. Usually all their stories (beautifully and viscerally rendered by some of the finest artists working in the 50s) all involved 'orrible cunts meeting some form of karmic retribution through some supernatural means. Imagine my dismay when the cover boasted of a "chilling adaptation of an Edgar Allen Poe poem!" and instead just delieved the soppy, sentimental mush above? Even the ever reliable pen of Jack Davis couldn't raise it above being a maudlin snoozer.

  2. Chin - this is copacetic; please excuse my inexcusable lack of reply so far...i've been stuffing myself with seafood and falliing over everywhere on my bicycle.

    Oh, wait. That's you. Im just lacking a brain.

    Yours lobotomizically,

  3. Chinzoid,

    I love the differentiations of plagiarism by Gray. Specifically that it acknowledges something some writers bizarrely shy away from: Influence. Inspiration. Models. Not as in 'the anxiety of', but 'the rapture of'...There's actually an annotated version of Lolita i'll probably buy when i'm 50 which has Nabokov explaining and chortling his way through approx 900 or so literary allusions, or, as they're described in the Amazon ting: "entomological allusions" and (this is great) the "cryptogrammic paperchase". Well of course. So the whole Lo/Poe difplag - Nabokov was onto himself.

    Oh, Vladimir:
    "reader familiar with Lolita can approach the apparatus as a separate unit, but the perspicacious student who keeps turning back and forth from text to Notes risks vertigo".

    Usually i'd hit someone using the words 'apparatus', 'perspicacious' and 'forth' in the same sentence, but it's okay with NBKV.

    btw i know shit all about comics so can add nothing to your Donologue about a maudlin snoozer.

  4. Great piece! I've read Lolita at least forty times and sentences still leap out at me and startle've nailed a few more for me here. Prismatic brilliance...that's exactly it.

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