13 March 2010

She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning

"When I received the book as a fourteenth birthday present from a friend, it was, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, as if a hand had come out and taken mine. Lolita was an “exasperating brat” and a sucker for cheesy gift-shops, and she was vindication. Looking back on my own past, I could never quite conjure the requisite image of innocence lost. I conjured loathing, despair, and wanting to shrink until I caved in on myself and would no longer have to think about anything, sure, but I could also remember being an exasperating brat myself. I could remember the initial affection I had for the man who became the first to rather spectacularly betray me, and how hard it was to make sense of that affection in light of what was happening. I could remember, very vividly, fretting over the fact that I had “impaired” his “morals,” in whatever confused internal language was available to me at the time. It didn’t matter that I was seven years old and couldn’t fully grasp what was going on, what mattered were the feelings I had to live with.

Reading Lolita at fourteen, I was only beginning to make sense of my experience. I did know that the ordeal of the title character made me feel pity, but not self-pity. There was nothing sentimental about it, despite, or perhaps because of the sublime prose. More importantly, I was angry on behalf of Lolita and the horrible banality of her situation, and anger, it turned out, was a useful emotion, far preferable to pathos. Humbert’s calculated desire to appear as a victim of Lolita’s frail shoulders and gray eyes was infuriating:

I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her — after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred — I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever — for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) — the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again — and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure — all would be shattered.

Here, Nabokov does more than write about a self-contained world of horror in a beautiful way. He also presents a curious way in which the human mind can experience that world of horror. One of the things that always bothered me most was how my awful recollections could come back to me in exquisite wrapping: how I could recall overripe apples thumping to the ground in the night, a shooting star, or Bach being played on the piano in an adjacent room. In attempting to make sense of what happened to me, I seized on those moments as “evidence” of the fact that I “liked” what had occurred. If I could focus on the loveliness of Prelude No. 1 in C Major as something disgusting and illegal was going on, wasn’t I just reveling in that which was disgusting and illegal? I punished myself for a way of thinking that, reading Lolita, was revealed to me as a survival tactic. I realized, for the first time, that there was nothing wrong or strange with how I had been coping, by stepping out of the horror and into the beauty that was running parallel to it."

~Natalia Antonova~

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