Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Lolita and Her Jew

Here, on The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov by Andrea Pitzer :

...this book forces one to consider several fascinating quandaries presented by Lolita...

The first of these is: Is Humbert Humbert Jewish? The word “Jew” and its cognates never occur in Lolita, but it is almost said on a number of occasions. Several characters assume Humbert is Jewish. John Farlow, at the end of Chapter 18, Part I, complains of the fact that Ramsdale has too many Italian tradespeople, adding, “but on the other hand we are still spared—,” at which his wife Jean, suspecting that Humbert is Jewish and not wanting him to be offended, tactfully interrupts her blundering spouse. (In the Russian translation that Nabokov made of the book, John clearly begins to say the word “kikes.”)

A classmate of Lolita’s, Irving Flashman—originally Fleischman?—is pitied by Humbert for reasons initially obscure, but explained by Nabokov to the book’s annotator, Alfred Appel Jr.: “Poor Irving, he is the only Jew among all those Gentiles. Humbert identifies with the persecuted.” Humbert, and Nabokov, have much grim fun with the anti-Semitic policy of the hotel the Enchanted Hunters, whose notepaper declares, NEAR CHURCHES and NO DOGS, code for “Gentiles only”: perhaps, Humbert muses, the “silky cocker spaniel” Lolita had petted on their visit to the hotel had been “a baptized one.” And when Humbert’s name on a postcard requesting a room at the hotel is misread as the Jewish-sounding Professor Hamburg, he receives a “prompt expression of regret in reply. They were full up.”

...Pitzer—and here she stakes her claim to an original reading of the book—argues that what Nabokov is actually doing in Lolita is deliberately drawing on all manner of anti-Semitic propaganda, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to Nazi caricatures of the Jewish “type,” to create in Humbert Humbert the anti-Semitic cliché of legend, rather as, say, Chaucer draws on medieval misogynist writings to create in the figure of the Wife of Bath the archetypal shrew of his male audience’s nightmares. Humbert combines
revolutionary politics, an easy income, cosmopolitan intellectualism, sexual perversion, and a truly monstrous sin—in Nabokov’s rendering, not blasphemy against Christ but the relentless, ongoing molestation of a child.
Here, then, is another reason for forgiving him: he is “a war refugee fleeing Europe,” a victim “broken by history,” a member of a persecuted race into whose dreams explicit images from the death camps erupt—“the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.”

...Nabokov had trouble enough getting the book published as it was; to have made Humbert explicitly Jewish as details of the Holocaust were filtering into the public domain, even if he’d wanted to, might well have put it decisively beyond the pale. And so fiendishly self-serving and skillful is Humbert’s storytelling that it’s surely not impossible that, in his surreptitious way, he is subliminally playing the Jewish card, so to speak, without actually being entitled to it, a rhetorical move dramatically made by Sylvia Plath in “Daddy” a few years later: “Chuffing me off like a Jew./A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen./I began to talk like a Jew./I think I may well be a Jew.”

Certainly Jewishness lurks in the hinterland of the novel, and anti-Semitism in a number of its nooks and crannies...Pitzer’s excavation of this particular strata of the book’s references is both illuminating and unsettling. The Jewish aura, to put it no more strongly than that, that occasionally cloaks Humbert is yet another instance of his sinister ability to infiltrate and contaminate the literatures, languages, and cultures that he appropriates.


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