Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Lolita - What If?

Slow reader that I am, I've just finished my latest rereading of Lolita - and it's left me more impressed, moved and shaken than ever. I was pleased to note (poor memorist that I am) how much of it I remembered, though oddly my memory became more patchy towards the end. I think that on this reading I sensed more than ever before Humbert's growing awareness of his own monstrosity, as it becomes increasingly explicit in self-harrowing passages like this:
'Unless it can be proven to me - to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction - that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art...'
Or:
'I was a pentapedal monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t'aimais, je t'aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.'
Self-harrowing, and no doubt self-serving - old Humbert is unreliable to the end, the unreliable narrator's unreliable narrator. But who could not be moved? What a voice, what a book!
I sometimes wonder what Nabokov's reputation would be now if Lolita had never been published (as it nearly wasn't - only the Olympia Press would touch it, and Nabokov had come close to burning an early version, or so he tells us). Without that 'international bestseller' and the scandal that surrounded it, most of Nabokov's Russian works would most likely have languished untranslated (no Defence, no Gift), and he would perhaps never have found the creative energy and freedom to write his more remarkable later works (no Pale Fire? No Transparent Things?). Nor would anyone have been much interested in his autobiography (no Speak Memory!) or his lectures and other writings. He would probably survive as a cult writer savoured by a few connoisseurs, select works occasionally reprinted... The loss of Lolita would have deprived us not only of one of the great novels of the 20th century but of so much else - though it has to be said that a scaling down of the Nabokov industry would be no bad thing; The Annotated Laundry Lists can't be far off...

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