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« Signs and Symbols | Main | Turgenev, "Весенний вечер" »
Monday
Sep292008

Lolita

It was a few weeks before my eighteenth birthday when this famous novel entered my stratosphere, and it has been orbiting ever since.  True to my age, I was completely enraptured by both the language and dexterity of Nabokov's prose, an impression that with regard to his corpus as a whole remains to this day.  Yet there was the matter of the content.  Young fellows barely a few years older than poor Dolores Haze and many years away from fatherhood tend to be rather cavalier about such a lurid affair because they have not experienced the plight that afflicts many middle-aged men who wake up one dark morning and realize they are no longer young.  As we get older, however, our perspectives on these matters can and should change.  When I read the novel for a third time four years later, my professor (a conservative bowtied gentleman in his mid-fifties) said something that I didn't believe at the time, but which now makes perfect sense.  He admitted that when he first read Lolita at college in the sixties, "it was the greatest thing I had ever read; but now I don't think that any more."  Although I don't agree with how he ultimately broke down the novel into a series of forced readings, I do concur that the sheen of the work is dulled by its inherent immorality.  Readers of Deeblog are duly aware of the thick red thread that hems each and every one of my reviews, essays and commentaries, and that thread is a belief, for what it's worth, in an innate moral law that separates us from the other beasts that roam this lonely planet.  And despite the farrago of relativism and other forms of despicable nihilistic trends that allow simple minds to sleep at night, this thread is of particular value when examining our works of art.  Those of us constantly in search of great literary works want bliss and ease of composition, originality and vitality, but we also want to feel that the logic and values promoted are in concurrence with our own.  That is not to say that they must speak the same language, have had the same series of life events, or even have anything ethnically, religiously, or sexually in common with us; what they must have is a sense of right and wrong, not a volatile list of justifications for taking advantage of others and, in the end, themselves.  Knowing right from wrong is the one law that unites all of us, and the one thing missing in the excellent film version of the tale of Humbert Humbert.

Moviegoers will be quick to point out that this is the second cinematic adaptation, the first one having been written by Nabokov himself, and then, to his great chagrin, completely reworked by the film's director.  I saw this first version many years ago and recently enjoyed a reviewing; it has its good points, but it lacks (perhaps a sign of the times more than anything else) the necessary layer of sleaze to make its wheels burn in full rotation.  Humbert (a genteel James Mason) has nothing unsavory about him except an itch for a young girl who, truth be told, could easily be nineteen or twenty, hardly a crime in most societies of the world and not even unusual, and the whole film focuses more on the parody of kitschy 1950s mores than the tense undercurrent of lust.  Thirty-five years and a movie ratings system later and we have the real deal: a study to a porn film with sensational casting, a wickedly funny script, and, thankfully, very little nudity.  Humbert (the incomparable Jeremy Irons), Charlotte Haze (Melanie Griffith), and the title girl herself (first-timer Dominique Swain) are superb not only because each of them masters his role with relish and wit, but also because they have many of the natural attributes that inhabit Nabokov's creations.  Irons's Humbert is gallant, educated, wry, and a complete fool for a teenager with whom he could not possibly be happy in this world or any other; Griffith is voluptuous, vulgar, and sad, the epitome of a nice-looking widowed mother hoping that a smart man could still love her; and Swain is a ball of frisky tantrums, half-woman, half-girl, but, like the other characters in the film, glazed with a morose tendency towards anger.  None of these people is happy, that much director Adrian Lyne got right (not so in Kubrick's version, which has far too many scenes copied from sitcoms).  They all yearn for something more: the Hazes want something beyond their small, picketed worlds of (dis)comfort and conformity; while Humbert's wish is much grander – the restoration of his childhood and all its freedoms.  When Lolita leaves for camp, Humbert does a swan dive into her closet; and when she finally seduces him, his pajamas are buttoned all the way to the top.  This contradiction is exactly the tone that needs to be set in a story of all-consuming obsession, but it is also indicative of the wrongness of the whole enterprise.  And that wrongness begins and ends with Lolita herself.             

In the novel, everything that happens before Humbert and Lolita finally engage in that most adult of pursuits can be seen as a voyeuristic parody of a romance; readers with no taste for Nabokov's comic genius would not, in any case, reach page one hundred and forty.  Once the deed is done the landscape darkens, and Humbert decides that they must flee, moving from no-tell motel to seedy rest stop with nothing behind except – well, in fact, someone is indeed on their trail, but who or what their stalker is makes the whole film lose any romantic or idyllic charm.  What actually follows, plagues, then assaults Humbert is nothing less than his own conscience manifested in the form of another human being whose fantasies coincide with the worst of Humbert's dreams.  So when Lolita screams 'murderer' as she (and we) and Humbert spin vertiginously down a staircase, we know she speaks the truth; not so when Humbert begs her to reveal her secret and she smears him with lipstick kisses like incestuous blood.  Perhaps the film's essence is best captured by its soundtrack: the lush sounds of modern romanticism from the famous composer of another of Irons's films pockmarked by a slew of cheap jukebox hits.   Is there any place less romantic than a motel?  Yes, there is: a prison.  And there in his humble humble cell our Humbert is trapped forever, unable to spread his wings and elevate to some higher plane.

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