<strong>Nabokonovice : Beginners in Nabokov - Elsa Court</strong>

Une lecture n’engage à rien : ni au retour, ni à la connaissance durable, ni même à la certitude d’aimer. Que nous ayons poursuivi nos lectures avec minutie ou obsession, dans le cadre de la recherche, de l’enseignement, ou de la prose journalistique, nous avons pourtant gardé le souvenir de nos découvertes de l’œuvre de Vladimir Nabokov. Professeur de littérature, Nabokov disait à ses étudiants : «  On ne peut pas lire un livre, on ne peut que le relire. Un bon lecteur, un lecteur actif et créateur est un re-lecteur. » Selon lui, ce lecteur « actif et créateur » ne peut réellement prêter attention au style littéraire que lorsqu’il a déjà une idée de la structure d’ensemble du roman. L’attention au détail, objectif primordial de la lecture, selon lui, nécessite la connaissance préalable du tout. Il n’en reste pas moins qu’une première lecture d’un roman aimé est un événement inoubliable, ce que Nabokov n’aurait su contredire. Une première lecture, parce qu’elle précède logiquement l’espoir ou même l’instinct de la relecture et de la recherche, est un moment privilégié, déroutant : un dialogue instinctif qu’aucune relecture ne saurait recréer. C’est d’ailleurs le secret des pédants et des érudits qui peuplent l’œuvre nabokovienne: rien ne surpasse tout à fait la curiosité de l’innocence, les émotions fragiles d’une toute première rencontre. Nous invitons nos collègues, nos amis et le plus grand nombre de curieux à se replonger dans l’émotion de leur première lecture d’un texte de Vladimir Nabokov et à nous en faire partager, dans leurs mots à eux, la particularité d’une aventure personnelle.

One reading alone does not compel one to subsequent returns, neither does it secure one’s knowledge of, or taste in, one particular author. Some of us may have pursued their readings of Vladimir Nabokov’s work with obsessive precision: for teaching, research, or journalism, yet the memory of our first encounter with the author lingers. Teaching literature, Nabokov would tell his students: “… one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” Only after having formed an idea of the novel’s complete structure can the “active and creative” reader, according to him, pay attention to the idiosyncrasies of a literary style. Attention to detail, which is, to Nabokov, the reader’s supreme task, requires an awareness of the whole. The first reading of a loved novel is no less a memorable event: this Nabokov would not have denied. The first reading of a given text, because it precedes the instinct of research, is an instinctive dialogue which a rereading will not recreate. It is a secret shared by the scholars and pedants that people Nabokov’s works: nothing quite surpasses the fragile emotions of discovery. We would like to invite here our colleagues, our friends, and all avid first time readers, to dive back into the emotions of their first encounter with Nabokov and share, in the form which inspires them most, the specificity of their personal adventure.

<strong>La face cachée du soleil, ou comment j’ai rencontré <em>Lolita</em> - Patrick Fuchs</strong>

Pour beaucoup, Lolita est un livre qui se découvre la nuit. L’image évoque celle d’une adolescente dévêtue derrière des volets où se déroule « un spectacle que le plus blasé des voyeurs aurait payé cher pour voir ». En ce qui me concerne Lolita est définitivement lié au soleil d’été, celui de mes 20 ans : le cadeau d’une amie d’enfance qui me harcelait depuis des années pour me prêter son exemplaire. Je croyais avoir trouvé la parade : « De toutes façons, je n’aime pas lire les traductions. » Il en fallait plus pour décourager Faïza qui, à l’occasion d’un week-end à la campagne, m’a offert le livre en version originale.

Je l’avoue, j’ai eu du mal à accrocher aux premières pages. L’écriture était belle mais l’histoire me semblait aussi distante que les désirs pathétiques et sordides d’Humbert Humbert. Puis à la cinquantième page exactement, le déclic s’est produit. Pressée de questions sur l’identité de son amant, la première épouse d‘Humbert finit par désigner du doigt le chauffeur du taxi qui les conduit. Mon voyage avec Lolita a réellement démarré avec cette introduction à l’humour noir de Nabokov.

Un livre nocturne ? Pour moi Lolita c’est le soleil du jardin qui chauffe le jardin de Mrs Haze, « sa Lo et ses lis » ; qui éclaire d’une lumière indiscrète (presque) tous les recoins de la vie provinciale d’où toute ombre doit être proscrite ou reléguée derrière les rideaux – un idéal Hollywoodien aussi artificiel que son Technicolor ; une toile de Hopper cachant l’univers monstrueusement charnel d’un Francis Bacon. L’été est la saison où les secrets piaffent pour se montrer au grand jour ;  le lac où l’on se baigne avec sa montre « waterproof » mais où l’on ne peut noyer ni son épouse ni ses chagrins. La chaleur du soleil, tempérée par les arbres du jardin familial, est définitivement associée dans mon souvenir à la découverte du langage de Nabokov.

Lolita est un de ces livres rares où chaque phrase est une œuvre d’art qui réclame d’être savourée. Un joyau aux mille facettes, chacune composée de petites touches inoubliables : des détails anodins (« My Cue » titre parfait pour une biographie théâtrale) aux petites phrases (« Combien des cœurs de chiens brisés par l’interruption d’un jeu ?»)  en passant par celle qui reste ma préférée, tous romans confondus: « Un quart de son visage emporté, au dessus duquel virevoltaient deux mouches surexcitées par la réalisation croissante de leur incroyable veine. »

Dans ces conditions Lolita me semblait un livre « infilmable » car comment reproduire à l’image le premier intérêt du roman, la beauté de son style ? La première fois que j’ai vu l’adaptation de Kubrick, je ne pouvais qu’être déçu. Je ne retrouvais pas dans cette version censurée « mon » livre. Pourtant aujourd’hui c’est l’un des deux Kubrick que je possède en DVD (le second étant un autre film « imparfait » Shining). Avec le recul je réalise qu’au-delà des questions de censure, le meilleur parti pris du cinéaste était de s’éloigner de l’œuvre pour avoir une chance de lui rester fidèle (sans doute plus que l’adaptation respectueusement académique mais vide d’Adrian Lyne). Perfectionniste de l’image comme Nabokov l’était des mots, c’est dans le non-dit que Kubrick retranscrit le mieux la fausse normalité décrite par l’écrivain, dans le contraste entre ce qui est montré en premier-plan et ce qui se trame derrière. La satire légèrement surréaliste trouve sa meilleure illustration avec le duo Clare Quilty (Peter Sellers) / Vivian Darkbloom dont l’aspect psychédélique tout droit sorti de Chapeau Melon et Bottes de Cuir fait tâche dans le décor. Parfaitement accordé mais vaguement déstabilisant pour les autres, leur ballet muet peut attirer dans sa toile un maître d’hôtel sexuellement ambigu ou, involontairement, une envahissante matrone. Dans le rôle de Mrs Haze, si ridicule dans ses velléités de raffinement qu’elle en devient touchante, Shelley Winters offre peut-être la meilleure transposition d’un personnage de roman à l’écran.

Cinéaste à sa façon, Nabokov représente ce qui me semble la marque ultime du talent d’écrivain : le pouvoir de rendre beau le sordide, non pas en voilant sa réalité mais en le montrant sous son angle le plus humain, le plus pathétique ou le plus dérisoire. Pour reprendre les poncifs dont on a longtemps affublé le roman, Lolita n’est pas un livre immoral, ni même amoral. A travers ses personnages peut-être amoraux (Humbert) ou délibérément immoraux (Quilty), il dépouille de ses illusions ce qu’on a tendance à qualifier d’ « amour » et qui n’est souvent que passion, une obsession cannibale dévorant la cible et son réceptacle. Une œuvre ne peut être immorale quand elle refuse de mentir et nous met face à nos réalités. Livre finalement hautement moral mais non moralisateur, Lolita nous entraine comme un road movie sur une voie sans issue.

« Ce qu’il y a d’horrible dans cette histoire », m’a dit Faïza quand nous discutions du livre, « c’est que chacun des deux est conscient que cette relation est néfaste pour lui comme pour l’autre, mais qu’aucun ne sait comment en sortir. » A travers ces paroles je découvrais une face ignorée de mon amie d’enfance. Je me demandais à quel moment elle avait acquis cette capacité d’analyse des relations humaines. Il me semblait entrevoir un fragment de ce qu’avait pu être sa vie pendant cette période où nous nous étions perdus de vue et où chacun séparément avait entamé sa vie d’adulte. Elle m’avait fait découvrir ce livre qui à son tour me la faisait découvrir. En un sens, il devenait le pont reliant ce que nous ignorions encore l’un de l’autre. L’histoire de deux êtres que tout sépare nous rapprochait.

Le plus grand paradoxe du livre, et de Humbert, est que de cette passion cannibale, sadomasochiste et profondément égoïste émerge le véritable amour, inconditionnel et désintéressé. La chute d’Humbert s’achève sur une forme cruelle de rédemption. Alors qu’on ne peut s’empêcher de s’attendre à un dénouement tragique entre l’homme et la nymphette devenue médiocre femme au foyer, au geste fatal qui réduirait cette histoire impossible à un banal fait divers, Humbert ne peut se résoudre à le commettre : « Je l’aimais, voyez-vous. » Après le raffinement parfois auto-parodique des pages précédentes, la simplicité même de cette confession est bouleversante – et le devient encore plus avec la résignation à cet esclavage sans issue: « It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight ». Tout ce qui suit n’est qu’épilogue, comme la prison physique dans laquelle Humbert achève son histoire sur un ultime cri désespéré qui en fait (avec Les Raisins de La Colère de Steinbeck et Le Lion de Kessel) l’une des fins les plus poignantes que j’ai jamais lues.

“Lopsidedly mad love” - Excerpt from: <em>The Enchanter </em>(2011), Chapter 5 - Lila Azam Zanganeh

I recall a Mediterranean countryside over a decade ago. The long silhouette of a cypress tree extended its back against the wall of our redbrick house, vying until noon with the prickly stems of caper berry shrubs. After short, stormy nights, scattered pools formed crevasses in the grass. Light reflected off the water like slippery scales. I was sitting down on a white wicker chair, studiously wading through Lolita for the first time. I lay still in my washed-out red bathing suit, while my mother’s cousin (a versatile double of VN), palette in hand, eyes just slightly open, drew a watercolor of that morning. The drawing vanished several years later, but what remains today, let loose on the pages of my Lolita, are stains of suntan lotion and a maze of circles betraying the number of English words I did not know. Vexing as they were, those words, they shone on the page like clues planted by a sly illusionist who whispered in my ear that unfold his magic carpet he would, as soon as I lifted that dictionary slumped idly on the grass.

But the sun was moving up to meet the earth in the eyes, and when it reached its zenith, I dozed off under the growing heat… Lalita  Lili  Lilita  Lilola  Lilota Litola Lola Lolita Loll Lolla Lollapalooza Lollipop Lollop Lolly Lollylag Lollypop… In the semi-awareness of dreams in daylight, the li’s and la’s melded with the low hum of a wasp drowning in a glass, just as my own chair started tipping forward in slow motion. And off I slipped into… »

Post-Soviet <em>Lolita </em>- Alisa Sniderman

There were two authors in our family’s library forbidden to me as a child: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov. The first was forbidden because, in the words of my mother, my “nerves wouldn’t be able to handle all the drama and tension.” And Nabokov’s works, kept in the glass-fronted cabinet of the living room, were taboo for the time being because I “wasn’t ready to appreciate the greatest Russian prose writer.” That sounded like a challenge and so, while still in middle school, I decided to prove my parents wrong on both accounts: my emotional maturity and intellect.

I first smuggled a collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories from our library and hid it under my pillow. I was enticed by the cover: an eerie painting depicting the wedding of a creepy military-looking grandpa and a young girl, the flower garland on her auburn head recalling a funerary wreath. Some years later, I’d learn the title of the painting: The Unequal Marriage (1862) by Vasili Pukirev. The title that immediately caught my eye in the collection was The Christmas Tree and the Wedding (1848). Christmas trees and weddings: how bad could it be? The tale turned out to be about a children’s Christmas party where an older landowner spots his future bride to be, an eleven-year-old girl with a hefty dowry. He kisses her on the forehead and she recoils in horror. The story then cuts to a wedding where the older landowner marries the girl, now sixteen. I was so disturbed that I would not pick up Dostoevsky until compelled to at school.

But there was still Nabokov. His was not a name pronounced at school along with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Turgenev. Nabokov was nowhere to be found in the school curriculum among the Great Russian masterpieces featured on the state exam. Yet it was a name thrown around frequently when my family had guests over, especially when a close family friend, Aunt Natalya, came over. Aunt Natalya worked as a philologist at an institute for literature. I had no idea what a philologist was. I assumed it meant an occupation that required Aunt Natalya to wear elegant clothes and say one-liners that made everyone roar with laughter. Once when she came over, my mother took out with pride a pale green, cardboard-bound facsimile. Aunt Natalya seemed to approve and said another word I didn’t understand at the time: samizdat.

It wasn’t simply that Nabokov’s name was shrouded in mystery that piqued my curiosity. The Russian word nymphetka, which rhymes with and was often used interchangeably with maloletka (Russian for female minor), was constantly in the air in Moscow during the nineties. My parents had read Nabokov as adults in samizdat, secretly passing facsimiles of his banned prose. They marveled at his language and laughed at his pitch-perfect parodies of Soviet officials. Reading Nabokov was the social currency of Russian intelligentsia along with watching French new-wave cinema and owning a pair of American jeans procured on the black market. In 1988, at the height of glasnost, Gorbachev organized the official publication of Nabokov’s works. By the time my generation—the millennials—came of age as readers, Nabokov’s works were widely available and words like nymphetka and Lolita were widely in circulation. Yet for girls growing up in the post-Soviet Russia of the tumultuous nineties, Nabokov’s Lolita was passed down to us already pale and polluted, corrupted, and dangerously seductive. At one point in Lolita, Humbert Humbert regrets not having captured his nymphet on film: “Idiot, triple idiot! I could have filmed her! I would have had her now with me, before my eyes, in the projection room of my pain and despair!” We had only images of Lolita to play with.

Our first contact with Nabokov’s legacy came through secret viewings of Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita: a videotape was found in someone’s uncle’s collection. We styled our hair in two braids mimicking Dominique Swain’s portrayal of Lolita, wore chocker necklaces copying Natalie Portman’s character in The Professional, put tissues in our bras. We thought of ourselves as invincible and wise. By thirteen, we knew which kiosks would sell us beer and cigarettes. The magic code phrase was always: “It’s for our parents.” We would get drunk in bars that let us buy alcohol as long as we looked like we were trying to look older than we were. We left boys our age outside nightclubs that opened their doors to us.

Without having read a word of Nabokov, we thought we knew everything there was to know about Lolita from the billboards and music videos that kept proliferating before our very eyes.  Growing up one of the most popular songs we’d hear blazing from music kiosks was “Vosmiklasnica” (“Eighth-Grade Girl”) by the Soviet post-punk band Kino. A male husky voice sings about walking somewhere deserted with an eighth-grader who’s wearing her mother’s lipstick and her older sister’s boots. Her outfit aside, she’s pretty much still a kid interested in dolls and balloons. The nature of the relationship and the narrator’s intentions are only hinted at by his interjections, especially the not-so-subtle “mmm” before he croons “eight-grader.” The lyrics reveal a considerable age difference: she’s eating candy, he’s smoking; she tells him she’s got a C in geography, he couldn’t care less; she wants to go to the movies, he invites her to the pub (in a later cover by the cult band Mumyi Troll, the singer invites her over to his place); she tells him some boy at school got in a fight because of her, he remains suggestively silent. The song ends with the seductive male voice recalling that the girl’s mother wants her home by ten. Whether she will make it home by curfew is anyone’s guess. (The Russian singer seems to have fewer scruples than the narrator of The White Stripes’ “A Martyr for My Love For You” who sings about how he heroically chooses to not get involved with a sixteen-year-old he spots at the zoo). Some of us later aspired to be that eighth-grader, who seemed to have so much enchanting power over a grownup man that he was inspired to write a song about her.

Another popular song of the time was “Winter Dream” by fifteen-year-old Alsou, a Russian Britney Spears, the music video of which recreated scenes from Lolita in a kitchy Russia-winter setting: Humbert Humbert, with snow on his coat, stumbles upon Dolores Haze wearing heavy wool socks not on a “mat in a pool of sun,” but on a fur rug next to a fireplace. Of course, we were not all that different from other teenage girls around the globe emulating sexualized models of femininity from Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus. But we were younger than the starlets we copied and less protected. In 1998 the age of consent in Russia was lowered to fourteen. (Today it is set at sixteen). Born in a country that no longer existed by the time we learned to read, we were too young to remember or understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the tanks in the Red Square. We saw these events as flickering images like the video footage of our first birthday parties we ourselves had no recollection of. We grew up with lax parenting; after all our parents were the lost generation. Most of our parents were struggling to make sense of the transitory period in which they were caught midlife. They grew up, built their careers, and started their families in socialism, but now had to make do in capitalism. They had a hard time convincing us of the value of education, having themselves lost their PhD-requiring jobs. It would take us many years and our own losses to appreciate and marvel at their sacrifices and strength. But growing up we thought them losers.

Nymphetki, a familiar word to us, meant a very specific thing. They were girls around our age who dated older men, chiefly the Novyi Russkiy (New Russians), businessmen who had recently gained enormous wealth and become estranged from their high-school-sweethearts wives whom they often never bothered divorcing. A too-easy stereotype that a twelve or thirteen year-old could wrap her head around. Nymphetki were cool and sophisticated. They left their pathetic parents behind and got into the Mercedes-Benz and BMWs of men who had figured out this brave new world. They didn’t need to care about school because they were already adults having adult relationships.

It was in this atmosphere that we tried to read the Russian copy of Lolita I snatched from my parents’ library. We were perched on our school’s roof, skipping a class called “Trud” (“Labor”), a Soviet relic of a course that divided the class along gender lines. Boys learned woodwork and how to be handymen, which usually involved the boys making necessary repairs in the school’s building. Girls were taught how to be good housewives (how to cook, iron, and sew), which usually involved making lunch for the boys. We were going to learn Lolita’s tricks, but we didn’t get far into our reading. It was poetic, no doubt, but it was difficult and dense. It smacked of school. The episodes were not as piquant as the films we’ve become accustomed to.

The close circle of my family that once mostly comprised of academics, artists, and writers was changing as well. Many former PhDs and one-time gentle artists were now going into business and bringing the mores of that world into the safe haven that my parents created during Brezhnev Stagnation. Once a family friend brought over to dinner his two girlfriends with whom he was living in a cottage near Moscow, both fourteen years old. My parents asked him—them—to leave.

Shortly after, my family moved to the United States and I forgot about Nabokov until the age of eighteen when I picked up a used copy of Lolita during the summer of 2004. Incidentally, I was at Cornell University (where Nabokov composed most of Lolita), enrolled in a literature seminar before I was set to go off to college. I cannot imagine a more perfect setting for the first encounter with Nabokov. I read the novel, this time in English, in the solitary hours I’d spent in Ithaca’s gorges to the sound of waterfalls. I remember feeling rage, not at Nabokov of course, but at the way his novel was misread and misused by popular culture, at the way we, girls, were given the images but not the words. We were encouraged to grow up too fast and to seize the day because our peak was at sixteen and it was all downhill from there. After eighteen, we’d hear over and over again, we would start to lose our tovarni vid (“marketable image.”) But this was not at all Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that captures so poignantly the impulse behind a child’s game at being an adult, the loss of innocence, the difference between lust and tenderness. What is more, in contrast to Dostoevsky whose characters sin, feel remorse, and often find redemption, Nabokov, for all his compassion and gimlet-eyed observations, never allows the victim’s plight to be brushed off for anyone’s quest for redemption however changed they might be. As Humbert puts it:

Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard,             and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

After Lolita came many other novels by Nabokov, then his short stories, and plays, and chess problems. In Russian, English, and French.

But what I still grapple with in Nabokov goes back to my not reading Nabokov. Nabokov is a difficult writer (my parents were right that at twelve I wasn’t yet ready for his prose). So, often by the time a reader encounters Nabokov and appreciates his writing, he or she has already lived a life, so to speak. The very fact that Nabokov believed that one could only be a re-reader suggests that reading Nabokov is not only an experience but literally requires acquiring experience, if only through patient rereading. In Nabokov, who after all was also a great lepidopterist, metamorphosis plays an important role. The attentive reader cannot help but be transformed by the end. Yet some transformations, just as some words of wisdom, come a little too late. As Russians like to say: “If youth only knew; if age only could.” Then, indeed, all that remains is “the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.”

L. - Cécile Jeanson

C’était à S., telle que je la vois encore parfois la nuit, au creux des champs plats invisibles, comme une ombre cachée sous un arbre. Dans l’ombre, encore plus, le dessous d’un autre arbre feuillu, vu celui-ci depuis un balcon, pas très loin de la méditerranée, dans la rumeur d’une petite ville que j’ai tant imaginée, au soleil brûlant…Un soleil brûlant sur une route trop grande pour l’Europe, et très loin de toute forme d’eau, dans un nuage de poussière de sable, qui se gonfle tant de sable et d’air, devenant si gonflé de sable volant noircit qu’on ne voit plus aucun arbre ni le balcon, seulement une chevelure couverte de sable des routes, et une nuit noire. Une fille de notre âge, de dos, avec les cheveux longs mouillés, lit sur le balcon perché dans les branches d’un arbre, en robe courte. Elle lit profondément, puis un jour toi aussi tu me dis que tu as relu ce roman cet été. Une fille de notre âge à peu près (je ne me souviens jamais quel âge j’ai) les cheveux pleins de poussière de route de nuit, allongée sous les branches dans une ombre qui forme comme un trou, on pourrait croire qu’elle fait semblant de lire parce que quelqu’un la regarde de très loin, ou alors elle a beaucoup oublié. Toutes ces portes qui se ressemblent…Des mois plus tard, tu me diras que tu viens de le relire, et des années plus tard, au milieu des sapins et de l’asphalte dorée à toute vitesse, je ne serai pas loin pour la première fois, mais il n’y aura pas de sable, et j’entreverrai ce trou creusé dans les airs pour s’asseoir dessus, et la plongée dedans, un été, ou plusieurs étés.

Un jour nous prenons alors l’avion, nos cheveux ont poussé mais sont plus courts, pour une ville sans mer,  tu n’as pas besoin de me dire que tu le relis, car cette fois je peux le voir, tu le relis, dans les airs, encore une fois, tu aimes bien lire dans les airs on dirait, et entre le hublot et toi qui relit, je vois toutes ces portes défiler, fermées et numérotées, sous un soleil où se fond la route par les fenêtres, et une fille qui regarde le sable passer.

Quelques jours plus tard, je me retrouve encore à côté de toi, allongée, tu continues de le relire. Nous sommes arrivées dans cette ville entre les collines et le souvenir du soleil d’une autre saison, et de la même façon que dans d’autres nuits, je ne sais plus si je suis avec toi à R. ou à L. Je l’ai lu dans la nuit aussi, mais quand je ferme les yeux, il me semble que le lit était dans un autre sens que dans le sens du lit de cette chambre.

Le lendemain ou la veille, nous allons quelque part en train aérien, assises l’une en face de l’autre, le train fonce avec nous dans la ville, tu es plongée dedans et je suis dans une autre histoire juste avant d’en sortir, sur le quai où tu me dis, en marchant vers des escaliers, que tu viens de le finir. La lumière est celle du quai d’une ville inconnue où je ne suis jamais retournée et je crois que tu n’y es pas retournée toi non plus, peut-être que tu t’en souviendrais. Je ne me souvins pas de la matière du ciel le jour où j’avais fini de le lire, et pendant que nous marchions côte à côte, je me rappelais aussi que j’avais oublié la fin. Je l’avais su dès l’avion, mais j’avais pensé que le temps que tu arrives à la fin, elle me serait revenue. Quelques instant avant, je regardais la route passer par la fenêtre derrière toi. Des bouffées de sable et de sang. Il restait souvent de la poussière d’ailes sur les parois des bocaux où on les avait enfermés. Et tu ne m’as pas raconté la fin alors pendant que nous grimpions ces escaliers…

Dans l’hiver, à L. où je viendrai te rendre visite en train, bien plus tard, tu viendras de lire un roman que tu n’avais pas encore lu, et moi non plus, et tu me raconteras…le souvenir surgissant de disparus face à une salle de classe… dans cette petite chambre à papier peint de fleur, à l’étage d’un immeuble aux deux fenêtres grandes ouvertes sur une immense prairie brouillée de fines gouttes d’eau blanches et mousseuses dans les branches, qui furent tout à coup soufflées, tellement soufflées, jusque sur nos habits, nos papiers dessinés, et nos livres. À mon réveil de retour à P., je le chercherai pour le lire, et par les fenêtres fermées il commencera à pleuvoir, une fine mousse d’eau de prairie du nord.

<strong>Annabel and Lolita: First and Second Encounters - </strong>Beci Dobbin

That Nabokov isn’t particularly interested in our first encounter with Lolita may be deduced in part from the fact that the novel’s thematisation of second encounters is hidden from us on our first reading. The opening address to: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins …’ reads like the invocation of a first love, and it’s only in the third paragraph that we understand Lolita to be Humbert’s second love, following ‘a certain initial girl-child’ called Annabel. The irony by which our first encounter with the love of Humbert’s life in the first line, is his second encounter with her – albeit in another form – is lost on us until our second reading. Both in our reading of the novel and in the story Humbert tells, it’s second encounters that really matter. The naivety of the first-time reader is of little use in interpreting Nabokov’s palimpsest of echoes, and the book is called ‘Lolita’ rather than ‘Annabel’, because it’s Lolita who is irreplaceable: there’s no third love.

What might be the value, then, of our first encounter with the novel? One answer might be that the second encounter isn’t possible without the first. As Humbert puts it: ‘there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.’ Our second Lolita requires a predecessor: both we and Humbert need an Annabel. This is true partly because superiority is relative; Humbert is only able to know that he prefers Lolita to Annabel because Annabel exists as a point of comparison, and we as readers are only able to appreciate the full irony of the first line if we first mistake Lolita for Humbert’s first love – in a kind of inverse déjà vu that makes us aware of our ignorance rather than knowledge of an echo. The recognition of a preferable love and a richer novel is a product of experience.

We not only need experience in order to notice how our understanding changes but to bring our naivety into focus. Humbert realises with time that the Annabel phase of his love life was immature, and while he fetishises physical immaturity (slim thighs, ‘juvenile breasts’ etc), his vantage point is that of the connoisseur – someone who grows wise about preferences by making them over and again. To the extent that the novel is about Humbert’s perspective, it’s about the maturity that equips him to think about his own and Lolita’s immaturity in detail – though, of course, without understanding everything, or even taking everything into account. It’s about contemplating immaturity from a relatively knowing distance, which is also what we do when we read for the second time.

When Humbert sees Lolita for the first time he imagines himself to be seeing Annabel for the second time; he reflects: ‘It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair.’ For Humbert, to fall in love at first sight is to fall in love at second sight; the feeling of spontaneous attachment is only possible as an act of memory, because it needs to seem knowing. On the other hand, his love at second sight is as unsuspicious of itself as love at first sight. There’s an innocence to his faith in the authenticity of his response that pulls against the cynicism that our growing familiarity with the text prompts us to apply to everything he says he feels. We learn to be more and more critical of Humbert, whereas his lack of self-criticism permits him to behave as he does. Paradoxically, his criminal abuse of his position of power is the index of a kind of innocence of the implications of his actions. The ability to understand his affair with Lolita as a romance that she controls (‘My life was handled by little Lo …’) depends on a naivety that clashes with his characteristic wisdom in defining beauty and love. Humbert’s psychopathy consists in this persistence of naivety in the midst of knowledge.

In reading the novel for the first time, we compare to Humbert in our capacity to trust his perspective. We’re romantic in this sense. In returning to the novel, we compare to him in recognising the echoes that carry between his experiences. In moving from naivety in our first reading to knowingness in later readings, we identify with him on one level and then on another level, but never on both levels at the same time, so that the empathy that allows us to feel we inhabit his thoughts isn’t incriminating. Our first impressions matter partly because they offer an insight into what it means for Humbert to feel he is in love, while they simultaneously distance us from the form of love he feels, which depends for its authenticity on the sense of returning to something known.

On <em>Lolita</em> - Ed Dodson

I first read Nabokov in the summer of 2009, mid-way between my first and second year of studying English at the University of Leeds. Lolita had been on my horizon, but never in my hands, during those opening semesters of undergraduate life; it had not fit into the theoretical mould by which prose fiction had been presented to us. Nonetheless, I was well prepared for the novel’s postmodern tomfoolery, its deceptive and unreliable narrator, and its transgression of art’s ethical boundaries – but not for its tenderness. After a failed attempt, towards the end of the novel, to reclaim the love of his life, Humbert Humbert admits: ‘presently I was driving through the drizzle of the dying day, with the windshield wipers in full action but unable to cope with my tears’ (chapter 29, p.280). Just as the ‘drizzle’ mimicked (and mocked?) his tears, so did Humbert’s match my own.

I had not blubbed at a work of art, or popular culture, for a long time, having acquired the steely academic gaze required (or so I thought) for academic study. I was thus caught out by the soft desperation in Humbert’s otherwise restrained voice as it revealed a brief lack of stability. After all, this was a narrator who’d gripped my head (rather than heart) on the opening page: ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style’. His simultaneously ironic and Romantic remark only bore greater levity once that ‘fancy prose’ produced a ‘murderer’ and rapist capable of twisting my emotions. It is this under-discussed quality of Nabokov, his affective as well as cerebral use of irony, which positions him as one of my favourite authors.