I like P.G. Wodehouse best; no one else gets us so high. But when I descend into actual literature—an abrasive experience for my sensitive soul, but one that has allowed me to fiddle away my time unproductively—I cannot but acknowledge that the five great novels of the twentieth century are Ulysses, A la recherche, Gatsby, Under the Volcano and Lolita.
Nabokov's images fill me with awe; his phrases are tiny masterpieces; his sentences, galleries with their own exquisite shapes. But even in his most gorgeous stories he can be something of a stuffed shirt:
The snag with Vladimir Nabokov was
A dyspepsia almost as noisome as Waugh's.
Life offered neither
A very long breather
From constant unbearable irks.
Now I've wrung my enjoyment from both of these men
I need not be exposed to them ever again
But I suffer the scourge
Of a lingering urge
To pour Eno all over their works!
What gives Lolita that extra thing is the confrontation between a cultured European and the American vulgarity embodied by Lolita, with whom he is desperately in love. Then too, one cannot but feel that it's a portrait of Nabokov’s own passion. And passion delivers.
It’s shameless of me to say this—I know nothing of this man’s inner life—but lust for young girls does emerge elsewhere in his work, and in Lolita he contributed the word “nymphet” to the English language. It's my intuition that his stuffed-shirtism, so at home after all in the 1950s, is a firewall against an unseemly urge. In one of his essays he opines that if the criminal could only write about the crime he wouldn’t have to commit it. Like Dostoyevsky, Lewis Carroll and J. D. Salinger, he converted the obsession into literature. Balthus did it in paint:
But no psychology can touch bottom, and VN would have agreed:
Nabokov was annoyed
Beneath yelling at
Too far gone to rally;
Waugh regarded Eliot
But thought Picasso
Was an asso.
Nevertheless I will dare to say that his orientation was not a whim. Many people, for example, can be gay on a whim, myself included; but there are also people who can’t imagine any other way of doing it. The conclusion forces itself upon me that sexual preferences are hardwired. One might be grateful if one’s wiring isn't too inconvenient, though there’s nothing terribly convenient about heterosexuality; it can be as big a p. in the a. as the other thing.
It’s OK to like little boys if you’re a king, like Henry II or James I or William III (of William and Mary); or if you’re an aristocrat, like the Earl of Rochester (the Johnny Depp film about him was dreary, so unlike the merry Earl) or Lord Byron; or if you’re a famous novelist like Thomas Mann, or a celebrity poet like W.H. Auden:
Said the Queen to the King, we do frown on
Your choosing our page to go down on
When you meet on the stairs—
And it does give him airs
If you will do the job with your crown on!
But if you’re an average Joe they’ll throw you in the can with gorillas who are as repelled by the vice as church-goers, and will pick on you.
Ditto for little girls: in the literary world you’re somewhat protected. When he publishes his poems in a book Leonard Cohen can say, “The fifteen-year-old girls I wanted when I was fifteen, I have them now. I advise you all to become rich and famous.” But in the popular eye, like Polanski or Woody Allen, you have to watch it. Woody's mentor in Love and Death tells him, “I have come to the conclusion that the best thing is blonde twelve-year-old girls. Two of them, whenever possible.”
Had Nabokov proceeded to his PhD,
Would he have to shake his polymathic rattles at me?
Had Woody Allen only finished his BA,
Where'd his undergradjut exercises be today?
In Lolita Humbert makes his own list: “Marriage and cohabitation before the age of puberty are still not uncommon in certain East Indian provinces. Lepcha old men of eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds. After all, Dante fell madly in love with Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen, painted and lovely, and bejeweled, in a crimson frock, and this was in 1274, in Florence, at a private feast in the merry month of May. And when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve…”
He might have mentioned Juliet, who was thirteen when she married Romeo, Edgar Poe, who married his cousin when she was thirteen, and that other southerner Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his cousin of thirteen—though Nabokov may not have been following Jerry Lee's career. (If a boy from Alabama marries a girl from Louisiana, are they still cousins?)
The diction is inflated
And the angst is overrated.
Indeed, one thinks of Margaret Mead and Alfred Kinsey, who tell us that there’s nothing inherently wrong with sex with the young, that it’s the adult hysteria that does the damage.
One thinks also of the pedophile priests in the Catholic Church—of the sheer number of them! Were Mead and Kinsey inspecting us as a tribe they might conclude that it was the norm.
It is a convention in our time to go on TV and say you were abused as a child. If you’re a politician in the Bible Belt, you oppose same-sex marriage and you get caught using a male escort service, you go on TV and say you were abused as a child. The etiology may be dubious, but it works with the public.
In The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I've just seen, the heroine was abused as a child, the victim was abused as a child, the villain was abused as a child—it explains everything!
As for my own case (I can hear you asking), I’m a narcissist with a taste for older women. Now that I’ve reached a certain age there are no older women, and the guy in the mirror isn’t looking that good. But one presses on. (See In Praise of Older Women.)
Ours is a period of neo-Victorianism. Freud, whatever his ultimate merits, freed us, not only from nineteenth-century prudishness, but from the Christian prohibition that dates from Saint Paul. Freud’s influence took wide hold in the fifties and sixties, just as the birth-control pill was freeing us from the anxiety of getting “caught,” as people used to say, and penicillin was freeing us from the horrors of syphilis and gonorrhea. Oh, we had much too good a time! Then herpes and AIDS, stark parallels to the old scourges, pushed us back toward something more sentimental.
Lolita was written in the early fifties, another dryness of atmosphere, and by his own account Nabokov’s wife stopped him from burning the manuscript. Here is Humbert hating himself even as he possesses his dream:
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 azure-barred—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.
This, Nabokov insists, is not his remorse but Humbert's: "He cares, I do not. I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere."
Harold Bloom introduces his study of Shakespeare, whom he regards as a god (and in his Gnostic parlance he means it), by arguing that Shakespeare was anti-Semitic, that we’ve been misreading The Merchant of Venice for four hundred years. “There’s a price for loving Shakespeare,” he says. Arthur Koestler once remarked that if he threw out his anti-Semitic books he’d be deprived of half his library. It's rather sad. In Moby Dick Ishmael, whose lover is a South-Sea islander, regards the whale's whiteness as the same mark of superiority that gives "the white man ideal mastership over every dusky tribe." What shall we do with these texts?
Dostoyevsky was an anti-Semitic child-rapist and a hypocrite, who lied even to himself. The only erotic moment in Crime and Punishment is when ten-year-old Polina, step-sister to the Hallmark-Card heroine, comes down some stairs and kisses Raskalnikov. But any such enjoyment is pinned on the child-raping villain of the piece, whom we are encouraged to hate. Dostoyevsky himself was a loathsome man; one wouldn’t have wanted to meet him. But he is the greatest novelist in human memory, and there is no book as passionate, as thrilling or as psychologically intimate as Crime and Punishment.
“The great artists of the world are never Puritans,” said H.L. Mencken, “and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man—that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense—has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.”
Martin Amis, a writer of astounding mediocrity, is a better embodiment of our time. He is the son of Kingsley Amis, whose first novel was a hit, after which he collapsed into a lower-middle-class philistinism that dismayed his readers—but there he was, the author of Lucky Jim. And there was Martin—and he was a writer too!—sustaining his career on the same book.
Is justly famous,
And his first book scored it!
But it’s one thing to attract attention, and another to reward it.
When Junior speaks of Nabokov he says, “you would need to venture to the very fringes of literature—Lewis Carroll, William Burroughs, the Marquis de Sade—to find an equivalent emphasis: an emphasis on activities we rightly and eternally hold to be unforgivable.”
Good little man. Straight from the Y.
And English literature—we must have the courage to face it—is dead.