04 July 2016

A fixed star in a rootless world

On his road trips through America, Nabokov gained a familiarity with the landscape that would inform Lolita, his signature novel. Decades after its publication, Lolita’s subject matter continues to shock, and its most disturbing aspect lies in its basic contradiction: How could something so beautifully written advance a story of such utter debasement? Here again, Nabokov’s enduring fascination with memory figures into his art. The novel’s central character, Humbert Humbert, tells the story in retrospect, giving a morally bankrupt relationship the grandness of myth. Lolita is about many things, but one of its themes is the plasticity of the perceived past—how it can be bent through the biases of recollection to serve our personal conceits. In a kind of counterpoint to [Nabokov's memoir] Speak, Memory’s treatment of the past as pure transcendence when transmuted into narrative, Lolita hints at literary recollection as a corrupting influence as dark as Humbert’s carnal appetites. That Humbert is a supremely sophisticated aesthete suggests the book as a cautionary tale about the black magic of art, its power to not only define reality but distort it.

But in Speak, Memory, Nabokov implies that memory, flawed though it may be, is the closest thing we have to a fixed star in a rootless world. He speculates that, when it came to remembering things, “Russian children of my generation passed through a period of genius, as if destiny were loyally trying what it could for them by giving them more than their share, in view of the cataclysm that was to remove completely the world they had known.”

- Danny Heitman, 'Why Nabokov's Speak, Memory still speaks to us', Humanities, Summer 2016

See also:
Blog: Mr Putin departs Brisbane, 16 November 2014
BlogCharles & Fyodor, 3 January 2014
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