Originally posted on WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones:
Searching for marriage in literature is like holding a kaleidoscope to the world—at the slightest movement the arrangement, colours, shapes, angles, relationships, and mood are altered. In literature as in life, there are good marriages and bad, good marriages that turn bad, and marriages that on any one day one shift from blissful to hellish and back. Compiling a list of representations of marriage in literature is a daunting task—so much is devoted to the theme. It goes without saying that the list you compile today wouldn’t necessarily be the one you’d put together tomorrow. Here is but one view from the kaleidoscope:
Epithalamium (Greek and Roman times)
Among the Greeks, the epithalamium is a song in praise of bride and bridegroom, sung by boys and girls at the door of the nuptial chamber. Among the Romans a similar custom was in vogue, but the song was sung by girls only…
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Elsewhere in Literature
On the most superficial level, the idea of ‘elsewhere’ in literature is a vague one. It rises up as the shadow to right here, right now. Then, it positively looms. It’s possible that characters in a story becomes so distracted by the here and now that the wider world remains unexperienced. By ignoring it, the characters produce this other realm—this elsewhere—defining it as something that’s missing. On the other hand, the wider world can impose itself with such force that it adds meaning, gravitas, depth to the present time and place, almost to the point of obscuring it. Elsewhere is what’s happening on the next block while you await a lover. Elsewhere is arrived at in a split second through curiosity. Elsewhere is an ideal or the event you happen to witness or the life you might have led. Depending on the story, elsewhere is madness, a longing for the past, or the world that is left behind.
Homer, The Odyssey, (350BC—?)
The Odyssey is an epic filled with elsewheres. After a war that last ten years, our hero spends ten years traveling home, visiting a number of fabulous lands, each with its version of treacheries, dangers, temptations, and ironies. Odysseus skirts the land of the Sirens, who dwell on an island in a flowery meadow. Having heard of their seductive songs, his curiosity overcomes him. He orders his crew to fill their ears with beeswax and to chain him to the mast, so that he might hear them sing without ill effect. He knows full well their song could lead to destruction, but his curiosity is stronger.
The tradition of courtly love in the chivalric age (11-15th centuries)
Courtly love is “a love at once illicit and morally elevating, passionate and disciplined, humiliating and exalting, human and transcendent”; an ideal achievable only at a huge cost, if at all. The ‘elsewhere’ in this tradition is in the contrast—one quality evokes it’s opposite. When Petrarch courted Laura and Dante worshipped Beatrice, they were following a tradition that troubadours of earlier centuries had set in motion—one of unrequited love, sublimated passions, emotions channeled into poetry. What existed at the end of their desire was another, unachievable world.
Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha,
Published in two volumes a decade apart (in 1605 and 1615)
Following on from the tradition of courtly love, Alonso Quixano, a retired country gentleman, has become obsessed with books of chivalry, and believes their every word to be true, despite the fact that many of the events in them are clearly impossible. Quixano eventually appears to other people to have lost his mind from little sleep, not enough food, and too much reading.
Herman Melville, Pierre, or The Ambiguities, 1852
The exquisite Pierre was a critical and financial disaster for Melville, condemned universally for both its morals and its style. Yet, the work contains some of Melville’s most concentrated and accomplished writing, and it is his most direct treatment of the literary life and the process of literary creation. His hero Pierre is torn between the world as he has always known it—the world of light—and a different world that is being revealed to him, something darker and more ambiguous.
Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, (1869)
Frederic, the capricious main character of Sentimental Education, is infatuated with Madame Arnoux, falling in and out of love with her over years. True to character, he is also unable to decide on a profession, instead living on his uncle’s inheritance. Other characters, such as Mr Arnoux, are as capricious with business as Frederic is with love. Without their materialism and “instinctive worship of power”, the entire cast would be entirely unmoored. While Frederic waits for Mme Arnoux on a street corner, the revolution unfolds a block away. His fate might have been other, grander, more significant, but for this dead-end attachment.
ee cummings, “a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon” (1926)
a clown’s smirk in the skull of a baboon
(where once good lips stalked or eyes firmly stirred)
my mirror gives me, on this afternoon;
i am a shape that can but eat and turd
ere with the dirt death shall him vastly gird,
a coward waiting clumsily to cease
whom every perfect thing meanwhile doth miss;
a hand’s impression in an empty glove,
a soon forgotten tune, a house for lease.
I have never loved you dear as now i love…
Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey, 1927
Brother Juniper, a devout Friar, witnesses the tragic collapse of the bridge and sets about to reconstruct the lives of those who perished. He works for six years on his book about the tragedy, trying various mathematical formulae to measure spiritual traits of the victims, with no results. A council pronounces his work heresy, and the book and Brother Juniper are burned in the town square. The novel ends with this observation: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”
Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky, 1949
Port and Kit Moresby, a married couple from New York travel to the North African desert accompanied by their friend Tunner. Initially, the journey is an attempt by the Moresbys to resolve their marital difficulties, though this is quickly made more complicated by the travelers’ ignorance of the dangers that surround them. The three Americans, drifting through post-war North Africa, soon encounter the limits of human existence in the form of a land and a people utterly alien to them.
William Golding, Lord of the Flies, 1954
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a physical manifestation of the evil that resides within a group of boys, shipwrecked and far from civilization. The story attempts to trace the defects of human nature without society as a controlling force. The boys regress to a state of superstition, greed, and brutality.
Milan Kundera, Life is Elsewhere, 1973
Milan Kundera originally intended to call this novel, The Lyrical Age. He believed that the lyrical age in a life is youth, and Life is Elsewhere is an epic of adolescence—an ironic story that tenderly erodes the sacrosanct values of childhood, motherhood, revolution, and even art. The ridiculous, touching, totally innocent Jaromil is, at the same time, a true poet.
Collaboration is all the rage. Everyone’s talking about its importance and searching for ways to do it more effectively—not only within organisations but across government, education, and industry sectors.
Recent insight into neuroscience tells us that the brain is a social organ. In a concise YouTube video, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and neuroscientist at Pepperdine University, says that the human brain evolved to connect with other brains and that we create an internal model of the experience of those we come into contact with. Good managers intuitively understand this. They concentrate on team-building and foster collaborative workplaces. In fact, many offices are now designed without walls as vast open areas so that employees may interact freely. The ‘team’ is now centre-stage in many organisational structures. More and more, disparate and far-flung groups are asked to communicate, cooperate, work together better.
As much as the Western world values individuality, there has been a huge shift in recent decades away from what an individual might accomplish in isolation towards what groups of talented people might accomplish by pooling their knowledge, talents, insights and energy. This shift makes perfect sense in an increasingly hyperkinetic world that relies on faster, smarter technologies.
It’s worth considering, however, that we may have overshot the mark. There are times, in spite of the brain being a social organ, when collaboration is distinctly brain-unfriendly.
Emotions are contagious
Because we create an internal model of the experience of those we encounter, teams can be hijacked by negative members, affecting productivity and morale. In an article for HBR Tony Schwartz, says the emotions people bring to work are as important as their cognitive skills, and especially so for leaders. Negative emotions spread like wildfire and they’re highly toxic.
But there is something subtler at play. People are drawn to outgoing, dynamic personalities. The one who speaks the most is generally seen to be most intelligent. According to Susan Cain in an interview for Scientific American, we’re such social animals, we instinctively mimic others’ opinions, often without realizing we’re doing it. The result is that if we are always working in groups or with groups in mind, certain types will dominate and quieter voices will be less likely to be heard.
Introvert v Extrovert
While the world is becoming more extroverted, the ratio of introverts to extroverts remains relatively steady, about one in four. These different personality types perform best in opposite circumstances and environments. According to many of the studies Cain cites in her book, introverted personalities are feeling increasingly stressed in a workplaces that are becoming less suitable to their working styles.
The greater the emphasis is on collaboration, the more likely the contributions of these workers, many of whom work best alone, will be overlooked—or perhaps not be generated in the first place.
Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is a real need for dynamic leaders who can take a good idea and hit the ground running. But without that good idea in the first place, there is nothing to innovate. We know from neuroscience that creativity requires periods of quiet reflection.
Offices without borders
The current focus on collaboration, adaptation, and innovation has brought about fundamental changes to the way the office looks. The rigid ‘cube farm’ of the 1990s has lost its foothold to flexible offices that encourage employees to move freely within the space.
There is a downside, however. Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the latest television hit or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.
Peter Wilson, the chairman and national president of the Australian Human Resources Institute, says:
There is no doubt the ‘jam the most number of people into a square metre’ approach, which was the style in the 1990s and a good part of the early millennium, has gone. It was associated with quite significant morale and productivity drops. The new wave of innovation is about activities for workers such as socialising, eating and locating themselves in all manner of different environments while they work.
The activity-based workplace is an environment with a range of different zones that support collaborative tasks and work that needs to be more contemplative, something that aligns with what we’re learning about the brain.
This new workplace design relies on cutting-edge technology to tie it all together. But creating a shiny, high-tech environment doesn’t necessarily foster better ideas or enhance collaboration.
A study undertaken by Ann Majchrzak at USC demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Her three-year research effort revealed that companies that reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments realized productivity increases up to a whopping 440%.
With statistics like this, many organisations have jumped on the bandwagon only to discover that placing workers in these fancy open environments does not mean they will collaborate. The key to achieving positive results is actually found in attending to work process first and then ensuring that the physical environment and the work process complement rather than compete with each other.
Employers are still in the experimentation phase as to whether these new trends will actually work in the office.
Cain is doubtful. She draws on research to argue that the modern office has been designed exclusively for extroverted characters who thrive on the atmosphere. In contrast, open-plan office design has been a productivity disaster for quieter employees.
“If solitude is an important key to creativity, we might all want to develop a taste for it,” she argues in Quiet.
“You think we’d want to teach our kids to work independently. That we’d want to give employees plenty of privacy and autonomy. Yet increasingly we do just the opposite.”
As she terms it, the “new groupthink” places a burdensome emphasis on teamwork, nearly all of the time. In her estimation, up to 70 per cent of employees in the US spend their working day in open-plan offices of some description. The question is: Just what does this mean for creativity?
The creative process
In a recent article on innovation and the importance of collaboration, Phillip Micallef, the former executive chairman of MCA and former CEO of Malta Enterprise, makes the case for innovation being an increasingly “collaborative pursuit that runs across firms, countries and sectors”. He argues further that
successful innovation occurs through an “innovative system”, linking together the ideas, technology, finance and production networks needed to successfully develop new ideas and methods and then bring them to scale in a particular industry sector. [It] thrives through cross-cutting networks, where ideas can spread rapidly and be tested in practice by many users.
Micallef makes a distinction between two areas of innovation that go hand-in-hand. He argues that innovation is often equated with investing more in research to create knowledge, but that true innovation requires the application of that knowledge in new ways that create value. While he is absolutely correct in noting the importance of new knowledge, placing the emphasis on its application—the easy part—comes at the expense of new and innovative ideas being generated in the first place.
Cain’s work supports the importance of solitude to creativity. Writing for The New York Times, Cain states that “research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic.”She offers an explanation for these findings: Introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. She sites an observation by psychologist Hans Eysenck who claimed that introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.”
Architects know that triangles make a structure sound. Good managers know that knowledge management and knowledge transformation require three key components. As Harold Jarche, an expert in innovation, states in a recent article, there are three types of specialists none of whom can succeed in isolation:
- The true genius: “a person capable of having seemingly good ideas not in general circulation.” By themselves they are misunderstood.
- A thought leader: “a highly intelligent citizen in good standing in his or her community, who understands and admires the fresh ideas of the genius, and who testifies that the genius is far from mad.” By themselves they are unsatisfied.
- The integrator: “a person who can explain everything, no matter how complicated, to the satisfaction of most people.” By themselves they are ignored.
Jarche argues that a diversity of talents is necessary for true innovation. If one side of the ‘talent triangle’ is missing, the strength of the idea will not be best supported—indeed, the idea may never originate at all.
Acknowledging that different personality types have different roles to play and allowing each the appropriate environment to utilise their talents is critical for true innovation. There are times when we can and should collaborate productively and times when we should be wise enough to leave each other alone.
This article first appeared in June 2013 in Brainwaves for Leaders.
On March 19, the literary marketplace welcomed a new title by the young Vladimir Nabokov, who hasn’t been greatly inconvenienced by his death in 1977. The Tragedy of Mister Morn, a verse drama written in Berlin in 1924 and never published during Nabokov’s lifetime, reads as a kind of retread of Othello, set among the Bolsheviks: the plot points to Leninism, but the artifice is all Shakespeare, and the play’s release is timely on both counts. Six days earlier (a near eclipse of Morn’s arrival), the Erarta Museum in St. Petersburg, then hosting a performance based on Nabokov’s Lolita, absorbed the latest attack by the Orthodox Cossacks, a band of Russian conservatives that has been campaigning against Nabokov, denouncing his masterwork, since the start of the new year. Among the more serious incursions, a theater producer was beaten in January, but perhaps the most emblematic gesture was the lobbing of a vodka bottle through a window of the Nabokov museum: tucked inside the bottle, a note condemned Nabokov as a pedophile and warned of the imminence of God’s wrath.
Viewed as domestic terrorism (even Cossacks have dreams), these acts seem comparatively tame, even quaint. As a more benign kind of vandalism (tell that to the producer), they make their point clearly enough, I suppose. But as literary criticism, they are an utter travesty, an intellectual obscenity that should make the Cossacks and their kin themselves the object of public and lasting derision (pillories and tomatoes or, at minimum, raspberries). A half century has passed since Lolita’s publication, yet here we are again—it seems inevitable—with the literal-minded and the simpletons, the well-meaning zealots and zombie mooncalves breaking out torches and pitchforks, vodka bottles and spray paint, to decry Lolita as the work of the devil. Twenty-five years ago, in her appraisal of the novel, Erica Jong found this noise over its propriety exasperating, so maybe now more than ever, the only fit response to the Cossack charge is to ignore it, at most to repay the protesters with a bottle of one’s own, bearing just the terse rebuttal, “It’s art, stupid.” To do anything more, to defend Nabokov and his work more fully and forcefully, would be to concede that either needs defending in the first place.
And one would think that the Cossack claim could be made only by someone who hasn’t read the book. After all, unless you abuse the text pretty seriously (beat it within an inch of its life), it’s not possible to construe Humbert Humbert’s pathology as a behavioral recommendation. In this regard, his case is no different from that of multitudes of literary characters. Consider, for comparison, Brigadier Pudding in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, who, for the sake of sexual arousal, eats the excrement of the book’s femme fatale as she is producing it (do the math for yourselves here). That the novel contains this character doesn’t mean that readers, or his creator, find this behavior appetizing. Unfortunately, the semi-literate Cossacks are not alone in their sentiments about Lolita, not the only hostiles in the field. In fact, their cause often finds support even from the ranks of Nabokov’s fans. In the 2009 BBC documentary How Do You Solve a Problem Like Lolita?, journalist and literary pilgrim Stephen Smith promises to resolve the title question, which he poses more bluntly at the outset: “was [Lolita] a morality tale or the fantasies of a dirty old man? [his grammar]” On the whole, the documentary feels like a superficial traipse through Nabokov’s life and work, a mercenary stoking of this combustible subject. But one vignette particularly rankles: Smith interviews Martin Amis, perhaps the most famous champion of Nabokov’s work, and here, as Amis glosses the prevalence of pedophilia in the Nabokovian catalog—which, indeed, spans (vestigially) from the very early stories to The Original of Laura, the unfinished last novel, published posthumously—his view of Nabokov bends sinister. He flatly concludes that this recurrent theme “distorts the corpus,” cropping up so frequently as to be an admission of guilt.
Scholars too, from time to time, have tried to paint Nabokov in these same colors, casting him as the pervy uncle in the house of literature. In 1990, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Brandon Centerwall attempted to deduce from the fiction that Nabokov himself was a victim of molestation, and subsequently a “closet pedophile.” The article is a textbook example of the biographical fallacy, a case study in bad reading (call it what it is, a masterpiece of stupidity), yet this line of attack was taken up once again in 2005, inflated to book length, by an Australian critic who elected to self-publish her treatise when the university presses balked. The book appears to be a work of character defamation masquerading as scholarship (a wonderfully scathing review, by Sarah Holland Batt, is available online), but should these academic insults seem a little dated and recherché, consider this incidental disclosure, the novel’s cameo appearance, in a New Yorker feature, from January of this year, on the treatment protocol for pedophiles. One of the men interviewed for the piece, who had as yet hurt no one, kept a secret list of child-pornographic art works, among which he numbered something called Lolita, which is hilarious, though he might have been referring to a film version. (I wonder if he has seen Hard Candy). The man had also jotted some notes to justify his erotic appetites—“Strictly speaking a girl between 13 and 17 is not a child”—and Cossacks will notice how these seem eerily akin to the pleas of Nabokov’s Humbert. No, the derogation of Nabokov and his Lolita is a doggedly persistent refrain, a vampire meme in the cultural memory.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that it might be necessary to entertain these charges against the writer—for the sake of argument, as a logical exercise—if only to shred them the more completely. It’s not just the prevalence or persistence of these attacks that compels me. Let me explain. In his very readable book, How Proust Can Change Your Life, Alain de Botton argues that the French writer’s masterpiece can subtly alter the reader’s own habits of cognition and perception. I take it for granted, as a given, that the same is true of Nabokov’s work: with its radiant precision, its richly patterned surfaces, its rampant serendipity, its rhapsodic and pulverizing prose, his fiction warps the mind in a most salutary way. In a thoughtful exchange on Slate, James Wood and Richard Lamb testify to the fact as they both complain of infection by Nabokov’s jeweled style. On a more tangible level, Nabokov’s work as a naturalist—his love for botanical things and butterflies which infuses his fiction—routinely inspires readers (not just me) to take up taxonomy, birdwatching, say, or tree identification: see Lila Zanganeh’s whimsical but skimpy hagiography The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness (2011), in which she reports that she too has found this element of Nabokov’s fiction contagious.
While Zanganeh chronicles a bit preciously her personal enamoration with Nabokov, David Kleinberg-Levin, a philosopher emeritus at Northwestern, advances more or less the same exalted argument; he attributes to the Nabokovian catalogue the full measure of the joy inherent in his own book’s title—Redeeming Words and the Promise of Happiness: A Critical Theory Approach to Wallace Stevens and Vladimir Nabokov (2012). (Clearly, the news hasn’t been all bad for Nabokov in the last few years.) Essentially, Kleinberg-Levin highlights two distinctive features of Nabokov’s fiction: its animated lexical surface (the prosody, cryptograms, puns and metamorphic words) and its narrative vanishing acts (in which worlds like a mad king’s Zemblan homeland are painted in lurid colors only to be razed, exposed as phantasmal and illusive, in which a Dreamer can stumble onto the set of Morn and remind the actors of their unreality). These features, for Kleinberg-Levin, evoke the awesome, originary power of language itself, its power to birth human consciousness, an experience conducive to, or synonymous with, happiness. Although his book is dense with reference and coiled academic prose, Kleinberg-Levin writes feelingly about the subject and is nearly convincing (I know he’s right, as is Zanganeh; I’m just not sure that there’s any rational way to argue the why). But here’s the rub: if sensible people are willing to ascribe a benevolent influence to Nabokov’s work, is it possible to dismiss out of hand, without a hearing, those concerns of the Cossacks and the demonizers that Lolita’s impact might be pernicious? That is, if books can be salutary, can they not also be toxic?
In his 1958 laudatory review of the book, Lionel Trilling inadvertently supplies the Cossack cause with this deadly ammunition; he writes that “in the course of reading the novel, we […] come virtually to condone the violation it presents.” The only outrage the work provokes, for Trilling, comes after the fact, when we recognize “we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” Trilling is mistaken in this conclusion, which is more a personal reaction than a reasoned response, but for Cossacks, I think it’s all the same anyway. That is, the Cossack argument makes no moral distinction between the author and his audience. The writer’s guilt is visited upon readers, museum curators, even by-standing sympathizers—everyone is smeared with the same graffitist’s brush—so it’s hard to know if influence, per se, counts among the novel’s offenses. Scholars like Centerwall, on the contrary, seem willing to allow that Nabokov’s moral hygiene isn’t necessarily identical to the reader’s, but if we grant to Cossacks this concern over influence—the novel’s ability to leave readers enlightened or benighted—it’s the Cossack position that seems the more dangerous of the two. For those of us who know better, this confusion of culpability actually has its advantages. It stands to reason, then, that if we can exonerate the reader, we have vindicated the author, or vice versa. But in the interest of coherent logic and simple commonsense, we might also distinguish between and treat separately these twin poles of accusation, to try to put the matter to rest. At the same time, I realize that this might be an impossible project: not that the controversy can’t be resolved, but that maybe it shouldn’t be resolved. Maybe Lolita is the shard of glass forever embedded in the flesh, the blade that never loses its edge, the trail of hot coals that perpetually smolders: maybe, when we reread it, as we must, we should feel the cut, let it scald, as if for the first time.
The Art of Self-Defense
After Lolita’s publication, Nabokov himself spent a good deal of time responding to the trumped-up charges against him, with inconsistent results. The interview transcripts assembled in Strong Opinions appear to be unassailable, pitch-perfect rejoinders to critics and demonizers. However, television seems to have been a less hospitable medium. In a 1958 interview for the CBC—last year, 3 Quarks Daily ran clips of the footage—Nabokov and the telegenic Trilling joined forces to discuss Lolita’s shocking content, and in that conversation, Trilling identifies perhaps the most scandalous thing about the novel: that it invites us to believe that Humbert’s love for his nymphet is authentic, that by the book’s end, it transcends the category of child rape. When Humbert meets Lolita for the last time, she is married (at seventeen), pregnant, a nymphet no more, and trying sensibly to shift for herself and her husband in their hard-luck life. Of the encounter, Humbert writes,
You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half- throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine. … [E]ven if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice.
Trilling might be on to something here, but the book proves more equivocal. Besides the disconcerting adjectives preceding that “delta,” a long-running debate among Nabokov scholars is whether the book’s last nine chapters, including the final meeting with Lolita and the murder of Claire Quilty, ever really happen beyond Humbert’s imagination. More importantly for the moment, Nabokov’s own remarks in that interview might fuel the ire of his antagonists. He mentions, for example, that he and his Humbert differ in many things besides their views of little girls; particularly, he mentions Humbert’s inability to distinguish a hawkmoth from a hummingbird. You don’t have to be a Cossack to hear something tone-deaf in this comparison, a jarring collision of the incendiary (pedophilia) and the urbane (ornithology). As a result, viewers might find themselves trying to interpret the writer’s body language, which is by any measure ungainly as he slouches and slides on an unaccommodating sofa. Jasper Rees, in his review of Smith’s BBC documentary, does this too: although he seems largely to suggest that the charges against Nabokov are bogus, the controversy a non-starter, he ends his article by picking again at the scab of the debate with this sketch of the writer: “Asked by an interviewer if he’d ever known a girl like Lolita, the old man’s lizard eyes flickered, and just for a second the body language spoke as eloquently as anything Nabokov ever wrote in his adoptive tongue.”
These allegations also prompted Nabokov to respond, away from the cameras, in the more composed forum of this Russian-language poem from 1959 (the translation is Nabokov’s own):
What is the evil deed I have committed?
Seducer, criminal—is this the word
for me who set the entire world a-dreaming
of my poor little girl?
Oh, I know well that I am feared by people:
They burn the likes of me for wizard wiles
and as of poison in a hollow smaragd
of my art die.
Amusing, though, that at the last indention,
despite proofreaders and my age’s ban,
a Russian branch’s shadow shall be playing
upon the marble of my hand.
At first glance, the poem too makes for a poor defense of the writer’s character (smaragd?!). An unusually attentive Cossack might seize upon the fact that Nabokov can’t bring himself to use the more accurate “pedophile” as the relevant aspersion, and in the last stanza, again he seems to put on equal footing the weighty matter of censorship with the trivial matter of proofreading (which is the point, at least in part: I wonder if the word doesn’t also contain a pun, alluding to readers who seek in literature a kind of proof, a bedrock of actionable belief). However, upon reflection, the poem does in fact do more to clear Nabokov’s name than it first appears. In refusing to countenance directly the charges against him, in evading the subject (and the horror) of real-world pedophilia, he reveals that his only concern is his literary legacy, which will carry the day in the end (those last two lines envision a marble statue of Nabokov in the Russia from which he was exiled). That Nabokov can find his predicament “amusing,” that he figures his lifespan and historical progress in terms of typographical conventions (the “last indention” in the story of his legacy): this is suggestive of a callousness, an aesthete’s flint-heartedness, a narcissism so frosty that the writer can convert his flesh-and-blood hand without anguish into marble. But on some level, this very heartlessness is not a failing but a requirement if the artist is to create a work, any work, in which characters are made to suffer and perpetrate cruelty.
In his Afterword to the novel, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which has accompanied every edition since 1958, Nabokov offers his most thorough response to his critics, successfully deflecting those charges that Humbert’s obsession is traceable to the writer. He notes the differences between his Lolita and the conventions of pornography (child or otherwise): “in pornographic novels action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.” Although this eminently sensible and widely available text has done little to quell the controversy, it points the way forward. Yes, to find the best defense of the novel, and the fullest exoneration of its author, we have to turn to the work itself, the story of its genesis and the skill in its artistry.
The Fine Art of Edification
Stephen Smith tries to do exactly this, consult the book to vindicate the writer, in his documentary (though he too is hamstrung by the medium). Referring back to his title question—morality tale or pervert’s fantasy—in the end, Smith comes down firmly on the side of the former reading, endorsing the book’s moral vision. He points to Humbert’s acknowledgement of his own crime, his theft of Lolita’s childhood, his gross violation of her body and her life, an access of conscience that blossoms toward the end of the tale:
Unless it can 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.
Essentially, Humbert acknowledges the evil of pedophilia for what it is.
While Smith is right on some level—the book does powerfully indict Humbert for his crime—his conclusion rests too heavily on Humbert’s eleventh-hour repentance. In this regard, Smith would appear to share the view of John Ray, Jr., a fictional psychopathologist who pens the Foreword to Humbert’s manuscript confession. In that Foreword, Ray characterizes Humbert’s story as a “tragic tale tending unswervingly toward a moral apotheosis,” just as Smith does, but Ray, in my reading, is a pedantic clown, an incompetent alienist more prone to titillation perhaps than any of Nabokov’s real-world readers (he refers to men who “enjoy yearly, in one way or another,” exactly the crime that Humbert commits: that choice of verb and the cruel euphemism for rape that follows are unnerving). Further, Nabokov portrays Ray as unusually blinkered in that, on the point of Humbert’s redemption—that moment of his moral transfiguration, staged atop an allegorical hill from which he can deduce the extent of his crime—the text is, again, uncooperative. Though the scene arrives only on the novel’s penultimate page, Humbert’s presumed “apotheosis” actually takes place before he reunites with Lolita, and before he tracks to his lair and kills Quilty, the playwright and pornographer with whom Lolita makes her escape from Humbert. That is to say, the “apotheosis” doesn’t exactly cause him to desist (and, yes, murder appears to be the less objectionable of Humbert’s offenses).
Instead of relying on the authenticity of Humbert’s professed repentance, we should look elsewhere to catch the novel’s antipathy for his crimes, which indeed is inscribed much more thoroughly and pervasively in the text. The book reveals most clearly that the nympholept’s paradise is painted in the colors of hell flames, from first to last; in fact, Humbert’s manuscript confession is more a record of the frustration and cauterization of his desires than a chronicle of their satisfaction. In one example, Humbert rents a new home in voyeuristic proximity to a school yard, but immediately, some construction workers arrive and start building a wall which they leave forever unfinished only after they have completely obstructed Humbert’s view. Elsewhere, he offers a passing sketch of his criminal lust in which Lolita is completely uninvolved, picking her nose and reading the newspaper, while Humbert clings desperately to his fantasy of tenderness, his invented image of the dream girl. It might be in the portrait of Quilty, Humbert’s nemesis, that we catch the most scathing indictment of the sexual predator. In Quilty we see the leering and lecherous monster, as Humbert describes him poolside, “his naval [sic] pulsating, his hirsute thighs dripping with bright droplets, his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigor where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood.” The irony here is that Quilty’s beastliness is the very image of Humbert’s own evil; Humbert observes not his adversary and enemy, but his double, and notably then, it is this figure that Humbert destroys (if only metaphorically) in the novel’s last chapters.
The grotesque description of Quilty should make clear another point about Lolita: the mode and mood of the book is parody. In its blood and bones, the novel is a lampooning of any number of literary subgenres: the confession, the psychological case study, the murder-mystery, the doppelganger tale, even the fairy tale. As a result, neither Humbert nor Quilty offers a naturalistic portrait of a pedophile—these are parodies of pedophiles, unusually animated, expressive and convincing caricatures but still caricatures, their monstrosity and their manipulative charms (such as they are) intensified and distorted, to comic effect. No, to catch the real-life portrait of the pedophile, to isolate the type, I think we would have to consider Jerry Sandusky, the shambling dufus, a creepy lummox with an overbite incapable of formulating the extent of his own evil. Readers are welcome to quibble here, pointing to hyperliterate pedophiles in the historical record, but Humbert is a blow-up bogeyman, a balloon-animal of a pedophile that everywhere leaks air. When he makes his explicit defense of pedophilia as a cultural practice, readers can’t miss the irony that undercuts his pleas and renders the entire effort self-defeating and incriminating. While cataloging the historical prevalence of pedophilia, for example, he refers to the sexual mores in “East Indian provinces,” saying “Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight and nobody minds.” Those last three words are crucial, charged with a blistering irony; to state that “nobody minds” is to offer a coded acknowledgement that something transgressive, patently wrong is at issue, and the trite colloquialism of the phrase, its chummy tone, is entirely incompatible with the heinousness of the subject. Humbert’s purported self-defense is routinely punctured with this kind of recrimination—and the net effect is hilarious, morbidly, unforgivably hilarious, maybe, but all the more sublime for being so.
The comedy itself in Lolita speaks volumes in defense of the author. See Humbert’s ludicrous description of his perceived competition for Lo’s affection, “two gangling, golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhea.” See how his extravagant ogling of the girl inspires the outburst, “oh, that I were a lady writer who could have her pose naked in a naked light!,” which is immediately undercut by authorial laceration, “But instead, I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.” Again, I’m no expert in criminal psychology, but it seems to me that an actual pedophile would be incapable of making his avatar such a buffoon, his lust such a sadomasochistic farce. For Nabokov, laughter, rather than rage or righteous indignation, appears to offer the best defense against monsters and tyrants. As he wrote in arguably his best short story, “‘That in Aleppo Once…’” (1943), in reference to the Nazi horrorshow that claimed the life of his own brother, “with all her many black sins, Germany was still bound to remain forever and ever the laughingstock of the world.” This mature insight finds expression as well in the early Tragedy of Mister Morn, whose philosopher-king succumbs to belly-laughs even while trading punches with a rival.
This isn’t to say that Humbert’s narration isn’t often poignant, or that the novel lacks gravitas. Humbert is a skilled poet of his own pain, converting his agonies into art, and Nabokov allows him to express something of the purported rapture and the corresponding regret that inhere in his crime. After a run-in with Quilty inflames his jealousy, Humbert describes how he “ushered [Lolita] into a little alley half-smothered in fragrant shrubs, with flowers like smoke, and was about to break into ripe sobs and plead with her imperturbed dream in the most abject manner for clarification, no matter how meretricious, of the slow awfulness enveloping” him. Beyond this local and misdirected experience of rue, elsewhere, he records the “smothered memories” that emerge as “limbless monsters of pain,” “icebergs in paradise” in which his lust is interwoven with “shame and despair.” The beauty of Humbert’s lament might best be captured in this passage, in which he contemplates his fatal error: “it struck me that, quite possibly, […] behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.” True, Nabokov has the gall to render the concrete particulars that vivify Humbert’s lust—the portrait less a high-fidelity recording than a Warhol lithograph, garish and overexposed—but he does ensure that Humbert is tortured, deservedly, for his crime. If readers experience a measure of empathy for Humbert, it’s only because Nabokov allows us to see him as both villain and pathetic victim of his own delusions. (In this last, the Cossacks share Humbert’s predicament as surely as anyone who is led into violence by the force of belief—not a bad summary of the human condition).
Not surprisingly, Nabokov himself offers the most apt assessment of Humbert’s character in the Foreword to one of his earlier novels, Despair; he compares the two comparable narrators and concludes, “there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year, but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” Yet, even if it’s clear that Nabokov himself is on the side of the angels in Lolita, this way of framing the debate, at its root, seems to me potentially self-defeating. After all, the novel itself anticipates this need for moral vindication. To that end, Nabokov outsources to John Ray, Jr., the task of representing the moralist defense: Ray’s Foreword ends with the admonition that Humbert’s tale “warns of dangerous trends” and that the book’s “ethical impact” trumps its “literary worth.” Coming as they do from the myopic Ray, these assurances are doubtful, best viewed with suspicion. To defend Lolita by invoking the didactic function and ethical purpose of literature is to commit the same Cossack mistake in the opposite direction. Art isn’t a service industry for the glorification of conventional wisdom or received ideas: art is an aggravation, an explosive device strapped to the I-beams of culture, a cattle-prod for our existential complacency. In its content, art can be transgressive, revolutionary, but perhaps the greater insurrection resides within the very precondition of art: namely, that it exists for the sake of artistry, that it defines itself according to this cultural non-value, beyond the dictates of the marketplace or the agendas of advertisers and propagandists. The pursuit of artistry, the experimentation and innovation housed within the word novel, is by definition a subversion of the social contract, a forged-in-steel, plated-in-gold fuck-you to the notion of utilitarian enterprise. (Some writers are able to convert this posture, paradoxically, impossibly, into a decent living.)
As I see it, the real subject of Lolita, its proper theme, is not immorality, but immortality. And perhaps this in itself is an affront to Cossacks, who would insist that the writer prosecute their own outrage at the crime, rather than see it subsumed within something so precious and grand as temporality. But Humbert’s pursuit of nymphets, his longing to reside on that “intangible island of entranced time,” appears to be a crazed instantiation of a larger existential crisis. Repeatedly throughout the book, Humbert inserts parentheses into his text in which he addresses the supporting cast: to a doctor who treats Lolita, “(hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul and you touched my dove very gently)”; to Rita, the women with whom H takes up after Lolita escapes, “(hi, Rita—wherever you are, drunk or hungoverish, hi!)”; and most tellingly, to Jean Farlow, who shares a tender moment with the newly bereaved Humbert in Ramsdale, then dies shortly after of cancer, “(Jean, whatever, wherever you are, in minus time-space or plus soul-time, forgive me all this, parenthesis included).” All of these apostrophes are redolent of the tomb, given that we know from Ray’s Foreword that Humbert, like Lolita, has died prior to the book’s publication. Those chummy and penitent salutations emanate as if from beyond the grave, and Nabokov wants us to feel the fact, to make the spectral dimension palpable (the word for this is haunting).
The novel’s pervasive concern with temporality is captured most succinctly in Humbert’s description of his metaphysics, which is part and parcel of the novel’s artistry: he cites his academic paper “Mimir and Memory” (Humbert the scholar), in which he posits a “theory of perceptual time” that resembles the human circulatory system and bridges the poles of the past and the future (call it a fluid and equivocal time-space continuum). This circulatory system analogy applies equally to the method of the book, its imagistic reflux in which motifs proliferate madly. For one minor example, little remarked upon, consider Humbert’s arrival at the Haze house in Ramsdale, where he meets Lolita for the first time. As he prepares to tour the house, a potential lodger, he spots, in the foyer, “an old gray tennis ball” of dubious provenance. Lolita doesn’t take up tennis, as far as we know, until after she takes up with (or is taken up by) Humbert, so how do we account for the presence of the ball in the foyer? It’s as if Humbert’s memory is inscribing the earlier scene with the later event—or vice versa: perhaps the entire tennis sequence, a highlight of Humbert and Lo’s travels (precipitating a rendezvous with Quilty, among other things), is itself a spontaneous invention, a metastasis of this incongruous detail that Humbert notices in Ramsdale. (Think Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, the devil who invents his far-out tale from the details close at hand—yes, Nabokov deserves a credit for this gambit too). This artistic method makes it almost impossible to separate the fact from the fantasy in Humbert’s confession—which crucially undercuts any moral takeaway obviously. Further, the interweaving of temporal layers, this mixing of times or tenses, is itself a confounding of linear narrative (in life or literature), a means of forging a realm immune to the passage of time, an art synonymous with eternity and immortality. (Morn captures the sentiment with the excellent phrase “large books that smell of time.”)
In a 1989 article, a seventeen-page conniption of sorts, Trevor McNeely argues that every attempt to take an aesthetic view of the novel is an evasion, a “basically nihilistic position of ignoring, and therefore condoning, pedophilia.” For McNeely, the book is a grand hoax perpetrated on readers, the author a reprehensible fraud. In Cossack terms, Nabokov isn’t the pedophile; rather, the evil of the novel is that he makes readers complicit in the crime: “Lolita’s critics swallow Nabokov’s bait, and come to believe, or pretend to believe, that the pedophilia and sexual slavery it depicts actually do not matter.” The most troubling thing about McNeely’s paper is that Studies in the Novel bothered to print it; yet, even an eloquent and temporally distant Cossack is welcome to a hearing. What McNeely fails, or chooses not, to grasp is that the novel’s treatment of pedophilia is, by definition, philosophical and aesthetic, rather than practical. He makes a simple category error. Nabokov portrays the subject as filtered through the prism of art to exploit neither readers nor victims of the crime, but the aesthetic possibilities of the material. To that end, Humbert’s obsession is figured as a crisis of the artistic imagination, which loosens the boundaries between fact and fiction, unmoors time from its anchor: nymphets and their mythical island don’t exist, but Humbert deceives himself into believing that they do—and this is the recipe for tragedy.
The other tragedy, Mister Morn, helps to clarify the point. In the play, the Leninist revolution is figured in the character of Tremens, a kind of prophet of death. He articulates his ideals abstractly, in archetypal images: “But why do we/ always want to grow, to climb uphill/ from one to a thousand, when the downward path–/from one to zero—is faster and sweeter? Life/ itself is the example—it rushes headlong/ into ash, it destroys everything in its way:/ first it gnaws through the umbilical cord….” Clearly, Tremens doesn’t debate the merits of particular Five-Year-Plans or even calculated purges. The revolutionary speechmaking, the offhand executions: those are relegated to the subtext. Elsewhere, Tremens links his philosophy of death, the tenets of revolution, directly to the play’s other prominent plot thread, love: “the soul/ must fear death as a maiden fears love.” The two concepts are positioned on a continuum of sorts, the one experience (death) figured as a corollary of the other (love). Does the observation of these techniques and relationships place a reader on the side of Tremens, condoning the tragedy that follows? It’s art, stupid.
Surprisingly, though, McNeely’s preposterous argument might contain a grain of truth. He suggests that Lolita is Nabokov’s vengeance on critics of every stripe: “the Freudians, the New Critics, the Existentialists, the Structuralists, and all their bastard progeny,” any interpreter who experiences “terror of the void of unmeaning.” McNeely draws the wrong conclusion, but there might be something in the observation. Nabokov’s fiction is strangely resistant, in my experience, to traditional critical approaches, even those that the author doesn’t explicitly subvert. In the case of Lolita, New Criticism, with its emphasis on structural paradox, works reasonably well. With this interpretive apparatus, we can acknowledge and cope with the troubling fact that Humbert’s Proustian quest, his pursuit of artistic immortality, also manifests in his lechery. The former, a New Critic would say, isn’t a means of ennobling the latter; the triumph of Humbert’s art doesn’t excuse the travesty of love that he perpetrates on Lolita. Instead, Nabokov’s novel composes a charged paradox of these contradictory impulses, resulting in an interpretive stalemate: Humbert’s contest with time, his triumph over mortality, might well be bogus, both aesthetically and philosophically. (Or perhaps even a sinner is allowed to finger the keys to the kingdom of heaven.) Maybe it is wicked of Nabokov to recuse himself on this sorest point, but such silence, for New Critics, is the very language of art (Keats heard it on his urn). As Humbert frames it, claiming to quote an old poet: “The moral sense in mortals is the duty/ We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty.”
The Edifice of Artifice
What the New Critical reading suggests is that it isn’t quite possible or advisable to salvage a wholesome moral vision from Nabokov’s Lolita; every avenue ends in a cul-de-sac. Even so, the perception of the paradox seems almost beside the point, inadequate somehow to the effect of the novel. Maybe, to best appraise the vision of Lolita, we have to access the amoral provinces of Formalist poetics, because in the intricate patterning of the text, its scintillating architecture, we begin to see the novel’s clearest vindication, and perhaps the most common talking point, with good cause, among the novel’s proponents. Simply put, the prose in Lolita is a marvel, a blow-your-hair-back, stand-up-and-shout performance with few equals in the annals of world literature. Consider this passage, an evocation of the American landscape as Humbert and his ward travel aimlessly cross-country, dissimulating a road trip:
Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would come a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist. There might be a line of spaced trees silhouetted against the horizon, and hot still noons above a wilderness of clover, and Claude Lorrain clouds inscribed remotely into misty azure with only their cumulus part conspicuous against the neutral swoon of the background. Or again, it might be a stern El Greco horizon, pregnant with inky rain, and a passing glimpse of some mummy-necked farmer, and all around alternating strips of quick-silverish water and harsh green corn, the whole arrangement opening like a fan, somewhere in Kansas.
Nick Mount, in a lecture on YouTube, cites this passage as an attempt to inscribe nymphet-omania into the landscape, but I offer it merely as a sample of Humbert’s prose at its most majestic.
Of the human comedy, Nabokov is an equally sharp observer, a merciless recorder of mortal folly, with a Boschian bent: when Humbert’s first wife, Valeria, announces that she’s leaving him for another man, that other man turns out to be the driver of the cab that the couple is traveling in. This cab driver, Maximovich, then chauffeurs the pair back home, where he helps Valeria to pack up her things (Humbert claims to be dying the whole while of “hate and boredom”). When Valeria and her beau have gone, Humbert describes what follows:
Clumsily playing my part, I stomped to the bathroom to check if they had taken my English toilet water; they had not, but I noticed with a spasm of fierce disgust that the former Counselor of the Tsar [Maximovich], after thoroughly easing his bladder, had not flushed the toilet. That solemn pool of alien urine with a soggy, tawny cigarette butt disintegrating in it struck me as a crowning insult, and I wildly looked around for a weapon.
Immediately after, Humbert chalks up the outrage to an excess of politeness: probably Maximovich didn’t want to call attention to the shabbiness of Humbert’s apartment, in which both flush and urination would be audible in every room. The nuance of the character portrait here bespeaks an imaginative generosity, a willingness to inhabit, humanely, even peripheral lives; ironically, this is the very point on which Humbert fails with Lolita, and we should notice too that Humbert’s psychological parsing, along with some rummaging in the kitchen, spares him a pummeling from the departed Counselor, who is made of “pig-iron.” However, the rich human portraiture would come to nothing were it not for the peerless phrasing. The seething excess of “spasm of fierce disgust,” the venomous sarcasm and off-kilter, pidgin-inflected verb in “thoroughly easing,” the collision of registers, high and low, in the two types of toilet water, in the promotion of the homely cab driver to Counselor: all of this energy crackles in that “solemn pool of alien urine,” which conveys a coarse bodily function with a rich musicality, a little stilted in context, and it’s that odd formality that ignites the description and makes it sear.
In Nabokov’s sumptuous prose, readers might overlook the liberal admixtures of the mean, the harsh, the cloacal: H contemplates a swimming pool, which he feels lodged in his “thorax,” and his “organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water of Nice”; Charlotte Haze’s body, after the accident, “the top of her head a porridge of bones, brains, bronze hair and blood”; his own manuscript, “This then is my story. I have reread it. It has bits of marrow sticking to it, and blood, and beautiful bright-green flies.” Humbert’s isn’t exactly a decorous, museum English. His voice often betrays something florid in its inflection, something a little overheated, steroidal, wearing too much makeup. His isn’t a tone of high sincerity or grim seriousness, much less is it identical to Nabokov’s own literary voice—see for comparison the baroque and steeled serenity of Speak, Memory! (there’s a family resemblance, but Humbert would be the dissipated, loutish cousin wearing too much toilet water at the reunion). Yet Nabokov gifts him with this line, upon his high-spirited departure from Ramsdale after Charlotte’s death, an example for which the best syntactical descriptor might be catastrophe:
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 deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and 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.
What’s more, Humbert proves to be a skilled ventriloquist; he masterfully conveys Lolita’s tough-teen idiom (“Doublecrosser!”), as well as her mother’s bullying affection, and his own narration veers from a no-nonsense gruffness to the genuinely moving timbre of his contrition. Humbert’s tale is a monologue, but the effect is symphonic, the orchestra including both pipe organ and kazoo, yet the larger point here is simply this: virtuosic prose shimmers on EVERY PAGE of the novel. To find its equal, we have to look to giants like Joyce and Shakespeare. The prose, the artistry, the antimatter of style: this is why good and wise people revere Lolita.
Of course, it might not be wholly possible to separate the work’s style from its content. Because surely the masterful plotting of Lolita—as much a matter of matter as style—the suspenseful, carefully staged exposition of Humbert’s predatory pursuit, the untimely death of Charlotte Haze, the montages of the road trips (deliberately punctuated with pungent set pieces), the elaborate decryption of Quilty’s identity and the culminating murder: surely this contributes to the work’s triumph. Cossacks will start harrumphing again, suggesting that Nabokov might have found something a little too inspiring in the sordid content of the book. Perhaps the book’s scandalous content did in fact galvanize his imagination, did induce him to write a novel more readable, more accessible than ever before. None of his books before or after is so companionably plotted, fluidly paced, as it arcs toward its radiant zenith, despite the subtle sleight-of-hand that everywhere sabotages the chronology. Perhaps the deranged subject matter allowed Nabokov a special dispensation: he could revel more freely not in the heinous crime, but in the threadbare conventions of page-turner fiction (which he tugs at cheerfully). Who knows? Maybe Nabokov sensed that, given the book’s inflammatory subject, the writing had to be perfect. Indeed, the novel is as richly reticulated as a Shakespearean drama, as mad with reference and as ripe with metaphysics as Ulysses, as lyrical and rhapsodic and fluent in the vernacular as Gatsby (but more grotesque, wiser and deeper), as eloquent as anything in Conrad, as polished and timeless as Petrarchan marble. Yet unlike its luminous predecessors, Lolita remains uniquely, scandalously, readable, singularly hospitable to modern sensibilities. While the great works of the past often petrify over time, Lolita lives on, its colors as bright and bruising today as when they were first painted.
There is one simple and, I think, inarguable proof that, in the final reckoning, style, artistry alone has secured for Lolita its place in the pantheon of world literature. This vindication is in some ways an accident of history: to understand how, we have to consider the strange tale of the novel’s genesis, its slouching march toward Bethlehem. However, to alleviate reader fatigue, it seems wise to adjourn here for a brief rest. In the intermission, I invite you to contemplate the following rejected titles for the present article:
The Book in the Brown Paper Wrapper: Why It’s OK to Love Lolita
Nabokov’s Blues: The Tribulations of Lolita
Lolita’s Vampire Problem
The Four-Minute Medium: Why Long Essays Die on the Web
The Hard Lessons of Lolita
Bonfire of the Straw Men!
The Importance of Italics: Why We Love Lolita.
In his Afterword to the novel, Nabokov attempts to answer the elementary question that many readers might ask, but that only Cossacks would charge with a special innuendo: what drove him to write such a work in the first place? Nabokov’s answer is typically oblique, but at root, this is a question of the book’s genealogy, that confluence of determinants that sparked the writing of the novel. In his introduction to The Annotated Lolita, Alfred Appel, Jr., sketches the novel’s fitful evolution, but a convenient summary of Lolita’s inception is also available online, in an article by Neil Cornwell. Cornwell tracks the first appearance of the pedophilia motif in Nabokov’s short stories and shows how a minor character in Nabokov’s The Gift pitches the very premise of Lolita as an idea for a book. Cornwell proceeds to cite a number of scholars who have tallied the novel’s literary precursors, including Edith Wharton’s The Children (which features a Humbertian romance) and Henry James’What Maisie Knew, which concludes with “the barely teenage eponymous heroine propos[ing] co-habitation with her stepfather.” Dostoevsky’s name also crops up at times among the literary forerunners of Lolita; his The Possessed contained a chapter, initially censored, in which the hero confesses to having abused a child. Even more pointedly, Cornwell examines the fishy allegation that Nabokov cribbed the idea for his book from the little-known German writer Heinz von Lichberg, whose short story entitled “Lolita” appeared in 1919. In this case, Nabokov wouldn’t be a pedophile, but a master thief (at best) or a plagiarist (at worst).
In his YouTube lecture, Nick Mount cites the literary forerunners noted by Humbert himself: Dante, Petrarch and, most pertinently, Poe, all of whom suffered from nympholepsy. Other scholars have pointed out that those poetic ancients, Dante and Petrarch, are miscast as perverts, given that the writers were themselves children when they were smitten; similarly, scholars have speculated that Poe’s relationship with his teenaged cousin might have been chaste. While Humbert’s inventory of “classic” pedophiles might be suspect on its face, it might also contain at least one notable omission. Humbert never mentions Alexander Pushkin, sometimes called the Russian Shakespeare, who also fell in love with (and was doomed by) a young-ish girl, their romance flirting with impropriety as it straddles awkwardly the current age of consent. After writing Lolita, Nabokov would go on to translate, epically, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, and the poet’s cradle-grazing romance receives a mention in the great story “‘That in Aleppo Once….’”: the narrator says of his own wife, “She was much younger than I—not as much younger as was Nathalie of the lovely bare shoulders and long earrings in relation to swarthy Pushkin; but still there was a sufficient margin for that kind of retrospective romanticism which finds pleasure in imitating the destiny of a unique genius.” To this list, as well, Cornwell adds, on one extreme, Lewis Carrol (whom Nabokov had also translated) and, on the other, the Marquis de Sade. The evidence here is a little erratic, but a clear trend appears to emerge. It’s hard not to think that Nabokov recognized something absurd in the prevalence of this motif (or disease)—as if literary history were a Henry Darger watercolor teeming with daisy chains of eroticized children. In this merging of the ludicrous and the tragic, maybe he found something hospitable to his artistic sensibility.
Cornwell points to another possible precursor of Lolita: he itemizes the numerous precise relationships between Joyce’s Ulysses and Nabokov’s novel, including Leopold Bloom’s unusual interest in his fifteen-year-old daughter’s budding sexuality, as well as the masturbatory encounter with teenaged Gerty McDowell (whose lameness is passed on to Lolita’s Ginny McCoo with her “lagging leg”). Suffice it to say, the novel is an overgrown garden, a Daedalian labyrinth of forking references. In fact, given the likelihood of Joyce’s haunting of the novel, this relationship might shed light on the origins of one of Lolita’s only explicit scenes (John Ray calls them “aphrodisiac”): the infamous sofa scene, the setting of Humbert’s first gratification of his criminal desire in Ramsdale.
Readers will recall how Humbert cagily manipulates the girl to facilitate his orgasm, claiming at the same time to have preserved her innocence: she doesn’t notice a thing, Humbert says (yet when the phone disrupts the proceedings and Lo goes to answer it, she stands with “cheeks aflame, hair awry”: the details of Humbert’s narrative betray him). To that end, to keep the girl distracted, Humbert, in the course of his magician’s “patter,” strikes upon “something nicely mechanical”: “I recited, garbling them slightly, the words of a foolish song that was then popular—O my Carmen, my little Carmen, something, something, those something nights, and the stars, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen; I kept repeating this automatic stuff and holding her under its special spell,” he writes. This incantatory device, the repetitious language that undergirds the scene, might point to another Joycean precursor: consider that in “An Encounter,” from Dubliners, Joyce also chronicles a run-in with a child molester, a shabbily dressed man, well-read and yellow-toothed, who has designs on the story’s child narrator. As the characters converse on the green, the talk turns erotic and, as in Humbert’s case, incantatory: “He gave me the impression that he was repeating something which he had learned by heart or that, magnetised by some words of his own speech, his mind was slowly circling round and round in the same orbit. [….] He repeated his phrases over and over again, varying them and surrounding them with his monotonous voice.” Although wildly different in tenor, and although Joyce himself spares his boy narrator Lolita’s victimization, the similarity in the characters’ vocal performances is striking.
While allusiveness alone is hardly exculpatory, it does strongly suggest that there is much more contributing to Lolita’s creation than a simple autobiographical impulse. Cossacks, naturally, might balk at this line of reasoning; they might argue that textual genealogy is just another, highbrow attempt to naturalize pedophilia, to make it seem the norm—something analogous to Humbert’s overt pleas in the book. Yet here again, Nabokov’s lacerating irony seems to me unimpeachable: he takes the ominous tenor of Joyce’s story, for example, and turns it into mad farce. The sofa scene is ludicrous in mood and effect: “I kept repeating,” Humbert writes, “chance words after her—barmen, alarmin’, my charmin’, my carmen, ahmen, ahahamen….” No, Humbert is ridiculous in his role of enchanted hunter; Nabokov simply grants him the privilege of hanging himself with his own pen.
Beyond the artificial provinces of literature, the real world also supplied the writer with no shortage of material. First, there is the actual crime of Frank Lasalle, mentioned by Humbert in Lolita, and tracked down by scholars; in 1948, Lasalle abducted thirteen-year-old Sally Horner and traveled with her cross-country for over a year, just as Humbert does with his captive. Then, there is the case of Professor Henry Lanz, Nabokov’s colleague during his brief stint at Stanford in 1941 and possible model for both Gaston Godin, the chess-playing pederast in Beardsley, and maybe Humbert himself; in the words of Leland de la Durantaye, Lanz “married his wife in London when she was fourteen” and “allegedly revealed to Nabokov the wild array of his pedophile adventures.” In the same vein, Cornwell notes Nabokov’s close reading of Havelock Ellis’ famous case history, “The Confession of Victor X,” whose Russian narrator “develops from precociously over-sexed adolescent debauchery […,] through a lengthy period of abstinence in Italy, which finally degenerates into paedophilia, voyeurism and masturbatory obsession amid Neapolitan child prostitution.” Cornwell even cites Nabokov’s reaction to the confession, in a letter to Edmund Wilson, who had introduced him to Ellis’ work:
I enjoyed the Russian’s love-life hugely. It is wonderfully funny. As a boy, he seems to have been quite extraordinarily lucky in coming across girls with unusually rapid and rich reactions. The end is rather bathetic.
Determined skeptics, of course, may still accuse Nabokov of dissimulation, but this response is, obviously, a far cry from the commiseration of a fellow sufferer. In a larger sense, it’s clear that the precipitants of Lolita were, well, legion.
While Cornwell considers multi-media influences on Nabokov’s art, he doesn’t mention Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a classic work of German Expressionist cinema. The film, also available (amazingly) on YouTube, centers on the crimes of a child murderer (played by Peter Lorre), and it ends with Lorre tracked down by vigilantes who quickly rig up a kangaroo court to try the criminal on the spot. The scene is breathtaking in its emotional intensity, marked by monstrous shifts in tone: Lorre will be shrieking his defense, pleading for his life (as Humbert does), only to be interrupted by the devastating civility of his self-appointed attorney. The crowd of “jurors” will veer rapidly from murderous clamoring to sit-com laughter. The movie, most tellingly, ends with a bereaved mother staring balefully into space, imploring the audience to be more attentive guardians of their children. This is the same plea with which John Ray, Jr., ends his fictional Foreword: “Lolita should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.” (Note how Ray’s words seem subtly critical of Lolita as the representative of her generation.) M would be worth mentioning here, if only because it offers a succinct glimpse of the emotional extremes that typify Nabokov’s work from the same period. But the movie is equally interesting, in its content and conclusion, as another potential precursor of Lolita.
Lang’s M also takes us back, conveniently and necessarily, to the Berlin of the ‘30s, where Nabokov lived until 1937, when the Nazis hurried him out of the country. Before he left for America, Nabokov resided for a brief period in Paris (until the Nazis, again, came calling), and it was there that he experienced “the first little throb,” as he calls it, of the work that would become Lolita. The resultant manuscript, a story of 50-some pages, was called The Enchanter (published posthumously, as a book, in 1986). Written in Russian and set in France, the story contains the central premise of the later Lolita, a pedophile’s pursuit and capture of his twelve-year-old victim, by means of his doomed marriage with her mother. It remains more or less exactly faithful to the plot and method of Lolita, through the hotel scene (Lolita’s Enchanted Hunters) in which the characters’ bed down together for the first time. At this point, The Enchanter abruptly concludes, while Lolita plunges on, across the country, settling in Beardsley, taking flight again, and culminating in the chase and murder of Quilty. In his Afterword to the text, Dmitri Nabokov, the writer’s son and translator, claims that the early story is a distinct work, an independent creation, but I can’t see it as anything but a first, failed draft of the iconic novel. One detail might suffice to show just how closely the two books are related; a flower show interferes with the hotel accommodations of both Humbert Humbert and the unnamed agonist of The Enchanter.
This story, The Enchanter, as it happens, is the indisputable proof that Lolita’s rightful fame has nothing to do with titillation, that readers and fans of Nabokov’s fiction are not condoning, much less celebrating Humbert’s crime. And here’s why: although The Enchanter takes up the same demented content as Lolita, almost no one reads it, and no one, to my knowledge, reveres it. In “The Enchanter and the Beauties of Sleeping,” Susan Elizabeth Sweeney gives the text perhaps more attention than it warrants, tracking the fairy-tale motifs that Nabokov exploits (the Red Riding Hood references are impossible to miss). But my impression is that very few readers even know that The Enchanter exists—this, despite Stephen Smith’s dutiful documentary, and despite the fact that Lolita’s Wikipedia page contains in its fine print a reference to the work (watch for its Russian-language title Volshebnik—which looks strangely like an anagram for Bolshevik, to boot). Apropos of the plagiarism scandal, Cornwell and others have noted how difficult it is to prove a negative, an absence of knowledge, so all I can offer by way of evidence for The Enchanter’s obscurity is this: that New Yorker-interviewed pedophile doesn’t include the title of The Enchanter among his secret stash. If Cossacks were right, if Nabokov’s fans were criminals, The Enchanter would also be a household name. It isn’t (though Lila Zanganeh’s book title, The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness, seems increasingly audacious.).
Nor should it be. In one of fate’s many ironies, this book, which incontrovertibly exonerates readers, at the same time makes it hardest to vindicate the writer. The plot, per the text’s length, is paper-thin, its course excruciatingly linear, its focus painfully myopic and claustrophobic, everything about it wooden and under-aired. For all its traumatic content, it might be a little boring. Nabokov’s brilliance does at times rouse itself long enough to cast a bleary eye on the proceedings, before lapsing again into dormancy. For example, as the agonist contemplates the act of consummating his sham marriage to his Brobdingnagian bride, we’re privy to the black comedy of her anatomy: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be physically unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery… here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” But Erica Jong offers a capsule summary of the relation between the story and the novel: “The difference between [the texts] is the difference between a postcard from Venice and a Turner painting of the same scene.”
The Enchanter is interesting primarily for what it isn’t. It contains in utero some of the basic material and tactics that make Lolita incomparable: a passing reference to Hourglass Lake, where Humbert considers murdering Charlotte (“some seaside sand useful only as food for an hourglass”); an ur-Quilty in The Enchanter’s hotel; a prefatory attempt by the agonist to rationalize and philosophize, like Humbert, his obsession. Importantly, the story also prefigures Lolita’s tactic of lampooning and, in a moral sense, condemning the agonist’s schemes. After the untimely death of his ailing wife (in hospital, a nicety that also survives as a ruse in Lolita), the man takes a train to collect his stepdaughter; while in transit, he fantasizes about the night to come, his gradual assault on the girl’s virginity in the “tightest and pinkest sense,” and the text incorporates and confirms the reader’s response in the character of a woman who shares the train compartment: “The lady who had been sitting across from him for some reason suddenly got up and went into another compartment.” The silence of that “for some reason” speaks volumes: even through the blinders of third-person-limited narration, the text manages to convey that the agonist has visibly aroused himself, and caused the woman to bolt.
But perhaps what The Enchanter lacks, even more than Humbert’s comic self-laceration, even more than the novel’s three-dimensional world, is a greater allotment of this authorial intervention. The story’s conclusion is especially difficult to read, as Nabokov appears to ride the current of the narrative beyond the boundaries of good taste. The agonist finds himself, at last, in the hotel room with his prey; believing the girl to be asleep, he begins to weave his spell over her body, availing himself of his “magic wand” (thus, the title), which appears to be a euphemism for his penis. Yes, it’s almost too silly even to be creepy. Belatedly, the character recognizes that the girl has in fact been awake for a while and is screaming at the top of her lungs. The story rushes to its end, then, with the agonist fleeing the scene, seeking a convenient suicide, only to be struck down in the street by an obliging truck. Strangely, at this moment, the style veers directly into stream-of-consciousness narration, as the agonist welcomes his violent end (for my part, I prefer the third-person-indirect phrase that precedes this turn, “this instantaneous cinema of dismemberment”).
Nabokov must have recognized the failure in the sequence—else, he would never have rewritten it as he did. Humbert, in The Enchanted Hunters hotel, passes the whole night suffering from insomnia and dyspepsia, and the morning tryst is a masterpiece of understatement: “by six-fifteen, we were technically lovers.” Yet, something of the edge, the creepiness, of The Enchanter survives in Lolita, in the very hotel scene which features one sentence that will challenge the stomach of any reader. It describes Humbert’s anticipatory image of the girl, and depicts her anatomy starkly, unflinchingly:
Naked, except for one sock and her charm bracelet, spread-eagled on the bed where my philter had felled her—so I foreglimpsed her; a velvet hair ribbon was still clutched in her hand; her honey-brown body, with the white negative image of a rudimentary swimsuit patterned against her tan, presented to me its pale breastbuds; in the rosy lamplight, a little pubic floss glistened on its plump hillock.
There have been times when I have asked myself what the novel would lose if one were simply to strike this sentence from the page. Basically, in such moments, I have contemplated censorship of a kind. Why would Nabokov write such a sentence in the first place? Or similarly, why dramatize with such heat and precision the sexual escapades of Humbert and Annabel, when both were Lolita’s age? Humbert writes of Annabel, “whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful,” and the lyricism of the line rings so true that the sentence strikes with the force of memory. At such moments, it almost becomes possible to sympathize, somewhat, with the Cossack position. But before we leap into that intellectual abyss, we have to realize that in this, in many things, Nabokov was smarter, wiser, braver, than any of us. Without such passages, I’ve concluded, it might be possible to read the novel without feeling sufficiently repulsed.
Such moments bring to the surface the horror that bubbles steadily in the margins of Humbert’s tale; it skitters across the frame of the page, never far from view, seeping in from the edges, muted and ghastly in its attenuation. In the wake of the events at The Enchanted Hunters, for example, Humbert pauses to describe the mural that he might have painted for the hotel, had the proprieters “lost [their] minds”:
There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callipygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been camp activities…. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
The mural supplies a loose corollary, a hieratic version of Humbert’s confession. And if you can read that “wincing child” and not feel lanced by grief, you should either have your conscience checked or learn to become a better reader. The method is oblique, but the result is a wound.
My sense is that, if Nabokov had written only The Enchanter, the Cossacks might have a better case against him. But then again, if Nabokov had never gone on to write Lolita, there wouldn’t be any museums to vandalize. And because Nabokov did write Lolita, we can’t indict him for the limitations and failings of an early draft whose publication he considered (in 1959), but never approved. To put this simply, the evidence of The Enchanter serves to exonerate both the author and his readers. It’s doubtful that an actual pedophile would be capable of artistic (rather than pornographic) revision; it’s certain that readers would be indifferent to anything but an artistic triumph.
Lolita’s achievement is of such an order that it precipitates and compels every kind of artistic response, from imitation to inspiration to competition to homage to a desperate lunging at the maestro’s coattails. See again Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, his magnum opus, with its ship of lost souls whose bacchanals might make Sade blush; the shipboard set piece concludes with a pedophiliac tryst considerably more erotic than anything in Lolita. (If memory serves, this scene ends with the male participant, the book’s protagonist, Rocket Man, passing through the wormhole of his own urethra.) Yet Cossacks will likely excuse Pynchon from their auto-da-fé, partly because such depravities are walled off behind a fortress of impenetrable prose, and they will leave alone, thankfully, Gary Shteyngart with his wave to Lolita in one of the best American stories of the new century, “Shylock on the Neva”; Shteyngart’s gangster narrator spies a young girl at a museum and flashes his “standard Will-you-sell-your-body-for-Deutschemarks? smile. […] Not yet, her black eyes [tell him].” Nor will the Cossacks touch their torches to the digital record of the Oscar-lauded American Beauty (another Kevin Spacey sighting) with its unsubtle, rose-encrusted reprise of Nabokov’s novel. Lolita even intrudes on the latest book by the turncoat Martin Amis, Lionel Asbo; the novel begins with the fifteen-year-old male protagonist prosecuting an incestuous relationship with his Humbert-aged grandmother. No, perhaps the only unforgivable thing about Lolita, the thing that makes it uniquely susceptible to attack, is that Nabokov managed to turn a tragedy into a trope.
Cossacks might try, but surely not every instance of literary child abuse can be traced back to Nabokov; only among writers of a certain stylistic cast is the ancestry clear (they write prose that bioluminesces and stings like a Portuguese man’o’war). In any case, contrary to Cossack opinion, the proliferation of Lolita’s flammable premise is neither trivializing nor sinister. Rather, in evoking Nabokov’s achievement, writers not only honor the best of the tradition, they consent to shoulder in their own ways the novel’s grim burden: to confront the very worst that humanity has to offer, and to wring from that misery something beautiful: to stare into the blackest pit and find (forge) the sun. This is the hard lesson of Lolita; it is a monument to an awful existential truth: simply to be alive, in the face of the whole history of human suffering, requires a kind of insane fortitude. Lolita reminds us that while soldiers were dying in European trenches, Monet was painting lilies in his garden; that horror and beauty are cosynchronous; that for every fine sentiment, every sweet emotion, someone else pays in blood, and eventually we all get presented with the check. The world is thick with atrocity, past and present; Lolita shows us that, from such material, within and out of it, we might wrest some measure of transcendence. The novel casts its gaze on the monstrous, but also the mythical, the banal, the comic, the poetic, even the tender (with an asterisk), and fashions a kind of harmony from the discordant and myriad particulars. A sob of despair becomes a song of hallelujah. Though perhaps beyond morality in the narrow sense, the novel’s project, this artistic patrimony, is at its root affirmative and redemptive.
The Cossack storm—a light shower, really—will soon blow over, if it hasn’t already. The circus can always be relied upon to leave town. Although it would be wrong to compare too closely the offenses of Cossacks with those of actual pedophiles, they do have this in common: both, in the end, are acts of sterility, the one perhaps trivial, the other savage. Nabokov’s novel, on the contrary, and fit testimony to its genius, is blessedly, maybe endlessly, generative.
– Bruce Stone
Bruce Stone is a Wisconsin native and graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts (MFA, 2002). In 2004, he served as the contributing editor for a collection of essays on Douglas Glover’s fiction, The Art of Desire (Oberon Press). His essays have appeared in Miranda, Nabokov Studies,Review of Contemporary Fiction, Numéro Cinq and Salon. His fiction has appeared most recently inStraylight and Numéro Cinq. He’s currently teaching writing at UCLA.
What makes for good writing? There are a thousand ways to go about answering this question. One might offer examples—Shakespeare, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. These are writers who have produced good writing. But listing them doesn’t get at why they are good. And it offers no help to the writer who is wondering how to produce something striking, original, and moving.
A better approach is to turn the question around: What are the things that if they are missing make a piece of writing not good? Three essential elements jump out right away: practice, trust, and judgment.
In a recent interview, the Australian writer, Helen Garner said:
“…you’ve got to practice every day. It’s like practicing an instrument if you’re a musician or keeping your tools sharpened. After many years of daily practice… you actually build up a competence.”
Cormac McCarthy said something similar but more laconically: “If you’re going to be a writer, then writing is what you have to do.”
These successful writers are on to something. Daily writing is the place to innovate, experiment, try on other voices. It’s daily exercise, like jogging, swimming laps or working out at a gym. It keeps you fit, trim, well-trained.
Be disciplined: set a goal—one hour, so many words—and do it everyday. A lack of daily practice will show in a piece of writing.
If practice is like daily exercise, trust works as the metabolic centre of the writing process. It’s what fuels good writing.
This element is about having a good relationship with your creative self. It works in several ways:
- Knowing when to listen – Certain ideas and themes resonate for a reason. It’s because you have something to say.
- Believing in the inner work – If the time is not right, forcing it won’t come to any good. There is a really important purpose to writer’s block, and this should be listened to.
- Drawing from the well – Having a notebook on hand to jot ideas down as they occur is one method. Some writers never do this, however. They test the value of an idea by letting it surface over and over.
- Communicating honestly – Find your voice; be authentic. Write what you know. Find a way to put yourself and your experiences into the story.
Attempting to control the process, writing prematurely or in the wrong genre, and being inauthentic in any way will show in the quality of the writing.
Everyone’s heard the saying: One part inspiration, ten parts perspiration. Inspiration comes from trusting in the writing process; judgment is the ‘ten parts perspiration’. It’s the conscious grind, bringing the intellect to bear on each and every aspect of the process.
If practice is what keeps one in shape as a writer, and trust is the inner work—the metabolic system—of writing, judgment is involved with the actual performance. It’s the ‘big game’, where a writer gets to apply training, draw from the well of creativity, and produce a fine piece of writing. It requires rigour, energy, stamina: How many drafts are needed to get it right? How much reshaping? How much editing?
Hemingway said: “The mark of a good book is how much good writing you cut out of it.” Stephen King said: “Be prepared to murder your darlings”.
It’s a good idea to read your work out loud. Wherever you stumble, make a change. I heard a story about a writer who holds herself to account in the following way: Before she submits any piece of writing, she performs a ritual. She goes into the bathroom, takes off her clothes, stands before the mirror and reads it out loud. Asked why she does this, she says: because if I’m there naked in front of the mirror, I can’t hide and I can’t lie.
The more one practices, the more one trusts in the process and the more one exercises experienced judgment, the better the writing will be. It’s a simple approach that will lead to honest, living prose.
He: This isn’t going to turn into one of your rants, is it?
She: The need to rant comes from the feeling of not being heard.
In 2007, Germaine Greer published the spirited Shakespeare’s Wife, a book about Ann Hathaway and the life she might have led. The word ‘might’ is important in this context, because next to nothing is known about her. There are a few documents that offer a detail or two about her family. There are Mr Shakespeare’s poems and plays, of course, which must not be read as being too heavily autobiographical. And there are the successive, generally negative views of scholars and historians. That’s all.
Greer wades though everything. Everything. At the heart of her investigation is the simplest question: Why, when so little is known, should nearly every reference to this woman be negative?
For example, for four centuries Ann Hathaway has been considered an illiterate, unattractive older woman who slyly set about to lead astray and then entrap the naïve, teenage Will, future Bard of England. And yet, only a badly preserved pencil sketch remains to hint at whether she was lovely or plain or downright ugly, hardly enough to inspire such vitriol.
The only thing known for certain is that Ann Hathaway was 26 to his 18 years. That’s it. Nothing about their courtship is known, though Greer draws context from songs and ballads of the time as well as some of Shakespeare’s early poems, which are surprisingly positive about relationships between slightly older women and younger men. Greer makes a case for the Hathaways being better established in the world than the Shakespeares, who were heavily in debt. Indeed, it might even be surmised that Ann was a good catch for the talented young man without an income, whose skills as a poet and playwright remained largely untested. No one could possibly have imagined at the time they were married that Will Shakespeare would go on to be the most celebrated writer in the English language.
What, then, have these scholars to gain by being unceasingly unkind to someone they know nothing about? Greer invokes the long line of so-called “rhapsodists of bardolatry”, of whom Thomas De Quincey was first of many. Shakespeare had become a national treasure and, as such, the facts of his life as the basis of an ‘image’ were considered public property.
Greer intends to set the record straight, questioning each document, every reference, and each individual assumption at a breakneck pace, exposing in the process a long tradition of scholarly chauvinism and misogyny. “The Shakespeare wallahs,” she writes, “have succeeded in creating a Bard in their own likeness, that is to say, incapable of relating to women.” Ann Hathaway has existed too long as another silenced woman: Greer seeks to restore her reputation, the barest facts of her life, her face, her voice.
Reading Germaine Greer has always had the effect of opening the floodgates of suppressed indignation in me. I’ve traveled the world and know for certain that sexism may be encountered— overtly, covertly, or otherwise—on every street corner. But to have it documented so thoroughly and by one so unblinking has got me thinking.
Soon after I arrived in Australia, I needed to get an Australian drivers license. With opposite-side drive, roundabouts, and unfamiliar road rules, it was a prospect that filled me with anxiety. On he appointed day, however, I never had the chance to get behind the wheel. The examiner determined that the car—less than a year old—was “unroadworthy”. Without another word, he failed me.
“Hold on,” I confronted him. “Please explain how the car could be unroadworthy today when it was perfectly roadworthy only two days ago during my husband’s driving test?”
The man answered my question by turning his back and returning to the building. I was effectively silenced and dismissed.
Later that day, I expressed my indignation about this to one of my first Australian friends, an intelligent, well-educated woman.
“That’d be right.” She shrugged. No protest, no outrage, no need to rant. She discouraged me from writing a letter of complaint. “They’ll just laugh at the letter over a pint at the pub.”
Apparently, I had a few things against me: I was an American and a woman; I scored 100% on the written exam and all my documents were in order, which made me a ‘tall poppy‘ (another new concept). In the end, I did write a letter, not to his boss but to the head of Queensland Transport. They eventually investigated the matter and added my complaint to thirty others in the file of this particular examiner. Twenty-nine women and one gay man had already spoken up.
Anticipating justice would be served, I asked the investigator what they were going to do.
“There isn’t much we can do,” she replied. “We aren’t allowed to fire him or demote him.”
“But he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with this!” I cried. “It’s egregious! It’s unconscionable! It’s obviously sexist! With so many complaints on record, that man shouldn’t be allowed to deal with the public.”
“I’m sorry. The only way we can get him out of his position is to promote him.”
“In what kind or world is that okay?” I asked pointedly.
The investigator shrugged. This was my first encounter with sexism as it is manifested in some Australian institutions.
Culturally determined ‘mates’
This was also my first look at the idea of ‘mateship’ and the stoicism with which Australian women respond to it. Mateship is a concept of friendship endemic to Australian identity, so powerful that, in 1999, Prime Minister John Howard pushed to have the term enshrined in the Australian constitution. There have also been attempts to have it part of the Australian citizenship test.
The only problem is that it can and often does exclude half the population, something even more apparent lately as the shadow of Tony Abbott and his cocky opinions loom ever larger in the political sphere.
In fact, it’s been my observation that women are frequently accused of coming between ‘mates’, something I believe has conditioned their silence about it.
As the Australian poet Judith Wright observed in 1965:
The ‘mateship’ ingredient of the Australian tradition … left out of account the whole relationship with women.
There are many good things to be said about strong bonds between men. However, while such bonds are crucial perhaps in establishing a colony, on the battlefield, and even on the playing field, there is a shadow side to mateship. It can be both predatory and bullying, a state of being in which women are excluded, not respected and, in essence, stripped of humanity.
Men behaving badly on the town…
On my daughter’s 18th birthday, we celebrated with a small dinner party, after which she planned to go out ‘clubbing’, something that has become a rite of passage among young Australians.
That day there was a news item about Dianne Brimble, the Brisbane woman who had died aboard a P&O cruise ship. I remember thinking with some alarm, “Hasn’t that been resolved yet? It was so many years ago already.”
For anyone who doesn’t know, Dianne Brimble embarked on a nine-day cruise in 2002. On the second day, her lifeless body was found naked on the floor of a cabin occupied by four unknown men. The coroner’s investigation, which shockingly began only four years after the event, uncovered a number of dreadful circumstances surrounding her death. She died of an overdose of the date-rape drug GHB. She had been sexually abused. Awful, disrespectful photographs surfaced. At least four and possibly as many as eight men were involved.
Sadly, in all these years, there has been no justice for Brimble. Despite the inquest and the investigation of eight men considered to be implicated in her death, the criminal trial that followed almost eight years after the 42-year-old’s death resulted in a hung jury. The plea deal entered into with Mark Wilhelm, the man who supplied the GHB, was subsequently dropped. None of the men involved has been punished or expressed remorse for what happened to this woman. They seem to believe they were entitled to behave the way they did that tragic night and the way they’ve behaved since. In fact, as recently as September 2010, investigators caught them on tape discussing how the case could make them millionaires.
With this story fresh in my mind, I kissed my daughter goodbye as she left with her friends, Eddo, the designated driver and self-appointed body guard, and Julie, an exchange student from France. They met up with others they knew, danced, shouted to each other over the noise, shared jokes. Then something happened.
As my daughter related to me when she returned home, Julie had gone out to the courtyard for a cigarette. She was joined by a group of four young men who flirted with her and offered to buy her a drink. She demurred. One of the men handed her a bottle of water, and she took a sip. That’s the last thing she remembers.
Luckily, at that moment my daughter and Eddo were looking for her and happened to see her fall. They rushed toward her, shouted for security. Julie was limp, in some kind of twilight state, speaking nonsense, eyes opened but not really ‘there’. Eddo left with security to look for the men she’d been speaking with, but they had already fled the club.
…and at home
It’s after dinner with the dishes cleared away and the last glass of wine poured. As frequently happens, one of my husband’s friends is over, a man I consider to be my dear friend too.
We’re on the patio, surrounded by the lime trees, the palms and the lillypillys I’ve lovingly planted. There’s a cool breeze, the buzz of cicadas, a rising moon. If there is any place and any moment I should feel safe, this is it.
I mention my daughter’s experience at the nightclub. At first, we’re in agreement that it’s complicated, terrifying, harrowing, full of peril to raise a daughter nowadays. Before I’m aware of it happening, the conversation shifts. We’re now discussing all the ways women have hurt men – abandonment, deceit, betrayal.
“Wait a minute,” I protest. “It’s not at all the same. We’re talking about two different things here. Men do those same things to women, but there’s the risk of this other crime too.”
They don’t listen, insist the playing field is level, declare men and women are equal in the world, in Australia, in their minds. They assert that women have the same opportunities that men do and, in many cases, are even given preferential treatment, suggest that it’s men who are discriminated against.
Whatever I say remains unheard. The vapour of mateship has rolled down the hill and over the garden wall, enveloping these two men in an atmosphere from which I’m not only excluded but erased.
My only options: to ‘rant’ or to leave.
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The gifted Keith Corcoran has spent his life working towards the dream of becoming an astronaut. With a skill for mathematics, many years of dedicated training, and the support of a loving family, Keith at last succeeds. His life’s effort culminates in a six-month mission aboard the International Space Station. Tragically, in the middle of his tour, his teenage daughter is involved in a car accident; and yet, Keith’s professionalism will not allow him to cut the mission short. When he does return to earth, he finds his family broken, his house empty, and himself adrift.
Forced to take a leave from work and struggling to cope with his grief, Keith mechanically prepares his house for sale. Almost immediately, he meets Jennifer, an attractive neighbour, and they embark on a confusing, misguided affair. In the sterility of suburban America, Keith sinks more deeply into a consuming depression. It’s only when he befriends Peter, an oddball Ukrainian immigrant with a passion for stargazing, that Keith has an opportunity transcend the loss that’s overtaken his life.
The Infinite Tides, Christian Kiefer’s debut novel, is beautifully written. The book is full of lyrical passages, poetic descriptions of space, time, and mathematics, and moving evocations of a grieving man’s inner life. But this is exactly the novel’s weakness. The narrative is often interrupted by these literary flights. More attention to developing the characters and deepening the interactions between them would have served Kiefer better. Still, The Infinite Tides is a worthy first effort, delicate, moving, and oddly tender.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in January 2013.
I can’t resist re-posting in full an article from The Independent (6/1/13) by Suzi Feay. Mad Girl’s Love Song, a major new biography by Andrew Wilson, is scheduled to appear at the end of the month, just in time for the 50th anniversary of Plath’s suicide this February.
What could be more thrilling than finally having your debut novel published after years of honing your craft? Especially if it has been your goal since childhood; and the book is set to become not merely a modern classic, but a rite-of-passage read for every morose, misunderstood and proto-feminist teenager for years to come.
But for one young writer, publication, respectful reviews and a growing reputation were not enough; which is why early 2013 sees both the 50th anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath’s sole novel, The Bell Jar, and of its author’s suicide, which followed a few weeks later. Plath folded a cloth, placed it in her gas oven, and laid her head inside early in the morning of 11 February 1963, having first sealed the door of her children’s bedroom. She was 30. “A doctor put her on very heavy sedatives – and in the gap between one pill & the next she turned on the oven, and gassed herself,” her anguished, estranged husband, the poet Ted Hughes, wrote to a friend. “A Nurse was to arrive at 9am – couldn’t get in, & it was 11am before they finally got to Sylvia. She was still warm.”
To celebrate the happier anniversary, at least, there is a sparkling new edition of The Bell Jar, which has never been out of print, a series of events are planned for later in the year, and this month sees the publication of a major new biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson. In the past, Plath’s hotly contested life has been a minefield for those who attempted to interpret it. “I tried to be as objective as possible,” says Wilson. “I’ve got no agenda, I didn’t read the other biographies, I went to the archives completely fresh, trying to stand back and see what kind of evidence there was.”
He has conjured up a youthful, blonde and vibrant Plath, albeit one with a disturbing shadow side. But the dark fact of the suicide, on a bitter morning in one of the worst English winters on record, overshadows our understanding of the life and work of Sylvia Plath, and has cast something like a curse on the lives of those who survived her.
Hughes’s letters in the months before the tragedy show no foreboding. He was, it seems, taken in by Plath’s bright, capable manner, expressed in letters to her mother: “I am joyous, happier than I have been for ages,” she wrote in October 1962. Her husband had been unfaithful with another poet’s partner, Assia Wevill, and Plath had thrown him out with much drama and vituperation. Hughes was, if anything, relieved. “The one factor that nobody but quite close friends can comprehend, is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” he wrote to his elder brother, adding that she was “finally, impossible for me to live married to. Now we’re separated, we’re better friends…” However, he also wrote to his sister Olwyn: “[Plath]‘s changed extraordinarily – become much more as she was when I first knew her, & much more like her mother, whom I detest. You’re right, she’ll have to grow up – it won’t do her any harm.”
Alas, Plath was never to “grow up”. “I was the only person who could have helped her, and the only person so jaded by her states & demands that I could not recognise when she really needed it,” Hughes wrote to Olwyn after his wife’s death. Crucially for the drama that was to unfold, the couple had only separated, not divorced. She was still Mrs Sylvia Hughes, and her literary estate was his to do with as he wished. He buried her in his native Yorkshire, under a slab that read “Sylvia Plath Hughes”, and began the laborious business of sorting out her unpublished writings.
So famous is Plath now that it is hard to remember that like another poet who died young, Keats, all her renown was posthumous. Now her celebrity fans include such diverse figures as Gwyneth Paltrow, who played her in the 2003 movie Sylvia, and David Walliams. The poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, prefaced her recent selection of Plath poems with a fan-girl introduction, she has been name-checked in a Manic Street Preachers song, and copies of The Bell Jar featured in Natural Born Killers and The Simpsons.
But back then she wasn’t an in-demand genius; the critic Al Alvarez was bemused to find that the dowdy, skinny American wife of the up-and-coming poet Ted Hughes was also a writer; he hadn’t associated the housewife “Sylvia Hughes” with the Sylvia Plath whose poems were beginning to cause a small stir after her debut collection The Colossus (1960). There is a famous picture of Ted Hughes with Auden, Eliot and Spender at a Faber and Faber party in 1960; Plath was at the same gathering, but she was not invited to join the great men. She has since arguably eclipsed them all, except Eliot.
Perhaps, given the position he found himself in, there is nothing Hughes could have done to forestall the criticism that was to trickle, then flood, in his direction. But giving his sister Olwyn the job of running the Plath estate on behalf of the two motherless children, Frieda and Nicholas Hughes, was not one of his smarter notions, given that the sisters-in-law had heartily disliked one another.
Literary estates are frequently contentious, as family members, sometimes not all that close to the deceased, attempt to control or even stifle biographers, critics and academics. Those who handle estates, and therefore permissions, are feared, needed and despised by biographers unless everything is handled with the greatest impartiality and transparency. The Plath estate was to generate huge revenues for the family. The Bell Jar alone has sold 400,000 copies worldwide over the past decade, and even today, Plath’s publishers get five requests a week for permission to quote from her writing.
Hughes set to work. Instead of promptly compiling a Collected Poems, he constructed a new, slim volume of poems entitled Ariel, published in 1965. It was a masterpiece; but it did not exactly resemble the collection of the same name that Plath left behind. Understandably, Hughes removed several poems that were vengeful and critical about himself, and reordered the poems to suggest a narrative that made the suicide seem inevitable. (Plath’s own ordering began with the word “Love” and ended with “Spring”, giving a rather more optimistic flavour to the book.) Meanwhile, Plath became a heroine, or martyr, for the nascent feminist movement. Her gravestone was attacked, the offending “Hughes” hacked off more than once. Hughes, it was angrily put about, had as good as murdered St Sylvia.
Nevertheless, more material was appearing. Gradual revelation was also canny monetising. Uneasy about the autobiographical elements of The Bell Jar, Plath had published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas. In 1965, it came out in the UK under her own name. In 1971, it came out in America, and in 1975, Plath’s mother Aurelia brought out Letters Home, partly to counteract the harsh portrait of the mother in the novel. In 1977 came a selection of uneven but revealing short stories and prose pieces, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. Hughes brought out another slender selection of poems, Crossing the Water, and it was 1981 before the Collected Poems finally appeared, winning a Pulitzer Prize the following year.
Hughes also allowed the publication of Plath’s Journals in 2000, although they do not cover her final breakdown. He confessed to having destroyed one journal and having “lost” another. Hughes did not want her children to have to read the last journal, he said. He retained the habit of talking about “the children” when they were well into their thirties, as though they remained frozen in time, forever crying in their upstairs room while below, the gas seeped out.
The biographers also set to work. The first, Edward Butscher, offended the family with unseemly speculations and revelations in Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness (1976), followed by Linda Wagner-Martin’s feminist account, Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987). In a preface, Wagner-Martin related how Olwyn Hughes, acting for Ted, demanded cuts of 15,000 words in exchange for permission to quote from Plath’s poems. Wagner-Martin ditched the quotations rather than have her book gutted. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic (1991) was seen as even more objectionable.
The estate commissioned its own biography, authorised and overseen by Olwyn Hughes. It was a disastrous miscalculation. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989) was harshly debunking, hostile to Plath and favourable to Hughes in all questions of the marriage. It was an extraordinary document to emerge from an estate that handled Plath’s revenues. Bizarrely, three negative personal testimonies were added in appendices, one by Dido Merwin, a bitchy ex-friend eager to relate decades-old tittle-tattle. Reviewers howled and Stevenson confessed she had lost control of her own book, although the feminist critic Lorna Sage described Bitter Fame as “a good revisionist biography”.
In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), literary critic Jacqueline Rose also recounted textual horror stories. Ted Hughes informed Rose that her speculation about the sexual subtexts of some of the poems would not only upset the children (again), but in some cultures, be “grounds for homicide”, a shock tactic that, he later claimed, was not intended to threaten but to awaken.
As a result of all this, Janet Malcolm was moved to write a fascinating book-length essay on Plath, Hughes and biography, The Silent Woman (1994), landing broadly on the side of the Hugheses (although Olwyn comes across as a very strange person). Stevenson told Malcolm a tale of woe: Olwyn’s constant revisions and comments had scuppered Bitter Fame. “Please respect my wish to be left in peace,” Stevenson pleaded with Olwyn during the writing of the book. “No letters, no phone calls. You have brought me to the edge of breakdown many times in the past year.” Another letter read: “A person can take just so much of being … kicked, insulted, threatened, bulldozed into submission…”
It’s not surprising that people talked in terms of a Plath curse, and not just on biographers. No one suffered more than Assia Wevill, the beautiful and gifted woman for whom Hughes had left Plath. Fay Weldon, a friend of Wevill’s, recounted in her autobiography, Auto da Fay: “Ted took up with Assia and made her pregnant, and Sylvia killed herself, and five years later Assia was to kill herself and her child, out of guilt from which Ted declined to save her.” Appallingly, Assia also gassed her young daughter, Shura Hughes. The “Ted-Sylvia-Assia saga”, Weldon wrote, “was I think one of those seminal events which brought forth the fruit of 1970s feminism. That such talented women should die for what – for love? Because that’s what they died of, not depression, let alone ‘born to suicide’ as is so often said of Sylvia.”
Says the poet and translator Elaine Feinstein, Ted Hughes’s friend and biographer: “I think [Sylvia] and Ted were incredibly happy together, funnily enough, until she had her second child, and then she got rather tired and worn down. It doesn’t help to have someone like Assia cross the path.” The novelist Alan Sillitoe, a friend of the couple, once said vehemently to me: “I think Ted was a saint!”
I asked Andrew Wilson, Plath’s latest biographer, whether time is finally healing all these wounds. After all, Plath’s contemporaries are now in their eighties. Ted Hughes died in 1998, loaded with honours, finally redeemed by his heartfelt collection Birthday Letters – poems of love and contrition, addressed to Plath.
“I think it’s still very, very raw actually,” Wilson contends. “Understandably so. The latest thing is that Nicholas Hughes died.” Tragically, in 2009, Nicholas Hughes, the baby Plath left behind on that freezing morning, killed himself in Alaska, aged 47.
“Anybody who’s writing on Plath knows there are potential problems and difficulties. You have to be very careful,” Wilson goes on. Although he encountered no problems with Olwyn Hughes. “She wrote me some wonderfully spiky letters,” he laughs. “Obviously, she’s one of the figures you come across many, many times in Plath studies, but I found her really easy to deal with. Very straightforward.” Yes, I think Anne Stevenson would agree she’s certainly straightforward…
Wilson focuses on Plath before she ever met Hughes, using vast archives held in the States. Wilson has noticed an odd thing: Hughes firmly insisted that everything she wrote before 1956 counts as juvenilia. “And it’s when they first met! Nothing existed before in his eyes. I came across 200 poems that she wrote before then that have never been published, and lots of other items of archival material that have never been seen, and I’ve talked to friends and lovers who’ve never talked before, so it is an opportunity for a new, fresh approach.”
His quest was urgent. A couple of his interviewees died shortly after he met them. “[Sylvia's friends] have reached an age when they think, actually, I would like to say something before I die. So it is a key moment, I think.”
The cover of Wilson’s book shows another side to a writer more often seen as death-struck than glamorous. “There’s a huge archive of colour pictures that I discovered, taken by one of her boyfriends,” he relates. “We picture her in black and white, don’t we? We haven’t really seen her in colour. We’re used to seeing her with lank hair looking miserable! There are lovely pictures of her with blonde hair looking very vibrant.”
Wilson found that he liked Plath and could empathise with her. “I know she was probably a very difficult person to be around but she had great charm, a great sense of fun. A lot of people who just read Ariel, which is terribly bleak, miss out on that. She was a very, very tortured individual and that’s the source of her creativity, but I did grow to like her and I hope that comes across in the book.”
Plath also reminded him of Patricia Highsmith, the subject of his previous biography. “Highsmith had similar symptoms to Plath – I don’t know how you want to categorise it, but some sort of personality disorder or mental illness. Both of them were alive before people talked about those things, before anybody could classify exactly what they had. They both went through a great deal of soul-searching, both had therapy, which they wrote about in their journals, so it’s fascinating to compare them. They both had very dark visions. But a crazy sense of humour at the same time.”
One thing is certain: fascination with Plath’s tortured life and magnificent poetry will continue, even as time heals the wounds left by a tragedy that has reverberated down half a century. “You couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ted, because he wasn’t the only man in London to commit adultery,” says Elaine Feinstein wryly. “It’s a great mistake to betray a poet.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson is published on 31 January by Simon & Schuster.