Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The murderer’s fancy style

Speculating on the table manners of dictators, Nige quotes Lolita. “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,” Humbert Humbert says.

But what does he mean? (Humbert, that is.) Nige quotes him to humorous effect, because it is pretty obvious that Humbert is not offering up a universally acknowledged truth. Here, for example, is Jack Henry Abbott, who stabbed a waiter to death just six weeks after Norman Mailer had got him freed from prison:

[Y]ou have sunk the knife to its hilt into the middle of his chest. Slowly he begins to struggle for his life. As he sinks, you will have to kill him fast or get caught. He will say “Why?” Or “No!” Nothing else. You can feel his life trembling through the knife in your hand. It almost overcomes you, the gentleness of the feeling at the center of a coarse act of murder. You’ve pumped the knife several times without even being aware of it. You go to the floor with him to finish him. It is like cutting hot butter, no resistance at all. They always whisper one thing at the end: “Please.” You get the odd impression that he is no imploring you not to harm him, but to do it right. If he says your name it softens your resolve. You go into a mechanical stupor of sorts. Things register in slow motion because all your senses are drawn to a new height. You leave him in the blood, staring with dead eyes.Nothing particularly fancy here. Perhaps the quadruple prepositional phrases, which delay the word gentleness from being connected with murder. The style is not nearly as distinguished as Mailer and Jerzy Kosinski maintained when Abbott was still in prison. What is impressive is the extraordinary consciousness of a murder’s every detail accompanied by not the slightest itch of remorse. This is the prose of a sociopath.

Humbert is not a sociopath. Just two sentences after calling attention to his prose style, he asks his readers—addressed as “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” because Lolita takes the form of a speech for the defense—to consider the purpose for which he is writing: “Look at this tangle of thorns.” Alfred Appel’s note is of little use: “[A]nother H.H., the penitent, confessor, and martyr to love, calls attention to his thorns, the immodest reference to so sacred an image suggesting that the reader would do well to judge H.H.’s tone rather than his deeds.” Why Appel was unwilling to spell out the reference is unclear. Here is the account in the Gospel according to Matthew, as translated by Ronald Knox:[T]he governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the palace, and gathered the whole of their company about him. First they stripped him, and arrayed him in a scarlet cloak; then they put on his head a crown which they had woven out of thorns, and a rod in his right hand, and mocked him by kneeling down before him, and saying, Hail, king of the Jews. And they spat upon him, and took the rod from him and beat him over the head with it. At last they had done with mockery; stripping him of the scarlet cloak, they put his own garments on him, and led him away to be crucified. (27.27–31)Instead of Roman soldiers, Humbert is putting the crown of thorns on his own head. He does not mean to identify himself immodestly with Christ; he means to seek Christ’s atonement. The novel entitled Lolita will be his act of repentance in which he seeks to repair the damage that he has done to the girl who cried herself to sleep “every night, every night.” In the last pages of the novel, on his way to turn himself into the police for murdering Quilty, he stops on a bluff overlooking a little town in a valley. He becomes “aware of a melodious unity of sounds rising like a vapor. . . .” He contemplates the peaceful and geometric landscape. Even more beautifulwas that vapory vibration of accumulated sounds that never ceased for a moment, as it rose to the lip of granite where I stood wiping my foul mouth. And soon I realized that all these sounds were of one nature, that no other sounds but these came from the streets of the transparent town, with the women at home and the men away. Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic—one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.His confession could not be more clear. At the end of his book, Humbert acknowledges, publicly, that he has committed the crime of stealing her childhood from Lolita. The passage never fails to move me, no matter how many times I read it. It builds slowly, carefully swelling the melody of children at play, to the finale of confession. The knowledge of his guilt emerges from Humbert’s art in summoning, in prose, the reality of that musical vibration. But I would not describe this passage—perhaps the best paragraph of English prose written since 1865—as “fancy.” It is not simple; the sentences are long, averaging some forty words; and its Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is 12.0, although it is difficult to imagine many high-school seniors who would be patient enough to read it with full comprehension to the end. But complexity is not at odds with plainness. As a public confession of the intimately personal, this passage is appropriately written in an exacting plain style.

But in this passage Humbert is not a murderer. The killing of Quilty might even be an act of rough justice. Here he is, at last, an admitted pedophile—no longer “an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy,” who seeks to fancy up his crime by calling it nympholepsy instead. The adjective fancy, used as the antonym of “plain,” dates from the mid-eighteenth century and derives from cookery and fashion. Over the course of his novel Humbert gradually sheds his verbal ornamentation, his fine writing, as he comes to atone plainly for the evil he has done, not to a fancy of his imagination, but to this Lolita, his Lolita. You can always count upon a murderer for a fancy prose style when he wishes to dissemble his true monstrosity. You can count upon an honest man, who makes repentance, for a plain style.


Dwight said...

Thanks for the post. I'm working my way through Lolita for the first time (just finished Part One). The other edge of the "fancy prose style" quote is Humbert's lament that he has "only words to play with" -- the inadequacy of words to describe what he wants to convey. So it is both fancy and inadequate at the same time.

D. G. Myers said...

Humbert also means, of course, that he only has words rather than Lolita to play with. By the end of the novel, that medium enables him to “make [her] live in the minds of later generations.” All that remains of her—the words in Humbert’s book.

Dwight said...

As well all that remains of him. Without the reader to imagine Humbert, he is lost (or at least his "case" is).

Like most of the text, there are double (or more) meanings. He does reinforce the inadequacy of words in describing the accident scene of his wife's death...impressions vs. the order required to assign words and arrange them for some type of meaning. Looking forward to the second half.

D. G. Myers said...

Nabokov did not believe that Lolita should be staged or filmed with an underage actress in the title role. Sue Lyon was sixteen when Kubrick’s film version, with screenplay by Nabokov, was released. (Even now, the age of consent in the majority of states is fifteen or sixteen.) There is a reason for Nabokov’s moral squeamishness. (I know, I know. You are supposed to believe Nabokov when he says that his novels contain no moral message. Don’t believe him. Like Cool Hand Luke, he is sprinkling pepper on his trail.) Perhaps the best reason is the remarkable scene of, um, er, Lolita in Humbert’s lap. The scene lasts as long as it takes Humbert, um, er, to conclude his activities. Only in language—not on film—could this scene have achieved its power to hold the reader spellbound and appall him at the same time.

Paul M. Capobianco said...

I do not believe "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style" is supposed to make logical sense. It's an absurd statement which seems to speak to the fact that this not a conventional murderer or a conventional textual world. The elaborations in style have to do with Humbert's identity: H.H. is a better artist than C.Q. but who is a shadow of who is not obvious in Humberland and changes in style repeatedly point to Humbert's various identities. Most explicitly, after Humbert the artist kills the degenerate Quilty he literally pops a big pink bubble with juvenile connotations (304), "a bubble of hot poison" (17). Also, for all of Humbert's "fine points," he is definitely a sociopath. Read the passage when he describes how he would have liked to kill Charlotte. That is the thought-process of a sociopath. More to the point, what is "fancy" is the murder itself. Humbert kills a strain of himself through a wonderfully implausible and fantastic scene: the death of Quilty (with all those locked and yet opening doors, the exquisite details of a man taking impossibly long to die who finally does in the bed where the trouble was consummated), this "fancy" murder, leads to the artistic flourish of taking the news story on 287-288 and transforming it into his own story on 306-307. Once again, the creation of art oversees the creation of penance.

Finally, as much as I like Appel, his emphasis (and your emphasis) on Christ's crown of thorns, while useful, does not take advantage of another reference on 298 of Speak, Memory: here art and nature share the ability to beautifully mimic through patterns (through deception); the rebirth of consciousness is described as recognizing that patterning, that mimicry, is to see what is "marvelously disguised" through the "tangle of twigs and leaves." Given that the class list so dear to Nabokov's heart (52) surrounds Dolores Haze's name with Roses (a tangle of thorns), I believe the art that is Lolita (the tangle, the parodies, the mask, the marvelously disguised patternings) is what can be more extensively looked at than someone seeking Christ's atonement. The reference, in itself, is a parody since it is Lolita who is "crucified for a moment" as Humbert walks past her "without touching her bulging babe" (270). What kills Dolores is childbirth; what brings Lolita to life is Humbert's artistry.