For obvious reasons, the news has lately led me to thinking about Humbert Humbert.
Humbert, you may remember, is the non-hero of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the novel about a pedophile who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her mother to be in closer proximity to the object of his affection. It caused much consternation when first published by Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press -- publishers of The Story of O -- in 1955. French authorities quickly banned the book, and the English followed suit, passing an obscenity law specifically designed to thwart its publication. (After Graham Greene, writing in the London Sunday Times, called it one of the best books of 1955, John Gordon, editor of the London Sunday Express, declared it the "filthiest" book he had ever read.)
Though it wasn't banned in the United States, several major publishers -- Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions and Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- reluctantly turned it down. It wasn't published here until 1958, amid great publicity and controversy (by G. P. Putnam's Sons).
Writing in the New York Times, Orville Prescott said that Nabokov "particularly lucky because his book was not censored in the United States, but in France of all places. What more could he hope for?")
Lolita was a sensation. It became the first novel since 1936's Gone With the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. It was notorious, and it's a measure of how far we're fallen as a society to think that it elicited the same sort of popular prurient interest as Fifty Shades of Grey.
A lot of people who rushed out to buy Nabokov's novel were disappointed. For despite the lurid premise -- after the girl's mother dies, Humbert and young Dolly Haze (whom he calls "Lolita") light out for the territory on a road trip through an American hellscape littered with motor courts and roadside attractions pursued by another pedophile, a bizarre playwright named Claire Quilty -- Nabokov's book is highly moral. It contains no coarse words and would seem to be thoroughly useless to readers who might look to it as a source of titillation. Its sex scenes are explicit only in the sense that Nabokov has perfect command of language and understands the sensual possibilities of rubbing noun against verb. In her New York Times review, Elizabeth Janeway wrote: "As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences."
William F. Buckley understood the moral nature of Nabokov's work and rewarded the author with a lifetime subscription to National Review.
Since Lolita was such a popular novel, a film version was inevitable. No matter how problematic it was under the circumstances. Stanley Kubrick's 1962 movie version has a lot to offer, including fine performances by James Mason as the hedonistic Humbert, Peter Sellers as the shadowy, surreal Quilty, and Shelley Winters as the harpy Humbert marries to be near her daughter. But it was necessarily a severely compromised affair.
To begin with, it was shot in Europe, which robbed it of the American vastness essential to the book. (Lolita is in many ways an escape tale like Twain's Huckleberry Finn or Kerouac's On the Road.) But even more importantly, the crucial relationship is practically disarmed. In Kubrick's movie, Humbert and Lolita (played as a 14-year-old, not a 12-year-old, by then-18-year-old Sue Lyon) never even kiss. And Lyon's Lolita is a far more adult object than Nabokov had in mind (though the author did not object to the casting; he insisted that an older actress play the girl -- "let them get a dwarfess," he wrote). A certain sophisticated slatternliness emanates from her curly pedal-pusher poses; as Lyon rolls the lollipop in her mouth, she is more predator than game.
And Mason's cultured Humbert seems more an art lover than a pervert. What red-blooded man could be expected to resist the lures of this Lolita? Lyon is something, for sure, but she is not the 12-year-old Dolly Haze Nabokov crafted from black marks on paper. Nabokov considered Kubrick's Lolita a "first-rate film with magnificent actors" and acknowledged the difficulties of translating his novel to "the speaking screen."
"How can they make a movie of Lolita?" the promotional posters asked. Turns out they couldn't; Kubrick only used a few pages of the script Nabokov wrote. (When soft-core auteur Adrian Lyne --Fatal Attraction, 9 1/2 Weeks, Indecent Proposal -- tried again in 1997, he was marginally more successful at conveying the sense of taboo eroticism, but he had great difficulty getting his version in American cinemas. It made its American premiere on the Showtime cable network.)
Nabokov never underplayed the monstrousness ofHumbert. He lays it all out in the novel's meta-fictional foreword supposedly written by a psychologist he calls John Ray, who introduces the text that follows as the work of a "demented diarist." Nabokov, through Ray, makes it clear that Dolly Haze was a 12-year-old ravaged by a deluded man who rationalized his inappropriate desires by deciding the girl was a seductive "nymphet."
"I have no intention to glorify 'H.H.' " Nabokov as Ray writes. "No doubt he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. ... A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman."
I thought of those words 10 days ago when I read Louis C.K.'s statement -- his confession -- about what is being euphemistically called his sexual misbehavior. There has always been a desperate honesty in the comic's often brilliant work; he has often explored emotionally raw territories and themes of self-loathing. He's often spoken of the terrible vulnerability of women and riffed on the risks they undertake whenever they enter into a relationship with any man.
I saw his movie I Love You, Daddy, now pulled from distribution, and under other circumstances I would have reviewed it sympathetically (though, absent the revelations, I might have cheekily suggested that Louis C.K.'s 2001 film Pootie Tang was funnier).
Now, I have to look back at Louis C.K.'s work and consider that what I thought was fearless exploration might have been something sadder, some pathological working out of personal issues.
That's not to suggest we should feel sorry for him.
Or Roman Polanski. Or Harvey Weinstein. Or James Toback. Or Roy Moore. Or Kevin Spacey. Or Woody Allen. Or any of the others who have beeen accused of preying upon people they have had power over. They are abnormal. They are not gentlemen.
But I have to think about this awhile.
I have been one of those critics who tends not to conflate an artist's biography with his work because it is possible, even crucial, to not write only what he knows but to imagine the interior lives of people very much unlike ourselves. Nabokov imagined Humbert Humbert; he pieced together a brilliant characterization from observing and thinking about the way human beings explain themselves to themselves.
Nabokov obviously drew from life, having Humbert himself relate the story of Frank Lasalle, an actual criminal who abducted a 13-year-old girl and traveled with her cross-country for over a year. It's been suggested that another model may have been Henry Lanz, Nabokov's colleague during his brief stint at Stanford in 1941, who allegedly married his wife in London when she was 14. The author had written earlier stories about kidnapping and the sexuality of children. But aside from uniformed speculation, there's no real reason to think that Nabokov ever misbehaved with girls. Humbert Humbert was not Nabokov's surrogate.
Dolly Haze was not a beautiful, manipulative vixen. She was a sad little girl whose life was shattered by her deviant stepfather. She is the fictional analog of a lot of real-life victims.
And because Humbert is not Nabokov, I was willing to accept that the television writer Isaac who woos the 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979) is not, despite his being written, directed and played by Allen, an Allen surrogate. And that the Robert Downey Jr. character in Toback's The Pick-Up Artist (1987) is not a stand-in for Toback. And even that the protagonist in the remarkable television series Louie is not its writer-director-star Louis C.K.
Maybe I was naive. But I was willing to accept that, as Louis C.K.'s character in I Love You, Daddy tells his 17-year-old daughter that rumors are just rumors, and that when we participate in them we lend power to dubious forces. You only think you know the things you have heard about a person.
Part of it comes down to wishfulness; art should be a safe place where we might consider the implications of what's on the page or in the frame without having to involve the messy lives of the people who made it. Because they don't always know what they're doing or why. While it's not possible to regard an artist's work in a vacuum, I'd prefer not to view everything through the prism of their biography. Because one's personal life doesn't necessarily have anything to do with one's personal behavior.
But clearly it often does. There is a cliche about the artist as a destroyer, as a manipulator who discards those no longer of use. Cliches are not without foundations.
After the revelations about Allen decades ago, we started to see his work differently. I remember reading a 1989 Spy story about Toback that convinced me The Pick-Up Artist was a wishful story about himself. I never thought Louis C.K. was not being honest on stage.
But a work of art can be more than one thing; to be genuinely successful it has to be more than one thing. It can be beautiful and evil, funny and sad, a loving homage to one's influences and a declaration of independence. It can be breathtakingly brave -- and a desperate cry for help.
Style on 11/19/2017
Print Headline: Does art imitate life with a desperate honesty?