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Nabokov: The Art of the Perverse

ladimir Nabokov

With the publication of Lolita (1955) by a wayward English press in Paris, some fresh irony was laid on the idyll of Nabokov's literary reputation. Irony of a high order, very much up to the level of its victim. Nabokov, who is now an American citizen, could not get his masterpiece printed here. Lolita was eventually brought out by the Olympia Press, tucked away in one of those touriste paper-bound series amid titles of dubious erotica.

Misunderstanding has come full circle as life imitates art. Lolita does not belong in trick luggage, but ideally, on every doorstep. If it is a "special" and "perverse" experience, if a taste for Nabokov is a special taste, there is nothing self-indulgent or peripheral about the book or its author. Nabokov is not special in the manner of a Henry James, a Virginia Woolf, or of any bad-boy writer of your acquaintance: his vision is neither parochial nor fragile, but entirely and transcendently private.

At his casual second-best, as in the recent Pnin, and indeed at all times, part of the impression Nabokov makes is that of the brilliant professional weaving his formula. For this reason, and his apparent feat of never laying an egg in-between creative waves, high praise should, I think, be rightly suspect. We live in an age which is largely content to assimilate the whole untidy house of its brackish avant-garde and its abundant professionalism (Scylla and Charybdis in the bookshops); loosely appraising, cataloging, leaving to posterity. Nabokov is both prodigiously offbeat and competent, but the more his art lends itself to one taxonomer or another, the more it transcends this quaint fury. The trouble is that the Nabokov formula (or the familiar props of a formula) keeps slipping away from the avid fingers; the conjuror has done it again. In pursuing this "formula," moreover, Nabokov is dedicated to the destruction of all other formulas meeting with his censure. Part of his mission consists in forcing the hand, not of the obviously fraudulent in literature, but of certain "serious" literary techniques and the attitudes which spawn them. To this end, he is a man of somewhat rigid but studied predispositions:

The truth is that the play [The Government Inspector] it not a "comedy" at all, just as Shakespeare's dreamplays Hamlet or Lear cannot be called "tragedies." A bad play is more apt to be good comedy or good tragedy than the incredibly complicated creations of such men as Shakespeare or Gogol. . . . Gogol's play is poetry in action, and by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes--not laughter and not tears--but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude….It [Gogol's style] gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar, lurking constantly around the corner--and one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant....

In describing Gogol's vision of St. Petersburg, Nabokov suggests his own circle of grotesquerie:

. . . A reflection in a blurred mirror, an eerie medley of objects put to the wrong use, things going backwards the faster they moved forward, pale gray nights instead of ordinary black ones, and black days. . . . The door of a private house might open and a pig might come out--just like that. A man gets into a carriage, but he is not really a fat, sly, big-bottomed man--but your Nose. . . .

Nabokov fuses with Gogol for a while, like Dostoevsky, and then goes off, utterly himself in still a third way. There are no stray pigs or disembodied noses; what was in Gogol a poetic mural becomes a tight shadow-play. The satire, as of all great satirists, behaves in the same way--always lapped, negating its own utility, destroying itself, stepping beyond.

Nabokov's humor, though, is indescribably original:

Uncle alone in the house with the children said he'd dress up to amuse them. After a long wait, as he did not appear, they went down and saw a masked man putting the table silver into a bag. "Oh uncle," they cried in delight. "Yes, isn't my make-up good?" said Uncle, taking his mask off. Thus goes the Hegelian syllogism of humor. Thesis: Uncle made himself up as a burglar (a laugh for the children); antithesis: it was a burglar (a laugh for the reader); synthesis: it still was Uncle (fooling the reader ) . . . .

None of the dazzling trickery is practiced for its own sake, but always as the key to individual scenes or the seminal conflict. Humor becomes a swathe blighting all those falsely heavy approaches to life and literature, disclosing by the way its own irresistible angles. The strength of Nabakov lies in the check (and balance) of the sinister obbligato,

Nabokov’s figures teeter on the edge of the void, take one grotesque step, and blunder their way to the bottom. They are neither Stavrogins, men without qualities, men of action fighting death with destiny, nor simple victims of assorted "forces." In their own place, they aspire and fall on the strings of a vision profoundly matured rather than obsessed. Still, there is no lack of demons; they are there, convulsed, jerking those strings.

Nabokov's pattern of limbo, search, disguise and discord is played in a variety of keys. The haunting short story, “That in Aleppo Once . . . ," puts his art to a very lyrical light. The narrator is a middle-aged Russian poet bolting France as the Germans come through. He marries hastily, and, it is hinted, a little desperately:

It was love at first touch rather than at first sight, for I had met her several times before without experiencing any special emotions; but one night as I was seeing her home, something quaint she had said made me stoop with a laugh and lightly kiss her in the hair--and of course we all know of that blinding blast which is caused by merely picking up a small doll from the floor of a carefully abandoned house: the soldier involved hears nothing; for him it is but an ecstatic soundless and boundless expansion of what had been during his life a pinpoint of light in the dark center of his being.

The girl is young, and a little strange. In the south, on their way to Nice, they get separated, and a week later, after futile inquiries, he finds her there in a queue. She gives him first an innocent account of her movements, but later on amends it; she had lied to him, had stayed several nights in Montpellier with a man she met on the train. ("I did not want it at all. He sold hair lotions."). There follows a period of reciprocal torture as they fill out forms and wait for papers. One night she takes it all back: "You will think me crazy . . . but I didn't--I swear that I didn't. Perhaps I live several lives at once. Perhaps I wanted to test you. Perhaps this bench is a dream and we are in Saratov or on some star." He settles for the original story, morosely, and later they make it up.

On the day the visas and passage materialize, she disappears. He again makes inquiries, and discovers from one of the Russian families in Nice that she had been telling this story for weeks: she had fallen in love with a titled Frenchman, he had refused her a divorce and threatened to shoot both her and himself rather than sail to New York alone. It turns out that he has also hung in Paris a dog which they never had, and that she has gone to a chateau in Lozere with the mysterious young noble. The narrator gives it up and sails alone. On the fourth day out he is asked by a friend whether his wife might not be sick below, and he replies that he is alone. The man is taken aback: he had seen her in Marseilles, aimlessly walking along the embankment, two days before sailing. The narrator concludes:

This is, I gather, the point of the whole story. . . . It was at that moment that I suddenly knew for certain that she had never existed at all. . . . Viewing the past graphically, I set our mangled romance engulfed in a deep valley of mist between the crags of two matter-of-fact mountains: life had been real before, life will be real from now on, I hope. Not tomorrow, though. Perhaps after tomorrow. . . . Yet the pity of it. . . . She keeps on walking to and fro where the brown nets are spread to dry on the hot stone slabs and the dappled light of the water plays on the side of a moored fishing boat. Somewhere, somehow, I have made a fatal mistake. . . .

That fatal mistake, these grotesque combinations of last-ditch defiance, these incredible errors and impossible results are Nabokov's stock-in-trade, and the very perverse angles of his relentless close-up. The narrator of this comedy of errors is more fortunate than most of Nabokov's questers; for him there is a visible crag in the future after all. Nonetheless, the story is quietly characteristic; the deep (and growing) unreality of human communion is sparely etched, and the only element of the novels tangibly missing is the presence of the exploiter, the smooth third party.

Perverse. Of all the words one should employ to tag Nabokov's art, this now seems to me by far the most accurate. Lolita has been called perverse becauseof the sacred ground it so blackly disrupts, and hence embargoed. But no one ought to be surprised. Nabokov has put in a working lifetime toward the cultivation of fruitful perversity, and it is probably this which gives him his great distinction as a conjuror and sets him apart from anyone. For the most "perverse" novel you are ever likely to encounter, there is nothing, not even Lolita, to equal The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (still, I think, in print). This book is quite openly a literary trick, astounding in the sleek deceitful contours, but you will be much mistaken to dismiss it as an exercise in ambiguity. Nabokov does not usually trade on this kind of straight ambiguity, so to speak, but in Sebastian Knight, it is an essential part of what he is trying to get across. At this point, I can only genuflect in the meek hope that he has come across, that I have got it "right" (and incidentally, that I do not take away too much from some tardy reader's delight).

The clue is the word Real in the title. An expatriate Russian novelist, writing in English, dies an early death in relative obscurity--of an incurable heart disease, we learn later. His life, a more or less continental one, with England for a base, his story, his secret, is shrouded in hermitic mist. His brother, who has not seen him more than twice since their divided college years, undertakes to seek out everyone who knew Sebastian, with the purpose of writing a conscientious biography (thus finally to come to know his brother)--and this book is, in fact, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. The narrator is vaguely the business representative of a Paris firm, and he regards the small body of work published by his brother as the stuff of genius. These books are described in some detail through Sebastian Knight; they strike us--and this is an immense tribute to the fine line of Nabokov's craft—as both intriguing and somewhat precious. Ambiguity exhibit A. Another book has been published dealing with the dead author, a sort of bastard biography and critique by a literary opportunist who had been Knight's secretary. This book took the view that Knight was second-rate and what is known as a symptomatic product of his times, led astray. The narrator of The Real Life wishes to squash this fraud, and to that end visits (or does not visit), questions (or never gets to question) the false biographer himself, an Oxford friend of Sebastian's, his docile English mistress, and several others. Coincidences and chance meetings occur along the way (the "way" being the prelude to a biography, the brother's search), as they always and centrally do in Nabokov, until the book ends as the narrator, in still further retrospect, hurries to the deathbed of Sebastian himself with the hope of snatching something vital from his last words, and takes away instead the memory of one of those colossally edifying mix-ups which Nabokov so lovingly prepares. Sebastian Knight ends with the brother musing that perhaps he was Sebastian, or that Sebastian was he, or that both of them were somebody unknown to either of them.

These are the bones, but what of the points? They are viny. As the novel progresses, we become aware that Sebastian is less and less "known"; at the conclusion we are further than ever from even imagining him, his soul, his destiny. Both the man and the work are to remain an inaccessible proposition. We seem to learn more about the narrator, his brother's shadow--indeed the book appears to be really his book. But this notion is dispelled by the deliberate ambiguity of his (and Nabokov's) reflections in the final pages. The balance is so fine you could scream. We learn things about both men, and about each subsidiary character, yet we come away with less than nothing. A literary trick, yes, but it is impossible to show how convincingly this trick has been bolstered by Nabokov's visionary flare for the assorted mishaps which parody human soul-searching and soul-vamping. Discredited forever are the idea of the definitive biography; the revelatory Jamesian literature which little by little discloses the kernel or "essence" of a character; the secret self view of life which that, and more notorious literatures, uphold; the attitude and literature of the Quest, in general.

Nabokov has been accused of writing masterpieces before, but Lolita is not that easy to brush off. For one thing, it is not bullet-proof like Sebastian Knight; it runs to excess and occasionally loses pitch (not necessarily a fault). Its prose is flamboyant, free, liberated; conceived in joy. It is a triangle--Nabokov's favorite scheme--to end all triangles, a work clearly foreshadowed in the body of his prose, and the high water mark of his career as agent provocateur. From the strategy of Laughter in the Dark (1938) to the inspiration of Lolita from minor to major key, the metamorphosis transpires.

Laughter in the Dark is a quietly brilliant novel. As to its themes, it does not really admit of this sort of approach; instead, what we get is almost purely a paradigm of one man's art, Nabokov's calling card. The first words announce his intention:

Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. This is the whole of the story and we might have left it at that had there not been profit and pleasure in the telling; and although there is plenty of space on a gravestone to contain, bound to moss, the abridged version of a man's life, detail is always welcome.

In other words, a familiar and much abused situation in literature will be taken up, and the author will show us how it ought to be done ("in the telling"), thereby pointing up for all time how it should not be done. (Before you can read Nabokov, you must put in a certain amount of spadework elsewhere.) Of course, the situation itself seems to have been invented solely for Nabokov's patent; from right to left: the innocent bourgeois with his furtive dreams, the sleek trashy siren of sixteen summers, the unscrupulous rival. One against one, then one against two, and so on to infinity--the literature of downfall. The fatal flaw, nemesis, the rush of wings? Nabokov isn't buying any.

Laughter in the Dark applies the kiss of death to these: tragic pomp; abstract fatalism; mysterious forces; grave-faced determinism, and that provincial psychology which goes about meticulously solving doom--a meager substitute for the true psychology which knows what doom is like and takes it from there. The protagonist of Laughter in the Dark is no grim victim, but a supreme fool and bungler. He is guilty of quitting his own demesne to trespass on another, leaving his pasture for a cesspool he cannot and dare not even begin to survey. Like all figures in the entire literature of decay, he is his own best goose. At his ruin, he is so far from being an object of pity or tragedy or human slime as to be raised to the highest perch of mockery. Both he and the melodramatic fixtures which always attend these sorry binges, are fried in hideous laughter. If he and his melodrama exist--and they do--Nabokov's version may be the only one to take seriously.

This brings us to Lolita and shapes of a more ominous order. The changeover is so complete that we are now in I world which positively defies the existence of types in its foreground.

In Lolita, Albinus has become Humbert, dilettante, rarefier, grotesquely aware of his bondage. He has vaulted so headlong from a season in limbo as to be the inventor and high priest of nymphetry." A nymphet is no longer one at 16, like Margot in Laughter in the Dark. She must be something along the lines of Dolores Haze (Lolita is Humbert's drooling secret alias), vulgar, 'pubescent, first possessed at the age of twelve. And as though this coupling were not sufficiently perverse, the adored rival, still cruel, still worldly, still adored, now wears an impossible mask: aging, bloated, impotent--a veteran fumiste of vice. It is an old company gone sour, turned incontinently upside-down; inverting the process Dostoevsky thought of astaking things to their extremes, and then a step further. In Lolita, we get a vision of fragile little girls who are not really fragile, over-literary perverts who lack a final core of obsession, jaded dabbling exploiters who lurk about as resident parties of the third part.

Lolita brings us profoundly, rudely up-to-date: the surest sign that we have to hand a great novel. The conscience behind it is supremely public, supremely "topical," and the art of it supremely lonely, special. Revealed once more is the terrain proper to high fiction, that most totally distilled of forums. What has been renewed is nothing less than what Malraux would call the colloquy of the masters. (This is no idle phrase, in any case). Nabokov again takes the strands of an amazing number of traditions, gives them a new dimension or raps their importunate knuckles, by turns. That ultimate offense of Russian, and some European fiction--the horror of demon rape--is played out in a strange vacuum. So is the theme of revenge (murder will out). A new and chilling note is given to the literature of tragic waste. An advance is made on the old quest for reality, and the modern escape from reality. (What do you do with a world where every reality is rehearsed, abstracted, weirdly performed?) The need for glamour is refined endlessly, and ends in perversion. The vicious ring of the misfits, compulsively gravitating to and destroying one another, finds expression in a new bathos. Finally, life in America (Lolita is also an American novel) is drawn as some mad game, or daisy chain, and the poison is shown to be eating at the roots.

Among the ideas up for straight parody are the pursuit of happiness, the ultimate pill of the case-history, Freudian short-cuts in general, and the reverend literature of pornography. All these strands are gathered up in the one inspired conception, fused, and beamed obliquely, in Nabokov's demonic laughter, the better to fix that once-removed quality of life which seems to be our birthright. What shall we do with the drunken sailor, the recalcitrant byproduct, the uniquely masked, the violated who survive, the desperate clowns who go down in the search for a plausible idee fixe? What if we find, even in ourselves, the act dislodged from the passion, the act as some grotesque necessity, the mind as a neutral audience to the action, the action dissolving in a flow of analysis.' For Lolita, the child, life is already the crazy game Humbert the pervert vainly seeks to out-maneuver.

Thus, the art of the perverse ultimately lashes everyone in its wake, and the highest farce tells the darkest tale. Yet who will publish it today, and who will put it on the syllabus tomorrow? Alongside Huckleberry Finn, perhaps?

Vladimir Nabokov is an artist of the first rank, a writer in the great tradition. He will never win the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Prize, yet Lolita is probably the best fiction to come out of this country (so to speak) since Faulkner's burst in the thirties. He may be the most important writer now going in this country. He is already, God help him, a classic. He has written in Russian, French, German, and now wields an English that a native young writer would kill for. I am afraid that, in this respect, he puts Conrad in the shade. Where Conrad creaks, Nabokov dances. For the moment he writes for the happy few: not yet trussed up in the coils of idiot "discovery" by the breathless young, only mildly pooh-poohed by the doctoral old, left (as he would be in any circumstances) by the trenchermen to the unsure filters of posterity. So much the better. But it is one thing to be published, read by a handful, acclaimed posthumously, and something else to be virtually squelched.

Conrad Brenner

By Conrad Brenner