6 NOVEMBER 1959, Page 23


She Was a Child and I Was a Child

By KINGSLEY AMIS EW books published in this country since the if King James Bible can have set up more eager expectation, than Lolita,* nor, on the other hand, can any work have been much better known in advance to its potential audience. The interest of this first British issue, indeed, is likely to be less in what the thing is actually like—you and I had already got hold of it somehow, hadn't we?—than in what 'they' will say about it. 'They' in this case covers a far wider spectrum than usual, all the Way from the inevitable big-review-plus-leader- plus-interminable-correspondence in The Times Literary Supplement to the stern clashes- of per- sonality and taste round the local Boots counter; and somewhere in the middle will come Richard Hoggart, Cassandra, Lord Montgomery, two or three bishops, Dame Edith Sitwell. the chairman of the Bournemouth East Conservative Associa- tion, Dr. Bronowski, Professor Ayer, John O'London, Mr. Bevan and every last one of the couple of hundred thousand people in Britain who have, or can scrounge, access to some public medium. It is encouraging to see all this concern for a book of serious literary pretension, even if some of the concern, while serious enough, is not literary in the way we ordinarily think of it. One Would be .even more encouraged if the book in question were not so thoroughly bad in both senses : bad as a work of art, that is, and morally bad—though certainly not obscene or porno- graphic.

At that last qualification I suspect I shall lose. quite a number of my readers, even if they are Spectator readers—though I cannot see anything wrong in enjoying the kind of hot book that so many acquirers of Lolita will have found to their chagrin that it is not. But I take it as fairly prob- able that these are the, kind of people who kept the book at the top of the American best-seller lists week after week, and who will doubtless do the same or better over here. Perception of this probability, together with an understandable desire to protect serious literature from the assaults of official and unofficial wowsers, has had its share in evoking the wild hosannas of praise for Lolita that have been ringing round the civilised world. As things are, it is not enough that such a book should be declared non-obscene in the eyes of any reasonable person; it must be declared great as Well if it is to be quite safe. The issue is further complicated by the fact that what really offends the wowsers is not just presumptive obscenity, but this in combination with an insufficiently reverent attitude in sexual matters. Thus in the case of The Philanderer, an instructive semi-precedent to that of Lolita, what got the thing into the courts was the theme of philandering as such, rather than any corruptive poWer imaginable as residing in individual passages and expressions. Actually there can have been few books of overtly sexual content written out of stronger moral conviction

1.01 . By Vladimir Nabokov. (Weidenfeld and Niculson, 21s,) or in purer terms (or with duller impact). If only the hero had been properly 'in love,' his bedroom antics could have been detailed down to the last twitch without anyone taking much notice.

Lolita, accordingly, reaches the British public preceded by a sort of creeping barrage of critical acclaim : I expect great things from the jacket, which I have not yet seen. Meanwhile, I note a nine-page appendix in which thirty-one critics from nine countries lire off their commendatory salvoes. Only a few of these are content to assert the mere inoffensiveness of the work; the majority, from Lord Boothby via Heikki Brotherus in the Finnish Sounten Kuwakhti down to Dorothy Parker, go on to extol its high moral seriousness and /or (usually and) its outstanding literary merits: distinguished--beauty--.-beauty—brilliant -- great — major — masterpiece = power =great —beautiful—beautiful—masterpiece. That ought to be enough to roll up both IlankS of any local bench or libraries committee of even the highest wowser morale, not to speak of more elevated powers, and this is fine as far as it. goes. But it would be a pity if all the `masterpiece'' stuff got treated:seriously, especially in view of the critical direction it takes. Beauty and beautiful and their synonyms set the tone here, and there is much talk of style. The long battle against style still hangs in the balance, and a reverse over Lolita could be damaging.

,Style, a personal style, a distinguished style, usually turns out in practice to mean a high idiosyncratic noise-level in the writing, with plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax and diction : Donne, Pater, Virginia Woolf. There is, however, a good deal of nostalgia for style nowa- days among people of oldster age-group or literary training: it shows in snorting accusations of grace- lessness levelled against some younger novelists and merges into the hankering for 'experiment' that still dies hard. Those interested will have noticed a connection here with that yearning for uplift, or rich man's Billy Graham, which masquerades as reasoned antipathy to modern British philosophy. If we have not got Kant or Nietzsche, at least we have Colin Wilson. And if we have not got Ruskin or Carlyle, at least we have Nabokov She adored brilliant water and was a remark-, ably smart diver. Comfortably robed, I would settle down in the rich post-meridian shade after my own demure dip, and there I would sit, with a dummy book or-a bag of bonbons, or both, or nothing but my tingling glands, and watch her gambol, rubber-capped, bepearled, smoothly tanned, as glad as an ad, in her trim-fitted satin pants and shirred bra. 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; and today, putting my hand on my ailing heart, I really do not think that any of them ever surpassed her in desirability, or if they did, it was so two or three times at the most, in a certain light, with certain perfumes blended in the air—once in the hopeless case of a pale Spanish child, the daughter of a heavy-jawed nobleman, and another time—mais je divague.

No extract, however, could do justice to the sus- tained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question, French, Latin, anent, perchance, would fain, for the nonce—here is style and no mistake. One will be told, of course, that this is the 'whole point,' that this. is the hero, Humbert Humbert, talking in his own person, not the author; and that what we are getting is 'characterisation.' All right; but it seems ill-advised to characterise logo- mania by making it talk 120,000 words at us, and a glance at Nabokov's last novel, Pnin, which is not written in the first person, establishes that this is Nabokov talking (there is non-stylistic evidence too). The development of this émigré's euphuism is a likely consequence of Nabokov's having had to abandon his natural idiom, as he puts it, his 'untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac- tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.' This, which enacts the problem with characteristic tricksy indirection, also implies its solution as the laborious confection of equivalent apparatuses in the adoptive language : the whole farrago of imagery, archaism, etc., which cannot strike even the most finely tuned foreign ear as it strikes that of the native English-speaker. The end product sadly invokes a Charles Atlas muscle-man of language as opposed to the.healthy and useful adult.

We know well enough that every style has a way of infiltrating what is being presented, so that, offered as the vehicle of Humbert's soliloquy, this style is involved with the entire moral tenor of the book. Thus Humbert is not only decadently sophisticated and tortuously imaginative and self- regardirigly detached, he is also all of these things as he describes his seduction of the twelve-year- old Lolita and his long history of cohabitation with her. All this is arguably Humbert himself, and so is his account, 'delightfully witty' in implication, of his murder of a rival; but the many totally incidental cruelties—the bloody car wreck by the roadside that brings into view the kind of shoe Lolita covets, the wounding of a squirrel, apparently just for fun—bring the author into consideration as well, and I really don't care which of them is being wonderfully mature and devastat- ing when Lolita's mother (recently Humbert's wife) is run over and killed :

I should explain . . . that the fellow with the glasses was Frederick Beale, Jr., driver of the Packard; that his 79-year-old father, whom the nurse had just watered on the green bank where he lay—a banked banker so to speak—was not in a dead faint, but was comfortably and methodi- cally recovering from a mild heart attack or its possibility; and, finally, that the laprobe on the sidewalk (where she had so often pointed out to me with disapproval the crooked green cracks) concealed the mangled remains of Charlotte Humbert, who had been knocked down and dragged several feet by the Beale car as she was hurrying across the street. . . Three doc- tors . . . presently arrived on the scene and took over. The widower, a man of exceptional self- control, neither wept nor raved. He staggered a bit, that he did; but he opened his mouth only to impart such information or issue such directions as were strictly necessary in connection with the identification, examination and disposal of a dead

woman, the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and blood.

That's the boy, Humbert I Nabokov : alliterative to the last.

There comes a point where the atrophy of moral sense, evident throughout this book, finally leads to dullness, fatuity and unreality. Humbert's

for Lolita is a matter of the senses, even of the membranes; his moments of remorse are few, brief and unconvincing; it never really occurs to him. to ask himself just what the hell he thinks he is up to. There is plenty of self-absorption around us, heaven knows, but not enough on this scale to be Worth writing about ft length, just as the mad are much less interesting than the sane. And—here again the author heaves into view—the human circuit of Lolita, for all its geographical sweep, i§ suffocatingly narrow : the murderee is Humbert Over again, Humbert's old queer pal is Humbert and unnecessary, Lolita's mother talks like Hum- bert, writes letters in Humbert's style, so does Lolita's girl-chum—the whole affair is Humbert gleefully meditating about Lolita, looking tip to be ever 'so European about sonic American thing, then gleefully meditating again. There is, further, an'appalling poverty of incident and even of nar- rative: the central episode of the book, a long illicit motel-tour round the States, is related in catalogue, without scenes, as near as possible with- Out din the singling-out of individual occasions; Meditation again, an exercise in the frequentative imperfect tense—there's one you missed; Nabokov /Humbert boy. The only success of the .book is' the portrait of tojita herself. I have rarely seen the external atubience of a character so marvellously realised' -IMO yet there is seldom more than the necessary Undertone of senstpOity. Here: she is playing tennis :

. . . the white,wide litthi-bo% shorts, the slender waist, the apricot - midriff, the white breast... kerchief whose ribbons went up and encircled her neck to end behind in a dangling knot leaving bare her gaspingly young and adorable apricot shoulder blades with that pubescence and those lovely gentle bones, and the smooth, downward- tapering back. Her cap had a white peak.. .

She would wait and relax for a bar or two of white-lined time before going into the act of serving, and often bounced the ball once or twice, or pawed the ground a little, always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home.

The pity is that Humbert could not care less about the darkness of her life at home, and although the

teenage vulgarity of Lolita's behaviour is caught with an equal precision he could not care less either about what she was really like. She is a `portrait' in a very full sense, devotedly watched and listened to but never conversed with, the object of desire but never of curiosity. What else did she do in Humbert's presence but play tennis and eat sundaes and go to bed with him? What did they talk about? What did they actually get up to?

Apart from a few sentences of elegant hot-book euphemism—reminding us that the work first saw the light under the imprint of the Olympia Press,

Paris—we are not even told that. Do not mis- understand me if I say that one of the troubles with Lolita is that, so far from being too porno- graphic, it is not pornographic enough.

As well as mom/ and beautiful, the book is also held to be funny, often devastatingly so, and satirical. As kir the //dirty part, all that registered

with me were a few passages where irritation caused Humbert to drop the old style-scrambler

for a moment and speak in clear. The satirical thing is a bit better, but it has been rather foisted on to Lolita as a result of the eagerness of Ameri-

cans to hear the worst of themselves. V. S.

PritChett's comparison with The Loved One is apt in a different way from that intended : both

books score the expected points with great gusto, neither is nearly as devastating as dozens of books by Americans, neither is acceptable as picture of America. Perhaps only native-born Americans can provide this, which leads one to reflect that Nabokov's tragedy has been his separation from Europe, the source of his natural subject-matter

as well as of his natural language. There is nothing in Lolita as fine as the seven pages of 'Colette,' a

story of his dating from 1948 in which the germ of

Lolita is clearly discernible. Here is the same little monkey with the long-toed bare feet and the bruise

on her tender skin, inciting the author to a

reminiscence of Carmen—in Lolita this reappears in the eerie modernised disguise of a pop song.

The Biarritz world of pre-1914 is evoked with a tender intensity that none of the Middle West travelogues or Virginia moteliana can match; and here the hero, being like the heroine ten years old, allows his love to slip away from him down a path which Humbert, out of solipsistic brutality, and Nabokov, out of a deficiency of good sense, denied to Lolita :

She took from her governess and slipped into my brother's hands a farewell present, a box of sugar-coated almonds, meant, I knew, solely for

me. and instantly she was off, tap-tapping her glinting hoop through light and shade, around and around a fountain choked with dead leaves,

near which I stood. The leaves- mingled in my memory with the leather of her shoes and gloves, and there was. I remember, some detail in her attire (perhaps a ribbon on her Scottish cap, or the pattern of her stockings) that reminded me then of the rainbow spiral in a glass marble. I still seem to be holding that wisp of iridescence, not knowing exactly where to fit it in, while she runs with her hoop ever faster around me and finally dissolves among the slender shadows cast on the gravelled path by the interlaced arches of its border.