Thursday, October 08, 2009

The genius of page breaks

Under the pressure of Roman Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland for raping an underage girl thirty-two years ago in Los Angeles, I have been reexamining Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. And I have been struck by the genius of the novel’s page breaks, which add a dimension of meaning and aesthetic power that critics have entirely overlooked until now.

Consider the masturbation scene relatively early in the novel, in which Humbert says that he had “stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor.” (I will pass over, with the greatest reluctance, the line break that inserts a hyphen in the word without, subtly undercutting the veracity of his claim. I am in quest of a gaudier grail.)

You will recall the scene. It is a Sunday morning in June. Humbert, in pajamas, is reading a magazine. Lolita enters the room, wearing a “pretty print dress.” As Humbert takes pains to observe, she “was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful. . .” (p. 57). But there the page breaks. A marvelous example of Derridean différance, the page break defers the satisfaction of knowledge and assigns meaning to the delay that must ensue while the page is being turned. Not only is Humbert’s pleasure drawn out, but so is the reader’s.

And the same holds true even when the page break falls on a verso instead of a recto page, a page that need not be turned. While Lolita is in his lap, wrestling him for the apple—for that is what she was holding, reader: a “beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple,” a detail that would have been disappointing without the page-turning delay, to say nothing of how the deferral of the biblical allusion serves the larger theme of his spiritual redemption—Humbert is “in a state of excitement bordering on insanity.” In order to bring his “masked lust” into contact with her “guileless limbs,” he diverts her attention while he “perform[s] the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick” (p. 58).

The page breaks there. Humbert’s “obscure adjustments” are necessary for their own sake. They need not contribute to a larger “success.” The end-stop at the bottom of the page implies that, if the frolic had stopped there, Humbert would still have been proud of himself. The seduction of Lolita exists in discrete moments that are sufficient in themselves to constitute the heaven and hell of nympholepsy. They do not have to lead to anything greater, which is, in any event, merely the repetition of the pattern. It is this repetition—not the nympholepsy itself, but the endless recurrence of its self-imprisoning instants—that eventually dooms and destroys Humbert.

I could go on collecting and examining specimens. But consider the succession of page breaks after Humbert fetches Lolita from Camp Q and drives her to a nearby town for their first night together in a motel. Here they are, from p. 107 to p. 122, in order. I write them as a single sentence: “Having coy stranger and trouble positively driving fun its black examined the strange mo-protector tones.” The effect is astonishing. It is a foreshadowing of Quilty’s pursuit of them (it is he, after all, who is the “coy stranger”); not only does he spell “trouble” for Humbert, but he compels Lolita’s lover into “positively driving” to flee from him. Moreover, Quilty’s pursuit ends in “driving fun” from Humbert’s life, and what remains to him is “its black”—its evil—“examined.” From then on he must adopt “the strange mo-protector tones” (for he has replaced her mother, after all, as Lolita’s only parent: thus he is her “mo-protector”), the tones of a man who failed to protect her when he could and now is no longer able to.

A complete examination of the novel’s brilliant page breaks is beyond the scope of a blog post, but perhaps you begin to get the idea. Here is a dimension of art and meaning that remains to be explored more fully, and I only hope that I have made an initial contribution to the effort.


Guy Pursey said...

Would the page breaks you mention be the same in every edition of Lolita? Would Nabokov have controlled where the page "broke" when the book was being typeset? I wasn't aware that writers could have such control over the final presentation of their work, not in this way anyway. It's an intriguing idea.

D. G. Myers said...

Guy, many thanks for your reply, which is exactly right. You allow, finally, after much caution, that the idea of deriving meaning from page breaks is “intriguing.”

But the truth is that you are skeptical. “Would Nabokov have controlled where the page ‘broke’ when the book was being typeset?” you ask.

And that is of course the whole point of my exercise. We are reluctant to assign meaning to such textual features as page breaks precisely because we assign meaning only where we are confident of authorial control.

Even when a text is a composite production, we treat it otherwise—as if it were the unified production of a single mind. For that is how we conceive of meaning in literary texts.

The conception of a unified text is the unspoken presupposition behind all literary criticism.

Art Durkee said...

Speaking as a book designer, layout artist, and typographer, I can tell you that I would be very surprised if any of the page-breaks in "Lolita" were planned, or conscious. The text breaks where it does because it needs to break there to fit within the bounds of the designed margins, leading, hyphenation algorithm, etc., which are determined in part by the font size, font type, kerning, and justification.

Different editions, unless they are exact reprints from earlier plates or photostats, are almost certainly going to break pages differently. One reason is because digitized typefaces are not precisely the same in width or kerning as metal type or wood type. If a new edition of any novel comes is printed, it's almost guaranteed that the breaks will be different.

A designer might intentionally have set out to do what you noticing here. And people believe in astrology, too.

Speaking as an author who is also a book designer, having worked in book and magazine publishing for over 20 years, authorial control itself is very elusive. The only examples of authorial control I can point to as absolute are small-press editions in which every detail IS examined and consciously rendered. In the case of poet William Everson, for example, he was a poet AND a pressman, and released handset limited editions of his poems, spacing and designing them as beautiful art-objects in their own right. However, his Collected Poems was designed and typeset by other hands, and although his authorial wishes were probably met, there is no illusion of authorial control.

Once you turn the text over to the publisher (designer, graphic production artist, printer), you lose all authorial control. Except in very limited cases, in limited ways. It's the exception, not the rule.

And if a unified text is the presupposition behind literary criticism, this also explains why literary critics never stop to talk about the beauty of the book itself. The text is all that matters to most of them.

Speaking as a book designer and author, I always thought that was tunnel vision. After all, a book is a sensual object, not merely words on the projective screen of consciousness.