the ledge files
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Vladimir Nabokov
publisher: Querido, Amsterdam, 1955

refered to by:
Junichiro Tanizaki

[De avonden]
Gerard Reve

Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Old People and the Things that Pass
Louis Couperus

[Mystiek lichaam]
Frans Kellendonk

Virtuoso, The
Margriet de Moor

Marlene van Niekerk

Butterfly Burning
Yvonne Vera

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Most people know the basic plot of Lolita - for one thing, two movies have been made from it, one with James Mason and one with Jeremy Irons. Humbert Humbert, an educated European middle-aged man with a fetishistic attraction for twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls, inserts himself into the domestic arrangements of a woman with a twelve-year-old daughter. When the woman is fortuitously killed, HH, as he calls himself, takes the daughter on a prolonged crosscountry car trip, repeatedly raping, molesting, bribing, and imprisoning her as they travel from motel to motel. After she escapes, he pursues her and her ‘rescuer,’ first discovering Lolita, now eighteen, married, and pregnant, but still not interested in HH, then shooting the rescuer (a playwright named Quilty). The novel purports to be HH's jailhouse confession.

Lolita is a controversial novel, of course. It has made it into the critical pantheon of great twentieth-century novels, but it is also notorious, and it does not seem possible that it will be dislodged from either category. Even more than Ulysses it stands as a kind of index of literary taste. If you don't like it, then you don't truly understand great art. On the other hand, if you do like it, then what kind of person are you? Nabokov himself was opinionated about the nature of art - working as hard as James or Tolstoy to promote a theory of art and of the novel that led straight to him and his sort of greatness. As a teacher and an essayist, he was a tireless self-promoter who relentlessly demeaned as philistine those who didn’t share his perceptions and ideas. His particular whipping boy was Dostoyevsky, whose reputation he attempted to puncture at every opportunity, possibly because he had read Dostoevsky's books in his youth and didn't remember them very well (as recent translators of Dostoevsky have suggested), possibly because Dostoevsky was very popular in the United States (Nabokov promoted Gogol, for example, who was less well known to a general American audience), or possibly because the two were so philosophically at odds. At any rate, whereas Dostoevsky was always engaged with political and moral questions, Nabokov maintained that he disdained such things as being outside the realm of true art, and at first glimpse Lolita seems to bear out Nabokov's view.

Philosophically, Lolita is in the tradition of conservative novels by novelists who accept the innate evil of human nature, such as Thackeray. In conservative novels such as Vanity Fair, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Lolita, redemption is as impossible to achieve as true connection, and the protagonist either remains isolated at the end or achieves a new degree of isolation as a result of the action of the novel. Conservative novelists are much more likely to reserve a special place for art (or at least aesthetics) as a (or the) pure moral category in a world where all other moral categories have failed. They are also more likely to disdain the social programs of more liberal and socially active novelists who see human nature as either inherently good, or at least neutral, and capable of positive moral change. Nabokov made a vigorous case against the novel as a social or biographical document. In particular, he ridiculed psychological ideas current in the midcentury, especially Freudian ideas, that attempted to make causal connections in the emotional and mental lives of both characters and authors. He does not explore how HH and Lolita became, respectively, a pedophile and a slut; he simply accepts that they are, and that most of the other characters in the novel have secret sins as well. The pleasure and the redemption in the face of human nature is to use the artistic materials at hand to create a beautiful and interesting pattern, preferably one that is as intricate and convoluted as possible, full of internal and external references, wordplay, and complexities that enhance the game aspect of the work of art (and thereby make it more exclusive).

Lolita is an American novel, but Nabokov was a Russian and a European novelist. He was, in some sense, the major heir to the nineteenth-century Russian novelists, and in spite of his own distaste for biographical connection, I think it is fair to observe how the pattern of Russian history produced his ideas. Nabokov's father was an enlightened liberal jurist in Russia who went into exile in 1919 and was assassinated in 1922, when Nabokov was twenty-three. The assassins were czarists. The great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were energized by a single quest - to find a way for Russia to enter the modern world without losing its Russian identity. Nabokov's father's assassination represented the path that Russia did not take, the constitutional Western secular path, and the author never stopped disdaining the path Russia did take. He readily saw that the fervor of the nineteenth-century novelists had resulted in a cruel and irrational upending of Russian society. As far as Nabokov was concerned, that closed off the two traditional forms of redemption - social change and spiritual change. The only alternative was to make the best of the physical world, flawed though it is.

Lolita has to be seen as the story of a man who is making the best of the world as he knows it - his only higher faculty
is a particular aesthetic response to a certain sort of girl. He wants to manipulate her as if she were a set of artistic materials. Early on, in fact, before the death of Lolita's mother, Charlotte, when Lolita happens to sit on his lap and he happens to climax without her realizing it, HH says, ‘Lolita had been safely solipsized,’ and then, ‘What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita - perhaps more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness - indeed, no life of her own’. Except that fate intervenes to tempt him with custody of the real Lolita, and his instincts are the worst possible guide to either fostering her or finding satisfaction himself. The result is that she escapes, he never stops loving her or regretting his treatment of her, he fails to expiate his sins in his own mind, and he discovers that their relationship has always been unpleasant and meaningless to Lolita. Nabokov was thoroughly familiar with French literature and certainly recognized that the physical trap that the imprisoned girl finds herself in is mirrored by the mental trap the libertine himself resides in - the more HH seeks satisfaction from Lolita, the less he can find it and the more obsessed with her he becomes. Her outer hell is his inner hell, and his inner hell drives him to reinforce her outer hell at every possible point. The difference between HH and other tormentors, even Proust's M., is that HH believes in love and they don't, but the practical methods they all use to imprison their victims are the same. More than that, Lolita is a classic European novel in its preoccupation with the classic European theme of the irreducibly ambiguous nature of women and girls. Nabokov's answer to the traditional question is muted but distinct - when HH finds Lolita married, pregnant, eighteen years old, and living in a shack with her husband, he respects her autonomy - not only her right to choose her life but also her right to judge her history for herself. He gives her money he owes her from her mother’s estate and leaves, more or less getting his papers in order so he can finish his tasks. But this recognition doesn’t resolve his frustration. He can't possess her, but he also can't leave the mental hell he has made for himself. Unfortunately for this autonomy theory, Lolita soon dies in childbirth, killed by the author, thereby rendering all of the action of the novel more or less meaningless except as an expression of HH's aesthetic.

Is Lolita a great novel? How does it compare to Anna Karenina, a novel that Nabokov himself respected, or to Middlemarch or to Madame Bovary? How does it compare to the monuments of modernism such as Ulysses or The Trial? For one thing, in 315 pages, Lolita is much more limited and less capacious than the socially descriptive and expansive nineteenth-century novels; it is less stylistically ambitious than Ulysses, less profound and original than The Trial. It doesn't quite sustain each third of the narrative (before Charlotte's death, between Charlotte's death and Lolita's escape, the pursuit of Quilty) - the last third is sketchy and not very interesting, as if the author can't realize HH without Lolita, or as if the stalking and the murder aren't that important to him as a theme, but he has to follow out the plot anyway. The last third shows that his observation of the American landscape is pictorial rather than analytical, not very insightful and similar in this to his observation of Lolita herself (as HH points out toward the end of his narrative). It might be assumed that since both novels ran into censorship difficulties, Lolita is similar to Ulysses in the way Lolita challenges sexual taboos, but Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, is a social outcast, not a moral outcast - Joyce makes the case for him that he is kinder and more truly connected than the people around him. Nabokov makes no such case for HH, and in fact HH never defends his abuse of Lolita; rather he never stops expressing his remorse. Lolita is more similar to Madame Bovary, in which the reader is asked to experience the subjective life of a character conventionally considered immoral. But the precedent of Flaubert's technique was a hundred years old by Nabokov's time, so technically Lolita is an advance upon Justine but not upon Madame Bovary. Lolita is a compelling, complex, and intriguing novel, but the only value it expresses is the value of freedom, and freedom, as Nabokov explores it, is highly ambiguous.

When HH and Lolita are driving around the country, doing whatever they wish, their freedom is a prison of idleness and fear. When Nabokov is asserting his artistic freedom from the political and moral traditions of the novel (and the Russian novel in particular), he finally has nowhere to take his plot - the action leads to no revelations that aren't already present in earlier sections of the book. He must fall back on reiteration of his original ideas to wind everything up. So no, I don't think Lolita is a great novel, but I also don't think, as an example of artistic experimentation, that it can be avoided by anyone truly interested in the history and nature of the novel.

- Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel


Don Quixote
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, 1605 / 1615
A comic study of delusion and its consequences; Don Quixote, the old gentleman of La Mancha, takes to the road in search of adventure and remains undaunted in the face of repeated disaster.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman
Laurence Sterne, 1759-1767
Part novel, part digression, this gloriously disordered narrative interweaves the birth and life of the unfortunate 'hero' Tristram Shandy, the eccentric philosophy of his father Walter, the amours and military obsessions of Uncle Toby, and a host of other characters.

Dead Souls
Nikolai Gogol, 1842
In this quintessentially Russian novel, the reader follows Chichikov, a dismissed civil servant turned con-man, through the countryside in pursuit of his shady enterprise.

Bleak House
Charles Dickens, 1852-1853
A savage, but often comic, indictment of a society that is rotten to the core, Bleak House is one of Dickens' s most ambitious novels, with a range that extends from the drawing rooms of the aristocracy to the poorest of London slums.

Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life
Gustave Flaubert, 1857
Emma Bovary, a young country doctor' s wife, seeks escape from the boredom of her existence in love affairs and romantic yearnings, but is doomed to disillusionment.

Swann's Way
Marcel Proust, 1913
Volume I of Proust's In Search of Lost Time. The narrator interrupts reminiscences about his childhood spent in late-nineteenth-century France to recall the hopeless love affair that a friend of the family carries on with young Odette de Crecy.

The Metamorphosis
Franz Kafka, 1915
'published in Kafka's lifetime'
A man awakens up one morning to find himself transformed into an enormous insect.

James Joyce, 1922
Stylistically varied Homer-parody about the Dublin everyman Leopold Bloom, who emerges as surrogate father to Stephen Dedalus on the day his wife Molly sleeps with another man.

Eugene Onegin
Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, 1823-1831
Eugene Onegin, an aristocrat, much like Pushkin and his peers in his attitude and habits, is bored. He visits the countryside where the young and passionate Tatyana falls in love with him. In a touching letter she confesses her love but is cruelly rejected. Years later, it is Onegin's turn to be rejected by Tatyana.


'in English'
The story of Humbert Humbert and his obsession with 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Determined to possess his 'Lolita' both carnally and artistically, Humbert embarks on a disastrous courtship that can only end in tragedy.

Junichiro Tanizaki, 1925
The Westernization of a Japanese bar girl spells trouble for her rather masochistic husband.

The Happy Hunting Grounds
Nanne Tepper, 1995
Incest, madness & romance in the peat. Steeped in an unearthly and unsettling fenland landscape, relationships like that between Victor and his teen sister tend to mist up the perspectives of the 'normal'.

Emilio's Carnival, or 'Senilità'
Italo Svevo, 1898
The amorous entanglement of Emilio, a failed writer already old at thirty-five, and Angiolina, a seductively beautiful but promiscuous young woman. (Originally translated under the title A Man Grows Older.)

Breakfast at Tiffany's
Truman Capote, 1958/ 1961
Holly Golightly is generally up all night drinking cocktails and breaking hearts. She hasn't got a past. She doesn't want to belong to anything or anyone, not even to her one-eyed rag-bag pirate of a cat. One day Holly might find somewhere she belongs.

Franz Kafka, 1927P
Presents the story of Karl Rossman who, after an embarrassing sexual misadventure with a servant girl, is banished to America by his parents. Expected to redeem himself in the magical land of opportunity, he instead gets swept up in a whirlwind of strange escapades and dizzying adventures.

[Alfa Amerika]
Jan van Loy, 2005
A four-part novel about Europeans with American dreams of fame, fortune, and ecstasy.

The Europeans
Henry James, 1878
Eugenia, an American expatriate brought up in Europe, arrives in rural New England with her charming brother Felix, hoping to find a wealthy second husband after the collapse of her marriage to a German prince.

The Loved One
Evelyn Waugh, 1927
One of Waugh's less well known works, The Loved One is a black romp through the strange world of California's funeral parlors.

Changing Places
David Lodge, 1975
The plate-glass, concrete jungle of Euphoria State University, USA, and the damp red-brick University of Rummidge have an annual exchange scheme. Normally the exchange passes without comment. But when Philip Swallow swaps with Professor Zapp the fates play a hand.

Jorges Luis Borges, 1935/ 1944 / 1949
This is a collection of Borges's fiction, translated and gathered into a single volume. From his 1935 debut with The Universal History of Iniquity, through the influential collections Ficciones and The Aleph, to his final work from the 1980s, Shakespeare Memory.

Flaubert's Parrot
Julian Barnes, 1984
A retired English doctor, in solitary widowhood, makes a pilgrimage through the life and art of Gustave Flaubert, whose work he has always venerated. As he meditates on his passion, he reveals as much about himself as he uncovers about Flaubert.

The Crying of Lot 49
Thomas Pynchon, 1966
A surreal comedy satirizing Californian life. Oedipa Maas, a recent heiress, pursues enquiries into the nature of her inheritance and the motivation of her dead lover and is led on an ambiguous trail of clues.

[Rachels rokje]
Charlotte Mutsaers, 1994
A young girl in a world of language and associations.

Laughter in the Dark
A wealthy man in early twentieth-century Berlin is attracted to a lovely young girl and abandons his wife and home to begin a disastrous and unrequited love affair.
In this tale, Hermann, a German chocolate manufacturer, stumbles across a man he believes to be his double and starts plotting to turn this accidental encounter to his advantage.
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight
The Real Life of Sebastian Knight is a perversely magical literary detective story - subtle, intricate, leading to a tantalizing climax - about the mysterious life of a famous writer.
Professor Timofey Pnin, late of Tsarist Russia, is now precariously perched on a college campus in the fast beating heart of the USA. In a series of funny and sad misunderstandings, Pnin does halting battle with American life and language.
Pale Fire
A novel constructed around the last great poem of a fictional American poet, John Shade, and an account of his death. The poem appears in full and the narrative develops through the lengthy, and increasingly eccentric, notes by his posthumous editor.
Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle
1969 / 1990 (reissue edition)
Psychological novel about an incestuous relationship in a decadent family.
The Luzhin Defence
One of the major novels by Vladimir Nabokov, originally entitled 'The Defense'. The novel features a chess-playing genius Luzhin who discovers his gift in boyhood, rising to the rank of Grandmaster.
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The Ledge
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