Where does art end and morality begin? Sexualising adolescence in Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark
Updated: Oct 1, 2018
TW: sexual abuse/statutory rape
I don’t know how to feel about my first reading of Nabokov.
I should probably give you some context. So, I’m going into my third year of uni and, having to choose a ‘Special Author’ module, last term I apparently decided on Nabokov. I think it was because I’d never really come across his work before – I knew he sounded vaguely Russian but, whether that was his nationality or not, I didn’t know.
(Answer: it is.)
I knew he’d written the controversial and disturbing novel Lolita, in which a reclusive academic, still obsessed with a sexual encounter in his youth, has an affair with his wife’s underage daughter. When the wife dies, the ‘couple’ (I hope you hear the disgust in my words as I say that) travel across America in his car, having sex statutory rape in motels and avoiding the authorities. I did begin reading Lolita but its explicit descriptions of the titular child as a deeply sexual being, that she ‘wanted’ it and how she is somehow to blame, made me feel sick and I’m unashamed to say I actually had to give up and move onto another book before I started writing a manifesto about children’s lack of agency/blame in all and any sexual encounters.
There’s a definite aspect of art in Nabokov’s work. I mean art in that philosophical sense where some academics, artists and free thinkers blur the edges between the aesthetic and the moral, sometimes in a way that excuses deeply immoral behaviour (like the sexual abuse of a child) for the sake of some messed-up aesthetic experience.
Say what you like about the 1998 Adrian Lyne adaptation, but I do think it plays well on the presentation of Lolita as some kind of sexualised ornament – she is, to use Humbert Humbert’s word, a ‘nymphet’ (vomits) – and that lollipop, those sunglasses and the teeny tiny shorts on all the film posters definitely hint to the commodifying of the child.
I’m reminded as I’m writing this of a Stacey Dooley documentary from 2017, Young Sex for Sale in Japan which investigates Japan’s dark side of child pornography and the JK industries, in which adult men pay to date and hang out with adolescent girls, frequently in their school uniforms. In the documentary, Stacey (we’re best mates, can’t you tell) was understandably horrified at the normality of this practise – of men frequently older than the schoolgirls’ own fathers, paying to go on dates with them. To me, it just stinks of the legitimising of that creepy uncle in every family that you avoid at family events. While there is some fifty/sixty/seventy years between Humbert Humbert’s 20th Century USA and 21st Century Japan, the similarity of trying to make sexual beings out of schoolgirls remains sickening.
Anyway – I digress.
In getting annoyed at Lolita, I moved on to another of Nabokov’s novels: Laughter in the Dark.
Published in 1932, some twenty years before Lolita, I read Laughter in the Dark with the feeling that it was a kind of draft of the latter. Rather than the United States, the novel is set predominantly in Berlin but Laughter in the Dark’s Albinus like Lolita’s Humbert is also an academic. Similarly, Albinus is bored of his mundane marriage to “willowy, wispy, fair-haired” Elisabeth with her “colourless eyes and pathetic little pimples,” just as Humbert finds his marriage to Lolita’s mother as a repulsive but necessary means to an end: the end being her daughter.
Then there’s Margot Peters.
Like Lolita, Margot is crude and coarse. Just take away the gum-snapping, the lip-gloss and the tantrums and insert a working-class girl who escapes an abusive family, has a few affairs and dreams of making it as an actress. She has a thirst for money, for success and for sex – particularly with the one that got away, who turns out to be Axel Rex, a friend of Albinus. (As you can imagine, that gets complicated.) Margot isn’t entirely likable; she’s selfish and naïve and flawed but she is a product of her upbringing and of the difficulties she has suffered. Ultimately, she is an unmarried young woman with no income and no way of bettering her lot.
Part of me, and I say this tentatively, almost admires her for skilfully manipulating wealthy pervert Albinus - but then I wake up and remember manipulation even in the power realms of gender is still messed-up and she is a bitch. A small mercy at least is that she does seem to be a bit older, at least sixteen, (hurrah for Albinus, can we get a round of applause) in comparison to twelve-year-old Lolita.
Laughter in the Dark plays on the aesthetic and the cinematic in a similar way to Lolita. Lolita is obsessed with movies and magazines and film stars, as many adolescents are; Margot is obsessed with becoming a film star, of being perceived as beautiful and sultry like a brunette Marilyn Monroe. Until, of course, she realises she can’t act. Nice metaphor there for breaking open the aesthetic ideals of life, art and desire with a nice bit of mundanity and reality. Albinus enjoys his highbrow conversations about art, film and poetry with his highbrow academic friends, leaving Margot on the backfoot:
A commodity who can’t join in the conversation and probably doesn’t want to.
As the novel goes on, Margot finds Albinus more and more boring – he is older than her, and polished and refined, and the sex is mediocre at best. Although he leaves his wife and young daughter to live and travel with Margot, it is not enough for the young mistress who impatiently demands he divorce his wife and marry her instead. I can see where she’s coming from – as a woman, her only stability in this era is if she acquires Albinus’ last name. Without that and a ring on her left hand, she is merely a sexual plaything that can be discarded whenever he gets fed up.
But things start to go wrong for Albinus.
SPOILERS ON THE WAY …
Margot’s power and evil grows when Albinus loses his sight after a car accident. In a fit of jealous rage, paranoid that Axel and Margot have been having an affair all along (took him long enough to figure it out), Albinus crashes the car he is driving and ends up blind. Margot plays the kindly nursemaid and moves with him to a chalet in the mountains of Switzerland, so he can get his health back and recover from the trauma of the accident. Except she is just play-acting. Now deep in her affair with Axel and more annoyed with than in love with Albinus, Margot plays the doting nurse to the pitiable father figure while her lover lives in the house unseen. I almost feel bad for Albinus. Axel and Margot get a great deal of pleasure and amusement out of ridiculing him and gradually spending everything in his bank account. But then, he is a pervert who ditched his family for a girl not much older than his daughter. Karma?
Basically- I don’t know how to feel about Nabokov. While I’m sure there is art and meaning in Lolita and Laughter in the Dark and I may just be entirely missing the point (if I am, please feel free to educate me – I am more than happy to be told I’m wrong), I struggle to see much beyond the abuse of young girls by middle-aged academics who get a kick out of being so fantastically intelligent and artistic in comparison to their more crude and uneducated ‘lovers’. Lolita is most definitely a child and for that, I don't condone any of Humbert’s actions (I still haven’t read the ending). Margot is cunning and cruel, but she does what is necessary to build herself a life in a world that is tilted dramatically in the favour of Albinus and Axel. Albinus may end up dead, but the real victims of Laughter in the Dark are the women: the devoted wife he abandoned, the sick daughter he neglected and the adolescent Margot whose poverty and circumstances he exploited. All for the sake of art.
Let’s see if my opinion changes over this module.