The Nymphet and the Granny

Culture Wars, March 2008
      All right: Dolly Haze was a victim — orphaned, abducted, sexually abused for months on end and deprived of her adolescence. Most of all, though, she was a victim of bad timing, having lived, suffered and died before it was commonplace to cash in on personal ordeals with ghostwritten memoirs plugged by Oprah and resold to Hollywood. Being a fictional creation of Vladimir Nabokov wouldn’t have disqualified her. Publishers have learned from Holocaust survivors who aren’t Jews, gay teen hustlers who aren’t even male, that first-person narratives from non-existent characters are interchangeable with, and sometimes preferable to, true-life trauma.
       Yet fierce competition for the empathetic gasps of the credulous has brought about a kind of grade inflation for child molestees. Poor, unreal Lolita never had to be suckled by she-wolves or infected with AIDS, as is now de rigueur for aspiring victims. She only had to submit to a guilt and lust-crazed middle-aged academic who is a more interesting and sympathetic character than she could ever have grown up to be.
       It is the searing, self-serving voice of the victimiser that moves us, because what drives him is unquestionably a kind of love. Lolita’s memorable introductory riffs are the opening stanzas of a lyric only partly buried under the heaps of self-condemning excuses and justifications that serve as the poem’s commentaire de text. After all, Humbert was a lycée professor as well as a deeply deviant, duplicitous old-school perv, but his tears are the ‘hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed’.
       Ditto the tears of his real-life counterpart, the Romantic composer Héctor Berlioz. What, Berlioz a child molester! No, certainly not, but you could say he stopped just short of becoming a senior citizen molester. Both HH and HB were obsessively fixated on a childhood crush that never went away, ‘a petrified paroxysm of desire’ (Humbert calls it) for a girl child pure, incomparable, innocent. A few months later and she is dead of typhus, leaving behind the memory of ‘a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today. Long after her death I felt her thoughts floating through mine. Long before we met, we had had the same dreams’.
     That doesn’t stop HH from using her as his preemptive expiation for the crimes he was to commit, of course.
     Now here is Berlioz in his sixties, writing in his Mémoires (as translated by David Cairns) about a visit to his grandfather’s house at Meylan, near Grenoble, when he was 12 years old. Enter the (yes, literally) girl next door.
      "The moment I beheld her I was conscious of an electric shock. I loved her. From then on I  lived   in a daze, I hoped for nothing, I knew nothing and yet my heart felt weighed down by an immense sadness. I lay awake whole nights disconsolate. By day I hid myself in the maize fields, in the secret corners of my grandfather’s orchard, like a wounded bird, mute, suffering."
      Who doesn’t know the feeling? Estelle Duboeuf was 18 and no doubt a quite nicely turned out piece of provincial young womanhood. If she noticed her pipsqueak admirer’s mooning, she would have been too well-bred to let on, too self-possessed to be more than momentarily taken aback by his ardour. Summer idylls end with the end of summer. Not for HB:
      "I was thirteen when I ceased to see her. I was thirty when I returned from Italy across the Alps and saw Saint-Eynard and the little white house and the old tower through a mist of tears. On reaching home, I learnt that she was married—and all that follows, and it did not cure me."
      Years go by. Berlioz composes his music; travels to Russia, Germany and Italy. From his box seat at the Odéon, he falls madly in love with Irish actress Harriet Smithson and externalises his fatal attraction in the Symphonie Fantastique. She can neither understand nor resist his gushes of amorous overkill. If her French had been better, someone might have taken her aside and informed her that Berlioz had already come close to shooting the first girl he actually slept with, the dauguerrotypically dishy but two-timing Camille Moke.
      After they marry, Harriet’s career tanks. They have a son, quarrel and separate; he has affairs; she drinks, becomes a reclusive invalid, keeps on drinking and finally dies. Still, Harriet gets a better posthumous write-up than the possessive, clinging Marie Recio, who was promoted from mistress to second wife on Harriet’s death - ‘it was my duty’ - but who is not even mentioned by name in the Mémoires.
      We all know what happened to Humbert, one of the silenoi, or silens, the pot-bellied, white-haired satyrs whose ‘comical and crude’ attempts to get it on with wood nymphs were a common motif on Greek pottery.
     "The haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since—until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another."
      With Berlioz, it was closer to half a century, and how he would have snorted at the idea of love incarnated by a sexual stunt double! In 1864 he made his first epistolary approaches to the woman who had a long time since become Mme Fournier, the respectable widow of a provincial magistrate, and received a wary assent to his proposal to call on her. He was 61, she was 70. Two of her six children had died by then, and she was now a grandmother.
      A photograph of the elderly Estelle is reproduced in most editions of the Mémoires. We scrutinise the features of this big-bonneted old lady trying to spot the loveliness that time has not withered nor custom staled. 
      "God! How her face had changed—her complexion darkened, her hair growing grey. Yet my heart did not waver for an instant. My soul leapt out to its idol the moment I saw her, as if she had still been in the splendour of her beauty."
       When Humbert catches up with his Lo a mere three years after she escaped from him, he, too, takes due notes of time’s ravages and is just as quick in dismissing them.
       "No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn -even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita."
       Berlioz tries to finesse a second, unscheduled meeting and is not rebuffed; but it is a strain to keep a conversation going. He pleads by letter:"Think! For forty-nine years I have loved you. I have gone on loving you ever since I was a child, through all the ravages of a tempestuous life. The proof is the depth of my feelings today, they could never have revived now in these circumstances, if they had ceased to exist even for a day."
      Sensible Mme Fournier is touched and flattered, but knows when to put her foot down. ‘There are illusions, dreams one must learn to give up when grey hairs come’, she writes back, ‘and, with them, the end of all desire for new emotions, even for the emotions of friendship, for they can possess attraction only when they are born of a close and intimate acquaintance, and in the happy days of one’s youth. To my mind, the time to begin on a relationship is not when one already feels the weight of years and has had one’s fill of life’s disappointments’.
      In a letter of April 27, 1865, HB announces that the Mémoires are at the printer’s. His only purpose in getting his life’s story down on paper is so that she will come to know him better.
      At the very least, you will find it curious to follow the luminous traces that you have left in my existence…you, Stella, whom I adore on my knees, Stella the silent (forgive me for using the Latin translation of your lovely name) I have taken that liberty often in the book. I call you equally in Latin, Stella Montis (star of the mountain) or Italian (stella del monte). That is because for so many years you have been the star that shines in the forefront of my heaven.
      (Yes, and Lolita is Lolita to HH and no-one else, the creator executing his prerogative to name his creation.)
       HB and his Stella met perhaps half a dozen times, the last encounter taking place six months before Berlioz’s death in 1869. Who can blame her for welcoming, though never encouraging, the kind of external attention and affection that is not easy to come by when you are old and grey and full of sleep. The correspondence on the same note as it began: HB declaring his passionate devotion, Estelle reprimanding him gently: ’You are very young at heart. With me, it is not so’.
       Humbert also found that cold embers resist rekindling.
      "In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party, like a rainy picnic to which only the dullest bores had come, like a humdrum exercise, like a bit of dry mud caking her childhood."
       Indispensible as both books are, they have quite another effect when read in parallel, the resonances from each forming interesting interference patterns inside the reader’s head. In their obsessive overlap, unavailing devotion appears almost lubricious, while greedy carnality is validated as a kind of love.