Landscape + Language

In 1949, Ithaca, New York, a story that Vladimir Nabokov wrote in Paris and destroyed shortly after his arrival in America began to haunt him again. In the original version, written in Russian, the man was a Central European, the anonymous nymphet was French, and the loci were Paris and Provence. It was the transposition to America and into English that gave birth to that most famous and controversial works of literature, Lolita. In an afterword written a year later, Nabokov responded to the controversy: "Another charge which some readers have made is that Lolita is anti-American. This is something that pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality. Considerations of depth and perspective (a suburban lawn, a mountain meadow) led me to build a number of North American sets." It is no accident that the framework Nabokov chose for this story was that most quintessential of American experiences: the road trip. An entire America is hidden inside Lolita; the landscape and the language are drawn out through a stunning, archetypical example of the road trip genre, with all the traditional tropes: the descriptions of small towns, deserts, and highways; the running, the searching and the tragic end.

Humbert Humbert, newly widowed after Charlotte Haze’s death, picks up his step-daughter Dolores Haze from summer camp and they commence a yearlong tour across the United States, beginning "with a series of wiggles and whorls in New England, then meandered south, up and down, east and west; dipped deep into ce qu’on appelle Dixieland, avoided Florida because the Farlows were there, veered west, zigzagged through corn belts and cotton belts... crossed and re-crossed the Rockies, straggled through southern deserts where we wintered; reached the Pacific, turned north through the pale lilac fluff of flowering shrubs along forest roads; almost reached the Canadian border... and finally returned to the fold of the East..." On a first reading, Lolita usually yields only the relationship between a pedophiliac, middle-aged man and his nymphet. More often than not, the cover of the book portrays some artist’s interpretation of Lolita: young and innocent, or wily and seductive. Nabokov himself had much more in mind than that simplistic formula; the setting is as important as the characters. After reviewing the proposed designs for Putnam’s 1958 hardcover edition of Lolita, he made the following statement in a letter to the publisher: "I want pure colors, melting clouds, accurately drawn details, a sunburst above a receding road with the light reflected in furrows and ruts after rain. And no girls."

The traditional motivations for a road trip are numerous but repetitive: the road trip as rite-of-passage, as a fugitive run, as a search for the "real" land; to rebel, to discover, to escape... but never to reach a destination. For Humbert to maintain such a socially taboo relationship, he must avoid the familiar by keeping in motion. But Humbert transforms "running away" into "looking for: playing a literal game of hide-and-seek across America. "By putting the geography of the United States into motion," he writes, "I did my best for hours on end to give her the impression of ’going places,’ of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight. I have never seen such smooth amiable roads as those that now radiated before us, across the crazy quilt of forty-eight states. Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors." They play the tourist, visiting the world’s largest stalagmite, Lincoln’s log cabin, monuments, a collection of European hotel picture postcards, scenic drives, a collection of homemade sculptures, villas, fish hatcheries, cliff dwellings. From the prehistoric to the contemporary, from the grand to the ludicrous, the American landscape is a necessary distraction. Whether a spectacular natural wonder or a private collections of curiosities, what they see is of no significance: "as likely as not Lo would feign gagging as soon as we got to it." Each spectacle could replace any other; what matters is the anticipation, the expectancy of desire. They see America but do not possess it; the land remains elusive and therefore still desirable. As long as they remain in motion, there is the possibility of a happy ending for Humbert, or at least a delay of the inevitable.

In America, Baudrillard writes of the country as a European, constantly contrasting the two opposing states of mind: "We are a culture of intimacy which produces manners and affectation; they have a democratic culture of space." For Baudrillard, freedom in America is spatial and mobile, but leads to desert and nothingness. Space gives both physical and moral latitude. However, the negation of timeless space could also be seen as a forgiveness for the past. There is a peculiar charm in being in transit, in between places, in no place. Time stalls between the nostalgia of the past and the promise of the future, with no present and no worries.

Humbert and Lolita persist in a perpetual now, changing settings but not circumstances. Such is the nature of Baudrillard’s holographic America where you can take "the tiniest little place in the desert... and you have the whole of the US-South, North, East, or West." The country becomes a series of repetitions of difference. Humbert and Lolita become so familiar with the integral components of the American road: the motels, the hitchhikers, the diners and gas stations, that they become capitalized types, the same in every place.

However, places do retain an importance as locations of emotional significance. Humbert methodically records their arguments by specific site: "at Lacework Cabins, Virginia; on Park Avenue, Little Rock, near a school; on Milner Pass, 10,759 feet high, in Colorado; at the corner of Seventh Street and Central Avenue in Phoenix Arizona; on Third Street, Los Angeles..." Likewise, he searches for the typical places in which to enact his sexual fantasies: the secluded lane, the Kingdom by the Sea. Eventually, places become deterministic, foreshadowing and not just recording events. "I felt instinctively that toilets-as also telephones-happened to be, for reasons unfathomable, the points where my destiny was liable to catch." These "fateful objects" are literally and figuratively signs. The physical landscape is transformed into an emotional landscape; they remember the country through dog-eared tour book and marked-up maps, which become subjectiveaccounts of places visited.

Nabokov writes not only with the perspective of a European, but also the authority of one who has seen the details of America missed by Americans. During summers spent butterfly-hunting with his wife, Nabokov visited remote locations around the country. "The locality labels pinned under these butterflies will be a boon to some twenty-first century scholar with a taste for recondite biography. It was at such of our headquarters as Telluride, Colorado; Afton, Wyoming; Portal, Arizona; and Ashland, Oregon, that Lolita was energetically resumed in the evenings or on cloudy days." The mountain trail where Humbert Humbert reaches his last epiphany is where Nabokov caught the first known female of the species Lycaeides sublivens Nabokov. Humbert describes the landscape as a cultured European, unlike Lo’s vulgar American: "A great user of roadside facilities, my unfastidious Lo would be charmed by toilet signs-Guys-Gals, John-Jane, Jack-Jill and even Buck’s-Doe’s; while lost in an artist’s dream, I would stare at the honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks, or at a distant hill scrambling out-scarred but still untamed-from the wilderness of agriculture that was trying to swallow it." What each is attracted by points up the dichotomy of a landscape that is both Romantic and Post-Industrial. But what Humbert recognizes is the ambiguity-and harmony-between the natural and the man-made. Ironically, "the lyrical, epic, tragic, but never Arcadian American wilds" remind Humbert of Europe; he recognizes the American landscape through the Old Master landscapes of his youth, seeing Claude Lorrain clouds or an El Greco horizon in Kansas.

"Americans have transformed all places," he writes, "even cities, into desert." Space is made infinite by the destruction of the center, in turn creating a true fictional space, the perfect setting for an "orgy of indifference, disconnection, exhibition, circulation." The essence of Baudrillard’s America is circulation: traffic flows, money flows, production and consumption cycle incessantly. The automobile is a prime mover in this circulation system. A private car is freedom; driving is, according to Baudrillard, a "new experience of space, and, at the same time, a new experience of the whole social system." However, each encounter that Humbert and Lolita make on the road is fraught with paranoia. The strangers around them serve to tighten their community of two. So the introduction of Clare Quilty is a shock-a seemingly minor character, it turns out that he was a prime mover, if only identified through his car, the Aztec Red Convertible. The car is a reflection of character, but can also assume a presence. In Lolita, Humbert drives his dead wife’s blue sedan, the "old Haze bus," to the end.

The system of transportation is an agreement between strangers, a modern day social contract with very real consequences. Humbert’s last, self-destructive act goes against the agreed compact of Baudrillard’s "collective propulsion": "The road now stretched across open country, and it occurred to me-not by way of a protest, not as a symbol, or anything like that, but merely as a novel experience-that since I had disregarded all laws of humanity, I might as well disregard the rules of traffic. So I crossed to the left side of the highway and checked the feeling, and the feeling was good. It was a pleasant diaphragmal melting, with elements of diffused tactility, all this enhanced by the thought that nothing could be nearer to the elimination of basic physical laws than deliberately driving on the wrong side of the road."

Humbert and Lolita’s first trip, the "Joyride," ends back in the East; their second trip cross-country is ominous. The beginning is abrupt, as it is a set-up from the start for Lolita to leave him for their pursuer, Quilty. Unlike the serendipitous first journey, Lolita marks the map with lipstick, insisting that they hit certain points at certain times. The co-ordinates of place are used to co-ordinate escape. The landscape reflects the changing dynamics; they are plagued by thunderstorms, or, Humbert wonders, is it only the storm of being followed? The map is always already an instrument of power, not innocence. Humbert has vague plans to go to Mexico, but realizes the hopelessness: "We would spin on to California, to the Mexican border, to mythical bays, saguaro deserts, fatamorganas... Why did I hope we would be happy abroad? A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lungs, rely." After she escapes, he takes to the road in search of her, each trip becoming more truncated and more desperate.

Although the road trip is American by virtue of space, it is ultimately self-defeating by virtue of geography; it is by nature a temporary state of affairs. The hoped-for discovery is simply nothingness. Humbert gives a beautiful, defenseless apology: "We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night-every night, every night-the moment I feigned sleep." But if the characters remain untouched and untouchable, so does the land. America stays elusive for both Humbert and Nabokov. Both evince a belief in the country, despite, or because, it remains out of grasp; if it cannot be held, it must be believed. Nabokov ends his afterword with the lament of the English language as still foreign, but the task which he presented himself with - "the task of inventing America" - he completed. The elusiveness of America may simply be an effect of the blurred perception of speed and a whole, if not steady, view.