Sunday, December 14, 2008

LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov

Upon re-reading Lolita yet again, I'm impressed by Nabokov's modernization of Flaubert in his characterizations of Charlotte Haze (especially) and Lolita. Nabokov (or Nabokov's novel, by no means the same thing) appreciates the extent to which our selves, as we perform them, are imitations of mass media prototypes. Recall the scene in which Charlotte and Humbert can communicate 'deeply' only because his expressions and her consciousness have been cribbed from the same sources: sentimental movies, cheap novels, popular magazines--the massmedia of midcentury America.

There's really nothing new or 'post-modern' about this. It's a concept as old as long-form fiction, and a history of the novel might be written with this theme as its through-line: the novel as a critique of 'the culture of the novel,' the culture in which novels and other media products aid in the production of the self, the process that we over-optimistically call 'socialization.' This is a concern--although not, of course, expressed in these terms--of Western fiction from Don Quixote (driven mad by books) to Madame Bovary (destroyed by sentimental fiction) to Huckleberry Finn (a Cervantine critique of Walter Scottish novels) to Lolita, and then there's The Great Gatsby, that little primer on the construction of the self under capitalism. Nutshelled, the idea is that while only a few human beings make books (or movies or TV shows), books make millions upon millions of human beings. Again, this is hardly a new idea; Oscar Wilde had it more than a century ago. But the persistence of the theme from the birth of the novel in Renaissance Spain to its death(?) in the hypertextual 2000s (Is it death or transfiguration? Calling Richard Strauss... If it's anything, this carping on the death of the novel or the death of reading is a symptom of Western provincialism and intellectual exhaustion; the novel is very much alive and constantly metamorphosing around the world today; the reports of its death emanating from American academic ghettos are all greatly exaggerated.) suggests that there's something in the basic structure and/or ideology of the novel (all novels) that is self-conscious, reflective, self-referential, that the novel is an inherently critical medium, perhaps the only essentially critical narrative form. One aspect of the novel's work is to produce a mirror of that work, reflecting the dangers of its reading back upon the reader. Is this a result of novelists' barely conscious Platonic/puritanical 'bad consciences', their anxieties about the negative results of the representations they struggle so mightily to produce? Or is some other mechanism at work? Is the structure of the novel something like the structure of the mind? The mind, thinking, reflects upon its own thought processes, inventing fictional characters such as Mr. Mind, Ms. Thought, the whole vague Memory Family, in order to better dramatize and comprehend a process that is--according to the best science we have--a business of webby tissues and chemical baths. The structure of the novel mimics the structure of the mind--not to be confused with the brain, creator of both.

Well, as I was saying before my brain fired off that cognitive digression, this 3rd or 4th reading of Lolita revealed a few things I hadn't noticed before, such as the central lag in the book's structure. Part One is very good, but the first half of Part Two disappoints (as I believe it did on my previous readings, but the book's better parts relegated it to oblivion in my memory). The long, Whitmanesque catalogs of motels and roadside attractions that begin the section, while often funny, quickly blur into a gray haze of American white noise, information overload. The section is a Nabokovian travesty of Flaubert's famous "He travelled" passage near the end of Sentimental Education, but the beauty of the source lies in its unrealistic brevity. Humbert's travels, by contrast, are more exhausting than enjoyable. And yet...and yet, even as I write this I wonder if that might not be exactly the point...It may be impossible to definitively criticize a work so endlessly ironic; any critique feels like a foot placed squarely into a beartrap laid by the shadowy V. Siren (or is it the umbral Vivian Darkbloom?)

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