art as deception

lance olsen
© 1995


So far we have primarily discussed Lolita the way we might a realistic nineteenth-century novel by Balzac, George Eliot, or Mark Twain. We have mainly focused on the intricacies of psychology and characterization, on the reportorially rendered setting, and on such dominant humanistic concerns as the evils of child abuse and the dangers of solipsism, along the road touching upon the work's fairly linear and clearly presented plot and chronology. In short, we have made certain assumptions about Nabokov's novel, key among them that we have been dealing with a text that aims to accurately render experience while taking a moral position toward its subject matter. Nabokov's sterling ability to paint his people as persuasively as he does has often convinced us that Humbert, Charlotte, and Dolly once really lived and spoke, acted and felt—so much so that we not infrequently find ourselves silently arguing with them, despising them or pitying them, rooting for them or condemning them, thinking of them as flesh-and-blood people with flesh-and-blood problems and flesh-and-blood desires.

We ought to take a moment now to remind ourselves that, when contemplating those nineteenth-century novels, and especially when contemplating that mid-twentieth-century one by Nabokov, the impression of verisimilitude such so-called "realist" texts produce is just that: an impression. It is an illusion, a narrative slight of hand, a series of techniques and conventions designed by a gifted author to create the linguistic ghost of everyday life, the specters of fully rounded characters and events, through an elaborate system of words that has at best an iffy connection with the plain plump facts and folks populating the world outside our windows. Not that this realization should give us cause for disenchantment or frustration, cause to turn away from such texts as scant more than eggheaded games, complicated narrative betrayals of our ingenuous literary trust. Just the opposite. Understanding the deft craft and graceful magic that goes into generating those amazingly life-like illusions should give us cause for greater enchantment and admiration, cause to appreciate them and their creators that much more. After all, simply because we know what the innards of a piano look like or how its strings, action, soundboard, and framework function in unison to yield beautiful music shouldn't cause us to enjoy the beautiful music they yield any less. Rather, such knowledge can—and should—add another dimension to our enjoyment.

Nabokov never lets the careful reader forget that he or she is watching a conjuror's show. Indeed, Nabokov regularly jogs our memories about such matters by giving us amorphous Clare Quilty, more malignant metaphor than realistic mad man, or by short-circuiting the author's own moral sweep in the novel by infusing it with an energizing yet destabilizing comic impulse. The eminent lepidopterist thus continuously calls our attention to the truth that Lolita, like his beloved butterflies in the wild, is a web of natural mimicry, an act of subterfuge, wherein what something is is nothing like what it seems to be. Keeping this in mind allows Nabokov's assertion that "art is deception and so is nature" (SO, 11) to make sense. The author who loved to perform magic tricks as a child grew into the adult who loved to perform magic tricks in his writing, and it follows that for a consciousness like his "art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex" (SO, 33)—not in any negative or mean-spiritedly fake way, but in the same liberating, dazzling, resourceful, talented, and very human one as when the magician in the splendidly sequined suit suddenly plucks a bountiful bouquet of spring flowers from thin air and holds them aloft for all to prize.

No doubt, of course, we as readers can conceptualize Nabokov's novel in moral terms. We have already done so at length. Yet also no doubt the aesthetic dimension of that novel always took precedence over the moral one in Nabokov's mind. Accordingly, when asked by a BBC interviewer in 1962 why he wrote his special favorite, Nabokov was quick to reply: "It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions" (SO, 16). We are free to take exception with the author. We can assert that his fiction is in reality a deeply, humanistically moral achievement, that we should ultimately trust the tale and not the teller. But the author will continue to take exception with us by asserting that "a work of art has no importance whatever to society. . . . There can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art" (SO, 33), or that "I have no purpose at all when composing my stuff except to compose it. I work hard. . . . If the reader has to work in his turn—so much the better. Art is difficult" (SO, 115). Even in his afterword to Lolita he remained adamant about such matters: "I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book" (311); "it is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author" (316); "despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss" (314).

These sorts of persistent declarations firmly link Nabokov to the aesthetic movement in Europe during the nineteenth century. Influenced by Immanuel Kant's belief that the aesthetic experience rested in a disinterested contemplation of the artwork at hand without reference to either the universe beyond it or its moral ends, and by Edgar Allan Poe's that art was created for art's sake (and hence the movement's French catch-phrase, l'art pour l'art), the aesthetes such as Théophile Gautier, Oscar Wilde, and Aubrey Beardsley maintained that the reason art existed was for its formal perfection, its beauty, its elegance, its intricate artifice and stylistic subtlety, and not for its utilitarian, moral, nor social values. Perhaps this in small part accounts for the numerous references to artists and art in Lolita. Their presence drives this point home: that Nabokov's novel is one more exquisite creation among a constellation of them, and that it should be taken as no more (and no less) than that. Humbert surely holds nothing but contempt for such trendy, poshlosty modern art as "the cubistic trash" that Valeria paints (25), "that banal darling of the arty middle class, van Gogh's 'Arlesienne'" hanging in Charlotte's house (36), or "the obscene thing" Dolly shows him in a magazine depicting a Dali-esque surrealist lying on a beach near a suggestive half-buried plastic replica of the Venus de Milo (58). But Hum cheers the stunning harmony of visual elements, the agile arrangement and precise representational craftsmanship, of "that tinge of Botticellian pink, that raw rose about [Dolly's] lips" (64), the "Claude-Lorrain clouds" and "stern El Greco horizon" that appear above the couple on their cross-country sojourn (152), and even the plates of works by Grant Wood and Peter Hurd from the History of Modern American Painting he innocently buys comic-book-loving Dolly for her birthday (199). Nabokov seems to concur extra-textually by remarking that what made Picasso great for him was "the graphic aspect, the masterly technique, and the quiet colors. But then, starting with Guernica, his production leaves me indifferent. The aspects of Picasso that I emphatically dislike are the sloppy products of his old age." His favorites? "Mostly Russian and French painters. And English artists such as Turner" (SO, 166-67).

Nabokov found particular pleasure in trompe l'oeil paintings, those by creators such as Renaissance artist Mantegna and nineteenth-century artist William Michael Harnett which attempt to deceive the viewer's eye about the material reality of the objects they represent: that nail apparently sticking out of the frame which turns out to have been painted on, that postage stamp seemingly stuck in a corner, that playing card presumably tucked along an edge. "A good trompe l'oeil painting proves at least that the painter is not cheating," Nabokov declared. "The charlatan who sells his squiggles to epater Philistines does not have the talent or the technique to draw a nail, let alone the shadow of a nail" (SO, 167). Talent and technique: these in many ways are the hallmarks of Lolita, a novel that often partakes of a fictional variety of trompe l'oeil, playing games of perception with multiple levels of reality and interpretation, rendering its world in such a seemingly naturalistic manner that the reader is "tricked" into thinking it is actually three-dimensional, always proving that the novelist isn't cheating, that he can draw a nail as well as its shadow, finely highlighted Humbert as well as Clare the Impredictable.

Hence theorist Harold Bloom's pronouncement that Lolita is "baroque and subtle," "a book written to be reread."26 And hence Nabokov's snide rebuttal to the accusation by his critics that his writing is too obscure, too meticulously elite, too knottily difficult and numbingly involved to easily digest. Those who believe such things, he said, refusing to back down, should "stick to the crossword puzzle in their Sunday paper" (SO, 184). His baroque narrative is not composed for them, but for the thorough reader who understands that art is difficult and that in its difficulty lies its pleasure. It is for the kind of person who notes in passing in chapter eleven that Dolly's favorite record is "Little Carmen," and who thereby remembers, not Georges Bizet's popular 1875 opera, but Prosper Merimee's less celebrated 1845 novella, in which the protagonist, Don Jose, murders his lover, the clever young gypsy Carmen, out of a sense of revenge and rage when she claims their passionate affair is over. And for the kind of person who then files away each instance where Humbert quotes Merimee (243, 278, 280) and each where he calls Dolly "Carmen" (59, 60, 61, 242-243, 251, 256, 278, 280), assuming all the while, given this evidence, that Humbert will finally kill his unfaithful lover—only to have the whole complicated Persian rug pulled out from under him or her when, Dolly a last time dismissing Hum's request that she come live with him, Hum announces: "Then I pulled out my automatic—I mean, this is the kind of fool thing a reader might suppose I did. It never even occurred to me to do it" (280).

Voila: trompe l'oeil fiction, mischievous fiction that creates a richly textured "realistic" universe only to remind us through its subtle sorcery that that universe isn't realistic at all. The Enchanted Hunters, the playlet-within-the-book in which Dolly acts, becomes a microcosm for the sum: it exists (as did such plays-within-plays in Elizabethan drama and in the work of such modern and postmodern outriders of the tradition as Luigi Pirandello and Tom Stoppard) to underscore the fact that we the viewers/readers are experiencing talented and technical art, not life, and that our knowledge of the text and world stands on nothing if not shaky ground. So the Borgesian seventh hunter in Dolly's drama is none other than the Young Poet, an artist figure (who nonetheless wears a fool's cap), intent on insisting that Dolly and the others in the piece aren't really real at all, but "his, the Poet's, invention" (201). Obviously this observation is true at the level of the playlet. But it is also true at the level of Lolita itself, and in a number of ways: Dolly's character in the play is Quilty's invention; Dolly's character in the confession we're reading is Humbert's; and all the characters in the novel are Nabokov's. To a certain extent, then, Lolita exists in order to tease us, to dangle the interpretive carrot in front of us only to jerk it away again and again. To a certain extent, however, it also exists in order to reward our energy in reading, compliment our diligence in interpretation, and, in the end, provide us with a bounty of opulent intellectual as well as emotional enjoyments.