Star-Crossed: William Shakespeare and Vladimir Nabokov, Page 3
16 -- Troilus and Cressida: "Is Love a Generation of Vipers?"
Troilus and Cressida, like an ammunition-belt feeding a machinegun, forces the Trojan War through the deflationary satire of Monty Python or Dr. Strangelove. It's a tragedy of pettiness, of people whose tragedy is that they're not worthy of tragedy. Love is lust and infidelity. War is bickering and brute force. Imagine a Romeo and Juliet where Juliet is pimped to an enemy army and Romeo instantly loses all faith in her and gets a bunch of his friends killed by turning to battle as an outlet for his peevishness.
Both Troilus and Cressida and Romeo and Juliet have part of their origins in Chaucer. The Troilus and Cressida love story, or anti-love story, isn't found in the Chapman translation ofThe Iliad that Shakespeare probably used. Shakespeare's knowledge of the Trojan War seems to have owed less to Homer anyway than to later sources like Caxton's translation of Colonne's Historia destrucionis Troiae and the Lydgate poem Troy Book. Chaucer took the Troilus and Cressida story from Boccaccio's Filostrato, which took it from Benolt de Sainte-Maure's twelfth century poem Le Roman de Troie. Some of the fun of Shakespeare is that the plays branch out in so many different literary and historical directions. You can find worse ways to spend your free time than reading the Chaucer Troilus and Criseyde, a book-length poem with some terrific passages. The humorous warmth and sympathy that Chaucer brings to the tale is in many ways more appealing than the sting of Shakespeare's satire. It's no accident that Chaucer's humane, emotion-drenched poem influenced Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet, which Shakespeare took as the main source for Romeo and Juliet. Now, though, in going back to Chaucer during the period of the great tragedies and the problem plays, Shakespeare wants to make something new. He writes a tragedy crossed with the blackest comedy, a love story wrecked by the ideology of human trafficking, a war story that recognizes no nobility or heroism.
Pandarus, the self-deluded pimp whose name gives us the word pandering, represents the spirit of the play. He acts like he thinks he's a fairy godfather bringing two young lovers together in romantic fulfillment. Really, though, there's something creepy in his participation. He has a lewd compulsion to pander to the young and the innocent, and he introduces them to sex as a source of corruption, infection, destruction. "I'll sweat and seek about for eases, / And at that time bequeath you my diseases," he tells the audience in the epilogue, letting us know what we've guessed much earlier. His constant irritation, epitomized by his STDs, keeps him in a state of mental and emotional itching. He scratches the itch through his hypocritical meddling, which pretends to be helpful but carries a freight of recklessness and malice. Neither Troilus nor Cressida is mature enough to handle the night of sex Pandarus facilitates between them. Pandarus surely knows this. His regret is genuine, but it's genuine in the way the self-pity of a stalker or a wife beater can be genuine. He cherishes his cycle of corruption. He wallows in self-flagellation as part of the narcissism of inflicting his unhappiness on others.
Even if Troilus and Cressida were much stronger individuals, the odds against their relationship would be high. Their world of war and betrayal conspires against the possibility that their infatuation will work itself out as anything like love. Shakespeare respects the Trojans more than the Greeks. The Elizabethans and Jacobeans believed they could trace their civilization back to Troy, and felt the Greek destruction of Troy was monstrous. Here, though, the Trojans' nobility is nearly as dubious as the wily pragmatism of Ulysses. Troilus and Cressida are both Trojan citizens. Cressida's father, however, has gone over to the Greek side. He puts his daughter in an impossible situation. He convinces the Greeks to trade some Trojan prisoners for her. Cressida must leave Troy and join the Greeks almost immediately after her night with Troilus. Her relatives, far from helping her, prostitute her along two separate and incompatible routes. Pandarus, her uncle, panders her to Troilus. Then her father panders her to the Greeks. Troilus is too na•ve to understand this. He doesn't see that her original attraction to him was sincere but that Pandarus pushed her toward premature declarations of lifelong devotion. He also doesn't see that, once she's forced to join the Greeks, Cressida is effectively a hostage. She's deprived of any resources that might keep her from identifying with her captors. She replaces her tentative attraction for Troilus with a tentative attraction for the least objectionable of the Greeks.
Shakespeare, in one of the play's most troubling scenes, creates an extraordinary dramatization of Stockholm Syndrome. Troilus watches Cressida judgmentally, uncomprehendingly. His simplistic self-righteousness mirrors the simplistic self-righteousness of his attitudes toward war and the nobility of violence. Cressida's father has sent her out to meet one of the Greeks, Diomedes. Troilus views the events from a distance, along with Ulysses and the great cynic Thersites. Ulysses and Thersites interpret Cressida's actions as basely as possible. Their commentary deliberately provokes Troilus to anger and disillusionment. He refuses to see what's obvious from the dialogue between Cressida and Diomedes. She's tormented. She wants to remain loyal to Troilus, but she's not in a situation where loyalty is possible, and certainly not loyalty to a young man she barely knows. She needs a protector. Her father has sent her out to meet one, a sensible candidate for a vulnerable young woman with no other sure means of safety. Either romantically or sleazily, depending on your viewpoint, Diomedes flirts with her. He shows her affection as well as lust. She accepts the affection, responds to the lust. What else can she do? She's placed in a classic lose-lose situation. If she gives herself to Diomedes coldly, without any feeling, she's prostituting her body for her protection. If she allows herself to respond and see him in a more romantic light, then she's able to keep some dignity, some illusion that she's in control of her life. She takes the second course, but it tortures her to know she could have sincerely desired Troilus so recently and can sincerely desire Diomedes now. In Shakespeare, part of growing up is learning to accept the multiple possibilities you carry around with you, the multiple identities that make you more than one person at a time. Like Hamlet, though, Troilus and Cressida have the lesson forced on them too brutally for them to accept it. The Polonius motto, "To thine own self be true," is the one they want to follow. The presence of more than one self, more than one choice for the truth, causes them confusion and pain. "Troilus, farewell!" Cressida says in soliloquy when Diomedes has gone. "One eye yet looks on thee, / But with my heart the other eye doth see." Troilus, still hounded by the cynical commentary of Ulysses and Thersites, suffers something like a breakdown in his vision of reality. "If there be rule in unity itself, / This is not she," he says. "O, madness of discourse, / That cause sets up with and against itself! / Bifold authority, where reason can revolt / Without perdition, and loss assume all reason / Without revolt!" Forced to see one person as two people in conflict with each other, he rejects it as impossible: "This is and is not Cressid. / Within my soul there doth conduce a fight / Of this strange nature, that a thing inseparate / Divides more wider than the sky and earth, / And yet the spacious breadth of this division / Admits no orifex for a point as subtle / As Ariachne's broken woof to enter." How can an individual split apart when you can't even find an opening as fine as a spider web to reveal the separation? What sense can we make of life if everything we see contains its opposite or its alternates without us having any sure way to detect them?
Troilus pulls back from the abyss of that question. He answers it with reactionary stiffness. Things must be what he says they are, and he will force them to be that way if they refuse to follow his needs. It's the ideology of war, of violence as a great way to eliminate ambiguity. Kill the bitch. Wipe out the source of confusion. Troilus can't get at Cressida, and anyway his sexism demands that he punish the Greeks even though she's the one he blames. The ideology of owning a woman requires that men fight each other for possession of the woman even as they condemn her for making any choices that might offend them. Cressida is the Helen for Troilus, the excuse for bloodshed that will exalt him to higher and higher prestige as he pulls more and more victims into the bloody circle of his petulance. He will transform the pettiness of his jealousy into the grandeur of warfare.
But Shakespeare isn't taken in by any of this. The battles that close out Troilus and Cressida are entirely without glory or honor. The characters hack at each other. Thersites cheers the fighting on, elated by its meaningless carnage. Achilles fights Hector. But Shakespeare reworks even this most famous conflict to demonstrate maximum waste. In his telling, the wrath of Achilles is just more pettiness and treachery. Achilles waits till Hector has taken off his armor and can't defend himself properly. Then Achilles sends in his underlings, the Myrmidons. They slaughter Hector while Achilles watches. Despite Hector's defeat, Troilus insists the Trojans continue fighting. The war must go on, no matter how stupid it becomes. The egos of the leaders must be fed. The deaths on the battlefield pander to Trojan ideas of honor just as Pandarus has pandered to young lust and Cressida's father has pandered to his Greek masters. Everyone is pimping and being pimped by everyone else. The circle of pandering is closed and self-sustaining. "Lechery, lechery," Thersites says, "still wars and lechery; nothing else holds fashion."
An environment this debased has no room for genuine feeling. Pandarus considers how the supposed love Paris feels for Helen has brought Troy to a war that threatens an entire civilization. "Is this the generation of love?" Pandarus asks. "Hot blood, hot thoughts and hot deeds? Why, they are vipers. Is love a generation of vipers?" He thinks love can bring forth nothing but poisonous snakes, and he delivers his niece to writhe in their coils. He helps her join the similar writhing of everyone else in the war, almost as if he feels it's his duty to introduce her to the pain he wishes on all of us, his brothers and sisters, his fellow "traders in the flesh."
17 -- Lolita: The White Whale and Nicole Warren
Nabokov came to America in 1940. As Brian Boyd notes in his indispensible two-volume biography, Nabokov left France with his wife and son "three weeks before German tanks rolled into Paris." Once he arrived, he took some time to reorient himself. It wouldn't be until 1947 that he would publish his first American novel, Bend Sinister. Another four years would pass before he would bring out, in 1951, the first version of his memoir, eventually titled Speak, Memory.
Lolita appeared in 1955, a decade-and-a-half after his American relocation. The Enchanter, his first stab at the story, was a Russian novella from 1939. Yet his real work on Lolitadates from 1947, when he told Edmund Wilson that he was doing "a short novel about a man who liked little girls," to December 1953, when he wrote in his diary: "Finished Lolitawhich was begun exactly 5 years ago."
Lolita is all high points. By this time in his career, Nabokov didn't write his books from start to finish, one chapter after the next. He would pick out one bit here and one bit there, from any section of the story that inspired him. Gradually the bits would accumulate. In time they would come together to fill in the complete novel, which he claimed he saw as a whole from the start. As a result, Lolita moves from one flamboyant passage to the next, without any of those deliberately muffled intermediary chapters that, say, Tolstoy uses to "put on the brakes" in Anna Karenina. In his Lectures on Russian Literature, Nabokov praises Anna Karenina for the illusion it gives us that the story is advancing at the same rate as events advance in our everyday sense of time. Lolita doesn't do this. Nabokov refuses to write about anything that doesn't excite him. The book has a special density, a mass of pulsing, crowded life that invites us back for each reading with fresh excitement.
Structurally, the novel bears some resemblance to Moby-Dick. Like Melville, Nabokov has taken hold of an obsessive subject that keeps generating more material, an overflow of short, powerful chapters packed with insight and poetry. In both books, the sturdy backbone of the plot carries an unusually full load of dozens of internal climaxes. The climaxes are curious because each one tends to be a wild peak or spike, a risky riff on the main themes, rising to heights most novelists allow themselves only once or twice in an entire book. In Moby-Dick, Melville has a trick of starting a chapter with some subject that seems utilitarian or physical: a chapel, a pulpit, a Specksynder or chief harpooner, a chart, meadows of brit, a blanket of blubber, cisterns-and-buckets. Then each chapter takes off from the subject to a poetic or philosophical conclusion, as far removed from the utilitarian as imaginable. The chapel gives Ishmael the chance to speculate that "in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water the thinnest of air." The pulpit is "full of meaning" since "the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part" and invokes the voyage to come on the Pequod: "Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow." Contemplation of the Specksynder or chief harpooner takes Ishmael to the hidden glory behind the "Nantucket grimness and shagginess" of Ahab: "Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked at from the skies, and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!" The chart leads to further musings on Ahab ("God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee"), the meadows of brit lead to the terrors of the universe ("For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life"), the blanket of whale blubber leads to the connection of church and whale with spiritual independence ("Like the great dome of St. Peter's, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own"), and the cisterns-and-buckets lead to the idea that dying in a bucket of spermaceti or a bucket of honey must be a lovely way to go, similar to dying in a bucket of philosophical abstraction: "How many, think ye, have likewise fallen in Plato's honey head, and sweetly perished there?" Nabokov always admired Moby-Dick, and Lolita employs a comparable method of flashy, abrupt ascents out of the expected and into the extraordinary. With Nabokov, though, the leap is more often a rise toward the lyrical than toward the metaphysical. (He also doesn't so mechanically build the leaps to hit their height at the end of the chapter.) The Annabel section, where Humbert is trying to sleep with the girl he adored when he was a boy, concludes with a startling shift from life to death: "I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu." After Charlotte's car accident, Humbert is about to leave to pick up Lolita but experiences an unexpected rush of pity and tenderness for his dead wife: "And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white delugeÉand dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita." In a matter-of-fact description of the financial negotiations he has deployed to keep Lolita in line, Humbert says he eventually brought prices down as low as possible, in a vision that combines his worst fears with the lyrics of the "little Carmen" song that was popular when he first came to know her: "I believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood—or the foul kitchen of a diner (Help Wanted) in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead." Later, preparing to kill Quilty, Humbert in his car sees something that anticipates the violence to come and that lifts the road-novel theme to a final image of mythic, comic grandeur. "While searching for night lodgings, I passed a drive-in," Humbert writes. "In a selenian glow, truly mystical in its contrast with the moonless and massive night, on a gigantic screen slanting away among dark drowsy fields, a thin phantom raised a gun, both he and his arm reduced to tremulous dishwater by the oblique angle of that receding world—and the next moment a row of trees shut off the gesticulation."
Many novels contribute to Lolita. Nabokov always writes under so many influences that we shouldn't overestimate the impact of any single book or author on his work. Tender is the Night is worth considering for a moment, though, mostly because we don't tend to think of Nabokov and Fitzgerald as having much in common with each other. Nabokov's closest friend in America was Edmund Wilson, who had gone to Princeton with Fitzgerald and was a strong advocate of Fitzgerald's books. A message in The Nabokov-Wilson Letters reveals that as early as 1945 Nabokov was writing Wilson to praise The Crack-Up as "first rate healthy literature." Moreover, the Boyd biography tells us that by 1951, when Nabokov was in the middle of composing Lolita, he knew Fitzgerald's fiction well enough to have some of his usual strong opinions about it. At Cornell, where Nabokov taught, he met one of the leading Fitzgerald scholars, Arthur Mizener. The instant he shook hands with Mizener, Nabokov said: "Tender is the Night, magnificent; The Great Gatsby, terrible." The heroine ofTender is the Night, Nicole Warren, is sexually abused by her father when she's a girl. Like Lolita, Nicole loses her mother and ends up traveling with the man who is supposed to take care of her. Like Lolita, Nicole sleeps with her adult seducer because she isn't in any position to resist him and because he takes advantage of her fondness for him and her vulnerability after her mother's death. The Riviera hotel of the early Rosemary chapters in Tender might have had some peripheral impact on Nabokov's decision to place Humbert's childhood in the Riviera setting of the Hotel Mirana. Also, the main narrative of Tender, its step by step tracing of Dick Diver's psychological collapse, has something in common with Nabokov's step by step tracing of Humbert's collapse. Nabokov was a hard reader to please. Given his favorable opinion of Tender, it's not impossible that the novel played a small but discernible part in the creation of Lolita.
18 -- Angry Ape: Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure isn't one of Shakespeare's great plays, but Angelo is one of his great characters. He's nearly the opposite of Pandarus. Pandarus is syphilitic and sordid, a smarmy purveyor of sexual innuendo who likes to underplay his knowledge of the dangers of blurring the line between lust and love. Angelo is cold, aloof. His formality allows for none of the winking obscenities Pandarus shares with us. Angelo believes in rules. He believes rules should be enforced. He believes the enforcement should be strict. That's why the Duke has appointed him temporary leader of Vienna. The Duke has been a relaxed ruler. Nobody in Vienna fears the law anymore. Even many of the ordinary citizens feel the laxness has gone too far. Ironically, Claudio, the character Angelo will sentence to death, states the problem most forcefully. The population has gorged on misconduct. It's poisoning itself with corruption: "Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that ravin down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil; and when we drink, we die."
Now the Duke disappears and leaves Angelo in charge. He knows that Angelo, strict by nature, will institute a much tougher regime. The play is largely comic, and one of its best jokes is the Duke's cheeky manipulation of everyone else. He thinks it's time for a bit of tyranny, but he doesn't want to take the blame for it. So when he vanishes, he already knows Angelo will go too far. It's all part of the plan. Angelo will restore the necessary fear of the law, but will become so hated and unpopular that everyone will welcome the Duke's return. Angelo is a patsy. He's a prearranged villain who will be punished for rendering exactly the service the Duke wants him to render.
Angelo doesn't understand this. He thinks he's finally in a position to rule the one and only way anyone should rule. Ideas of proportion and individual circumstance strike him as merely a trick for denying justice. The law is what it is. When Isabella asks him to show some pity, he replies: "I show it most of all when I show justice; / For then I pity those I do not know." He's like those economists who pick up the concept of the free market when they're young and then spend the rest of their lives trying to make everything fit their theories. (Marxists and socialists can be just as damagingly rigid and abstract, of course, but I'll worry about them more when they have the power to exercise a bit stronger sway over the business community.) Angelo needs us to act in accordance with sharply defined rules. He's convinced that all the impurity of the world derives from the impurity of not following a certain clear and unalterable set of instructions. If human nature won't allow for the necessary degree of purity, then human nature must be changed. He will improve us. He will make us worthy of his system. Paradise depends on it. Any compromise is not only wasteful but infinitely damaging. He won't accept the opinion of the aged lord Escalus. Escalus feels forgiveness is essential. No system is infallible, he says. Rules distort justice and exalt misconduct as often as they enforce integrity and reward good behavior: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. / Some run from brakes of vice and answer none; / And some condemned for a fault alone."
Amusingly, Angelo's opponent is as rigid as he is. Isabella appalls audiences with her insistence that her chastity is more important than her brother's life, but surely we're supposed to laugh at this and see how much it's like Angelo's own unbending purity of purpose. One absolutist meets another absolutist, and Claudio, the weak-willed brother, is caught between their opposing dogmatisms. Angelo has decided to enforce the long-neglected law forbidding sex between people who aren't married. Nobody takes the rule seriously, because why would you? So Angelo decides to make an example of Claudio, whose girlfriend is pregnant. Claudio will be executed. As his sister, Isabella comes to his defense. She asks Angelo for mercy. Her argument resembles Portia's argument for mercy in The Merchant of Venice. But Angelo is unmoved. The law calls for the death of the offender. Claudio is the offender. Claudio must die. It's the only way the law will ever be followed.
Isabella then delivers an oration on why absolutists like Angelo are simultaneously dangerous and ridiculous. (It's pleasantly Shakespearean that the speech applies as much to her as it does to him.) They assume the infallibility of God and then must deny exactly the information they most need to take into account, anything that might challenge their delusion of perfection. This makes them less than human: part of the virtue of being human is to admit our shortcomings and to make adjustments for our flaws and biases. In place of our humanity, the absolutist substitutes the nonsensical certainty of an overexcited monkey: "but man, proud man, / Drest in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he's most assured, / His glassy essence, like an angry ape / Plays such fantastic tricks before high Heaven / As makes the angels weep; who, with our spleens, / Would all themselves laugh mortal."
Inevitably, in the obvious comic twist, Angelo discovers he's even more impure than Claudio. He wants Isabella. He wants her because wanting her is the most hypocritical and immoral thing he could desire in the circumstances. His lust for her seems evil to him. The more evil it seems, the more it enthralls him. He's another one of those Shakespeare characters who discover they have a collection of strangers inside them, alternate identities they can't ignore or deny. "When I would pray and think," he tells himself, "I think and pray / To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words, / Whilst my invention, hearing not my tongue, / Anchors on Isabel: Heaven in my mouth, / As if I did but only chew his name, / And in my heart the strong and swelling evil / Of my conception."
He sees Isabella again. He tells her she must sleep with him. If she does, he will spare her brother's life. If she doesn't, Claudio will die. Angelo, this clown of a leader, this angry ape, has divided into two equally ludicrous and hypocritical creatures. Each creature shapes and reinforces the other. One demands sex for legal favors, and is ready to kill to have his way. The other pretends to remain the pure and noble enforcer of the law. The hypocrisy that binds both creatures is exciting for Angelo. With heavy-handed banality, the hypocrisy combines sex and power, makes lust an expression of force and force an expression of lust.
Angelo is a joke. He's a joke who wants to rape women and cut off people's heads. He's the little tyrant who lives in all of us, the puny fascist we hope we're decent enough to laugh at when we hear it speaking inside our head. Neither Angelo nor Isabella has much of a sense of humor, which of course makes them much funnier for the audience. Isabella won't give up her virtue. She's loud and self-righteous in announcing she'll sacrifice her brother to protect her virginity. She doesn't just make the announcement to Angelo. She also makes it to Claudio, who entertains us by first supporting her and then deciding that death is a bit much for his sister to ask of him. The comedy of Measure for Measure depends on our smiling acceptance of human frailty, including the frailties of Angelo and Isabella. The Duke returns. Angelo's bestiality is turned against him. His punishment is mild. It isn't even really a punishment, at least not in the play's terms. He has to marry a woman who loves him. The absolutist is embraced and redeemed by the merciful.
Yet Angelo is more disturbing than the play that contains him. He troubles us more than he troubles the Duke. We're not, after all, fairy-tale royalty with a mystical knowledge that everything will work out in the end. The absolutists of our world gain their share of chances to carry out the abuses Angelo only plans. You have to wonder what Angelo would be doing today, if he were moving among us. You can't help thinking he would have a lot of opportunities to prosper.
19 -- Lolita: Humbert the Tyrant
Nabokov's distaste for political fiction is famous. He presents Invitation to a Beheading and Bend Sinister not as political novels but as literary concoctions, fictional worlds commenting on the fictional nature of their fictional milieus. Yet all through his career Nabokov is vocal and consistent in his denunciation of tyranny and dictatorships. If his novels seldom talk about oppression in general terms, it's because he doesn't want us falling back on vague political or economic debates, capitalism versus socialism, liberalism versus conservatism, the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R. For Nabokov, oppression is more personal and pervasive than that. It's part of us. We can't sort it out into easy abstractions. We can't necessarily separate it from our better impulses, can't always tell where the gratuitous assertion of tyranny begins and the necessary assertion of personality ends. Nabokov doesn't set out to write essay statements. Aphorisms make him uneasy. He wants us to experience the full complexity of how tyranny and nobility and all our other qualities exist within us, and the full complexity of how those qualities play out in combination with all the people and events of our lives.
Lolita is the story of a dictator. Humbert is a tyrant. He rises. He falls. He destroys the childhood of an intelligent, independent human being. Recent criticism of Lolita underscores, quite properly, Humbert's monstrosity and the admirable aspects of Lolita Haze, aspects that Nabokov clearly expects us to remember. Humbert is a rapist and a child molester. He's a master of blaming the victim. When he accuses Lolita of seducing him at The Enchanted Hunters hotel, we're not supposed to be fooled. A twelve-year-old girl can't seduce a thirty-seven-year-old man. If he sleeps with her, he's responsible for the act, and the act is rape. Long before modern feminism spotlighted the issue, Nabokov understood how men try to justify their abuse of women by declaring their victim slutty or promiscuous, by saying she was asking for it. Lolita's reputation has grown over the years partly because Nabokov, in his odd way, has written a penetrating and unblinking explication of male fascism. Just as surprisingly, considering the era when the novel was created, he doesn't make Lolita a passive victim so much as a credible, complicated, and energetic person fighting to hold on to her dignity and individuality despite her stepfather's efforts to damage and control her.
But once we make the accurate clarification that Humbert's rationalizations aren't Nabokov's rationalizations, and that Nabokov wants us to give Lolita the respect Humbert generally denies her, we're far from finished with what Nabokov is doing. Humbert not only shares the H-m-t structure of Hamlet's name but Hamlet's wild changeability and multiplicity. He also possesses Hamlet's virtuosity with language. It's a little as if Hamlet's extraordinary consciousness and artistry have been merged with the mind of Iago, and as if this hybrid Hamlago, this Iamlet, has now written his story for us. (Iago looms as Shakespeare's most upsetting villain largely because we feel he's closer to Hamlet than he is to a clod like Angelo. Iago practices an evil so lavish we fear we might drown in it if we contemplate it too closely. That's why his refusal to explain himself after his arrest is so tantalizing and unnerving.) Humbert is constantly changing tones, shifting registers, eluding our best efforts to unravel him and his best efforts to unravel himself. He writes many different Humberts onto the page. His voice swerves and swings, swirls from tenderness to contempt to admiration and back to tenderness again. Humbert is obtuse and observant, self-aggrandizing and self-mocking, cruel and compassionate, brutal and kind, and often several of these things at once. We know many of his flaws, including his monstrosity toward Lolita, through his own confessions, his pitiless analysis of his motives. He doesn't leave his falsifications of Lolita wholly up to us to discover. He admits many of them, holds them up for us to view in the laboratory light of his remorse after he has lost her. His awareness of his cruelty is supremely disturbing. Nabokov doesn't let us feel superior to Humbert. We're not judges passing sentence on a foolish and totally deluded criminal (as we are in the far inferior Despair). Humbert is fiercely intelligent. He's gentle as often as he's sarcastic, embracing as often as he's dismissive, admiring as often as he's cynical. He's as likely to see through us as we are to see through him. His imagination is sumptuous: it takes us across the whole United States. But he brings us up against thoughts we might be happier not having. If someone this smart can be so cruel, if someone this sensitive can experience his brutality as love and tenderness, then tyranny and oppression can thrive where we least expect them. Moreover, they might be impossible to remove even after we recognize them in ourselves and struggle to purge them. Humbert, like Hamlet, doesn't exist to give us easy answers. He exists to remind us that easy answers hide at least as much as they reveal. Reality, to take an example Nabokov favored, is like a spiral that winds endlessly inward or outward. The journey along the spiral isn't illusory: a respected lepidopterist, Nabokov believes in gathering information and getting your facts straight, believes in testing and verifying, believes in Hegelian thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Yet each synthesis starts a new turn of the coil, a new thesis leading to a new antithesis. The spiral has no stopping point. No matter how far you go along it, no matter how much you learn, an infinite series of further turns remain ahead of you. Lolita and Pale Fire wind us through more curves of the spiral than any of Nabokov's other novels do. Humbert takes us a long way down with him. But we know, by the last page, that his hell is bottomless. It's a coil even his finest language can only trace so far into the darkness, until there's nothing more we can see.
Part One of the novel is devoted to how Humbert comes to meet Lolita and how he eventually succeeds in raping her. As a French boy in his father's Riviera hotel, Humbert falls in love with Annabel, a recasting of the girl from Poe's "Annabel Lee." Humbert's alertness to the difficulty of figuring himself out, of figuring anyone out, begins with the heritage of Annabel's early death. "I leaf again and again through these miserable memories," he says, "and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?" Nabokov has too much grace to make a big deal out of it, but the sinuosity of Humbert's style is ideal for psychological investigation: "When I try to analyze my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualized route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past." Humbert also likes to strike off an image and come back to it much later, in a totally different time and place. Many of the images are comical or slightly sordid visions of movement, of train and car, wind and road. "The days of my youth, as I look back on them," Humbert writes, "seem to fly away from me in a flurry of pale repetitive scraps like those morning snow storms of used tissue paper that a train passenger sees whirling in the wake of the observation car." In Part Two, during the first of the novel's cross-country journeys, these storms of used tissue paper from the trains of Humbert's European youth finally come to rest in the American desert, in the "hideous bits of tissue paper mimicking pale flowers among the prickles of wind-tortured withered stalks all along the highway." Similarly, when Humbert introduces us to his notion of the nymphet, he talks about how in France he would look across the street toward a lighted window and start masturbating at what he thought was a nymphet undressing in front of a mirror. "But abruptly, fiendishly, the tender pattern of nudity I had adored would be transformed into the disgusting lamp-lit bare arm of a man in his underclothes reading his paper by the open window in the hot, damp, hopeless summer night." The deception will return in nearly identical form in America, after Lolita has abandoned him. He discusses his resumption of masturbating to an illusion of girlhood in a distant window, "whereupon the lighted image would move and Eve would revert to a rib, and there would be nothing in the window but an obese partly clad man reading the paper." The boomeranging of the novel's images is so insistent that we come to expect their idiosyncratic returns. We rely on them as part of Humbert's system of organizing the many years and events of his story, giving the novel its illusion of constant yet harmonious motion. The world of Lolita is seldom stagnant. We're always moving along, in transition, just as Humbert's voice is always changing, from the over-the-top splash of "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins" to the mocking aside of "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."
After his divorce, Humbert comes to America. He discovers Lolita while he's trying to evade the attentions of her mother, Charlotte. This sets the pattern for the Humbert-Charlotte-Lolita triangle. Humbert pursues Lolita while Charlotte pursues him. He's in the grip of his obsession, like Luzhin at the chessboard. At one point, for instance, he memorizes the list of Lolita's classmates. Every person on the list will come back later in the novel, spreading Lolita's school life around the book so inconspicuously that we might not notice how completely Nabokov cultivates the subject.
Charlotte sends Lolita away to camp. Then Charlotte declares her love to Humbert in a letter that, like everything about her, is hilarious and embarrassing and painfully touching: "Let me rave and ramble on for a teeny while more, my dearest, since I know this letter has been by now torn by you, and its pieces (illegible) in the vortex of the toilet." Nabokov has come a long way from the flat repulsiveness of Martha in King, Queen, Knave to the much more piquant emotions Charlotte awakens in us. A little tyrant in her own right, Charlotte wants total control over Humbert and her daughter, but merely increases their antagonism toward her the more she tries to handle them. Humbert marries Charlotte solely to have a reason to continue living with Lolita. He then finds Charlotte so difficult and obstructive that he starts planning to murder her. He can't bring himself to do it, though, and it seems he'll be stuck with her forever. Then she reads his diary, full of his praise for Lolita. Horrified, Charlotte announces she's leaving him and will never let him see Lolita again. This is when Nabokov springs one of his flamboyant surprises, which enter his books with startling yet authoritative absurdity, like a polar bear pouncing on us from behind a jewelry counter. Charlotte is hit by a car. Specifically, she is "knocked down and dragged several feet by the Beale car as she was hurrying across the street to drop three letters in the mailbox." (The car swerved to avoid a dog and hit Charlotte instead.) She's killed just before she sends the letters that would have revealed Humbert's interest in Lolita and shut him off from her forever. Nabokov loves chance, coincidence, the patterns that accidents slice into our lives. Abruptly, with a neatness he could never have planned, Humbert has perfect access to his stepdaughter.
He picks her up from camp. They drive around, search for The Enchanted Hunters hotel, which Humbert has chosen because someone earlier in the novel mentioned that "nobody bothers anybody" there. At the hotel, he attempts to drug her so he can rape her while she's unconscious. The drug doesn't work: the doctor appears to have prescribed a placebo. In the morning Lolita tells Humbert she has lost her virginity to a boy at the camp. She has had a crush on Humbert in the past, and she now proposes having sex with him. Humbert tries hard to convince us he hasn't done anything wrong: "Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover." But he protests too much, and he knows it. Soon he admits that his dream has "plunged into a nightmare." The full extent of the nightmare starts to emerge when he tells Lolita, on their way to the next town along their route, that her mother is dead. Humbert isn't merely a rapist. He's a rapist with total control over a girl who has just lost her mother and is totally isolated and dependent on him. Part One concludes chillingly. "At the hotel we had separate rooms," Humbert says, "but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go."
20 -- Hell Is Murky: Macbeth
"Consider it not so deeply," Lady Macbeth says after her husband has killed Duncan and begins to question what he's done.
She doesn't want to hear it. She yearns for shallowness. Because of this, her husband probably assumes shallowness is her essence. He might think her interest in surface power and surface prestige is all there is to see. Really, though, she pretends to superficiality because the depths are always far too close to her. She's terrified of entering them.
Lady Macbeth isn't just smarter than everyone in her circle. She's quite a bit more aware than they are of the whirling horror in her imagination, of that turning chaos which threatens to destroy many of Shakespeare's most intelligent and sensitive characters. She feels Duncan's death. She feels it far more than her husband does. His guilt is fairly pedestrian. He fears he will never sleep again. Lady Macbeth, however, fears something far worse. She fears her sleep will become a walking death. It does.
She plays at ruthlessness. She plays at cruelty. Strong and competent, she's a formidable conspirator. But her actions are a screen. They're a shield she hides behind. She pushes Macbeth to kill and take command because she needs to feel she has some say over the chaos, the walking death. If Macbeth can be king and she can be queen, maybe she can avoid the darkness a little longer.
Or maybe she can't. Each of her actions contains its opposite. Her hope feeds her despair. She half-believes the worst thing she can do is push for more violence, more power. Yet she pushes anyway. She pushes blindly, in fear. She pushes aggressively, in confidence. And she pushes wildly, gaspingly, in self-destruction.
Her husband isn't with her, not really. She has tried to bring him along, but he can't join her. "You see, her eyes are open," the Gentlewoman says as Lady Macbeth begins to sleepwalk with the taper. The Doctor replies: "Ay, but their sense is shut." He's not quite right. The outward sense is shut. The inward sense is open and overwhelmed. The dead have filled her. She contains Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff, maybe an entire world of the dead, ghosts who live like zombies inside her. They might have been waiting for her since she was born. They're not just a punishment. They're the darkness she has always hoped to evade and has always known would take her down, less because she's guilty than because she saw the darkness when nobody else did. She walks, taper in hand. Her candle isn't brief, and it doesn't light her way. "Hell is murky," she says. She won't be coming out.
21 -- Lolita: "Every Night, Every Night"
The second half of Lolita chronicles Humbert's decline, his long drop from the grotesque and insecure height of his power. His dictatorship crumbles. The citizenry resists, struggles, finally revolts. Lolita declares her independence. She leaves on the Fourth of July.
The first three chapters of Part Two are unusually long. They're devoted to the epic journey of Humbert and Lolita along America's motels and roadways, their "extensive travels all over the States." Lolita is already bored with Humbert. Threatened, he devises methods for controlling her. He takes her to sights she wants to see, to movies, "candy bars" (Lolita's slang for ice cream parlours), any amusement that catches her fancy. At the same time, however, he terrorizes her. He tells her that if she doesn't stay with him, she'll end up in a reformatory, among "incorrigible and delinquent children." In that case, Humbert suggests, he would go to jail and everyone at the reformatory would know Lolita is there because she has been her stepfather's lover. He urges her to see how much better it is for her to go along with the current arrangement than to exchange it for public humiliation and the possibly severe restrictions of a reformatory or an orphanage. It's an obscene argument, but not an illogical one. Humbert turns Lolita's own intelligence and desire for independence against her. He arranges "that background of shared secrecy and shared guilt" which pressures her to collaborate in her oppression. For a year, from August 1947 to August 1948, he wheels Lolita around the country. He fixes our attention on the contrast between his systematic physical and mental abuse of Lolita and the momentum the two of them attain through "putting the geography of the United States into motion." At night, he writes, "tall trucks studded with colored lights, like dreadful giant Christmas trees, loomed in the darkness and thundered by the belated little sedan." In the day, "the road shimmered ahead, with a remote car changing its shape mirage-like in the surface glare, and seeming to hang for a moment, old-fashionedly square and high, in the hot haze." Trapped among these nighttime lights and daytime mirages, Lolita cuts herself off from Humbert emotionally and intellectually. She hides behind pop-culture kitsch, her interests in screen magazines and skating rinks. Her world of teenage tawdriness repels Humbert while giving her some small measure of privacy. At no point is Humbert unaware of how fully he has subjugated Lolita to his corruption. The satisfaction he receives from enslaving her is simply greater than his guilt, his fear of being caught, his despair over the growing hostility between them. "Despite our tiffs," he says, "despite her nastiness, despite all the fuss and faces she made, and the vulgarity, and the danger, and the horrible hopelessness of it all, I still dwelled deep in my elected paradise—a paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames—but still a paradise." It's a paradise only for him, naturally, but even with his tendency to defuse the knowledge, he never quite forgets that it's a hell for Lolita. The road trip degenerates into shame and regret: "And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep." That repetition, "every night, every night," is devastating. It crystallizes how confounding Humbert is. He's so conscious of what he's doing, so determined to keep doing it.
In the fall they settle in Beardsley, the eastern college town where Humbert teaches literature. Lolita attends a day school. Humbert's jealousy, already a minor theme, swells to a major one. "Your delightful Dolly," the headmistress of Lolita's school tells Humbert, "will presently enter an age where dates, dating , date dress, date book, date etiquette, mean as much to her as, say, business, business connections, business success, mean to you, or as much as [smiling] the happiness of my girls means to me." Nabokov has a particular feel for the comedy of lazy deductions, the difference between what others assume Humbert is thinking and what he's actually thinking. Humbert doesn't care about business, and nothing is more calculated to upset him than a school dedicated to finding a boyfriend for Lolita. "I was quite positive," he writes, "that as long as my regime lasted she would never, never be permitted to go with a youngster in rut to a movie, or neck in a car, or go to boy-girl parties at the houses of schoolmates, or indulge out of my earshot in boy-girl telephone conversations." Reluctantly, after the headmistress insists, he allows Lolita to join the school play. The play is called The Enchanted Hunters. It's written by Clare Quilty, and the play's title is one of many clues that Quilty has some connection with Lolita and some knowledge of her relationship with Humbert. On the night of the first performance, Humbert discovers Lolita has lied to him, has pretended to be taking piano lessons she discontinued a long time ago. Humbert is furious. Lolita flees, goes out into the night. When he finds her, she tells him, "A great decision has been made." Re-readers will suspect that the decision is one she has made with Quilty, and that he's the person Lolita has been seeing in the hours she was supposed to be at her piano lessons. But on a first reading of the book, we're likely to agree with the initial reaction of Mary McCarthy, who went through the novel in manuscript without having time to finish it: "you felt all the characters had a kite of meaning tugging at them from above, in Vladimir's enigmatic empyrean."
Lolita's request is that Humbert and she go on a second road trip. As they drive from town to town, Humbert falls apart. He's as observant as ever, and the second trip builds on the first. He sees that "commercial fashion" in roadside accommodations is changing: "There was a tendency for cabins to fuse and gradually form the caravansary." When this would happen, "a second story was added, and a lobby grew in, and cars were removed to a communal garage, and the motel reverted to the good old hotel." Lolita, like the motels, like much of what Humbert notices on the trip, is becoming new and bigger and different. He can't stop any of it, can't hold back the changes. Lolita is fourteen now, a teenager. She's pulling away from him, looking for an escape. Humbert becomes even more unstable. In further imitation of Hamlet, he toys with madness, invites it to consume him. At a roadside cottage he succumbs to a completely unfounded fear that Lolita has cheated on him with a random stranger. He pushes Lolita back into the cottage, rips her shirt off. "Wildly," he says, "I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically indistinguishable from a madman's fancy." A friend of his has given him a gun for a gift. He lifts the gun from its box, puts it in his pocket "so as to be ready to take advantage of the spell of insanity when it does come." His paranoia reaches across the traffic, convinces him that Lolita and he are being followed. Maybe they are. He dubs the car that trails them the Aztec Red Convertible. The driver resembles one of Humbert's relatives from Europe. This adds to the confusion. Quilty, it will turn out, resembles the same uncle, but can we trust Humbert on the similarity? Some of the evidence of Quilty's intrusions seems reliable. Some doesn't. It's hard to credit Humbert's belief that the pursuer keeps shifting cars: "A veritable Proteus of the highway, with bewildering ease he switched from one vehicle to another." Humbert begins drinking more. His collapse distorts his impressions. Even the roads conform to his frustration and hopelessness. "After a forlorn and useless dip," he says, "we went up and up. On a steep grade I found myself behind the gigantic truck that had overtaken us. It was now groaning up a winding road and impossible to pass." In the town of Elphinstone, Lolita comes down with a fever. Humbert takes her to a hospital. He visits her there, feels the coldness of her attitude toward him. He tells her there's no point in staying here. "There is no point in staying anywhere," Lolita replies. On the day of "some great national celebration in town judging by the firecrackers," Humbert is drunk and delirious in his room. Meanwhile Lolita checks out of the hospital and leaves with a man claiming to be her uncle.
Humbert has lost his prisoner, his subject. He spends years trying to track her down, searching for the clues he thinks the other man has left him. In 1952, Lolita writes Humbert a letter. It's as direct and matter-of-fact as Charlotte's earlier letter was drawn-out and effusive: "How's everything? I'm married. I'm going to have a baby. I guess he's going to be a big one." Lolita wants Humbert to give her money so she and her husband and the baby can move to Alaska. Humbert goes to visit her. He brings his gun: he's prepared to kill Dick, the husband. Dick isn't, however, the man who took Lolita away from the hospital. Lolita explains that the person who followed Humbert and her was Quilty. He was, she says, "the only man she had ever been crazy about." A pudgy television writer, Quilty was another child molester, another monster; he abandoned Lolita when she refused to participate in a porn film for him. Then she "just drifted" for a couple of years, did "some restaurant work in some small places," and met Dick, with his hearing aid and his hairy Adam's apple. Pregnant, determined to be a dedicated wife and mother, she's no longer the nymphet Humbert once worshipped. Yet he believes, and tries to make us believe, that his love for her now transcends his perversion. He asks her to run away with him. "I want you to leave your incidental Dick," he says, "and this awful hole, and come to live with me, and die with me, and everything with me." Lolita isn't even vaguely tempted. She's delightfully excited, though, when Humbert gives her the money he has brought.
Taking off to find Quilty, Humbert enters the last stage of his collapse. Like Troilus, he indulges in a bloodthirsty rage at the man he blames for stealing the woman he thought he possessed. He admits, because there's no practical reason not to anymore, that he never really made an effort to give Lolita the care and independence from adult concerns that every child deserves. "Now," he says, "squirming and pleading with my own memory, I recall that on this and similar occasions, it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita's states of mind while comforting my own base self." His compulsion to abuse and oppress her has destroyed any chance that he could have been a proper stepfather to her. More importantly, it has destroyed any chance that Lolita might have had an untainted childhood. One of the strongest certainties running through Nabokov's work is his belief in the beauty and significance of our childhood memories. Lolita is the nightmare reversal of the celebrations of childhood in Glory and Speak, Memory and The Gift. And yet Humbert's late-arriving regrets, slipped into the storyline with cunning grace, do nothing to deflect him from his revenge against Quilty. We don't know Quilty, and neither does Humbert. The killing is wholly gratuitous. It's as completely an expression of misdirected and disproportionate anger as Hamlet's killing of Polonius. Striving for ferocity, Humbert is pathetic and farcical. He points his gun at Quilty's foot. It goes off "with a ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound." I'm not sure anybody has ever made gunplay look less impressive than Nabokov does here. "The bullet entered the thick pink rug," Humbert writes, "and I had the paralyzing impression that it had merely trickled in and might come out again." Quilty's final moments are gruesome and absurd: "a big pink bubble formed on his lips, grew to the size of a toy balloon, and vanished." Covered with Quilty's blood, Humbert drives away. Then he turns up a grassy slope, and his car comes to "a gentle rocking stop." Below him, children are playing: "one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was all really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets." He makes one more plea for our sympathy. Confusingly, it's also his most sincere expression of compassion for Lolita. He admits that "the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord."
Humbert promises Lolita immortality through his writing. The idea of the muse has always had its dubious side. A love object who sacrifices her childhood to a rapist, however, stretches the notion of the muse far past its breaking point. Humbert seeks "the refuge of art." But Lolita offers no refuge for anyone, not for Humbert, not for Lolita, and not for the reader.