Agrégation interne 2011 Composition en langue étrangère: copie 2
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Shadows in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita & Stanley Kubrik’s film. - Agreg 2011 - Lougasp
In the opening pages of VN’s Lolita, the reader is acquainted with Annabel Lee & soon realizes that as a shadow over the narrator’s memory & past, she is to haunt his present. This is made obvious by HH’s own words: “incarnating her in another” when he first sees Lolita & “it was the same child”, shadows being the same with a difference. The very choice of the name Lolita or Lo[lee]ta, also reflects the shadow of her predecessor. Besides, the quote “wildly I pursued the shadow of her infidelity” tells of the importance of such a theme in Nabokov’s novel & in Kubrick’s film, though in a totally different manner in each genre. When we consider “shadow”, what will be called its matrix, a more “real”& concrete material, inevitably comes to mind. A shadow does not come along on its own – it needs a matrix and it needs light. But what is to be noticed here is that the notion of shadow bears an “s”, hinting at different ways of appraising it. Indeed this feature is present on diegetic, narrative & aesthetic levels – & as inseparable & inescapable entities, they mirror many a point in Lolita. They thus underline the impression of several layers making up every single component of Lolita, each having its own shadow. Above all, they allude to the idea of a perpetual movement for each one to come to the fore. Therefore, Lolita stands out as a battleground for matrixes & shadows to appear straight in the forefront, under the light & then take over. So we can wonder to what extent the most obvious elements & their hidden counterparts (lights & shadows) are interdependent & thus make shadows at times more conspicuous than their “real” foils, even to the point of taking over in order to survive. To assess such an essential part of the workings of art in Lolita, the following discussion will try & determine why shadows contribute to characterization in a necessary manner. Then, attention will focus on the double motif as a representation of shadows lurking all the way through Lolita. Lastly, analysis will shift to the shadows of the text itself & its manipulation & effect on the reader.
The characters in Lolita, both as a novel & a film, all seem to try & walk in the steps of models to fit in society, be they taken from the world of comics & adverts, supposed literary clubs or classical writers. They try to imitate others, remaining more or less pale shadows (or puppets) of their idols. The word “imitation” is used nine times in the book along with others like “simulacra” or “parody”. They introduce us with a world of sham & pretence, as Lolita, Charlotte & Humbert cling to ideas & appearances that are not theirs, although HH might be somewhat more skilful at investing the shadow of classical European writers. Such an element of characterization seems to foreshadow the motif of pretence & hidden drives. In the film, it is ridiculed through Charlotte’s mention to Dr Zhivago & Dr Schweitzer as both being literary references.
As a consequence, shadows seep through here & we can also see this through the portrait of double-edged characters. Lolita is depicted as an innocent teenager – though with the faults of her age – facing nasty HH. It can be illustrated by two examples in the book & in the movie, both taking place at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel. In the novel, we are told that “the bathroom door stood ajar” & it casts a sharp light onto the bed where Lolita is sleeping, with HH’s place remaining in the dark. Similarly, the blinds enable light to fall on Lolita’s face in the film, adding the impression of stripes & then bars to the picture. The idea of imprisonment inevitably comes to mind then, a concept that is not very far from shadows, which epitomize the notion of entrapment. So shadows here underline the contrast between both protagonists as well as their coexistence & dependence on each other. However, Lolita – more in the shade in the first trip – comes forth later on, drama having “taught her deceit”, as HH says. Light is more favourable to her then & enables her to go on with her function in the book & film. From the shadow of herself, she becomes more palpable & even takes on the role of the artist.
But she is not the only one to be two-sided. HH pretends – from the outset of Lolita – to be an “artist”, “a poet”, but we can see cracks in his surfaced self. He is also “a lunatic” & “a pervert”. He asserts at some point that the artist has to take over the gentleman to write on. The “brute” – as he calls himself – needs the artist in him to “live on”, but it also works the other way round: the artist needs him to be “a maniac” or a “nympholept” to finish the story. Both the shadow & the matrix are interdependent. So in both cases, the shadows serve as a means of survival for the main characters – be it fictional. Lolita reverses the tide & avoids becoming a mere shadow & being engulfed in HH’s desire & likewise, HH survives as a narrator thanks to his perverted self – or shadow. But shadows are not only reflections of inner turmoil & developments, they are also the outer representations of the story & characters.
Indeed, the double motif surfaces through Lolita, thus contradicting VN’s own words – “the doppelganger is a frightful bore”. A shadow is a type of double & both convey a sense of inescapability & entrapment in self.
Diegetically, two trips follow the decision of HH to “put the geography of the US into motion”, the second one being the replica of the first one. However, the shadow departs from its original material as it is more than a copy. It drives HH from the West to the East this time – like a mirror - & Lolita is the initiator. It is in fact a hunt, a “cryptogrammic paper chase”, on the steps of his enemy once she has escaped. So in this case, the shadow-trip is sharper in its goal than the first one. The work of art also takes part in the motif of the shadow in that the novel both starts & ends with the word “Lolita” just as the film does with “Quilty”. This again gives an impression of imprisonment & inexorability. Such a mirroring quality is also to be found in the numerous pairs, twins & names mentioned in Lolita. A few examples will be sufficient to demonstrate that shadows also permeate Lolita thanks to such a device. The name Hourglass suggests a shadow reflecting the upper part. “The Enchanted Hunters” are to be reproduced by the name of the play “The Hunted Enchanters”. Similarly, the initial letters of HH evoke Harold Haze & “conquering & conquered” (& many other similar puns) remind us of Clare Quilty (CQ), not to mention the numerous twin beds, tables, mirrors and the like. They all bring the shadow imagery in mind & they saturate the text. Even Lolita “dissolves into haze”, culminating in the onomastics again – Charlotte is “Lottelita” for HH, which is dangerously close to “Lolita”. And again, the structure of the novel seems to obey the shadow pattern too: there are two parts, both chapters 22 are synonymous with some kind of liberation (of HH thanks to Charlotte’s death & of Lolita through her elopement), both chapters 29 are about union & re-union & both climactic scenes close their own parts with the same elements – long distance phone calls, sleepless night before & either pills or bullets proving ineffective.
The most telling example of double – or shadow – is that of Humbert though. Clare Quilty is his foil in the story. He embodies HH’s faults, though in a more open way. Indeed, just as a shadow does not lie but gives a proper – albeit less detailed – image, we seem to get a more accurate account of HH’s character through his double. CQ’s own admission of his sexual habits renders HH’s motives & sexual drives all the more distorted. Shadows would then reflect a “reality” that is less deceitful. On the other hand, just as a shadow lacks determinacy & relief, CQ is made of a disembodied voice first. He is not a round character until well into the book: HH seems to avoid or at least postpone a full characterization of his double. He would be too similar & as such unnerving. Or he suspects that, as a literary construct, CQ would take over just as he does in the murder scene, reversing the roles & turning the much awaited poetic justice into mere comedy. This might be the most obvious way in which the film & the novel have a different approach to the dialectic relationship at stake here. In the book, the encounter between HH & CQ happens while HH only feels that there is someone in the dark near him whereas the film shows the back of the protagonist while they are talking. CQ’s role is more developed & made obvious in the film, thus endorsing a different role, often verging on comic relief rather than indirect confessions of one’s faults. The film is inevitably a “collusion of interpretations” as VN put it. Due to the genre, less elements are left untold & shadows are thus less apparent. As far as CQ is concerned, the audience does not remain in the dark for long. Conversely, the reader is surprised, while reading the book, at HH’s comment about the long awaited revelation of the name of the shadow that has followed him all along: “the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago”. But there is no such suspense in the film. Contrary to its literary counterpart, CQ has left the shadowy vicinity of “his dungeon” – as admitted by HH – for a long time, in the film.
As implied here, shadows may be less deceitful than their “real” foil. However VN declared that “deceit in art, as in chess, is only part of the game”. So the shadow motif brings us to the two main manipulators, supposed to remain in the shadow – VN & his major narrator, HH.
Indeed what is striking – in the book only – in Lolita is that there are several superimposed narrative voices, again tending to fit in the shadow pattern. It is as if each voice was fighting for its own survival, trying to take over, to be louder than the other two, not to be left in the shadow. In this involuted work, the narrating I often merges into the narrated I & we can also witness two other pairs – VN with his creation HH & HH with CQ. There seems to be a constant balance as well as a threat of disruption within the narrators. HH is aware of his status as a literary construct, as inferred through his own statements. But he also shows his skill as far as the treatment of CQ is concerned. He seems to manage the ropes of his puppet at some point, but then it can also backfire & give him the impression that he is being manipulated himself. It is made obvious through the paper chase & the reversal of roles during CQ’s murder. He was hunted & he becomes the hunter, obsessed as he is by the “red shadow” that he thought he had noticed while driving with Lolita. He is being outmanoeuvred by what he considers as his creations & is not aware of it for a long time. The shadow does take over. The same pattern seems to be followed with his own creator, who appears through the surface every once in a while. The author is very often left in the dark , but VN shows that HH is a mere puppet in his hand. The name Vivian Darkbloom – anagram for the author – appears several times but is far from being the only way of VN’s intruding. An example can be found in the way he establishes a critical distance between himself & his creation when HH is too sentimental. He then shows us the process of literary creation, a bit like a dissection.
So the reader is allowed to see the manipulation of & by the shadows & the effect of them taking the upper hand over their supposed matrixes. It is VN’s very intention toward his reader.
Just as HH needs the artist in him to survive, the reader also needs his light to guide him or her through “this entanglement of thorns”, thus taking the risk of accepting to be a mere puppet in HH’s hands, HH the narrator & the artist, following his whims as well as his artistic skills. HH can be considered as the reader’s or viewer’s shadow, as he begs “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me”. He requests the audience’s complicity & the reader or viewer is torn between two feelings: condemning or condoning. But just as HH relies on the artist to prolong his bliss, the audience has to put aside the pervert, the shadowy side of HH in order to fully enjoy HH the poet. He takes the reader along & both need the other one to enjoy the account. We do not know who the shadow is anymore. And that is part of the role of the reader, to accept these conditions. Then, he or she can also find that re-reading cast a new light on previously shadowy passages, indulging in an endless relationship, like a shadow & its matrix; this shows shadows as a full component of this piece of art, as the means of maintaining the pleasure of deciphering all the layers in the narrative.
The reader finds himself in the position of S. Kubrick reinventing the story, both as creator & as puppet. Shadows in Lolita suggest the idea of entrapment in time & self but are also the strengths of Lolita as they render their matrixes – whether they are characters, literary or cinematographic narration or the audience’s response – all the more fascinating. An illustration of this can be traced in the recurrent theme of mist & haze (& thus doubts). There is no shadow then and it corresponds indeed to periods of doubts, HH groping in the dark with nothing to hold on to (“Lolita dissolved into [...] haze”). It is a matter of interdependence, as when there is no shadow, a sense of lack develops. The portrait seems unfinished or “unreal”, & its shadow makes it stand out as complete. Shadows are also one reason why the reader (though less so with the film) can read & re-read Lolita, always unveiling new elements, taken by surprise by Nabokov in a renewed & constant “aesthetic bliss”, as VN liked to say.
1) Imitation / parody => sham world = only pale shadows of their idols => foreshadows pretence.
"wildly I pursued the shadow of her infidelity"
2) Two-sided protagonists a- Lolita (victim vs initiator) b- HH (artist vs pervert)
Tr°: Notion of shadows needed for survival? => doppelgänger
II. Double motif:
1) Diegetically => // trips + From Lo to Lo & from CQ to CQ in the film + “the red shadow”
2) Characterization a- various pairs & foils / names (JR Jr, HH // Harold Haze, “Lo dissolves into Haze”, VN & Vivian Darkbloom…) b- HH vs CQ + film
Tr°: Shadows as less deceitful than “reality”? => 2 main manipulators : VN & HH
III. Superimposed narrative voices & times:
1) HH = VN’s puppet & literary construct / distorted account VS film
2) Reader is to see manipulation & accepts being a mere shadow to HH the narrator. “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me”
NOTE : 15 / 20