Saturday, September 20, 2008

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom: Proust, Nabokov, and the Tyranny of Memory

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom:

Proust, Nabokov, and the Tyranny of Memory

Originally Published on’s Classic Literature Page

Vladimir Nabokov
In his Lectures on Literature, which were originally delivered to his students at Cornell University in the 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov calls Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time “the greatest novel of the first half of our century.” Although he makes this statement as an aside in his lecture on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, this is no mere throwaway remark. It may in fact be a vast understatement, as many critics consider In Search of Lost Time to be perhaps the greatest work in the history of narrative prose fiction. Whether Proust’s masterpiece surpasses Don Quixote or Moby-Dick or Anna Karenina (or its own near-contemporary, Ulysses) is a pointless question, of course; what matters is that Nabokov read Proust deeply and lovingly and with the eye of a master who was himself in the process of writing his own greatest masterpiece, Lolita.

On the first page of Lolita the narrator, Humbert Humbert, writes, “Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer.” Although the immediate literary reference is to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “Annabelle Lee,” in point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had Nabokov not loved Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. The Proustian themes running through Nabokov’s varied works—the themes of time, memory, identity, sensation, jealousy, loss, etc.—have long been explicated by other critics, but it’s only in the last hundred pages of Proust’s final volume, Time Regained, the book that culminates the 4,300-page novel and that even few critics have actually read, that so many of these themes come together and create a new theme that Nabokov was to extrapolate to such an extreme extent in Lolita.

Marcel Proust, painted by Jacques-Emile Blanche
In recalling how he’d forced his much younger girlfriend Albertine, whom he’d first encountered by the sea, to relive and replay many of his memories of Gilberte, the girlfriend of his adolescence, Proust’s narrator (Marcel, for convenience’s sake) writes about how painful it is to realize that humans grow older while their memories often remains static and amber-trapped: “Indeed nothing is more painful than this contrast between the mutability of people and the fixity of memory, when it is borne in upon us that what has preserved so much freshness in our memory can no longer possess any trace of that quality in life, that we cannot now, outside ourselves, approach and behold again what inside our mind seems so beautiful, what excites in us a desire (a desire apparently so individual) to see it again, except by seeing it in a person of the same age, by seeking it, that is to say, in a different person.”

Humbert similarly forces the young “nymphet” Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) to replay the role of his lost Annabel Leigh, who died soon after their youthful romance by the sea. In her book Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafasi writes astutely about how the tyranny of memory can be forced upon the helpless, and when Lolita’s mother, Charlotte (whom Humbert marries to instate himself in the house) dies while running out into traffic after confronting him about what she reads in his diary—her flight an ostensible attempt to mail damning letters, but also perhaps a suicide—Humbert’s tyranny over the girl-child becomes complete. As he slowly discovers, however, he can ravage her by imposing his memory’s demands upon her, but as a living, growing human being, she will never be able to satisfy his static needs, the same way that Albertine was never able satisfy Marcel’s.

In the very final pages of Time Regained, the perhaps fifty-year-old Marcel makes his preparations to withdraw from society and finally begin writing his novel, but before doing so he asks the still living Gilberte, who has aged so much as to be unrecognizable and grotesque, to help introduce him to young girls. Gilberte is the daughter of Swann and Odette, whose unhappy love story forms much of Swann’s Way, the first volume of Proust’s novel, and whose patterns of frustration and betrayal formed the template that the young Marcel would relive in his relationship with their daughter and then later with Albertine. Seeing these patterns and realizing that real life could provide him nothing but dissatisfaction and that his only possible happiness lay in extracting life’s essences from his memory and turning them into a book, he makes this audacious last request of his childhood girlfriend not because he feels that he can find love with any of these young girls. He is far past Humbert’s stage of actually trying to relive the past with someone new. The second volume of Proust’s novel—the volume in which Marcel breaks with Gilberte and then later meets Albertine—can be translated as In the Shadow of Young Girls in Bloom (in the original French, À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, with the “en fleurs” suggesting young girls getting their first period), and in making his request to Gilberte, it’s simply the bloom of youth that he wants to be near, to caress in his free time and to use to refresh his aging senses as he delves through their sense-stimulus into the deepest recesses of memory to create his book.

Gilberte’s response to his request is beyond audacious. Unlike Lolita’s mother, who perhaps chooses death when she discovers Humbert’s monstrous nature, this child of Swann and Odette simply perpetuates the past yet again by presenting Marcel with her own teenage daughter. “I thought her very beautiful,” writes Proust’s narrator, “still rich in hopes, full of laughter, formed from those very years which I had lost, she was like my own youth.” The pattern now reset, this exquisite girl, this “masterpiece” of time, as Proust describes her, is now, like her literary successor Lolita, fated to relinquish her hopes, her laughter, her bloom, and the very time that her existence has allotted her to be young and free, to be subjected to the inexorably fixated imagination of a sick old man obsessed with recapturing his own lost time.

—David Wiley

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