I came across a blog with a negative review of Lolita. The reviewer took particular exception to Nabokov’s opening sentence, which she considered “one of the absolutely worst in literary history.” She found it to be composed of cliches and it caused her to “barf.” Her verdict on the novel as a whole was that it was merely “good.” One of its weak points was Humbert Humbert, who, she wrote, had “minimal complexity.”
Her viewpoint led to an extensive and often abusive barrage of comments. People who care a lot about books usually have strong opinions; when they read criticism of a work they think is great, they take it personally. It’s as if their judgment, their perceptions, their intelligence are being criticized. This raises hackles, and off we go.
Long, long ago, when I first opened the pages of Lolita (in a Fawcett Crest mass market paperback), I began reading with a fairly clean slate. Its reputation at that time was primarily of being a dirty book, but I soon knew it wasn’t.
The blog reviewer, on the other hand, read it when it was heavy with praise. This elevated status can affect one’s mind set in different ways. Two extremes: a person can slavishly see greatness in every word, another will start out with a hyper-critical attitude. This reviewer had a “Show me” chip on her shoulder. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you truly do allow the author to show you. Nabokov failed to show her greatness. She’s not the only person who didn’t care all that much for Lolita; another was the preeminent critic of his time, Edmund Wilson, who wrote his friend Vladimir that “Nasty subjects may make fine books; but I don’t feel you got away with this.” Mainstream American publishers declined to take it on; it was finally accepted by Olympia Press in Paris, a firm noted for its openness to scandalous work (both with and without literary merit). Lolita entered the world through the same back door that granted admission to Candy (yes, that Candy). It gained notoriety when it was banned in France on grounds of obscenity. But notoriety soon turned to acclaim; the edition that now sits on my desk was put out by Everyman’s Library, which includes in its catalogue works by Kafka and Joyce.
As for those nine grandiose words that begin Humbert’s narrative, the reviewer’s comments caused me to look at them more closely. Does “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” contain a double cliche? Maybe, but I don’t have a problem with cliches, not if they serve a purpose. Humbert is throwing it all at you, and that includes terms commonly used to describe an outsized emotion. You’re being introduced to an obsession. He goes over her various names — Lo (“in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock”), Lola, Dolly, Dolores — and ends with “But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
As a young man, finishing Lolita, I thought I had read a great novel. When I reread it, maybe twenty years later, it was still alive, exhilarating; it was again intriguing to occupy the complex, warped interstices of Humbert Humbert’s mind (and, yes, he was a complex character). The depiction of America — its suburban life, its highways and motels — was startlingly fresh. Over two decades it had lost nothing.
After Lolita I read fifteen other books by Nabokov (though some of them I couldn’t stick through to the end). I think I’ve grown to know him; not just his strengths and weaknesses as an author, but as a man. He doesn’t try for the reader’s love; in fact, he sets out to do the opposite — to alienate, to repulse. Something in his nature caused him to take this approach (in Bend Sinister he goes way too far when he has a father forced to watch his son being tortured). He had a reader-be-damned attitude that is most on display in the aberration entitled Ada. When he indulged his genius as a wordsmith he was at his weakest; when he tied himself to a plot, as in King, Queen, Knave and Laughter in the Dark, he was fascinating. And even in those potboilers, a view of life emerges. That view — a very dark, even nightmarish one — is laid out directly in Invitation to a Beheading, which I consider to be his other masterpiece.
Nabokov was a professor at Cornell during the time he was working on Lolita. In a number of the novels he had written in Russian (which hadn’t yet been translated into English) the object of desire is very young. He must have been aware that it wasn’t in his best interests to be seen as having the sensibilities of a pedophile. He considered having the book brought out anonymously. He also made an attempt to burn the manuscript; his wife Vera, the story goes, intervened. I have this image of the two struggling over the backyard incinerator.
One of the facts about this novel that people avoid acknowledging is that Nabokov succeeds in making us feel the desirability of nymphets. Some writer (was it Nabokov?) has said that a true artist, if he can understand one form of love, can understand — and write convincingly of — any other. Maybe so. But a problem arises if the author chooses to describe the sexual act. Nabokov avoids explicit sex scenes. The closest he comes is when Lolita, unaware of the affect she’s producing, wriggles and squirms on Humbert’s lap (he’s sitting in pajamas and robe on a davenport) and brings on “the longest ecstacy that man or monster had ever known.”
The novel is not about love in its pure form. Some have made this claim, and Nabokov gave them a reason to do so — near the end Humbert finds that he loves the pregnant Dolly Schiller. I didn’t buy it; I think Nabokov got cold feet and backed away from the true nature of his character’s fixation, which was entirely sexual. Other concessions somewhat mitigate Humbert’s culpability. He doesn’t take Lolita’s virginity; a young lout at her summer camp does that, and she found it “sort of fun” and “good for the complexion.” Lolita is without morals; as she says of herself — this is well before Humbert has sex with her — “I am absolutely filthy in thought, word and deed.” The two travel across the country leaving a “sinuous trail of slime.” The way Nabokov constructs things, innocence is not violated. And Humbert is a saint compared to the depravity served up by Quilty. But the adult Lolita tells Humbert that Quilty was the “only man she had been crazy about.” According to her account, it was because she loved Quilty that she refused to take part in the “weird, filthy, fancy things” going on at his Duk Duk Ranch, so he kicked her out. Her words must have been very painful for Humbert to hear. Off he goes in pursuit of his rival.
In describing the grotesque and gruesome murder of Quilty the novel once more rises to brilliance. Cruelty in various forms permeates Lolita. The book is often very funny, but it’s a cruel humor. Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, is used as a punching bag, but we are enticed into enjoying it because she’s deplorable. There’s not a likeable character in the book. Humbert Humbert — the oft-time self-proclaimed “monster” with the ridiculous name — is a study in self-loathing. Actually, that’s his redeeming quality, for he is aware of the wrong he does (“her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep”).
In the last of the four opening paragraphs, Humbert asks the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” to “look at this tangle of thorns.” In the introduction to Despair Nabokov delivers the verdict. He writes that “there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year.” But the rest of his time must be spent in hell.
The creator of Humbert fared better, at least on the earthly plane. Lolita would make him financially independent. He quit teaching and he and Vera moved into the Montreux Palace Hotel in Switzerland, where he spent his last eighteen years catching butterflies in season and writing year around. Fourteen years after his death Vera died; they share the same tombstone.
And Lolita? She and her fervent lover live on.
For a review of Nabokov's last novel, Look at the Harlequins, go to How Jack London Changed My Life.