I promised in the post ‘Harry Potter and Lolita: J. K. Rowling’s Relationship with Vladimir Nabokov‘ to 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.
We’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.
|Foreword||Part 2 Chapter 36|
|“It’s author bizarre cognomen is his own invention” (p 5)||“And I have toyed with many pseudonyms for myself before I hit on a particularly apt one” (310)|
|“the caretakers of the various cemeteries involved that no ghosts walk” (6)||“to rationalize him as not being a ghost” (308) “my specter shall come at him like black smoke, a demented giant” (311)|
|“Mrs. ‘Richard F. Schiller’ died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl on Christmas Day 1952” (6)||“Dolly Schiller will probably survive me by many years…I wish this memoir to be published only when she is dead” (310-311)|
|“”’Humbert Humbert,’ their author, died in legal captivity” (5)||“Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book” (311)|
|“a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise” (7)||“one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to make you live in the minds of later generations” (311)|
|“…the development of a tragic tale tending unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis” (7)||“last mirage of wonder and hopelessness” (309) “the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord” (310)|
|First word, Part 1, Chapter 1: “Lolita”||Last word, Part 2, Chapter 36 (book): “Lolita”|
[For whatever reason, WordPress weblog software does not copy chart lines; for a more readable and printable copy of this chart, click Lolita Structure Latch pdf. ]
The beginning and end of the story, then, echo and refer to one another, explaining what the other neglects to mention, almost as complementary as two chess match or tennis players, the only sports mentioned in the novel (and both of which provide intratextual snapshots). The narrator’s name, the ghosts, the death of the story principals, and Nabokov’s markers that this is a work for the ages and that it is a moral study whose meaning is largely revealed in the “apotheosis” of the finish are laid out here.
All of that, especially the last, merits lengthy discussion; the point here, however, is only that we have a story latch, beginning and end. There is more beginning and end bracketing/inversion mirroring fun in Lolita; John Ray, Jr., for example, mentions “Dr. Blanche Schwarzman” a psychologist or sexologist whose name means ‘ White Black man,’ and in Part 2, chapter 35, Claire Quilty invites Humbert to see some artifacts collected by “explorer and psychoanalyst Melanie Weiss,” or ‘Black White’ woman. But let’s move on.
The Story Turn: Parts One and Two
In Douglas ring composition formula, ‘the meaning is in the middle.’ A well-crafted ring, in other words, will have at or near its center a story turn that reflects the beginning and end, even the point of the book. If nothing else, it will mark the end of the beginning or ‘coming out’ half of the book and the beginning of the end or ‘going back’ return trip. The connection between this turn and the story latch, when the story is pictured as a circle or ring, creates the story axis which neatly bisects the loop.
Nabokov is the most nuanced and subtle of authors. The story turn of Lolita, however, is plainly marked; the novel is divided into two Parts, the first one being thirty three chapters, the second thirty six. We’ve already noted that Part Two’s last chapter acts as a latch with the foreword. Chapters 34 and 35 are Nabokov’s Fall of the House of Usher, mirroring chapters in which the doppelganger story of Qulity and Humbert are resolved in Pavor Manor (‘Panic House’). Lolita’s two parts, then, with the last three chapters of Part 2 understood as stand-aparts, are a reflecting thirty three chapters.
I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re looking for the story turn.
The break, as mentioned, is marked at the end of Part 1. How can we figure out the ‘turn’? Here is my process.
At this point in story break-down, I need a visualization tool so I can see how the story parts exist in relation. I tape together two pieces of 11 x 17″ paper lengthwise to make a 34″ long piece of paper and draw a line from left end to right. I mark 70 equally spaced segments for the foreword and sixty nine chapters. Then I make my first overview of sections, i.e., trying to see any obvious grouping of chapters according to location or activity in them. Last I make notes about the goings on in each chapter under the relevant segment (it helps to make notes above the line for odd numbered chapters and below the line for even: twice the space for notes).
During and after that diagramming grunt work, of course, the correspondences between chapters and story sections that are essentially invisible while reading begin to jump out. Here are some notes on the story turn.
Part 1’s first chapter is a throat clearing apostrophe, not to a muse, but to “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” It addresses “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury” and begins the telling of the tale as an apology or defense of the crime he has committed (Humbert was arrested for the murder of Clare Quilty, not his hebephiliac offenses). It is very brief. The last chapter of Part 1, chapter 33, is also remarkably brief. It’s one paragraph is the segue connecting the novel’s two parts.
Part 1 of Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert’s enchantment with or by “nymphets,” which he defines as young women between the ages of 11 and 14. The four sections or ‘groupings’ of this Part are his life up to his arrival at 342 Lawn Street, the home of Charlotte Haze and her 12 year old daughter Dolores, his experiences at this house before ‘Dolly’ goes to summer camp, his brief marriage to Charlotte before her sudden death, and then his success in bedding Lolita at the Enchanted Hunter Hotel, chapter 29. Chapters 30 to 33 are his musings in the aftermath of that event. The last chapter has the girl come to his hotel room on her own, albeit, as he admits, only because “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go” (144).
Part 2 of Lolita is the inverse of the first Part’s tale of Humbert, age 37 years, coming together with 12 year old Dolores Haze, his ‘Lolita.’ The back side of the novel is of their dissolution and movement towards Humbert’s full appreciation of what he already recognizes in chapter 30, the ‘morning after,’ i.e., “I had been careless, stupid, ignoble.” Part 2’s chapters can also be grouped into four parts: the first cross country journey together, their time at Beardsley School for Girls, their second trip across the country and separation in Utah, and Humbert’s search for Dolly in the years afterward.
At the story turn, the end of Part 1, then, we make the transition from “winning Lolita” to “losing Lolita,” from unexamined hebephilia or suffering under “the perilous magic of nymphets” (136) to the “moral apotheosis” of the close, in which Humbert recognizes, after killing his pornographer second-self Quilty, the greater crime he committed, the murder of Dolores’ childhood. At the turn, there are several markers of beginning and end as well as that we’re at the moment of reflection.
The aim of everything in Humbert’s life from the opening apostrophe in chapter 1 up to Rm 342 of the Enchanted Hunter and the aftermath is the hunter under the enchantment of his nymphet winning his prize. We’ve reached that end at the turn.
The end is evident, at least on re-reading, because Clare Quilty, the man murdered at the close of Part 2, argues anonymously with Humbert in the lobby of the hotel the night he beds Lolita (129) and is present there again the next morning when Humbert comes down from their room well after Lolita has (140). Most of Part 2 involves the revelation that Quilty knows the girl, knew her well before their chance encounter at the Enchanted Hunter, and that this man of mystery in the Aztec Red Convertible plans to steal her away (rescue her?) from her step-father for his own perverse reasons.
Nabokov cues us to this turning point, perhaps, in his description of Rm 342 of the lodge, which Humbert experiences as a House of Mirrors.
There was a double bed, a mirror, a double bed in the mirror, a closet door with a mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed: a big pael bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose cenille spread, and two frilled pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right. (121)
We are at a turning point of the story, certainly, in this room, in addition to approaching the story-turn, at which point we begin to experience the story in reflected, descending, inverse imagery of the story up to that point.
If that weren’t enough, Humbert makes a point of telling Lolita before she leaves the bedroom on the morning after, “And if I were you, my dear, I would not talk to strangers” (140). This is a note of interest because Quilty is the stranger in the lobby, of course, but also because we’ve read in a playbill much earlier in the story of a Dolores Quine, an actress, who made her “debut in 1904 in ‘Never Talk to Strangers'” (24). Humbert’s Parthian note to his beloved in the novel’s last chapter is, you guessed it, “Do not talk to strangers” (310). Beginning-Middle-End.
The Internal Mirroring: Echoes Side to Side
In Douglas’ description of rings, the two sides of a story, its going out and coming back, reflect one another, i.e., that first chapter after the turn will reflect the one just before it. This creates a ‘turtleback’ image or, pictured as a circle whose beginning-end and latch create an axis, the chapters or stanzas repeat in reverse order beginning at the story turn until the last chapter lines up with the first. These are a chiasmus structure of a-b-c-d-c’-b’-a’ that we recognize from our close reading of the Harry Potter novels.
Here, as an example of turtle-back structure, is a diagram of Philosopher’s Stone’s seventeen chapters:
Lolita doesn’t work this way. At least my first charting of the structure didn’t come out as a turtleback. The first thing you see in the relationship of the chapters in Part 1 and Part 2 is an asterisk. The strong connections between events and topics in chapters 3, 11, 13, 15/16, 22, 29, and 33 make the story with its strong latch look like this.
My graphics skills do not extend to writing on the lines inside the slide above. If we twist the picture so that both Lolita parts begin with chapter 1 at the bottom of the circle, then I can label the lines with the ideas that link the parallel chapters diagonally opposite and sharing a mutual number.
Chapter 3 in both Parts turn on Humbert’s reflections on his childhood love for Anabelle Leigh (yes, Edgar Allan Poe haunts Lolita).
Both chapters 11 are about Dolores in school: the first is Humbert’s study of a class list he finds in one of her textbooks at 342 Lawn Street, the second his hilarious meeting with the condescending and clueless school counselor at Beardsley School for Girls who thinks Mr. Humbert needs to help Dolly accept her sexuality as a young woman.
Chapter 13 in each part is a turning point in the trips to and away from union with Lolita: going out, Humbert has his first, relatively innocent sexual experience with Dolores; coming back, she begins learning the lines for her part in a play, The Enchanted Hunter, a play written by Quilty in not an especially subtle reference to the Inn where Lolita and Humbert first slept together. Just as the “safely solipsized sex” in the first leads inevitably to the later conjunction, so the play referencing same leads to their dissolution under Quilty’s direction.
The midpoints of each thirty three chapter Part feature a radical and unexpected declaration of love. Humbert learns in a note Dolores’ mother Charlotte leaves for him before she drives her daughter to camp that she is madly in love with her lodger (Part 1, chapter 16). Lolita, after an ugly fight with her step-father and lover, runs away from home. When he catches up to her at a phone booth downtown, she declares her love for him and asks that they leave the town and her school for a second trip cross country (Part 2, chapter 15).
Part 1, Chapter 22, is the sudden death of Charlotte. Lolita escapes Humbert by fleeing with Quilty from the Utah hospital in Part 2, Chapter 22.
I’ve already mentioned that Chapter 29 in the first Part is the one in which Lolita and Humbert seep together for the first time. Chapter 29 in Part 2 is just as eventful. It is Humbert’s last meeting with her, now Mrs. Richard Schiller, pregnant, and at age 17 in desperate condition, in which she makes clear, despite his pleading and declarations of love, that it is all over, forever, between them.
The two chapter 33s are each preface to departures after these consequential meetings: the first for the road with Lolita, the second for “the shadow of a man,” the meaning of Humbert Humbert, to begin his odyssey in search of Clare Quilty to exact revenge on his shadow.
The “shadowgraphs” Lolita with facetious enthusiasm talks about making in camp (116) and about which Humbert, shattered after his meeting with Mrs Schiller, asserts “We made shadowgraphs” (284) are the internal mimicry of the story’s self-echoing. I suspect, though, there is another way to chart the structure of Lolita than the parallel chapters in the two Parts giving us an asterisk.
Looking over my 34″ diagram of the book and the mirrored 33 chapter Parts, the evident splits or turning points near the middle of each Part made me look at the Parts as distinct units with beginning-end latches, turns,and parallels, Douglas’ “rings within rings.” What I found was another set of mirrors, one with an image sufficiently distorted to merit being labelled a “shadowgraph” rather than “reflection.” Take a look at Part 1, diagrammed as a story-circle integer:
I mentioned above the similarities between chapter 1 and 33, the open and close of Part 1. The story turn, the halfway point in this Part, is Humbert’s decision to go “all in” with the Hazes, that is, to marry the mother for unrestricted access to nymphet Lolita (who had kissed him when her mother was not watching before she left for camp). The seven chapters before this decision describe his life with mother and daughter that culminate in their marriage. The next seven chapters about this marriage end in Charlotte’s death and Humbert’s leaving the Haze home.
Similarly, the five chapters, 5-9, before he arrives at 342 Lawn Street are about his desire for union with a nymphet. The six chapters after Charlotte’s death, 23-29, take us to chapter 29, in which he realizes the desired union. The four opening chapters and the end of the Part are introduction and apostrophe at the start and denouement at the close.
Part 2 is not as neat (i.e., the lopsided of the chart is not just my inadequacy with the medium).
As mentioned, the Part 2 story turn is not at the half-way point, 16 or 17, but in chapter 15. Here Lolita suddenly reverses field and says she wants to leave school for another cross country romp with Humbert, the man we have learned, beginning in chapter 10’s description of his begging for sex and being turned away with disgust, she despises. That early turn skews the symmetry of the second part but the parallels are there.
The first four and last four chapters, 1-4 the travelogue and 30-33 post Coalmont meeting with Mrs Schiller, are the inverted brackets of the uncomfortable life with the nymphet and the miserable one without hope of her ever returning. The five chapters 5-9 are our introduction to life at the Beardsley School and the increasing tension between Humbert and Lolita; the seven chapters mirroring these, 23-29, are his searching for her after her escape, ending in his arrival at her new home and the end of their relationship. The center chapter groups bracketing the turn in 15 are her openly distancing herself from him while at Beardsley, 10-15, to her feigning affection to set up her rendezvous with Quilty somewhere on the road trip with Humbert.
Combined with the Part 1 ring, the two Parts, in addition to the asterisk relationship of mirroring chapter events, reflect one another side to side — the color correspondences on the chart — as the Part divisions do internally top to bottom, the rings above.
That’s a pretty busy chart, I know.
I’m going to explain in a minute why I am willing to leave myself wide open to accusations from those who know better, accusations of forcing the pieces on this charting of Lolita. Before I do, though, I’m obliged to say why I think this three-layered reflections model — side to side, top to bottom, and sideways as asterisk — shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Vladimir Vladimrovich, for one thing, says the book is a puzzle of mirrors. In the interview he did with Playboy in 1964, one in which he wrote all his answers to the questions so these are not offhand remarks, he replied to a question about regretting the publication of Lolita:
No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle– its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look.
For another, the mirror imagery within the book points to mirroring in its composition. I’ve mentioned the mirrored Room 342 at the Enchanted Hunter and the tennis games and chess matches that act as reflective texts within texts. There is the constant echoing of odd words and phrases across the story axis as well, of shadowgraphs, pebbles against cans, dappled Priaps, simulacrum, Mushroom, Lake Climax, red rocks, Lo and behold, Haze and Hays, pederosis, Dark Age, waterproof, and the pink bubble of desire. In the mirroring final action chapters, Pavor Manor’s “deep mirrors” are described and the house is another Room 342, in which Quilty and Humbert elide quasi-sexually as they fight for the gun.
Nabokov in the last chapter of Lolita drops three pointed references to mirrors and the elision of contraries in reflection. Humbert drives on the “queer mirror side” of the road, he searches for a “Hegelian synthesis linking up two dead women,” and he describes a chess board of sorts in the “roads crisscrossing the crazy quilt of dark and pale fields” (308-309).
This mirror bit isn’t John’s hobby horse, in other words, or, if it is, VNN and Nabokov scholars share it with me. David Galati’s Mirror Analogues in Nabakov’s Pale Fire is a masterful, book length treatment. Alred Appel, Jr., explains:
“In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors,” writes Nabokov in The Gift (p 322). His characters continually confront mirrors where they had hoped to find windows, and the attempts to transcend solipsism is one of Nabokov’s major themes. As a literal image and overriding metaphor, the mirror is central to the form and content of Nabokov’s novels…. Nabokov has placed these crooked reflectors everywhere in his fiction: Doubles and mock-Doubles, parodies and self-parodies (literature trapped in a prison of amusement park mirrors), works within works, worlds refracting worlds, and words distorting words, — that is, translations (art’s “crazy mirror,” says Nabokov) and language games…. Pale Fire’s invented language is “the tongue of the mirror,” and the portmantoid pun is the principal mirror language of Lolita. (Annotated Lolita, 374)
And scholars see it in the structure of the book, too, as you’d guess from Appel’s “the mirror is central to the form and content of Nabokov’s novels.” Jacqueline Hamrit in her ‘Structure in Lolita‘ describes a mirror structure similar to the one I’ve illustrated above.
She sees the novel’s two Parts each having three groups of three 10 chapter bundles that reflect one another in turtleback fashion, so that we see “repetition, duplication, inversion, and reversion” side to side.
So I’m not crazy. Except, probably, for offering my charts as critical insights.
Time for some aggressive self-reflection.
The things I read in the critical literature review I must do for my PhD thesis on Rowling are disappointing as often as not. Harry Potter scholarship is mushrooming but it isn’t filling in the remarkable Great-Lakes-sized lacunae in the scholarship that remains to be done. For the most part (and the exceptions are glorious), it is a rehashing of the series as cultural artifact or, worse, a ‘brave new world’ entry by academics totally oblivious to work written previously on literary subjects (or disdainful of earlier efforts).
Just yesterday I read a chapter in a Potter guide by a man who has published extensively on English and Scottish fantasy in which he discussed alchemy in the series. It dismissed everything I have written on the subject and then demonstrated repeatedly with unforced gaffes that he knew nothing about alchemy in English literature or its relevance in Rowling’s work.
That’s embarrassing. I feel sad for the man and his publisher, though that is wasted sympathy. They could have contacted me to ask for my comments and corrections, in which notes I would have pointed out the author’s obvious missteps before they went to print. I feel much worse for the book’s unknowing readers who paid good money to be misled.
I feel uncomfortable when I get email from those who have just finished the seven book series and want to share with me important things they have discovered, e.g., that the heading engraved over the Mirror of Erised has a message if you read the letters backward or that the whole series is an allegorical retelling of Genesis. I’m uncomfortable with these notes because they are offered with such enthusiasm and rock-hard confidence that they’re breaking new ground in the field. What am I supposed to think besides “Duh” and “You’re kidding, right?” [Yes, I always write polite, prompt responses in gratitude for the effort and enthusiasm shared with Gilderoy.]
Having been on the expert side of this newbie-published SME divide, I know Nabokovians must be incredulous that I’m posting diagrams of and exegesis on the structure of Lolita after a ten day reading and charting period. They’re right to be gob-smacked; this post is the marriage of ignorance and arrogance I see in poorly researched books on Harry Potter and in my email inbox all the time. Who enjoys delighted newbies and smug experts from other subject areas who “saw something” in their recent reading of Harry Potter and are self-important enough to think they are obliged to publish their insights without coming to grips with what has already been written on the subject?
And in Nabokov studies, certainly, I qualify as both delighted newbie and smug expert. Alas.
Vladimir Nabokov’s novels are the most fascinating, intricate, and beautifully written books I have ever read. What I have read in the relevant critical literature demonstrates that the experts, those who have read Nabokov’s works — the novels, the short stories, the plays, the poetry, and the letters — in their entirety, in their original languages (nine Russian novels, nine in English), and who are familiar with the mountain of essays in print and online about the meaning and artistry of the master’s work, these people disagree and are still debating subjects as basic as “Who are the real narrators or authors of Lolita? Pale Fire?”
[I kid you not. Read ‘Shade and Shape in Pale Fire‘ by Brian Boyd, one of the premier Nabokov scholars, in which he overturns decades of thought on “the Pale Fire authorship question.” I’ve read, too, that Boyd changed his mind and shifted his argument slightly about ghost-writers before he published The Magic of Artistic Discovery. And Lolita? Read ‘Who’s Who in the Sublimelight‘ by George Ferger for a more than cogent argument that John Ray, Jr., the forewords’ author, is the principal narrator of Humbert Humbert’s story. Mind-blowing.]
So I get it. You can safely disregard what I’ve written above about the mirroring in Nabokov’s Lolita. Not, though, that mirroring is essential within Nabokov, only my pathetic charts of the correspondences I see after my first readings of the book. I’m a good ten years out on a grasp of Nabokov sufficient to say anything with any surety on this subject and even then I’ll have my hat in my hand while asking for your consideration.
But here’s the thing. My goal here hasn’t been to move the ball forward in Nabokov studies. I understand, you understand, we all get that that’s not happening.
What I’m after is insight into a mystery in Rowling studies, namely, “Where does she get the ring composition structure she uses in Harry Potter, both the individual books and the series?” As important, “Why does she use it?”
Rowling’s Rings and Nabokov’s Mirrors: So What?
I think even a neophyte Nabokovian realizes after a few novels (or reading these posts…), if the newbie knows the Hogwarts Saga well enough, that Nabakov’s influence on Rowling as a writer is hard to overestimate. As we covered in my first jumbo post on this relationship, the emigre author who became America’s finest writer is the one-stop source for Rowling’s name and word-play fetish, her literary alchemy, her anti-totalitarian political focus, her intratextual artistry and genius, and most important of all, I think, her profound grasp of Nabokovian parody, the genre juggling that mimics without mockery and adopts in order to adapt to her own uses, either subversion or expansion of, the original.
As I suggested at the end of that epic introduction to Rowling as a Nabokov wannabe, what we can see in the Harry Potter reflection of books like Lolita and Pale Fire is what Appel calls “the transcendence of solipsism.” ‘Solipsism’ is defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist” and, again quoting Appel quoting Nabokov:
“In our earthly house, windows are replaced by mirrors,” writes Nabokov in The Gift (p 322). His characters continually confront mirrors where they had hoped to find windows, and the attempts to transcend solipsism is one of Nabokov’s major themes…
We want to look outside of ourselves, to see more than just our own projections on others, and to be able to understand the world and our neighbors in light of something greater than our individual ego perspective and prejudiced perception. But the windows we think we’re looking through are mirrors and the house of mirrors we live in becomes our Kafka-esque mental prison.
Humbert “safely solipsized Lolita” (62) as sexual object soon after moving into the Haze home. Not until his last meeting with her and his (or Ray’s!) insight about “the absence of her voice” from the concord of children’s voices rising from a valley chessboard, does he understand the difference between his abusive relationship with the nymphet, his “enchantment,” and love.
Love is the resolution of contraries. Most importantly, love transforms the most difficult polarity to elide, the knowing subject and the known object. We “transcend solipsism” or escape the unexamined conviction that our thinking is the only “reality” when we lose our death grip on believing our ego-existence is God and wake-up to the abyss of self-focused living.
‘Prayer and fasting’ was once the path to this enlightenment and still is in traditional ghettos, ever diminishing, around the world. Study of the natural world and of wisdom texts, scriptural revelation and philosophical insight, was another ‘way.’ Today, though, the Protestant Deformation and the consequent secularist world in which we live has all but closed those doors. The house of the postmodern age not only has mirrors where we want windows, it also is one with a low ceiling and no attic.
In this madhouse, as Eliade wrote in The Sacred and the Profane, we pursue transcendence of our individuality prisons via twined story and imaginative release that serve in the place of religion and myth. Story as written is best because it requires imaginative engagement, the working of our cardiac intelligence, but cinema’s pale shadow of the same in sense perception helps those not equal to the real-fiction thing.
The best writers know this. They write stories that are not self-celebrations [“So that’s the dead end” (The mirror you break your nose against) Lolita, 227]. They give us myths that are magic mirrors for transformation, for reflection on the reader’s failings, and for elision with characters making heroic, sacrificially loving choices or solipsizing errors with consequences. This written work is self-conscious, intratextual, and alchemical, in the artistry of its plotting, symbolism, and structure and in the take-away meaning of the story events.
Rowling’s care with her story structure, her rings that are story mirrors, speaks to her understanding of the danger of solpisism and the power of love. Love is the power that defeats the Dark Lord in Deathly Hallows because he knows nothing of love, imagination and story. All of us know this power better because of our entry into Harry’s heart and our joining him in his sacrificial death in love for his friends. In her structure we see an image of and experience the resolution of contraries within the book’s story elements, a marriage of form and meaning.
Nabokov is thought of by most as amoral, even a pervert of sorts (as many people misunderstand Lolita as high-brow pornography as ever have believed Harry Potter is the gateway to the occult; more people and with greater certainty in their profound mistake). He wrote in his Strong Opinions that this would not always be the case:
I believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel — and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride. (74, quoted in Secret History, 338)
With Rowling, enjoyment and at least a degree of appreciation comes fairly easily. With Nabokov? Not so much. That is not an accident or just a function of our remove from him in time and culture. He wrote that way deliberately to make demands equal to the rewards a reader might win for understanding him.
Literature, real literature, must not be gulped down like some potion which may be good for the heart or good for the brain — the brain, that stomach of the soul. Literature must be taken and broken to bits, pulled apart, squashed — then its lovely reek will be smelt in the hollow of the palm, it will be munched and rolled upon the tongue with relish; then, and only then, its rare flower will be appreciated at its true worth and the broken and crushed parts will again come together in your mind and disclose the beauty of a unity to which you have contributed something of your own blood.
Lectures on Russian Literature, 105; quoted in Secret History, 362-363
Rowling is not a second Nabokov, a writer sui generis, or at least she is not writing at his level. But she does share his aims as a writer, she uses several of the most difficult tools to handle adroitly that she found in his tool box, and, frankly, appreciation of her work, answering the question of “Why do we love these stories?” demands something like the same effort needed in reading Nabokov. I hope that you feel, as I do, that the benefits, the disclosed “beauty of a unity,” equate to the blood contributed in close reading.
Thank you for reading through to the end, the pay-off being a pointer to the “unified theory” of whence Rowling’s political focus, her literary alchemy, her alliteration and word-play, her parody, and her ring composition. Short answer: Nabokov. Right answer: “transcendence of solipsism” in sacrificial love.
As always, I covet your comments and corrections.