19 January 2008

Lo! Lola! Lolita!

A friend of mine (not pictured right) threw out a quote from Lolita a few months ago. "Ah, Lolita," I said. "I haven't read that in years." And so began a re-discovery of sorts.

I know I've only read it once before though it's been so long I can't remember when. I know I haven't seen or plan to see the films made about the novel. And I don't plan to speak much about how brilliant the novel is (it is) or how exquisitely well-written the novel is (it is). This is all known.

Yes, of course, I was swept away by the use of the English language by this non-native speaker. Yes, I laughed out loud a couple times. Yes, I held my breath a couple times while reading through several particular scenes. Yes, I continued to think about the novel for three or four days after completing it. But what struck me most this time around is something I hold near and dear to my heart: the Western-ness of the novel; not in the gunslinging and cattle driving kind of way, but in the ability of the landscape of the American West to represent something so young, so new, so beautiful, and so, so Lolita-like! I'm certainly no Nabakov scholar so it's quite possible all of this has been said in countless dissertations, theses, journal entries, undergraduate critical analysis papers, and high school book reports. No matter. It moved me as most visions of wide-open spaces and sagebrush and distant peaks within my beloved American West move me.

If we see Humbert Humbert as a hanger-on, one of the last great European snobs to set foot on the uncultured soil of the United States, then gum-chewing, teen-idol-worshiping, street slang-slurring Dolores "Loita" Haze is most certainly his foil and not-so-guilty pleasure. And to push it further (maybe not so much further) aren't we witnessing the tried and tired Old Europe finally relenting to the unsophisticated but vibrant, lusty, and, ultimately, irresistible New America? The same America that just bailed Old Europe out from the death grip of fascism? The America on the rise. The America that Humbert loves to hate. And what better to represent the bane of Hum's existence than the diners and Kozy Kabins and wayside caverns and "bubbling mud" and "sandstone festoons" and twenty or so Hell's Canyons and fifty or so "Gateway(s) to something or other" than the American West, the youngest of the young America, the most uncivilized, the least refined?

There is an interesting website by a German "author, editor, translator, former staff writer of the weekly Die Zeit" and someone who is at least as obsessed with Vladimir Nabokov's novel as Humbert Humbert was with Lolita. Apparently, the writer set off on his own cross country trip following the footsteps of Lo and Hum and trying to discover the real place names from the fictional ones used in the novel, or, as the writer puts it, "a geographical scrutiny of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955/1958)". It's well done and pretty fun as he uses direct quotes from the novel and a version of the American Automobile Association's 1947 Guide to America Tour Book to approximate the real places Nabakov disguised in the novel.

For what reason the website was created and how I stumbled upon it I'm not sure. One of the more interesting aspects is that the author posts images of some of the places visited with 1950s/60s-era postcards. Place after place, it seems, are towns and roads and attractions I know intimately. From Dubois, Lander, and Evanston, Wyoming to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. From Burns, and Crater Lake, Oregon to Sun Valley, and Buhl, Idaho. And from Reno, Nevada to Pinedale, Wyoming I've spent at least as many hours driving up and down those scenic, lonely roads as Humbert sans a twelve-year-old in tow.

If a good novel can take us to places we've never been then, I suppose, it can also bring us back home. And sitting here in a place as far away as Santiago, Chile I feel much closer to home again than I did before starting my summer novel. I like to think that, somehow, the desolate beauty of places like Burns, Oregon and Pinedale, Wyoming gave Lolita the necessary strength and courage to run from Humbert. That somehow for her, like me, the endless landscapes reflect not only potential but a resistance to inflexible cultural traditions. Humbert is neither able to shake his personal perversions nor his dogmatic principles. His interest is neither in the country that spills out before him nor the wishes of a child he has chosen to possess. He is blind and rigid to the world where Lolita sees opportunity and light.

I don't mean to suggest that the novel is a showdown between the Old World and the New, the West and the East, young and old, or right and wrong. It's just that the longer I stay away from the places I love the most the easier it is to see those reasons for my love in everything I read, hear, see, and do. So, for me, Lolita is not as much about opposing forces at odds with each other as it is the certainty of transformation either from innocence to experience and back again or from the realization that the uncharted roads that fill our lives just might, if we let go of the wheel for short spells, take us to places of endless beauty and wonder. They both die in the end (don't we all?) but while Humbert dies resisting, Lolita, at least, dies trying: trying to make sense, trying to adapt, trying to fit in.

I, like both Humbert and Lolita, may very well never know a true, settled version of a "home." I think, however, that part of the reason I'm able to keep venturing into new places is the idea of a singular home as large as the Great Basin and as permanent as my collected memories. We should all have the opportunity to drive back and forth across the Continental Divide. Hopefully, one day, we might even see where we're going.

PS: Thanks, Bob, for the picture!

1 comment:

Lea Hartl said...

reading novels just because you can is such a luxury. i have a pile here gathering dust and read scientific papers about atmospheric dynamics as bedtime stories instead.

homesickness in moderation is not a bad thing. i only like metallica when i'm far, far away from home. i don't quite see them fitting into your musical tastes too well, but you never know..

"where I lay my head is home
...and the earth becomes my throne
I adapt to the unknown
under wandering stars I've grown
by myself but not alone"

ps: SeƱor el Gringo needs fatter skis.