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In this section of his essay (I’m being selective; it’s quite long), Martin Amis simply wants to establish Nabokov’s artistic control in Lolita, the way the text makes its condemnation of Humbert Humbert brilliantly clear to the careful reader:

Lolita’s … judgment of Humbert’s abomination it is … severe. To establish this it is necessary to adduce only two key points. First, the fate of its tragic heroine. No unprepared reader could be expected to notice that Lolita meets a terrible end on page two of the novel that bears her name: “Mrs ‘Richard F Schiller’ died in childbed”, says the “editor” in his Foreword, “giving birth to a still-born girl . . . in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest”; and the novel is almost over by the time Mrs Richard F Schiller (ie, Lo) briefly appears. Thus we note, with a parenthetical gasp, the size of Nabokov’s gamble on greatness. “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book,” he once announced (at the lectern), “one can only reread it.” Nabokov knew that Lolita would be reread, and re-reread. He knew that we would eventually absorb Lolita’s fate – her stolen childhood, her stolen womanhood. Gray Star, he wrote, is “the capital town of the book”. The shifting half-tone – gray star, pale fire, torpid smoke: this is the Nabokovian crux.

The second fundamental point is the description of a recurring dream that shadows Humbert after Lolita has flown (she absconds with the cynically carnal Quilty). It is also proof of the fact that style, that prose itself, can control morality. Who would want to do something that gave them dreams like these?

“. . . she did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte [his ex-wives], or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would find myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly misplaced, in horrible chambres garnies, where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-a-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.”

That final phrase, with its clear allusion, reminds us of the painful and tender diffidence with which Nabokov wrote about the century’s terminal crime. His father, the distinguished liberal statesman (whom Trotsky loathed), was shot dead by a fascist thug in Berlin; and Nabokov’s homosexual brother, Sergey, was murdered in a Nazi concentration camp (“What a joy you are well, alive, in good spirits,” Nabokov wrote to his sister Elena, from the US to the USSR, in November 1945. “Poor, poor Seryozha . . . !”). Nabokov’s wife, Véra, was Jewish, and so, therefore, was their son (born in 1934); and there is a strong likelihood that if the Nabokovs had failed to escape from France when they did (in May 1940, with the Wehrmacht 70 miles from Paris), they would have joined the scores of thousands of undesirables delivered by Vichy to the Reich.

In his fiction, to my knowledge, Nabokov wrote about the Holocaust at paragraph length only once – in the incomparable Pnin (1957). Other references, as in Lolita, are glancing. Take, for example, this one-sentence demonstration of genius from the insanely inspired six-page short story “Signs and Symbols” (it is a description of a Jewish matriarch):

“Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”

Pnin goes further. At an émigré houseparty in rural America a Madam Shpolyanski mentions her cousin, Mira, and asks Timofey Pnin if he has heard of her “terrible end”. “Indeed, I have,” Pnin answers. Gentle Timofey sits on alone in the twilight. Then Nabokov gives us this:

“What chatty Madam Shpolyanski mentioned had conjured up Mira’s image with unusual force. This was disturbing. Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death, could one cope with this for a moment. In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself . . . never to remember Mira Belochkin – not because . . . the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind . . . but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible. One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought that this graceful, fragile, tender young woman with those eyes, that smile, those gardens and snows in the background, had been brought in a cattle car and killed by an injection of phenol into the heart, into the gentle heart one had heard beating under one’s lips in the dusk of the past.”

How resonantly this passage chimes with Primo Levi’s crucial observation that we cannot, we must not, “understand what happened”. Because to “understand” it would be to “contain” it. “What happened” was “non-human”, or “counter-human”, and remains incomprehensible to human beings.

By linking Humbert Humbert’s crime to the Shoah, and to “those whom the wind of death has scattered” (Paul Celan), Nabokov pushes out to the very limits of the moral universe. Like The Enchanter, Lolita is airtight, intact and entire. The frenzy of the unattainable desire is confronted, and framed, with stupendous courage and cunning…

Why is that sentence from the short story a demonstration of genius?

“Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths – until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.”

Well, for one thing… speaking of rereading… I’m always rereading “Signs and Symbols,” and not only because I teach it when I teach The Short Story. I read it all the time because it’s beautiful and mysterious. And this particular sentence that Amis cites always gets to me; it jumps out at me. I think it’s because it compacts into itself so much – the smartly listed attributes of Rosa, her farcical delight in bad news. She’s a comic Jewish stereotype, the woman who greets everyone she knows with Who died?

Having sketched her wild tremulous hyperactivity, Nabokov just as quickly has the Germans put all that hyperactivity to death – thereby conveying the staggering, naked rapidity of her murder, the instant sledgehammer of the real, as opposed to the soft, scattered, mainly fantasized disasters with which she liked to excite herself. Nabokov’s phrase “put her to death,” in this context, echoes sickeningly with the image of a parent calming a child and putting her to bed. The final phrase of the sentence – “together with all the people she had worried about” – carries a very strong force of restrained outrage; it seems the longterm result of a disgust so distilled as to become a sort of weird, sardonic stoicism.

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One Response to “Soltan on Amis on Nabokov: Part Two”

  1. University Diaries » Martin Amis on Vladimir Nabokov: Final Post Says:

    […] the same sort of sentence we saw here, in Part Two of my series of posts on the Amis essay? Recall the sentence from Nabokov’s short story, […]

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