So you have swept me back,
I who have walked with the live souls
above the earth,
I who have slept among the live flowers
so for your arrogance
and your ruthlessness
I am swept back
where dead lichens drip
dead cinders upon moss of ash;
so for your arrogance
I am broken at last,
I who had lived unconscious,
who was almost forgot;
if you had let me wait
I had grown from listlessness into peace,
if you had let me rest with the dead,
I had forgot you
and the past.
—H.D., “Eurydice” (1916)
“Imagine me,” Humbert Humbert implores us—begs of you, dear reader!—shortly after he’s drugged his pubescent prey and prepares to take less-than-chivalric advantage of her. “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity.” Only the manifestation of arrogance itself would sit on the edge of the bed, a sedated and soon-to-be violated young girl prone at his side, and tear down the fourth wall to speak in wounded soliloquies. While he may recognize his own wickedness (and even that may be the impending sentencing talking), Humbert is so selfishly preoccupied with his own feelings that his narrative—a remembrance of how he came to fall in love with his stepdaughter, the “nymphet” Dolores Haze—is perhaps the most brazenly egocentric narrative in contemporary fiction.
”Lolita was, understandably, a tough sell upon its original publication in 1955; furthermore, much of its sustained notoriety stems from the controversy it has since towed in its wake.” Zeth Lundy looks back at 50 years of Lolita.
Lolita: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Vladimir Nabokov
September 2005, 336 pages, $13.95
Vladimir Nabokov, Humbert’s architect, developed Lolita well over the course of a decade, beginning around the time he and his family immigrated to the United States in 1940. He would occasionally abandon the idea, returning to it with a similar obsession exhibited by his protagonist; the novel that would forever attach fame and controversy to his name was completed in 1954 while butterfly hunting through the American West with his wife. Nabokov, with pragmatic lucidity, would quickly reject all the lofty ideas readers thought Lolita represented: the disintegration of morality in the 20th century; the clashing of disparate social classes; the sullying of a respectable British countenance by America’s burgeoning culture of disposable populism. In his 1956 addendum to Lolita, “On a Book Entitled Lolita”, he rebuffed “the Literature of Ideas” and “topical trash”, subscribing to a purer, simpler set of rules: “For me, a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
One can argue that Nabokov was only running an arc of circular logic, skirting the bigger ideas or questions that Lolita raises (and are surely there, no matter how rigidly they’re denied). But his defense of “aesthetic bliss” needn’t seem so combative; instead, his postscript can be read as a suggestion for how to approach literature less bookishly and more instinctively. That Nabokov is able to get us to simultaneously despise and sympathize with Humbert (and to occasionally laugh at him and with him) is his novel’s greatest achievement, some kind of high art magic trick summoned by the nimble lyricism of his prose: some sentences are choked up with pregnant anticipation, others split open to spill voluminously like a punctured consciousness, while most are left anguishing in alliteration and near-delusion runaway paragraphs. Humbert is loathsome for obvious reasons, mainly his sexual obsession with, and repeated sexual conquest of, his 12-year-old stepdaughter. Not only does Nabokov cast his anti-hero in various shades of unforgiving light (while he can be witty, Humbert’s elitism, desperation, and highbrow propensity for quoting French are recurring irritants in his hard-earned character assassination), but he deliberately ensures that Lolita is an object in Humbert’s eyes, a perfect example of the “nymphet” prototype: “The slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children.” It’s easy to righteously and justly condemn Humbert when Lolita is nothing more than this fantastical object that he must conquer and protect and defile.
Where Lolita becomes complicated and truly dangerous is when she ceases to be this idealized, metaphoric thing. In the midst of his traveling road show of perpetual perversion, Humbert loses his Lolita. She’s swept away by his doppelganger Clare Quilty, a chameleon, a phantasm made real, a man Humbert uses to dispose of all his self-hatred and contempt. With Lolita gone, Humbert descends into alcoholism, delirium, and self-pity. “Solitude was corrupting me,” he writes. “My heart was a hysterical unreliable organ.” So hysterical, in fact, that he humanizes Lolita, twisting what was once an irredeemable relationship of superficial lust into something more disturbing and difficult. Humbert finds his Lo married and pregnant, “hopelessly worn at 17”; seeing her removed from his fantasy forces him to reflect on what he’s done, what he’s lost, and ultimately, what will eat away at him long after he secures phony vengeance by murdering Quilty:
She considered me as if grasping all at once the incredible—and somehow tedious, confusing and unnecessary—fact that the distant, elegant, slender, forty-year-old valetudinarian in velvet coat sitting beside her had known and adored every pore and follicle of her pubescent body. 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.
Once she’s humanized, Lolita is no longer the “fire of my loins”, no longer an unblemished piece of purity, but rather another piece of the retaliating reality that has swallowed Humbert like an after-dinner mint. If Humbert is experiencing real love, it’s hardly genuine, but rather a guttural urge precipitated by his own narcissism and compulsion, a last-ditch effort to save himself from the sooty, open-mouthed abyss of nihilism. And yet, Nabokov coaxes pangs of our sympathy from Humbert’s pitiful display of agonizing want: “No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely 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.” Humbert would never be able to retain the full tenderness of a true love, a real love, for as he says, “the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair”—his most basic, animal instincts would once again act upon his untamable temptations.
If we were to hear from Lolita herself, the story’s perspective (along with where we attributed our sympathy to that perspective) would change dramatically. It’s doubtful that she would refer to her relationship with Humbert as a “poor romance”; such self-indulgent, pitiful melodrama is reserved for those who can’t comprehend the depths of their own wretchedness. As the object of Humbert’s affection, Lolita has no voice. She’s simply the pursued, prey for the frothing pursuer, the once-unattainable quintessence of an immature ideal made palpable. Her captor, a cosmopolitan European who charms his way, devilishly and incidentally, into becoming her stepfather, writes his so-called memoir for purely selfish reasons: self-preservation, justification, a 300-page effort to turn the mirage of absolution, hovering on the outskirts of his confined and monitored existence, into reality. Humbert feels compelled to remind us that “Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine” and “when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve”; that “it was [Lolita] who seduced” him; that he is neither a “sex fiend” nor a murderer (although he alternately and readily confesses to being both at other moments); that Quilty is a repulsive beast of a human being simply for sharing his own nymphic obsession. “You see,” he states at the conclusion of part one, mistaking defense for reason, “she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” Humbert’s narrative is an excuse for guilt, a pantomime of love.
That’s the central problem with Lolita, one that’s overlooked in favor of the novel’s more scandalous plotline: we’re denied Lolita’s perspective, forced to wrestle with the temperamental narration of a shadily inconsistent, woefully preoccupied depressant. He’s hardly what one would call a reliable source. So while we know what Humbert tells us Lolita felt, and we know what Humbert tells us Lolita thought, it’s all filtered through his interpretation. The omission of a primary character’s perspective is commonplace in narratives not afforded the luxury of omniscience. H.D. confronts this historic trope of the silent female in her 1916 poem “Eurydice”, retelling the myth of Orpheus from her titular character’s angry, resentful point of view. Humbert undoubtedly sees himself as the dashing hero type; his final visit to a married, pregnant Lolita is, in essence, his botched rescue attempt. Like Orpheus, Humbert sees his quest to reclaim his supposed “love” compromised by his own narcissism and arrogance; unlike Orpheus, Humbert fails to accept that Lolita never wanted him in the first place, that their shared years together have been nothing but a destination-less journey fueled by a succession of lies. Lolita‘s exclusion of that critical opinion is tantalizingly conspicuous (where, in contrast, the myth of Orpheus is designed so that we never question the absence of Eurydice’s opinion). Nabokov entrusts the story to Humbert, who, blinded by his own crazed carnality, never once makes an attempt to understand Lolita beyond what her body offers. Only after he’s been rejected and abandoned, left hopelessly broken, does he touch upon the existence of an alternate perspective:
It struck me…that I simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate—dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.
Humbert was duped, he was had; his awakening serves as a sobering reminder that, regardless of his intellectual fortitude, he wasn’t exempt from falling victim to the trappings of naivety. Does Humbert deserve the sympathy he elicits, at least on that most primal level where all human beings are deserving? By no means does this problem equal a problem with Nabokov’s writing; rather, it’s his deliberate construct set in place to make the novel’s denouement all the more difficult to accept. Is any sympathy owed to Humbert? By withholding Lolita’s side of the story, Nabokov renders the answer subjective and elusive.
Lolita was, understandably, a tough sell upon its original publication in 1955; furthermore, much of its sustained notoriety stems from the controversy it has since towed in its wake. Having been rejected in no uncertain terms by four American publishers, Nabokov (who, fully anticipating the frigid response, described the book as a “time bomb” in one of his submission letters) found a willing partner in Paris’ Olympia Press, publisher of erotica and home to avant-garde writers like Samuel Beckett and William Burroughs. The novel’s initial pressing of 5,000 copies sold out, perhaps due to its affiliation with a certain risqué market (Nabokov was still relatively unknown at the time), and it wasn’t until fellow novelist Graham Greene hailed Lolita in a London Times interview that the public took notice. Controversy ensued in the form of vocal detractors offended by what they deemed as irredeemable smut, the loudest being Sunday Express editor John Gordon, who damned it as “sheer unrestrained pornography”. The British Home Office followed suit, attempting to confiscate all copies entering the UK. Finally, on December 20, 1956, France caved in to mounting pressure from the British government and officially banned Lolita. It would remain banned for two years.
The United States, perhaps realizing with a shock that it wasn’t at the forefront of free speech oppression, placed a few copies of the novel in its custody, only to release them soon after without incident. (It’s curious to note that, for a country so ensconced in its own self-righteousness, the US barely batted an eyelash at the ongoing free speech passion play. That the Puritans and their ilk, sucking ad infinitum at the teat of morality, declined to follow in the footsteps of not only France, but Argentina, New Zealand, and South Africa speaks more to their stodgy sense of pride than it does their values.) Putnam published Lolita domestically in 1958 to a ravenous consumer appetite: it was the first book since Gone With the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks. (To offer some kind of perspective, The Ad Vinci Code was selling that many copies weekly during the height of its success; the latest Harry Potter novel sold five times that figure in its first day alone.) For six months, Lolita was the bestselling book in the US, no doubt aided by the curiosity of a public eager to see what all the fuss was about. Thanks to book sales and, in 1962, a film deal (Nabokov wrote the screenplay to Stanley Kubrick’s hit-and-miss attempt to translate the novel to the screen), Nabokov was able to leave his position at Cornell University to write full-time.
Fifty years later, Lolita is still accompanied by a fair amount of baggage, especially seeing that its very title quickly assimilated into the contemporary lexicon (Google “lolita” and the first search result is underage porn, not Nabokov). The novel’s illicit affair, however, is no longer so controversial; if anything, the whole Humbert-Lolita paradigm has become an accepted thread in the social fabric. (As recent as 1997, filmmaker Adrian Lyne encountered studio resistance for the distribution of his more faithful adaptation of Lolita. The fact that his film wound up on cable network Showtime has less to do with the subject material and more to do with the US’s simultaneous censorship of cinema and dismissal of literature.) The “lolita” child is no longer a recessed sexual fantasy, but an advertising and marketing cash cow: Lolita is now the pubescent pop star, the sometimes androgynous waif model; Humbert is both the corporate executive, turning exploitation into fiscal growth, or, perhaps more appropriately, the everyman who covets her image on TV screens, billboards, and newspapers. And just as everyday lechery has become commonplace, it’s possible to imagine a society that has become the very thing it once abhorred. Even more imaginable is that Nabokov was especially prescient, that society was like this all along, disguising its unmentionables as falsities like “purity” and “honesty”, that it would be necessary for decades to pass before a society-at-large could quit acting like it was above it all and become what it truly was. Imagine it; it shall not exist if you do not imagine it.