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“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”
February 28, 2013 8:53 AM   Subscribe

The Turn Against Nabokov [newyorker.com]
"The author, whose novels thrum with ironic recurrences, might have been perversely pleased with this: thirty-six years after his death and twenty-two years after the fall of the Soviet Union with all its khudsovets, Vladimir Nabokov is, once again, controversial."
posted by Fizz (44 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
They also criticized the producers of a musical medley show for including two songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and the Museum of Erotica for being a museum of erotica.

I love this sentence so hard.
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 8:57 AM on February 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


Huh, I thought this would be about how frequently Nabakov's virtuosic style gets in his own way. I find plenty of his work very difficult to get through, because of how he sometimes interrupts his own story just to show off how damned good a writer he is. He's like progressive rock or jazz fusion in terms of how often the noodling seems to exist for its own sake.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2013 [9 favorites]


I find plenty of his work very difficult to get through, because of how he sometimes interrupts his own story just to show off how damned good a writer he is

This is one of the many reasons why I love Ada, or Ardor. It's filled with these seemingly random derails.
posted by Fizz at 9:08 AM on February 28, 2013 [10 favorites]


Oh, Russia. Poor Russia.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:12 AM on February 28, 2013


Yow.
posted by grobstein at 9:19 AM on February 28, 2013


The only mention of the play was on the venue’s monthly schedule, sandwiched between a discussion entitled “Problems of Meteorological Defense” and next night’s solo concert by the folk rocker Fedor Chistyakov. In 1992, Chistyakov had stabbed an acquaintance, claiming she was a witch, and served a year in jail before becoming a Jehova’s Witness. No one protested his show.

Kinda makes the anti-American sentiment described earlier in the article a bit perplexing.
posted by eviemath at 9:20 AM on February 28, 2013


How anyone can read Lolita and think, "Yep, whoever wrote this is A-OK with child rape," confuses me, given how obvious Humbert's villainy is, but I don't suppose the brutes who jumped Suslov and vandalized Nabokov's old houses have actually read it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:35 AM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


I mean, Amis's observation about Nabokov's later work notwithstanding.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:38 AM on February 28, 2013


Well, and also, dealing with an unreliable narrator is hard if you're not used to doing it.

I think there are lots of people who read Lolita and react like "Geez, Humbert is a total sleazebag, I can't imagine why Nabokov made him the hero" rather than "Ok — our narrator is an unreliable antihero. Got it. Carry on."
posted by Now there are two. There are two _______. at 9:42 AM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hmmmm....deplorable as some of these actions and opinions are, they don't seem to be directed by the state (condoned perhaps, but not directed) or any secret police; just a free (er) society coming to terms with its own history. Haters gon' hate and all that.
Russia has always seemed a place of 'one step forward, two steps back' from a western lens. It would be interesting to read a deeper exploration of this idea of how the term 'traditional values' has been co-opted by those trying to 'whitewash' Stalinism in an attempt at anti-elitism.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:47 AM on February 28, 2013


Hmmmm....deplorable as some of these actions and opinions are, they don't seem to be directed by the state (condoned perhaps, but not directed) or any secret police

Was anyone saying "What a horrible thing Putin is doing"? It's just flat deplorable. The Russian government is failing in its responsibility to its history, but I don't think anyone is blaming it directly for the violence. Not that I would be surprised if it did order such things, considering the fates of opposition journalists in the new, freer Russia.

The bigger story is that Russia is establishing bigotry (ironically, Nabokov's own) as law. Nabokov should have been the hook for that, rather than the whole story, but I guess the New Yorker only wanted a blog post.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:04 AM on February 28, 2013


Then, on January 9th, someone tossed a vodka bottle through the rightmost window of the museum’s living room, where objects like Nabokov’s game of Scrabble are on display.

CANTO 1

I was the shadow of the censor's brain
Through the false azure in the windowpane.
posted by Ghost Mode at 10:14 AM on February 28, 2013 [15 favorites]


I think there are lots of people who read Lolita and react like "Geez, Humbert is a total sleazebag, I can't imagine why Nabokov made him the hero" rather than "Ok — our narrator is an unreliable antihero. Got it. Carry on."

And even if you're accustomed to unreliable narrators, Lolita is so extremely dense with unreliability and layers of self-deception that it can be hard to cut through the thicket. I must have read it 20 times before I suddenly realized the importance of the title: "Lolita" doesn't exist except in Humbert's desires; the actual girl is Delores (of course), and she identifies as Lo or Lola or Lolly, but not Lolita.

That is, not only is Humbert lying (to himself, even) about [what he would like to see as] her complicitness in her own abuse, he is constructing a separate identity for his sexual object, one which has little in common with the actual girl.
posted by Elsa at 10:16 AM on February 28, 2013 [19 favorites]


It was roughly at the same time that a local organization calling itself “Orthodox Cossacks” started harassing the city’s cultural institutions for promoting deviant art.

Come on, people, why are we rushing to condemn an organization that's finally standing up against DeviantArt?
posted by Merzbau at 10:27 AM on February 28, 2013


Everybody still loves Pale Fire, though, right?
posted by straight at 10:31 AM on February 28, 2013 [6 favorites]


So, I'm guessing there will be no readings of Crime and Punishment
posted by angrycat at 10:31 AM on February 28, 2013


of course, I mean Delores identifies as Lo or Lola or Dolly, not Lolly.
posted by Elsa at 10:37 AM on February 28, 2013


Pale Fire is one of the silliest books I've ever read. It's not one of my all-time favorites, but nearly all of my favorite fiction owes it a huge debt.

I recall reading that Nabakov intended there to be a "true" interpretation of it in which what's actually happening is John Shade's sister's ghost is speaking through Kinbote, something absurd like that which only reveals itself through careful close reading, but I don't think I've ever seen an actual proof that that's the case. Does anybody else here know what I'm talking about, or am I just insane?
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:43 AM on February 28, 2013


Everybody still loves Pale Fire, though, right?

Kinbote's gay: I'll bet it would be next on the bonfire once Lolita burned.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:44 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Rory, "It was a ghooooooost!" sounds a lot like Brian Boyd's readings of Nabokov's books, but I haven't read the argument about Shade's sister.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:46 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was the shadow of the censor's brain
Through the false azure in the windowpane.


I threw a fancy from a censor's brain
into the azure of a windowpane;
I misconstrued a masterpiece, and I
lived on, flew on, in the repeated lie.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:57 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Pale Fire is a master being masterly. I had the pleasure or rereading it last year and falling in love with it all over again.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:04 AM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Can anyone speak to how well Nabokov went over in the former USSR? I'm thinking things were chilly but probably not this bad. The article has a quick specific anecdote but I'd love more info. Thanks.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:14 AM on February 28, 2013


How anyone can read Lolita and think, "Yep, whoever wrote this is A-OK with child rape," confuses me, given how obvious Humbert's villainy is, but I don't suppose the brutes who jumped Suslov and vandalized Nabokov's old houses have actually read it.

Or they did read it, but an instance of affirming the consequent with regards to one particular line led them awry:

"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."
posted by invitapriore at 11:43 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can anyone speak to how well Nabokov went over in the former USSR? I'm thinking things were chilly but probably not this bad. The article has a quick specific anecdote but I'd love more info. Thanks.

Apparently his translation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is considered a classic in its own right: He Russified it, changing all the parodies of didactic verse into parodies of Pushkin and other poets, making the mouse left over from the Norman Conquest into a mouse left over from Napoleon's Grand Army, and so on.

I know he only ever had one poem published in Pravda, a satire against the USSR that some Soviet poet responded to, but I don't know much more.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:47 AM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the argument about Shade's sister.

It's not his sister; it's his daughter Hazel, whose death is the central event in the poem. Boyd's book discusses the possible role of Hazel's ghost.

The whole ghost thing is not an absurd interpretation; there are lots of hints to the supernatural, particularly regarding events surrounding Hazel and Shade's reflections on her death. It wasn't explicitly Nabokov's interpretation, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:37 PM on February 28, 2013


Also, the guy's name is Shade.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:38 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now we can start saying to all those disgruntled righties in the US: "You don't like it here? Move to Russia."
posted by telstar at 12:44 PM on February 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Now there are two. There are two _______.: Well, and also, dealing with an unreliable narrator is hard if you're not used to doing it.
Dunno. You'd think citizens of former Soviet countries would be fairly familiar with unreliable narrators.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:44 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


The whole ghost thing is not an absurd interpretation; there are lots of hints to the supernatural, particularly regarding events surrounding Hazel and Shade's reflections on her death. It wasn't explicitly Nabokov's interpretation, though.

Fair. See also "The Vane Sisters" and Transparent Things, in which it's clearly multiple ghosts.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:44 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]



Or they did read it, but an instance of affirming the consequent with regards to one particular line led them awry:

"You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style."


"All right, Henry James, who did you kill?"
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:35 PM on February 28, 2013


How anyone can read Lolita and think, "Yep, whoever wrote this is A-OK with child rape," confuses me, given how obvious Humbert's villainy is...

I've always thought Lolita was more about driving around the US staying in cheap motels. Nabokov is much more interested in the details of that than pedophilia. You can read Lolita and think the author doesn't really feel one way or another about child rape. It's funny, after all the bourgeios shock when the book came out, kindly readers attempt to interpret away the book's amorality rather than burn it. They want Nabokov to secretly be a moralist when he's above all an aesthete and a rather Olympian one at that.

In many ways I feel like the mocking interpretation denied in the mock forward (afterward?) to the book: that it's (not) about sinful old europe deflowering and despoiling the new world, to be closer to truth than not.
posted by ennui.bz at 2:27 PM on February 28, 2013 [5 favorites]


Exactly, ennui.bz, I've always taken that to be Nabokov playing with critics the way Dylan used to toy with press conference questions.

Also, the guy's name is Shade.

Also, the first line.
posted by dhartung at 4:31 PM on February 28, 2013


Is there really any fiction better than Lolita and Pale Fire? I happened to be listening to Jeremy Irons (on my iPod) in my car yesterday, reading a passage in which Humbert is describing the clothing of one of Lolita's non-nymphet friends named Mabel, wearing a "halter with little to halt." Jesus!
posted by anothermug at 4:37 PM on February 28, 2013


One other thing about this that has nothing to do with Nabokov ... "Jehova's Witness" at the end ... have I just, er, witnessed my first typo ever in the New Yorker? Not "Jehovah"?
posted by anothermug at 4:40 PM on February 28, 2013


To be borne in mind:

One infuriating aspect of this backslide is the impossibility of gauging its actual level of support.

"Russia" is not "turning to the right"; some assholes are being assholes with the implicit, sometimes explicit, support of the government. Nabokov is just another excuse.

> Can anyone speak to how well Nabokov went over in the former USSR?

You mean in the USSR before it was former or in what remained after it softly and silently vanished away? If the former, he was a complete non-person; a few people read his smuggled works, but he essentially had zero impact, like most of the emigré writers. At the tail end, after Novy Mir started publishing Solzhenitsyn and everything became possible, he was discovered and appreciated by the intelligentsia, but he was part of a flood of material that had been repressed for decades and thus didn't make the impact he should have, and within a few years the US-sponsored economic reform had reformed the economy so thoroughly that the members of the former intelligentsia were too busy trying to keep from starving to recline, chin cupped in palm, and ponder the cunningly balanced phrases of Nabokov's Russian novels, to my mind greater than his English ones (Dar, The Gift, is one of the very greatest novels of the last century).

But let's face it, it's pure happenstance that Nabokov became a world-famous celebrity. If it hadn't been for Lolita and the storm of idiotic controversy it caused, he'd be about as famous as Ivan Bunin.
posted by languagehat at 5:01 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


One other thing about this that has nothing to do with Nabokov ... "Jehova's Witness" at the end ... have I just, er, witnessed my first typo ever in the New Yorker? Not "Jehovah"?

According to this authoritative source:
Jehova's Witness: A splinter movement of the Jehovah's Witnesses that considers excess of 'H's to be an abomination before the Lord.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:33 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm with ennui et al. Its about old europe being seduced by young america and then abandoned when something better comes along.

But fascists are not known for subtle literary analysis.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 7:42 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


But fascists are not known for subtle literary analysis.

Who's being accused of fascism here?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:21 AM on March 2, 2013


They want Nabokov to secretly be a moralist when he's above all an aesthete and a rather Olympian one at that.

His moralism wasn't a secret. The aestheticism and the moralism were mixed together. Some examples:

"Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism - poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an esthetic judgment but also a moral indictment."

- from "Philistines and Philistinism," Lectures on Russian Literature.

"Commonsense has trampled down many a gentle genius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth; commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral, for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved since the immemorial dimness of time ...

" ... I am triumphantly mixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow the course of their secret connections - which from a writer's point of view is the first positive result of the defeat of commonsense.

"The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man (to which those farcical and fraudulent characters called Facts are so solemnly opposed) becomes something much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solid and iridescent truth."

- From "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," Lectures on Literature.

That said, I should quote from this interview with The Paris Review, which apparently shoots my case dead:

"No, it is not my sense of the immorality of the Humbert Humbert-Lolita relationship that is strong; it is Humbert's sense. He cares, I do not. I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere. And, anyway, cases of men in their forties marrying girls in their teens or early twenties have no bearing on Lolita whatever. Humbert was fond of 'little girls'—not simply 'young girls.' Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and 'sex kittens.' Lolita was twelve, not eighteen, when Humbert met her. You may remember that by the time she is fourteen, he refers to her as his 'aging mistress.'"

On the other hand, that is quickly followed by:

"I would put it differently: Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear 'touching.' That epithet, in its true, tear-iridized sense, can only apply to my poor little girl."
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:15 AM on March 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


Excellent quotes, RE; thanks for taking the trouble.

> which apparently shoots my case dead

It does nothing of the sort; it simply expresses Nabokov's deep horror at being taken for your average Russian ostentatious moralist, part of the Belinsky-Marxist-Soviet line he loathed so much. He would rather have a lazy or ignorant American reader take him for an amoral person who didn't care about child abuse than have anyone at all take him for another pious hand-wringer. Art was his religion, and he didn't want it soiled with moralism; he had seen what that led to.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on March 2, 2013 [3 favorites]


tear-iridized sense

Holy shit. The master at work.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:10 PM on March 2, 2013


An A from Nabokov
posted by homunculus at 10:11 AM on March 25, 2013


Talk about an unsatisfying conclusion. How had it changed, Epstein? How was it never the same?

Still a good essay, though.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:43 AM on March 25, 2013


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