A Diversion From the Norm: An Analysis on Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov
With this post, let us take a break from purely discussing cinematic works, and admit the similarities and blurred lines between the literary medium and the cinematic medium as both explore artistic themes prevalent in the understanding of human life, rather than merely staged or written life.
First, let us observe this statement by Alfred Hitchcock:
“I am out to give the public good, healthy, mental shake-ups. Civilization has become so screening and sheltering that we cannot experience sufficient thrills at first hand. Therefore, to prevent our becoming sluggish and jellified, we have to experience them artificially, and the screen is the best medium for this.”
—– Alfred Hitchcock (1936). In Hitchcock on Hitchcock. Selected Writings and Interviews. Ed. Sidney Gottlieb. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. 249.
It is within 19th century literary traditions that both artists Alfred Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov find themselves repeatedly referencing back to. It is the year 1899 in which both our auteurs happen to be born in. Nabokov, in an upper class Russian family, making their home throughout Europe, always traveling. Hitchcock, born into an upper middle class family, leaves his British heritage at home as his exile forces him to part from his past. The theme of exile is one extremely prevalent in both Nabokov and Hitchcock’s works. However, it is not truly an attachment to the physicality of these places, but rather to the memories made. An example of this may be shown through Nabokov’s Speak Memory. The home he left in St. Petersburg remained forever his only home, refusing to replace or substitute its fragile memory. Memory, too, along with its reconstructions is something both masters enjoy obsessing on. The reality of a memory’s part in a human’s identity with oneself and how that, too, is linked up with their exiles and guilt of abandoning their homelands. However, when pondering the statement Alfred Hitchcock made on his purpose best expressed through the cinematic medium, one is left to analyze one of the most enlightening nuclei of both Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock: the expressed artificiality in art. With this implied, both artist’s free themselves in expressing truths through lies, metaphors through subtle gestures, signatures of the creators and even implanted memories taken from reality. I completely agree that the cinematic medium is the most appropriate medium for Hitchcock to provide for his audiences the thrills they lack in actuality. Though the screen happens to be Hitchcock’s most efficient way of demonstrating his artistic purposes, I believe this statement also applied to the Russian author. Vladimir Nabokov wrote for the aesthetic bliss of his literary form and style, along with preserving the memory of the past; with this, he joins Hitchcock in presenting readers to shocking, yet profoundly intelligent material that gives people the shock value absent in their ordinary, civilized lives. Both artists do this through similar and dissimilar fashions, allowing for a dense and altogether complex analysis of their works.
The works and life of Edgar Allan Poe serve as a reference for both Hitchcock and Nabokov. Perhaps, this is due mainly to the poet’s relevance in 19th century literature, something both artists were well trained in. Let us observe Nabokov’s Lolita, for example. The protagonist Humbert Humbert’s first love is Annabel Lee: a reference to Poe’s cousin who he incestuously married at the age of thirteen, barely exiting the nymphet stage. In Hitchcock’s Vertigo, we are introduced to Madeline, the new obsession of our protagonist, Scotty. When looking back at Poe’s famous short story, The Fall of the House of Usher, we find the twin sister’s name to also be Madeline: a character who dies, yet later resurrects. Nabokov and Hitchcock find ways to link these literary references into their works in a way that only contributes to the over-arching symbolisms of the piece as a whole. For example, in Lolita, we are forced to not only view Humbert as a pedophile, but also as a father. He is involved in incest with his stepdaughter Lolita, regardless if she was the sole reason for his marriage to Charlotte, her now deceased mother. Yet, rather than merely criticize the man, we are left sympathizing with him. The readers are given a sense that his obsession with 9-12 year olds is rooted within his pain for the loss of his first childhood love, Annabel. As in Vertigo, Scotty presents a sort of necrophilia. His love for Madeline stems from the fact that she is as dead as one can be while still being alive. Her obsession with Carlotta allows him to also revisit his past as a detective. After she returns in the form of Judy, we first see her in a type of green soft light, representing her resurrection. However, when Scotty discovers her resurrection and death was all a contrived performance, his fury and anger leads in the curing of his vertigo, but in the true demise of Judy. Now, this focus on performances is another theme highly centralized by both Nabokov and Hitchcock.
The question of where the stage ends and where the stage begins is a very good one. Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps begins in a theatrical show, somewhat of a vaudeville-like performance; we are left viewing an audience, no different to ourselves. This frame within a frame poses the theory of art as artificial. This implication is later expanded on through Hannay. As he pretends to act like the men following him outside are his paramours so that he may put on the milkman persona, he ignores his current goals (telling the truth) so that he may reach them eventually. By lying to the milkman, who would have otherwise not believed him, he is serving a higher purpose in slowly reaching the mystery of the 39 steps. Nabokov similarly uses such techniques in both Lolita and Despair. In terms of Lolita, by creating a fictionalized foreword and afterword, he is distorting reality and constructing fiction by taking such elements that people believe to be real. Also, in Despair, right from the beginning we are introduced to Hermann Hermann, an admitted chronic liar. By beginning with a false start, the reader is left confused in the true beginning of the novel. For this reason, all credibility is at stake, thus, making the entire art a falsity. This traces back to Alfred Hitchcock’s statement of artificially handing out experiences to the audience. Though the content may be a lie, the representation it symbolizes will not be. High truths must be served through the telling of a lie. Though these lies are, however, blurred when reality meets fictions, something both auteurs constantly do.
Vladimir Nabokov is insistent that he “does not believe in time”, but rather attempts to transcend all limitations of eternity by making the past the present, and the present the past. Due to his exile, Nabokov’s memory of home and his family slowly deteriorated as time moved on. Nevertheless, the Russian author attempts to rekindle their souls and keep them alive through his works, giving off traits from his past to his fictional characters. However, this comes at a price. The line between fiction and reality becomes distorted increasingly fast. By recreating memories, the thoughts themselves lose as much as they gain. In lending his past to his works, he is in a way losing the things he’s loved and lost to the fictional worlds he has created. Alfred Hitchcock is no different. One might recall the scene in Shadow of a Doubt that explains Charlie’s traumatic past, thus causing his murder obsession. With that said, it will be useful to know that Hitchcock incorporated the very same event from his life into his work. At a very young age, Hitchcock experienced a crash from his bicycle by a dangerous automotive. However, he did not become a murderer, but rather a representative of murderers. This suggests a link between the creator and his creation that shall now be delved into.
Throughout his career, many accused Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita of being a confession of pedophilia. Similarly, one might attribute sexism to Hitchcock through his work in Vertigo. Be that as it may, the representation of the act does not warrant the actual sin into causation. It is true, however, that both auteurs invested their own personalities to their works. This may be demonstrated through the above, in a representational form, but also through another facet: signatures. Alfred Hitchcock showed himself through cameos that aligned him with the stories he was in. In Shadow of a Doubt, he is shown in the train playing a game of cards, holding all the spades. This demonstrated a God-like control over the passing events. With Nabokov, he too references his own authorship through Hermann’s allusion to a “highly-esteemed Russian author”, who he will give his memoir to in means of perfecting and releasing to the known world. Yet, in the afterword he states that he has “damned Hermann”, going against the cruelty Hermann endorses. Perhaps, too, in Lolita, when Nabokov hides his name in the female playwright’s name of ‘Vivian Darkbloom as an anagram. Doing so, he makes it clear that his perspective is not hindered nor constrained to a male perspective.
With these techniques in mind, both Hitchcock and Nabokov invest a level of personal attachment and trademark to their works. Perhaps it is because these works of theirs are the only things they could never truly lose. Guilt presides over all of their works. Even in Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, the mother is named after his own mother, exemplifying a level of shame for not being with her at her death. For both these auteurs, home is not a place, but rather where their memories lie. This may be another reason for their attempts at Americanization. Nabokov and Hitchcock both tried to be American artists with works such as Lolita and Shadow of a Doubt. Depicting American landscapes, neighborhoods, motels and small towns were their way of making America their own, trying every possible way to free themselves from their own guilt.
Obvious differences between the two artists will never be denied. However, even more obvious similarities should almost serve as a guaranteed interpretation. Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock are two creators tied by their need for an aesthetic version of the truth. The fact that both experienced similar exiles, along with a reasonably comparable lifestyle, only furthers any argument made for the two sharing an intellectual and creative link. Though there exists a handful of themes that link both artists, none is more crucial than the exposing of art as an artificial device in which truth is revealed. Vladimir Nabokov and Alfred Hitchcock use the aesthetics of their medium to serve a higher purpose in sharing experiences with their audiences. It is only when we find ourselves “between imagination and knowledge, a point, arrived at by diminishing large things and enlarging small ones” (Speak Memory, Page 167) that we may find the true purposes of their masterpieces to hold genuine realities prevalent from their very own lives, shared intimately with us, the privileged readers and viewers.
Thank you for reading,
Omar Antonio Iturriaga