Archive for Nabokov In America

Thoughts On “Lolita” And “Stray Cat Blues”

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on July 6, 2015 by johnbuckley100


The image above matches precisely the postcard that Vladimir Nabokov sent Edmund Wilson in the summer of 1949.  Well, maybe the postcard photographer was fifty feet below where we stood, and the aspens — not a willow — stood on the right side.  But it is close.

We know this because we are midway through the excellent Nabokov In America by Robert Roper, which includes an image of the postcard while covering the writer and lepidopterist’s most productive years.  These were years in which Nabokov — Russian aristocrat and exile, genius in both Russian and English — tramped across the Mountain West, butterfly net in hand, while also writing Speak Memory, Pnin, and of course, Lolita.

We should note that in recent weeks we’ve also been listening to the amazing live recordings included in the super duper reissue of Sticky Fingers, and wouldn’t you know it, one of the best performances from both of the spring 1971 sets the Rolling Stones played at the University of Leeds, as well as that tour’s finale at the Roundhouse in London, is “Stray Cat Blues.”

Which prompts this thought: what are we to make, in 2015, of both Lolita and “Stray Cat Blues,” both incredibly appealing works of art, both centered on child rape?

We’ve read much if not all of the Nabokov oeuvre, but as great as both Pale Fire and Speak, Memory are, the standout work by the 20th Century giant is, of course, Lolita — a story about an adult who knowingly manipulates his way into being the sole caregiver of a 14-year old girl, so they can have sex three times a day while traveling the American West.  The novel is at once hilarious and appalling.  Our sense of its duality has always been there — it has always been both hilarious and appalling, and hilarious because it is appalling, appalling because it is hilarious.  But as a college student reading it, we didn’t struggle with it in quite the same was as we do now… now that we are older than Humbert Humbert, older than Nabokov when he wrote it.  Now  that we are in a position truly to think about what it means that this was Nabokov’s best seller, his breakthrough, coming at the front end of the Sexual Revolution, published before 1963, which Philip Larkin has decreed is the year that sex began.

For many, many years, we have considered “Stray Cat Blues” to be the standout performance on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, the Stones’ live album nonpareil from their ’69 tour, and the song is, at worst, the third-best one on Beggars Banquet, that album we would take to a desert isle.  On the studio album, Jagger says he can see the young groupie is “just 15 years old,” which is bad enough, but by the ’69 tour he’d revised her age downward to 13, where it remained for the ’71 tour of the UK.  (The Stones dropped it for the ’72 tour, and as far as we know, it stayed dropped for the next three decades at least.  Though they have returned to it, from time to time.  One wonder what kind of life the girl, 13 when she would have slept with the Rock Star, has had in the nearly 50 years since…)

And here we are, in 2015, and pedophilia — child rape — isn’t an amusing topic, if ever it was.  Martin Amis famously rejected Nabokov’s focus on nymphets — N’s word for the pre-pubescent girls to which Humbert Humbert, whom we know is not a stand-in for the author — in something like six of 19 books, not on moral grounds, but aesthetics.  There were too many of them, these pubescent girls so much on Nabokov’s mind.  And yet, even if there were one, isn’t that too many?  Not for reasons of aesthetics: let us be clear, we are talking about morality.

Over the years, we’ve read about Lolita as a metaphor for Nabokov, the cultured European, discovering his love for the young, quivering America he sailed to on literally the last boat out of France before the arrival of the Nazis.  (In a way, similar to Roman Polanski, are we supposed to excuse Nabokov his child lust because he was a victim, first of Lenin, then of Hitler?)

But we can’t.  We adore Lolita, one of the great novels of the 20th Century, and a miles better American road novel than On The Road.  We can listen to Mick Taylor playing lead on “Stray Cat Blues” six days per week.  Martin Amis also once famously defended Philip Larkin against the charge of his sexism and cultural obtuseness by reminding readers of the epoch in which Larkin wrote his poetry, comparing the censoriousness against him as equivalent to condemning pre-Renaissance painters for not having yet discovered perspective.  But we don’t actually buy this defense here.  Lolita is hilarious, yes, but it is a horrific story, and we do judge it.  And the same goes for “Stray Cat Blues.”

And yet we read the one, listen to the other, all the while understanding how glad we are that as a culture we have, finally, discovered perspective.  Today, few are the artists who will find an audience writing or singing so casually of molestation.

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