Thursday, April 23, 2009

Nabokov and Poe

Today marks the birth of Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov, born April 23, 1899. He missed interacting with Poe by 50 years, but the influence Poe had on Nabokov serves as a reminder of Poe's far-reaching posthumous legacy.

Nabokov published one of his most (in)famous works, Lolita, in 1955. The book, which contemporary reviews called "sheer unrestrained pornography," is built around a character named Humbert Humbert, who lusts after young women he calls "nymphets" - and, by young, I mean pre-teen. Humbert falls for a 12-year old named "Annabel Leigh." Who seduces who becomes a twist in the novel - and I'll stop there.

The point is, the book used Poe's poem "Annabel Lee" as a starting point, taking full advantage of the line "she was a child." In fact, the original title for the novel made the reference much more obvious. As Nabokov wrote to critic Edmund Wilson in 1847 (a full eight years before publication): "I am writing... a short novel about a man who liked little girls - and it's going to be called The Kingdom by the Sea."

Well, the name eventually changed and, because of the controversial content, it took quite some time before a publisher was found. Now, it's considered a modern classic, though I doubt it often ends up on high school summer reading lists. Frankly, I haven't read it, and it's not high on my "must-read" list!

Nevertheless, it shows Poe's far-reaching influence, and the interest in the poem "Annabel Lee" in particular. I dispute, of course, that Poe's poem has anything to do with pedophilia (or his marriage, for that matter), and perhaps one could argue that even that theme is only a small device in Lolita, to present a more tragic story about obsession, love, guilt, and gender-based/age-based manipulation. I think Poe would have appreciated at least some of that.

Happy birthday, Nabokov!


Amateur Reader said...

Lolita is a marvel, and, yes, it's packed with Poe references. Humbert Humbert actually gives a lecture on Poe's poetry at one point. Plenty of Poe in Pale Fire and Ada as well.

Poe was a childhood writer for Nabokov, who grew up in an Anglophile, English-speaking (and reading) household.

Gina said...

SPOILER ALERT (I guess. Kind of a mild spoiler, though, I think.)

I never bought Humbert's argument that Lolita was some sort of instigator. I mean, it's the sort of thing a child molester WOULD say.

It was a pretty uncomfortable read for me as an undergraduate, because the subject matter was so heartrending, and I raced through just to be done with it. So I probably missed a lot. I'm honestly not even sure whether Nabokov really meant that Lolita instigated things, or was just letting us see things through Humbert's warped mind. But whatever I missed, and whatever Nabokov intended, I still don't think I could ever buy that argument.

nnyhav said...

I recommend The Annotated Lolita (notes by Alfred Appel Jr) to help signpost the influence. And even moreso, Pale Fire, with its unreliable annotator.

Rob Velella said...

Gina: I had read about that aspect of the novel and, even as someone not deeply acquainted with the book, I didn't buy it either.

Others: In fact, the only Nabokov book that I have read was Pale Fire - certainly not my cup of tea. But, getting me to read anything written after the death of Oliver Wendell Holmes (Sr.) is not easy, let alone enjoying it!