The past three Thursdays I have taken the bus and then the “T” to the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. I am taking a class on the novels of Nabokov. I love Lolita; I’ve read it twice, and each time it seemed like a completely different book. It seemed to change along with me. The first time I read it I was in my mid-twenties and it seemed part of the general sexual and cultural revolution that was grinding to a halt in the mid-seventies. Where does sexual freedom become sexual abuse and perversion? What are the limits on personal freedom? I was completely persuaded by Humbert Humbert’s version of events and had no trouble seeing Lolita as a little temptress; as complicit in the series of events as HH himself.
The second time I read it was about ten years ago. As a mother with young teenagers I again read the story of Lolita but this time I was horrified. Why my God! Humbert Humbert was a child molester! He was a criminal! A pervert! How could I possibly have been duped by him the first time I read this book? I read it in a state of fascination and horror, once again both repulsed and attracted by the story.
Now here I am again, reading Nabokov. But I’m in my late fifties, slowly settling into a new environment, retired, searching for worthwhile occupations and needing order in my life. This class sounded intriguing. We’re working our way up to Lolita. The class is eight weeks long. In the first class we talked about Nabokov’s roots and early life. He was of course a Russian émigré, a refugee from the Bolshevik revolution and the subsequent civil war. A member of the nobility, his father was an anglophile and Nabokov grew up speaking Russian, English and French, which cleared up one mystery for me. I always wondered how someone could write so eloquently in what was not their first language.
Nabokov went to school in Cambridge, England and majored in French and Russian Literature. We talked about his roots and influences and slowly I’m learning that the story and beautiful prose are not all that’s going on in his writing. Last week we read one of his early novels, The Eye. Until the early fifties Nabokov wrote in Russian and his early novels were translated to English by his son in the nineteen sixties.
So far I have read The Eye, Glory, and now I’m starting on a novel called Invitation to a Beheading. I can see the influences of Joyce and Kafka on his writing no matter how much he wants to protest that his writing sprung uninfluenced from his own mind. He plays with time and space. He transitions cleverly from one scene to another, much like thoughts drift around in one’s brain. I have a tendency to read too fast and miss things so I’m forcing myself to slow down so I can really appreciate his writing style. I’m beginning to realize that the end of Lolita, which I have always found confusing, will be the accumulation of his work on shifting time and space within one’s writing.
The teacher of this class is herself a classic Russian character. A novelist and poet in her own right, she sits with the six class members and directs our discussions, running her hands through her hair dramatically. She asks us questions and then gently (or not so gently) leads us in the direction she wants the class to go.
The other class members all seem to be about my age. Everyone is obviously smart, but nobody is insecure about their intelligence, so we all just express our thoughts and opinions without trying to impress each other with our erudition. Each week however the class has shrunk, and this week there were only three of us, so perhaps other members have been more intimidated by the subject matter than I thought, or maybe they are just bored! I’m fascinated, and I’m learning a lot. I’m trying very hard to understand what Nabokov was attempting to do with his writing. He wants his readers to focus on “imagination, memory and an artistic sense”, to quote an essay he wrote on “What Makes a Good Reader”, instead of simply identifying with a character, or getting lost in the fantasy world of a novel. This is hard for me; I WANT to get lost in books, and staying conscious of the author’s intent while I read is a constant struggle. But I’m starting to picture Nabokov watching me as I read. He sits a little off to one side, impatiently tapping his food when my attention wanders or I start identifying too closely with a character. He laughs at me when I become irritated with the absurdities and intentional confusion he has implanted in the story being told in “Invitation to a Beheading”. He is not at all a kind or generous author, and he is a little jealous too. He doesn’t seem to think that everyone should read his books. Am I worthy of him? He’s not sure yet, and neither am I.
This week our teacher sent her husband to instruct us instead. She had to return suddenly to Russia because her father, a former dissident and hero of the anti-Stalinist movements of the 50’s and 60’s, was hit by a car and killed as he was crossing the street in Moscow. Although this is a very sad story the irony of the situation struck me; that someone that survived the gulag and oppression under the Communists should meet his end in such a mundane manner.
Her husband is a Russian historian. He’s not a literary expert but simply a lover of Nabokov. He reiterated a couple of things that our teacher had touched upon, including the idea of the unreliable narrator, and the concept of Poshlost, which translates roughly from Russian as “banality and vulgarity”. The unreliable narrator I understand…the idea that you can’t trust the veracity of the person telling the story in a Nabokov novel was a new idea at the time that he was writing, but now doesn’t seem that revolutionary. Many writers since then have taken the idea of a fallible narrator, twisting the truth for his own devices, to heart and run with it in the sixty years since Nabokov published Lolita. But I’m still a little uncertain about this idea of vulgarity…did Nabokov see it judgmentally in popular culture? Did he see his writing an antidote to vulgarity? I don’t know yet, but I may find out in the next five weeks!