четвъртък, 18 февруари 2010 г.

Lolita and the art of seduction

VLADIMIR NABOKOV'S Lolita, that disquieting story about a suave and silver-tongued European emigre who seduces a 12-year-old American girl, was published 50 years ago this year. Lolita is unlike most controversial books in that its edge has not dulled over time. Where Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover, say, now seem familiar and inoffensive, almost quaint, Nabokov's masterpiece is, if anything, more disturbing than it used to be.

The book did not come out in the US until 1958. Nabokov finished it in December 1953 and, according to the biography by Brian Boyd, sent it to five American publishers: Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Doubleday and Farrar, Straus. None would touch it, and neither would The New Yorker, with whom Nabokov had a first-reading agreement.Nabokov initially planned to publish Lolita pseudonymously, though he left a tell-tale fingerprint: mention of a character named Vivian Darkbloom, an anagram of Vladimir Nabokov. But James Laughlin, the publisher of New Directions, argued that the book's style was so distinctive, no one would stay fooled, and when Maurice Girodias, Olympia's publisher, urged the author to use his own name, Nabokov gave in.

Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, claimed to have turned out the manuscript in just 56 days, and the book reads that way - the hot, urgent, at times lyrical outpourings of a man blurting out a simultaneous confession and self-justification.
The "first little throb" of inspiration for Lolita, Nabokov later wrote, came in Paris in late 1939 or early 1940, and he wrote a short story, never published, about a man who marries a dying woman to get access to her young daughter, whom he tries to seduce in a hotel room before throwing himself under a train.

The novel is, among other things, an unashamed mash note to America, Nabokov's adopted country, and, as he wrote later, a record of his bittersweet love affair with the American language.

While working on the book, he read movie magazines, scribbled jukebox song titles and rode buses to eavesdrop on snatches of teenage conversation.

Like many controversial books, Lolita proved that nothing helps sales more than a whiff of scandal. The novel received an unexpected boost when Graham Greene, writing in Britain's Sunday Times, named it one of the three best books of 1955, and John Gordon, the editor of The Sunday Express, responded with a diatribe, saying: "Without doubt it is the filthiest book I have ever read."

Lolita is more than just a dirty book; it's an upsetting one. And it disturbs us more than ever because pedophilia has moved from the murky, seldom-visited basement of our collective consciousness to the forefront of our moral awareness. We know now that it happens more often than anyone imagined, and with far worse consequences.

Nabokov never pretended that Humbert was anything but a monster. To a Paris Review interviewer who suggested that what went on between Humbert and Lolita wasn't much different from, say, the relationships between middle-aged movie moguls and young starlets, Nabokov responded sharply: "Humbert was fond of 'little girls' - not simply 'young girls'. Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and 'sex kittens'."
And yet Humbert is also a brilliant monster, a touching one, even loveable at times. As the critic Lionel Trilling wrote: "Humbert is perfectly willing to say he is a monster; we find ourselves less and less eager to agree with him." This is, of course, part of Humbert's strategy: he wants to win us over.

He is in the end a moral monster. In the novel's great last scene, he recalls looking down from a mountain top and listening to the sound of children playing below. He realises that "the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord". His great crime, he now understands, is not so much debauching Lolita as depriving her of her childhood, her place in that laughing concord.

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