Lolita at middle age

Chronicles of Higher education

Kincaid, James R.; Oct 18 2008
Just look at the text, damn it! ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.’ See that? Not just ‘fire of my loins,’ which you respond to clearly enough; but also, which you don't see at all, ‘light of my life’! See that?

That is a beleaguered office mate I once had, trying hard to complicate the point of view of a student, a student who said he regarded the novel as “porn, pure porn, and I should know.”

My colleague, maybe not displaying the calm and respectful manner we all don when dealing with students, still managed to catch in his quivering paws one enduring conflict that has marked responses to the novel: love or lust, romantic classic or evasive testimony to perversion?

Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, published in America 50 years ago, has engendered the most embarrassed, looking-sideways-for-the-exit, highfalutin, and obscurantist talk of any book ever written – any. Only  a handful of critics have been forthright, most famously, Lionel Trilling: “Lolita is about love. Perhaps I shall be better understood if I put the statement in this form: Lolita is not about sex, but about love.”

Echoing Leslie A. Fiedler's famous argument from Love and Death in the American Novel, Trilling defined that rapturous, consuming love as the sort otherwise peculiarly absent from American fiction, contemporary or classic. At last, albeit coming from a Russian immigrant, here was an American love story to take its place alongside that great European tradition we had, until then, been barred from joining.

Somehow, not all commentators and readers have lined up behind Trilling on this point, many finding themselves agreeing with the fire-of-my-loins student that the novel is clearly about pedophilia, rape, and the destruction of innocence by a vile, if fancy-talking, Humbert of a monster.

The most prominent recent example is Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran:

  • “Ironically, [Humbert’s] ability as a poet, his own fancy prose style, exposes him for what he is.”
    And what he is is not a device or a literary character but a real and true criminal:
    “What bothers us most, of course, ... is not just the utter helplessness of Lolita but the fact that Humbert robs her of her childhood.”

We used to call that leaping from word to world. Humbert has a core being, is something; and the novel, yes sir, records his actions, clear enough, to those with hearts to feel and eyes to see, those willing to read with forthright, unapologetic mimetic clarity (representational faithfulness).

It is just such a practice – detecting the presence of the molester – that has caused a Lolita firestorm, one which now and then still blazes up. Why, just a few years ago, the issue arose in Florida, where a citizen demanded that the book be sequestered in the “adults only” part of the library. True, the request was denied; but we all know that this novel heads every prude's list and has had to fight for its life from the very beginning.

Has it, though? It failed to make the American Library Association’s most recent Top 100 list of “Most Challenged Books” and, apart from some troubles (hilariously exaggerated by Nabokov) in finding an American publisher, really has had no significant problems – 50 years ago, now, or in between. It has sold 50 million copies, we hear, and not all of those in recent (enlightened) years. When published in this country by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in 1958, it was not only a hit, but it was also the first book since Gone With the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in the first three weeks. The Modern Library named it the fourth-greatest English-language novel of the 20th century, and you know that outfit wouldn’t award such an honor – we’re number four! – to porn.

True, Lolita did provoke some initial outrage: “Most readers will probably become bored ... at times downright sickened” (The Providence Journal); “distilled sewage” (The New York World Telegraph). The Chicago Tribune said it was “pornography,” and refused to review it, as did The Christian Science Monitor and The Sun, in Baltimore. Even Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem for his trial, returned Lolita to a guard who had presented it to him, denouncing it as “very unwholesome.”

But that’s Eichmann. The United States has always been especially kind to the book and the novelist who so loved his adopted country (despite all) that his greatest worry was that readers would find the novel anti-American, a charge which “pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality.”

The book was banned as obscene

  • in France, from 1955-59,
  • in England for the same period, in Argentina (1959),
  • in New Zealand (1960), and
  • in South Africa (1974-82).

The United States, however, has seemed to feel differently, on the whole, read differently, and exercised a higher sophistication than is available to the English or the French. Of course it may simply be the obvious artiness of the book that has made us embarrassed about criticizing it.

There are other ways to account for the book’s popularity and its challenges, of course. Some readers and writers, Nabokov chief among them, feel that novels are not necessarily about anything, nor that they must be read thematically (or morally).

In a 1962 BBC interview, Nabokov seemed especially anxious to distance himself from any sort of personal involvement with what might seem to be the book’s subject matter:

  • “It was my most difficult book – the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”

Once talking about “themes,” the stylist Nabokov becomes the jargon-clogged nincompoop, everybody's dean: “combinational talent” indeed.

Usually, he avoided theme altogether: Of all his novels, he told an interviewer, Lolita “is the purest of all, the most abstract.” In his famous “Essay,” appended to all editions, he states that the book is not written with an end in mind (no themes or morals here) but has as its goal “aesthetic bliss.”

Literary, critical, and pedagogical practice, in America especially, has, since the 1970s, found itself suspicious of theme, of subject matter, of naïve mimesis. That practice has offered one way to avoid what could be the embarrassment of touching thematic material.

Another way has been spotted by Stanley Kubrick, in a playful film that begins with Nabokov’s absurdist ending: the murder of Quilty: “I rolled over him. We rolled over me. They rolled over him. We rolled over us.” No thinking of subject matter here, right?

But there’s a last possibility that this novel helps give form to, as it joins a dark central current in our culture that eroticizes children relentlessly, wishing it had done no such thing, and eagerly looking for others to blame it on. Trilling’s extraordinary essay boldly said that

  • “we have been seduced into conniving in the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.”

Not for nothing does Humbert often invite us into his life, into his head:

  • “I want my learned readers to participate in the scene I am about to replay,”

the very scene where he first engages Lolita sexually.

John Hollander, in Partisan Review, wrote, “Lolita ... flames with a tremendous perversity.“ Possibly, but there’s no doubt that the American public does. We have, for the past 200 or so years, progressively eroticized, put at the very heart of our constructions of the desirable, the young body, the innocent, the unspoiled.

Rather than facing this head-on, we have manufactured a variety of scapegoats: day-care center operators, Roman Catholic priests, kiddie-porn rings, Internet predators. Meanwhile, we go right along, parading before us all the JonBenet Ramseys we can find: Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Patty McCormick, Brooke Shields, Drew Barrymore, the Olsen twins.

Nabokov joked that he was “probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more.” That shows, perhaps, that we have some shame. But not much. Try Googling the following list and noting the number of hits: Lolita, George Washington, the Bible, Hamlet, Babe Ruth, the pope, the Koran, Queen Elizabeth, Marilyn Monroe, Mary Mother of God, The Chronicle of Higher Education. You’ll find that Lolita follows the Bible, and none of the others come close. You’ll also find that the term “Lolita” on those 50 million hits does not always refer to the novel. Surprise.