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May 18, 2013


Er, Humbert's an unreliable narrator, sure, but I think you're being way too hard on Gerhard Brand. The medieval tradition of courtly love is deeply, deeply problematic, a fact that Brand seems to be invoking, and I don't think it's crazy to suggest that it's problematic in ways similar to the ways Humbert's attitudes are problematic.

I think Aaron's got a point here, Dr., even though you have a great point too. Courtly romance is, well, it's the love fantasies of a class of guys who were basically priestly-sanctioned mobsters. They lived really, really messed up lives, and they daydreamed about intensely dysfunctional relationships, tangled up with the real-life dysfunctions of their marriages and affairs (broken in ways overlapping but not continguous with the fictions).

I think you're quite right that Nabokov was oblivious to his role in amplifying and dressing up a widespread existing abusive approach to life. He was oblivious to a lot. But the story Humbert tells himself genuinely is a fair amount like courtly romance, and I do think Nabokov intended that.

I've read a lot of Nabakov, but not Lolita--I'm saving it for...something--and I don't really want to engage in (the otherwise delightful neologism) bullcrit...

...however, diagnosing "problems" in a work of art based on your reading of authorial intent invokes a classic of the [literary criticism] genre.


Besides, within the edicts of New Criticism any reading is justifiable if the interpreter/hermeneuticist can justify it; that is to say: if Brand can convincingly paint his interpretation of Lotita as referencing the Medieval trope of the 'courtly love story' --even, or especially, absent appeals to the author's intentions-- his reading is a valid description of his experience of the book.

Besides, seeing as how IIRC HH is often held up as one of the paradigmatic unreliable narrators (as a quick search reveals is indeed the case), it is easy to imagine attempting a reading deliberately not grounded in that POV.

As for

"He was oblivious to a lot." (Bruce, above)

I don't know; I suppose I wouldn't be surprised. But I find his prose both delicious and nutritious.

Damned if I can recall just where, but I remember an account by Nabokov remarking that Americans who viewed themselves as sophisticated were quite willing to believe that adolescent boys might be debauched by strange males but not that young girls might harbor sexual impulses of any sort. This seemed to annoy him; he wished to provoke.

Likely he was right. I read Lolita about the time I got out of high school, in the mid 1960's, and being a naïve reader, I knew at once that Humbert's detection of sexual interest in young Lolly was complete bull pucky and that the rest of Humbert's observations were apt to be inaccurate.

In other words, Nabokov could in fact expect the majority of his readers WHEN THE BOOK CAME OUT to understand that HH was an unreliable narrator. Half a century later, we've all gotten a bit more sophisticated, or at least inured to sexually experienced children, and I guess it gives comtemporary readers a misleading impression of Humbert's normality and reliability. (I suspect the filmed versions of Lotita, with 14 or 15 year old girls rather than 12 year olds, probably have skewed our reactions as well.)

Be that as it may, I rather enjoyed Lolita, and one of these days I'll get around to rereading it. You might like it too.

Bruce brings up an important point. When Brand makes reference here to courtly romance as a genre, he's not necessarily claiming that the novel itself is to be read as such. It's hard to tell how Brand supports his claim in a short excerpt, but I can definitely see how one could make the argument that, while Humbert is a loathsome toad of a narrator, he draws the reader into his story by casting himself as a courtly lover in a medieval romance. The fact that so many readers fall for this ploy only underscores the deep satire.

Pay no attention to the pedophile behind the curtain. Brave Sir Humbert is on a quest to win the love of fair Dolores.

"Pay no attention to the pedophile behind the curtain."

Pay attention to Clare Quilty.

I haven't read "Lolita" for awhile, but doesn't Humbert Humbert admit near the end of the novel that he has ruined a life -- Lolita's? By which I mean, and others have pointed out, that his "inner life" is the narrative we hear, but Lolita's inner life, that of a 12-year old girl, is not made available to us by this self-absorbed narrator, yet we can imagine that it was killed before physical Lolita died.

Not that redemption was sought or available by or to Humbert, of course, but this unreliable narrator's arrested development was finally placed under arrest.

Humbert was a pedophile; Nabokov was a lepidopterist. One could unpack that but suffice it to say that if you utter those two statements to a mother (or father) or teenaged girls, they are likely to answer, if the second term is unknown to them, "you can say that again."

About a dozen years ago, I chose "Lolita" to present to a book club, now defunct, many of whose members were parents of teenagers and you could cut the "yuck" factor with a knife.

But late in the discussion, finally one of the women spoke and said something along the lines of, "Yes, the subject is revolting, but if you read closely the writing is stunning" and then went on to read a passage from the scene in which Lolita is playing tennis.

That's all I sought, the recognition of "prose both delicious and nutritious" as bob_is_boring put it upthread so non-boringly, albeit with a little bit of intent to shake up the usual quarterly suburban book club meeting, which took place right across the street from Columbine High School, where worse of a different color happened not too long before.

Well, I've read Lolita several times, not liking it very much, but I have always thought Nabokov was viciously attacing, with a scattershot weapon, the whole constellation of ideals and affects that derive from Dante's La Vita Nuova

"...like all medieval literature it is far removed from the modern autobiographical impulse. However, Dante and his audience were interested in the emotions of courtly love and how they develop, how they are expressed in verse, how they reveal the permanent intellectual truths of the divinely created world and how love can confer blessing on the soul and bring it closer to God."

The basic sentiment that love (worship, care) ennobles and improves the lover (and the obnject of affection is less relevant that the strength of the passion) is a vastly more interesting target than the pedophilia that is now understood as N's subject. I would contend that "Love Does NOT Ennoble or Improve" is a recurring theme in the works of Nabokov.

So the next time you hear "I was a schmuck until he/she/it saved me" send them to Vlad.

And one of my favorite books, and the academic work Lewis was most proud of and most admired for, is The Allegory of Love

And The Four Loves as a later addition.

Thanks so much for this, bob mcmanus. I love Nabokov's poetry, and am fascinated by Speak, Memory. I read Lolita, and was so creeped out by HH, that I reallly didn't know what to do with it. I saw an exhibition at the NY Public Library with his butterfly things ...

I'm going to read it again with your thoughts in mind.

I've not read Lolita, and I'm not really sure why except for the fact that I liked to carry around my reading material and who wants to be settling a park bench with that novel on top of your stack of books.

My favorite Nabokov work is Pnin, about a expatriate Russian who teaches at a fictional college. Writing about this expat in a world which he does not understand and doesn't understand him has made me a lot more tolerant of Nabokov, maybe because I often find myself in a Pnin-like existence. Not sure how bob's theme fits in Pnin. A bit of googling find this David Lodge (a man who knows a few things about the campus novel) introduction and this paragraph:

Pnin is Nabokov as he might have been in American exile if he had not possessed a mastery of the English language, a supportive and cherished wife, and the resource of literary creativity - a quaint, eccentric, rather sad figure, doomed never to understand fully the society in which he finds himself.

I would contend that "Love Does NOT Ennoble or Improve" is a recurring theme in the works of Nabokov.

How do you reconcile that position with the end ofLolita?

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