I moved on to Nabokov’s Lolita after having read and enjoyed his somewhat obscure yet ultimately pleasing Pale Fire. The latter novel’s ability to be tied up, plot-wise, into a neat package of intrigue and endless interpretation seems to counter what, for me, drives the superb-ness of Lolita: not the story that plunges the reader headlong into Humbert’s maniacal downward spiral but certain, banal moments in the book that are lifted from their ordinary-ness into the tender magnifying glass of Nabokov’s genius language.
Nabokov himself, in his afterword, states that the images that he “picks out for special delectation… are the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted” (316). This was certainly true for me — passages in which the looming haze of the American desert is so gorgeously reproduced, or the familiarity with which Humbert describes Lolita’s stance on the porch, or the way Humbert secretly muses over Lolita’s class list, among which her name creates in him a feeling which we all have felt and recognize as love, infatuation. Such points in the book, Nabokov says, would be glossed over by a reader who is under the impression that lewdness or pornography is its primary purpose.
I think the weaving of those “subliminal co-ordinates” is what I love most about Nabokov’s writing. He writes a kind of prose that approaches — I don’t want to say poetry, because that would be inaccurate — a kind of reality, a detailed, bright, underside of reality that is not like the vague and lackluster realities of other writers of novels. There is something so astoundingly accurate in his prose, as if any other combination of sentences or phrases could not possibly do the image justice.
It was interesting to go back and read the fictional introduction by “John Ray, Jr.” after having finished Nabokov’s afterword. The foreword is a fictional comment on Lolita as being akin to a cautionary tale with an “ethical lesson,” and, like Nabokov himself mentions, the reader is wary that the afterword consists likewise of “an impersonation of Vladimir Nabokov talking about his own book.” However, the afterword was written a year after the publication of the novel and contains some important notes on the reception of the novel and how the author himself meant for the public to read it.
Nabokov claims that the purpose of good fiction is not to teach a moral but rather to simply afford the reader “aesthetic bliss.” John Ray, on the other hand, introduces the novel with the insistence that Lolita has a moral reading, and that is to “apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world” (6). This commentary is meant to be humorous and ironic, of course, and I’m guessing Nabokov had to set a few things straight after many critics claimed that the novel does not teach anything meaningful and is full of base, unredeemable characters.
Yes, some parts are quite shocking and pretty gross (especially keeping in mind this was published in 1955) but even more shocking is writing like this:
A breeze from wonderland had begun to affect my thoughts, and now they seemed couched in italics, as if the surface reflecting them were wrinkled by the phantasm of that breeze. Time and again my consciousness folded the wrong way, my shuffling body entered the sphere of sleep, shuffled out again, and once or twice I caught myself drifting into a melancholy snore. Mists of tenderness enfolded mountains of longing. Now and then it seemed to me that the enchanted prey was about to meet halfway the enchanted hunter, that her haunch was working its way toward me under the soft sand of a remote and fabulous beach; and then her dimpled dimness would stir, and I would know she was farther away from me than ever. (131)
Seriously titillating, this writing! It is the epitome of aesthetic bliss. We are with Humbert all the way, witness to his vileness and longing and heartbreak. We are so intimately in his head that we can only love Lolita too, and pity Humbert for his psychotic affliction. Wrong and revolting as it is, isn’t it love after all? We are indeed made to believe so, near the very end:
No matter, even 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, my Lolita. (278)
The Swallower Swallowed, Rejean Ducharme
This novel has been my favorite read of the year. It really made more than just an impression; it sank into my bones, the kind of astonishing, fresh writing that makes you say, “My god I wish I could write this.” Published in 1966, it was the first successful book by Quebec novelist and playwright Rejean Ducharme. Translated as The Swallower Swallowed but practically impossible to find in English, I picked up a Spanish copy from a friend’s library after she recommended it to me. (She’s a cinophile and the book appears frequently in the movie Leolo, which I still have yet to see.)
The language, atmosphere, and lyricism in this novel are astounding; I found that I would re-read entire pages because of the gut-wrenching power of Ducharme’s writing, which transmits, sometimes frighteningly, the enraged inner monologue of an adolescent girl, Bérénice Einberg. Born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother in an isolated wood in Quebec, she is raised a Jew and caught in the continual war between her parents while obsessively, and almost incestuously, longing for the love of her brother, Christian, who is raised Catholic under his mother’s care and supervision.
Bérénice rejects everything around her with unforgivable scorn and the desire for complete alienation: her religion, the love of her mother and father, affection, an identity, everything except Christian and her schoolmate, Constance Chlore. She falls into depressive spells for which she is hospitalized; her rage is manifested in such acts as the poisoning of the family cat and the shoving of an infatuated boy down the school stairs. She lashes out against her parents, her rabbi, any adult figure which attempts to impose authority on her, and she longs for the kind of freedom she glimpses when she is with her brother and with Constance Chlore — the freedom to roam an abandoned town at night until dawn and dirty her new dress, to ride the trolley all night long with the other vagabonds of the city without anyone reminding her what her place should be.
It is difficult sometimes to get a chronological sense of the plot; one day morphs into another within the same paragraph, time is stretched and compressed so that you don’t know whether a week or a month has passed since the previous page. The reader is planted so deeply within the mind of Bérénice that the plotline is of secondary importance to the movement of the inner monologue — its dark philosophical tendencies, its recurrence to abstractions in an enclosed world, its passionate spurning of the organization and meaning that humans have created of life. There are entire chapters that seem like drawn-out distractions of a sickly mind, beautifully relayed, and yet these thoughts remain the preoccupations of a young girl, whose voice is as authoritative and jaded as an adult’s, but whose upsets, rebellions, and self-repulsion are grounded in physical and circumstantial adolescent realities.
Objectively, Bérénice is a difficult character to comprehend, let alone sympathize with, because of her compulsion to act the role of devil child. But there is something ultimately tragic about her story, about the way she sees the world and the way the world reacts to her as a result of this incomprehension. She is a child of privilege, and yet she is denied the freedom to choose how her life will be played out; we can say she is denied the choices that would ultimately lead her onto a path of self-destruction or complete alienation from society. Her misadventures take her away from her brother Christian to New York City, where she is forced into an Orthodox education, and to the Israeli army, where in the end she commits a crime that becomes the ultimate act of selling out: through her dishonesty about the deed, she becomes a heroine to the other members of the army.
Bérénice’s fear is one which relates to the novel title: she rejects all forms of love, deeming it pathetic and a waste of life, and is afraid of being “swallowed” by the systems instilled in society to maintain a semblance of order — the government, religion, family, school. As Benjamin Nugent comments in his article, “Swallowed Whole:” “the novel is about the refusal to be confined, to dwell in any but the most grandiose spaces, to be placed within a category or submit to bonds. But this sounds like Ayn Rand bilge, and Ducharme treats such refusal as a quixotic, deeply problematic compulsion, rather than the keystone of a political philosophy.”
Even so, I can’t help but like Bérénice. Maybe because of the kind of prose that pours from her twisted honesty. Maybe because she is the ultimate epitome of the adolescent who is angrily fighting against a world that couldn’t be any other way, whose credo of hatred turns on herself in the end. I almost shed tears in one of the few paragraphs of the novel where she infuses in her words a profundity of attachment and a possessive, unbound love for her only friend, Constance Chlore, who dies suddenly in a car accident:
Horrible, hostile, mean, ridiculous faces swarm around me in a suffocating mob. I charge ferociously at these faces. I gather strength and, without any consideration, with all my force and weight, I push them, I repel them, I distance them. One of these faces has inclined over the body and makes to hold it up in its hands. I jump at its eyes, I scratch with my nails, I bite at it. In a single motion, without any effort, I’ve gathered the beloved body up in my arms and I run, taking it far away from them. She’s so light, so very light that she carries me, that she makes me as light as those little birds that we used to see hopping along the beach, that she lifts me up the way a balloon lifts up an ice-cream cone, so that I rise up in the air, so that I’m flying.
How can one not love her after such a passage? After all, she is just a young girl, however spiteful, caught among the different wars in her life, who loses every meaningful connection she happens to have. The anti-heroine, the queen of a ruined, one-woman nation.