A Look Back at LOLITA by Randall Radic
In one of the most beautiful places on earth, or at least in Europe, is one of the most beautiful ‘walks’. Kind of like the boardwalk at Santa Barbara, California, or the cement sidewalk along Mission Beach near La Jolla, California. Only much longer. The ‘walk’ goes all the way from Villeneuve to Vevey. Along the way you pass the Place du Marche’. And there, disconcerting to some and admired by others, stands a statue of a rock star. Freddy Mercury, facing the brilliant blue waters of Lake Geneva. And why not? The rock band Deep Purple made the city famous in their song ‘Smoke on the Water’.
The city is Montreux, Switzerland. Numerous small villages surround Montreux, including La Tour-de-Peilz, Clarens, Territet, and Villeneuve.
The grave marker is large and rectangular, cut from a single piece of purplish stone. The façadeof the stone is very rough, like just-poured cement that hasn’t been smoothed. Behind the marker, carefully trimmed, stands a hedge of white oleanders, flat-faced with flowers. In front of the grave marker is a single, double-wide slab of cement, which covers the graves. The slab is smooth and surrounded by green grass and flowering plants.
This is the Cimitiere de Clarens, the Cemetery of Clarens, Clarens being one of the villages near Montreux.
The two names engraved on the rough face of the purplish stone are Vladimir Nabokov, and just below it, in somewhat smaller font, Vera Nabokov. Vladimir and his wife, Vera, lived in a suite at the Montreux Palace Hotel from 1960 until 1977. They now live together in a somewhat smaller suite in the Cemetery Clarens.
Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov wrote many novels, including the controversial Lolita, and demonstrated how a memoir should be written in his Speak, Memory, which may be the best memoir ever produced. Nabokov was also an accomplished lepidopterist, and a master of chess.
His childhood, which he himself called “perfect,” was spent in St. Petersburg (Stalingrad), Russia. The family spoke three languages, Russian, English and French on a daily basis, and enjoyed the privileged lifestyle of their aristocratic heritage.
With the revolt of 1917, the blue-blooded Nabokovs fled Russia for the relative safety of Crimea. After eighteen months in Crimea, the family moved to England. Vladimir became a student at Trinity College. He graduated from Cambridge and moved to Berlin, where a large ghetto of Russian emigres resided. Taking the nom de plume of Vladimir Sirin, he began writing and married Vera Slonim.
Tragic and mysterious events chaperoned the family: Nabokov’s father was assassinated by Russian monarchists in 1922, a case of mistaken identity. Nabokov himself, like Kandinski, was a synesthete, which, in Nabokov’s case, means he not only associated letters with colors, but that the letters were actually colored. Later on, Nabokov’s brother, Sergei, who was homosexual, died in a Nazi concentration camp.
Vladimir Nabokov moved his family to Paris in 1937. Then because of Germany’s invasion of France, Nabokov fled to the United States in 1940. He taught comparative literature at Wellesley College, simultaneously working as a curator of lepidoptery at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Biology. In his spare time, he wrote.
Then Lolita, after much hesitancy on the part of publishers, was published. This hesitancy, due to obscenity laws and potential lawsuits, once overcome, eventually resulted in Lolita becoming an international bestseller. The story of the twelve-year old girl’s affair with an older man provided Nabokov with fame and financial independence. He continued to write, producing many other fine novels, and devoted much of his time to studying the blue butterfly, Polymmatini Lycaenidae, his favorite.
Lolita, to the average, ignorant-white-trash-tornado-bait reader, is detestable, and described as the disgusting story of pederasty glorified. It is not. Actually, Lolita is the story of obsession, the obsession of humanity with love. It is the strange, sad story of one man’s search for love, initially, through sex with a twelve-year old girl. Here, then, is the – still – common contemporary confusion of sex with love.
Finally, at the end of the story, Lolita is older, has a child and is not lovable. She is used up, ugly and hard. Yet it is at this point that Humbert Humbert, the older man, falls truly in love with her, and comes to appreciate love for the wonderful thing it is. He loves the unlovable.
Like Joseph Heller’s Major Major in Catch-22, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is an example of reduplication. Reduplication, in linguistics, means to double a word, so as to form an inflected or derived form of the word. It’s a grammatical change, which indicates a change of relationship. Thus, Humbert the lover of the unlovable at the end of Lolita, is the derivation of Humbert the pederast at the beginning of the story. The relationship has changed. Humbert has changed. And Lolita is the elegant production of that process: a nasty worm entering its chrysalis and coming forth a splendid butterfly, someone new and different both in the story and in the repetition of the name.
Lolita, then, is an instance of symmetry, two stories within one story. There is a dividing line in the story. In the beginning there is no love, confusion about what love is, and ugly pederasty. At the end there is love, the confusion has disappeared, and the beauty of love reigns.
The genius of Nabokov.
In person, Nabokov was a handsome man, tall and well-formed, who radiated an aristocratic air. He loved detail and contemplation. However, he was boring, as if all his parts were subtly tightened from within. This tightness of being is evident in his memoir Speak, Memory, and probably explains his being a sentimental, but meager father.
Nabokov definitely failed his siblings, shrugging off the vaunted Russian sensibility of family ties. This is clear from his guilt over his relationship with his brother Sergei. Nabokov couldn’t get around his brother’s homosexuality. His mood toward Segei was tightly complex, composed of sour indifference, flippant disdain, and a deeper zone of doubt and foreboding: all the product of three basic factors: his own aristocratic snobbishness, the security provided by his fame and wealth, and the simple fact that Nabakov could not imagine any other response. Such as forgiveness, understanding, tolerance and love. It never entered his mind to be anything but judgmental and disapproving. Yet when Sergei died, Nabokov felt as if a piece of his own flesh had been torn from him. He realized he loved his brother and that if had tried, perhaps he could have done something for him. Too late.
Lolita, too, despite the genius of the story’s construction and its depiction of the sublime quandary of love, is banal. The story does not have the staying power of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Lolita, because of the very symmetry previously exposed, has no magnetism, and thus fails to engage the reader on any level but the intellectual. There is no visceral response in the reader.
Controversy imputed life and longevity to the book, not the sheer majesty of storytelling. Lolita, as a story, lacks emotional breadth; it is neutral. And I, for one, believe this neutrality stems from Nabakov himself. For he was neutral in his emotions, which explains why he moved to neutral Switzerland, where passion is controlled, shoved down to subterranean levels. There will be no political upheavals in Switzerland, nothing worth fighting over that’s for sure, and none at all in Nabokov either. Both the writer and the country he chose to live in put a premium upon gentility, which they considered high among the virtues.
Like Rumpelstiltskin, who turned straw into gold, Nabokov transformed words into works of art. But like the King in Rumpelstiltskin, Nabokov had no zest for life, no real personality. He just played his part, then when things went his way, lived happily ever after. The King remains outside, aloof from, the struggle in Rumpelstiltskin. And so did Nabokov. Unlike the blue butterflies, which were his favorites, he remained trapped in his pod. The blue butterflies twitch and spasm their way out of the pod, escaping the casing. Once out, they can expand their wings and fly. If they don’t fight their way out of the pod, they can’t fly, and if they can’t fly, they can’t mate. Even if they do get out and fly, if they’re not pretty, they get rejected.
Nabokov mated, and he was pretty. But he didn’t fly the way he could have.
Randall Radic, a former Old Catholic priest and a convicted felon, lives in Northern California where he reads, writes and smokes cigars. He is the author of A Priest in Hell: Gangs, Murderers and Snitching in a California Jail, and the forthcoming Gone To Hell: True Crimes of America’s Clergy.