Why Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita Is One of the Crown Jewels of Western Literature and Ha Jin’s Waiting Is Also an Exceptional Book
“Passionless” is a word that appears in Ha Jin’s Waiting. His character discusses in his thoughts why he is so passionless, and is it normal? Thus the question lingers: should there be slightly more or slightly less passion involved in how two Chinese characters, amidst the damnable backdrop of the Cultural Revolution – which smothered the slightest semblance of non-conformity – wind up together as husband and wife to start a family? On the polar opposite end of the passion spectrum, Vladamir Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert would have been overwhelmed with passion had he been able to enjoy the circumstances of domestic love, which finally comes to fruition in Waiting. While the novels both present love stories, albeit, one more rational than the other, one less obsessive and tortured than the other, I would rather read the work that brims with passion, however deranged and unconventional this might be. In short, one cannot deny the passion of Lolita. In reading it we enter into the mind of a man possessed with undeniable passion, a man who can barely wield his dire quest for innocence and love. However repulsive and illicit this love may be, I argue that the novel that lets the reader experience the wrenching torture of an uncontrollable, unrequited passion – however doomed – is a far more interesting and engaging read than a novel that suspends such passion over 300 some pages, emitting strange little outpours of it here and there, and then resolving it in decidedly conventional terms, as Jin does, I argue, in Waiting.
Therefore, foremost, the difference in point of view, specifically, is what really allows Lolita to rise above Waiting. For in Lolita, we are made privy to the mental state of a thinking man whose romantic life is first stunted in childhood at the death of a girlfriend; a man who then becomes a traveling academic, keeping his eye open for the kind of innocent, yet erotic love which so stirred him as a boy: “There, on the soft sand, a few feet away from our elders, we would sprawl all morning, in a petrified paroxysm of desire, and take advantage of every blessed quirk in space and time to touch each other…” (Nabakov 12). As it so happens, Professor Humbert receives the chance to redeem his lost childhood love in Lolita, a very young girl who does not exactly play hard to get:
She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. (15)
Rarely has a more passionate, and royal-sounding metaphor for a man’s libido resounded! Yet of course, there is the conflict of Lolita’s age. But from this first person point of view, we learn of Humbert’s undying passion and commitment to Lolita. Notably, he would give all of himself to her, even his entrails.
Ha Jin affords a much subtler, less urgent insight into characterization and conflict. First, Jin spreads his exposition across what seems like a bit of an overlong prologue; then patiently describes, mainly from Manna’s point of view in the first few chapters, yet in the third person, Manna and Lin’s first sparks of an incredibly patient, yet bracingly beautiful romance. This romance is exceptional in that it is not overwrought in the least but very finely sown. The setting of rural China also engages the senses: “…a brownish steamer was crawling east, leaving behind strips of black smoke. A pair of pelicans were flying beyond the water, bobbing on the horizon” (10). After the judge, an authority for the communist society of China, dismisses the motion to divorce, and Shuyu spills a “blob of gravy on her left wrist” (14), Jin has fully engaged us for the long waiting for the loveless marriage to finally give way for Manna to finally be together with Lin.
But how long can Jin suspend us? How long can he keep us reading and flipping the pages in hope of finally finding out whether the two lovers (who in a freer society, would have been able to be together long before eighteen years and 300 pages) ever make it together? E.M. Forster, in his revered contribution to defining the novel, stipulates that ultimately the novel “can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next….It is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms. Yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels” (27-28). Jin’s novel, though exceptional in its slow and steady emission of beauty and a real earned sort of love, cannot compete with Nabokov’s insatiable pleasures and toils as they intertwine in the juxtaposition of desire and insanity for a far juicier read, chock full with literary raptures that transcend linear plot movement, whereas Jin’s work largely hinges on this movement, the “simplest of literary organisms” (27-28).
But Jin does dip into some poignancy and literary nuance. Towards the latter half of the book, the altogether communal, semi-omniscient point of view — communal in that all points of view: societal, personal, male, female, East, West are given voice – leans towards Lin’s point of view and his particular predicament which is essentially the story. For ultimately it is up to him, the Chinese male to make the decision and to fight to break from his loveless marriage. Yet he is quite divided and his surrounding society does not help him make any sort of swift decision. Hence the latter chapters elongate towards the end and the semi-omniscient point of view sways towards a closer depiction of Lin’s personal trials. For example, Jin seamlessly shifts to Lin’s point of view, invoking even the “I” within the narrative:
To tell the truth, he didn’t miss Manna, though he felt sorry for her. Is this what love is like? he asked himself. No wonder people say marriage is the death of love. The closer we are to getting married, the less attached I feel to her. Does this mean I don’t love her anymore? Don’t be a fool. She and I have waited for each other so many years.
Notably, one could say that this passage is also a slight sample of free indirect style. But the shift to Lin’s point of view is so plain and declarative of the essential theme and conflict of the novel that it becomes rather free direct style than indirect. Sure, Jin freely lets his eye and voice empathize with his characters, but form does not match the content as a true free indirect stylist such as Dawn Powell demonstrates in her novels. In other words, there is too much telling in Jin’s line and not enough showing. The prose does not shift its vernacular when it gives voice and point of view to its characters; it simply enters into the characters minds without altering its tone or style at all. In a word, it is overly declarative, overly simple.
Nabokov, on the other hand, freely indulges in the neurotic and overeducated vernacular of Professor Humbert, and yet he manages to also involve a plethora of other voices, namely American. There is the vernacular of Lolita whose vocabulary duly frustrates and titillates Humbert to no end, with her diction of “luscious” and “revoltingly unfaithful,” for instance. Yet also, Humbert gives voice, through his own reflective narrative, to minor characters who he allows to slightly criticize him and hold a mirror up to his own tortured state of mind. For example, when the narrative of redemption for Humbert suffers a sudden reversal, sending him desperate to the streets alone, Nabokov aptly narrates:
Very amusing: at one gravel-groaning sharp turn I sideswiped a parked car but said to myself telestically – and, telepathically (I hoped), to its gesticulating owner – that I would return later, address Bird School, Bird, New Bird, the gin kept my heart alive but bemazed my brain, and after some lapses and losses common to dream sequences, I found myself in the reception room, trying to beat up the doctor, and roaring at people under chairs, and clamoring for Mary who luckily for her was not there; rough hands plucked at my dressing gown, ripping of a pocket, and somehow I seem to have been sitting on a bald brown-headed patient, whom I had mistaken for Dr. Blue, and who eventually stood up, remarking with a preposterous accent: “Now, who is nevrotic, I ask?”…. (246).
Nabokov even calls attention to the spelling aberration of “neurotic” at the end, indicating an American doctor grossly mocking the tortured European. Such subtleties in dialect do not exist in Waiting. In Waiting, secondary characters do affect the primary characters but they fail to criticize them as interestingly and as implicitly as the ones in Lolita. For example, in one of Jin’s shifts from dream to reality, he describes Manna’s inner anxieties: “She became murderous and picked up a few large cobblestones and threw at Geng Yang and Mai Dong with all her might. ‘Ouch!’ Lin yelled as Manna’s fist landed on his forehead” (288). This passage reads almost humorously yet it involves the subjects of a jilting fiancée and a rapist!
Nabokov, on the contrary, interweaves his undeniable creepy and evil antagonist, Clare Quilty throughout the book, hinting at his pervasive presence. To wit, in what is in my opinion, the most terrifying passage of Lolita, Nabokov, in one fell swoop, foreshadows the espionage of Clare Quilty, who is but the sum of all pseudo-intellectualism and mainstream commercial American evil, set to suck up Humbert’s innocent Lo; while at the same time, providing what would be the lynchpin for the prosecution in the case Humbert vs. the people of New England:
I saw Lo next, in the late afternoon, balancing on her bike, pressing the palm of her hand to the damp bark of a young birch tree on the edge of our lawn, I was so struck by the radiant tenderness of her smile that for an instant I believed all our troubles gone. “Can you remember,” she said, “what was the name of that hotel, you know [nose puckered], come on, you know – with those white columns and the marble swan in the lobby? Oh, you know [noisy exhalation of breath] – the hotel where you raped me. Okay, skip it. I mean, was it [almost in a whisper] The Enchanted Hunters? Oh, it was? [musingly] Was it?”… (202)
Of course, both the name of the hotel and the name of Quilty’s play that Lolita is rehearsing for are the same. Quilty lurks.
Nothing comes close in Jin’s novel. Even his description of Manna being raped, a scene which interestingly never so directly transpires in Lolita, is not as terrifying and vexed in a moment of beauty and foreboding and innocence – an innocence strikingly oblivious to the schemes of pure evil — as Nabakov’s work is. On this note, it is important to keep in mind that these tortured men, Quilty and Humbert, want to consume Lolita for their own sick purposes.
In refutation, some beautiful passages emanate from Jin’s clear, honest prose. For example, one picks up the notion of true love in Manna and Lin as they come to miss each other and fight, finally, like a married couple:
… he would stay home in the evening to prepare the lessons. Because the class was already in motion, it was impossible to change and he had to go to teach it twice a week. Though Manna was glad about the reconciliation, the two lonely evenings each week still irritated her. Sometimes she felt depressed when he wasn’t home, and she couldn’t help imagining g how to give him a piece of her mind. (265)
Such simple, declarative sentences, falling pat at the end of chapters, tinged with emotion, are signature of Jin’s style in Waiting. There is even the delightful and humorous cultural contrast of Manna’s inability to understand why an old man would call her an “angel”:
“I saw a picture once. It’s like a chubby baby with three pairs of wings, like a sweet child”…. “No, I was never happy in my childhood. I envied those kids who had parents, and even hated some of them. By the way, Lin, don’t tell anybody about this angel thing, all right?” (56-57).
In the world of Lolita now – the western world that is – this angelic babe becomes the ultimate fantasy and bane of Humbert’s existence. In Jin’s world, his character has no idea why someone would call her that. The narrative falls flat at times, sheens out serenely, reflectively, austerely. Yet it never really bristles and pops and writhes like Nabokov’s prose. In Lolita, never is the question raised: “Why was he so passionless?” (Jin, 70). In Lolita, never do we have a protagonist returning to the old loveless wife, drunk before his daughter, clinging to a false sense of normalcy: “‘Oh, I don’t want to be a good man. I just want to be a normal man” (305). Never in Lolita is love described as “bitter”: “Don’t forget that yours is a bitter love” (Jin, 240). And lest we forget: it is only bitter in Waiting because of the bitter surrounding society which allows the rape to go unpunished, which in turn, sets in motion the Commissar’s decision to let the two marry at last. It is as if the price of true love in Chinese communist society is at least one rape. Then the society will sympathize with your situation.
In Lolita, however, there is passion, music, memory, intelligence and an unforgettable lesson to us all. It is a novel that goes “beyond the evidence” and “that is why novels, even when they are about wicked people, can solace us; they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and of power” (Forster, 63-64).
Jin, Ha. Waiting. New York: First Vintage International Edition, 2000. Print.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1954. Print.
Nabokov, Vladamir. Lolita. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.