My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lolita, if you don’t know, is a novel cast in the form of a murderer’s confession. The self-named Humbert Humbert, a European scion of a wealthy Riviera hotel owner, tells of his erotic obsession with certain young girls who seem to him daemonic in their attractions; with classical erudition, he calls them “nymphets.” After recounting incidents in his early erotic history, Humbert narrates his arrival in America in 1947, when he was 38, and of his targeting, grooming, and rape of a 12-year-old girl named Dolores Haze, daughter of a woman he married for the sole purpose of molesting her daughter. His predation on Dolores, or Lolita, is accelerated by her mother’s accidental death, after which Humbert takes to the road with the girl. They travel all around America, and Humbert is eventually forced to confront a rival and double, the playwright Clare Quilty, who is also fixated on Lolita.
This plot is conveyed in high-spirited, scornful, lyrical, and punningly multilingual prose, prose so dense, lush, or simply distracting that you almost do not notice the narrator’s evasions, at least until the novel’s conclusion, when the enormity of his crime becomes too weighty for even him, let alone the reader, to ignore. Humbert’s narrative is framed by a sanctimonious psychiatrist’s preface—his name, a first taste of the novel’s commitment to mirroring, doubling, and general textual sportiveness, is John Ray, Jr., or JRJR. The preface, a rereading reveals, tells us the end of the novel’s story on its second page, an emotionally devastating and aesthetically breathtaking discovery when you first make it.
It has taken me three readings conducted over the second half of my life to understand my problem with Lolita. I have never quite liked it as much as everyone else seems to—I don’t think it’s the fourth best English-language novel of the 20th century, for instance—and have never been satisfied by the essentially liberal ethical and political terms in which it has been defended (for instance, by Richard Rorty, D. G. Myers, or Azar Nafisi), which neglect too much poetry and perversity in the text; but the deadening and ultimately puerile terms in which Lolita has been attacked—whether by moralists from the political right (e.g., Norman Podhoretz) or the political left (e.g., Roxana Robinson)—have been sufficiently hostile to the autonomy of art, a bedrock value I share with Nabokov, that I have recoiled from them too.
The first time I read Lolita, I was 18 years old (also, and somewhat mortifyingly, I was sitting next to my mother on a long plane ride). At first I read it simply as a bitter satire on America, the way its first readers seemed to do—see, for instance, the interviewer’s apparent stance in this vintage clip. For context, my first reading took place in the year 2000. As we are now ruefully reminding ourselves, the Clinton affair and its aftermath had apparently demonstrated to all broad-minded liberal individuals the fallacy of too closely scrutinizing sexual conduct in private life. (For a torrid literary statement of this political thesis, see the opening pages of The Human Stain by Philip Roth, wherein Nathan Zuckerman, citing Rushdie and quoting Hawthorne, delivers a memorable tirade against “the ecstasy of sanctimony.”)
Missing from today’s chastened recollections and mea culpas, it should be said, is any memory of the power wielded at the time by the religious right. Circa 1999, sexual transgression, for better and worse, seemed less like an adjunct to patriarchy than like a blow, so to speak, against incipient theocracy. On the more radical fringes of culture, third-wave feminism and its echo in the libertarianism of Camille Paglia and kin had seemed to sweep away second-wave sex negativism, itself associated by the late ’90s with the aforementioned Christian right. Sex-positive or at least sexually amoral ideas had penetrated popular culture and private behavior, moreover, which meant that the young people I went to school with, not at all excluding the young women, talked tough about matters sexual, just as young Dolores does.
Under these influences, I believe, I took Lolita to be not a serious portrayal of abuse and exploitation but an extended satire on the John Ray, Jr.s (or Kenneth Starrs and Bill Bennetts) of America, with their ambition to “[bring] up a better generation in a safer world.” The cosmopolitan and erudite pervert Nabokov seemed to grow afraid of his own subject though—lost his nerve, I think I thought at the time—and so struck the sentimental notes of penitence at the conclusion. Mostly I just loved the prose, which is as “Argus-eyed” as Humbert describes the eastern sky of New England:
Had I been a painter, had the management of The Enchanted Hunters lost its mind one summer day and commissioned me to redecorate their dining room with murals of my own making, this is what I might have thought up, let me list some fragments: There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor in flame-flower. There would have been nature studies—a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the opalescent sides of juke boxes. There would have been all kinds of camp activities on the part of the intermediate group. Canoeing, Coranting, Combing Curls in the lakeside sun. There would have been poplars, apples, a suburban Sunday. There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.
The second time I read Lolita was five years ago, with a former student who wanted to do a kind of informal independent study on modern fiction with me. By then, I had fully absorbed the Rorty/Nafisi/Myers ethical interpretation of the novel as well as having been exposed to more sophisticated feminist counters to libertinage, all of which I dutifully relayed to the student. She proceeded, however, to criticize this interpretation by pointing to elements of the novel that it could not quite assimilate—its air of fantasy, for instance, which would be dull if merely a madman’s delusion to be bypassed by the reader; or its earnest eroticism in description, which seems to run against the moralizing current, since it takes Rorty’s reading of the novel as a warning to “pay attention to what we are doing” as advice for the pornographic imagination:
What drives me insane is the twofold nature of this nymphet—of every nymphet, perhaps; this mixture in my Lolita of tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God.
My student’s cogent objections led me to formulate my more recent understanding of Lolita as a neo-Platonic text, whose beauty and sexuality need not be objected to since it is so clearly distinct from anything that happens in the sublunary sphere.
Now my third reading has clarified things still further. The satire I had noticed the first time and the ethical reading I had tried to promote the second time are in fact perfectly conjoined whenever Nabokov writes about his heroine and her world: Lolita is a catalogue of every discourse and institution that allowed a 12-year-old girl in 1947 to be thought of as disposable. Nabokov takes aim at elite and popular psychoanalytic theory, which together license adult sexual intrusion into adolescence—
I knew, of course, it was but an innocent game on her part, a bit of backfisch foolery in imitation of some simulacrum of some fake romance and since (as the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules of such girlish games are fluid, or at least too childishly subtle for the senior partner to grasp—I was dreadfully afraid I might go too far and cause her to start back in revision and terror.
—and reductively label the child, as when Charlotte plucks only imputations and imprecations from “a fool’s book she had (A Guide to Your Child’s Development),” just as Humbert later consults the punningly-titled Know Your Child. He also assails girls’ domestic ill-education at midcentury; for instance, “the position of a star is important, but the most practical spot for an icebox in the kitchen may be even more important to the budding housewife,” explains the headmistress of Lolita’s school of her pedagogical theory. He does not spare European high culture, either, with its folkloric “enchanted hunters” and endemic romance with adolescence, nor American pop culture, with its hyper-sexualized shallowness that encourages erotic performance in the young: “‘Bad, bad girl,’ said Lo comfortably. ‘Juvenile delickwent, but frank and fetching.'”
When Nabokov claims in his famous afterword, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” that his novel “has no moral in tow,” we should not confuse this with an inability of novels to conduct social and political thought. In fact, simple moralizing interferes with the kind of systemic analysis Nabokov’s novel undertakes and enables. Nabokov excessively protested against the very idea of ethics and politics in fiction—to the extent of ludicrously dismissing, in his very often wrong “strong opinions,” such writers as Dostoevsky and Mann—due to an understandable overreaction to the fascist and communist instrumentalization and censorship of the arts, but his protest can also help us to read the political much more subtly into his fiction.
Lolita‘s politics are on the side of those traduced, reduced, and excluded by rationalizing systems or profitable industries hostile to the young and/or the female. To read through the screen of her predator’s misprisions and her culture’s self-interest Dolores’s clever and resourceful resistance to a world arranged against her is to be reminded that Nabokov defended Dickens’s sentimentality in his Lectures on Literature. Likewise, Nabokov’s ultimately angry rebuke to modern dehumanization not only recalls Dickens but also anticipates his student, Thomas Pynchon.
Despite all of the above, despite the beautiful prose and the trenchant insight and the subtle compassion, Lolita has a flaw: its narrator. Nabokov famously mocked E. M. Forster for claiming that his characters sometimes got away from him, but the fact is that Dolores Haze gloriously gets away from Nabokov while Humbert disastrously never does. Supposed by his creator to be a baboon or ape, Humbert is more like a mannequin, compelled to strike whatever pose will make any given scene comical or moving.
Because Nabokov needs the prose to be beautiful and insightful, he makes Humbert wise and hyper-observant; but because he also needs Humbert to be morally obtuse, he somehow expects us to believe that Humbert is not registering his own impressions even as he recalls and records them. The “barber of Kasbeam” celebrated by Rorty in his reading of the novel strikes me as a phony effect, though Nabokov deploys it throughout the book:
In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce new paper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead the last thirty years.
The act of noticing the barber’s loss and pain would obviate the ignorance of it, by definition. And if obviating the ignorance of suffering does not remedy the indifference to suffering, then there is no moral point to the aesthetic maneuver of calling attention to others’ sorrows while seeming to disavow this same attention.
Similarly, Nabokov satirically gives Humbert opinions we are to take as wrong or distasteful (“I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man [i.e., Freud]”—would a true follower put it that way? who is really talking here?), all the while expecting us to accept Humbert as a genius-level observer capable, as he himself claims at the conclusion, of immortalizing Lolita in art though he abused her in life. This is a poor, even illogical mixture of cynicism and sincerity.
If Nabokov sincerely thinks art can save us from a murderous inattention to others’ suffering, then Humbert’s artistic capacity should have prevented his inattention and therefore crimes in the first place; if Nabokov cynically thinks that supreme artistry belongs even to the pedophiliac rapist, then whence the argument for the morality of art at all?
Trying to have it both ways, to be moralist and aesthete at once, leads Nabokov to his own lapses in taste, such as the tiresomely cartoonish killing of Quilty, which follows the novel’s most moving scene (the reunion of Humbert and a married, pregnant Dolores), and which also includes a parody of T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”—I suppose Humbert must be a follower of Eliot, just as he is of Freud, though we know Nabokov despised both men. It is far too late in the novel, I think, for that kind of silliness. Aren’t we supposed to be construing Humbert as a penitent by then? If so, why mock the very idea of penitence by aiming such a cheap shot at Eliot’s conversion poem?
The critical answer to my objection is, no doubt, that Nabokov is reminding us of the artificiality of his own discourse, which is in line with his critique of the discourses that have allowed for the brutalization of Dolores. In other words, Nabokov is metafictionally telling us not to accept anyone’s narrative on trust, not America’s or Europe’s or Humbert’s or even Nabokov’s. I respond by objecting that if the critique was ever to be understood seriously, then the fiction manifesting the critique must take itself more seriously. Nabokov is trying to serve two masters, with the usual results. Humbert’s zany irrealism makes the novel unsatisfying as work of ethical realism, while Dolores’s suffering and resistance makes it impossible to appreciate as an aesthete’s airy game or a nihilist’s exhilarating play with language and consciousness.
I suspect Nabokov paid too high a price for his extreme subject matter. Woolf dares to allow Clarissa Dalloway to approve of Septimus’s suicide because it “made her feel the fun”; the Nabokovian equivalent would be to have Humbert declare himself glad he had raped the girl for the same reason—a much more appalling position, one that almost every reader would find intolerable (it is not as if Clarissa personally murdered Septimus for her own pleasure). Or perhaps Nabokov should have found Toni Morrison’s courage: her heroine, Sula, actually kills a child, which act the author defends outright as part of life’s design, the necessity of evil.
On the other hand, had Nabokov portrayed Humbert’s predation as the act of a coherently conceived character who functions as a vivid exemplar in a logical (if fictional) argument against nihilism, then he would only be following in the footsteps of his hated Dostoevsky, in effect writing a book that had already been written: Demons. Lolita is, in this sense, a failure, even if the most brilliant of failures.