Wednesday, 20 April 2005
Saturday will be Vladimir Nabokov's birthday. In the Summer-Fall, 1967, issue of The Paris Review (#41), there is an interview with him in which he is asked if he considers himself an American. Nabokov replies, "Yes, I do. I am as American as April in Arizona."
Had he lived to hear the song "Don't Stand So Close to Me", he would have been most displeased to find his name mentioned in it. He would certainly have disdained the context, but he also would have objected to the sound. In a 1965 interview, he noted that his name received a variety of pronunciations and declared, "The awful 'Na-bah-kov' is a despicable gutterism". Sting must have missed that interview, not to mention this mnemonic device Nabokov created:
(In the 1965 interview he also offers that "Vladimir" should rhyme with "redeemer". All of this can be found in Strong Opinions.)
For a while I've been meaning to give Lolita another read, but I'm waiting to have the time to do it right, with dictionary by my side and no distractions. If you've really read Lolita, you should be able to pass this quiz (at the bottom of the linked page).
Nabokov has always struck me as the most anti-establishment of writers. As a result, I'm sure he would object to the label of "anti-establishment" just as he would object to any attempt to categorize, or genericize, him.
Most attempts to criticize Nabokov for "arrogance" will submit as evidence his low opinion of a Great Writer, in other words his refusal to conform his thoughts and feelings to the decrees of an authoritarian literati establishment. If they say such-and-such writer has been canonized, then it is not for anybody else to dare to question their judgement. Nabokov dared and, considering his genius, his fame, his influence, he will always be a threat. This is why people trip all over themselves in their attempts to take him down a peg.
Last year, German scholar Michael Maar published an article about a German short story from the 1920s called "Lolita", which he thinks has too much in common with Nabokov's Lolita to be coincidence. I've read Nabokov's Lolita, I've read Maar's article, and I've read the German "Lolita", by Heinz von Lichberg. (I read Carolyn Kunin's English translation, published in the Times Literary Supplement.) My verdict: coincidence.
Maar's thesis depends on a reading of Nabokov's Lolita which I find to be bizarre and unsupported by the text: as a tale of demonic possession with Humbert as victim. His article has some very speculative writing, such as: "As late as 1975, you could still buy [the book containing Heinz von Lichberg's "Lolita" story] for fifty pfennig in a second-hand bookstore in Berlin. In the 1920s and 30s it must have been quite generally available." Oh? Why? What's the connection between those two ideas? What's the significance?
Maar is desperate to trump Nabokov with von Lichberg. Here's how he caps an account of the latter's transatlantic zeppelin trip: "On this trip Heinz von Lichberg saw New York over a decade before Vladimir Nabokov did."
Poor Nabokov! I guess his whole life is an imitation of this obscure German writer!
I disagree too often with Maar's article to go into a point-by-point examination here. Just to give one example, though, Maar compares the endings of the two Lolitas as though they are startlingly similar, when I think they're not very. "Lola is murdered shortly after the death of her daughter. Lolita dies in the weeks following childbirth, after having given birth to a dead girl."
I think this is a case of what Sherlock Holmes called a capital mistake, theorizing with insufficient data. Holmes noted that you end up distorting what little data you have so as to support whatever arbitrary theory you've concocted to satisfy your whims and prejudices.
I think this is what Maar has done, but to his credit, he makes it quite clear that he is alleging no plagiarism or anything like it. He favors cryptomnesia as the solution: that Nabokov read it, forgot it, then remembered a few disparate elements from the story without realizing their origin.
Of course, this didn't stop the New York Times and other mainstream (establishment) media from writing articles about the LOLITA PLAGIARISM SCANDAL!
After they printed Maar's article, the Times Literary Supplement also printed a letter from one Dieter E. Zimmer, who made this excellent point about the cryptomnesia theory: "The unconscious, of course, is a very pliable medium. You may fill it with anything you wish, and as nobody can ever prove the contrary, you're always on the safe side. It's hard enough to prove that somebody knew a book he never talked about, but it is utterly impossible to prove that he did not know it".
The next week in the TLS, Maar responds to Zimmer with his own letter, in which he lists the resemblances between the two narratives. None of the items on this list is particularly interesting (e.g., "the heroine has the same name"), and most are spurious. I do not believe that Lolita seduced Humbert. It is Humbert who tells us this, after all, and you definitely should not believe whatever he tells you, because he is insane, solipsistic, and a monster. I also do not believe that Lolita is, as Maar would have it, "half-demon and half-child". I'm not impressed by the fact that one story takes place by the sea and the other partially by a lake. And so on.
But Maar thinks he still holds the high card. "In the second chapter, Humbert Humbert watches Lolita among other nymphets at the swimming-pool, and recalls that none ever surpassed her in desirability, with a few exceptions: 'once in the hopeless case of a pale Spanish child, the daughter of a heavy-jawed nobleman...' Why did Nabokov introduce this Spanish daughter of a nobleman as the only child capable of competing with Lolita? She lacks any obvious function in the text." (The von Lichberg Lolita is encountered in Spain, in case you're wondering what the big deal is.)
But this is just where Maar is wrong. That Spanish daughter of a nobleman is a very important clue, one of the essential data you need to construct a working theory of Lolita. In the Spring, 2004, issue of the Nabokovian (#52), the semi-annual publication of the International Vladimir Nabokov Society, there is a fascinating and illuminating article, "'Enchanters, Artists, Madmen.' The Influence of Cervantes' Don Quixote de la Mancha on Nabokov's Lolita", by Miriam Gottfried.
If you're interested, you should send away for that issue. It's a very persuasive argument, many times more convincing than Maar's. Gottfried demonstrates how Humbert is a distorted reflection and perversion of Quixote, a deranged wandering knight sacrificing and suffering everything for an idealized woman. Pity Quixote, but not the slimy Humbert.
Gottfried's essay begins with Humbert Humbert's own words: "He, mon cher petit papa, took me out boating and biking, taught me to swim and dive and water-ski, read to me Don Quixote..."