Last thoughts on Lolita

Kerem asked me if I ALWAYS say that we should have/could have done more…. Well, yes, I do. And then I think the place where YOU come to a kind of personal “reading” of our novels is in the papers. I think with The Defense and Invitation you have done that quite successfully–you have taken our digressive discussions and then hammered out a single idea that works as an interpretation of the novel itself.

But it’s also worthwhile to summarize what we DID do with Lolita this semester. And to think about what we MIGHT have done more. Please comment and add your two cents to my list!

What we DID do…

  • We talked about the GENRE of the book. And about all the different generic impulses (confession, a twisted novel of adultery/honeymoon story, medical case history, detective story, road novel, quasi-religious narrative, pop culture compendium, etc.)
  • In that same vein, we talked about VOICES. In close reading passages, we did, in fact, notice how fragments of popular discourse, educational messages, advertisements, etc. suddenly enter the narrative.
  • We talked a bit about POETRY. The opening is so obviously a work of poetry. (At least one of you drew a connection between this opening and the “dactylic” passage in “Cloud, Castle, Lake.” What we didn’t talk about (see below) is the way in which poetry works intertextually in the book (with the brief exception of Poe’s “Annabel Lee”).
  • We talked about the odd parentheticals that seem to remove agency from the narrative and are left hanging for us to make of them what we will.
  • We talked about a kind of large-scale NARRATIVE DOUBLING. There is HH narrating, but then there is a whole layer of the book that he doesn’t seem to be in control of (Quilty, Lolita’s double life, etc.) There is some similarity here to “The Vane Sisters,” and I don’t think it’s an accident that VN wrote that story around the same time. Remember that in the letter to his editor he makes some comment about how often one may actually use such a trick. Perhaps that’s a hint that that same trick is at work in Lolita?
  • We discussed, to a large extent, the relation of the PLOT to the FORM of the book. What is the relation of moral reading to aesthetic reading? I wish to insist that both are possible, but that in this book the relationship between the two can never be resolved in a satisfying matter. Indeed, this is what I personally think makes this novel so interesting.
  • We talked about how the reader is drawn into identifying with both HH and Lolita and the problems that raises (including traumatic responses). And how we should relate that to Nabokov’s “prohibition” of identification (in GRGW, but also in the texture of this novel itself)?
  • We talked about the ways in which American society and culture are complicit in what HH is able to do to Lolita.
  • We talked about the three big taboos (not only American, but especially American) of sex, race, and religion (see “On a Book Entitled Lolita”).
  • We hinted (or I hinted) at the way our own reaction in some way performs the “prudity” of American culture that Nabokov is exposing. We have a moral impulse that is really challenged and provoked by the novel.

What we DIDN’T do

  • In a broad sense, I don’t think we read the text closely enough. We could have looked at many more passages and how they work. What is the “aesthetic” texture of the novel?
  • We did not work very much at all on INTERTEXTUALITY. What is this book doing with literature that came before it?
  • In this vein, I really wish we had done more with the play. With the Enchanted Hunters, with the ending of the book. With Shakespeare, especially.
  • We didn’t talk enough about the issue of Nabokov writing in English (his own personal “tragedy,” as he writes in “On a Book Entitled Lolita”). Stuart drew my attention to an article by Anna Morlan that addresses this matter along with the question of “autobiography” in Lolita. The piece reached me too late for me to assign it or read it carefully before class. I will post it (along with a dissertation Murray sent me on Nabokov and Poe ) on Sakai, if you are interested.

2 thoughts on “Last thoughts on Lolita

  1. I agree with those areas you mention that could use more inspiration. Particularly, intertextuality, the ending of the novel, and Shakespeare. I was disappointed that we didn’t cover Shakespeare’s Bawdy.

    Thanks for offering to post the dissertation I sent. I just wanted to mention that although I found the whole dissertation interesting, I was Googling “Poe and Lolita” when it came up on the search. For that reason, I was more enthusiastic about the second and third chapters on “Poe and Lolita,” and “Lolita and Postmodernism,” as opposed to the first part focusing on “Pedophilia and Lolita.”

  2. I think that we also did a very fair job of investigating the relationship between old Europe/new America as a complicated thematic relation that borders on parody and can be interpreted in many different ways.

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