Been oh-so-busy seeing shows, blogging at Upstaged (you have bookmarked it and check in thrice daily, right?) and sussing out singers for my new opera, I have had no time to keep ole Histriomasticators happy & well-fed with regular posts. Ah well. But here's something new: A preview/thought piece on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which has inspired a multimedia "imagined opera" at Montclair State University this weekend. The link to the essay at Peak Performance's snazzy website In Site is here. Below is the full unedited text.
Humbert Humbert on Trial
The seductive narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita gets his close-up.
By David Cote
Minor recollection from personal history: Something weird happened to me when I first read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita years ago. I found myself identifying wholeheartedly with the novel’s flamboyant, honey-tongued narrator, Humbert Humbert. So persuasive and vivid was the world view he elaborated, in such witty, high-flown language, I began to see the world through his eyes. And it was exhilarating. No, I didn’t set off in search of some pliable, underage “nymphet” to enthrall and transport across state lines. But so ardently did Humbert state his case, I became a temporary convert. His mesh of lyrical prose ensnared my reason; everywhere society seemed a fleshly wasteland of morality-annihilating temptations, where the man who fancied himself a worldly aesthete could justify lurid pursuits, as long as he used “a fancy prose style.” It wasn’t perversion, you see; it was poetry.
Soon after, of course, I felt pretty foolish. It’s just a novel, after all.
Still, anyone who has read this audacious, intoxicatingly eloquent record of erotic obsession understands that Nabokov created in Humbert Humbert a unique voice: A refined European gentleman swooning over the delectable philistinism of American youth, which drives him to disgustingly low behavior and impossibly high lyrical flights. Humbert’s language is almost indigestibly rich: twisting, baroque sentences flashing with wordplay and literary allusions, self-consciously stylized dispatches from a mind drunk with its linguistic powers and, above all, fixated on 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Dolores (a.k.a. Dolly, Lola, Lo, L) is the saucy New England teen who reminds Humbert of his lost childhood love, Annabel Leigh. Pleading his case before an imaginary jury (in the conceit of the book, Humbert has been arrested for the murder of love-rival Clare Quilty and has written the book in prison as he awaits trial), Humbert articulates, in exquisite detail, the course of his affair with Lolita and his lurid philosophy about the dangerous allure of “nymphets.”
If the experience of reading the 1955 novel is a like being immersed in the twisted mind of a brilliant pedophile, then the new “imaginary opera” based on the book is a clever three-dimensional extension of that same phenomenon. In this multimedia music-theater deconstruction, an actor playing Humbert (Francois Beukelaers) stands in a quarantined space in the midst of the audience. It’s like he’s in the docket of a metaphorical court. Often he keeps his back to us, staring into a camera as he recites fragmented (but chronological) passages from the novel, occasionally turning to the audience (his jury) to argue his case more intimately. There are no other actors in the piece; instead, we see Humbert’s screen-filling face on a central projection screen, flanked by two others on which we see various corollaries and allusions to the book. These include a young woman floating in the ocean (Humbert characterizes nymphets as a kind of siren or mermaid), the American highways on which Humbert and Lolita travel, an arctic landscape that Humbert visited once; and the desolate hotel rooms where he brings Lolita to satisfy his lust. In this way, director Jim Clayburgh and videographer Kurt D’Haeseleer provide visual cues that locate us in the story.
A quick, general note about the use of video projections in Lolita: One hallmark of Nabokov’s fiction was the reflective surface, the shadows and the (distorted) mirror image. His 1947 novel Bend Sinister opens with a tight focus on a water-filled pothole, the mirror-like surface of which he describes in intricate detail. And here are the opening lines of his 1962 mock-epic poem and mock-analysis, Pale Fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/By the false azure in the window pane.” In other words, a bird has fatally flown into a window, mistaking the sky reflected in it for the sky itself. And, to add to the play of reflectivity, the “I” of those lines is the shadow of the bird, not the bird. Dolores Haze is, likewise, a shadow, a ghost of the teen inamorata Annabel Leigh who still haunts Humbert’s romantic imagination. Nabokov’s imagination was fired not only by reality, but by the potentially false refraction of reality. Thus it makes perfect sense, in the opera, that Humbert’s consciousness is not represented in any traditional form of stagecraft (live actors playing out scenes in realistic sets) but through video projections, snatches of reality filtered through digital technology. Our antihero is surrounded in his cell by shadows of his past, his memories, and the projections of his erotic desires.
For diehard fans of the novel, I have bad news: it’s a severely truncated version. After all, the piece is 70 minutes and the text (prepared by composer Joshua Fineberg) is fragmentary. So it may not be a bad idea to read or re-read the book before seeing this production. Fineberg’s atonal music—strings scrape and woodwinds whine—counterpoints and reinforces the psychic agony of Humbert’s position. It’s dark, rattling music, not pretty or soothing, and indicates (quite unambiguously) that Humbert’s mind is a dark, chaotic space. (If Fineberg had wanted to dig a little deeper into Humbert’s European lineage, he might have used classical music as a thematic base, rendering in musical metaphor the twisted, decayed late Romanticism that Humbert partly represents.)
The casting of Francois Beukelaers as Humbert is a problematic choice. Humbert’s voice is flamboyantly literary. His complex rhetorical riffs are difficult enough to digest while sitting with the book; how much trickier is it to hear the words, cut from context, and spoken in a fairly thick Belgian accent? Beukelaers cuts a dashing, middle-aged figure as Humbert and his old-world accent adds a touch of Euro-gravitas, but those of us who revere the original text might pine for a reader whose delivery of Nabokov’s lyrical banquet is more pleasing to the ear, who won’t throw us with a strange-sounding vowel. But again, this isn’t a literal rendering of the book. We aren’t here to bask in the glories of Nabokov’s language but to see a mental state portrayed in stark form.
And let’s be honest: this version of Lolita does not purport to be a complete or even faithful adaptation. (But note: Vladimir Nabokov’s estate approved this edit.) It is instead a relatively brief, rapturous, disturbing journey into the mind of a madman, an unrepentant pedophile, a murderer, a man so deranged by the intermingling of sexual desire and cultural sophistication, he corrupts a pubescent girl and blames it all on her. Here’s hoping you make the journey with senses titillated but morals intact.