Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Lolita: The Power of Narrative Voice

Reading Lolita is an interesting experience. It’s supremely uncomfortable for the obvious reasons. A more subtle reason for the discomfort, is that Humbert Humbert is an eloquent, even funny, narrator that is seemingly fully aware of how reprehensible his behavior and thoughts are. He uses beautiful language to slow down moments and twists them into scenes. It’s not the language of a monster. That irony serves a dual purpose– it unwittingly ensnares a reader into sympathizing (possibly more accurately, pitying) or simply engaging with Humbert which then discomfits the reader further when Humbert’s monstrosities come to light.

It’s to Nobokov’s credit that he was able to do this in the voice of the narrator. In an interview with the Paris Review, he dismissed the notion that Humbert “retains a touching and insistent quality,” by saying outright, “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.”

It’s an incredible feat, then, for Nobokov to have written a character in which he despised from the perspective of the despicable who affects an elevated language in order to garner the reader’s sympathy (the whole thing is essentially Humbert pleading not to be put to death).

What you have to remember is that Humbert is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Because he’s very forthcoming with the crimes that he’s committed and of his own repulsive desires, it’s tempting to call Humbert an honest, if not utterly damaged, man. And the objective events of the book I took pretty much at face value. He probably is relating the story the way that it happened.

Kind of. I trust that he reports the objective events of the following: Humbert moved into the house, he married Charlotte, Charlotte died, he kidnapped Dolores, raped her for two years, Dolores escaped, Humbert murdered Quilty.

Where Humbert’s account gets dubious is his own interior thoughts. He takes every opportunity to state how disgusted he is with himself as much as he does to place himself on the moralistic high ground (AKA justification). He takes great pains to discuss what a good father figure he was to Dolores, teaching her tennis and French. He refuses to say the F word, or any curse word higher than “bitch”-caliber. (Don’t trust people who don’t swear, kids.)

Meanwhile he does what he can to slander, ever so subtly, the other characters in the book. He describes a dopey villain of the other pedophile, Quilty, distancing himself from the badder guy (and describes their “final battle” with such lethargic energy and grace that it seems that he’s almost trying to make the whole thing seem mutually dignified). Charlotte’s described as desperate and embarrassingly clingy (which doesn’t quite add up to her refusal to trust Humbert before her death or the fact that her confessional love note was mysteriously ripped to pieces and flushed down the toilet, a flourish in the letter itself that Humbert admits to adding himself in its recreation). And then there’s the infamous through-line of Dolores being a contemptible, promiscuous little brat. All of that is meant to make Humbert seem more like the reasonable, albeit troubled, fellow that he presents himself to be amidst a cast of rather “crazy” characters.

Because his trip is about love, right? He waxes poetic about Dolores and unravels long-winded soliloquies about her beauty and her more benevolent qualities. You might believe him and critics definitely did (it says on the cover of my copy that it is “the only convincing love story of the century.”). But that too might be pure horse shit. Humbert’s interior journey ends when he claims that he is finally capable of loving Dolores now that her good looks have been ruined at the ripe old age of 17. That’s a pretty solid hint that what he sees as redemption is still mired in the psyche of his disease.

His elevated style breaks down when confronted by violence, at which point he becomes what he truly is– crass. As much as he expounds on the quality of the stitching on Dolores’s blouse, he uncharacteristically sums up the scene of Charlotte’s death rather abruptly and crudely: “the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and blood” (p. 98).

Sidenote: It’s unclear in Humbert’s confession whether or not he killed Charlotte. I’m nearly convinced that he did given that the only other (flimsy) explanation for Charlotte being struck by a car is a mysterious puddle of ice that flung her into traffic, the softer way that Humbert recalls Charlotte’s memory after this point, and the fact that he’s a total fuckin’ liar– this is when he claims that poets cannot be murderers (I believe, apropos of nothing) while later admitting that he is a murderer later in the novel.

The way that he dismisses the scene in such a short, blunt manner indicates that Humbert Humbert cannot extravagantly explore the brutal reality of what he is or the consequences of his actions– but he also can’t deny them. It’s in this moment (and a few others) where Nobokov cuts the flowery bullshit and we see a hint of Humbert’s actual character: a pathetic, insane, murderous pedophile that wishes to delude the audience (as well as himself) as to the severity of his crimes. Humbert’s a man that wears a mask of intelligence to hide his barbarism.

In that Paris Review, Nobokov refers to his non-Humbert characters as “eidolons,” which the nerdier Final Fantasy set of you already understand as “a conjured spirit.” It’s a peculiar, metaliterary phrase for Nobokov to use, but one that distills a proper vision of the whole novel: while Lolita is Nobokov’s brainchild, every character described in the novel is 90% a feature of Humbert’s imagining of the events. Remember, Humbert is a novelist himself. And his story is a coward’s fantasy to appeal to the sympathies of his jury.

This book speaks to the power of voice as a literary instrument. It’s definitely in the Aikido Writing School of thought in which the narrator is able to use his own lyrical flow against the reader and fling them, in this case, into the vulnerable territory of sympathy. And for for the investigative reader, distrust and ultimately the very basic shadow story underlying the entire thing. (Perhaps Nobokov is Ninja.)

If nothing else, Lolita endures as a novel that confuses many, angers some, and still stands as a nigh perfect execution of utilizing narrative craft.

It’s also the worst book to read on the bus, bar none.

I thought a lot about how first person narrative manipulates the story as it unfolds in The Least of 99 Evils. If you’d like to see my take on the concept, buy a copy!

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Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

Characterization: Relatable = Insecure

The task of characterization is multi-faceted. The classic advice says to make your protagonist “likable.” Enough literary evidence exists to negate that claim. I’m reading Lolita right now and I hate Humbert Humbert.

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I think you can shuck “likable” and instead focus on “relatable.”

I’m going to focus on Lolita in a future post, but for now I’ll raise the question: is Humbert Humbert relatable? Despite being a monster, he seems aware of his own monstrosity– which is why we hate him. He knows better and he continues to act in his deplorable self-interest. While Humbert lays down a lot of unreliable justifications for his behavior, there is a steady thrum of self-loathing under-riding his confession. Humbert hates himself as much as the reader, and that’s what makes that book, ultimately, readable.

I’ll focus on the question: how do you affect relatability in fiction?

The classic advice is to give your character’s an Achille’s heel. No one wants to read about invincible characters. Superman is the classic example of a character so strong, the writers had to contrive a series of convolutions to make him vulnerable, which usually made him seem more improbable and cartoonish. The Watchmen had a clever take on the Superman surrogate, the god-like Dr. Manhattan, by rooting his story in his depersonalization– he distances himself to the point that he no longer can empathize with the human beings he protects and sees their struggle as merely a problem with cold and precise solutions.

It’s in that psychological development that the reader can, ironically, relate to Manhattan. Everyone’s gotten so sick of all of the terrible things that human beings inflict on each other that they retreat from society for a while– there’s a reason people vacation on solitary beaches and stare at nothing for hours on end, the same way Manhattan disappears to Mars and creates intricate statues (for lack of a better term) that have been unfouled by man.

But to the point I’m driving at, relatability becomes more intriguing when you expose the character’s psychological insecurities, instead of their physical limitations. In Sin City, the badass Marv takes a moment of pause, crying along a bridge when he realizes the scope of the evil he’s dealing with. In David Wong’s John Dies at the End, the character of David Wong takes a moment to reflect on his own fragile masculinity in a moment of weakness only hinted at previously. Silence of the Lambs takes this notion and applies a meta-literary tactic of Dr. Lector specifically needling Starling’s insecurities out of her. Think about Harry Potter and how the fifth book underlined Harry’s hormonal dickishness to round out what had previously been a squeaky clean character.

It’s an effective device because while everyone desires the fantasy of being powerful and in control of their own world, everyone has a shadowy valley that cuts through their ego. It’s in that acknowledgement of common fear, doubt, anger, jealousy and self-detrimental habit that the reader can attach their struggle to the hero’s. And that makes the victory that much more rewarding when the hero is finally victorious.

The other major benefit of diving into psychological insecurities is that it builds the internal conflict. While not always necessary, effective pieces utilize the inner turmoil of the protagonist concurrently with the external.

Think about Fight Club which demonstrates this in a very literal sense– the protagonist has become depersonalized and spiritually vacant to the point to which he creates an alternative personality that is capable of achieving everything that the narrator cannot. Superficially, it’s a realization of one’s own potential. Cynically, it might come off as “the magic was inside you the entire time.” In a slightly deeper read, however, one remembers that everything has to do with a girl named Marla Singer. Other passages/scenes (I’m borrowing a lot from Fincher’s film adaptation) indicate a fear of forming a family– specifically the bathtub scene in which the mutual resentment of the narrator’s/Tyler’s father is redirected towards a rejection of women (finding a wife, settling down, “setting up franchises,” “I can’t get married, I’m a 30 year old boy.”); the chemical burn scene that redirects the paternal resentment into a resentment towards God (which should indicate that this resentment and fear of cyclically becoming what you resent literally rules over the narrator’s internal conflict).

Of course, there are undeniable homoerotic undertones to the story, but as far as I can tell from interviews and essays with Chuck Palahniuk, the driving motivation of the narrator is attempting to find a reconnection to the familial world. Also, because the story ends like this: once the narrator accepts his responsibility for the actions (and desires) of his shadow-self and violently cleaves him from existence (indicating the climax of a maturation plot), the narrator and Marla Singer come together, stunned at the destruction of the city scape, seemingly with the narrator finally coming to terms with his adulthood and no longer allowing his fear of his own masculinity to keep him from entering an actual relationship with a girl he fancies.

That’s the film version which, as Palahniuk admits, is thematically more complete. I haven’t read the graphic novelization that serves as the sequel, so I can’t say how that all shakes out. The point is the reason that the narrator, who’s kind of despicable and pathetic in a lot of ways, is able to maintain an effective through-line that engages the audience is that there is an internal conflict that is subtly suggested throughout the novel/film that resonates with nearly everybody in the audience. Most people, I think, harbor anxieties about the reality of becoming an adult and making the same mistakes that their parents imprinted onto them. Fight Club is able to take that and make it into a pretty radical story about punching the Christ out of your buddies and blowing up coffee shops.

And if you can find a way to sublimate your character’s deep-seated intentions in such a way to drive the external plot along? Without the reader necessarily realizing it?

Nobel prize, here you come.