Monday, March 23, 2009

Count on a Murderer for a Fancy Prose Style

The plot of Lolita, to the extent that one exists, is about the contest between poetry and prose, between style and substance. Hear me out on this. I’ll focus first on the book’s style, specifically those moments where author Nabokov, through his narrator Humbert Humbert, calls attention to his own use of language, whether directly through parenthetical asides, or through the use of elaborate puns, gestures, and/or invented words and phrases.

To point out stylistic flourishes in Lolita is (to warp a cliché, as H.H. is so very fond of doing) like shooting schools of bright purple fish in a barrel. Just about every line of Lolita holds some stylistic flourish, and with its profusion of subordinate clauses, its raised-eyebrow semicolons, its profusion of parenthetical asides and italicized French (mon dieux!) the book is often more pleasing to the ears than to the eyes, which grow weary under the weight of such prosaic richness. This sort of writing demands to be heard, specifically in the voice of an “aging” European intellectual with a posh mid-Atlantic accent and mobile features who happens, incidentally, to be a pederast.

I begin my annotation on page 43 of my text (Vintage International Paperback) with the 2nd paragraph, the one that begins, “Monday—Delectatio morosa. I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors.” That last line, so encrusted with puns, alliteration and double entendres, could easily be borrowed from the allusive rag and bone shop of Finnegan’s Wake. I ask myself: what’s Humbert/Nabokov up to, what’s his game? Is this meant to charm, disarm? How does the use of such self-conscious stylistic language achieve, or subvert, his end, which, I take it, is to get the reader to ingest the 300 some-odd page confession of a child molester? Nabokov says it himself: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Yes, but why? Does the fancy style make Humbert easier to swallow? Or is it a decoy designed to call the reader’s attention away from the disgusting facts? Am I being seduced?

Page 58: “The magazine escaped to the floor like a flustered fowl.” It’s a good description; a great description. But not the kind that goes down like clear water, leaving the reader only with the intended image: a magazine splayed across a carpet, and not—as here—a flurry of winged words flapping their feathers, so the dazzled reader must stop for a moment and rub his eyes before seeing a magazine again, and not a duck or a chicken. This is description not as depiction but as a form of distraction, not meant to help the reader see but to dazzle and deflect the reader’s sight. This is showing off.

Humbert makes a good case for his own decency, this man who (pg. 62) steals “the honey of a spasm without spoiling the morals of a minor” and later (pg. 63), “I intended, with the most fervent force and foresight, to protect the purity of that twelve-year-old child.” He doesn’t tell us, of course, to what end he intends to protect it. But he tells us in language as sweet with its own honey, language that Humbert fondles and caresses and holds out to the reader for his or her own delectation just as he holds Lolita (the book, not the nymphette) out to us, for us to slobber over, to make us complicit in his crime. If we hold Humbert guilty of child abuse, then we must as surely hold him guilty of a mannered style. But if, on the other hand, we not only forgive his mannerisms but allow ourselves to be seduced and to even gain pleasure from them, then we must also forgive him his other crime. This, I think, is the method of Humbert’s madness, also a possibly key to the style of Lolita. His two wrongs (snobbishness and pederasty) may make a right, if only by nullifying each other.

Later (page 71) “. . .I might blackmail—no, that is too strong a word— mauvemail big Haze into letting me. . .” Here Humbert goes to extremes to demonstrate his passion for accuracy, le mot juste, even to coining his own terms when existing ones won’t do. But Humbert also knows he’s making us laugh, and that, I suspect, is his true aim, to get us to see what a (to borrow a phrase) “charming bugger” he is. Here, let me freshen your snifter—just a dram. It goes without saying that a man so playfully exacting with language wouldn’t harm a little girl, would he? Here, let me kiss your skinned knee.

Further down the same page; “the artist in me has been given the upper hand over the gentleman. It is with great effort of will that in this memoir I have managed to tune my style to the tone of the journal that I kept when Mrs. Haze was to me but an obstacle.” And later, ending the same paragraph, “But I am no poet. I am only a very conscientious recorder.” The point is arguable, since only a very fine line divides the skillful stylist and the poet, and often they’re indistinguishable. And anyway our narrator is being coy, since he’s nothing if not a poet. “Poets never kill,” we’re told later, on page 88, in the same passage where Humbert throws his hands in the air and declares on behalf of all pederasts, “We are not sex fiends!” In either case he dost protest too much. No wonder poets are distrusted. To be sure Humbert is a fiend, a fiend for the English language.

Of course the poet’s main aim is to tell the truth, while the stylist may —inadvertently or not—deceive. But Humbert does tell the truth, factually, but in words that are so beguiling we hardly notice, at times, the truth that we’re being told. When it comes to language, even more than when it comes to nymphets, Humbert is a voracious seducer, a man with little self-control or restraint: he cannot help himself.

But with respect to style this may be in his favor. Were Humbert any more humble, any less determined to arouse through the snobbishness of his prose an antipathy so thorough it would survive a “not guilty” verdict by any number of juries, then his readers (the real jurors) would really hate him. As it is, we must choose between our strongest antipathies. Indeed, Humbert is as defensive of his literary style as of his sexual predilections.

Pg. 77: “(to prolong these Proustian intonations)”. Humbert’s style is riddled with parenthetical asides like this, often embodying some form of internal literary self-policing, to remind his reader that, if he’s behaving badly, that is, if he’s going too far, he knows it. Not only does he know it, he’ll be the first to tell us he’s doing so. I know I’m pompous; I’m so pompous I can apologize pompously for being pompous. Often parenthetical asides are used to tell us exactly how to read a line, even how to punctuate or typeset “(underlined twice)” it. These days most authors consider parenthesis eyesores, to be avoided. But like so many aspects of Nabokov’s style, I think he wants to poke you in the eye with his parenthesis, to interrupt the narrative flow, to call attention to the scrim, the artifice of words.

Literary slumming. Often Humbert bursts into “common folk talk,” as on Page 87 where he writes, “But what d’ye know, folks. . .” This refined European sensibility dipping his toe now and then into the reeking muck of the vurnacular, just as he dips other parts of himself into pedestrian little girls. The whole book, after all, is about a refined gentleman’s slumming, literally and sexually, in America, wallowing in its neon-tinged highway gutters, fascinated by its homely giddiness and grit. Often, reading this book, I’m aware that America is Humbert’s real nymphet, only he’s the one losing his virginity to it, having his cherry popped (so to speak). He’s certainly as in love with the landscape that floats past the windows of his car as with the girl in the passenger seat beside him (a passing truck’s break lights: “backside carbuncles pulsating”). . .The more I read, the more clearly a triumvirate of obsessions comes into focus: a certain type of pubescent girl, America, the English (American) language: each tempting in its own way; each in its own way dangerous; each in its own way potentially damning. In the end, Humbert’s love for the English language will seduce, trap, and betray him as surely as Lolita; he will make his own bed out of words and lie in it, this fancy talking sexual deviant, this stilted orally-fixated predator, this intellectual European snob come to our shores to rape our little girls. Inarticulate American brutes and blockheads, feel vindicated! This guy with all his fancy talk makes y’all look good!

But it’s the English language which we think of as our own—as our innocent child—that’s been ravaged. Left alone in a room with her, Humbert’s fingers fondle and probe mercilessly. What’s that lump there? An adverb. Supposing we stick it here. And that adjective, let’s stick that there, thus.

The real object of these pages is no pubescent girl, but the American language and landscape, still virginal to Nabokov, as fresh, as untouched and untainted as any brown-skinned nymphet.

To return ("by a commodius vicus of recirculation") to my original premise: Humbert, the poet-seducer, in love with his new language, must seduce her away from Plot, spelled with a Q, as in Quilty, the Dramatist. A tug of war ensues, a cross-country battle, an interstate chess match (quilt = chess board = patches of cultivated terrain as seen from the sky) of wits and wills with Quilty in pursuit of Humbert, insisting that he release his drunken grip on Lolita (language: trippingly off the tongue) and deliver to us, the readers, a book with a shapely, eventful narrative: a plot. Humbert will have none of it. He wants to be free to take the language where he wishes and do with it what he wants to do; by no means does he wish to ploddingly plot his way through 300 some-odd pages, but to soar away free, stopping occasionally at a seedy motel for a bout of pure linguistic cunnilingus. But Quilty keeps interfering with Humbert’s plan (to write a book with no plot), and so the contest. In the end, Plot is riddled (almost to his satisfaction, one senses) with bullets (made not of lead, but of words) and murdered. Loyal to the end, Quilty staggers through a dozen pages. Dramatist dead. Contest over. End of Plot.

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