Agrégation interne 2011 Composition en langue étrangère: copie 1

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SHADOWS IN LOLITA (Khiti, note de 15/20)

When writing his Lolita in the early 1950s, Vladimir Nabokov already had in mind his two main characters, already mentioned in his novellas The Enchanter and The Gift, written in Russian. The nymphet had been initially called “Juanita Dark” before the author chose Lolita, and the idea of darkness was also present in the choice of the name Humbert Humbert, whom the narrator playfully calls “Umber” Humbert* in the course of the novel. “Umber”, which derives from the latin umbra meaning “shade, shadow”, reveals that Nabokov was not as much interested in darkness as in modulations of light. In this respect, “shades” and “shadows” are to be distinguised with regard to their connotations. Whereas shade has a protective dimension (it provides shelter from excessice light), the shadow has a more ominous dimension. It is a dark indefinite outline projected whenever an object (animate or inanimate) is exposed to a more or less intense light. This ‘ominous’ dimension of the shadow stems from its very indefiniteness. It is a shape without a face which keeps escaping light. At the same time, it bears a worrying similarity with its original : it is its dark double.

Film-maker Stanley Kubrick could only be seduced by the cinematic potential provided by the use of shadows in the novel Lolita. By shooting his own Lolita in black and white, Kubrick underlines the importance of light effects as conveyors of meaning. Since shadows only exist in the presence of light, this analysis will seek to work out the complex relationship between both. How can the interplay of lights and shadows – an essentially pictural motif – become a form of language in literature and cinema ? It will be relevant to begin by opposing and contrasting lights and shadows. Then our study will focus on shadows seen as doubles, before turning to the artistic use made by both Nabokov and Kubrick of shadows as a form of ‘inarticulate’ expression.

“Lolita, light of my life” : those first words opening the narration made by Humbert Humbert immediately identify the nymphet with light. The other nymphets of the novel are equally associated to light. The depiction made of the French Riviera scenery where young Humbert meets Anabel Leigh is equally drenched with references to light and sun. So is the imaginary “enchanted island” which the narrator calls “nymphetland” with its “mirrory beaches and rosy rocks”. As opposed to this luminosity is the world of deviant Humbert which is “a mossy garden’. In what way is the nymphet’s radiance opposed to the pervert’s shadowy world ?

Kubrick revealingly stages the scene where Humbert and Lolita meet for the first time by placing Lolita in broad sunlight and having James Mason playing Humbert emerging from shade. Humbert is dazzled by the light and blinks. It is not merely the beauty of the nymphet, but her youth and innocence which irradiates. Under the light of innocence, Humbert is but a “heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult”, as he will call himself on leaving the “Enchanted Hunter” hotel.

Innocence is opposed to perversion in the light effects operated by Kubrick. Nabokov provides his reader with numerous scenes showing pervert Humbert hiding in shadowy places while doting on his innocent prey. In the Haze house, Humbert Humbert depicts himself as a spider extending this cobweb throughout the house from its small, dark room. After having spoken to the Beardsley school’s principal, Humbert will sit in a discreet corner of Lolita’s classroom and masturbate. Kubrick stages Humbert’s desire to remain in the background, as a mere shadow, in the ball scene where Humbert retires behind a vase to observe Lolita dancing. Humbert wishes to remain a shadow so as to avoid the light of public accusation : “I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allowed a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen, but not a girl of twelve”. Humbertland is necessarily darker than nymphetland.

However, the contrast between light and shade does not last. In the first sequences of his movie, Kubrick had already hinted at the potential shady aspect of the nymphet. One must remember that, in the meeting scene between James Mason / Humbert and Sue Lyon / Lolita, though the nymphet is in the light, her eyes remain under the shade of a straw hat and sunglasses. Similarly, when Lolita departs for Camp Climax, James Mason is shot in the foreground with a picture of Peter Sellers / Clare Quilty in the background. Nabokov deals with the shadowy aspect of the nymphet differently. Though he hints that nymphic beauty is demoniac, he presents a rather genuinely innocent Lolita at the beginning of Humbert’s story. And it is Humbert who drags Lolita from her radiant innocence to the darkness of his pervert world, so that, after their first sexual intercourse, he comments : “I was sitting […] next to the ghost of somebody I had just killed”.

In the second part of the novel Lolita, the nymphet has become the shadow of what she was. With her pervert step-father, she flees light and they spend most of their time in a car and in hotel rooms. Humbert literaly locks her up and Kubrick stages the image of the imprisoned nymphet by using shadowy effects. In the Enchanted Hunter hotel bedroom, Lolita is seen lying asleep on the double bed while Humbert enters the room. At that moment, the window clusters, such as reflected by exterior streetlights, project their shadow on Lolita’s body in such a way as to appear like the bars of a prison cell.

Though a victim of Humbert’s perversion, Lolita will take control of the situation after the couple’s experience in Beardsley. As from the moment they leave Beardsley, it is Humbert’s turn to follow Lolita like a shadow, without ever being able to reach her, since she refuses to love him. The lepidopterist in Nabokov would have been well aware of the attractiveness of light and of the subtlety of its interplay with objects to form shadows. Similarly subtle is the relationship between Humbert and Lolita. Through light effects, both Nabokov and Kubrick describe characters who are not entirely angelic, nor entirely evil. Light cannot be solely equated to innocence, since it is also a dangerous bait. Light also has the power of controlling shadows, since the latter necessarily disappear with the former. This is what happens to Humbert after Lolita’s death : first secluded in the darkest of places, his “tombal jail”, he finally dies, soon after Lolita, of coronary thrombosis.

This study of the interplay between light and shade has mentioned two important characters with regard to the theme of shadows in Lolita : Annabel Leigh and Clare Quilty. To these two characters, that of Vivian Darkbloom will be superadded in order to analyse in what way shadows are “dark doubles” in the novel and the movie.

Annabel Leigh is described in the opening chapters of Nabokov’s Lolita as the “initial girl child” without whom there might have been no Lolita at all. By construing Lolita as Annabel Leigh’s double, Humbert the narrator does not consider them as being on the same level. There is a hierarchy at that moment of the novel whereby Annabel is the idealized, perfect child and Lolita, but a copy. Things will change in the course of the novel but at the beginning of the novel, Lolita is only Annabel’s shadow, that is, a double of lesser quality than the original. This vision of life and individuals partakes entirely of Humbert’s solipsist mind. Completely self-centered, the nympholept develops a sketchy idea of others who are depicted as mere shadows evolving around him : the “Haze mother” (the imprecision of her character is illustrated in her very name), Miss Opposite, Rex and Roy (the boys at Lolita’s school)… Humbert being the narrator and having the express desire to prove that he is “no sex fiend”, presents people and facts in his own light, hence creating caricatures with expressive names pertaining to their function in the text. These characters can be called “shadows” insofar as they are thrusted into the background. One character, though, escapes to the strict definition of a “shadow” character as of one staying in the background and this character is Clare Quilty.

Clare Quilty has been lavishly described by critics of Lolita as Humbert’s “Doppelganger” or double. The way he is presented makes him even worse than Humbert, since while Humbert stresses his genuine “love” for the nymphet, Quilty appears to be driven only by a temporary sexual appetite for the girl. In this respect, Quilty is presented by the narrator as a dark double : a shadow. Yet, taking into consideration the unreliabilty of Humbert’s narrative, one may question the shadowy identity of Clare Quilty. He does not seem to be present during most of Nabokov’s novel, at least, on first reading. Yet, Nabokov did warn his readers in one of his lectures on literature : “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book. One can only re-read it. A good reader, an active and creative reader is a re-reader”. At the light of the final chapters, the re-reader discovers that, far from being a shadow, Quilty was on the frontscene of the plot. Already in John Ray’s foreword, Quilty is mentioned through Vivian Darkbloom’s book entitled “My cue”. In jail, Humbert relates that he found a newspaper with Quilty’s name quoted in the headline : “In the limelight”. Throughout the second part of the novel, Quilty’s presence will be hinted at through references to his “aztec red” car. “Ruby” colours, “limelight”… : such words do not aim at blotting Quilty discreetly in the background. Far from being a shadow, his presence in the novel is linked to light and colours. Only Humbert fails fo see his blatant presence.

Kubrick chooses to go further in thrusting Quilty in the foreground and refusing the role of shadow he is given, for example, in Adrian Lyne’s adaptation of the novel. Peter Sellers transforms Quilty into a talkative and buoyant character, playing an active part in scenes such as the ballroom scene where he dances with Charlotte, as an incarnation of Dr. Zempf or at the counter of the Enchanted Hunter hotel where he engages in a long conversation with Mr. Swine. Such scenes, which do not occur in the novel, are pure creations from Kubrick, aiming at giving one of the leading roles to Clare Quilty at the expense of Humbert Humbert. Quite revealingly, in Kubrick’s film, Quilty’s car is white and Humbert’s is black. Similarly, in the final / initial murder scene, at Quilty’s manor, Humbert is dressed in black and Quilty wears a “spartacus-like” white toga. As pointed out earlier, shooting in black and white allows Kubrick to convey much meaning through light and shade. Not only does Humbert appear as Quilty’s shadow in the murder scene, but Quilty’s very existence is questioned in the very last sequence preceding the credits. This closing sequence shows Humbert entering Quilty’s house and shouting “Quilty ! Quilty !” In the background, the armchair where Quilty is supposed to lay asleep beneath the white sheet looks empty. Through light and shade effects, Kubrick hints at the possibility of Quilty’s being but an invention of Humbert’s schizophrenic mind.

In dealing with the shadow as a dark double, one is necessarily brought to focus on the name “Darkbloom”, which Vladimir Nabokov used as a pseudonym. Initially an anagram of his own name, the name “Darkbloom” associates the principles of darkness and of light. Can Vivian Darkbloom be identified as the ‘dark double’, the ‘shadow’ of the author in the novel ? It appears that two other narratorial instances also deserve to be considered as the author’s doubles : Humbert Humbert himself and John Ray Jr. The imbrication of narratorial voices makes of Lolita a text within the text where, finally, what remains of the facts is what the reader is given to discover under the “light” of others’ eyes. Nabokov intently plays with the close concepts of authors and narrators by marking, in this postface : “after my impersonation of suave John Ray, any straight comment from me might appear as an impersonation of Nabokov talking about his own book”. The numerous instances of narratorial voices in Lolita can be, indeed, considered as “echos” of Nabokov’s own voice. As for Vivian Darkbloom, she never takes over Nabokov’s text and cannot be considered as a double of the author Nabokov strictly speaking. However, by making one of his pseudonyms a protagonist of his novel, Nabokov attracts attention to his own personal implication in the writing of his text. One must not forget that, in the context of censure of the 1960s, Vladimir Nabokov seriously considered publishing Lolita under his pseudonym.

In trying to see Lolita as a shadow of Annabel Leigh, Quilty as a shadow of Humbert and Vivian Darkbloom as a shadow of Vladimir Nabokov, one is inevitably confronted with the impossibility of a dual reading of both novel and movie. Just as in pictural art, shadows partake of subtle modulations of light in both Kubrick’s and Nabokov’s works.The use of undertones and highlights invites the reader / watcher to an act of interpretation. Nabokov’s Humbert defined his literature as “articulate art”. Behind the pun is Humbert’s wish to present a clear, logical story. Shadows in Lolita invite us to a different reading in trying to look for meaning behind the words – what we might call “inarticulate” art.

Such as shadows often occur behind the original object it reflects, words often invite the reader to look behind for further meaning. This is what has already been pointed our when the use of names (Haze, Darkbloom, Ray – all pertaining to light) had been commented. Such a technique has proved a useful one both to Kubrick and Nabokov in trying to escape censorship. Similarly, metonymia allows Nabokov to relate Humbert’s first intercourse with Lolita by using the word “life” as a neat substitute for a gloomier ‘gadget’ : “my life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner”. Kubrick places sexual connotations under Quilty’s understanding of Lolita’s “cavity” being “filled”, of the Farlows being “broad-minded” or of Humbert’s choice to stay in the Haze house because of Charlotte’s “cherry pie”. Connotations are but shadows of deeper meaning, emerging under the light of knowledge.

Nabokov indeed counts on his readership’s literary culture to decipher all the allusions to other literary texts. Under Lolita’s text, the shadow of numerous other writings can be identified : Poe’s, Proust’s, Mérimée’s, Flaubert’s... to quote but a few. Such a work as done by Alfred Appel Jr. in his Annotated Lolita is to shed the necessary light allowing the shadows of all the intertexts to emerge.

References can also be identified in Kubrick’s Lolita to other works of art. From the ‘private joke’ of Quilty’s replica “I am Spartacus”, referring to Kubrick’s blockbuster, to numerous references to the “Film Noir” of the 1940s, Lolita is drenched with artistic references. The character played by Sue Lyon is herself a shadow of the Hollywood star, of whom the nymphet mimics the poses.

Kubrick and Nabokov both put emphasis on the meaning behind literal words. In doing so they manage to give an insight of the artistic process of creation. In other words, not only do the creators hint to a higher level of meaning, but they also point out to the technique used to do so. This is how shadows are used as a way of drawing attention to light. A first illustration lies in the use of fade to black and lap dissolve in Kubrick’s Lolita. Shot under the severe eyes of the censors, the movie had run the risk of being but a pale shadow of the novel, with no real sexual scene being shown to the spectator. Kubrick transformed the constraint into a challenge. While hinting through suggestive elliptical fade to blacks that Humbert and Lolita have been very intimate, Kubrick was pointing out to the censorship he was being subjected to. Self-conscious creation is also what Nabokov achieves when writing : “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.” Having in such a way the narrator stepping out of his story to address the reader directly enables Nabokov to draw attention to his creative technique. Without the light of the reader’s “suspension of disbelief”, the shadow of the fictional character disappears.

When studying shadows in Lolita one spontaneously considers the dark aspects of both novel and movie first : the issue of perversion as an ominous cloud threatening the pure radiant world of innocence and childhood. However, as shadows appear to be totally dependent on the intensity of the light and on the identity of the original object it reflects, the analysis of shadows necessarily turns out to be the study of the interplay between light and shade. This is how Humbert is seen. First, he is the one who drags Lolita from light to shade, but at the end, he is himself but a shadow of the nymphet. Roles are also inverted as pertains to Humbert and Quilty.Though at first glimpse Quilty seems to be Humbert’s shadow (the dark double who follows him and whose identity remains unclear), on re-reading the novel, Quilty’s presence seems to be much highlighted and Kubrick indeed transforms Humbert into Quilty’s shadow. The transitory nature of shadows which appear and disappear folowing the intensity of light can be compared to the numerous connotations and references which appear as flashes before disappearing. When reading the novel or watching the movie with a learned eye, one is brought to see a variety of other texts and artistic works under the shadow of Lolita. Just as shadows enable one to get an idea of the quality of the light, the connotations and references put emphasis on the creative light of both Kubrick and Nabokov. Through wording, images, puns or cinematic techniques such as light effects or fade to blacks, both the novelist and the film directer have managed to make the most of a pictural device for literary and cinematic purposes. Lolita is not the only work dealing with the subtle and dangerous interplay between light and shade. The same semantic field deserves to be further studied in both Nabokov’s Kamera Obscura and Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

  • Faux ! Il est question de "umber Humbertland" dans le texte...