Personal Best: Lolita

"Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 30, 1996 12:38PM (EDT)

some say the Great American Novel is "Huckleberry Finn," some say it's "The Jungle," some say it's "The Great Gatsby." But my vote goes to the tale with the maximum lust, hypocrisy and obsession -- the view of America that could only have come from an outsider -- Nabokov's "Lolita."

The author had in earlier versions set the story in Europe with a French temptress, but that could never have been -- there is something quintessentially, inevitably American about the novel. In the seamy little small-town trysts, in the summer camp deflowerings, in the movie magazines and cheap souvenir shops that dot the landscape, Nabokov showed us a blisteringly funny and painful portrait of our own culture.

The subject of sexuality and the young is taboo enough, but the idea at the very heart of the novel, of such dramatic inter-generational coupling, has the power to shock still, and probably always will. The book was a sensation at the time of publication, a scandalously perverse tale originally released by dirty book publisher Olympia Press.

It's one thing for Molly Bloom to be carried away with rapture or even the narrator of "Tropic of Cancer" to "fuck you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked," but it was Nabokov who dared to give us in the leading roles a creepy middle-aged man and a precocious orphan, and to present them in that gorgeously written prose of his. Those who bought "Lolita" looking for mere prurient kicks must surely have been disappointed. "Lolita" is dark and twisted all right, but it's also a corruptly beautiful love story of two tragically alike, id-driven souls.

In the introduction, the fictional editor lays Humbert Humbert's character on the table, every sordid flaw exposed -- "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." And yet, his prey, Dolores Haze, is a hopeless case too -- an orphan whose mama never loved her, but also an unapologetically manipulative brat.

Humbert writes of Lo and his obsession deftly, unsparingly, in the voice of a man with no illusions about himself or his paramour. Resigned to their own evils, they shrug them off like Oscar Wilde, resisting anything but temptation.

It's hard to recall now that there was a time before Kate Moss, before "Pretty Baby," before Drew Barrymore, when the word "nymphet" was new, when Lolita was just a series of letters, an ordinary name. Today, save for the odd Calvin Klein campaign, we take the eroticism of youth very nearly for granted.

What makes "Lolita" a work of greatness isn't that its title has become ingrained in the vernacular, isn't that was a generation ahead of America in fetishizing young girls. No, it is the writing, the way Nabokov bounces around in words like the English language is a toy trunk, the sly wit, the way it's devastating and cynical and heartbreaking all at once. Poor old Dolly Haze might not have grown up very well, but "Lolita" forever remains a thing of timeless beauty.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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