The moon is a thief, and steals her pale fire from the sun. So says Shakespeare, and so Nabokov has named one of his books, a novel, it’s called. So, the moon’s light is not its own; the author’s story is not his invention, but is partly a biography; artists steal tales, people invent false identities, one story reflects, repeats, alludes to another; is anything what it seems? So it goes with Nabokov, but first things first.
Lolita has become synonymous with sleazy, nymphomaniac sex, a fact which seemed to disgust and amuse VN in his lifetime. Before that book, and the subsequent Kubrick adaptation of it, he was a “niche” author, known to few, but Lol made him world famous. The story of another immigrant from the Old World, another madman, another unreliable narrator with some murderous passions to control.
Madmen with revolvers seem to crop up in VN’s work a lot – might have something to do with the fact that his father was killed by some fanatical monarchists who shot the wrong man – it would almost be funny if it weren’t true. Of course, in his books, it is almost funny…and we wince when we realize what we are laughing at.
The “hero” Humbert is in love with Lolita, or he thinks he is. How else can he justify raping and kidnapping her? He takes her on a road trip through America, a landscape transformed by the deranged, ironic, brilliant point of view of the disturbed narrator. We, the readers, cannot help laughing at Humbert, and with him – he’s so witty when he puts down American pop culture – his use of language is dazzling. In the end, a shootout. He addresses his readers, his jury, seeking to excuse himself – “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury…” Is he mocking Dostoyevsky here?
Pale Fire tells the story of an American poet and how his masterwork came to be written, or how it should have been written if he had been listening to his close friend who was feeding him such glorious and romantic ideas, and how this friend has come to publish this poem in a book that is overwhelmed with his own obsessive “commentary” on it. Yes, there is a shootout in the end of this one too, the wrong man is killed, a madman fires the gun. (A madman tells the story.) The blizzard of truths, half-truths, non-truths, beautifiul lies and delusions is so thick in this book, such a tightly woven fabric of biography, memory, fantasy, invention, satire, and pathos that you feel dizzy when you finish it. “What was that?!” That’s what a friend asked me about another Nabokovian tour de force, Invitation to a Beheading, after he finished it, and it could just as well have been Pale Fire he was asking about.
At the core of these two books is terrible sadness, even more poignant and painful to us because we see it in glimpses, in between the flashes of idiocy and comedy that inundate us as we move through the plot. It’s like meeting an attractive person at a party, chatting a while, being a little dazzled, then, later, glancing over and noticing him or her sobbing alone in a corner. What was going on? Did I miss something? You never know with people, what their stories are.
Lolita, the little nymph, the vixen, the sexpot – she’s a young girl with no father, raped and stolen away when her mother dies. Humbert keeps her under his thumb by scaring her to death with fictions about what will happen if she tries to escape, but in the end, she does. How do we allow ourselves to be complicit in his crime by not taking his book – so charming, witty, almost believable – and throwing it across the room? How can we be blind to what is really going on here?! And in Pale Fire, we have the pathetic delusions of the mad commentator on John Slade’s poem, and we have the sadness of the poem itself – the poem that we can almost forget about as we read the “novel.” The story of a man, his wife, and their homely daughter, and what happens to her.
Another of VN’s characters, Pnin, in the novel of the same name, is a hapless refugee in America, an academic, rather bumbling. He never feels comfortable in his new home, his new culture, his new language, despite his considerable intelligence. People find him amusing, sometimes laughing at him openly. Once or twice, VN tells us his thoughts as they stray to a loved one who died, years ago, in a gas chamber or shot at the edge of a ditch, somewhere in the empire of the Reich. When you read that, your breath is taken away, as if by a full body blow.
Nabokov had a very particular view of art and what it should be. He was not shy about trashing other authors, especially dead ones who were regarded as “classics.” He wasn’t interested in writing books of “illustrated ideas,” as he contemptuously referred to the works of George Orwell. The idea of “identifying” with a fictional protagonist was, he said, “adolescent.” His is not the only valid notion of art, though he may have talked as though it were, but he thought that art should change the way the reader sees the world, and his can.