songs from a shredded brain





Kingdom by the Sea, Monkey in the Cage
--A book review of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita

    Picture a heartwarming scene consisting of two youngsters on a beach. A boy and a girl, utterly inseparable, rubbing against each other their smooth skin polished by bleached dry sand. A summer with the sun always gleaming in a treacly, drowsy tone, a stream of faint memories witnessing an early stage of budding love. Of course, the two were isolated from each other by inevitable distance as the summer ended. For some years their growing minds would be occupied by dapples of adolescent issues, and one fine morning, they would by some casual coincidence be reminded of their forgotten exchanges of ridiculous goals and unexplainable palpitations. They would then run back towards each other desperately, scribbling a faint overture of another romantic cliche. Typical.
    Except that this one story stops abruptly at mid-point. As the heroine dies in agony during their first separation, their kingdom by the sea collapses in a sudden rumble, slicing sharply a bright scar on the boy’s emotional body. Eventually the boy grows into a man, bitterly sophisticated yet still hollow on the inside. It is here the story of Lolita came into being, blooming a twisted flower nourished by the rotten soil of regret and despair. Later came the infamous plot line: Humbert marrying Lolita’s mother in yearn for her company, the mother’s hardly fortunate death following her discovery of H and L’s forbidden relationship; a part-vacation, part-runaway long tour around the country accompanied by unmentionably lustful intimacies; and a tragic ending with Lo running off and growing up to become a vulgar, dirt-poor young mother, begging for Humbert’s financial aid in the pathetic name of kinship. Hoodwinked by the public impression of a hideous criminal’s court confession, a great portion of readers fail to stand in a differing perspective—that of Humbert Humbert—as to understand the plot driven by him based on remote formations of his character. 
    Another generally accepted depiction of Lolita is that is has a focused theme relevant to morality and crime. The way in which the story is narrated purposefully brings great difficulty into stating the morality of both main characters. In the perspective of law, apparently, Humbert would have been accused of seduction and pedophilia, set aside his brutal murder in the name of mad love. However, in spite of his evident guilt, Humbert’s actions were somewhat emotionally justified by the confession of his past, while he described Lolita as if she was consciously responsible of seduction herself. The reader is left to judge this novel either as a misunderstood bitter romance thrown up by a helpless unrequited lover, or a cunning alibi used by an experienced recidivist trying to hide away his original purpose through gaining pity. Nabokov never declared his opinion on the matter—the very enchantment of this novel, how it is in fact our own side of the story it tells.
    In the afterword written quite some years after the publishing of the original novel, Nabokov revealed the original inspiration for the plot of Lolita: it was, in all beauties of the world, but a series of scientific experiments involving a caged monkey. The monkey was coaxed to master the art of drawing, yet the first piece it produced, to the scientist’s shocked disappointment, was of the very cage that trapped it—specifically speaking, the bars that forever hindered the poor creature’s sight. The cage was the unconscious constituent of its perspective, the only thing that gave it artistic meaning. This afterword, I felt, was one essential revelation to understanding Lolita—though both main characters believed they were driven by their own lust and free will, they were in fact chained dancers, luxurious embroidered nightgowns covering the despairing hollow of crinoline skeletons. They were caged monkeys, Humbert by his haunted childhood memory, Lolita by her pubertal ignorance and pampered soul of a teenage rebel.
    One notable factor bringing this novel to its status in literature today would have been Nabokov’s exquisite use of language. Achieving a comprehensive depiction of Humbert’s conflicting personality, the book, written in his perspective, reached a sickening level of delicacy and gaudiness. Aside from endless symbolistic adjectives and metaphors, Humbert also performed, using his treasury of knowledge, a great number of literary and historical references that were so academic it required annotation half of the novel’s length for a reader from the general crowd to fully understand them all. In this context, Nabokov somewhat resembles the renown nineteenth-century litterateur Oscar Wilde, as Wilde was also famous for his euphemistic, flowery language. The major difference between these two, however, is that this style of language was typical of Wilde, and in fact of Victorian literature itself, whereas in Nabokov’s case he was using it as a methodic tool of character sculpting, consciously differing the novel from the more concise styles of language popular at the time it was created. Nabokov therefore demonstrates his outstanding literary abilities in a more embodied way.
Concurrently, in the same piece of afterword in which he mentioned the inspiring monkey story,  Nabokov set forth his exceedingly unique opinion on the moral purpose of fictional literature. “It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information”, he says, claiming himself to be kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book. Writing to him was merely interactions of inspiration and combination, with no other purpose or aim. He sees reading fiction as a naked experience of thought and emotion.
    Readers custom to reading for ideological practicality may find such a concept hard to accept. Nabokov was indeed toying with the idea of the mental boundaries and sequences with a bit of irony— it was obviously part of his aim, though he claimed no official aim, to break certain boundaries with the context and structure of Lolita. In seeking for an ethnical lesson in every so-called piece of classic literature, we in fact are resembling the monkey, very much unaware of the cage imprisoning us; even as to proudly present it as a work of art, since it is the only thing that bestows us meaning.
    In conclusion, Lolita is a multi-layered piece of literature, impossible to define or classify.  Cruelly tying the purest of human emotions to the fermentation of an unforgivable crime, it is a solid block of philosophy sugarcoated in lust, cracking flickers of rebellion here and there. It is a book inside a book, a story outside a story.

2015-11-23  | 12 1  |   

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