What a garish, ugly, sardonic book this is, and yet it does grip in some unhealthy way. It is, however, the perfect book for critical commentary. It was hard to settle on a passage, as just about any would do, but I picked an almost unobtrusive one so that I would not be distracted by internal shrieks of horror at Humbert Humbert’s dastardly hi-jinks.
‘I decided to marry. It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control. A little money that had come my way after my father’s death (nothing very grand – the Mirana has been sold long before), in addition to my striking if somewhat brutal good looks, allowed me to enter upon my quest with equanimity. After considerable deliberation, my choice fell on the daughter of a Polish doctor: the good man happened to be treating me for spells of dizziness and tachycardia. We played chess: his daughter watched me from behind her easel, and inserted eyes or knuckles borrowed from me into the cubistic trash that accomplished misses then painted instead of lilacs and lambs. Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanour. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap.’
So let’s talk about that voice, a disquieting, troubling, silky menace of a voice if ever there was one. You have to concentrate to follow the sinuous verbal meanderings of the narrator, and by concentrating you are obliged to let Humbert Humbert into your mind, where he sits, like a viral contagion. This is a voice of icy chill and volcanic heat, of threatening darkness and yet spirited playfulness. It’s a voice that combines intelligence with vulgarity, cynicism and alienation. It’s the voice that could be beautiful, if it were not for something rotten at its core.
Look at the vocabulary here: prophylactic, pacific, equanimity, cubistic, demeanour, this is not a man who will use one syllable when three or four would suffice. And these are cold, hard-edged words, academic, distanced, intellectual words used to display the mental agility of their speaker against the tacky tedium of the world. But that vocabulary is continually undercut by words that come from other registers and dress themselves in violence – purge, brutal, trash, bloodripe. Our narrator becomes more implicitly dangerous because he coats his language with a veneer of intellectual control; we become aware of that most alarming proposition, that underneath something clever and polished, ugly drives lurk and threaten, pushing at the boundaries of language’s containment and liable to break out.
In fact the whole passage is written – as stupendously, every single passage in this novel is written – in a style that threatens but never reaches, linguistic exhaustion. I’ve never known an author make his sentences work so hard, stuff them so full of every possible pretension. This is bilious, overripe language, driven hard by intelligence, ravaged by pervasive, insidious emotion. We are given to understand, then, that it emanates from a man straining at his own internal leash. A man who suffers from dizziness and tachycardia – his body strained and overwrought. This passage is a good example of Humbert Humbert attempting to rein in his baser desires in such a way that we know from the outset he is doomed to failure. The reader is gripped by the painful anticipation of the limit being reached, the constraint being broken, the implosion or explosion being immanent.
And how do we know this? Well, look at the way he describes marriage, his voice dripping with sardonic disdain. This is not a man who believes in his self-prescribed cure. And look at the way he describes his bride-to-be: there is nothing in the least hopefully romantic about his tone here. Instead he sneers over her painting whilst she chops him into unappetizing body parts – a trick in fact that the narrator repeatedly uses at any moment of perceiving the female body. It’s a strategy for distancing the reality of a woman from her body, and it enables our narrator to lust or revile without troubling himself over the person behind the fleshly façade. The same strategy is used to slightly different effect when he contemplates himself. Physical appearance is everything of value in this novel, but Humbert hates himself. So his own ‘striking but brutal good looks’ are the subject of bitter irony. He could have any woman he wanted, only there are none who fail to disgust him. He shows us his attempt at decency, made by avoiding undesired heterosexual encounters, but his tone is too repellent for us to really gain sympathy with him.
So what do we have here? A man bent and twisted out of shape, forced into endless pretence and driven to the edge of distraction by desires that fall outside the legal limits of society. We have a man who is handsome and smart and learned, but who is physically disintegrating from the strength of repressed emotion. Some people would say we have here a sardonic and darkly comic representation of middling, trivial reality as seen from the perspective of a man relegated to its margins. It depends on how amusing you find the human condition, if we view it as an individual’s destiny to be full of emotion that is rarely matched or assuaged by life’s events. But I suppose I see it as the tragedy of a certain kind of passivity. Humbert Humbert is so busy dealing with himself, so locked inside his unruly emotions, that he can never have respite from them. In this passage he is about to insert himself into marriage in the same way that his fiancée inserts his knuckles into her picture, and the result will be similarly successful. There is no engagement in what surrounds him, only the alienation of a heightened, hyper-sensitive perception. Humbert carts his suffering carcass of a body around, while his mind scorns and derides and plays clever verbal tricks with it all, and all he can do is wait for the circumstances around him to bring relief. And yet…the relentlessness of that highly particular voice tells us that nothing is going to change. In fact, I expect that things are only going to get worse.
I’m only forty pages in and already I’m not sure whether I can go on, but I seem to keep going. I’m finding it intellectually intriguing, but my soul cringes.