August 30, 2009

Lolita Seduced by McFate

It?s no use. He sees her.
He starts to shake and cough,
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov.

—The Police, “Don?t Stand So Close to Me” (1980)

As some comedian has said, I’m old enough to remember when MTV played videos, although I was never really a fan of the so-called “New Wave” of British bands to which The Police belonged.

Because I was myself a singer, songwriter and guitarist (playing some of the finest garages in Greater Atlanta), I mainly listened to the type of music that I aspired to perform and produce. My aspirations had nothing to do with reggae-influenced British art-pop, so even if songs like “Roxanne” were all over the radio and the videos were in heavy rotation on MTV, I paid little attention to The Police. Gimme some rock ‘n’ roll, for crying out loud!

Still, any songwriter must admire the cleverness of the rhyme scheme that allowed Sting to name-check Vladimir Nabokov in a Top 40 hit. Nabokov was one of those famous writers I’d never read and this pop-song allusion by The Police had the effect of irritating my intellectual pride.

This peculiar aspect of my autodidacticism has had some weird consequences over the years. I once attempted to read Das Kapital in one of my characteristic double-dog-dare-ya reactions to some Marxist know-it-all, but gave it up when I realized that no one has ever read the entirety of Das Kapital. Not Lenin, not Stalin, not Trotsky, and probably not even Marx himself. Das Kapital is arguably the most tediously bad book ever written, and no Bolshevik could possibly be so fanatical as to stay awake while trying to read that whole damned mess. It was as if Marx were trying to bore the bourgeoisie into submission.

Well, here were these Brit poseurs with their clever pseudo-reggae allusion to Nabokov. Therefore, at some point in the early ‘80s, I decided to purchase Lolita, the book referenced in the song. Of course, the book’s notorious reputation preceded it, but though I persisted to the end—it was more interesting than Das Kapital —the experience left me somewhat mystified. Its notoriety owed mainly to its main plot, which may be summarized quite briefly: Immigrant intellectual pervert seduces an American widow in order to obtain access to her 12-year-old daughter; madcap antics ensue.

Yet much of the writing was absurdist or impenetrably opaque, and I finished the book wondering what the basis of the book’s literary acclaim could be.

Fast-forward a few years to the mid-1980s when, browsing the shelves of an Atlanta bookstore, I encountered Alfred Appel’s The Annotated Lolita. Appel, who died earlier this year, had been a student of Nabokov, who taught literature at Cornell University. In his annotated version, as his New York Times obituary put it, Appel “explicated, virtually line-by-line, the myriad allusions, multilingual puns and sly jokes” in Nabokov’s notorious novel. I bought that book and, with the aid of Appel’s annotations, found myself amazed and amused by a novel that I had previously read without understanding.

As a child, Nabokov had been a fan of detective fiction, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales. Among his other interests were collecting butterflies, chess and a fascination with language. He had led a vagabond life—fleeing first the Bolsheviks and later the Nazis—and came to America in 1940.

Appel observed that Lolita has often been interpreted as a metaphor for the decay of American culture in the mid-20th century. The insipid pop songs, the uncouth manners of youth, the celebrity-obsessed magazines, the shallow intellectual fraudulence of so-called “middlebrow”—all these things Nabokov saw, and shrewdly lampooned, in a novel published in 1955. Even before Elvis wriggled onto the “Ed Sullivan Show,” and more than a decade before the Sexual Revolution of the late 1960s, Nabokov had spotted something corrupt in the Good Old US of A during the Eisenhower era, a time which in retrospect now seems the very Golden Age of wholesome virtue.

Metaphorical interpretations aside, Lolita is a valuable snapshot of American life circa 1950s. Because it is mainly set in Northeastern college towns (Nabokov’s protagonist Humbert Humbert is, like his creator, a scholar), Lolita‘s value as cultural critique might well be compared to Randall Jarrell’s 1954 novel Pictures From an Institution, a devastating satire of faculty life at Sarah Lawrence College, where the poet Jarrell taught for a year.

More than anything else, however, Lolita is a brilliant inversion of the detective novels that Nabokov loved as a child. Not to spoil the plot—“Waterproof!”—for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but Nabokov begins by telling us that Humbert has committed murder. The novel is essential a mystery that hinges on the identity of his victim.

All of this I relate, because I happened to be changing channels on my TV Saturday evening when I caught a few minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film version of Lolita, with James Mason as Humbert, Shelly Winters as the seduced widow and Peter Sellers—the movie channel was evidently in the midst of a Sellers film marathon—as the doppelganger character whom I will not name (“Waterproof!”).

I could only stand to watch a few minutes of Kubrick’s Lolita before changing the channel. The creepiness of it all was simply too much. What I saw was a scene—beginning at about the 5-minute mark of this YouTube segment— in which Humbert is locked in the bathroom, scribbling his perverse desire for Lolita into his secret diary while outside the locked door the girl’s lovestruck mother pouts and pleads for her new husband’s attentions.

Whatever its merits from a strictly literary perspective—and in that, it is brilliant, once the reader grasps the method explicated in Appel’s annotations—the subject matter is heinous and the protaganist is a sociopathic monster. One has to wonder if, grasping the sensibilities of mid-century American intellectuals, Nabokov was playing a twisted joke on them: “Here, I’ve written a novel with a child molester and murderer as the protagonist—now acclaim me a genius!”

Extracted from the novel that dazzles with its witty wordplay, and played out on the screen, the tale of Lolita is sickening, a thing more horrific in its own way than Friday the 13th or Halloween. Even with the nymphet of the title played by 15-year-old Sue Lyon—decidedly more mature than the 12-year-old girl described in Nabokov’s novel—there is something sadistic in the cruel and selfish deception that Humbert practices on Lolita’s widowed mother. Despite Kubrick’s every effort to portray Charlotte Haze unsympathetically—a shallow, vain fool—she certainly did not deserve the McFate (as Humbert calls it) appointed for her.

Nor, of course, did Lolita. And being a father myself, I couldn’t help but think of Charlotte’s late husband, Lolita’s father. What a cruel McFate indeed, to die, leaving behind a widow and a daughter, only to have both of them in turn seduced by a monster like Humbert.

You see that I, too, am a victim of horrible McFate:

  • British pop band’s song that irritated me
  • Leads to my reading the novel and then
  • More than two decades later, now a father, I encounter the Peter Sellers film festival on TV, showing the cinematic production of the novel to which Sting alluded in that 1980 lyric

A coincidence sufficiently disturbing in significance that I felt compelled to write more than 1,000 words about it, you see.

More than half a century after the publication of Lolita, the corruption of American culture that Nabokov observed has progressed to catastrophic proportions. Saturday, the President of the United States delivered the eulogy tribute to Ted Kennedy.

So the mystery and the metaphor come full circle. For, unlike the key clue in Nabokov’s perverse mystery tale, the victim of that vicious McFate was not . . . “Waterproof!”

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