Nabokov (Part Two)

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Then came Lolita.

At the end of the story, Lolita is older, has a child of her own and is not lovable.  She is used up, ugly and hard.  Yet it is at this point that Humbert Humbert, the older man, falls truly in love with her, and comes to appreciate love for the wonderful thing it is.  He loves the unlovable.

Like Joseph Heller’s Major Major in Catch-22, Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is an example of reduplication.  Reduplication, in linguistics, means to double a word, so as to form an inflected or derived form of the word.  It’s a grammatical change, which indicates a change of relationship.  Thus, Humbert the lover of the unlovable at the end of Lolita, is the derivation of Humbert at the beginning of the story.  The relationship has changed.  Humbert has changed.  And Lolita is the elegant production of that process: a nasty worm entering its chrysalis and coming forth a splendid butterfly, someone new and different both in the story and in the repetition of the name.

Lolita, then, is an instance of symmetry, two stories within one story.  There is a dividing line in the story.  In the beginning there is no love, confusion about what love is, and a misinterpretation of love.  At the end there is love, the confusion has disappeared, and the beauty of love reigns.   

The genius of Nabokov. 


In person, Nabokov was a handsome man, tall and well-formed, who radiated an aristocratic air.  He loved detail and contemplation.  However, he was boring, as if all his parts were subtly tightened from within.  This tightness of being is evident in his memoir Speak, Memory, and probably explains his being a sentimental, but meager father.

Nabokov definitely failed his siblings, shrugging off the vaunted Russian sensibility of family ties.  This is clear from his guilt over his relationship with his brother Sergei.  Nabokov couldn’t get around his brother’s homosexuality.  His mood toward Segei was tightly complex, composed of sour indifference, flippant disdain, and a deeper zone of doubt and foreboding:  all the product of three basic factors:  his own aristocratic snobbishness, the security provided by his fame and wealth, and the simple fact that Nabakov could not imagine any other response.  Such as forgiveness, understanding, tolerance and love.  It never entered his mind to be anything but judgmental and disapproving.  Yet when Sergei died, Nabokov felt as if a piece of his own flesh had been torn from him.  He realized he loved his brother and that if he had tried, perhaps he could have done something for him.  Too late.

Lolita, too, despite the genius of the story’s construction and its depiction of the sublime quandary of love, is banal.  The story does not have the staying power of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.  Lolita, because of the very symmetry previously exposed, has no magnetism, and thus fails to engage the reader on any level but the intellectual.  There is no visceral response in the reader. 

Controversy imputed life and longevity to the book, not the sheer majesty of storytelling.  Lolita, as a story, lacks emotional breadth; it is neutral.  And I, for one, believe this neutrality stems from Nabakov himself.  For he was neutral in his emotions, which explains why he moved to neutral Switzerland, where passion is controlled, shoved down to subterranean levels.  There will be no political upheavals in Switzerland, nothing worth fighting over that’s for sure, and none at all in Nabokov either.  Both the writer and the country he chose to live in put a premium upon gentility, which they considered high among the virtues.