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…]

Unlocking ‘Fantastic Beasts,’ Part 3 — Six Screenplay Scenes Deleted From Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

cut2The most fun part of getting a DVD of a favorite film is watching ‘the extras.’ I love seeing the outtakes, the old trailers, and especially the deleted scenes.

I don’t think watching the deleted scenes of Fantastic Beasts, however, is going to be exciting or enjoyable that way. For one thing, we know about six of them already, so the surprise is gone.

cut1And, frankly, because what they cut were scenes that Rowling wrote in her actual “original screenplay,” we’re having to see what the producer and director decided “didn’t work” as extras rather than as the story Rowling imagined and wrote it. For Rowling fans, that’s a bit like learning there was a publisher’s error at the print shop and six chapters of her novel aren’t in the hard cover edition we paid for. Posting them online for us to experience six months later and separately from the film is not giving us the story as our favorite story teller wrote it.

After the jump, I’ve written up a list of the six cut scenes and the words of the film makers and actors about them (each change in color represents a change in source material; follow the embedded links for the original interviews and stories). I’ll close with the importance of two cut scenes in light of Rowling’s writing artistry and some thoughts on the other four. Enjoy!

[Read more…]

Is It a Ring? First Thoughts on Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

newt-scamanderThe movie made from J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay is a visual ring composition. I have not received my copy of the screenplay yet (come back Wednesday of next week for more on that) but, having watched the film yesterday and taken four pages of notes in the dark, I can say the film’s scenes conform to the chiasmus or ring formula that anthropologist Mary Douglas describes in her Thinking in Circles and which J. K. Rowling uses as something of a template for her Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike novels.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to be spoiled, okay. That paragraph should be your last. If you have seen the film and would like to see how Rowling brought her ring artistry to the third draft of her screenplay, I’ll see you after the jump. [Read more…]

Austen and Rowling: On the Virtue of Penetration in Life and Reading

In 2010 I wrote in response to Prof Baird’-Hardy’s third brilliant post on Jane Eyre that:

AustenDickens and Austen frequently discuss (through preferred characters) the virtue of “penetration,” i.e., seeing the ‘inside bigger than the outside’ of others, their virtues or vices which constitute character or the lack of it, rather than focusing on the surface. Georgian and Victorian writers, to include Bronte, understood that they were “instructing while delighting,” and instructive most especially in the virtue of “penetration.” Readers were exercising their powers of inner heart reflection and recognition as they entered into and experienced the lives of what were principally minor gentry and aristocrats. This is “manners and morals” fiction at its best.

Katy asks six years later:

Hi! This is so fascinating. I know I am years too late, but a hail Mary pass just in case: John, do you have a source for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of “penetration”? Where do they mention seeing “the inside bigger than the outside”? Thanks so much!

Austen EmmaI do not have a source “for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of ‘penetration,” alas. It is something that I have noticed in almost every book by these authors, however; they use the word and illustrate it as a virtue to cultivate and admire (and as a quality whose absence marks the stupid, dull, or wicked).

Take for example, Austen’s Emma, the book J. K. Rowling claims to have read twenty times in succession before writing Philosopher’s Stone, one assumes to get a grip on the narrative voice she adopts in Stone (third person limited omniscient) to set up the “biggest twist in English literature” at which she said “all authors aim” to best. Emma is loaded with examples of and references to the virtue of penetration.

I’d go so far as to claim, in fact, that the principal virtue in Austen’s Emma is this quality of ‘penetration,’ a mental vision that sees beneath the surface of individuals and their actions to see her character. I found on a recent re-reading seven instances of some form of the word in the book with several other passages in which the quality is described with other terms (cf., especially Emma’s discussion with Mr. Knightley about her feelings for Frank Churchill before Knightley’s proposal in which she chides herself for not seeing through him: “yet it may not be the more excusable in one who sets up as I do for Understanding;” Vol. 3, ch. 13). [Read more…]