Saturday, 26 August 2017

Lolita

Lancashire Dead Good Poets were approached last year by a Liverpool-based arts project that took Lolita as its theme and was looking to match poetry with photography in an exhibition exploring changing social and moral responses to the iconic 'Lolita' image and the concept of Lolita-ness.

I felt slightly uncomfortable about the premise (given it concerns the sexual precociousness of teenage girls) but Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote the novel in the mid '50s, remains one of my favourite authors - and one of the true literary masters - so I re-watched the original movie adaptation of the novel (having read the book at university some 40 years ago) and began working on a poem. I'm not sure the arts project ever materialised; the trail went cold.

There it would have ended apart from two things: the fact that I don't like leaving works unfinished and the resurfacing media attention given to the unacceptable practice of 'grooming' young girls in English towns.

Of his most famous novel, Nabokov had this to say: "Lolita is a special favourite of mine. It was my most difficult book - the book that treated of a theme that was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works... but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet."

Born in Russia, from whence his family fled in advance of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, Vladimir Nabokov grew up in exile in western Europe, studied modern languages at Trinity College, Cambridge and then became a novelist, writing first in Russian and then, following his move to the USA during the 2nd world war, in English. When he was writing Lolita, Nabokov was so concerned about how the book might be received that he even considered publishing it under a pseudonym, the appropriately anagrammatical Vivian Darkbloom.

When the novel appeared it was considered controversial, shocking even in its subject matter and acquired a reputation for being a risque book (especially by those who had not read it) but Lolita has gradually cemented its place among the finest works of fiction of the 20th century.

I am not going to summarise the plot here, beyond saying that it concerns a middle-aged professor's unhealthy infatuation with Dolores Haze, the teenage daughter of his landlady. I recommend you to read the novel. Lolita, pictured below from Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film, was the pet name that Humbert gave to Dolores. The story of Lolita has been filmed twice, by Kubrick as mentioned and more recently by Adrian Lyne in 1997. It has also been adapted as a stage play and a ballet and is the subject of two operas.

Still from Stanley Kubrick's original 1962 movie of the novel
The protagonist of the novel claims he has hebephilia. I had to look it up. It's a fixation with pubescent girls (named after the Greek goddess Hebe, protector of youth if you wanted to know) and has been brought on in his case by an unfortunate event in his own younger life - so a form of mental illness (interestingly first 'diagnosed' by clinicians as Nabokov was planning the book). As such it is only one rung above paedophilia on the ladder of unacceptable sexual fixations. His predilection gets him into all sorts of trouble and yet such is Nabokov's talent as an author that there is sympathy even for the tormented professor.

Dolores Haze may or may not have been sexually precocious. Humbert may have been as much victim as predator, with genuine feeling for Lolita. You would need to read the novel and arrive at your own conclusion. The 1950s seems such an innocent decade in retrospect. It is telling, I think, that the Lolita of Lyne's 1997 movie was altogether more seductive and sophisticated than her earlier namesake.

Lolita remade, remodelled - innocence lost
It is perhaps understandable that young teenage girls want to look and act mature beyond their years, that they have a natural need to explore and understand their power to attract. A few may even exploit that power without appreciating the possible consequences. However, one thing is indisputable, I believe - that is the absolute moral responsibility of the adult not to take advantage of the child, no matter the extent of the opportunity or the provocation. If the Liverpool art project had come to fruition, it may have put that moral consideration into the public domain.

Here, at least, is the poem I wrote concerning Lolita. I don't quite know what I was trying to do with it (apart from somehow capturing the ambiguity inherent in the psyche of a hebephiliac) and I feel quite ambivalent about it - so your candid feedback is welcomed.

Nymphet
Nymphet, floret,
languid miss Dolores Haze,
pallid, unsullied temptress -
the mere thought
of your slender splendour
orchestrates a symphony in my head;
and though I dance to your tune,
my tight-budded flawless empress,
this manly madness is no mere lust.
My tender yearning
for your pure, demure young love
is such
that I could not betray your trust,
would never stoop to groom
or bruise the fruit of your bloom
even though your coyness flays me.


Thanks as ever for reading. Be good, S ;-)
Reactions:

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

As you say, a difficult topic. I think you've handled it with poise (if that's the right word) and sensitivity. I've never read anything by Nabokov (always had the impression he was a bit hard-going) but I will make a point of reading Lolita.

Anonymous said...

Men have always taken advantage of young girls. Flys round the honey pot. They used to call them jailbait in the States. Its nothing new. I blame disfunctional familys. Parents ought to get a grip.

Anonymous said...

Poetry good. Prose ropey. Two thats in one sentence?

Steve Rowland said...

Prose ropey? You jest! Both that's are in on merit ;-)

Anonymous said...

A thought-provoking blog. I have read Lolita and can recommend it, also The Real Life of Sebastian knight and Pale Fire (both by Nabokov).

Anonymous said...

Come off it. Grooming is so wrong and anything that glorifies old men lusting after young girls is disgusting.

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,

A beautiful poem!

Well done!!!

When are you coming to visit us in the Warsaw area sometime?

Cheers,
Harald

Steve Rowland said...

Agreed grooming is wrong - hope the blog made that point unequivocally. I don't agree that Lolita as a book glorifies what it portrays. Quite the opposite. And kudos to Sarah Champion MP for speaking her mind.

Anonymous said...

Great blog!

Anonymous said...

No normal person would treat their own daughter in this way - so to do it top someone else's is sick and criminal.

Anonymous said...

Very good Steve! One of your best.

Steve Rowland said...

As an amusing postscript - just got back from a holiday on the Greek island of Kos where they have a Nymphaeum:

"The Nymphaeum of Kos is an Ancient Roman building but its name is something of a misnomer.

Called the Nymphaeum because its opulence initially led archaeologists to think it was a sanctuary dedicated to the Nymphs, it has since been determined that this would have been a very luxurious set of lavatories."

Anonymous said...

As others have commented, a great blog, thought-provoking and quite topical with the latest breaking serial predator scandal!

Anonymous said...

Clearly a tricky subject, but handled with great tact, I thought, and empathy in the poem. I've not read Lolita - or any Nabokov - but it sounds like it may be worth the effort.