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The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Nabokov rarities at Macalester

By Eric Kelsey

Quite an unwholesome book, SS leader Adolf Eichmann said when returning Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to his Israeli prison guard. This opinion of Lolita has hardly changed over time. Still, fifty years after its first publication, the spate of articles covering its anniversary still mention its power to “unnerve” the reader as The New York Times so ineloquently wrote. The history of Lolita’s first fifty years remains just as it began. Outside of our social mathematical bias toward factors of ten and Random House’s savvy marketing department realizing easy cash in, there seems very little reason to reissue and reignite the public Lolita debate.

Yet, Macalester sits on a trove of Nabokov. The Rare Books Collection on the library’s second floor houses 50 first-edition Nabokovs donated from the collection of David F. Wheeler ’80 in 1998. Wheeler majored in English and Russian at the College and his family felt it important to donate his Nabokov collection in memoriam to the school that ignited his “Nabokovophilia.”

In all, there are over 50 Nabokov editions in the collection, including the second and third editions of the Olympia Press printings of Lolita. Also in the collection is a Greek translation of Lolita, and perhaps the crown jewel, a signed Cyrillic first edition.

Yet, what gives Lolita the right to such celebration? In most cases controversy dies over time. What was once immoral and Avant-garde now seems meek and ordinary–perhaps because such watershed works as Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselle d’Avignon are such arbiters of discursivity that their effect cannot be separated from the work itself. Picasso’s work is such a large historical archive that it later seems like a natural extension of art.

Still, fifty years later, no one will touch Lolita.

It was made into two films, a play and a musical. All of which were poor. The likes of Edward Albee and Stanley Kubrick have tussled with Lolita, and in the end Nabokov always wins. Lolita’s longevity is not a product of its children–it has none–but its perpetual scandal. Video games and television grow more gory and sexualized emanating fears of an anesthetized society but Lolita still hits an untouched nerve, whether it is outrage and disgust or the paralyzing evocations of Nabokov’s art.

Just a scan of the 421 reader reviews illustrates Lolita’s prowess. One reader devoted 1,352 words to explain a one-star rating, while others matched its length in defense. Another facet to Lolita grows more complex everyday. And it’s meaning comes to reflect as much of what it is as art as it is the anti-art–“author,” Humbert Humbert’s playground for kitschy and sensational storytelling.

Therein lies where most readers go astray. Lolita is a book about many things but it is also a book about books. It is itself a mock book of Humbert’s prison journal, complete with a cautionary forward by the fictitious witch doctor, John Ray, Jr. (So poor of readers some were, that one publisher replaced the fictional forward to Humbert’s journal with a commissioned essay by Martin Amis).

As Eichmann shows, Lolita has never identified a “good reader.” One can constantly discuss the novel and never get half of the way to the finish. Rather, one of Nabokov’s many tricks, and this, the most pernicious, identifies the poor readers, those who could not differentiate between Humbert’s slick floridity and his moments of disarming humanness. Humbert creates his own highly guarded fiction, yet, at the most precious of moments loses his voice. Paralyzed not by his own art but the art brought out of life. In a sudden stammer of disclarity, Humbert chokes, “Oh, let me be mawkish for the nonce! I am so tired of being cynical.” Clearly a Nabokovian trick to get the reader to feel smugly sympathetic to his abhorrent creation.

Sympathy, however, is not the novel’s goal. Hannah Ardent, who wrote about Eichmann for The New Yorker focused strongly on Eichmann’s inability to express himself outside of clichs, concluding that Eichmann’s lack of an individual voice affected his ways of thinking and most importantly to think from the standpoint of someone else.

Therein lays, the tragedy of Lolita. Humbert and Lolita are cold dead on arrival, yet that only obscures the fact that Humbert is a solipsist imposing his own ideology onto Lolita, stealing her childhood much in the ways of Lenin and Hitler. Solipsism is a safeguard against reality that Humbert can only escape through art, imposing it onto the American landscape alluding to the sunsets of El Greco. As a result, there is only one thing throughout Lolita that remains indestructible: the refuge art–whether it be through uncomfortable laughter, language, or the book itself, Humbert concludes, “This is the only immortality you and I may share.” An apotheosis, nonetheless.

And as it what happens with virtually all lasting works of art are the pains and struggles the artists undergoes while consumed in his craft. It’s no secret that Nabokov was headed to the garden incinerator, in 1950, Lolita in hand, when his wife, Vera, caught and turned him away.

This spring the Russian Department offers a class on Nabokov that is cross-listed with the English Department.

Additionally, the Rare Books Collection has a hodge-podge of works stretching from Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary and Diderot’s 13-volume Encyclopedia to Willa Cather, Robert Frost and the largest collection from Minnesotan, Sinclair Lewis. All together, the Rare Books Collection is home to roughly 1,500 works. Though there has never been a strong collecting history at Macalester, the Rare Books Collection mainly functions as the College archives for school history and development.

For more information, contact archivist and Rare Books librarian, Ellen Holt-Werle at [email protected].

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