Consider this tale: a cultivated man of middle age looks back on the story of an amour fou, one beginning when, traveling abroad, he takes a room as a lodger. The moment he sees the daughter of the house, he is lost. She is a preteen, whose charms instantly enslave him. Heedless of her age, he becomes intimate with her. In the end she dies, and the narrator — marked by her forever — remains alone. The name of the girl supplies the title of the story: Lolita.

The author of the story I’ve described, Heinz von Lichberg, published his tale of Lolita in 1916, forty years before Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. Lichberg later became a prominent journalist in the Nazi era, and his youthful works faded from view. Did Nabokov, who remained in Berlin until 1937, adopt Lichberg’s tale consciously? Or did the earlier tale exist for Nabokov as a hidden, unacknowledged memory? The history of literature is not without examples of this phenomenon, called cryptomnesia. Another hypothesis is that Nabokov, knowing Lichberg’s tale perfectly well, had set himself to that art of quotation that Thomas Mann, himself a master of it, called “higher cribbing.” Literature has always been a crucible in which familiar themes are continually recast. Little of what we admire in Nabokov’s Lolita is to be found in its predecessor; the former is in no way deducible from the latter. Still: did Nabokov consciously borrow and quote?

[….]

Literature has been in a plundered, fragmentary state for a long time. When I was thirteen I purchased an anthology of Beat writing. Immediately, and to my very great excitement, I discovered one William S. Burroughs, author of something called Naked Lunch, excerpted there in all its coruscating brilliance. Burroughs was then as radical a literary man as the world had to offer. Nothing, in all my experience of literature since, has ever had as strong an effect on my sense of the sheer possibilities of writing. Later, attempting to understand this impact, I discovered that Burroughs had incorporated snippets of other writers’ texts into his work, an action I knew my teachers would have called plagiarism. Some of these borrowings had been lifted from American science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, adding a secondary shock of recognition for me. By then I knew that this “cut-up method,” as Burroughs called it, was central to whatever he thought he was doing, and that he quite literally believed it to be akin to magic. When he wrote about his process, the hairs on my neck stood up, so palpable was the excitement. Burroughs was interrogating the universe with scissors and a paste pot, and the least imitative of authors was no plagiarist at all.

Jonathan Lethem
The Ecstasy of Influence

never write again

February 17, 2019

When I am locked out of the gates of literature, I despair, brood, obsess. I believe wholeheartedly that I will never write again. I pursue this line of thought to the bitter end. It’s an excruciating process, but there are no shortcuts on the road to writing. I’ve come to consider the atmospheric disturbance that exists at the edges of laying honest sentences across a page to be character-building experiences. After all, writing demands resilience, self-respect, discipline. More exhilarating, perhaps, is the fact that it requires an equal measure of disobedience. It makes little sense, then, to pursue efficiency in lieu of the chaos writing causes when we are at a loss for how to begin the telling. So often, the inability to write is a sign that we are not yet ready to be honest, or reckless in our pursuit of subject matter. In the face of such a tall order, the only thing I know to do is to resign myself to the unpleasant experience of waiting patiently at the gates. To pass the time, and to build up courage, I return to Kafka, Nietzsche, Nabokov, Lispector. Eventually, I’ll read a sentence like, ‘Now I know how, have the know-how, to reverse perspectives…’ Suddenly, I’m reminded of how alien the world feels to me, and, before I know it, I am writing again. All I had to do was suffer long enough to remember that I am only spying on this strange and sublime world momentarily, and that I don’t have any time to waste.

Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
Poets & Writers 2nd August 2018

reading Lolita

July 20, 2018

book and trees

In Nabokov’s Lolita, the sexualised young heroine is pedestalised whereas her middle-aged mother, Charlotte, is knocked down by a car. This paradigm works so effectively and hauntingly because it illustrates, all too plausibly, a man’s predatory, appropriative desire for youth on the one hand, and his ambivalence towards the archetypal ‘mother’ on the other. There are exactly two roles a woman can have in the Lolita universe: she can be scrutinised, idealised, exploited and abused; or she can be scrutinised, mocked, exploited and disposed of. Putting aside Nabokov’s wit and satirical tendencies for a moment, I would insist that reading Lolita is a particularly uncomfortable experience for a woman because the female reader is reminded that, in the eyes of some men, she will always be fitted into one horrible category or its horrible opposite. This is not to say the novel is not great or that it should not have been written, but merely that women readers may receive its messages differently to male readers.

Kathryn Maris
Transgression and transcendence: poetry and provocation

He [Nabokov] also reminds us of the main reason it is so hard [for us to notice that other people are suffering]: we all spend a lot of time inventing people rather that noticing them, reshaping real people into characters in stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, stories about how beautiful and rare we are.

Richard Rorty
Introduction to Nabokov’s Pale Fire

Diary 8th April

“I simply love that tinge of Botticellian pink, that raw rose about the lips, those wet, matted eyelashes…”

Oh, so do I, Mr Nabokov. So do I.

#

I have raped my inner soul
And given it, naked, to you,
Since my warm mouth and arms
might love and frighten you.

Anne Sexton says it all; there’s nothing left to be said on the subject.

#

Yesterday was a day full of sun. We went to Dartmoor for lunch (at Two Bridges), and walked beside the river in blazing sunshine. Wonderful.

Currently reading….

February 10, 2015

despair

Fancy a party? You could join the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse and March Hare – who no doubt will offer you wine, then tell you there isn’t any – just as they did to poor sweet Alice…

“Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,” she says to them, prior to an argument about whose behaviour is worse!

Ah, I was going to write something about Lewis Carroll on the anniversary of his birthday (at the end of January) but forgot, or was doing something else – impossibly intoxicated, probably, who can now say? Anyway, having seen this cool but very disturbing picture (see HERE) I thought straight away of Alice, you know? With the Queen angrily shouting: “Off with her head!”

I first encountered Alice at five years of age. I have a particularly vivid memory of that time. I was ill, with a soaring temperature, and a bed had been made up for me in the living room, for ease of access during the day. The doctors wanted me in hospital, but then decided the risk of moving me was too great. I would live or die in that living room. And as a concession to the seriousness of the situation, my father would read to me (an event almost unheard of under normal circumstances) from “Treasure Island” or “Coral Island”, both books I loved; and then, one evening, he commenced reading Alice in Wonderland to me…

What can I say about it? Already afflicted by high temperatures, I was feverish to say the least, at times delirious, and Carroll’s prose was confining…yes, confining: claustrophobic, a trap in which there was little or no room to move. The story was like the worse possible nightmare you could have.

One night after listening to Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole I had a dream where, confronted by an eighteenth century footman in full panoply (I mean, of course, livery), I declined to surrender my brand new grey overcoat to his care. I did not trust him. Something about the eyes, and that powdered wig was deeply disturbing to me. That same night, apparently, I tiptoed to my parents bedroom where I opened the wardrobe and tried to hang-up my glass of water on a coat hanger – my mother’s dresses were soaked by the resulting spillage, of course. Totally oblivious, I was bundled up and rushed back to bed – and all the while, I’d believed I was secreting my overcoat in a place where that damned footman would never find it!

Needless to add, that for many years after, Carroll’s Alice filled me with unaccountable dread. Not until my early teens and the chance discovery of the HUNTING OF THE SNARK, did I find courage enough to return and finally face Alice and her claustrophobic wonderland.

Enough of these personal anecdotes. Let’s get back to Carroll, a.k.a Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, one of the first post modernists – his influence on James Joyce is all too apparent: FINEGANS WAKE is literally awash with allusions to Carroll’s works. And Nabokov – yes, certainly, there are a number of references to Carroll/Dodgson’s work in LOLITA, despite Nabokov’s claim: “some odd scruple prevented me from alluding in LOLITA to his wretched perversion and to those ambiguous photographs he took in dim rooms. He got away with it, as so many other Victorians got away with pederasty and nympholepsy. His were sad scrawny little nymphets, bedraggled and half-undressed, or rather semi-undraped, as if participating in some dusty and dreadful charade.”

Well, to give but one example, look at chapter 29: the line “A breeze from wonderland” is most obviously a reference to Alice, and there are many others. Nabokov, for whatever reason, wasn’t being honest with us.

He translated Alice into Russian while in Berlin (1923). With his usual modesty he recalled “it wasn’t the first translation, but it was the best…”

References to Alice also occur in other Nabokov works: THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT and in ADA, for example. In fact, Sebastian Knight’s book shelf contains copies of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, side-by-side with ULYSSES. Certainly no coincidence.

One might also argue that allusion to Carroll in LOLITA continues through photography: it’s Quilty’s hobby, after all; he makes those unspeakable films, too, of nymphets.

Tim Burton’s film of Alice reminds us of the continuing life in Carroll’s creations (though I’m not sure if people still give Alice books as gifts to children – I’d have thought not?).

For my part I remember well the 1966 television adaptation directed by Jonathan Miller which cast Leo McKern as the Ugly Duchess, Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar and, unforgettably, Malcolm Muggeridge and John Gielgud as the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. Delightful. I seem to recall viewing a film adaptation, too, Czech I believe it was, which showed off Alice’s black cotton knickers at every possible opportunity…not quite the thing, really. Too Freudian, too blatant. My Victorian Granny would have had apoplexy at sight of it…and I feel certain Dodgson would have been very disapproving, too.

Returning to his books, are they really for children? They are complicated books, aren’t they? Full of “abstruse philosophical ideas and learned vocabulary”. For sure, the ideas and logic (or non-logic) in the books, as well as many of the allusions, “sail right over children’s heads. Probably not one reader in 10,000 now recognises what any of the many poems are parodying.” The appeal to kids, I’d guess, is the totally “disrespectful attitude to anything resembling authority”. Alice, for her time, was a child with attitude. A Victorian punk.

But what of Dodgson? Was he a “wretched” pervert? Did he get away with it?

We can never know with full certainty. I’m sure that in our world he’d be on a sex offenders register by now – especially after photographing so many of his young “friends” in the nude, even if he did have their parents’ permission to do so. Obviously, he must have had doubts about his actions. If not, why did he destroy all the “nude” studies and their negatives? The three or four nude photographs (all hand coloured) that have survived (copies given to the parents of the young models) are totally sexless, not particularly notable as photographs or works of art, yet disturbing just the same. That Dodgson was in “love” with Alice Liddell, I feel is a certainty. The modern argument that his affection for Alice was a cover for his affair with her mother is, for me, unconvincing. I’m not even sure if Dodgson was capable of a “sexual” relationship, in the modern sense of the world. Other than the questionable photographs, his behaviour with his young “friends” was always beyond reproach; they in their turn regarded him with nothing but respect and admiration.

So, living as we do in the age of Guantánamo Bay, of widespread use of CCTV, of identity cards and bludgeoning police powers, with a corresponding decline in individual rights and freedoms, the Queen of Hearts’ instruction: “Sentence first – verdict afterwards” perhaps seems less evidently nonsensical today in comparison to 100 years ago? It may be these books still have something to teach us…?