Wednesday’s Child: Sympathy for the Devil

I am staying at a friend’s house in bucolic English countryside, and somehow I fancy that the ninety minutes in rush hour traffic separating us from London make my perception of recent events there more objective. There the talk of the town is Prince Andrew’s television interview about his links to the late pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, which the press has dubbed a “car crash.” I have now watched the interview and I must confess I find it hard not to sympathize with the maligned prince.

“More than half the British public want Prince Andrew banned from public events attended by the whole Royal Family including Trooping the Colour and Remembrance Sunday, new poll reveals,” runs a headline in today’s Mail. But as on another page of the same paper are the results of another poll, which shows that “three quarters of young Britons have never heard of Mozart while one in five think Bach is still alive,” obviously it is not the vox populi that is my main bugaboo here. It is the people who have heard of Mozart and Bach who are the problem.

The private plane used for delivering women to Epstein was known as the Lolita Express, with reference to Nabokov’s third-rate novel. The same bien pensants who admire the book are among the first to sling mud at Epstein’s shadow, but it is the still wider landscape of morality that makes a nonsense of their hypocritical censoriousness. On yet another page of today’s Mail is a report that begins, “One of Britain’s first gay fathers – who recently split from his husband – has revealed he is planning to have twin girls with his younger lover.” The younger lover, it transpires, was formerly a boyfriend of the 19-year-old surrogate daughter the two men had raised. Nabokov would have been sick to his stomach on reading all this, but to the people condemning Epstein for sleeping with a 17-year-old “minor” rather than an 18-year-old “adult” it is more than just comme il faut – it is progressive and admirable, even charming.

I would say that, to the cinema, music, and ideology industries that shape present-day mores, there is scarcely a perversion, sexual or otherwise, which is beyond the pale. Rappers glorify rape, teenage fashion models brandish whips in sadomasochistic pictorials, movies portray incest with all the introspective sensitivity of which Hollywood directors are capable, and no journalist in his right mind would dare to poke fun at a transsexual love story. In this moral context, to condemn a man – even a dirty old man – for having sojourned at the Manhattan house where “young women” were “trafficked” by a Paris modeling agent retained by the millionaire host is to find a mote in the eye of a culture that is, speaking frankly, nearly all beams.

I met another of Epstein’s infamous procurers, Ghislaine Maxwell, back in the late 1980’s – she was a friend of my then-father-in-law, as was Donald Trump and quite a few other visitors to Epstein’s many houses of sin – and I can assert with confidence that she was one of the most unpleasant women I have ever laid eyes on. But more unpleasant than the average woman journalist? More stupid than the average female politician? More grasping than the average female realtor?  I don’t think so.


Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov

24 Responses

  1. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I knew I could rely on my old friend Andrei to understand the Epstein case and appreciate the hypocritical excrement in which it has been encased. I don’t quite share his sympathy with Andrew: The Prince had one ongoing job in life, and that was not to bring further disgrace on his mother. Instead, the poor fool had to go on television to reveal, to anyone who hadn’t quite got the picture, what a complete fool he really is.

    It goes without saying that what all these men are accused of is living the dream, a dream that is taught on television, in school, and in the movies and pop music every day and all day long. Some good little girls, fitted out with devices and instructions on how to have orgasms without consequences, act on the instructions they have been given and trade their short-lived charms for a few years in the fast lane. When charms fade and dirty old men move on, they naturally become resentful, but why should anyone listen to them?

    The one disagreement I have–and it is quite serious–is the characterization of Lolita as a third rate novel. I don’t much like these categorizations. Is Trollope’s The Way We Live Now first rate? I’d say so, but a French critic might not agree nor did contemporary readers like it. Where does one put The Maltese Falcon or The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or Treasure Island? If one agreed to have a top-shelf category for only serious works of art achieved by a master’s hand, we’d of course disagree about people like Joyce, Mann, Lawrence, Kafka, Mauriac etc.., but we could come to some agreement on a few first rate books. (Don’t mention War and Peace or Oliver Twist or I might throw something.)

    Then what would go in the second category? Not so successful ambitious books (The Sound and the Fury, Farewell to Arms, Doctor Thorne, The Bride of Lamermoor) and perfect popular books (the best of Hammet, Chandler, Wilkie Collins).

    Let us reserve fourthrate for bad trash like the complete works of Jackie Collins and most female pop writers. Then what is third rate? OK trash and failed serious fiction that neither enlightens nor entertains? Stuff whose pretension makes your skin crawl–Across the River and Into the Trees, most of John Updike, John Irving etc. Is that where any Nabokov belongs? Lolita, if only for its satiric depictions of American life in that period is extremely amusing. Humbert, a savage portrayal of a smug European aesthete not unlike Nabokov himself, is a great character, and so are Charlotte, Quilty, and the others. If one could agree that Kingsley Amis is a best second rate, then putting Nabokov below any of his novels seems ridiculous.

    I’ve read most of Nabokov that’s available in English and once shamelessly took a large fee to write a biographical essay. The essay forced me to reread a lot, and I really didn’t like much of it the second time around. Too many games he plays, too much reflection, too much self-obsession. But that is how I regard most serious fiction after about 1930 and much prefer Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler, and other pop writers who have not forgotten that the novel began as a phony account of things that are supposed to have happened. I’ll take Defoe over any novelist in my lifetime (with the exception of friends, of course). So, I am not defending Nabokov–whose wife I once met, after the author’s death, by the way–because I don’t any longer, not at all. Viewed objectively by the severest of critics–me–Lolita is a pretty good book.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    PS did Epstein call his plane “Lolita Express” or was that given by the press? It’s perfectly appropriate, since in the novel it is Lolita who, in the end, seduces Humbert and not vice versa.

  3. James D. says:

    Dr. Fleming,

    When you read a novel, such as The Way We Live Now, or most of Walter Scott, works with a number of characters, do you take notes in order to keep the characters straight? I have precious little time to read, so I end up putting the book down for extended periods. Inevitably, when I pick it back up, I mix up the characters and have to go back and re-read sections or whole chapters.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The simple answer is “never.” In reading fiction, I read very quickly, skimming over Dickens’ descriptive passages. In the short run I retain enough to follow the plot, though a few years later I sometimes reread a novel. Mostly I read fiction before going to sleep or on holidays. Otherwise, my reading is more in history or some sort of scholarshipi or when I cannot bring myself to see any point in serious reading or writing–a realistic point of view that led me to read, the past two days, a quite good novel called The Murders at Paradise Island by a convicted criminal named Robin Forsythe.. Today it’s back to work with a reread of Grote’s long history of Greece, at least the early parts, and Kinglake’s equally massive history of the Crimean War. I don’t take notes because you are either in the narrative swim or not. This means I sometimes go back, especially if I have been reading something under the influence and late at night, and skim the earlier chapters. I wrote the same way–and start each ne action by reviewing earlier passages, correctting gaffes, improving phrases, adding details, until I am up to speed.

  5. Frank Brownlow says:

    Does anyone know what the Windsor’s real name is? Or rather was, since with her marriage to Philip Mountbatten EII became Mrs. Mountbatten, i.e., Battenberg? I thought it might be “Wettin,” but I don’t know. Kaiser Wilhelm II made a good joke when he said that he was looking forward to seeing “The Merry Wives of Sax-Coburg-Gotha”–but those were just Prince Albert’s titles. Anyway, the big thing about the Windsor-Whatevers is that with a few exceptions (the Queen, Anne, William), they’re not the brightest family in England, and that includes Randy Andy, as everyone found out a few nights ago..

  6. Frank Brownlow says:

    Postscript. I–and my wife–agree with Dr. F. about Lolita. The only other Nabokov novel I really enjoyed was Pale Fire. The movie was remarkable for Peter Sellers’s assumed American accent. As for the comments on late Hemingway, Updike, and Irving–Amen.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Sellers in his several roles in Lolita was in top form, but so were James Mason and Shelley Winters. Good question about the name. I had always assumed Battenberg.

  8. Raymond Olson says:

    Good discussion. Neither Nabokov nor Sellers nor Kubrick is my cup, nor is most fiction written in my lifetime. It is useful to me to think of the house of fiction having four floors, so to speak. Many authors dispatch novels and stories to more than one floor. I’m thinking in particular of such of my personal discoveries as William Wister Haines, Joe David Brown, and Sterling North and, from an earlier time, William Gilmore Simms. They I shall keep reading, along with, for instance, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I’ve seen films based on Brown and another with a screenplay from Haines, but read neither’s novels. I’ll give them a try.

    I recently read a rather good mystery by one Robin Forsythe, an Englishman brought up in the Middle East, who did time for a swindle he perpetrated as a bureaucrat, partly, apparently, to gratify and appealing but greedy wife. The Murders on Paradise Island is partly The Admirable Crichton and partly an account of how a quiet tough guy becomes a bully and homicidal maniac. There’s lots of conventional fluff in it–aspiring writer is given Polynesian cruise on ship that goes down, meets beautiful flirtatious girl who is also heiress, but for some strange reason I could not put the thing down. Why, he’s almost as good as Earl Derr Biggers and a lot more gritty (though that’s not saying much.)

    As for Kubrick, I like several of his films (Lolita, Dr Strangelove, but in general loathe him as a director. Sellers is only tolerable when a director is sitting on him very hard. I liked him as the vulnerable young librarian in a film based on Kingsley Amis and in Dr Strangelove, but I could never persuade myself to enjoy his outings with Blake Edwards, though I have come to have a simidgeon of respect for Edwards, who genuinely loved certain things in old pop culture.

    His short-lived Richard Diamond radio show with Dick Powell is very good, if only for all the tips of the hat to the detective genre. It’s cornball formula stuff with great charm–Diamond’s girlfriend has a piano and somehow she manages to get the detective to sing a number at the end of the show. Naturally, there is a grouchy neighbor who yells insults at the noise. The show was a hit but was produced just at the point the executives were deciding to pull out of radio and go with television–the radio version of Gunsmoke was another victim. As I recall, the TV version of Richard Diamond, starring the maudlin Richard Janson, had none of the charm of the radio original, though I haven’t seen an episode in 60 years.

    I decided to watch a few Peter Gunn episodes, which I saw as a kid. Again, he nailed the formula–the tough detective has a girlfriend who sings in a jazz club–giving the show a weekly opportunity to showcase musicians. I imagine Mancini, who wrote the very famous theme song, had a hand in lining up the musical talent, the grim but sympathetic Jewish cop played by Herschel Bernardi, the rough old lady who owns the club–one lovely cliche after another, orchestrated by a master of schlock. My wife refuses to watch it with me, so I gave up, but I have talked myself into seeing more episodes. I’ve never seen SOB, which should be subtitled self-declared genius gets revenge on Hollywood, but I’m tempted. The only one of his films with Sellers I ever enjoyed was the semi-silent The Party, in which Sellers plays an ill-at-ease Hindu mistakenly invited to a Hollywood party.

  10. andrei navrozov says:

    Tom, on Nabokov: I once read every short story he has written – the complete stories make nearly 1000 pages – and after a month could not remember a single one. Despite this, on the evidence of his Russian autobiography alone, I would say that his genius or near-genius is undeniable. Such is the Nabokov paradox. Of Lolita I would argue that it is third- (second-?) rate because it is derivative – nothing in it isn’t in fin-de-siecle Frogs, notably Remy de Gourmont, with whom Nabokov also shared snobbishness and a nasty sense of humor.

  11. Frank Brownlow says:

    Sellers was very good in some English films he made before going to America, e.g., Up the Creek, The Ladykillers, I’m All Right, Jack, The Wrong Arm of the Law.

  12. Raymond Olson says:

    Thanks for the tip, Tom. I’ll scrounge out The Murders on Paradise Island.

    Let me recommend Haines’s first novel, Slim, based on his own experience of being an electrical lineman/tower constructor in the years just after he graduated from Harvard. At times, Slim is bogged down in too much construction detail, but its enduring (I hope) appeal lies in its depiction of skilled, dangerous work. It was made into a surprisingly good movie starring Henry Fonda as Slim (he’s a decade too old for the part, however). If you can, get a copy of the original edition because of the fine illustrations by Robert Lawson. After that, try Command Decision, the novel rather than the play, and if you haven’t seen it, the excellent (except for the one “action” sequence) movie that is blocked like a play but visualized like a movie. The Winter War, which conjures an imaginary army campaign against the Sioux in Montana in 1877, won Haines the Spur Award as western novel of its year. The Honorable Rocky Slade is about a would-be slick politician in Iowa in the ’50s.

    As you know, Brown wrote Stars in My Crown; the movie, without sacrificing the novel’s meaning, altered the character played by Joel McCrea; he is not the uncle but the grandfather of the narrator. Brown’s last novel (of five in all), Addie Pray, is the source of the film Paper Moon, as you probably know; it has many more incidents in it than were filmed and gets a bit stale in drawing them out.

    I should’ve mentioned Richard Bissell in my first response. His 7½ Cents is the basis of The Pajama Game, one of my favorite musicals; it’s frequently funny and always smart. A Stretch on the River and High Water, based on what he did after Harvard–worked on river freighters–are compelling, too, the first with more humor than the considerably more somber second. My favorite of his books that I’ve read is The Monongahela, written for the mid-twentieth-century American Rivers series and about the part of the Ohio river system he knew best; I’ll go out on a limb to say it is a classic awaiting rediscovery.

  13. James D. says:

    Mr. Olson,

    Is that the same series that contains Davidson’s The Tennessee?

  14. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, I was familiar with the various screen adaptions. I look forward to reading Addie Pray. I absolutely loathed the film for many reasons, not the least was its poisonous (im)morality. I read Bissell’s 7 1/2 cents perhaps on the strength of your recommendation and rented the Pajama Game. When I was 12 or so, I read a novel of his–or perhaps a memoir. I remember one scene, with a contrasting dialogues. Scene One in Iowa, sound of corn growing etc, one boy asks another, “What does your dad do for a living?” Answer: “He’s a writer.” What’s that?” Scene two, Manhattan sound of cars screeching etc, same exchange culminates in “So’s mine.”

    Frank, I agree entirely on the distinction between Sellers’ English and his American movies.I liked him in the Ladykillers and the Smallest Show on Earth–one of my favorite films and, as I recalled, admired by Ray!–and Only Two Can Play.

    Andrei, saying something is derivative does not constitute a reason for such a condemnation. In the first place, what is Mozart, if not derivative of Haydn. But, secondly, the American material in Lolita–the stuff that in part makes it so memorable–is hardly derivative from Gourmont, anything but. In fact, I’d venture to guess–as someone who was once steeped in the Fin de Siècle–that Nabokov’s debt is more in the way of satire and parody.

    As I said earlier, I found on rereading him, I had little use for his work. About 1975, I leased, while decidedly on my uppers, a small house on the Harrietta Plantation, located on the South Santee River. Harrietta had been a Rutledge showplace, but it had been acquired by D.L. Fleischman of the yeast and booze dynasty. Miz Fleshman, as she was known locally, drove a left-handed Bentley–strictly illegal. One day, as I was tooling down a dirt road in my beat-up VW bug, the Bentley pulled up and I heard DL shouting. “Oh, Doctor Fleming Doctor Fleming! There’s someone I want you to meat.” I walked over to the Bentley, and D.L. rolled the window down. Inside was a frail and beautiful white-haired lady, obvivously the queen of some extraterrestrial civilization. “Doctor Fleming, this is Vera Nabokov.”

    I drove away thinking, “Preposterous,” but then reflected: As everyone knows, VN as a butterfly collector as well as a chess player. He used to be the guest of Dr. Dominic, scion to the D & D investments fortune. Dr. D owned the nextdoor plantation on the South Santee, the Wedge, and is said to have entertained Nabokov frequently there in the Winter.

  15. Brent says:

    “The Party” is one of two movies (the other, I believe, a Don Knotts feature) my dad ever walked out of the theater on. He said he had better ways to spend his money or his time than watch a guy try to go to the bathroom for an hour and a half. My uncle, on the other hand, considers “Being There” one of the funniest films of all time.
    Speaking of Edwards, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he wrote some of the scripts for the old Johnny Dollar show.

  16. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, and they were good scripts. I believe some of them were contemporaneous with Richard Diamond. Although I admire Sellers; performance and many aspects of the film, your father was right about “The Party.” I fell asleep several times watching it in the theater. Yes, and your uncle is right about “Being There,” which I have always interpreted as a tribute to Andy Warhol, whom Kosiniski knew and resembled. There are serious allegations that Kosinksik–a disgusting liar and fraud in every way–ripped off earlier novels for Being There and for much of his work, but that is another story.

  17. Frank Brownlow says:

    “The Wrong Arm of the Law” wth Sellers as a Cockney gangster called Pearly Gates who runs an upscale ladies’ dress-shop on the side as M. Jules. The film has Lionel Jeffries in it, too, as a far funnier incompetent policeman than Clouseau ever was.

  18. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Yes, I now remember the film. When I first saw the Clouseau films, I thought they were very stupid compared with the silent comedies they were imitating. Some months ago, a friend forced me to watch A Shot in the Dark, and my opinion did not change.

  19. Raymond Olson says:

    James D.–Yes, it is in that series.

  20. James D. says:

    I must confess that I had no idea that there was a book on the Monongahela in that series. As a Pittsburgh kid, I’m going to add that to my reading list.

  21. James D. says:

    My wife and I took our children to The Point today and tried to give them a basic understanding of the layout of the rivers, as well as where Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt once stood.

  22. Ben says:

    James D – you’re obviously a yinzer. Do you happen to know if there is a Fleming Foundation chapter so to say in the burgh? If not, let’s start one! What do you say?

  23. James D. says:


    That sounds good to me. I’ve noticed that there are quite a few subscribers from the Pittsburgh area.

  24. Ben says:

    Perhaps I’d be so brave to strike it up in the forum…