People reading Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time are often baffled by their own reactions. Those who haven’t read it for a while approach it again nervously, as if afraid of what they will learn about their old attitudes or their old selves. It’s not just that the book, the story of the loves, travels, and undoing of Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze, a middle-aged European man and a twelve-year-old American girl, is funnier than it ought to be, and more cruel than we want it to be. Or that Humbert’s tacky charm stretches much further than it has any right to. It’s that we really don’t know where we are: why we are laughing, what to do with our discomfort. There’s also the sense that Lolita, the girl rather than the book, has become part of our language, the name of a condition. But do we know what that condition is?
Nabokov’s Lolita appeared in Paris (in English, published by Olympia Press) in 1955; but then was banned in France in the following year, apparently because of complaints from the British embassy that too many susceptible tourists were buying it and smuggling it home. The ban was lifted three years later. Excerpts from Lolita were printed in the Anchor Review in 1957, but the book was not published in full in the United States until 1958 and in the United Kingdom until 1959. It instantly became a best seller, remaining at the top of the American list for six months, “until displaced,” as Norman Page puts it in Nabokov: The Critical Heritage, from which I take most of these details, “by Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago.”
Meanwhile the book had been much read in its Paris edition, and much discussed. Graham Greene told the readers of the London Sunday Times that it was one of the best books of 1955, while John Gordon of the London Sunday Express found it to be “sheer unrestrained pornography.” When the book finally appeared in the United States, Orville Prescott, in The New York Times, occupied the cultural high ground by craftily placing literary taste before morality, or perhaps confusing the two:
Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.
But then another kind of high ground was occupied by the twenty-one signers* of a 1959 letter to the London Times, who were
disturbed by the suggestion that it may yet prove impossible to have an English edition of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Our opinions of the merit of the book differ widely, but we think it would be deplorable if a book of considerable literary interest, which has been favourably received by critics and widely praised in serious and respectable periodicals, were to be denied an appearance in this country.
This is pretty stuffy too in its way—not much hope for great books which are unfavorably received and don’t have respectable folks on their side—and Dorothy Parker’s militant exuberance is more cheering. Writing in Esquire, she said she couldn’t regard Lolita as pornography, “either sheer, unrestrained, or any other kind.” It was
an anguished book, but some-times wildly funny…. [Nabokov’s] command of the language is absolute, and his Lolita is a fine book, a distinguished book—alright then,—a great book. And how are you, John Gordon Esq., of the London Sunday Express?
Then things calmed down a bit, as Lolita became respectable, even a classic, much translated, reprinted many times, taught in literature courses all over the world, made into a funny but quite unscandalous film by Stanley Kubrick. Now there is a new stir, caused by the non-arrival on American screens of Adrian Lyne’s film of Lolita, and by the eagerness of certain conservative columnists in the United Kingdom to get the film banned there. The work, completed over a year ago, has been released in Italy, Germany, and France, and is scheduled for release in Britain in May, but as yet no American distributor has taken it on or currently seems likely to. Various none-too-convincing reasons are given for this lack of interest: the film is too long, too expensive, not good enough. Could the subject have something to do with it?
Celestine Bohlen, writing in The New York Times last year, suggested that the difficulty was not pedophilia in itself, which is quite widely discussed, but the film’s “multidimensional portrait of a pedophile.” “What people find troubling in America,” Adrian Lyne says, quoted by Bohlen, “is that they like Humbert Humbert and they don’t want to.” “Like” may be putting it a bit strongly, but certainly the complication of our feelings about Humbert is an important feature of any response to the novel, and to both of the movies made from it. Lyne also insists that Humbert, along with Lolita and Clare Quilty, the man who steals Lolita from Humbert, gets his comeuppance. “No one comes well out of it,” Lyne told Richard Covington of the Los Angeles Times. “They all die, for chrissake.”
I saw the film in Paris, in a small but fairly fancy movie theater on the Left Bank (14 Juillet-Odéon, seats you can sink into, screen high on the wall in front of you), but it was showing all over the city, in both French-and English-language versions. The theater was not full, and the audience seemed neither excited nor outraged: it was just a movie. The reviewers’ reaction in France has been similar, although some critics, cinéastes to the core, have seen the film as an offense not against morality but against Stanley Kubrick.
In general, European reactions to the film have been quiet, although there was some real enthusiasm in Italy, putting Nabokov’s novel back on the best-seller lists; and there was a move to boycott the film in Munich, on the grounds that it makes pedophilia socially acceptable, salonfähig, the equivalent of a criminal you wouldn’t mind inviting to dinner. One in every four girls in Bavaria, a leaflet distributed outside cinemas said, has been sexually abused before she is sixteen. And of course Europeans have recently been shaken by pedophilic murders in Belgium, and by a huge child pornography ring in France. A few years back there were so many accusations of child abuse in England that the very idea of childhood began to look like a sexual temptation.
Lyne’s film, the Munich leaflet added, shows the seducer as a victim, and the victim as a seducer. This is true. It invites us to sympathize, fairly intensely, with the sorrows of a pedophile. But it doesn’t condone his acts, and it doesn’t make him into anything resembling a good guy. It also shows the victim as a victim, although in a slightly remote, conventionalized way. The main problem for Lolita, if we believe the images on the screen rather than the film’s faint verbal gestures toward her plight, is not that Humbert mistreated her but that she became a frump after she left him. She used to be fun and now she’s a housewife. We might regret this emphasis, and I do, but you have to see the film to arrive at this view, and there is no reason at all for it not to be shown in this country.
Distributors and moviegoers may well have thought they had reason to expect the worst from Adrian Lyne—the difference being that the worst, if by that we mean the scabrous, the sensational, was what they used to want. The very titles of a couple of Lyne’s earlier films—Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal—look like previews for a new offense, if not alternative titles for Lolita; and his 91/2 Weeks, all about sex as risk and risk as sexy, was described by an unkind English critic as “bump and grind for the Porsche owner.” Lyne’s Lolita, by comparison, is downright demure; deeply, almost debilitatingly loyal to Nabokov’s novel; shot in lovely pale colors for art’s sake; and accompanied by a score from Ennio Morricone which swamps everything in wistful, lyrical melancholy. You can imagine what Jeremy Irons’s pained presence as Humbert does to this. Dmitri Nabokov, the novelist’s son, finds the film “superb,” its only fault a slight excess of fidelity to his father’s text.
The difficulties of making a movie from a novel are never quite what they seem—or not only what they seem. It’s not just a matter of getting story and characters to come across in a new format, adapted for different time frames and modes of representation, it’s a matter of losing words as a medium, the very texture of a language. There are words in films, of course, and you can quote whole chunks of a novel verbatim, as Stephen Schiff’s script for Lyne’s Lolita does. But words are not a medium in film, only a piece of a medium; members of an orchestra, not soloists. This matters more for some novels than for others, and there are all kinds of ways of setting about the problem—directors from Hitchcock to Scorsese have devised brilliant solutions. But Humbert Humbert’s language, self-delighting, self-betraying, funny, sickening, and above all endlessly intricate and fluent, is the life of Lolita. Without it, we have only a plodding, if fairly powerful melodrama, and paradoxically the less we have of Humbert’s language the more we have of his angle: there’s only the story line and the story is his. Lyne’s movie, in particular, is Humbert’s movie.
Kubrick didn’t use very much of the screenplay Nabokov spent months writing—Nabokov still receives total screen credit—but he quoted generously from the novel, as Lyne does. Mainly, though, Kubrick decided to complicate and send up the melodrama through his actors. He let James Mason as Humbert do his dark, sinister stuff, along with some fine sardonic touches of comedy; got Shelley Winters, as Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, to play up her helpless lack of charm for all it was worth; and gave Peter Sellers, as Quilty, free rein to turn his whole portion of the movie into a farce with funny accents. Sellers/ Quilty also appeared in several other guises in the film, so that the novel’s paranoid pattern (Humbert the pervert dogged by another, even more perverted pervert) was nicely duplicated. Sue Lyon as Lolita was the amiable object of desire, lively at times but a little too successful at looking bored.
The total effect was of rather slow-moving black comedy. Nabokov was disappointed to see so much of his labor vanish, but he liked the macabre ping-pong match between Quilty and Humbert, and the sight of Mason floating his Scotch in the bathtub, his mouth against the moving glass’s edge, happily thinking of Winters’s untimely death and his long future with Lolita. Another wonderful moment is Mason’s reading to himself Winters’s declaration of love for him. His amusement is slow in coming, but when it comes, it knows no bounds. It’s worth saying that the jokes against Charlotte, in both movies, although often funny, are broad and familiar in their attack, old jokes about lonely and pretentious aging women, and form an insidious misogynous part of the pedophile’s case for his vice: little girls are not just little girls, they are not adult females.
Lyne, however, decided he wanted the melodrama. His film is far from immoral, even apart from the fact that everyone dies. It is a kind of parable against passion, rather like his Fatal Attraction, although far more subdued. Humbert as a child loved a girl who died. There is no suggestion here, as there is in the novel, that their passion was unconsummated, and that Humbert’s problem therefore is a certain kind of incompletion. It’s the girl’s death that matters, and Jeremy Irons looks suitably haunted from the start. Humbert then moves to America and meets Lolita—weirdly fudged and unmagical, this scene, scarcely intelligible if you don’t know the book—and his travails begin. At first tantalizingly unavailable, she becomes his mistress and he loses her again in the sheer repetitiousness and banality of their sexual life. I’ve said the film is demure compared with Lyne’s other work, although it has its share of suggestive gestures—Lolita unties the drawstring on Humbert’s pajama trousers, grins, takes out her tooth-brace, grins some more. But what’s really shocking in the film is the deterioration of their relationship rather than the sight of their sex acts.
Lolita prostitutes herself with Humbert, vamping him for more pocket money or permission to act in a play, her hand creeping lasciviously up his trouser leg. He hits her violently, on two occasions. He grovels, she escapes. The steamiest scene—Lolita sits on Humbert’s knee, wearing only his pajama top, her back to him as she reads a comic, both start to move slightly, she sweats, swoons, has an orgasm—seems relatively healthy, since it’s only sex, and both are enjoying themselves. I know it isn’t healthy, and I don’t think it is once I remember her age. But I have to make myself remember this. Her age seems curiously abstract, an idea only. Perhaps this is a fault in the film; or something film can’t do. When Lolita’s age is mentioned—only once, I think, by the headmistress of her school—she is said to be fourteen. At another point we are shown a hotel sign which says children under fourteen stay free. I’m sure there are many such signs in the world at large, but in the movie it doesn’t have any point unless Lolita is under fourteen.
Dominique Swain as Lolita is appropriately sulky and gawky, and she has a sudden, delayed smile which lights up the whole film whenever it appears. There is a wonderful scene, far better than its equivalent in Kubrick, where she is about to set off for camp with her mother, remembers she hasn’t said goodbye to Humbert, and rushes back into the house and up the stairs to do that. She leaps to embrace him, wraps her legs around him—this is before their affair starts, before he imagines there is any chance of an affair—kisses him enthusiastically, and is gone, clattering down the stairs in slow motion, as if she had to be slowed down to be believed. But Lyne has chosen to costume Swain as a very young child, in checks and flounces and ribbons, as if she were scarcely out of the nursery, and to show her most often in plaits and other old-fashioned hairdos. The effect, curiously, is to make her look like an older girl—Swain was fifteen when the film was shot—disguised as a much younger one, something like Judy Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, only sexier and sunnier and faster. This does something very strange to the idea of her age.
Jeremy Irons offers a rather low-keyed, unfreaky Humbert, but he is much more convincing here than he is, say, in Louis Malle’s Damage, another story of an older man sliding to disaster through sex. The attraction of Irons as an actor is that you can see him suffering, see him thinking, but he’s also opaque—he could be thinking about anything, and maybe he’s not suffering what we would suffer in his place. His wrecked, bleached looks at the end of the film leave you certain only of the finality of his distress. Frank Langella as Quilty is gross and imposing, although perhaps not quite as sinister as one could wish.
But the real joy of the film’s acting is Melanie Griffith as Charlotte. I thought at first, unworthily, that one couldn’t go wrong in this role, since Shelley Winters is so memorable too. Then I thought how different Griffith is from Winters, so there’s no reason why both shouldn’t take full credit for what they do. If Winters is sadly pushy, Griffith is a touch more glamorous, in a tasteless way, but also tougher, and she expresses herself in a flat, all-leveling voice which is itself a cultural commentary. You can’t argue with her because she’s not talking to you; she’s not talking to anybody, she’s simply on the air, broadcasting without a radio. Griffith, even more than Winters, is Nabokov’s Charlotte as evoked by F.W. Dupee in the Anchor Review: “the immoral moralist, the loveless romantic, the laughless comic—whatever it is that spoils the party and dampens the honeymoon all across America.”
All ends badly, of course. Humbert loves Lolita in his abject and clinging way; she loves Quilty (“the only man I was ever really crazy about”), but Quilty throws her out. She is married and pregnant when we and Humbert see her for the last time. Humbert kills Quilty messily. Most European critics have objected to the Grand Guignol quality of this scene, Quilty’s piano playing Rachmaninoff even after he’s left it, blood sparkling on the keys, Quilty blubbering, wounded, refusing to die; but the real problem is Quilty’s irrelevance. This is Humbert’s movie; he can suffer enough without Quilty, as long as he loses Lolita one way or another, and Quilty seems to have staggered in from the novel merely to die. Humbert drives away from Quilty’s place, drunk and desolate, his old station wagon weaving all over the country road, Morricone’s music and a washed-out landscape a perfect complement to his mood. He has oil on his hands from the gun he used, Quilty’s blood spattered on his face, one of Lolita’s hairpins in his hand.
Police cars start to chase him, but he is oblivious. A roadblock looms ahead, he calmly turns off into a field of cows, stops the car, leaves it, still ignoring the cops. He looks down at a town in the valley and imagines he hears (that is, we hear, but see the town is too far away for the sound to come from there) the sound of children playing, and he says to himself, mournfully, these words from the close of the novel: “I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.” We seem to be beyond guilt here, but not beyond misery. This is where passion always ends, the story seems to say. Waste and ruin, no one gets what he wants.
At this point Lyne, for all his fidelity to the novel, makes a move which is its perfect opposite. Nabokov’s Humbert claims to love the latest Lolita, the pregnant and married one, to have understood that one must love a person and not just a member of a generic set of little girls. We may not believe him, but this is what he says. Lyne’s Humbert, forlorn and still on the edge of the valley, the blood now dry on his face, has a memory flash of the original Lolita, the one he first slept with after her mother died, the one who made the first move, scarcely knowing what she was doing. The Lolita he loves is the one he lost not recently but long ago, maybe in the same moment he possessed her.
Lolita has established herself in the language, but has also suffered a sea-change in her shift from novel to general usage. Here is what the current Webster’s tells us: “Lolita. n. [from Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov] a precociously seductive girl.” When Spy Magazine last summer sought to describe what some people wanted Chelsea Clinton to be, the phrase that presented itself was: “a seductress, a Lolita.” The context was a set of articles about “the new Lolitocracy,” meaning the recent fame and open desirability of some very young girls, especially in sports and in the movies. “In the last five years or so,” Damon Trent wrote, “our own civilization has developed a bit of a thing for teenage girls.” Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler started the trend, according to Trent, but they were a little old, they were women really, and we need to think, he said, about Anna Paquin (ten), Anna Chlumsky (eleven), Christina Ricci (eleven), and Natalie Portman (twelve), who have all had leading roles in recent movies. Portman, it is rumored, turned down the title role in Lyne’s Lolita. In the same issue of the magazine Will Self went on at some length about the delights of watching young girl gymnasts and figure skaters.
This was all meant to be (and was) a little naughty and shocking. It seems likely, Trent says, that “every man, woman, and child among us has become a vile, pustulating pedophile.” Well, not that likely. But in the midst of the malarkey, several interesting things were being said. These girls are not entirely Lolitas in the dictionary’s sense: precocious perhaps, but not seductresses. And they are not victims, they are stars. But they are (not quite) sexual objects, which is to say that sexuality, theirs and ours, has become thinkable in relation to these children. Trent has a fine and dangerous comment on what he calls Nabokov’s art. “He did more than investigate the idea that pubescent girls can be sexually attractive, he proved it.” This, it seems to me, could be a stronger reason for American distributors worrying about the movie: not the “multidimensional portrait” of Humbert or the fact that we may like him, but the possibility that we may understand his desire far better than we want to.
In one sense, we always did. This was what Lionel Trilling meant when he said Lolita was “not about sex, but about love.” F.W. Dupee meant the same thing, I believe, when he suggested that reviewers of the book failed “to see how much of everyone’s reality lurks in its shadow play.” But this is to say that love is scandalous, and to take Humbert’s pedophilia as a lurid caricature of passion, an emblem for whatever forms of scandal are closest to us. To say we might begin to understand his pedophilia as pedophilia is a very different thing. Those who won’t show or who want to boycott the movie are not right, in my view. But they are not mere stooges of moral correctness either, and they are not talking about nothing.
Of course Humbert is not an ordinary pedophile, and Nabokov’s Lolita is not a Lolita. But are there ordinary pedophiles? Isn’t this a dangerous notion in itself, and doesn’t Humbert, in spite of himself, do us a bit of good by giving the notion such a hard time? He is not interested in little girls, only in some little girls, not even the most beautiful, and certainly not the most seductive ones. The girls who enchant him are hidden among their generation, and then magically self-revealing. This definition occurs in the novel, and in both movies:
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.” …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….
The age of the beholder is important too, as well as his eye. “There must be a gap of several years, never less than ten I should say, generally thirty or forty, and as many as ninety in a few known cases, between maiden and man to enable the latter to come under a nymphet’s spell.” “As many as ninety” is either Humbert teasing us or Nabokov pulling the rug from under Humbert, but for the rest we have to take Humbert’s lyrical pedantry quite seriously. He is inviting us to pick out the nymphets among the other girls, and it is disturbing to find we half-believe we can. I start to think, for instance, that neither Sue Lyon in Kubrick’s film nor Dominique Swain in Lyne’s is really a nymphet, that both are “essentially human,” that their considerable attractions are too “normal,” not secret or demonic enough. But how could I be thinking this? How do I know what a nymphet is? Would Humbert and I agree on a set of sample cases? It is, I think, because we imagine Lolita as special and demonic in our own terms, an unearthly creature masked by her American ordinariness, with an eerie identity far more fetching than mere beauty, that the book is more shocking than either of the movies, or than a movie could be. This is the girl Humbert violates, not someone else’s image on a screen.
But why is Lolita not a Lolita? This is the moral crux of the novel, I think, and neither film manages to get a focus on it—it’s not encouraging either that usage and the dictionary take Humbert’s word for what is happening, and that “abused child” does not seem to be among the current meanings of “Lolita.” You will remember that Humbert claims not to have seduced his stepdaughter (although he certainly planned to), but to have been seduced by her. “Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover.” Humbert’s pompous disapproval of the very sexual act he has so enjoyed is a masterpiece of hypocrisy, and surely forms part of the case for the prosecution rather than the defense. Lolita, in bed with Humbert, suggests they play a game involving the activities she has learned at summer camp. “I shall not,” Humbert says,
bore my learned readers with a detailed account of Lolita’s presumption. Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved.
“Naive as only a pervert can be” is the way Humbert has previously described himself, but this is the pervert as traditionalist, shocked to discover that the girl is not the picture of innocence he was so looking forward to corrupting. If there is any depraving going on, he wants to do it. One of the side effects of liberal modern ways: they spoil the pleasures of old-fashioned vice. Humbert, like the pedophile in A.M. Homes’s novel The End of Alice, is a “classicist” in these and other matters.
The difficulty with Lolita is not that it is an immoral book, but that it is soaked in Humbert’s morality, that it leaves us scarcely anywhere else to go. Humbert plays with the idea that the distaste for pedophilia is mere local cultural prejudice, invoking Dante, Petrarch, and Poe as his noble predecessors. Mainly, though, he believes pedophilia is a heinous sin—at one point he speaks of “a world of total evil”—and that’s why he likes it. He knows his Baudelaire, is fond of quoting “L’Invitation au voyage,” and has almost certainly read the extraordinary passage in the notebooks where Baudelaire asserts that the only pleasure, l’unique volupté, lies in the certainty of doing evil. “The only pleasure” must be something of an exaggeration, but you’d have to be really perverted not to know what Baudelaire and Humbert are talking about.
On the face of it there appear to be only three ways of thinking about the moral question in Nabokov’s Lolita, all of them unattractive. There is, chiefly and most noisily, Humbert’s view, that of the Dostoevskyan sinner who finds repentance, if anything, even more fun than the original sinning—especially since he has lost the girl, and has only his repentance left, along with some three hundred pages of lip-smacking memories. The second way is set up only to be laughed at.
We do laugh, although maybe a little uneasily. The book, ostensibly Humbert’s memoir, is introduced by one John Ray, Jr., Ph.D., a psychologist with a smooth line in platitudes and a taste for semicolons. Here is how Ray’s foreword ends:
As a case history, “Lolita” will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles. As a work of art, it transcends its expiatory aspects; and still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac—these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. “Lolita” should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.
You would think this would have put an end to moralizing readings of the book, although of course many of us have heard ourselves talking like John Ray, Jr., on too many occasions. Nabokov would have been outraged to think we needed telling that pedophilia was not a good thing—probably was outraged when it turned out we did need telling.
But what else is there if Dostoevsky and the educators are set aside? There is the flight into pure aesthetics, which Nabokov himself seems to recommend. No, does recommend.
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. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster….
Many readers of Nabokov have taken this as their gospel, and of course the words in parenthesis after art are alluring. But there is still the question of what emotions the work of art affords the reader, as distinct from the writer, and there is also the more urgent question of the writer’s choosing to find his aesthetic bliss in a scandalous subject.
Earnest critics, Martin Amis has suggested, have often “feared for Nabokov’s moral hygiene—wasn’t there a bit too much brio in his empathy with the racked paedophile of Lolita?” Well, was there? Somewhere between the brio, too much or just right, and Nabokov’s mischievously professed indifference to other people’s morality lies the clue to whatever entertains us most and troubles us most in Lolita. When Nabokov says in a letter that an “unpleasant” quality an editor has found in Pnin “is a special trait of my work in general”—he goes on to talk of “nastiness” and a “disgusting” couple—he is not, I think, embracing vice or licensing immorality. He is saying that curiosity, tenderness, and the rest can take you to strange places, and make sense only in a world which constantly threatens them.
Nabokov’s irony often works by a kind of doubling. His comic characters, and indeed he himself, disguise and mangle what he means, but they don’t say the opposite. What’s wrong with the idea of “ethical impact” is not the suggestion that a work of art could have some sort of moral effect but the preachy directness of the claim. The trick is to understand the moral obliquity of good books, and the entanglement of instruction in pleasures that aren’t at all instructive. It’s important to remember that Humbert is not only a moral monster but a great comic hero. He is phenomenally funny about the world he lives in, but also a figure of fun, disastrously prone to the unlucky coincidence. He trips over his own feet in the midst of his most stylish or impassioned moments. Sleepless beside the sleeping Lolita, he not only evokes his “burning life” and her vulnerability, he lets us know about trucks in the night and a nearby toilet in the hotel (“It was a manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet, and it was used many times. Its gurgle and gush and long afterflow shook the wall behind me”). When he tells us he was “burning with desire and dyspepsia,” we might think the alliterative sequence does enough to spoil the pathos, but Humbert goes on to tell us what he usually does for his digestive troubles: goes to the bathroom and takes a drink of water, “which is the best medicine I know in my case, except perhaps milk with radishes….” How are we supposed to concentrate on his crime, as we want to, or on his longing, as he wants us to?
But of course we can think as well as laugh, and at the risk of sounding like a chastened John Ray, Jr., I would suggest that one of the important things Nabokov’s novel does is help us understand better just what an offense against a child is, and understand this morally, not merely technically. But it does this only by getting everything slightly wrong, and leaving the rest to us. This is where we need to understand why Lolita is not a Lolita.
Humbert’s final repentance is so awful not only because he wallows in it, but because he comes so close to understanding what he has done. He has slept with a minor, abducted her, and is guilty of rape in a sense only slightly more complicated than it looks. He is in jail for the murder of Clare Quilty, but murder, of course, doesn’t frighten distributors away. Humbert says if he were the judge he would have given himself thirty-five years for rape and dismissed the rest of the charges. He also makes clear that his real crime, and the real sadness in Lolita’s story, lies not in his theft of her virtue but in his theft of her childhood. This is when he hears the children playing in the valley, and thinks “that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”
What’s wrong with this? He has stolen her childhood, taken from her the years when she should still have been a child. But Humbert thinks, as I’m afraid many of us think when we are not children, of childhood as an idyll. His crime is not to have deprived Lolita of an idyll, but of whatever childhood she might have had, and the terrible thing about the ruin of children is not the ruin of innocence, but the wreck of possibility, even malign possibility.
There is more. The English writer Ros Coward, discussing pedophilia a couple of years ago, seemed to have Humbert in mind when she said pedophiles are difficult to catch because they are often “extremely plausible and devious people.” Coward also says we still underrate the damage that adult sexual attention does to children, and we could think of childhood not only as the realm of possibility but as the name of a condition where the idea of consent cannot be in play, whether the children seem to consent or not. Of course many adults, under duress, also find themselves in this condition, but this should help us to understand the subtler forms of damage to children.
The most intimately horrible moment in the novel, ostensibly composed of a simple list of mid-century objects and a bit of narration, occurs at the end of Part One. Nabokov’s art here is at its most oblique and at its most scrupulously, morally focused. Humbert has slept with Lolita, and has brutally, impatiently, told her her mother is dead. They reach the town of Lepingville, its name a tiny allusion to the “moral leprosy” of which John Ray, Jr., says Humbert is “a shining example.”
In the gay town of Lepingville I bought her four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set, a travel clock with a luminous dial, a ring with a real topaz, a tennis racket, roller skates with white high shoes, field glasses, a portable radio set, chewing gum, a transparent raincoat, sunglasses, some more garments—swooners, shorts, all kinds of summer frocks. At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.
Plenty of horror in the sleek “you see” and the tyrannical satisfaction of the word “absolutely.” But Humbert is not just the villain here, playing out some pedophile melodrama. There is, I’m sorry to say, a tenderness in his voice too, a sort of protectiveness, as if he were after all the right person to be looking after this little girl. If you were sickened before, you are even more sickened as you think this, and you realize that a double confusion reigns in this scene, in Humbert and Lolita, and that it centers on the unnamed notion of consent. This confusion is precisely Nabokov’s point. Both characters know, or soon will, all about force and bribery and subjection and helplessness. Neither of them knows anything about consent. Humbert doesn’t know that Lolita can’t have consented, even when she seemed to, even when she came sobbing into his room. She doesn’t know that the very chance of her consent has been destroyed for good.
March 26, 1998
J.R. Ackerley, Walter Allen, A. Alvarez, Isaiah Berlin, C.M. Bowra, Storm Jameson, Frank Kermode, Allen Lane, Margaret Lane, Rosamund Lehmann, Compton Mackenzie, Iris Murdoch, William Plomer, V.S. Pritchett, Alan Pryce-Jones, Peter Quennell, Herbert Read, Stephen Spender, Philip Toynbee, Bernard Wall, Angus Wilson. ↩