Driving to Boston from Ithaca to give a concert at the venerable early music festival there last week, I decided to listen to a book on tape rather than my usual fare of pastoral symphonies and songs to accompany my path through the thick woods and pasture lands of the eastern Allegany Plateau, the crossing of the Hudson south of Albany and then into Massachusetts and the Berkshires and finally the gentle run-out towards the Atlantic.
On the way out of Ithaca I stopped by the county library and quickly made my way to the audiobook section. The first title I saw was Lolita and I grabbed it.
Completed in 1953 in the midst of Nabokov’s decade-long stint as a professor at Cornell University, the novel was the perfect one for the occasion. The book was finished on the road while the author was collecting butterflies in Oregon, but Ithaca is its birthplace. The narrative crisscrosses the country several times in a preemptive satire of Kerouac’s On the Road, published two years after the appearance of Lolita. In spite of Humbert’s fugitive itinerary, Lolita in tow, Ramsdale, New Hampshire—a surrogate Ithaca— is the seemingly placid town in and around which the decisive action takes place.
A dozen hours will get you to Chicago from Ithaca, but going in the other direction, to Boston and back one travels through woodlands alongside lakes like those portrayed in the book. There is a lot of driving in Lolita, and this fact, too, makes it ideal for a road trip.
The audiobook appeared from Random House in 1997, the same year of the supposedly controversial, but certainly failed cinematic remake directed by Adrian Lyne—he of so many celluloid sex stories, from Flashdance to Fatal Attraction. I’m not sure if Irons recorded the novel before or after the filming of that movie, but even a fit Iron, then on the cusp of fifty, was already too old to play Humbert Humbert on screen. As the unseen narrator writing in his prison cell, however, Irons uses his smoothly elegant, smoke-worn voice to great effect, both as Euro-perv Humbert and as any of of the various American characters that people the book, from Irons’ airy and insolent Lolita to the effete libertine Quilty.
It is as a reader of this novel that Irons gives his greatest performance.
As you’ll already have gathered, I’ve never been a huge Irons fan. He’s a bit too rheumy-eyed and earnest for my tastes. Accordingly, I’ll take his eastern bloc bad guy Simon Gruber in Die Hard with A Vengeance of 1995 to the Brit-Kraut killer, Claus von Bülow, for which he got the Academy Award in 1991 in Reversal of Fortune. The combination of camp and cruelty in his Diehard turn shows Irons at his best. It is this same mixture that animates his virtuoso rendering of Nabokov’s novel, and the acid wit and penchant for self-dramatization of its narrator.
The Random House audiobook starts not with credits or theme music, but directly with the foreword supposedly written by the fictional editor, John Ray, Jr. Ph.D. Irons reads this in a ponderous American accent, whose overdone “R”s give away his Britishness, but also add to the apparent scholarly heft of these pages, concerned as they are to explain Humbert’s condition in psychological and sociological terms, and also to praise the high artistic value of the memoir even against expectations of enraged reactions to it as pornography.
After the foreword concludes, a non-Irons, real American voice delivers the credits and then a serpentine flute—all lecherous reverie—wafts in to accompany the celebrated opening line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
By this time I was already past the city limit’s of Nabokov’s Ithaca and out in the countryside: corn a foot tall; barns falling down; trailer parks showing more signs of life than the broken-down villages. From here to Boston it was non-stop Nabokov—the blackest of humor for the greenest of hills.
I had forgotten how much music there is in the novel: the vapid pop songs Lolita favors and the Humbert parodies with his own lyrics; the cheesy reproduction in his rented room in the Haze house of a nineteenth-century painting called the “Kreutzer Sonata” in which the older violinist sweeps the young female accompanist into his arms, one of which still holds his violin; a gramophone lurking silently in the house; piano lessons Lolita is taking but does not always attend; the “torrent of Italian music” that pours from Humbert’s former house when he makes his final, fateful return to Ramsdale.
Nabokov thought of this, as it were, haze of popular song as a crucial aspect to the book. For Kubrick’s 1962 screen adaptation, for which Nabokov provided the screenplay, the novelist even wrote they lyric of a Lolita theme song, ultimately not used in the movie:
Lolita, Lolita, Lolita!
For ever tonight we must part:
Because separation is sweeter
Than clasping a ghost to one’s heart
Because it’s a maddening summer
Because the whole night is in bloom
Because you’re in love with a strummer
Who brings his guitar to your room.
You know he’s a clown and a cheater
You know I am tender and true—
But he is singing now Lolita
The songs I’ve been making for you!
The novel is also abundant with seemingly incidental comments of incandescent brilliance, as when, late in the book Humbert’s doppelgänger Quilty is described as “a heterosexual Erlkönig.” The reference is to a ballade by Goethe about a male demon, who snatches a little boy from his father’s arms. In deference to the poets’ genius, no one before Nabokov had bothered to remark on the phantom’s sexual proclivities. With Nabokov’s reference to the Erlkönig one immediately hears the famous song by Schubert, who set Goethe’s poem with obsessively repeating octaves thundering bass-line in the piano, this driving music—also perfect for the road—broken by suspended passages of dread and pathos. Decades after Lolita was published a cottage industry arose in musicology surrounding Schubert’s sexuality and its representation in his music. But Nabokov had already taken care of the issue long before with two words tossed out lightly, bitterly.
The most vivid musical scene, however, is the anti-climactic murder, Humbert stalking the Quilty through his mansion:
“Wiggling his fingers in the air, with a rapid heave of his rump, he [Quilty] flashed into the music room … and with another abrupt movement Clare the Impredictable [i.e., Quilty] sat down before the piano and played several atrociously vigorous, fundamentally hysterical, plangent chords, his jowls quivering, his spread hands tensely plunging, and his nostrils emitting the soundtrack snorts had been absent from our fight.”
Then another bullet from Humbert’s pistol makes his victim shake “with the rich black music—head thrown back in a howl.”
Irons brings unforgettable menace and melancholy to all this music—and the entire music of Nabokov’s language.
In the novel’s coda Humbert’s thoughts drift to Lolita at her farthest point from him in Alaska. In the audiobook the snaky flute wraps itself again around Irons’ valedictory strains, a debauched benediction to—if not absolution of—Humbert’s confession. By this time, I was starting down the last incline back into Ithaca, having given the Brahmins of Bach-and-Before their fill of Lutheran organ music in Boston’s Back Bay at the halfway point both of my journey and of the novel. After the flute stopped its flutings, the American, non-Irons voice thanked me for listening just as I pulled into town.
CounterPunch road-trippers: Irons’ reading of Lolita will be the highpoint of summer’s journeys—there and back and beyond!
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org