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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, August 21, 2015

Nabokov’s LOLITA winks at Mansfield Park’s “shocking trick for a young person to be always LOLLING UPON A SOFA.” & “easier to SWALLOW than to speak”

In Janeites and Austen L, Diane Reynolds wrote: 
“I also saw that Arnie Perlstein had blogged on the subject of Nabokov and Austen, suggesting there were actually veiled Austen allusions in some of his work:

Thanks, Diane. I’ve indeed long believed that Nabokov (in the subversive tradition previously observed by C. Bronte and M. Twain) merely pretended to damn Jane Austen’s writing with faint praise, while simultaneously covertly winking, to those with eyes to see, his subtle, sophisticated, complex homage to Jane Austen’s fiction.  I‘m glad you focused on Lolita in particular, because since last year I’ve had the strong suspicion that the relationship between Lolita and Humbert Humbert is a diabolically clever reworking of Fanny and Sir Thomas Bertram (for starters, note how Nabokov repeats that“Bert” twice in his patriarch’s pseudonym).

That idea first came to me when I read the following excerpt from “Why boys love Jane Austen”  by Jonathan McAloon 2 September 2014: 
“…Then Vlad read Mansfield Park, admitted it to be one of the best books ever written, and gave a two hour, chapter by chapter lecture on it. It is worth mentioning that he developed a love for Mansfield around the time he was writing Lolita. There is a silkiness to that book’s cruelty that I suspect was at least enhanced by Nabokov reading Austen…” 

I instantly realized McAloon was onto something even more significant than he realized---a silky cruelty is a perfect description of the acidically ironic, yet oddly jocular, narrative voice of MP, the one that Patricia Rozema’s ear was so finely tuned to. There had to be more to the parallel than just narrative tone.

Just as you brilliantly argue, Diane, that readers are seduced into accepting H.H.’s point of view, and therefore miss out on the horrific significance of clues like Lolita’s frequent crying as evidence of her resistance to his pedophilic campaign (which Humbert Humbert spins innocently), so too do we hear a lot about Fanny crying, which most Janeite readers are quick to accept as solely a function of her low status at Mansfield Park, and her unrequited longing for Edmund, instead of seeing it as a clue to a much darker barely-hidden sexual horror that she has been forced to endure.

I’ve often written about the young Fanny as the victim of relentless sexual predation at Mansfield Park….
…but now I know that Nabokov saw it as well, as I’ll now explain. I start with the two quotations in my Subject Line—they both happen to occur in the same passage in Chapter 7 of Mansfield Park!:

…Edmund, looking around, said, "But where is Fanny? Is she gone to bed?"
"No, not that I know of," replied Mrs. Norris; "she was here a moment ago."
Her own gentle voice speaking from the other end of the room, which was a very long one, told them that she was on the sofa. Mrs. Norris began scolding.
"That is a very foolish trick, Fanny, to be idling away all the evening upon a sofa. Why cannot you come and sit here, and employ yourself as we do? If you have no work of your own, I can supply you from the poor basket. There is all the new calico, that was bought last week, not touched yet. I am sure I almost broke my back by cutting it out. You should learn to think of other people; and, take my word for it, it is a shocking trick for a young person to be always LOLLING upon a sofa."

I’d sure like to know whether Nabokov’s handwritten annotations in the margins of his copy of MP include any notice of that “LOLLING upon a SOFA”, because that phrase turns out to be Ground Zero of his allusion to MP, not only via the name “LOL-ita”, but also the words “sofa” and “swallow”, as you will shortly see!

Back to that scene in MP, we then learn that Fanny has been sent out twice into the blazing heat by Mrs. Norris to pick roses, thereby developing a “headache”, which Mrs. Norris then attempts to explain away:

"If Fanny would be more regular in her exercise, she would not be knocked up so soon. She has not been out on horseback now this long while, and I am persuaded that, when she does not ride, she ought to walk. If she had been riding before, I should not have asked it of her. But I thought it would rather do her good after being stooping among the roses; for there is nothing so refreshing as a walk after a fatigue of that kind; and though the sun was strong, it was not so very hot. Between ourselves, Edmund," nodding significantly at his mother, "it was cutting the roses, and dawdling about in the flower-garden, that did the mischief."
"I am afraid it was, indeed," said the more candid Lady Bertram, who had overheard her; "I am very much afraid she caught the headache there, for the heat was enough to kill anybody. It was as much as I could bear myself. Sitting and calling to Pug, and trying to keep him from the flower-beds, was almost too much for me."
Edmund said no more to either lady; but going quietly to another table, on which the supper-tray yet remained, brought a glass of Madeira to Fanny, and obliged her to drink the greater part. She wished to be able to decline it; but the tears, which a variety of feelings created, made it easier to SWALLOW than to speak….”

There is so much sexual innuendo in the above passage, suggesting that the real cause of Fanny’s acute distress is that she has been repeatedly sexually abused—by Sir Thomas before his trip to Antigua, and by God knows who else since then. Note in particular the double meaning  of “tears” (which can be “tears” shed from eyes, but also“tears” as in a vulnerable, intimate body part being torn by physical abuse) brought on by “a variety of feelings” which (darkest pun of all) “made it easier to swallow than to speak.”

This matter-of-factly-worded suggestion of Fanny finding it easier to perform oral sex because of genital injuries she has suffered, is beyond horrifying. And I suggest it is no coincidence that both the words “sofa” and “swallow” both appear noticeably in the following three sexually charged passages in Lolita:

“At 3 a.m. I SWALLOWED a sleeping pill, and presently, a dream that was not a sequel but a parody revealed to me, with a kind of meaningful clarity, the lake I had never yet visited: it was glazed over with a sheet of emerald ice, and a pockmarked Eskimo was trying in vain to break it with a pickax, although imported mimosas and oleanders flowered on its gravelly banks. I am sure Dr. Blanche Schwarzmann would have paid me a sack of schillings for adding such a libidream to her files.
Unfortunately, the rest of it was frankly eclectic. Big Haze and little Haze rode on HORSEBACK around the lake, and I rode too, dutifully bobbing up and down, bowlegs astraddle although there was no horse between them, only elastic air--one of those little omissions due to the absentmindedness of the dream agent….”

“Charlotte sat at the corner bureau writing a letter. My hand still on the doorknob, I repeated my hearty cry. Her writing hand stopped. She sat still for a moment; then she slowly turned in her chair and rested her elbow on its curved back. Her face, disfigured by her emotion, was not a pretty sight as she stared at my legs and said: "The Haze woman, the big bitch, the old cat, the obnoxious mamma, the--the old stupid Haze is no longer your dupe. She has--she has . . ."
My fair accuser stopped, SWALLOWING HER VENOM AND HER TEARS. Whatever Humbert Humbert said--or attempted to say--is inessential. She went on: "You're a monster. You're a detestable, abominable, criminal fraud….”

And speaking of the dozen or so references to “sofas” in Lolita, the most over-the-top is this leering, ogling scene with H.H. and Lolita sitting on the sofa, a scene that is also an obvious wink at the Paradise Lost subtext in the Sotherton ha-ha scene in MP:

“[Lolita] wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, EDEN-RED APPLE. She was not SHOD, however, for church. And her white Sunday purse lay discarded near the phonograph. My heart beat like a drum as she sat down, cool skirt ballooning, subsiding, on the SOFA next to me, and played with her glossy fruit. She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and caught it--it made a cupped polished plot. Humbert Humbert intercepted the APPLE.
"Give it back," - she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms. I produced Delicious. She grasped it and bit into it, and my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin, and with the monkeyish nimbleness that was so typical of that American nymphet, she snatched out of my abstract grip the magazine I had opened (pity no film had recorded the curious pattern, the monogrammic linkage of our simultaneous or overlapping moves). Rapidly, hardly hampered by the disfigured apple she held, Lo flipped violently
through the pages in search of something she wished Humbert to see.
….By this time I was in a state of excitement bordering on insanity; but I also had the cunning of the insane. Sitting there, on the sofa, I managed to attune, by a series of stealthy movements, my masked lust to her guileless limbs. It was no easy matter to divert the little maiden's attention while I performed the obscure adjustments necessary for the success of the trick. Talking fast, lagging behind my own breath, catching up with it, mimicking A SUDDEN TOOTHACHE to explain the breaks in my patter--and all the while keeping a maniac's inner eye on my distant golden goal, I cautiously increased the magic friction that was doing away, in an illusional, if not factual, sense, with the physically irremovable, but psychologically very friable texture of the material divide (pajamas and robe) between the weight of two sunburnt legs, resting athwart my lap, and the hidden tumor of an unspeakable passion.
…She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left ON THE SOFA--and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty--between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her DIMPLED body in its innocent cotton frock….”

And in a passage not long after, H.H. discusses his wife’s interior decoration attempts, and clearly refers back to the above scene:  “…She dabbled in cretonnes and chintzes; she changed the colors of THE SOFA—THE SACRED SOFA where a bubble of paradise had once burst in slow motion within me.”

“the sacred sofa”---Nabokov was showing off his awareness of the sexual meaning of Fanny’s “lolling on the sofa”!  And here’s even more evidence of Nabokov’s sly winking at that same passage, this time in his famous MP lecture:

“Master Class” by (the late novelist and critic) Elizabeth Hardwick
“The first of Nabokov's Cornell lectures, as printed here, was given to Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. This author and this particular novel had been urged upon Nabokov by Edmund Wilson….In any case, Mansfield Park finds Nabokov laying out the plot with a draftsman's care, patiently showing that one parson must die so that another can, so to speak, wear the dead man's shoes. And Sir Bertram must be sent off to the West Indies so that his household can relax into the "mild orgy" of the theatrical presentation of a sentimental play called Lovers' Vows.  Here there is a curious intermission in which Nabokov tells the class about the old play, summarizing it from the original text. And again when Fanny cries out against a plan to cut down an avenue of trees, "What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper? 'Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited,'" Nabokov takes time out for a reading of the long, dull poem, "The Sofa," by William Cowper. It is true that Nabokov liked to remember the charm of vanished popular works of the sort that slowly made their way over land and sea to the Russian household of his youth. Still the diversion to these texts is strikingly unlike the microscopic adhesion to the matters at hand in the other lectures. There are brushings of condescension in the Jane Austen chapter, delicate little streakings, like a marbleizing effect. She is "dimpled" and "pert," a master of this dimpled pertness.”

Did you notice that Hardwick, unwittingly, repeats two keywords from the passage in  Lolita on “the sacred sofa”---“sofa” and “dimpled”! Hardwick cannot explain Nabokov’s sudden diversion from “microscopic adhesion” to the text of MP to discussion of the seemingly unrelated “Sofa” by Cowper. But you’ll agree I’ve not only explained it, I’ve shown it’s central to Nabokov’s literary gamesmanship!

I haven’t yet systematically searched the text of Lolita for more such clues, but I shall followup in the next few days bringing any new discoveries forward. For now, last but not least, the issue of Lolita’s nickname is actually addressed in the narrator’s introduction: “While ‘Haze’ only rhymes with the heroine’s real surname, her first name is too closely interwound with the inmost fiber of the book to allow one to alter it…References to “H.H.”’s crime may be looked up by the inquisitive in the daily papers…”

The word “lolling” appears only once in the entire body of JA’s writing – is it a coincidence that Nabokov chooses his young heroine’s nickname as if to point to that “lolling” scene in MP so darkly resonant of LOLita? And that reference to tabloid references to Humbert’s crime is also oddly resonant of the ironic understatement of the tabloid report of Maria Bertram’s scandalous elopement with Henry Crawford:

"it was with infinite concern the newspaper had to announce to the world a matrimonial fracas in the family of Mr. R. of Wimpole Street; the beautiful Mrs. R., whose name had not long been enrolled in the lists of Hymen, and who had promised to become so brilliant a leader in the fashionable world, having quitted her husband's roof in company with the well-known and captivating Mr. C., the intimate friend and associate of Mr. R., and it was not known even to the editor of the newspaper whither they were gone."

Yes indeed, Nabokov’s obsession with Mansfield Park did find its fullest expression not in his college lectures but in his most famous and most notorious work of fiction!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: In the following passage, I hear a double echo of both Anne Elliot’s quiet fury at Mrs. Musgrove for blocking her view of Wentworth on the sofa, and also the focus on horseback riding by Mary and Fanny in MP:

“I still have, vibrating all along my optic nerve, visions of Lo on HORSEBACK, a link in the chain of a guided trip along a BRIDLE trail: Lo bobbing at a walking pace, with an old woman rider in front and a lecherous red-necked dude-rancher behind; and I behind him, HATING HIS FAT flowery-shirted back even more fervently than a motorist does a slow truck on a mountain road.”


Anonymous said...

I am re-reading MP right now and I am turning over the point where Fanny's 'old grey pony' dies right when Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua, to be replaced by 'Edmund's mare' and such a point is made about the mare being *Edmund's*.

It is deeply unsettling - horrific even, doubly so when the novel's ending is considered. Just why *does* Edmund become eagar to marry Fanny in the end?

Anonymous said...

*same commenter as above.

Adding this:

“And I am quite convinced that your being with Mrs. Norris will be as
good for your mind as riding has been for your health, and as much for
your ultimate happiness too.”

which Edmund says when it is thought Fanny will go and live with Mrs. Norris at 15.

That whole conversation is disturbing, this line is ghastly.