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Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita


Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita

Over the course of my last few reviews I’ve been considering the role of the author as narrator and as character, and the degree to which authorial insertion is, to the mind of the reader, assumed to be inalienable. In large part this has been inspired by the narrator character–who is, perhaps, the author himself–in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and his/her thoughts regarding the use of characters as an author’s possible selves.

The idea has continued to haunt me, and in my reading recently I’ve been pondering the inextricability of the author and their work. I do think that there’s a winking fallaciousness to Kundera’s statement, and it’s to do with the slippery slope and extrapolation that’s inherent in the idea of possibility. There are, obviously, degrees of remoteness involved in all of this. An author might create a character who is in every way the author’s image (or at least as near as possible–the character can never be the author, but only ever a facsimile of the author). This would be an example of a close possible self. Of course, an author might create someone who is their polar opposite, but for all this dichotomy, this character would still remain a possible self, merely a distant one. After all, it’s impossible to write without using oneself as a reference.

However, I do think that there is a tendency for readers, unless told otherwise, to see an author’s characters as close possible selves. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, which I’m presently reading, says, “though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth character counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth.” I think that this is particularly true of narrator characters. (For an example of this, you need only see my lack of certainty above regarding the identity of the narrator character in the Kundera.)

Where, of course, this conflation of author and character becomes a problem is when the character exhibits morally questionable traits.

I read with interest some months ago an interview with Junot Diaz regarding his writing of a misogynistic character in such a way that he as an author would not be seen as tacitly condoning the character’s sexism, but that would not signpost his own beliefs in such a way that it would break into the narrative:

“If it’s too brutal and too obvious then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this….For the kind of sophisticated art I’m interested in the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don’t think makes for good literature.”

This line of moral ambiguity is one along which Nabokov carefully treads in his masterpiece Lolita, and throughout the book we see a careful distancing of author, narrator, and even character in order to achieve a separation of author and work. That the novel is bookended by an explanatory, absolving foreword from a fictional character posing as the author, and an afterword by Nabokov himself speaks volumes; there is also further distance created in my edition (The Everyman’s Library edition) by the inclusion of a lengthy introductory essay. We see an additional obscuring of identity and therefore of self by the fact that Humbert is itself a pseudonym, as is the surname “Haze”, given to Lolita and her family. These structural elements are probably the most overt attempts at separating the author and work, but Lolita is rife with them.

Take, for example, the book’s self-consciously literary approach, with its three-act structure and its narrative artifice. The various deaths and disappearances of Humbert’s lovers feel deliberate and unnatural, carefully shoehorned into the plot to create a sense of the created rather than the naturally arising. Characters and situations appear as obstacles or illustrative points less than they do organic explorations of real life, the effect resulting in a sort of moral cushioning, particularly when we consider the book as being framed within the context of the introductory foreword from a “John Ray Jr, PhD”, with its placatory remarks about the text being a “lesson” or a “warning”.

Beyond the higher level structural elements, however, we have those occurring at the character and prose level, and it’s here that Nabokov plies his authorial genius, driving a stunningly wrought sentence-level wedge between the writer and the written. The book hums with a note of critique, with what feels like a misalignment between Humbert’s predatory waywardness and the author’s own moral code. Even at his most sincere, Humbert’s account reads with a dissonance, with a careening madness that positions him as pitiable and unhinged, an egocentric individual whose myopic obsession transforms him into a figure to be mocked, one who is incapable of being taken seriously. He is a pathetic figure, a man who is obsolete, lost in a fusty history and a tumult of justification and self-deception, scarcely capable of existing in the present day. With his old-fashioned mannerisms and language, he is disconnected from reality, and approaches the world in a strangely cerebral, removed manner. This is characterisation by careful design: we are warned, cleverly, by a subtle authorial hand, against connecting with him.

And of course, finally, there’s the elegant de-eroticisation of Humbert’s relationship with Lolita, and of Lolita herself. There’s something grotesque and impersonal about Humbert’s obsession with Lolita: rather than being the actual object of his desire, she is simply a sort of sexual golem upon whom he applies a general sense of deviancy. His descriptions of her are ugly and garish: “her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe”, he writes early on, and these descriptions grow no more beautiful over time–”monkeyish” seems to be his most commonly tapped adjective. There’s a sense of appalling ugliness and baseness applied not just to Lolita, but to Humbert’s courtship of her, and it’s hard not to assume a degree of approbation emanating from Nabokov’s pen throughout. This, to me, at least, is perhaps most evident in the searingly illusive, deeply figurative prose, a descriptive sleight of hand that misdirects the reader’s eye away from the flinching carnality of the narrative and instead to the breathtaking richness of language.

All too aware of the danger of author-narrator conflation, Nabokov seems to be seeking solace in the diffuse wadding of the poetic, allowing himself to drift in the layered ambiguity surrounding the possible self, creating narrative buffers that prevent him from plunging headlong into the fraught waters of the character-as-self, and allowing him to tell the story that needs to be told. All characters may be linked back to their creator, but, Lolita reminds us, it is dangerous to assume that all characters are a close possible self.

Rating: star Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolitastar Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolitastar Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolitastar Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolitastar Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita

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Other books by Vladimir Nabokov:

Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs LolitaSpeak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov Separating the author and the work: on Vladimir Nabokovs Lolita

 

6 comments

  1. Barthes wasn’t kidding when he proclaimed the death of the author. I think texts are what we make them, what we read into them. I’ve always seen Lolita as a delicious satire, but others see something else. Although, many authors clearly do write themselves and the people they know into their novels (Lawrence, Woolf, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al) so maybe the author isn’t dead after all, in a figurative sense. :)

  2. amazing review. i meant . btw i’m reading it now and yes i’m grossed out

  3. Great piece, I think there are a lot of times when the reader tries to connect the protagonist to the authors persona. This is a really problem when it comes to people like Vladimir Nabokov who write satire, next they will think Bret Easton Ellis is a serial killer (ok maybe that is a bad example), how about Ray Bradbury is all for burning books and Anthony Burgess wants to alter teenager’s minds.

  4. I am always amused when people insist on seeing my characters as me. I sometimes feel like asking if they mean all of them, or just the girls… Of course, all the characters have something of me in them, or they wouldn’t be my creations, but that doesn’t mean they are autobiographical! Erotica authors get this a lot, which is interesting re Lolita. i wonder if it’s because people see sex as more personal than other things, so they find it harder to separate it from the writer?

  5. I like this quote from Camus that you had: “though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth character counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth.”

    I think people struggle with separating the storyteller from the story or character, be they actor or writer. We see a personification of a character, perhaps even the character that shows up for t.v. interviews, and we think we know this person. But really we just know the character they have let us see.

    • I completely agree, Jami. But I wonder whether part of this perceived familiarity comes with our identifying a trend in the types of roles an actor plays? For example, Johnny Depp tends to play weird and gothy characters, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that he’s a weird and gothy guy… But then, perhaps the opposite is true: perhaps the roles that an actor chooses are a sort of defence, an antithetical identity of sorts.

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