Tuesday, September 29, 2015

point-of-view narration can make all the difference

A new book on Vladimir Nabokov was published recently, Nabokov in America--on the road to Lolita, by Robert Roper.  Reading it gave occasion to reflect on Nabokov's writing of Lolita, one of the most widely known novels in contemporary American literature.  Lolita is the story of a middle-aged man who pursues an obsessive love relationship with a twelve-year old girl, a stunningly controversial theme for mainstream literature at the time.  Early editions came out in Europe in the mid-fifties, and by 1958, a first edition in America.  Many of Nabokov's academic circle and some editors warned him it would not be well received; nonetheless, it proved a literary and financial success.

Although this first-person narrative seemed moderately engaging, it did not exert as powerful an influence as some critics have ascribed to it.  Humbert is a unique, sophisticated though demented, character, who is also a blundering assassin.  The reader may find some sympathy for his character, but it gets harder and harder to sustain as Humbert reveals his near murder of Lolita's mother, and toward the end his actual murder of a rival for Lolita's favors.  As for Lolita, she remains almost a cipher to the end, regarding her inner emotions or hopes, or the level of comprehension she may have regarding the two men who dominate her life.

In contrast, the third-person limited, simple but powerful novella length Member Of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers, 1946, tells the story of another twelve-year old girl coming into a growing awareness of an inner, vaguely sensual nature, a coming-of-age anxiety, which eventually leads her into a harrowing, near-rape experience with a drunken serviceman in her hometown.

The first-person narrative of Humbert doesn't really allow us to reach into the consciousness of Lolita, and how could we believe much of what this demented person tells us about Lolita, anyhow?  We can observe how Lolita physically acts in various scenes--sometimes she initiates the intimacies--but that doesn't help us to know her very deeply or on what level we can sympathize with her.

In Member, the writer easily moves us into and out of the consciousness of the girl, Frankie, without the many constraints and prejudices potentially imposed on a first-person narrator.  In consequence, we get to know Frankie more deeply
than her counterpart Lolita, and become more moved by her story.

No doubt there were many considerations Nabokov weighed in choosing to write his story as a first-person narrative, including the writing strategies of a rambling journey across the American landscape of sterile motels, a chance for him to use stream-of-consciousness Joycean dialog, chances for literary allusions, and other perks that appealed to his imaginative and writing powers.  His story was well received by many other readers.

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