Reader's Choice

Here it is at last, VLADIMIR NABOKOV’S LOLITA (Putnam, $5.00) — first issued in 1955 by an unorthodox Paris press after being rejected by a string of American publishers; banned by the French government, presumably out of solicitude for immature English-speaking readers (the ban was later quashed by the French High Court); pronounced unobjectionable by that blue-nosed body, the U.S. Customs Office; and heralded by ovations from writers, professors, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
The novel’s scandal-tinted history and its subject — the affair between a middle-aged sexual pervert and a twelve-year-old girl — inevitably conjure up expectations of pornography. But there is not a single obscene term in Lolita, and aficionados of erotica are likely to find it a dud. Lolita blazes, however, with a perversity of a most original kind. For Mr. Nabokov has distilled from his shocking material hundred-proof intellectual farce. His book is slightly reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull; but Lolita has a stronger charge of comic genius and is more brilliantly written. Mr. Nabokov, a Russian émigré now working in his second tongue, has few living equals as a virtuoso in the handling of the English language.
A mock sententious foreword explains that the manuscript which follows is the confession of one Humbert Humbert, who died in captivity in 1952 just before his trial was due to start. Humbert introduces himself as a European of mixed stock who, at the age of twelve “in a princedom by the sea,” loved and lost a petite fille fatale named Annabel Leigh, and has thereafter remained in sexual bondage to “the perilous magic” of subteen sirens — he calls them “nymphets.” There follows a sketch of his tortured career up to the time when, in his late thirties, he settles in a quiet New England town (an American uncle has left him a legacy, and he dabbles in scholarship) under the same roof as a fatally seductive nymphet, Dolores Haze — a mixture of “tender dreamy childishness and eerie vulgarity.” This “Lolita” is the daughter of his landlady, whom he marries with murderous intent. But an accident eliminates Mrs. Haze, and Humbert the Nympholept finds himself the guardian of his darling, who, on their first night together, turns out to be utterly depraved and plays the role of seducer. Their weird affair — which carries them on a frenzied motel-hopping trek around the American continent — is climaxed by Lolita’s escape with a playwright and Humbert’s eventual revenge on his rival.
What is one to make of Lolita? In a prickly postscript to the novel, Mr. Nabokov dismisses this question as a problem dreamed up by “Teachers of Literature”: he rejects the satiric interpretations which critics have put upon Lolita and asserts, in effect, that it is simply a story he had to get off his chest. That all of this is too ingenuous by half is evident from the parodic style in which Lolita is written: a combination of pastiches of well-known styles, spoofing pedantry, analysis of passion àla française, Joycean word games, puns, and all kinds of verbal play. Wild, fantastic, wonderfully imaginative, it is a style which parodies everything it touches. It surely justifies, at least in part, those critics who have seen in Lolita a satire of the romantic novel, of “Old Europe” in contact with “Young America,” or of “chronic American adolescence and shabby materialism.” But above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST

OUR FRIEND JAMES JOYCE (Doubleday, $4.00) by MARY and PADRAIC COLUM is an account of their intermittent contacts with Joyce over a period of nearly forty years. Legend has pictured Joyce as a supreme example of the dedicated artist, wholly possessed by his daemon, who sacrificed to it health, comfort, and most of the gratifications of ordinary men. The picture is valid enough, but there are aspects of Joyce which it shuts out, and the Colum memoir helps to make us more aware of them.
For one thing, Mr. Colum (who is responsible for most of the book) suggests that Joyce, in the sphere of practical affairs, was not altogether a stranger. When Joyce revisited Ireland in 1909, he came with a team of Italian workmen from Trieste and the job of establishing the first cinemas in Dublin, Belfast, and Cork, which apparently he carried out successfully. Many years later, his way of mobilizing support for a pet project — in this instance, boosting the stock of the tenor, John Sullivan — prompted Colum to remark to Hemingway: “Joyce operates like a general” (to which Hemingway replied: “Like a general of the Jesuits”).
Mrs. Colum supplies a partial corrective to the legend of Joyce’s sufferings from poverty. In his middle years — after Harriet Weaver had endowed him with a considerable sum — his mode of life in Paris was hardly austere; in fact, he spent money extravagantly. He liked fine food and (still more) fine wines, and made a habit of dining and entertaining friends at fashionable and expensive restaurants. That Joyce had boisterous, clowning moments when he turned vaudevillian has been duly registered by biographers. Mr. Colum makes rather more of Joyce’s talents as a song-and-dance man; he sees them as representing an essential part of Joyce’s being and places him “in the company of . . . strolling players.”
Among the Colums’ contributions to the record of Joyce’s literary career are a full account of the circumstances which led Maunsel and Company to default on its contract to publish Dubliners (a reverse which decided Joyce to turn his back on Ireland for good), and an intimate picture of Joyce’s working methods and avowed intentions when he was composing tho early parts of Finnegan’s Wake. By this time Joyce’s eyesight was extremely bad, and he farmed out to friends masses of reading on subjects in which he required briefing for his magnum opus. On one occasion, he asked Colum for a report on certain features ot The Arabian Nights and sent over to him the sixteen volumes of Burton’s translation.
The Colums found Joyce, though difficult and at times intolerable, “a reliable friend, [who] would help one with any old thing”; and he becomes more human in their pages than in most of the other writings about him. Their fragmentary memoir manages to be a consistently interesting book: unpretentious, well written, and free from the gusts of rancor that blow through Irish literary reminiscences.
In PART OF A LONG STORY (Doubleday, $4.50), AGNES BOULTON, the second wife of Eugene O’Neill, writes about their life together from their meeting in the fall of 1917 up to the birth of their first child, Shane, two years later. It is decidedly just part of a story (which ended in divorce), and one is left intensely curious to know what followed. But unfinished though it is, the book reads like a novel, by which I mean it does not chronicle the past but rather re- creates it with the imaginative power of good fiction. Its fascination lies not in the facts with which it acquaints us — indeed from the factual standpoint, there are no end of irritating omissions — but in its vivid close-up of a deeply felt relationship and its loving though unsparing portraiture of O’Neill as he moved into his thirties.
The author met O’Neill, and instantly fell in love with him, in a favorite haunt of Greenwich Village Bohemia which was known as the Hell Hole. She had just left her young daughter with her parents on their New Jersey farm, and had come to New York to earn more money by stepping up her sale of stories to the pulps. O’Neill was then associated with the Provincetown Players, who had started to produce his work; and he was in one of his somber, boozy phases: “Life was a dark, sardonic thing, lit with alcohol and bitter dreams, and he was the poet with ‘vine leaves in his hair.'”
His struggle to stay away from drink remained the central problem in their lives, and Agnes Boulton has re-created his surrenders and his comebacks with a terrible but compassionate fidelity. When they were in Provincetown — in the quiet of lodgings rented from a sympathetic landlord or in the idyllic seclusion of the old Coast Guard station, attractively remodeled by Mabel Dodge — O’Neill would go for months without a drink, working with exhilaration and keeping himself in trim as energetically as an athlete. But the ordinary stresses of reality — a train journey, a minor quarrel or hurt, and especially an encounter with drinking companions in New York — would start him off on a fearful binge, from which he would limply inch his way back to recovery on a diet of soup and (invariably) the Saturday Evening Post. As his former wife sees it, he never took a drink to escape from his work or from himself — on the contrary, he thrived on solitude. But he was a man painfully uncomfortable in the world, and he could not find the courage to face its demands except from the bottle.

FICTION CHRONICLE

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR (Dutton, $3.50) is the second part (Justine was the first) of a four-decker novel — set in the cosmopolitan Alexandria of the Farouk era — whose “central topic [is] an investigation of modern love” and whose form is inspired by the theory of relativity. “Our view of reality,” says one of the protagonists, “is conditioned by our position in space and time. . . . Two paces east or west and the whole picture changes.” Balthazar is largely concerned with the characters and events described in Justine, but the same narrator now sees them from a new perspective. It comes to him from the philosopher Balthazar, who has read the manuscript of his book about Justine and has returned it with an extended commentary, which puts all of the relationships in a different light. In particular, the narrator discovers that Justine’s affair with him was a decoy; that she used him to protect from her husband’s jealousy the man she really loved, the novelist Pursewarden. And now Justine’s affair with Pursewarden becomes the nerve center of the story, as the narrator re-examines “the politics of love, the intrigues of desire” in which the various characters are involved.
The reviews that greeted Justine were for the most part highly laudatory, but to this reader — possibly because he grew up in, and knows well, the city which is Mr. Durrell’s setting — Balthazar has in the main an annoyingly fancy and phony ring. To be sure, Durrell can handle the English language beautifully, and there are many brilliant descriptive passages in his book. He is first-rate, too, when he is straightforwardly drawing a comic character like Scobie, the boozy old sailor with perverse “Tendencies” who has miraculously hung on to his job in the Alexandrian police. But Durrell’s experimentation with the relativity proposition has given his storytelling a bewildering pattern; and his major protagonists strike me as unreal and strangely uninteresting. In the customary author’s note saying that the characters are imaginary, Durrell adds: “Nor could the city be less unreal.” He is presumably trying to say (though his words actually mean the opposite) that his Alexandria is entirely a figment of the imagination — and I couldn’t agree more.
In addition to Mr. Durrell, at least three gifted English writers — C. P. Snow, L. P. Hartley, and ANTHONY POWELL — have been devoting themselves to the novel of several volumes, published over a period of years. Blurb writers wistfully insist that each installment of such works forms an independent entity and can be fully appreciated without knowledge of the others, but unfortunately the truth is usually otherwise, which perhaps explains why the three writers just mentioned have had few readers in this country. The most talented of them is certainly Anthony Powell, whose latest book, AT LADY MOLLY’S (Little, Brown, $3.75), is the fourth volume in his wry and polished chronicle of English society, The Music of Time, which has now reached the middle nineteen-thirties.
One of the cardinal realities of the society which Powell is describing was its concern with family background and connections; “Who is he?”, “Whom do we know in common?” were the questions on which most of its conversation hinged. This concern gives Powell’s novel, which is not up to the level of its predecessors, its underlying pattern. The narrator — as he describes a party, a sortie to a night club, a visit to the country — surveys the family relationships of the changing world through which he moves; and in so doing he re-creates that world and peoples it with entrancingly original characterizations of representative types. In Mr. Powell’s hands, a mundane, completely undramatic “slice of life,” rendered with astonishing accuracy, is mysteriously transmuted into art and illumined with the glow of comedy. Widmerpool — the pompous, ambitious bill broker who has figured prominently in earlier volumes — decides to get married; and the course followed by his incongruous engagement is one of several comic treats in the novel. Another is the portrait of a boyish, Blimpish old general with highbrow eccentricities — he studies the cello, reads Virginia Woolf, and enthusiastically dishes out Freud and Jung.
What is so individual about Anthony Powell is that he writes about upper-class England without snobbery or romanticism or hostile prejudices. No contemporary English novelist has brought to bear on this society so sharp and so dispassionate an eye.
The American writer, ANDREW LYTLE, also deals with a society whose nature, he believes, is best defined in terms of family: the American South. Mr. Lytle, whose previous work I missed, is currently represented by a collection of fiction with the literal title, A NOVEL, A NOVELLA, AND FOUR SHORT STORIES (McDowell, Obolensky, $4.95). The quality of the writing is so good, and the storytelling so compelling, that I looked into Mr. Lytle’s publishing history and found in it a streak of bad luck. A big Civil War novel of his was eclipsed by the simultaneous publication of Gone with the Wind; and A Name for Evil (reprinted in the present book) for the most part landed, through some accident on the reviewing circuit, among the briefly noted murder mysteries. Lytle is working out of the same conservative tradition as Robert Penn Warren and John Crowe Ransom; but his fiction has a marked identity of its own, and one finds in it a combination of fine artistry and considerable force.
The range is varied. There is straight narrative, dramatic and charged with suspense — notably the story, “Mr. MacGregor,” in which a Southern lady puts her husband’s authority to the test by forcing him into a fight to the death with a rebellious Negro servant; and the novelette, “Alchemy,” which tells how Pizarro found the capital of the Incas and captured it in the face of terrifying odds. “Ortiz’s Mass” is a gripping but obscure tale, heavily charged with symbolism. “The Mahogany Frame” focuses on a Southern boy who goes on his first duck hunt with his uncle, and it traces his initiation into manhood through the rituals of hunting.
The novel, A Name for Evil, irresistibly recalls A Turn of the Screw. The narrator buys a dilapidated old house and the surrounding farm, which once belonged to a remote branch of his family — he is fired by the idea of striking roots amid the restored grandeur of the past. But the work of restoration goes badly; his beautiful young wife gets overstrained and behaves rather strangely; and presently he begins to encounter the ghost of Major Brent, the evil old man who let the property go to ruin. The narrator becomes obsessed with the idea that Brent’s ghost has terrible designs upon his wife, and the plot keeps growing more mysterious and more sinister right up to the climax. There have been few ghost stories of a really high order since Henry James’s masterpiece, and A Name for Evil is one of them.