Wednesday 31 May 2017

The unusual fades in Three Colours: Blue and Cries and Whispers

1/ In Three Colours: Blue, there is something unusual in editing that I’ve never seen in films before: several times there’s a fade-out and then a fade-in back to the same scene.

These fades therefore do not mean a transition; they are to denote a pause, a fall of sorts, a moment in which Julie is lost in thought, and then gets back to the present. Because Blue is an “internal” film, mostly about depicting Julie’s mind on screen, it works beautifully.

2/ Yesterday I watched Cries and Whispers. Ingmar Bergman does something I’ve never seen before: fade to/ from red, instead of the usual black.

There are 3 main colours in the film: red, white, and black. The women wear white in the 1st half, then after Agnes dies, they switch to black. There are only 2 scenes in which we see the colour green of the grass—scenes of happier days when the sisters are harmonious. Cries and Whispers is a film about dying, love, sexual passion, blood (mutilation), hatred and death, and red pervades the film.
The fades, used for dramatic emphasis, are very effective.


Thoughts as a film student: I must try both of these at some point. 

Monday 29 May 2017

Dekalog and Kieslowski

Before, by Kieslowski I’ve seen the Three Colours trilogy and The Double Life of Veronique. Now I’ve watched the entire Dekalog, which, as a whole, is Kieslowski’s greatest achievement.

My favourites are Dekalog 2 (a doctor forced to play God), 3 (a woman finding an excuse to spend Christmas’s Eve with a former lover), 4 (the incest story), 6 (a young man falling in love with the neighbour he spies on—A Short Film About Love) and 9 (a wife breaking off with a young lover and finding out that her husband spies on her). None of the episodes is bad. Dekalog 1 is a lovely film, not as subtle and ambiguous as the aforementioned episodes, but it’s a nice introduction to some of the themes of the whole series—uncertainty in life, the unpredictability and complexity of life, the meaning of life, and so on. Dekalog 5, which was to become A Short Film About Killing, is acclaimed, perhaps rightfully so—it’s not a favourite simply because either it’s slightly outdated or because I’ve seen films and read works that compare murder and capital punishment before. Many people still find it powerful and haunting. Dekalog 7 and 8 have the similar problem of lacking visuals—Dekalog 7 relies on explanatory dialogue that sometimes sounds unnatural and Dekalog 8 feels more like a play or a meditation on moral decisions than a film, but both are interesting and thought-provoking. Dekalog 10 is a very good film, in which Kieslowski again shows his skills as a director, his understanding of psychology, and his moral view (that the brothers in the end reconcile and come to an understanding is more important than their father’s stamps; and the “loss” of a kidney is not a loss because it saves somebody), and it’s a nice way to end the series. Personally I’m just not very satisfied with the ending because whilst it’s true that the good relationship between the brothers is something money can’t buy, I’m annoyed when frauds succeed, though that comment is a reflection on my personal feelings rather than the film itself.
As a film lover, I love and admire Kieslowski. He’s 1 of the greatest directors of all time. It is Blue, Red and The Double Life of Veronique that demonstrate best his mastery of visual storytelling and ability to depict on screen his characters’ states of mind (Blue is perhaps his most “internal” film), but in Dekalog, we can see Kieslowski’s understanding of psychology and ability to get the best out of his actors, the subtlety and focus on details, the importance of every shot (visual clues, symbols), etc. Kieslowski shows what film can do as a medium, he’s also profound. Dekalog makes me see a lot more clearly how “shallow” many acclaimed directors are—they may be brilliant and very talented, and may make very good films, but their films lack depth and ultimately say nothing.
I also like him on a personal level. It’s hard to explain why I now feel more of an affinity with him than with the superior Fellini, but Red and The Double Life of Veronique made me feel intensely alive and more aware of my surroundings, and Dekalog… well I’ve written enough about Dekalog.
As a film student, I see Kieslowski as an important influence and a great master to learn from. 
It’s a pity that most people now are unfamiliar with Kieslowskis works or, worse, haven't heard of his name. 

Saturday 27 May 2017

Dekalog 9

If Dekalog 8, about the confrontation between a Holocaust survivor and an ethics professor over a decision 40 years previously, lacks drama and visuals and feels more like a play or even a meditation on ethics than a film, Dekalog 9 is 1 of the best in the series, an engaging, moving and powerful film about people and relationships.
Again dealing with adultery, Dekalog 9 is about the marriage of a man who has just been diagnosed with sexual impotence—his wife has an affair, he spies on her, she breaks off with the young lover only to discover that her husband is standing in the wardrobe watching. I thought, the wife was wrong to cheat on her husband, but it’s not right for him to follow her and listen to her phone calls either. Their trust is broken, they both lie to each other. Then I realised that I was the one that judged, I was the one that condemned. Kieslowski doesn’t. 
In previous episodes, there’s a woman that loves 2 men at the same time, a young woman that has incestuous feelings for her father, a teenage girl that has a relationship with her teacher, a man that leaves his family at home on Christmas Eve to go with his former lover... Now in Dekalog 9, we see distrust and an intrusion on privacy, but also see pain, humiliation and feeling of inadequacy; we see a betrayal and moral lapse but also see love, repentance and wish for redemption. Kieslowski doesn’t condemn.
As a writer/ director, Kieslowski has the qualities that I admire in 19th century Russian writers: the subtlety and ambiguity; the moral seriousness; the exploration of people’s relationships, their inner lives, complexity and self-contradictions; the nonjudgmental attitude; the humanity, tenderness and understanding for human weaknesses; the celebration of life and its unknowability; the hopeful and uplifting note at the end, etc.

From Bilge Ebiri’s review
“Kieslowski stood, at the end of the 1980s, in a decaying authoritarian state and presented to us a vision in which God, the law, and socialism all came up empty. And just think about it: He had the gall to make a film about the Ten Commandments that refused to judge anyone, even allowing the worst murderer moments of grace. In fact, maybe we’ve been thinking about it all wrong. Maybe Dekalog is not about the Ten Commandments, but a response to them — and to the very idea of law and judgment and top-down morality. To the ironclad dicta of absolutism in all its forms, the director responds with a love that passes understanding.”

Friday 26 May 2017

Dekalog 7

Dekalog 7, compared to previous episodes, is weak. The backstory is mostly explained through dialogue, which sometimes sounds contrived; and the ending is puzzling and a bit unsatisfying, as though Piesiewicz and Kieslowski got an interesting idea and started to develop it but didn’t quite know how to end the story.   
However, the film has some good performances, and is thought-provoking. Dekalog 7 is connected to the 8th commandment “Thou shalt not steal”, but it’s not an object that is being stolen—the theft in the film is Majka’s abduction of her own daughter Ania, who has been raised by her parents as her sister (to cover up a scandal and legal offence). Should Ania be with Majka, her rightful mother? Or should she be with Ewa, her mother in paper who has brought her up, because Majka does not seem capable of parenting? More importantly, can you steal something that’s yours? 
That theft is the result of another theft—Ewa’s theft of Majka’s child and thus her right to be a mother.  
In a way, it can be said that further back in the past, there’s also another theft—Ewa’s theft of Majka’s childhood, because she lacks affection and demands a lot from Majka, with which she can’t cope, and makes her feel like a disappointment her whole life. The ending, after everything that happened, may be unsatisfying, but Dekalog 7 is a film of frustration—Majka has always seen herself as a loser, and again, she loses the battle.

Thursday 25 May 2017

Dekalog 2, 3, 4 and 6

The Dekalog episodes I’ve seen can be divided into 2 groups. Dekalog 1 and 5, albeit never didactic or heavy-handed, are about ideas—Dekalog 1 is about science/ technology and the meaningful questions in life that they can’t answer, and about the unpredictability of life; Dekalog 5, which was expanded into A Short Film About Killing, is about murder by an individual and murder by the state, showing Kieslowski’s opposition to capital punishment. 
My favourites so far are the others—2, 3, 4 and 6. Kieslowski introduces his characters in a way that makes us immediately form a judgement about them as with people we meet in life, like the woman in Dekalog 2 who seems to impose her will on the doctor, persistently asks for a question for which he has no answer, and says she wishes she had run over him instead of merely his dog, or the woman in Dekalog 3 who interrupts her former lover’s Christmas Eve, unabashedly takes him away from his family and later acts like a self-destructive woman, and so on. Then the stories unfold and we’ve got a glimpse of their inner lives. Like Blue and Red in the Three Colours trilogy, these films are about people and emotions, about their vulnerability, their loneliness and attempt to connect to someone else, about love and longing, about their conflicts and self-contradictions and self-deception… 

Among these 4 films, Dekalog 6 has a special meaning. The 1st Kieslowski I saw, 5 years ago, was A Short Film About Love, which was the expanded version of it. A 19-year-old man uses a telescope to spy on a promiscuous older woman living in the adjacent building, and falls in love with her. Dekalog 6 is a story of 2 lonely people—Tomek, who doesn’t dare to ask but has to find ways to see the woman with whom he’s hopelessly in love; and Magda, who says love does not exist but deep down still craves tenderness and human connection. But once they come closer to each other and Magda to Tomek is no longer an abstract thing, he is too innocent and she is too cynical, to the point of being cruel. That destroys everything. Only then does Magda realise that he loves her and has the tenderness she needs. But it’s too late. 
Unlike Dekalog 2, 3 and 4, Dekalog 6 doesn’t have an open ending. And it’s deeply sad.

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Dekalog 1-4

I’ve been watching Dekalog. After 4 episodes, or films (each feels more like a great film on its own), I already feel that Kieslowski’s magnum opus is profound and going to change me forever. 
Dekalog 1 sets off the series—the brilliant little son of a university professor is fascinated with his computer and what it can do, only to discover that science doesn’t explain everything and his computer can’t answer all questions, especially the most important and meaningful ones in life. Dekalog is not about the 10 Commandments as much as about the unpredictability of life, the self-contradictions of human beings, and the complexity of human emotions. 
If in Dekalog 1, the father makes calculations about the ice and its ability to hold the boy, which, as shown later, is a question of life and death, in Dekalog 2, the doctor finds himself in the position akin to God, forced to answer a question that would decide the fate of a human being and affect the lives of several people. Kieslowski makes you ask yourself: what would you do under such circumstances? When someone placed in your hands the power to decide over the lives of several people? 
In Dekalog 3, a man’s Christmas celebrations with his wife are interrupted as his former lover shows up, asking for help. In Dekalog 4, a man has been living with his daughter and an important moment comes when she discovers a letter by her mother, who died when she was 4 days old, and reveals to him that she isn’t his daughter—they have to face the reality that for a long time they’ve had incestuous feelings for each other, and now have to decide what to do.
Dekalog 2, 3 and 4 are different, but are all united by the theme of adultery and deception. I personally have always detested lies, and liars, but in each of these films there is a lie, and it’s not so simple—sometimes people lie, out of necessity or desperation, sometimes people choose to deceive themselves and refuse to know the truth because “their truth” is better than the truth itself, and sometimes people detect a lie but go along with it nevertheless for some reason. Kieslowski tells these stories, refusing to pass judgment, and his humanity shines through all these films. 
Wonderful stuff. 

Thursday 18 May 2017

Lolita’s tears

Rereading Lolita after 5 years, I realise how easy it is to be confused. It is a complex and tricky novel. Dolores Haze, or Lo, as described by Humbert Humbert, is no innocent child. She’s sexually precocious and far from “pure”—when he takes her to the 1st hotel, she’s no longer a virgin. She seduces him. She now and then deceives Humbert Humbert, often with Mona’s help.
It’s hard to resist the charm of the narrator. We sometimes forget that he has been in sanatoriums several times, made up stories and manipulated almost everyone, tricked even psychiatrists, married a woman he despises only to be close to her prepubescent daughter, used sleeping pills on Charlotte and then Lo, fantasised about killing people, including both of his wives, and about “being intimate with” little girls, etc. We sometimes sympathise with him and feel sorry for him—a helpless victim of his own paedophilia. The reader easily falls for his trap, seeing Lolita as an unusual love story condemned only because of the legal age of consent and people’s prejudices, and may even think that it’s Lo that seduces and then manipulates Humbert Humbert. But a careful reader would pick up on the small, easily overlooked bits that reveal the abusive nature of the relationship, and Lo’s helplessness and suffering.
Part 1: 
Chapter 32:
“This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.”
Chapter 33:
“You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”

Part 2: 
Chapter 1:
“I relied on three other methods to keep my pubescent concubine in submission and passable temper.”
… I don’t know if you have ever heard of the laws relating to dependent, neglected, incorrigible and delinquent children. While I stand gripping the bars, you, happy neglected child, will be given a choice of various dwelling places, all more or less the same, the correctional school, the reformatory, the juvenile detention home, or one of those admirable girls’ protectories where you knit things, and sing hymns, and have rancid pancakes on Sundays. You will go there, Lolita — my Lolita, this Lolita will leave plainer words, if we two are found out, you will be analyzed and institutionalized, my pet, c’est tout. You will dwell, my Lolita will dwell (come here, my brown flower) with thirty-nine other dopes in a dirty dormitory (no, allow me, please) under the supervision of hideous matrons. This is the situation, this is the choice. Don’t you think that under the circumstances Dolores Haze had better stick to her old man?”
By rubbing all this in, I succeeded in terrorizing Lo, who despite a certain brash alertness of manner and spurts of wit was not as intelligent a child as her I.Q. might suggest…”
Chapter 2:
“…she asked, à propos de rien, how long did I think we were going to live in stuffy cabins, doing filthy things together and never behaving like ordinary people?”
Chapter 3:
“She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.”
“I remember the operation was over, all over, and she was weeping in my arms; — a salutory storm of sobs after one of the fits of moodiness that had become so frequent with her in the course of that otherwise admirable year!”
“Enmeshed in her wild words (swell chance… I’d be a sap if I took your opinion seriously… Stinker… You can’t boss me… I despise you… and so forth), I drove through the slumbering town at a fifty-mile-per-hour pace in continuance of my smooth highway swoosh, and a twosome of patrolmen put their spotlight on the car, and told me to pull over. I shushed Lo who was automatically raving on. The men peered at her and me with malevolent curiosity. Suddenly all dimples, she beamed sweetly at them, as she never did at my orchideous masculinity; for, in a sense, my Lo was even more scared of the law than I — and when the kind officers pardoned us and servilely we crawled on, her eyelids closed and fluttered as she mimicked limp prostration.”
“We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.”
Chapter 31:
“Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me — to me as I am now, today, with my heart and by 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.”
Chapter 32:
“There was the day, during our first trip— our first circle of paradise—when in order to enjoy my phantasms in peace I firmly decided to ignore what I could not help perceiving, the fact that I was to her not a boy friend, not a glamour man, not a pal, not even a person at all, but just two eyes and a foot of engorged brawn — to mention only mentionable matters. There was the day when having withdrawn the functional promise I had made her on the eve (whatever she had set her funny little heart on — a roller rink with some special plastic floor or a movie matinee to which she wanted to go alone), I happened to glimpse from the bathroom, through a chance combination of mirror aslant and door ajar, a look on her face… that look I cannot exactly describe… an expression of helplessness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration — and every limit presupposes something beyond it — hence the neutral illumination. And when you bear in mind that these were the raised eyebrows and parted lips of a child, you may better appreciate what depths of calculated carnality, what reflected despair, restrained me from falling at her dear feet and dissolving in human tears, and sacrificing my jealousy to whatever pleasure Lolita might hope to derive from mixing with dirty and dangerous children in an outside world that was real to her.”
“Once, in a sunset-ending street of Beardsley, she turned to little Eva Rosen (I was taking both nymphets to a concert and walking behind them so close as almost to touch them with my person), she turned to Eva, and so very serenely and seriously, in answer to something the other had said about its being better to die than hear Milton Pinski, some local schoolboy she knew, talk about music, my Lolita remarked:
“You know, what’s so dreadful about dying is that you are completely on your own”; and it struck me, as my automaton knees went up and down, that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate — dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions…”
“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 azurebarred — 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) — and 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.”
“Now, squirming and pleading with my own memory, I recall that on this and similar occasions, it was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of mind while comforting my own base self.”
Last chapter—chapter 36: 
“Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.” 


I’ve finished my 2nd reading of Lolita. It’s back in my top 10 favourite novels. 5 years later, I got many references missed last time—Alice in Wonderland, Madame Bovary, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Marlene Dietrich, Marquis de Sade, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde…; had learnt more about paedophilia; and now picked up on some motifs earlier I had not seen (besides dogs, butterflies and birds, also mirrors and toilets). But the feeling is pretty much the same—this is a masterpiece, a work of genius, and a heartbreaking story, especially chapter 29 and 32 of part 2. 
I feel drained.

Lolita: part 2 chapter 29

If anyone denigrates Nabokov as a cold, heartless writer who just wanted to draw attention to his own brilliance, lead them to part 2 chapter 29 of Lolita, the saddest chapter in the novel—when Humbert Humbert meets Lo again, 17 and now married to Richard Schiller. 
“I could not kill her, of course, as some have thought. You see, I loved her. It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.” 
“He believed anything. Why should I want to make things harder than they were by raking up all that muck?” 
“His fingernails were black and broken, but the phalanges, the whole carpus, the strong shapely wrist were far, far finer than mine: I have hurt too much too many bodies with my twisted poor hands to be proud of them.” 
“She closed her eyes and opened her mouth, leaning back on the cushion, one felted foot on the floor. The wooden floor slanted, a little steel ball would have rolled into the kitchen. I knew all I wanted to know. I had no intention of torturing my darling. Somewhere beyond Bill’s shack an afterwork radio had begun singing of folly and fate, and there she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkempt armpits, there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby, dreaming already in her of becoming a big shot and retiring around 2020 A.D. — and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds… but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped. What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart, mon grand pêché radieux, had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I canceled and cursed. You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sootylashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine; Changeons de vie, ma Carmen, allons vivre quelque part où nous ne serons jamais séparés; Ohio? The wilds of Massachusetts? No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn — even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.” 
"She groped for words. I supplied them mentally (“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life”)."
6/ The word “No” from Lo. 
I shall not comment. The passages are enough on their own.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

A theory about Quilty and Lo

On the internet, I’ve come across a (crazy?) theory about Lolita: Quilty is Lo’s biological father. 
Exhibit number 1 is this conversation, after Charlotte’s death: 
“That day John had to see a customer, and Jean had to feed her dogs, and so I was to be deprived temporarily of my friends’ company. The dear people were afraid I might commit suicide if left alone […] In a moment of superb inspiration I showed the kind and credulous Farlows (we were waiting for Leslie to come for his paid tryst with Louise) a little photograph of Charlotte I had found among her affairs. From a boulder she smiled through blown hair. It had been taken in April 1934, a memorable spring. While on a business visit to the States, I had had occasion to spend several months in Pisky. We met — and had a mad love affair. I was married, alas, and she was engaged to Haze, but after I returned to Europe, we corresponded through a friend, now dead. Jean whispered she had heard some rumors and looked at the snapshot, and, still looking, handed it to John, and John removed his pipe and looked at lovely and fast Charlotte Becker, and handed it back to me. Then they left for a few hours. Happy Louise was gurgling and scolding her swain in the basement.” 
Jean later says to her husband “John, she is his child, not Harold Haze’s. Don’t you understand? Humbert is Dolly’s real father.” 
The key point is that Jean has heard some rumours.
Exhibit number 2 is this line, when Humbert Humbert is pursuing Quilty and Lo: 
“The gruesome “Harold Haze, Tombstone, Arizona” (which at another time would have appealed to my sense of humor) implied a familiarity with the girl’s past that in nightmare fashion suggested for a moment that my quarry was an old friend of the family, maybe an old flame of Charlotte’s, maybe a redresser of wrongs (“Donald Quix, Sierra, Nev.”).” 
You can argue that in desperation, the man starts to imagine things, but what if he has a point? 
Exhibit number 3 is the resemblance: 
“And as I looked at his oval nut-brown face, it dawned upon me that what I had recognized him by was the reflection of my daughter’s countenance—the same beatitude and grimace but made hideous by his maleness.” 
Somebody has tried to refute it, saying that Lo and Quilty don’t look the same, they only have the same facial expression. I’m not so sure. 
Exhibition number 4 is that Quilty has a play called Fatherly Love. All of his other plays have a meaning or some kind of significance: The Little Nymph evokes the concept of nymphets—Lo is, in Humbert Humbert’s eyes, a nymphet and Quilty is also a paedophile; The Lady Who Loved Lightning is alluded to later in the book when Lo says “I am not a lady and do not like lightning”; Dark Age makes me think of his evil; The Strange Mushroom is a euphemism for penis, as explained in the notes (Nabokov himself said “Somewhere, in a collection of “cases”, I found a little girl who referred to her uncle’s organ as “his mushroom”.”); The Enchanted Hunters is named after the hotel, etc. so it’s hard to believe Fatherly Love is an exception. 
If it’s true though, that Nabokov intends Quilty to be Lo’s biological father, that would make him a lot worse than he already is.

Butterflies and birds in Lolita

Butterflies are all over the place in Lolita. When you know Nabokov's interest in lepidopterology, it's easy to notice. And they're not random. In the notes, Alfred Appel Jr wrote:
"One of Nabokov's lepidopterological finds is known as "Nabokov's Wood-Nymph" (belonging to the family Nymphalidae) and he is not unaware that a "nymph" is also defined as "a pupa", or "the young of an insect undergoing incomplete metamorphosis". Crucial to an understanding of Lolita is some sense of the various but simultaneous metamorphoses undergone by Lolita, H. H., the book, the author, and the reader, who is manipulated by the novel's game-element and illusionistic devices to such an extent that he too can be said to become, at certain moments, another of Vladimir Nabokov's creations- an experience which is bound to change him. The butterfly is thus a controlling metaphor that enriches Lolita in a more fundamental and organic manner than, say, the Odyssey does Joyce's Ulysses. Just as the nymph undergoes a metamorphosis in becoming the butterfly, so everything in Lolita is constantly in the process of metamorphosis, including the novel itself- a set of "notes" being compiled by an imprisoned man during a 56-day period for possible use at his trial, emerging as a book after his death, and then only after it has passed through yet another stage, the nominal "editorship" of John Ray, Jr. As Lolita turns from a girl into a woman, so H.H.'s lust becomes love. His sense of a "safely solipsized" Lolita is replaced by his awareness that she was his "own creation" with "no will, no consciousness- indeed, no life of her own", that he did not know her, and their sexual intimacy only isolated him more completely from the helpless girl. These "metamorphoses" enable H. H. to transform a "crime" into a redeeming work of art, and the reader watches the chrysalis come to life. "And a metamorphosis is a thing always exciting to watch", says Nabokov in Gogol, referring to etymological rather than entomological phenomena."
That is interesting.


I do not know what it means, but I've noticed that there are not only dogs and butterflies but also lots of birds in Lolita.
(emphasis mine) 
"I remember walking along an animated street on a gray spring afternoon somewhere near the Madeleine. A short slim girl passed me at a rapid, high-heeled, tripping step, we glanced back at the same moment, she stopped and I accosted her. She came hardly up to my chest hair and had the kind of dimpled round little face French girls so often have, and I liked her long lashes and tight-fitting tailored dress sheathing in pearl-gray her young body which still retained — and that was the nymphic echo, the chill of delight, the leap in my loins — a childish something mingling with the professional frétillement of her small agile rump. I asked her price, and she promptly replied with melodious silvery precision (a bird, a very bird!) “Cent.”" (P.1, ch.6)
Note: women and birds.
"Exhibit number two is a pocket diary bound in black imitation leather, with a golden year, 1947, en escalier, in its upper left-hand corner. I speak of this neat product of the Blank Blank Co., Blankton, Mass., as if it were really before me. Actually, it was destroyed five years go and what we examine now (by courtesy of a photographic memory) is but its brief materialization, a puny unfledged phœnix." (ch.11)
Nabokov dislikes symbols, but a phoenix is a bird that rises from its ashes, a symbol of resurrection and immortality. Immortality is 1 of the themes of Lolita, the book being "the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita", Humbert Humbert says in the end. 
"Gone with her mother to the Hamiltons — a birthday party or something. Full-skirted gingham frock. Her little doves seem well formed already. Precocious pet!" (ibid.)
What a creep. 
"Then, figuratively speaking, I shattered the glass, and boldly imagined (for I was drunk on those visions by then and underrated the gentleness of my nature) how eventually I might blackmail — no, that it too strong a word — mauvemail big Haze into letting me consort with the little Haze by gently threatening the poor doting Big Dove with desertion if she tried to bar me from playing with my legal stepdaughter." (ch.17)
Lo is a dove. Lotte is a dove. 
"With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog, she had slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed how by a jerk of his padded shoulder)." (ch.23)
A metaphor for the swift moments. I wonder what colour the pencil is. 
"Let me retain for a moment that scene in all its trivial and fateful detail: hag Holmes writing out a receipt, scratching her head, pulling a drawer out of her desk, pouring change into my impatient palm, then neatly spreading a banknote over it with a bright “…and five!”; photographs of girl-children; some gaudy moth or butterfly, still alive, safely pinned to the wall (“nature study”); the framed diploma of the camp’s dietitian; my trembling hands; a card produced by efficient Holmes with a report of Dolly Haze’s behavior for July (“fair to good; keen on swimming and boating”); a sound of trees and birds, and my pounding heart… " (ch.27)
"Then [Lolita] raised by the armlets a copper-colored, charming and quite expensive vest, very slowly stretching it between her silent hands as if she were a bemused bird-hunter holding his breath over the incredible bird he spreads out by the tips of its flaming wings." (ibid.)
That is some time before Lo seduces Humbert Humbert. Who are the hunters in the book? 
"I had almost to carry her into our room. There, she sat down on the edge of the bed, swaying a little, speaking in dove-dull, longdrawn tones." (ibid.)
I have no idea what that means. 
"Its matter-of-fact intonations, however, helped to bring in the dawn, and the room was already suffused with lilac gray, when several industrious toilets went to work, one after the other, and the clattering and whining elevator began to rise and take down early risers and downers, and for some minutes I miserably dozed, and Charlotte was a mermaid in a greenish tank, and somewhere in the passage Dr. Boyd said “Good morning to you” in a fruity voice, and birds were busy in the trees, and then Lolita yawned." (ch.29)
"There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies—a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat." (ch.30)
I'd like to note that the snake image appears about 6 times in the novel, and there's another time that it's close to the bird image: in the passage above of Lo looking like a bird-hunter, the next action is that "she pulled out the slow snake of a brilliant belt and tried it on". 
"Beyond the tilled plain, beyond the toy roofs, there would be a slow suffusion of inutile loveliness, a low sun in a platinum haze with a warm, peeled-peach tinge pervading the upper edge of a two-dimensional, dove-gray cloud fusing with the distant amorous mist." (P.2, ch.1)
Colour. The funny thing is that in my mind, I have always associated doves with the colour white, it's pigeons that are grey. 
"... every morning, oh my reader, the three children would take a short cut through the beautiful innocent forest brimming with all the emblems of youth, dew, birdsongs, and at one point, among the luxuriant undergrowth, Lo would be left as sentinel, while Barbara and the boy copulated behind a bush." (ch.32)
"There and elsewhere, hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers." (ch.2)
Nabokov himself notes that these are actually "hawkmoths which do move exactly like hummingbirds (which are neither gray nor nocturnal)". Proof that Humbert Humbert really knows nothing about moths. Why Nabokov does this, however, is something I don't know. 
"Pubescent sweetheart! How smugly would I marvel that she was mine, mine, mine, and revise the recent matitudinal swoon to the moan of the mourning doves, and devise the late afternoon one, and slitting my sun-speared eyes, compare Lolita to whatever other nymphets parsimonious chance collected around her for my anthological delectation and judgment..." (ibid.)
I have just learnt that mourning doves are not doves that are mourning (you know, anthropomorphism), but a species whose scientific name is Zenaida macroura
Headmistress Pratt at Beardsley school calls Humbert Mr Humbird in chapter 4. 
Is that the reason there are a few hummingbirds in the novel? 
""... You see, Mr. Haze, Beardsley School does not believe in bees and blossoms, and storks and love birds, but it does believe very strongly in preparing its students for mutually satisfactory mating and successful child rearing..."" (ch.11)
Everyone knows the term. I always thought of love birds as a term, and didn't know a lovebird's a kind of small parrot. But I've digressed. 
"Around Christmas she caught a bad chill and was examined by a friend of Miss Lester, a Dr. Ilse Tristramson (hi, Ilse, you were a dear, uninquisitive soul, and you touched my dove very gently)." (ch.12)
Again, Nabokov's not fond of symbols, but I don't believe he didn't have in mind the association of doves with innocence. 
"She bared her teeth and after her adorable school-girl fashioned, leaned forward, and away she sped, my bird." (ch.14)
"I was now glad I had [the gun] with me — and even more glad that I had learned to use it two years before, in the pine forest around my and Charlotte’s glass lake. Farlow, with whom I had roamed those remote woods, was an admirable marksman, and with his .38 actually managed to hit a hummingbird, though I must say not much of it could be retrieved for proof — only a little iridescent fluff." (ch.17)
Humbird hits a hummingbird. 
In chapter 20, Beardsley is incorrectly spelt as Birdsley, twice; which Humbert Humbert mentions again in chapter 22. 
I'm not sure if it has meaning, or Nabokov's just playing with us. 
"This was Tuesday, and Wednesday or Thursday, splendidly reacting like the darling she was to some “serum” (sparrow’s sperm or dugong’s dung), she was much better, and the doctor said that in a couple of days she would be “skipping” again." (ch.22)
I'm not sure what that means. 
 "... And another nurse whom I never identified, and the village idiot who carted cots and coffins into the elevator, and the idiotic green love birds in a cage in the waiting room — all were in the plot, the sordid plot." (ibid.)
"No doubt, I was a little delirious — and on the following day I was still a vibration rather than a solid, for when I looked out the bathroom window at the adjacent lawn, I saw Dolly’s beautiful young bicycle propped up there on its support, the graceful front wheel looking away from me, as it always did, and a sparrow perched on the saddle — but it was the landlady’s bike, and smiling a little, and shaking my poor head over my fond fancies, I tottered back to my bed, and lay as quiet as a saint —..." (ibid.)
Another sparrow. 
"Elphinstone was, and I hope still is, a very cute little town. [...] Very amusing: at one gravel-groaning sharp turn I sideswiped a parked car but said to myself telestically — and, telepathically (I hoped), to its gesticulating owner — that I would return later, address Bird School, Bird, New Bird, the gin kept my heart alive but bemazed my brain, and after some lapses and losses common to dream sequences, I found myself in the reception room, trying to beat up the doctor, and roaring at people under chairs, and clamoring for Mary who luckily for her was not there..." (ibid.)
That is when Humbert Humbert realises Lo has gone. 
"The Squirl and his Squirrel, the Rabs and their Rabbits
Have certain obscure and peculiar habits.
Male hummingbirds make the most exquisite rockets.
The snake when he walks holds his hands in his pockets…" (ch.25)
I know nothing about hummingbirds to know what they symbolise. 
"... Wine, wine, wine, quipped the author of Dark Age who refused to be photographed, may suit a Persian bubble bird, but I say give me rain, rain, rain on the shingle roof for roses and inspiration every time..." (ch.26)
What is a Persian bubble bird? 
"A thunderstorm accompanied me most of the way back to Grimm Road, but when I reached Pavor Manor, the sun was visible again, burning like a man, and the birds screamed in the drenched and steaming trees." (ch.35)
That's a haunting image. 

This is even worse than my previous post on the dogs in Lolita. I've only picked up on a recurrent motif, without knowing what it means. 

Monday 15 May 2017

The dogs in Lolita [updated]

Rereading Lolita, I struggle to find something to write about. This time I catch many allusions missed last time- references to R. L. Stevenson, Flaubert, Joyce, Freud, Lewis Carroll, etc. but almost everything I notice is in the annotations.
Then I notice that dogs are everywhere in Lolita.

"I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright would of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces." (P.1, ch.2)
"Knowing me by now, the reader can easily imagine how dusty and hot I got, trying to catch a glimpse of nymphets (alas, always remote) playing in Central Park, and how repulsed I was by the glitter of deodorized career girls that a gay dog in one of the offices kept unloading upon me." (ch.9)
"Speaking of sharp turns: we almost ran over a meddlesome suburban dog (one of those who like in wait for cars) as we swerved into Lawn Street." (ch.10)
Introduction of an important factor- easily missed the 1st time, noticed in rereading.
"It was crowded with dandelions, and a cursed dog — I loathe dogs — had defiled the flat stones where a sundial had once stood." (ch.17)
Ah, Humbert Humbert hates dogs.
"The fool dog of the prosperous junk dealer next door ran after a blue car — not Charlotte’s." (ibid.)
The same dog?
"A station wagon popped out of the leafy shade of the avenue, dragging some of it on its roof before the shadows snapped, and swung by at an idiotic pace, the sweatshirted driver roof — holding with his left hand and the junkman’s dog tearing alongside." (ibid.)
"An unidentified bearded six-footer, who, it was later conjectured, had been the lady’s secret lover, walked up to her in a crowded street, soon after her marriage to Colonel Lacour, and mortally stabbed her in the back, three times, while the Colonel, a small bulldog of a man, hung onto the murderer’s arm." (ch.20)
Comparison. Some men in the book look like pigs. Humbert Humbert's a few times compared to apes, and Lo, to monkeys. 
"We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet." (ibid.)
The man who hates dogs calls himself a dog-eyed gentleman.
"That day John had to see a customer, and Jean had to feed her dogs, and so I was to be deprived temporarily of my friends’ company." (ch.23)
Jean has dogs.
"Speaking of busybodies, I had another visitor — friend Beale, the fellow who eliminated my wife. Stodgy and solemn, looking like a kind of assistant executioner, with his bulldog jowls, small black eyes, thickly rimmed glasses and conspicuous nostrils, he was ushered in by John who then left us, closing the door upon us, with the utmost tact." (ibid.)
A dog-like man and a dog. 
"Very clearly and conclusively, this route came into contact with a boldly traced sinuous line representing two consecutive swerves — one which the Beale car made to avoid the Junk dog (dog not shown), and the second, a kind of exaggerated continuation of the first, meant to avert the tragedy." (ibid.)
Does Charlotte die because of a dog, or a "dog-eyed gentleman"?
"With his hummingbird pencil deftly and delicately flying from one point to another, Frederick demonstrated his absolute innocence and the recklessness of my wife: while he was in the act of avoiding the dog, she had slipped on the freshly watered asphalt and plunged forward whereas she should have flung herself not forward but backward (Fred showed how by a jerk of his padded shoulder)." (ibid.)
Beale avoids the dog and runs over Charlotte. Charlotte dies like a stray dog.
"Within the intricacies of the pattern (hurrying housewife, slippery pavement, a pest of a dog, steep grade, big car, baboon at its wheel), I could dimly distinguish my own vile contribution." (ibid.)
That's the question I had earlier.
"But every once in a while I have to remind the reader of my appearance much as a professional novelist, who has given a character of his some mannerism or a dog, has to go on producing that dog or that mannerism every time the character crops up in the course of the book." (ch.24)
He's about to say he's attractive.
"Lolita sank down on her haunches to caress a pale-faced, blue-freckled, blackeared cocker spaniel swooning on the floral carpet under her hand—as who would not, my heart — while I cleared my throat through the throng to the desk." (ch.27) 
Unlike Humbert Humbert, Lo likes dogs.
"The pink old fellow peered good-naturedly at Lo—still squatting, listening in profile, lips parted, to what the dog’s mistress, an ancient lady swathed in violet veils, was telling her from the depths of a cretonne easy chair." (ibid.) 
Quilty later buys her a cocker spaniel.   
"A key (342!) was half-shown to me (magician showing object he is about to palm) — and handed over to Uncle Tom. Lo, leaving the dog as she would leave me some day, rose from her haunches; a raindrop fell on Charlotte’s grave; a handsome young Negress slipped open the elevator door, and the doomed child went in followed by her throatclearing father and crayfish Tom with the bags." (ibid.)
I like that clause: "leaving the dog as she would leave me some day".
"For obvious reasons, I preferred my house to his for the games of chess we had two or three times weekly. He looked like some old battered idol as he sat with his pudgy hands in his lap and stared at the board as if it were a corpse. Wheezing he would mediate for ten minutes — then make a losing move. Or the good man, after even more thought, might utter: Au roi! with a slow old-dog woof that had a gargling sound at the back of it which made his jowls wabble; and then he would lift his circumflex eyebrows with a deep sigh as I pointed out to him that he was in check himself." (P.2, ch.6)
Gaston's also compared to a dog.
"Before their lighted porch Miss Lester was promenading Miss Fabian’s dropsical dackel. " (ch.14)
A dachshund. A dachshund is a hot dog, a sausage dog as I sometimes call it. Mentioned a few times are hot-dog stands. 
"Miss Lester’s finely groomed hand held a porch-door open for a waddling old dog qui prenait son temps." (ibid.)
I wonder what's up with "finely groomed hand". 
"One could make out an elf-like girl on an insect-like bicycle, and a dog, a bit too large proportionately, all as clear as those pilgrims and mules winding up wax-pale roads in old paintings with blue hills and red little people. I have the European urge to use my feet when a drive can be dispensed with, so I leisurely walked down, eventually meeting the cyclist — a plain plump girl with pigtails, followed by a huge St. Bernard dog with orbits like pansies. " (ch.16)
This, I suppose, is a dog I should remember. 
"On the grass expanse opposite, in the many-limbed shade of luxuriant trees, the familiar St. Bernard dog was guarding his mistress’ bicycle..." (ibid.)
Or just a red herring. 
"The necessity of being constantly on the lookout for his little mustache and open shirt — or for his baldish pate and broad shoulders — led me to a profound study of all cars on the road — behind, before, alongside, coming, going, every vehicle under the dancing sun: the quiet vacationist’s automobile with the box of Tender-Touch tissues in the back window; the recklessly speeding jalopy full of pale children with a shaggy dog’s head protruding, and a crumpled mudguard; the bachelor’s tudor sedan crowded with suits on hangers; the huge fat house trailer weaving in front, immune to the Indian file of fury boiling behind it; the car with the young female passenger politely perched in the middle of the front seat to be closer to the young male driver; the car carrying on its roof a red boat bottom up…" (ch.19)
"Oh Lolita! There she was playing with a damned dog, not me. The animal, a terrier of sorts, was losing and snapping up again and adjusting between his jaws a wet little red ball; he took rapid chords with his front paws on the resilient turf, and then would bounce away. [...] Even the dog seemed puzzled by the extravagance of her reactions." (ch.21)
Now I'm thinking about all the variety of dogs that pop up in Lolita
"And as if the sun had gone out of the game, Lo slackened and slowly got up ignoring the ball that the terrier placed before her. Who can say what heartbreaks are caused in a dog by our discontinuing a romp?" (ibid.)
That is such a sad line. 
"At one point, I was rather dreadfully rude to a very young and very cheeky nurse with overdeveloped gluteal parts and blazing black eyes — of Basque descent, as I learned. Her father was an imported shepherd, a trainer of sheep dogs." (ch.22)
Another kind. Why does a man who hates dogs know so much about dog breeds? 
"A bright voice informed me that yes, everything was fine, my daughter had checked out the day before, around two, her uncle, Mr. Gustave, had called for her with a cocker spaniel pup and a smile for everyone, and a black Caddy Lack, and had paid Dolly’s bill in cash, and told them to tell me I should not worry, and keep warm, they were at Grandpa’sranch as agreed." (ibid.)
That one I mentioned earlier. 
"The Enchanted Hunters
All legal beverages" (ch.26)
Reminiscent of the line "Children welcomed, pets allowed" at some other hotel. 
"I also wondered if a hunter, enchanted or otherwise, would not need a pointer more than a pew, and with a spasm of pain I recalled a scene worthy of a great artist: petite nymphe accroupie; but that silky cocker spaniel had perhaps been a baptized one." (ibid.) 
However, the rule is violated. 
"My fancy was both Proustianized and Procrusteanized; for that particular morning, late in September 1952, as I had come down to grope for my mail, the dapper and bilious janitor with whom I was on execrable terms started to complain that a man who had seen Rita home recently had been “sick like a dog” on the front steps." (ch.27)
"I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader’s mind. No matter how many times we reopen “King Lear,” never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. " (ibid.)
No lapdogs in King Lear, sir. 
"I got out of the car and slammed its door. How matter-of-fact, how square that slam sounded in the void of the sunless day! Woof, commented the dog perfunctorily. I pressed the bell button, it vibrated through my whole system. Personne. Je resonne. Repersonne. From what depth this re-nonsense? Woof, said the dog. A rush and a shuffle, and woosh-woof went the door." (ch.29)
Lo has a dog, of course. 
"My teeth chattered like an idiot’s. “No, you stay out” (to the dog). She closed the door and followed me and her belly into the dollhouse parlor." (ibid.)
"She and the dog saw me off." (ibid.)
I don't know why I find this line so sad. 
"“At this rate we’ll be millionnaires next,” she said to the ecstatic dog." (ibid.)
Poor Lo. 
"Then, as I drove away, I heard her shout in a vibrant voice to her Dick; and the dog started to lope alongside my car like a fat dolphin, but he was too heavy and old, and very soon gave up." (ibid.)
Why is a dog compared to a fat dolphin? 
"... Suddenly, as Avis clung to her father’s neck and ear while, with a casual arm, the man enveloped his lumpy and large offspring, I saw Lolita’s smile lose all its light and become a frozen little shadow of itself, and the fruit knife slipped off the table and struck her with its silver handle a freak blow on the ankle which made her gasp, and crouch head forward, and then, jumping on one leg, her face awful with the preparatory grimace which children hold till the tears gush, she was gone — to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing." (ch.32)
Avis is Avis Chapman, 1 of her female friends. Look at that line "Lolita had nothing". 
"Closed were the white shutters of the Junk mansion, and somebody had attached a found black velvet hair ribbon to the white FOR SALE sign which was leaning toward the sidewalk. No dog barked. No gardener telephoned. " (ch.33)
The desolation. 
(my emphasis) 

Update on 17/5: 
I forgot the occasions when he wrote "bitch" or "bitches". 

Tuesday 9 May 2017

The complexity of Lolita and Nabokov’s moral intention

1/ Consider Lolita:
- It is narrated not by Lo, but by Humbert Humbert;
- who is manipulative and extremely charming, with his intelligence, intellect, gift for language and wordplay, and sense of humour;
- And above all, Lo is not “pure”.
Imagine a Lolita told by Lo, or a Lolita in which Lo is a pure, innocent child. That would have been a lot easier—the victim is clear. Instead, Nabokov went for something a lot more complex and tricky and not so black and white. Some readers, apparently not understanding literature, think that because Lolita is narrated by the paedophile, it must either be a child sexual abuse manual or a condonation and justification of it. Some readers, perhaps not aware of what a genius writer is capable of, think that because Humbert Humbert feels so real and convincing, it must be autobiographical. And then there are readers who, confused in matters of morality, fall for the trap and allow themselves to be manipulated by Humbert Humbert—a friend of mine, for instance, has just said that maybe Lo wants to be a victim, like she’s “asking for it”.
Despite Nabokov’s claim that Lolita “has no moral in tow”, it is not devoid of moral intention.
Lo is a victim.
She is 12.
That Lo is sexually precocious—a nymphet, is beside the point.
That she is far from “pure” is beside the point.
That she has a crush on Humbert Humbert and jokes around with him is beside the point.
A man in his late 30s cannot say about a 12-year-old “But she seduced me!” as a defence. Worse, he’s in the position of a stepfather, and a guardian. Even though the story is seen from the point of view of Humbert Humbert and Lo is hardly there, now and then Nabokov slips in some details to show that Lo is alone and helpless, that she is suffering, that she doesn’t want to be with Humbert Humbert. The rapist himself has remorse. In the last meeting, he knows that he broke her life. He also writes “Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.” 
Humbert Humbert is a paedophile, an abductor, a manipulator, a child sexual abuser—he is a rapist. Period.

2/ Another friend of mine says that some girls are much more mature than their age. I have no idea what that even means. Lo is 12.
That reminds of another question: imagine that Lo is 15 when meeting Humbert Humbert the 1st time. The matter would be less clear, on the surface. In France, Denmark, Sweden and some other countries today, 15 is the age of consent. However, Humbert Humbert would no longer be a paedophile but that doesn’t change the facts of the case: he abducts, deceives, manipulates, controls and rapes Lo.

3/ Can we and should we forgive Humbert Humbert? 
This is not an easy question to answer. Nabokov is so often praised for language, style, wordplay, sensory descriptions, patterns, hidden games and allusions that people “forget” his understanding of psychology and genius for characterisation. Nothing is black and white in Lolita, and the characters are complex and multifaceted. Take Charlotte Haze. We dislike her for her vulgarity, her shallowness and thoughtlessness; then the next minute we pity her for having delusions and being deceived by Humbert Humbert; then even though it’s brutal of him to speak of her as fat Haze and all that, it’s hard to like her when she’s such a careless, selfish and insensitive mother who is sometimes just mean; then again we feel sorry for her when knowing about the dead boy and getting a glimpse of her sorrows; then the next minute we see her being harsh and mean to Lo; etc. And in the end comes the painful moment when Charlotte discovers the diary  and sees all illusions shattered and then gets killed by a car. I strongly dislike her as a mother, but at the same time deeply pity her. 
It’s a lot more complicated with Humbert Humbert. He mocks and is contemptuous of almost everyone. He lies and manipulates people—Charlotte Haze, psychiatrists, John and Jean, Shirley Holmes (at Camp Q), Lo, etc. and also the reader. He marries a woman for whom he has neither feelings nor respect, to be close to her prepubescent daughter, seeking the role of stepfather and then guardian with the sole intent of abusing it. He lies to, abducts, manipulates, controls and abuses Lo sexually and emotionally. He is a paedophile and child rapist—that is clear. And yet, the book is a confession. Humbert Humbert is a villain deeply aware of his own villainy. He knows what he has done—that he is a monster and has broken Lo’s life. He knows that nothing he does can change the past, but has remorse and seeks to do something for her at last. The book is a public confession, an examination of everything he has done, and an attempt to restore life to Lo as a way of atonement. 
Here is a much better post about the same subject—D. G. Myers on Lolita as the enactment of moral experience (and why he called it the greatest novel ever written in English). 
So can and should we forgive Humbert Humbert? Well, I don’t really know. 

Saturday 6 May 2017

Nabokov on colours

1/ Unlike last time (which was 5 years ago, also in May), the Lolita I’m reading at the moment is The Annotated Lolita, which is very helpful. 
This is Nabokov’s note to Alfred Appel, Jr. (the annotator) on symbols and colours: 
“There exist novelists and poets, and ecclesiastic writers, who deliberately use color terms, or numbers, in a strictly symbolic sense. The type of writer I am, half-painter, half-naturalist, finds the use of symbols hateful because it substitutes a dead general idea for a live specific impression. I am therefore puzzled and distressed by the significance you lend to the general idea of “red” in my book. When the intellect limits itself to the general notion, or primitive notion, of a certain color it deprives the senses of its shades. In different languages different colors were used in a general sense before shades were distinguished. (In French, for example, the “redness” of hair is now expressed by “roux” meaning rufous, or russet, or fulvous with a reddish cast). For me the shades, or rather colors, of, say, a fox, a ruby, a carrot, a pink rose, a dark cherry, a flushed cheek, are as different as blue is from green or the royal purple of blood (Fr. “pourpre”) from the English sense of violet things, to discriminate between visual shades as the author does, and not to lump them under such arbitrary labels as “red” (using it, moreover, as a sexual symbol, though actually the dominant shades in males are mauve—to bright blue, in certain monkeys)…. Roses may be white, and even black-red. Only cartoonists, having three colors as their disposal, use red for hair, cheek and blood.” 

2/ That reminds me of a passage in his Lectures on Russian Literature

“The difference between human vision and the image perceived by the faceted eye of an insect may be compared with the difference between a half-tone block made with the very finest screen and the corresponding picture as represented by the very coarse screening used in common newspaper pictorial reproduction. The same comparison holds good between the way Gogol saw things and the way average readers and average writers see things. Before his and Pushkin's advent Russian literature was purblind. What form it perceived was an outline directed by reason: it did not see color for itself but merely used the hackneyed combinations of blind noun and dog-like adjective that Europe had inherited from the ancients. The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green, the eyes of beauty black, the clouds grey, and so on. It was Gogol (and after him Lermontov and Tolstoy) who first saw yellow and violet at all. That the sky could be pale green at sunrise, or the snow a rich blue on a cloudless day, would have sounded like heretical nonsense to your so-called "classical" writer, accustomed as he was to the rigid conventional color-schemes of the Eighteenth Century French school of literature. Thus the development of the art of description throughout the centuries may be profitably treated in terms of vision, the faceted eye becoming a unified and prodigiously complex organ and the dead dim "accepted colors" (in the sense of "idees recues") yielding gradually their subtle shades and allowing new wonders of application. I doubt whether any writer, and certainly not in Russia, had ever noticed before, to give the most striking instance, the moving pattern of light and shade on the ground under trees or the tricks of color played by sunlight with leaves. The following description of Plyushkin's garden in Dead Souls shocked Russian readers in much the same way as Manet did the bewhiskered philistines of his day...”
Nabokov teaches you how to see things, but it’s not only about colours—he teaches you to really see things, to get rid of clichés and general notions, to see nuances and shades and the individual instead of thinking in general terms and categories.