Reading "Lolita" in Alabama

Fifty years after its publication, and 20 after my first reading, Nabokov's masterpiece is still dangerous -- but not for the reasons you might think.

Published December 22, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Many of the most important relationships in my life have revolved around "Lolita." In high school in Birmingham, Ala., being a lover of "Lolita" and other Vladimir Nabokov novels, but especially "Lolita," was exciting, like being part of some secret society. A gay friend of mine in 12th grade said that being a Nabokov reader in high school was kind of like being gay: You never openly admitted it but always looked for telltale signs of those who were of similar persuasion, often by making furtive eye contact with someone you saw reading the novel in study hall. Reading Nabokov was one of the only ways to make friends with gays or would-be poets or just about anyone strange or different or interesting. I knew of only one other writer who inspired such an odd cult among high schoolers, Ayn Rand, who, like Nabokov, was a Russian émigré with an intense hatred of communism. Aside from that, the two could not have been more different. Rand's novels were the kind of transparent philosophical tracts that Nabokov loathed as much as he loathed Marxism. The similarities between the Nabokov and Rand cults was creepy; even more creepy was that I almost never came across anyone who read both of them.

For that matter, I can scarcely recall anyone in the cult of Nabokov who joined the cult of any other writer. Whatever others one read and enjoyed, they took a back seat to Nabokov, who demanded nearly total devotion. In addition to helping you meet interesting people, working your way through Nabokov's oeuvre also provided you with a way of spending quality time with yourself. When I was old enough to drive, I would sneak away on Sunday mornings on the pretext of going to church and find some lonely place -- a park in good weather, a fountain in a deserted mall when it was cold or rainy -- to sit and read "Lolita," "Pale Fire," "Pnin" and whatever other Nabokovian treasures I had been able to lay my hands on, which in Birmingham was no simple task. You couldn't check "Lolita" out of a library unless you were over 18 -- and what looks you got from middle-aged librarians with horn-rimmed glasses and their hair in buns when you tried! The handful of local bookstores didn't carry many Nabokov titles. Just about the only way to cope was to hope that the secondhand-book store had done a fast turnaround in the two weeks since you had previously been there.

Over the years, I cultivated friendships with nothing more than an exchange of stories about where and how we stumbled on the hard-to-find Time-Life edition of "Bend Sinister" or the paperback of "King, Queen, Knave" with its silly, lurid, '40s noirish cover, which made it look like something by James M. Cain. It was almost an initiation to see how much of the first chapter of "Lolita" one could memorize. I could recite the first two paragraphs:

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

"She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Delores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita."

She chewed bubblegum and said things that sounded like a weird mixture of '50s movie teen and a schoolgirl imitating Grace Kelly: "I must go now, kiddo." She was, in the words of the monster who loved her, Humbert Humbert, a mixture "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." She was, I liked to think, all my favorite wrong girlfriends rolled into one.

She also enticed me into a lifetime of reading. I knew that on some level I couldn't articulate then, and am scarcely capable of doing now, this was more than a story about a lecherous old guy and a preteen girl, though, as if Nabokov were standing over my shoulder, I was afraid to apply terms we were taught in English like symbol and metaphor, which he disdained. I congratulated myself for perceiving immediately that Lolita was some sort of turn on "Daisy Miller" (which we had studied in school prior to my first reading "Lolita") and the usual Henry Jamesian theme of old Europe corrupting young America. I was thrilled that I was smart enough to spot references to Poe and Prosper Merimee's "Carmen" and Shakespeare and Joyce (whom I had just read). I was even more delighted to find that others had combed the book as I had and uncovered allusions to, among others, the Marquis de Sade and Verlaine and Rimbaud -- which sent me scrambling to the library to find out what they were all about. I've never felt so clever in my life as when I figured out that the doctor, John Ray Jr., who wrote the pompous foreword in defense of "Lolita," was actually Nabokov, anticipating not only the book's critics but its defenders as well. Ray on Humbert: "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!"

With the new Vintage 50th anniversary edition, I'm discovering "Lolita" all over again, and, much to my surprise and dismay, rather agreeing with Humbert's doctor. It also has me both enthralled and a bit queasy that, unlike other more sexually explicit American novels that were once considered scandalous, "Lolita's" power to shock is undiminished. (The audio version, beautifully rendered by Jeremy Irons, who played Humbert in Adrian Lyne's ridiculously solemn 1997 film version, proudly announces the text to be "unabridged, uncensored.") Well, perhaps shock is not the right word. As a society we have become, on the whole, more tolerant of just about every other manifestation of sexual desire, but the notion of a middle-aged man and a very young girl is something we are no closer to accepting now than we were half a century ago.

Nabokov must have known this would always be true, and in interviews he took great pains to distance himself from the subject matter. "It was my most difficult book," he told the BBC in 1962, "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." He neglected to mention that he had tried the same distant theme many years before and abandoned it. "Did she have a precursor?" Humbert asks disingenuously about his young love at the beginning of the novel. Indeed she did, but Nabokov denied her. In the postscript, "A Book Entitled Lolita," he wrote that he had tested a 1939 manuscript on some friends, "but I was not pleased with the thing and destroyed it sometime after moving to America in 1940." But he did not destroy it, and years later it was reprinted under the title "The Enchanter."

Of course, there are those to whom the unsavory relationship between Humbert and Lolita neither excites nor disgusts because they see it not so much in sexual but more in sociopolitical terms. For instance, Azar Nafisi's 2003 bestseller, "Reading Lolita in Tehran." I have mixed feelings about saying anything even remotely critical about Nafisi's book, as I feel a kinship with her through our common love of "Lolita;" she seems, from her book, to be exactly the kind of person I'd love to have as a friend or neighbor. "We lived in a culture," she writes of Iran, "that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent -- namely ideology. This is a country where all gestures, even the most private, were interpreted in political terms."

Yes, one thinks, this is precisely the kind of society Nabokov would have despised, in fact that he denounced in "Invitation to a Beheading" and "Bend Sinister." So far, Nafisi and I are in accord. But then she writes of a "Lolita" that seems to me to have been created in another dimension. To her, "Lolita" is "the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man, but the confiscation of one individual's life by another." (Emphasis Nafisi's.) Here one takes a deep breath, pauses and wonders what to say to her. I don't want to imply that she isn't free to take what she wants from "Lolita," but I say with certainty that her concerns as a reader are not in the same universe as Nabokov's as an author. Nabokov's art, she feels, "is revealed in his ability to make us feel sympathy for Humbert's victims ... without our approving of them. We condemn Humbert's acts of cruelty towards them even as we substantiate his judgment on their banality. What we have here is the first lesson in democracy: all individuals, no matter how contemptible, have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

Where to begin? How to tell her that the author she so admired would have sneered at her praise? Here, again, is Nabokov from that 1962 BBC interview: "Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I've no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions." Nafisi, at least when she was living in Tehran, was in need of a great deal more than riddles with elegant solutions. I don't think Nabokov would have cared much about what she needed. "I don't give a damn for the group," he told Playboy magazine in 1964, "the community, the masses, and so forth ... there can be no question that what makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not its social importance but its art, only its art." And: "I have neither the intent nor the temperament to be a moralist or satirist." Mediocrity, he thought, "thrives on ideas." By which, he told Time magazine in 1969, he meant "general ideas, the big, sincere ideas which permeate a so-called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated topicalities stranded like dead whales." This is the nicest way I can think of to tell Nafisi that Nabokov didn't give a damn about anything -- politics, feminism, humanism -- that she does, at least not in any of his fiction.

Nabokov's insistence on art as pure artifice, that it be devoid of all social, political and even philosophical content, guided me to most of the great writing I would come to know before my college years. He made me forever wary of the book that could be "explained" in a few choice sentences. Where there was no ambiguity, he made me understand there was no art.

I would have come to know Gogol, Pushkin, Proust, Joyce and Kafka -- even Robert Louis Stevenson, whose "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" had been relegated to kids literature by the time I came of age -- without Nabokov, but later in life, and if I had read them much later I might have missed out on a great deal else that they led me to. He steered me away from numerous so-called giants such as André Malraux, Thomas Mann, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre (whose negative review of an early Nabokov novel was returned in spades years later in the pages of the New York Times) and Samuel Beckett (not the novels, which Nabokov loved, but the plays, which he correctly saw as full of Sartreian ideas). I've never been able to get back to them.

But, rereading "Lolita" for the fourth time in 20 years, it occurs to me that I may not have disliked many of the same writers as Nabokov for his reasons. Most of the writers I stopped reading in my college years were those whose ideas I found thin or misleading or false. Nabokov disliked all ideas in literature. He didn't simply reject novelists or poets who expressed what he regarded as bad philosophical (and yes, even religious) concepts. He disliked all imaginative writers whose work contained "big ideas," and so it was not merely Camus and D.H. Lawrence and Faulkner who went into his waste basket but Balzac, Stendhal and Dostoevski as well -- writers who didn't so much express ideas as write books that could be explained or illuminated in terms of ideas.

Undeniably great writers might make the cut. Dickens, Tolstoy and, occasionally, Henry James could be salvaged in part, but only the parts that excluded concepts and adhered to Nabokov's aesthetics standards. The main point was that there was no differentiation between the good and bad ideas; for Nabokov, it was ideas themselves that ruined imaginative work.

At the core of Nabokov's aesthetic was the art of parody, which his narrator in "The Real Life of Sebastian Knight" calls "the springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion." First-time readers of Nabokov are ill advised to regard that statement as facetious; Nabokov meant it to be taken literally. As Alfred Appel Jr., writes in the introduction to "The Annotated Lolita" (also published by Vintage), "because its references are either other works of art or itself, parody denies the possibility of a naturalistic fiction. Only an authorial sensibility can be responsible for the texture of parody and self-parody. It is a verbal vaudeville, a series of literary impersonations performed by the author." What pleasure it gave us to reread "Lolita" over the years and find indications of Baudelaire and Bovary, to find puns and puzzles we hadn't noticed in previous readings.

And yet, and yet ... I couldn't help feeling that I had gorged on a marvelous cake but was still hungry for something as prosaic as bread. Can the soul live on parody alone? What kind of world would it be in which the only literature was parody and its only virtue irony? If Nabokov's aesthetic were adopted by every writer -- a ridiculous notion, of course, but given his influence on so many writers over the last 50 years, a point worth considering -- what would be the outcome? Literature that alludes to other literature could only feed off itself to a point of exhaustion. From where would the primary works that would continue to satisfy this appetite come?

Precisely because of Nabokov's genius for artifice, his characters had touched something deeper in me than a reaction to verbal and technical dexterity. I found myself asking: Didn't these characters have a better chance for happiness than their creator allowed them? And was I being what Nabokov would have regarded as a philistine for asking such a question?

It was comforting to know I wasn't the only one who felt this way. In his chapter on Nabokov in "A Window on Russia," Nabokov's one-time friend Edmund Wilson writes of what he calls an unfortunate characteristic that pervades all of Nabokov's work: "Everybody is always humiliated." (Wilson intensely disliked "Lolita," a fact that Wilson's latest biographer, Lewis Dabney, feels was the real origin of their feud and not, as is popularly thought, their finicky differences over Nabokov's translation of Pushkin.) I love "Lolita," but I can't help acknowledging that Wilson was on to something. In the last sentence of his essay Wilson was writing about Nabokov's last novel, "Ada," but one suspects he was really referring to "Lolita." "This is brilliance which aims to dazzle, but which cannot be anything but dull."

"Lolita" is anything but dull -- it may be the most exhilarating novel I've ever read. But there is something ultimately depressing about it, and I realize after all these years that it has to do with the author caring so little about the fact that he made his heroine so realistic to me that I could not accept her fate as just a literary device. And I deeply resented that her maker would have held me in contempt for feeling this way. Nafisi, I think, is wrong in seeing social and political intent in "Lolita," but she is not wrong in wanting them to be there. Some of you are going to be receiving the 50th anniversary edition of "Lolita" as my Christmas gift, and I want you to love the book as much as I do. But it will come with a little card that contains a proviso: Reading Nabokov can be an unparalleled delight, but idealizing him, accepting literature on his terms, can negate what you loved about literature in the first place.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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