MoonOverPittsburgh

Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

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Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Lolita, the Great American Novel?

I hate that phrase: Great American Novel. It's no different than any other attempt to apply abosolute superlatives to art of any sort, and as such it's an intrinsically silly exercise. That's not to say it isn't fun, though.

So who are the usual suspects, generally? Gatsby, Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn? Maybe we should throw Roth's Great American Novel out of respect for his hubris?

I submit, and I'm sure a Google search would reveal that I'm not the first, that it's eminent emigre Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov's brilliant novel, his third composed in the English Language, Lolita.

I haven't read the book in four or five years, have not in any way been prompted to consider it as a candidate, but damn if it didn't just pop into my head, as I contemplate my own incipient project, that the answer is obvious.

What does Lolita have that justifies the brazen compliment / epithet? Let's consider, shall we?:

We'll begin, out of respect for the author, by noting that it is a celebration of the language, a travelogue if you will of what Nabokov characterized, in precisely this connection, as his "love affair with the English language." That's a healthy start, but of course every author cited above would have confessed to a love of the language, so that's not enough.

What else? Well, the book, textually, contextually, and philosophically seriously games this nation's paradoxical obsession with the prurient, its persistent inner conflict between its baser urges and its puritanical origins, its embarrassed celebration (ongoing) of sex and violence and its latent guilt over its pleasure in same. These factors take it somewhere Gatsby never aspired to reach, somewhere Melville wouldn't have dared to go. Both of those books principally concerned themselves with American striving. And of course striving is a critical ingredient in American-ness, to be sure, but it is only one ingredient, and there are many.

Next (and I recognize this point is debatable, but I'm not a scholar and don't have to deal with peer review), Lolita, better than any of the other novels named, explores quietly the nature of the sort of immigration that forged this nation. Not the refugee aspect so much -- although Nabokov was that, in at least some sense -- but the aspirational sense of it -- give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses -- coming to this nation not to escape appalling oppression or genocide, but merely for capital-O Opportunity, an open-endedness that is peculiarly our heritage, if somewhat more in word, in mythos, than in fact.

Then of course there's the veneration of youth to the point of pathology. Everyone loves their children -- there's nothing peculiar about that. But the celebration of youth, the veneration of it, the singular terror at the thought of aging and the ludicrous lengths we go to forestall and deny it, these things are American, and long before this country succumbed utterly to youth's thrall Nabokov wrote about with brilliant clarity. The book, notwithstanding its censors' protests to the contrary, was no defense or rationalization of pedophilia of any sort -- rather, it was a metaphor for a deep unsettledness most of us share with the thought of aging. And the cycle that reflects is self-perpetuating -- we are terrified of aging because we are all too familiar with our own discomfiture at people aging around us. Reification, to leverage a scholarly sort of term.

Finally, at least among encompassing aspects of the work, there is the on-the-road aspect. No country so celebrates its spaciousness as this country does, and of course in the past hundred years this has manifested in a perverse obsession with the automobile. In this regard as well, Nabokov's sense of this place was ahead of its time. Of course, the road novel aspects of Lolita (and couldn't one argue that his was the first true road novel?) reflects more than mere transience, itself a hallowed American tradition. It reflects precisely the aspirational facet so critical to this culture's sense of itself, the idea of escape and reinvention, which I won't dwell on since it's the subject of too much thought already -- it's become a truism of sorts, and I won't pursue it here.

Then there are more fragmentary aspects of the work that further qualify it for the ridiculous title: the celebrity culture emblematized by Quilty; pop culture refracted through the prism of Dolores, a teeny-bopper entirely in the sway of commercial pop impulses, submerged in the tropes of pop culture that now bombard our children with frightening force and persistence; the preternatural obsession with the One Who Got Away, and so on.

So there -- the case is made and I've persuaded myself. If any novel composed in the English language deserves the title Great American Novel, it is Lolita, by V.V. Nabokov, Russian emigre extraordinaire (by way, of course, of France), who saw us ever so much more astutely than we see ourselves.

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15 Comments:

Blogger rachel said...

i'm for Gatsby, personally, but will spare you the argumentation unless requested. you have, i will grant, made a lovely and persuasive case for Lolita.

10:25 PM  
Blogger rachel said...

Here we go:

One of the more material reasons I go to Gatsby is that it’s short. There is something honest to me in the brevity of the narrative, the intense condensation of a history into not so many pages, something that emerges from the short and intense history of America. (this may also, of course, be symptomatic of my feeling the Victorians have cornered the market on the three volume novel; but really, American novels work better for me when they are shorter. 19th – early 20th century American novels, anyway. I don’t begrudge Neal Stephenson or Mark Danielewski a single word.)

I see what your saying about Lolita’s gaming of our more prurient impulses and contradictions, but I think the Gatsby funeral scene gets to this, reminds us just how exploitative the thrust of the novel has been, how much we delighted in its most exploitative passages, how implicit we are in the abandoning of Gatsby, how little we actually cared for him too.

For me, the characters in Gatsby assemble to create a feeling I can’t find anywhere else. Jordan, sensible and likeable and a cheater, Tom and his pseudo-intellectual racism, Daisy wondering “Don’t you always look for the longest day of the y ear and then miss it?”. And the Eckleberg (sp?) billboard, the advertisement wordlessly presiding and exuding a blind morality. Nick’s discovery of his moral compass is a poor kind of payoff (and cheapened by his (knowingly false) declaration that Gatsby is ‘worth the whole lot of them’) and Gatsby’s dad, who we want to embrace in all his working class earnestness, is obtuse and even more a wisp of a man than Myrtle’s husband George. The deep pessimism, the rending of it in language that is lyrical in its beauty, it really gets to me. But it is the combined effect of feeling the comfort Gatsby (and Daisy and Tom and Nick and Myrtle) has in memory that is my ultimate take-away. “Boats against the current” is one of those metaphors that vibrates with intensity; “born ceaselessly back into our past” is one of those sentiments that is both devastating and untouchably comforting.

You do well to point out the importance of the on-the-road element, and I think Gatsby foresees the hugeness of the automobile to the American psyche, fairly obviously. Fitzgerald works to convey a kind of spaciousness in the trip from West Egg to Manhattan, and he sort of gets it with the expansive ash heaps, but those are such a flagrant Dickens’s rip off (cf. dust mounds in Our Mutual Friend) that it doesn’t entirely work.

Your argument about the celebration of youth is really very persuasive and I grant that the fake English ivy on Gatsby’s mansion can’t quite approximate what Nabokov gets at with Lolita. I also think the narratorial tone of Lolita works better; every time I read it, Nick Carraway starts to get to me right around the great drunken party scene with Myrtle and sisters. But it also may be that the faux neutral moralizing is part of what makes this the quintessential American novel for me.

8:16 AM  
Blogger brian said...

I'll throw On the Road out there. I know that many critics and scholars have called Kerouac a "typist," but I've read the book several times, his lyricism is just stunning. And, much like Fitzgerald, Kerouac was very accurately capturing the spirit of his time.

9:28 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

with regard to OTR, Brian, i'll grant that it deserves a place in the discussion, and it's probably the i-don't-get-the-fuss bias i have toward it that precluded me from selecting it as an example. i wasn't consciously employing my biases in selecting examples (i don't love gatsby either, though i'd rate it higher on the GAN scale than OTR); i was reaching for consensus examples, and OTR deserves recognition in that regard. on that note, i also imagine there's something in hemingway and probably something in dreiser that deserves consideration, but as to the former i've read only The Sun Also Rises and Garden of Eden, neither of which is an appropriate selection, and of the latter's oeuvre i've read only Sister Carrie, which might be a candidate, though i don't remember it terribly well, and as i recall its mediocre writing would exclude it from "Great" regardless of whether it emblematizes americanness in some material regard.

rach, i don't suppose i want to dispute you, because you make valid points and there's no question that Gatsby is right up there in any discussion of the GAM.

i hadn't thought of the closing metaphor, boats borne back ceaselessly to the past, in this light, but it does nicely capture our conflicted go-go cultural orientation, it resonates with some of my thoughts about our cultural problem with age (and it's not the only thing in the book that does so, to be sure).

i think probably the clinchers for me, speaking comparatively, are twofold, one aesthetic and one substantive. aesthetically, i'm inclined to disqualify fitzgerald simply because i feel as though he was trying to write the GAM, and that annoys me -- the hubris of it. VVN, by contrast, couldn't be bothered -- that sensibility would have been tres tres gauche to him. that's not to say he wasn't arrogant as hell, even in excess of FSF: in Look at the Harlequins, his swan song, his aging protagonist, an obvious stand-in for VVN himself, considers: "Was I a great writer? Yes, I was a great writer."

also, while you've got the urban / rural conflict in Gatsby, something implicit as well in the semi-rural travel that limns Lolita, the pure emigre aspect, which is so utterly central to any real understanding of this culture, is largely missing from Gatsby while the clash and assimilation of European and American values are among the central considerations in Lolita.

a propos brevity, i think it does a disservice to Lolita to compare it to Stephenson and Danielewski. it's not a very long novel (and don't forget that Danielewski's latest book is exactly 360 pages long (echoing the degrees in a circle in a circular narrative), and his debut had an awful lot of nearly blank pages in the middle, 90 or so if memory serves. i read that passage in a manner of minutes (of course, i read the labyrinthine section up front, all 20 pages of it, over three very focused hours, so i suppose it balanced out).

brian, appreciation for the lyricism aside, what makes you think of OTR specifically as a GAM candidate?

9:30 PM  
Blogger rachel said...

right, i didn't necessarily mean to compare Lolita to House of Leaves or Snow Crash, so much, I just like shorter American novels better, and the exception seems to be contemporary novels that are excessively PoMo/gimmicky/sci-fi-y (so forget Dreiser as far as I'm concerned). I know this won't win me any more esteem from you, but I could do with a few less words in Underworld.

I think the Grapes of Wrath is the other that I most frequently hear included in this group. I've always felt One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest deserves a place in the conversation, but I tend to stand alone there. And, to be sure, no Americanist am I so I usually defer.

It's a very good point, the emigre factor. there is something more narrow about gatsby in that respect.

In the end, you and I are both moved by some instinctual factors - reactions to length, authorial persona, tone - that reflect less about the novels and more about us.

Have you read the new Danielewski? I found it basically illegible and can't believe the National Book Award powers apparently got through it.

7:25 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

i have not read the new danielewski, but i imagine i'll feel compelled to do so -- HoL, for all its pretension, was pretty spectacular, and he's earned a second look. btw, i'm pretty sure armand is having similar problems with the new one; i believe he said he'd set it aside in frustration for a little while.

the other person i'd like to submit for consideration is richard powers, although the fact that his work is hardly ubiquitous is a problem. both Prisoner's Dilemma and The Time of Our Singing touch on manifestly American milieux (? -- why do i bother; i know even less french than i do the other romance languages), immigration and walt disney and WWII in the former, and in the latter immigration and race and high and low art in the latter, and do so with incredible beauty and insight, and they are both unabashedly ambitious and skeptically credulous about american myth-making in a way i find terribly transporting and thought-provoking. and then there's the fact that, sentence by sentence, i don't know that i've ever read anyone who writes more beautifully. (seriously, if you've never read him, buy Time of Out Singing; buy it now.)

meanwhile, i'm trying to get jane and armand into the conversation, as both would have much to add. i'm hoping jane will suggest a candidate hemingway.

also, i'm trying to decide if any of DeLillo or Pynchon qualifies. Underworld would, i suppose, be DeLillo's entry, though an argument might be made for Libra as well. for Pynchon i'm not sure there's anything -- perhaps Mason & Dixon -- but i'm not prepared to make the case.

11:16 AM  
Blogger rachel said...

Personally, I would go to jane for the Faulkner suggestion.

And I feel like Beloved can be in the conversation

12:16 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I feel terribly out of my depth, stepping into this conversation as I haven't read nearly enough of the books that might qualify (for example, I've never read Lolita). And I can't talk about well (or remember well) some of the books that I think would be sure things on any short list of possibilities (say, An American Tragedy). That said, of the books that leap to mind, I think Gatsby absolutely, postively must make the short list.

Why? I don't know how to say it exactly. The focus on class (and nouveau class), decay, the undercurrents of violence and menace, the mendacity, the man rising above his station - and what he has to do to achieve that, the whimsy, the laziness, people who aren't careful, the drive for wealth (that isn't enough) ... I guess I could write on one or more themes tied to those points. All could be explanded to say something about "America", but a key thing to me, and maybe this fits into Rachel's shortness point, is the language. It's just written in a style that seems to me to be terribly American. Less hard and obvious than Hemingway. Less lyrical than some others. But hard at points, and wonderfully lyrical when it really matters (like in the opening, and especially at the end).

Anyway, my two cents.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Moon said...

scott, glaring omission (Lolita) aside (and about that, see further comments/threat infra), you're no less qualified than i am to hang in this conversation.

and thanks for providing the appropriate dreiser. of course, i had to look it up to refresh my memory (i haven't read it; Sister Carrie was about 200 more pages of Dreiser than i needed in this lifetime). i love wikipedia: "Among Clyde's love interests are the materialistic Hortense Briggs, the charming farmer's daughter Roberta Alden, and the aristocratic Sondra Finchley. The book is naturalistic in style, containing subject matter such as religion, capital punishment and abortion." of course, these things, especially abortion, are critical to naturalism. but my favorite part is this:

Dreiser based the book on the notorious 1906 criminal case, in which Chester Gillette was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Grace Brown, at Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. The murder trial drew international attention when Brown's love letters to Gillette were read in court. Theodore Dreiser saved newspaper clippings about the case for some 15 years before writing his novel. Clyde Griffiths was based on Chester Gillette, right down to the same initials.
what could be more American than ripping a story from the headlines that you lack the creativity to match on your own. draw your facts from a source like that, add some ham-fisted symbolism, and boom -- Great American Novel.

i agree, vis-a-vis GG, that the class issues that it seems gratuitous to say inform the narrative are GG's strenth over Lolita on par with Lolita's strength over GG regarding the immigrant aspects of our culture. and on a personal note, surely that's where GG most engages me -- in its revelation of all the false premises in America's version of class, and also in its lie to itself that it is something like a classless society.

oh, and scott, dah-ling, if you don't read Lolita by the next time i see you in person, so help me god i will slap you silly. and that's not a ham-fisted metaphor by any stretch of the imagination. and you never know when i might just decide it's a nice night for a long drive. you have been warned. ;-)

3:19 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

I'll keep that in mind. :)

Thinking on this a bit more as the day's gone on, I've had a bit of trouble coming up with other possibilities to make this list. So maybe we've already hit the right answer. But if not - are there other titles we should through into the mix? Particularly newer ones? The only book since Underworld that comes to my mind as possibly meriting discussion is Kavalier and Clay.

8:22 PM  
Blogger carrie said...

i own a copy of lolita which i have never read. i'm putting it on my nightstand tonight!

read GG in highschool, but i didn't like it then. i'm sure i owe it another reading.

11:07 PM  
Blogger old man neill said...

well defended. i've never taken lolita as anything other than one of Nabokov's many literary exercises. as an exercise - brilliant. as a novel...sucky!

1:40 PM  
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