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Beat like a drum? - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
June 2nd, 2002
12:06 pm


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Beat like a drum?
I've finally run out of excuses and am reading Lolita now. The prose is delectable; indeed, it is rich and mellifluous, and quite bewitching. Humbert Humbert, like his creator, is a hyper-cultured European intellectual, interested in obscure French verse (as is Nabokov, judging by the Ronsard poem he quotes), and possessed of a refined vocabulary and an elegant style. And yet, Nabokov sees fit to use the hackneyed simile "My heart beat like a drum..." (in Humbert's quoted diary, of his first days at the Haze household, if you want to look it up) in Humbert's self-describing prose.

Everything I've heard of and read about Vladimir Nabokov suggests that he was decidedly elitistic, abhorred clichés, and merrily stung other writers' styles. His prose is so polished that I find it hard to believe that it is merely a slip of the pen. Is it perfume from a dress that made him so transgress? (pardon me) What do you think? If, as I think, this is used on purpose, how do you explain Nabokov's choice of words here?

Current Mood: critical
Current Music: Eric Clapton -- Third Degree

(6 comments | Leave a comment)

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Date:June 2nd, 2002 02:35 am (UTC)

I haven't read Lolita..

Can it be that His polished intellectualism falters facing the temptation, yet only slightly?

I might not know what I'm talking about.

[User Picture]
Date:June 2nd, 2002 05:27 am (UTC)
I never got beyond the second page. Perhaps I should give it another go.
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Date:June 2nd, 2002 06:15 am (UTC)
Perhaps "my heart beat like a drum" is becoming a dead simile. Nobody thinks of fire when I mention an inflamed wound, nor does light come to mind when I mention my brilliant friend. We've all but forgotten the midieval medicine behind melancholia and biliousness. Buying things "for a song" is well on its way to being a dead metaphor. (It's also one of the prettiest English-language idioms I know.) All these phrases were probably at one time hackneyed metaphors until time and tongues wore even their obnoxiousness away.

Still, I'd find that explanation much more likely if Nabokov had been, say, Borges. The former has a literary theory that favors common tropes; the latter seems to regard them as the worst sort of sin. And I don't really see anything exceptional about "My heart beat like a drum." It's better than "Her eyes were limpid pools," but still!

I doubt that the discrepancy can be attributed to passion. (I think you wanted to refer to Humbert's passion, not Nabokov's. As far as I know, that exemplary Russian gentleman was unswayed by the charms of nymphets.) If anything, strong emotion makes Humbert sound more erudite. You'll see this more distinctly near the end, where two of his poems are printed. The entire novel is perfused with the perfume of Lolita's dress, yet Humbert retains his composure in narrating even the most passionate scenes.

It's slippage of the pen that caused this error, then.
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Date:June 2nd, 2002 08:15 am (UTC)


Hey, I'm reading it too now.. and it IS bewitching.

I just hope I won't find myself questioning each and every of his metaphores now, after reading your post.. I'll save that to the re-reading which will surely come one day. Right now, I'm under its spell. Wow.
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Date:June 4th, 2002 06:47 am (UTC)

Wise words from Anatoly

avva responded to this entry in an online conversation we've held outside LJ.  I have obtained his permission to reproduce it here, edited for typos.  Due to comment length limitations, I will post it as a reply to this comment.
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Date:June 4th, 2002 06:54 am (UTC)

Conversation between Anatoly and Ijon

avva: about your questions: it seems that Nabokov sometimes uses Humbert's style to betray his inherent _poshlost'_ (do I need to explain this word?).

the general consensus on that among critics is (and Nabokov seems to've confirmed that) that Nabokov is playing a fascinating game of both trying to make Humbert as human and likable as possible (because, after all, Humbert's the one who's "writing" the book), and at the same time show to a careful reader glimpses of his montrosity that manifests itself not just in his actions, but in everything about him, however he tries to conceal it, including his style.

Ijon: Yes, please explain poshlost'

avva: It's a Russian word notoriously hard to translate (Nabokov wrote a separate article about that). It roughly means "banality, triteness".

Actually the basic meaning of the word as used in the language is to refer to something rudely and often dirtily impolite. Making a rude inappropriate sexual joke in front of a lady would be a classic example of poshlost' in this basic sense.

Ijon: so perhaps 'vulgarity' is a good term?

avva: yes, thank you, 'vulgarity' escaped me ,it's a good word for the basic meaning.

Ijon: So Nabokov deliberately makes these stylistically faux-pas phrases as a symbol of the crudeness and vulgarity of Humbert peeping through his hyper-cultured appearance?

avva: the word is also used in the extended sense of anything which rudely offends the aesthetic sense by its being trite, banal, vulgar, etc. "vulgarity" also fits here, but is narrower than poshlost'. "poshlost'" also covers "hackneyed" and similar meanings here.

Ijon: the t' denotes a soft t, right?

avva: now, Nabokov takes this vague-extended meaning of poshlost' and extends it further, basing his theory of aesthetics on it, more or less. For him, for example, reductionist psychology such as Freudism is a prime example of poshlost'. So is any fiction writing which is done in the name of ideology, and not life and its details; Ayn Rand is a great example of poshlost' in this Nabokovian sense. And of course his poshlost' covers also the meanings I explained earlier. They're all united in his aesthetic system. Does that make sense? ;)
Yes, soft t. Stressed on the first syllable.

So, "poshlyj" (the adjective): banal, trite, vulgar, hackneyed, and more and more, united into one basic concept. That's why the word is hard to translate.
Nabokov sometimes preferred the spelling poshlust which is both a wordplay (poshlost' often can be viewed as lust for the posh), and phonetically more exact (when spelled "poshlost", English speakers may tend to pronounce the second vowel as [o] too, whereas in Russian unstressed o's are completely reduced to [a]'s or schwas).

Ijon: Yes, it makes sense, except for Freud. I'm not sure in what sense the reductionistic aspect of Freud's work is poshlost'y.

avva: I would say that Nabokov felt that Freud's incessant insistence on sex and sexual urge as explanation for any and all mental phenomena, including things like art and literature themselves, looked a lot like poshlost' to Nabokov, who perceived (correctly, IMHO) that there is no real scientific basis for such generalisations and that the only reason Freudian theories became so hugely popular is precisely due to their abrupt focusing on the "forbidden" and "exciting" aspect of sex. I could probably do better than the preceding if given time to phrase things more carefully, but that's the gist of it.

Ijon: No, that's okay, I get it. So it's not reductionism per se that is poshlyj to Nabokov, but Freud's focus on sex and sexuality as Ultimate Reason.

avva: yes, that's correct. Anyway, back to Humbert Humbert, the usual critical view, again, is both that Humbert is a deeply morally flawed man, a moral monster (he's a pedophile after all!), and that Nabokov's actively making the attentive reader aware of it, by making some examples of HH's vulgarity, crudeness, poshlost' shine through "his" polished, intensely-personal-and-therefore-likable writing style.
I'm stressing 'usual view' etc. because I'm not sure I fully agree with it.

Ijon: I see. Thanks for fascinating mini-spiel on poshlyj
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