Saturday, October 17, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

One of the most interesting parts of this famous novel is the foreword, in which Nabokov tries to frame the narrative he knows nearly everyone will find offensive inside a protective glove of artistic novelty and criticism. What I take to be an imaginary professor introduces us to the infamous confession manuscript of Humbert Humbert, which he has been asked to edit for publication following the true author’s unexpected death.

It’s a neat device, and it allows Nabokov to speak directly to us about the complicated task he has set before himself.

This commentator may be excused for repeating what he has stressed in his own books and lectures, namely that “offensive” is frequently but a synonym for “unusual”; and a great work of art is of course always original, and thus by its very nature should come as a more or less shocking surprise. I have no intention to glorify “H.H.” No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

In these pretend words of his pretend professor, I think we have the rare treat of hearing Nabokov speaking clearly to his audience about his intentions. Indeed, it is not to glorify pedophila (a crime for which he knows Lolita will bring him ceaseless accusations). His intention, instead, is to pull his educated reader sublimely through this most offensive subject with the enchantment and beauty of his powerful prose. In other words, to prove his staggering genius by writing a piece of immortal literature on the most abject of premises.

Did he succeed? Well, if we can stomach it, let’s take a look.

The first thing you have to understand is that Humbert’s madness is deep and it will be on full display.

Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

This is his confession, remember? Humbert is writing directly to you, and he wants you to understand his supposed crimes from his own perspective.

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries--the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks--of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent of the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than of that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes. Within the same age limits the number of true nymphets is strikingly inferior to that of provisionally plain, or just nice, or “cute,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, plumpish, formless, cold-skinned, essentially human little girls, with tummies and pigtails, who may or may not turn into adults of great beauty (look at the ugly dumplings in black stockings and white hats that are metamorphosed into stunning stars of the screen.)

How’s that for enchanting and beautiful prose? Read Lolita and you’ll get plenty more. John Updike, on the back cover of my paperback edition of Lolita, says “Nabokov writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” And he’s right. But wait, Humbert is slowly coming to his point.

A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs--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; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

Okay. Two things.

First, yes, Nabokov really does put on the very uncomfortable suit of Humbert’s and writes the novel from his disturbing perspective.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down on them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet.

Every sickening thought and obsession is on display. Indeed, Nabokov’s prose seems to revel in them, knowing that the deeper the pedophilc trench he digs, the more crowning his achievement will be when he romances the reader’s thirst for transcendence regardless.

Sometimes, however, the loquaciousness becomes overwhelming. Humbert’s tendency to scramble down rabbit holes is a prominent feature in the book. When he feels in control he goes on at length about the inner workings of his mind and his unique penchant for his undiscovered pre-teen nymphets. And when he begins to lose control, as he does, for example, after the illegal act with Lolita has been consummated and his paranoia over being followed and caught--or worse, to have Lolita stolen from him by some other nefarious Lothario--the meanderings of his mind become downright distracting.

Here, Humbert is imagining that he sees a puzzle, deliberately left for him by his elusive and illusionary arch nemesis, in the series of hotel guest books he and Lolita come across in their cross-country, motel-hopping odyssey.

I noticed that whenever he felt his enigmas were becoming too recondite, even for such a solver as I, he would lure me back with an easy one. “Arsene Lupin” was obvious to a Frenchman who remembered the detective stories of his youth; and one hardly had to be a Coleridgian to appreciate the trite poke of “A. Person, Porlock, England.” In horrible taste but basically suggestive of a cultured man--not a policeman, not a common goon, not a lewd salesman--were such assumed names as “Arthur Rainbow”--plainly the travestied author of Le Bateau Bleu--let me laugh a little too, gentlemen--and “Morris Schmetterling,” of L’Oiseau Ivre fame (touche, reader!). The silly but funny “D. Orgon, Elmira, NY,” was from Moliere, of course, and because I had quite recently tried to interest Lolita in a famous 18th-century play, I welcomed as an old friend “Harry Bumper, Sheridan, Wyo.” An ordinary encyclopedia informed me who the peculiar looking “Phineas Quimby, Lebanon, NH” was; and any good Freudian, with a German name and some interest in religious prostitution, should recognize at a glance the implication of “Dr. Kitzler, Eryx, Miss.” So far so good. That sort of fun was shoddy but on the whole impersonal and thus innocuous. Among entries that arrested my attention as undoubtable clues per se but baffled me in respect to their finer points I do not care to mention many since I feel I am groping in a border-land mist with verbal phantoms turning, perhaps, into living vacationists. Who was “Johnny Randall, Ramble, Ohio”? Or was he a real person who just happened to write a hand similar to “N.S. Aristoff, Catagela, NY”? What was the sting in “Catagela”? And what about “James Mavor Morell, Hoaxton, England”? “Aristophanes,” “hoax”--fine, but what was I missing?

That goes on for two more long paragraphs, the obscure literary references of Humbert's mind mixing with his paranoid madness. All I can say, like it or not, if you read Lolita you’re going to spend a lot of time in Humbert’s addled and untrustworthy head.

Second, it becomes clear that Humbert is not really in love with Lolita--the 12-year old girl whose given name is Dolores Haze. He instead is in love with the ideal of coquettish youth and innocence he thinks she represents. And even he knows this distinction exists.

What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita--perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness--indeed, no life of her own.


I am not concerned with so-called “sex” at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on: to fix once and for all the perilous magic of nymphets.

But in this process of chasing and then conquering this dream, and then in the process of losing the girl to which that dream was attached, only to find her again years later on the verge of adulthood, pregnant with a child of her own, events that consume the near entirety of the novel's plot, something strange happens to Humbert Humbert.

...and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else. She was only the faint violet whiff and dead leaf echo of the nymphet I had rolled myself upon with such cries in the past; an echo on the brink of a russet ravine, with a far wood under a white sky, and brown leaves choking the brook, and one last cricket in the crisp weeds...but thank God it was not that echo alone that I worshipped. What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart, mon grand peche radieux, had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I canceled and cursed. You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half-throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty-lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine; Changeons de vie, ma Carmen, allons vivre quelque part ou nous ne serons jamais separes; Ohio? The wilds of Massachusetts? No matter, even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young 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.

He falls in love with her. He falls hopelessly in love with the young woman he takes to be Dolores Haze, and not the nymphet Lolita that he once imagined her to be. Except, tragically, the Dolores Haze he sees is not the real Dolores Haze, the young woman she would have matured into from the young girl he had wrecked with his “foul lust.” The closeness of her horizon, and her artificial distance from him, they are both a direct result of his pedophilic actions against her.

And although this damage is real, Humbert, blinded now by a different but still wholly imaginary vision of his Lolita, struggles to see it.

Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me--to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction--that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.

Remember what I said about Humbert's addled and untrustworthy head? This is perhaps where it shines though the most. It is less denial and more blindness. He is unable to see Lolita as anything other than he imagines her to be--and therein, of course, lays the unbalanced seeds of every soaring love that ever existed or was written about.

Still, even Humbert can recall certain moments...

...let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her--after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred--I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever--for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation)--and the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again--and “oh no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure--all would be shattered.

Moments when his monstrous appetite had been satiated, and in which he was able to briefly see her humanity and the damage he was doing to it, before the beast raised its ugly head again.

So does Nabokov succeed? On the strength of that last quoted paragraph, and many more like it, I’d have to say he comes very close. The prose is as delicious as the subject matter is nauseating.

But with me, at least, Nabokov’s had one great thing working in his favor. Having seen the movie Lolita was turned into--directed by none less than Stanley Kubrick--I couldn’t help but picture fourteen-year-old and older-looking actress Sue Lyon as I read paragraphs like that, and, even more helplessly, as I read any scene containing Lolita’s dialogue. If rather, I had been able to picture a twelve-year-old of my own imagination, I wonder if I would have been able to climb with Nabokov out of that stomach-turning trench he first had to dig.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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