Nabokov's Dark Cinema

by Alfred Appel

(Oxford University Press; $14.95)

"Mediocrity thrives on ideas," Nabokov announced 10 years ago in an interview with Alfred Appel; the admonition, coming from our most entertaining epistemologist, rings not hollow but a little odd. A more intellectually competent writer is hard to find, and Nabokov knows it. Still he likes such injunctions--"ignore allegory" is another--and the tone of frivolity, a bit sententious, is a typical decoy. So Appel is right to discount Nabokov's confession that he has poor memory for movies; this book, a survey of cinematic analogues and sources for the fiction, need not be troubled with charges of imagination running to invention. But it is a new version of an old problem: it magnifies one strand at the cost of distorting the fabric, and thereby raises again the question of where Nabokov's essence is to be found--still in technique, always in dazzling technique?

Nabokov has known the small readership imposed by the imprints of emigre houses, he has seen his Lolita--perhaps his masterpiece--packaged for export in illicit-looking Paris editions, heard it championed by Lionel Trilling and Harry Levin against charges of pornography in such journals as Saturday Review, and found its title on the jackets of later novels blazoned bigger than the title at hand in an effort to sell by titillation. Lolita has been called a book about butterflies, a disguised chess match, and an Oedipal allegory complete with castration of the father (Quilty) by the son (Humbert). Since its author delights in anticipating just such nonsense, it is tempting to speculate that he writes his own criticism over false signatures; one should remember John Ray's Foreword and the Kinbote of Pale Fire. But the author laughs last: Lolita is all the silly things it has been claimed to be, just as Othello is the tragedy of a handkerchief.

Nabokov today remains a victim both of infatuation and the reviewers' game of proving their control over literary majority. It seems fashionable to debunk him, especially with accusations of self indulgence. "Masturbatory" is now the nasty word.

He is sometimes no better served by his friends. Appel's book, ostensibly about Nabokov's appropriation of film, is really a hymn to his genius for absorption. Digging deep in the archives, Appel juxtaposes photos and quotations, arguing that Nabokov is responsive, and not in a haughty way, to popular culture, which is both pictured and nurtured by the movies. He demonstrates the use of positive cinematic images from slapstick and negative images from the American dream/nightmare world made visible on screen. But he is over-strenuous in answering the charge which he poses and disclaims at the start: that Nabokov is hostile to the "actual world." His study presumably rests on the conviction that movies are somehow more "actual" than books, or that they present a less mitigated form of "reality," the one word which Nabokov says is meaningless without quotation marks.

Too often Appel on movies sounds like New Yorker-ish writers on baseball; there is a dislocation of subject, as if the critical act were too constructive and the subject--low culture--perverted by perception in high culture terms. But in discussing "film-noir," Appel makes an important contribution by demonstrating kinship between Nabokov and such directors as Fritz Lang, the "Germanic" Hitchcock, and their Hollywood students; the bitter flavor of pre-Nazi Germany touches them all. Always refuting the nagging charge of aloofness, Appel shows us Keaton stone-faced amid rubble, or a Russian-refugee actor cast for the sake of his sinister accent as Goebbels; he weaves the idea of abandoned man through his chapters, illuminating in a new and satisfying way Nabokov's theme of homelessness

In a key chapter on Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film of Lolita, Appel is unfortunately eager to list the jewels in Nabokov's screenplay which the director discarded. Usually it is with relief, not regret, that we read of Kubrick's deletions, including his eschewal of "film-noir" style, but Appel is reluctant to confront the film as it finally emerged: a work of quiet virtuosity which translates the skepticism of the novel and heightens its poignancy. Kubrick subjects the viewer to a mix of exhilaration and fear that comes from total directorial control; he enforces the realization that while watching visible figures we cannot know the truths in their lives, and demonstrates that this truncation comes not through any fixable inadequacy in them, in art, or in ourselves, but rather through the very nature of things. That which we can share: the terror of chance, of a conspiring world, of a landscape filled with phantom pursuers, is charged by Kubrick with the special fright of daylight. His achievement in expressing these personal, never wholly communicable terrors, makes Lolita a fit crown for his early career, a companion piece to his war film. Paths of Glory. Like the novel, Kubrick's Lolita is simply a work of high art. And very dark.

Appel's book, so fiercely loyal to Nabokov, falls short of what he deserves, which is not another excellent compilation of butterflies, doppelgangers, even movies, but a critical picture of his guts, which his detractors say he has not got. They are wrong. He has them. And he remains the only one to show them—in the beautiful pages of Luzhin's madness, Hermann's despair, Fyodor's loneliness, Pnin's oblivion, Humbert's pain. Perhaps a major writer, like nature herself, stores resources and releases them when they are needed, but the process must be cooperative, requiring recognition by new readers; in such a way Dickens became a "dark" novelist, in such a way Swinburne is still changing from a howling eccentric to an excruciating poet of despair; Dickens was delayed by the genius of his stories, Swinburne by the genius of his music--Nabokov by the density of his ideas.

Bowing to Poe, matching Melville's confidence man and Hawthorne's Pearl, obsessed with the limits of knowledge and the inhospitality of old world and new, Nabokov may stand more firmly than we think in the American tradition; perhaps this branch of his genealogy should be examined with Appel's kind of energy; perhaps Appel himself will undertake in his promised study of the whole career a redefinition of Nabokov as an American writer, a task which the present book begins in terms of contemporary culture. While waiting, it is still right to supplement Trilling's reading (in his 1958 essay) of Lolita as a love poem by insisting on the novel's treatment of illusion and its analysis of chance, but Trilling was near the heart when he reminded us that Nabokov, more than any gamester, stares straight into the alembic in which fate tries its potions; he does not circle coolly around it. This is where the essence of his art lies, not in cultural observation, nor in the metaphysical trappings of speeches on necessity, but in the feel of the facts--the facts of human frailty, and of the mind's hard work.

Andrew Delbanco is a graduate student in English and American literature at Harvard.

By Andrew Delbanco