Harry Potter and Lolita: Rowling’s Rings and Vladimir Nabokov’s Story Mirrors (The Alchemy of Narrative Structure)

VVN1I promised in the postHarry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s Relationship with Vladimir Nabokovto discuss the structure of Lolita in relationship to Harry Potter’s story scaffolding. I deferred it from that first JKR/VVN post because it was already over-crowded with discussion of names, alchemy, politics, and, most important, parody. As I hope you’ll agree after reading this piece below, the ‘parallelism parallel’ between the two authors is significant, fascinating, and even a revelation of sorts of the alchemical aim of their artistry.

Rowling may have drawn her ring writing artistry from a variety of sources: her training in Classics, reading in Scripture, familiarity with Inkling literature, even a close study of Robert Louis Stevenson or Jules Verne’s popular adventures. Today I will argue that, though these sources are possibilities, the most likely single source of Rowling’s structural wizardy is the work of Vladimir Nabokov.

Nabokov wrote eighteen novels. The only one Rowling has mentioned specifically in interviews is Lolita so today I will confine my discussion to Nabokov’s most famous work. This will involve, of course, discussion of what happens in that story, which is as close as I’m coming to a ‘spoiler alert’ for a book published sixty years ago and considered Western canon for half a century.

CirclesWe’ll test whether Nabokov was a ring writer in five steps derived from the qualities Mary Douglas tells us to look for in a ‘ring composition’: first, the latch of beginning and end, second, a story-turn, third, parallels side to side, fourth, rings inside the rings and other self-referencing, and last, a comparison with Rowling’s story and series structures. That ‘last’ will include my conclusions about why Nabokov worked-in the mirroring he has into Lolita and if Rowling’s meaning is similarly buttressed by her own ring work.

The Latch: Lolita’s Prologue and Part 2, Chapter 36

A look at Lolita’s table of contents reveals that it is made up of a foreword written by psychologist John Ray, Jr., a Part 1 of thirty-three chapters, and a Part 2 of thirty-six chapters, both of which are first person narratives that were written by Humbert Humbert in fifty-six days while awaiting his trial for murder. There is no epilogue or afterword, if every edition published since the early sixties does include Nabokov’s short essay ‘On a Book Called Lolita’ after the novel’s close.

The first tell-tale sign of a traditionally crafted story is how well the beginning and end match up. Lolita’s foreword and chapter 36 have six points of correspondence that latch the story’s circle tightly together at the close. [Read more…]

Harry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s ‘Relationship’ with Vladimir Nabokov (Names, Politics, Alchemy, and Parody)

f38696614It’s been fifteen years since I started thinking seriously and speaking publicly about the literary merits of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter books. I am still surprised at how much work there is to be done, how many mysteries and markers that have been neglected.

Take, as an obvious example, the matter of the author’s favorite books and writers. She says the three she enjoys reading most are Jane Austen, Colette, and Vladimir Nabokov. Go ahead and do a web search for ‘Rowling and Colette’ or ‘Rowling and Nabokov.’ You’ll find links to the various lists of Rowling’s ‘10 Most Loved Novels‘ and the like in which the same comments are re-rehearsed with different covers as click bait. But no discussion of Colette, Nabokov (or Roddy Doyle or Auberon Waugh, and, well, you get the idea) and their place in understanding what Rowling, the serious reader become writer, was after in the Hogwarts Saga.

BookshelfI wrote a book, Harry Potter’s Bookshelf, on ‘the Great Books Inside the Adventures of the Boy Who Lived’ and it’s a grand tour of Western Canon through the lens of Rowling’s septology. It wasn’t, however, despite frequent quotations from The Presence to justify my choices of texts to discuss, J. K. Rowling’s Library, a book by Karin Westman, chair of the Kansas State English Department. Prof Westman announced the imminent publication of this guide at Nimbus 2003 in Orlando, Florida, and her CV says it is “forthcoming, 2017” today (the University of Mississippi Press, her publisher, alas, does not list it among their titles soon to be in print).

This is a shame, if understandable given Prof Westman’s responsibilities, because, judging from what she has shared through the years about Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield, and other Rowling favorites at conferences, no one is more qualified than she to write on this subject. While we wait for J. K. Rowling’s Library, though, let’s take a look at that “favorites” list again and see what we can figure out in anticipation of Prof Westman’s guidance.

Lolita 20The writer I’ve been reading, both his novels as well as books about his fascinating life, is Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and I have a small confession to make. The experience of reading his Pale Fire and Lolita, considered among the best if not just the best American novels of the 20th Century (Lolita even makes the #15 slot on this Greatest Books Ever list) has turned my thinking about Rowling as novelist on its head, maybe even inside-out. If nothing else, I have a new “hidden key” to share.

First, though, let’s establish the Rowling-Nabokov link through her comments about the Man from St. Petersburg and the clear correspondences and probable hat-tips to his best known works in Harry Potter. [Read more…]

Tolkien Estate and the Movies: Why We Should Care

Let’s be clear, there is no love lost between the Estate of J. R. R. Tolkien and the movie making empire that created the three LOTR films and, more recently, The Hobbit. For one, they are at legal nail, tooth, and tongs. More to the point of this post, though, the Estate considers the movies to be trash and a great betrayal of the written work, the artistry, epic, and meaning they are supposed to represent in a different medium.

You can read the interview with Christopher Tolkien in which he makes these points — and it is worth a close study, I think. Here is the highlight I think especially important:

Invited to meet Peter Jackson, the Tolkien family preferred not to. Why? “They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25,” Christopher says regretfully. “And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.”

This divorce has been systematically driven by the logic of Hollywood. “Tolkien has become a monster, devoured by his own popularity and absorbed into the absurdity of our time,” Christopher Tolkien observes sadly. “The chasm between the beauty and seriousness of the work, and what it has become, has overwhelmed me. The commercialization has reduced the aesthetic and philosophical impact of the creation to nothing. There is only one solution for me: to turn my head away.”

Three quick notes:

[Read more…]

Philip Nel’s ‘Tales for Little Rebels’

Philip Nel’s Tales for Little Rebels I thought was published some time ago but NYU is putting out an edition on the Ides of March that I want to mention here because it makes an important point about children’s literature, all literature really, and how we think about this subject. [Read more…]

Pride and Prejudice — and Zombies?

When I describe the influence of Jane Austen on Joanne Rowling to lecture audiences, my pet phrase is that a good way for them to understand the Harry Potter novels is as “Pride and Prejudice with wands.” This hyperbole is more true than not because (1) the Hogwarts Adventures feature narrative misdirection consequent to the voice chosen by the author, a voice lifted straight from Austen’s Emma, (2) the moral message of both authors is anti-empiricist, that is, not trusting unexamined prejudices or “first impressions,” the original title of Pride and Prejudice, and (3) the satirical quality of Austen’s manners-and-morals fiction is a big part of the genre melange the writing of which is Ms. Rowling’s peculiar genius. Inside a Schoolboy novel and gothic thriller, she includes without hiccup a Georgian era romance.

This genre mixing is postmodern “double coding,” which I explain at length in Unlocking Harry Potter. But Ms. Rowling isn’t the only author to include Austen in their genre story mix. Stephenie Meyer has said Twilight, the first book of her ‘Twilight Saga,’ is a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice (if Jane Eyre is behind and within many of that book’s scenes and characters, too). But Meyers and Rowling are way too subtle with their allusions and recasting for the author of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; it’s time for a real re-telling, straight up, with gothic horror elements on steroids thrown in. Regency romance meets Texas Chain Saw Massacre? You get the idea. [Read more…]