Nabokov’s Misery and Madness
An Essay by Lisa Korthals
I have been Vladimir Nabokov’s devoted lover for over twenty years; and like the treacherous black talons of Russia’s white shoulder eagle, Nabokov’s synesthesia-driven, sexually taut prose clutches at my heart violently piercing it, refusing to let go of its captured prey. As his joyfully ensnared lover I tenderly turn to Nabokov’s miserable, maddening depictions of love, because (unlike contemporary writers of modern fiction) he does not airbrush it into something glossy and palatable. The sheer force of his words stirs in me emotions, thoughts, and feelings that I cannot always explain (not that I would want to), but that I can only experience. Not all of the places my lover takes me to are pleasant, but they are real and that is what excites me about his work: the raw realness of it. My lover is completely void of any superficiality; instead, Nabokov puts love on display in all its rawness – never hiding for a moment its messy, indigestible, intoxicating nature. Of the countless books, short stories, poems, dramas, and essays in my extensive library, I return again and again to Nabokov’s all-encompassing themes that display love in all of its glory, misery, and madness.
Nabokov’s novels show that authentic love at its core (when stripped of all of its many splendors) is an outward expression of inward misery and secret madness. My lover’s themes are miserably engaging because they are voyeuristically sexual; turning all of his readers into ‘accident gapers’ on the highway of life. The accidents Nabokov allows his readers to slow down and gaze at have old names: lust, cruelty, incest, torture, rape, betrayal, and murder. The themes of his work may have old names, but Nabokov is asking fresh, modern, and new questions regarding: what it means to live for lust alone; how a sexually disturbed man can confuse incest with love; the definition of murder; the motivations behind the cruelty of humankind; and the bitter pain of the small and large betrayals each of us face in this fallen world.
Lolita displays the brutal and repeated rape of a child at the hands of her step-father. While many readers, commentators, and lovers of Nabokov dismiss this interpretation of the novel stating that Lolita teases H.H. and is more manipulative than she appears, these thoughts drown in the sound of her sobs in the night — every night, every night. Lolita may have desired H.H. in the way that a pre-pubescent girl has a crush on a movie star or a teacher she finds fascinating, but the tears H.H. so indifferently ignores give away the true misery of her step-father’s lust for her. Lolita forces readers to stare into the abyss of betrayal through the eyes of one of literature’s most untrustworthy and unreliable narrators. To explain, the coquettish words and behaviors of Lolita could very well be H.H.’s own invention. It is Nabokov who paints this wonderfully and appalling clear picture of his protagonist by allowing H.H.’s point of view to dominate the novel.
Humbert is a pedophile, who openly describes his sexual appetites as that of an artist or madman, a creature of infinite melancholy. From the outset of the novel, Nabokov allows the reader to see Humbert justifying his attraction to children with a revolting passion and unchecked forthrightness: his heart beat when, among the innocent throng, he espied a demon child, [charming and deceitful] . . . he was perfectly capable of intercourse with Eve, but it was Lilith he longed for. Nabokov’s syntax here is precise and deceptively eloquent. The reader knows H.H. preys upon children to satisfy his sexual desires, so by the time he meets his soul, his sin, his Lolita there can be little room for debate as to who is predator and who is prey. And yet, Nabokov continues to show (through his predator’s eyes) Lolita’s flirting, vamping, and ‘put-on’ sexual maturity alongside Humbert’s lechery, vulgarity, and phony fatherly mannerisms leading his loving readers to question the very nature and truth of, not only their incestuous relationship, but love itself. This is the magic of Nabokov’s spell that binds his lover’s to him with iron talons – as his lover one must define and redefine both love and lust in ways that every human heart has since the beginning of time. This may account for the fact during Nabokov’s lifetime (and well after his death) his most controversial and popular work remained and remains Lolita.
Reviewers, commentators, and critics have long viewed Lolita’s popularity as a by-product of its sexual content, but this is highly unlikely as the descriptions of Lolita and Humbert’s sexual encounters are scant at best. It is Nabokov’s skillful capturing of the misery and madness that is true love, in his own unique array of colorfully poignant prose, which brings readers back to him again and again. At the age of eleven, I became captivated with the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film by the same name, which led me to read and re-read the novel that fateful summer. Ever since that hot, Nevada, summer over twenty-five years ago, I have remained both repulsed and fascinated by Nabokov’s work and the place it has taken up in my heart. Perhaps, my fascination begins with the special kinship I feel toward Lolita, because like her, I was once an outgoing, precocious girl dealing with the bloody notion of what it meant to be a woman. When just like this fictional, pre-pubescent girl my life took a drastic and soul-altering turn at the hands of my father. Thus, reading and re-reading Lolita allows me to experience a cathartic suffering that has had, and continues to have, a therapeutic value on the painful roads of not only my life, but the lives of countless survivors of sexual abuse and incest. Nabokov, himself, addresses both the cathartic and therapeutic values of Lolita in the “Forward” he wrote under the fictional name John Ray Jr., Ph.D. for its American publication, while adding another element to its value as a cultural warning. He writes, in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac—these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. But, this warning comes at the price of his readers having to facing head-on his narrator Humbert Humbert who he describes as horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity . . . The desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violence can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!
The understanding Nabokov shows here for the raped and sexually abused souls of this world is breathtakingly poignant. Through Lolita he was able to show the depravity of abusers, while simultaneously illustrating the mixture of guilt, shame, and attraction many survivors feel toward their predators. And this is one of the greatest gifts his writing yields: the gift of permission. Nabokov gives survivors permission to feel confused, tortured, and sickened by one’s own participation in acts of abuse and incest. He further offers permission and encouragement to heal from the past; to move on with one’s life as Lolita does. Beyond this, Nabokov gives his readers permission to state, clearly and openly to the predators of our worlds: you broke my life. It is this gift of cathartic suffering and therapeutic healing that gives Lolita and many of Nabokov’s other writings staying power that will continue for years to come.
Many of Nabokov’s works contain young people, both men and women, who are continuingly placed in traumatizing and sometimes horrifying situations. Laughter in the Dark utilizes some of these same themes, only this time love is shown in all its majestic cruelty. Margot has been betrayed by her mother who abuses and tortures throughout her childhood; leaving her a lonely, searching childlike woman desperate for someone, anyone, to care for and love her. Baptized in the waters of cruelty, Margot learns to use her beauty as a monstrous weapon against the traumas and disappoints of life. She joyfully ruins Albinas’ marriage, isolating him from the benefits of true love – trust, loyalty, compassion, and forgiveness. Margot has learned her lessons well – become a predator or be devoured as prey. She ensnares Albinas with her beauty, knowing that his mid-life crisis induced lust has blinded him to all viewpoints save her own. When her beauty is revealed on the silver screen as grotesquely false, she fears she has lost her ability to manipulate Albinas’ love her and this when the true nature of her cruelty begins to reveal itself. By the end of the book, Margot and her sadistic lover are joyously taking part in the heartbreaking torture of her now physically blind lover Albinas. With his depictions of their stifled laughter that envelops Albinas’ dark and terrifying world, Nabokov moves his reader to a place of pity and sorrow for Albinas. By the time he grabs a pistol determined to shoot Margot, there is a camaraderie and understanding of his actions. We want him to succeed in bringing about her death, but in the end Margot is given the upper hand and kills Albinas. With Margot’s triumph over Albinas, Nabokov illustrates that the misery and madness that is love is never as simple as it seems. Leaving the reader to ponder whether or not Margot is truly evil or is she a product of the modern world, where surviving one’s traumatic childhood involves moving from prey to predator?
Nabokov presents a similar question in The Tragedy of Mr. Morn, his first major work (written when he was only twenty-four, after witnessing firsthand the 1917 Russian Revolution). Here, he pays homage to Shakespeare’s Richard III while giving a stark commentary on the role of power in predatory relationships. Tremens, Nabokov’s’ Richard III, desires power above all else, not for altruistic motives; instead, he desires the hot flames of anarchy because his evil inclinations will be freed to dance unchecked in the fiery world of his creation. Once Tremens is returned to a place of power, he is no longer the loving father trying desperately to settle into the peaceful life his daughter Ella offers him; instead, Tremens is corrupted and manically alive with the power he wields. Tremens’ power over Ella causes her to lose her innocent view of not only her father and lover, but of life itself. His megalomania leads him toward cliffs of insanity, where the screams of his perceived enemies as they burn at the stake sound sweeter to him than the wise words of his oldest and dearest friend, Ganus. Tremens’ power has corrupted him absolutely, unleashing him to commit acts of predatory violence; leaving those closest to him to choose between burning in the flames of his predatory power or becoming predators themselves. Even Ella’s husband drawn to the flames of power chooses to forsake her, their love, and his own poetic nature to become one of Tremens’ brutal predators. Thus, the reader is forced to question whether or not it is power that makes a man predatory; or if men themselves abuse and pervert power with their predatory actions?
Even Nabokov’s short fiction grabs his readers plunging them into intense situations. A Matter of Chance reveals the painful aftermath of revolution for the ordinary citizens caught up in it. Nabokov presents a once happily married couple separated by the 1919 Russian Revolution. Without her husband to support her, Elena becomes a prostitute. Her husband Aleksey has taken a job as a waiter in the dining car of a train. Due to the loss of his wife, his livelihood, and sense of place Aleksey snorts cocaine on a daily basis. The lovers unknowingly find themselves journeying on the same train, but their paths never cross. Instead, Elena loses her wedding ring when she exits the train and Aleksey high on coke dies stumbling in front of the same (now moving train) his wife has just exited. In this piece, Nabokov paints war as a predator claiming the lives of those it touches. The reader must question whether or not revolutions help or hurt those they claim to be fought for?
The Doorbell another of Nabokov’s short stories gives realistic, pain filled faces to the folksy belief that one can never go home again. When Nikolay determines to see his mother, Olga, after a seven year absence, he finds her awaiting a male, dinner guest. His dreams of returning home to her loving and nurturing arms are shattered when he realizes that during his absence she has become a prostitute. The scene Nabokov sketches is taut with tension filled moments of recognition and regret. Olga regrets her sons return and instead focuses her energies on getting him out of her apartment, so she can answer the ever-ringing door bell and entertain her ‘guest’; and Nikolay recognizes his mother’s need to continue her life without him in it. Here, Nabokov shows the complex nature of the mother-son relationship, as well as, a survivor’s mentality. Olga has done whatever it takes to survive and her continued survival depends on her son leaving her to her own devices. There is no room in her heart for a mother’s love. They share nothing more than a broken bond that will never be mended or healed. Nabokov sets before his readers a sad, but realistic love story of a family torn apart by absence. In doing so, he leads each of us to question our own familial bonds and determine for ourselves whether or not life is better lived without the love of one’s parents?
And of course, Lolita is no exception. In this novel that gave Nabokov international fame, he cleverly forces the reader to look at Lolita as H.H. does (as a sexual being – a nymphet). To this end, he utilizes an array of blindingly bright, artistic hues to push his readers to explore their own apathy toward child molestation, rape, and incest. His writing shocks and disturbs most readers because underneath Nabokov’s synesthesia-driven prose are deep questions regarding how terms like love, betrayal, revenge, incest, murder, child rape, lust, and molestation are defined within our American culture whose parents claim to further the rights and protections of children.
My own parents cringed at my strong identification with the anguish of Nabokov’s fictional characters. If asked, they would patently deny any personal connections to the subjects of: incest, verbal/emotional abuse, and childhood trauma. My father is an admirer of silence. I secretly suspect that he hated my youthful love of Lolita because Nabokov was unabashedly discussing subjects he felt should be kept ‘in the family’. My mother is a keeper of secrets. She believes (and has always believed) that I am an overly sensitive, emotional woman who likes to make up outrageous stories about our family. Accordingly, she views talking about family secrets as an unacceptable behavior that she does not and will not tolerate. For her, talking about my abuse is unnecessary, because it has passed and therefore discussing it is an urge that should be avoided or at the very least controlled. My mother and father would agree that Nabokov’s novels offer nothing more than blame. My own father’s view on Lolita is that it illustrates there are two sides to every story. He empathizes with H.H. and vies Lolita as a temptress who lead her step-father astray. These opinions have been forged in the scars left from his own traumatic childhood: he was beaten, sexually abused, and abandoned through indifference and death by those he loved. First by his mother whose departure caused him to hate, and second, by his grandmother whose death killed any love that had begun to grow within him. To this day, he sees no need to discuss, let alone, write about things that he has already survived; things that cannot be changed. The knowledge I have gained through reading the literature of Nabokov is that no one is alone and healing can begin through one’s identification with the fictional characters that make up these novels. This is not my parents’ way, but it is mine.
Nabokov’s writing broke through the silence and secrets of my own troubled childhood, grappling him to my soul with hoops of steel. His writing speaks to that part of my surviving soul that was crushed, broken, and lost long ago in the mine fields of childhood. For me, this makes reading Nabokov both a freeing and empowering experience, because he does not allow the predators of this world to be accepted and understood as tortuously artistic. By contrast, he shows them for what they are master manipulators and hunters who set carefully camouflaged traps for the limping prey they seek out night and day. For instance: H.H. openly admits to the ladies and gentlemen of his jury that he has set an elaborate trap for Lolita to fall into; Margot does not even attempt to hide the fact she is using Albinas for her own personal gains from his friends and family; and Tremens declares war on all who stand in the way of his revenge. These predators act without feeling for those they prey upon, such is their maddening love for themselves and their miserable desires. This is what gives Nabokov’s writing a place among other types of healing literature; he does not wrap his predators in coats made sugar nor does he clothe their victims/prey in angelic halos of light. Instead, he forces his readers to face their faults, fears, and failings giving each of us pause to reflect and consider whether or not we have chosen the path of the predator or the prey?
Readers in search of the type of healing and realism offered by Nabokov will not find it in the current publishing market standard, for the simple reason that the readers in search of cathartic suffering and therapeutic healing are far outnumbered by the sexual-seeking and lascivious fans of authors like E.L. James. Popular culture has always set the publishing standard and Americans have begun turning an apathetic eye to any writer who does not offer sex, violence, and a happy ending. Thus, realistic novels and stories of sin, survival, and healing pale in a publisher’s eyes when compared to the top-selling seedy worlds of teenage angst-ridden vampires or contract toting sadomasochists. And the space for classically trained authors, like Vladimir Nabokov, is shrinking a bit more each year.
Moreover, when the average reader does manage to tear themselves away from the sci-fi/fantasy and erotica landscapes so prevalently published, they are not likely to focus their attention on anything or anyone other than themselves. When I was in seminary, a fellow cohort expressed utter frustration and contempt for anyone (especially women) who shared their stories of abuse and healing. This female student wondered why victims of abuse had to bring it up at all; she believed it was her job to ask someone sharing their story of healing why they chose to do so in the first place. She concluded this rant by asserting that people who share these things most likely did it for attention; attention she did not feel they deserved. She was not alone in her feelings; the majority of my class agreed with her. It is to this indifference that Nabokov writes. And it is his unique understanding of those who suffer under the wrath of people lacking the milk of human kindness that endears him to the hearts of his thousands of lovers the world over.
So, I remain Vladimir Nabokov’s steadfast lover and I will return to the familiar warmth of his writing again and again. For the simplest of reasons: he knows. He knows the dark places the human soul travels to and the damage done to other souls by the predators of this world. Nabokov is not my mother because he is not the silent keeper of their secrets; nor is he my father attempting to see the world in shades of gray. Instead he takes his authorial paintbrush and paints the predators encountered in this life in all their colorfully, evil glory. Nabokov knows the pain endured by young people like Margot, Lolita, Elena, Ella, and even me, but instead of silencing their stories he gives them (and all survivors) a voice and a place. His writing offers a place for survivors to therapeutically heal and cathartically suffer along with the characters he so poignantly draws. More importantly, Nabokov gives survivors a voice to challenge the power and authority of predatory souls. Perhaps, our joint knowledge will lead to that safer world he envisioned for humankind so many years ago.