Lolita and Eichmann

Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)

Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.

We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).

I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.

In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?

It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.

This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.

Me, The Collector

I should not be writing this post. I should be writing something else. I should, I should and I should. There are a half dozen other things I should be doing but everyone needs some private time to relax, reconsider and collect themselves. The search for a summer internship can be placed on hold. Understanding the arbitrariness of our country’s highest court can wait. After all, the list of things I should do today is big enough to take care of itself. It does not need fretting. There’s a joke.

I like to think that literature does not provide us with completely new information, but that the best writing is a tool. Literature belongs in the same family as telescopes, or perhaps microscopes, and it provides us with a way to see something about ourselves that we could not see before. But we knew where to look. In short, literature is a game of optics.

With that point of departure, dear reader, I would like to share the story of Beersheba from Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba, where the city’s most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two cities will become one. The image propagated by tradition is that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of laborious study might produce when applied to materials of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba’s inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they develop forms of composite composure.

They also believe, these inhabitants, that another Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of everything base and unworthy that happens to them, and it is their constant care to erase from the visible Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin. In the place of roofs they imagine that the underground city has overturned rubbish bins, with cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater, uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them. Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and thick, like the pitch that pours down from the sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels, from black hole to black hole, until it splatters against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the lazy, encircled buybbles below, layer upon layer, a fecal city rises, with twisted spires.

In Beersheba’s beliefs there is an element of truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accompanied by two projections of itself, one celestial one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about their consistency. The inferno that broods in the deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the most authoritative architects, built with the most expensive materials on the market, with every device and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all the pipes and levers.

Intent on piling uo its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know that its only moments of generous abandon are those when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the city’s riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off things: a planet a flutter with potato peels, broken umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with tram tickets, fingernail cuttings and pared calluses, eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its heaven long-tailed comets fly-past, released to rotate in space from the only free and happy action of the citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy.

The words vibrate with an energy all their own, I admit that, but the notes reverberate within me. I chose to make a decision long before I read this passage that heaven is not where glistening spires (and evidently their close companions, tired metaphors, reside) and tightly wound displays of security shine. Nabokov was right, I think, in writing that the study of literature sits atop one crucial assumption and that assumption is simply a feeling that what we’re reading is something important. Special. I like to think that seed of meaning is a portion of ourselves that we recognize in the text, but everyone has their own thoughts. But that is why I write and why I read. I collect portions of myself.

I’m probably insane.

Lost in the Funhouse

Lost in the Funhouse

It should be, and probably has been, told to a psychoanalyst, and it has been elaborated into a novel which contains some wonderful writing, but it is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation … It is a totally perverse performance all around … I am most disturbed at the thought that the writer has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause could be served by its publication now. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.

 

A cute, quick and entertaining look at Nabokov’s Lolita. 

Of course, no m…

Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things”—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat,” or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.

Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Read the full here.

Some More Aphorisms

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal. —T. S. Eliot

The isms go; the ist dies; art remains. —Vladimir Nabokov

Man’s world is infested by Sphinxes, demonic beings of mixed and monstrous nature which ask him riddles and eat him if he cannot answer them, compelling him to play a game of wits where the stake is his life and his only weapon is his tongue. — R. G. Collingwood

History speak truth to every age, in every time, every time. —Hannah Arendt

I tremble when I think God is just. —Thomas Jefferson

 

He prepared a b…

He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass, and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the quamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak. He rinsed the amber goblets and the silerware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver–and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wuping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it–his fingertips only helped to properl it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.

Pnin hurled the towel into a corner and, turning away, stood for a moment staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open back door. A quiet, lacy-winged little green insext circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin’s glossy bald head. He looked very old, with his toothless mouth half open and a film of tears dimming his blank, unblinking eyes. Then, with a moan of anguished anticipation, he went back to the sink and, bracing himself, dipped his hands deep into the foam. A jagger of glass stung him. Gently he removed a broken goblet. The beautiful bowl was intact. He took a fresh dish towel and went on with his household work.

Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov; 172-173 (1993, Vintage Books Edition)