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Lolita at 50

It would be a shame to let the year lapse without one more festive mention, here as anywhere, of the greatest novel in English (in American, we should say) in the last fifty years. Vladimir Nabokov dared literature to best Lolita when it was published in September 1955, in Paris (because not one of the five major American publishers Nabokov sent Lo to would have her, or it). Nothing has come close. Not in the United States , anyway. So why Lolita, why a great book, given its vile subject, its pitiful and vile Humbert Humbert, its indefensibly seductive plot? Why not call it, like one critic did in the pages of England ’s Sunday Express in 1955, “the filthiest book I have ever read”?

Because it is foremost a love story that works. No, not a love story between Humbert and his nymphette (a word Nabokov invented), let alone between Humbert and Humbert (the supreme love story that does not work) but between Nabokov and the American language. And because language and national identity are difficult to separate, we could say too that it is a love story between Nabokov and his adopted land, bittersweet the love is bound to be for an exile, unrequited it must be, because what an immigrant loses in assumptions about his native land (it’s mine by birth and by right!) he can never regain from his adopted one. Isn’t that what Nabokov meant when he wrote, at the end of Speak, Memory, of “the gloom and glory of exile,” of the nostalgia he’d been “cherishing all these years [as] a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood”? In The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Nabokov has Sebastian in “his most autobiographical work” write “that one of the purest emotions is that of the banished man pining after the land of his birth.” The purity of the emotion in Nabokov’s case is probably what makes him try so much harder to seduce his new country through its language, to make it his own by sheer force of will, even if the love must become demonic. No other word better describes the genius of Lolita’s language. It is possessed. It’s not of this world, or wasn’t, anyway, until Nabokov made it so. What Nabokov achieves with Lolita is a perfectly legitimate conquest of a language, of a culture, one so total that it redefines the language from there on. That the conquest is achieved through a story about an entirely illegitimate conquest is one of the great inside jokes of the book. It isn’t meant to be funny, only truthful. The gloom won over by the glory. The book is full of puns, wordplay, mirroring sentences and meanings. Nabokov would not have left it at that: He’s working out his own love affair through it, and using his story’s paradoxes and tragedy to speak of his own: “I shall never exchange the liberty of my exile for the vile parody of home,” Sebastian Knight says in his many transparently Nabokovian moments. In the closing loop of Nabokov’s conquest, Humbert Humbert is the vile parody. Lolita, the novel, the masterpiece, is the liberty of Nabokov’s exile in word and play. No wonder he has Humbert and Lolita spend most of the novel traveling the Lower Forty-Eights.

The setting of the plot is as important as its theme. This isn’t happening in any old pre-suburban “American Beauty”-type neighborhood, in a posh hotel, in any particular place at all, but in all those places, in every place that represents America down to the trashy trailer parks and sordid roadside motels. The journey that is Lolita’s captivity slowly imprisons Humbert as surely as it liberates the language telling the story, and with it, its author. After writing novels in Russian, it is in America , John Updike wrote in 1966, that Nabokov’s “almost impossible style encountered, after twenty years of hermetic exile, a subject as impossible as itself, ungainly with the same affluence. He rediscovered our monstrosity. His fascinatingly astigmatic stereopticon projected not only the landscape—the eerie arboreal suburbs, the grand emptiness, the exotic and touchingly temporary junk of roadside America—but the wistful citizens of a violent society desperately oversold, in the absence of other connectives, on love.” Of course the book would not have been the great work of art that it is if all it liberated was its author. It liberates the reader, too, which is why it’s not hard at all to explain the paradox at the heart of Lolita appreciation.

Let’s address that paradox without gloves. Some readers, and most non-readers eager to judge the book, find it easy to condemn it purely on a thematic level, the way that Sunday Express writer did fifty years ago. The subject matter makes it easy to condemn the book outright of course. Some of the scenes make it easy to do so, though they’re all written so subtly, and so beautifully from an artistic point of view (which in no way diminishes the overwhelming depravity of the Humbert enacting them), that the pervert looking to satisfy a few urges will find himself chasing after the subtleties flying overhead long before he figures out the first suggestion of anything to his taste; art is by definition, among many other things, the opposite of pornography. That’s why attaching the words “controversial” or “scandalous” or “notorious” to the book, as those words one way or another almost always do, like authorial disclaimers, is in the end not only very stupid, but also inaccurate: the controversies are in the perversions of the beholder. Exclusively. Lolita transcends them so completely that once anyone has read the book through (or read ten or fifteen pages at any stretch), the idea that it could be considered controversial or “filthy” becomes one of the comical sideplays of the book itself. The filth is part of the roadside clutter of America that Nabokov so well describes; and the filth assumed by the reader becomes one of those props: the reader himself, or rather the non-reader, becomes part of the clutter, part of the scene. There: Nabokov even invented interactivity at those readers’ expense! So the paradox is apparent only on the surface. Read on, and it vanishes before the book’s literary capture. Feelings, emotions, even and especially revulsion, remain, but at such psychological and literary depths that the shallowness of the prudes and the filthy minded is no longer of Lolita’s world, even if it is very much part of Lo’s. The end point of this paradox is that it doesn’t even exist.

What we have left is the book, the art. It is there on every page, every paragraph, every line. Pick at random, back and forth, long passages and short:

She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion. Never did she vibrate under my touch, and a strident ‘what d’you think you are doing?’ was all I got for my pains. To the wonderland I had to offer, my fool preferred the corniest of movies, the most cloying fudge. To think that between a Hamburger and a Humburger, she would—invariably, with icy precision—plump for the former. There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child. Did I mention the name of that milk bar I visited a moment ago? It was, of all things, The Frigid Queen. Smiling a little sadly, I dubbed her my Frigid Princess. She did not see the wistful joke.

In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.

So downstairs I went clearing my throat and holding my heart. Lo was now in the living room, in her favorite overstuffed chair. As she sprawled there, biting at a hangnail and mocking me with her heartless vaporous eyes, and all the time rocking a stool upon which she had placed the heel of an outstretched shoeless foot, I perceived all at once with a sickening qualm how much she had changed since I first met her two years ago. Or had this happened during those last two weeks? Tendresse? Surely that was an exploded myth. She sat right in the focus of my incandescent anger. The fog of all lust had been swept away leaving nothing but this dreadful lucidity. Oh, she had changed! Her complexion was now that of any vulgar untidy highschool girl who applies shared cosmetics with grubby fingers to an unwashed face and does not mind what soiled texture, what postulate epidermis comes in contact with her skin.

It isn’t just the naked exposition of Humbert’s character that drives the power of each passage, but the descriptive power of Nabokov’s observations that leave nothing to chance, nothing to waste: every image is a stand-alone masterpiece whether or not you connect it to its paragraph, or the paragraph to the chapter or the novel: the transformation of the chess board into sensual metaphor, the dead-on psychology of the adored child or the deadly hygiene of the typical high school girl: fillers in any other hands become sublime sparkles in Nabokov’s. They stand on their own. But take them away and the novel is lessened for it. The lines are there never as padding or show-offy asides. They’re there by necessity, part of the synapses that make Lolita’s cerebral ascent (descent, one should say) the awesome tragedy that it is. One could go on, quoting passage after passage. The point is that the entire book is a quote of American art and culture without which each of us is diminished, without which our understanding of America cannot possibly be the same, unless we’re willing to settle for misunderstanding.

In an interview with Herbert Gold of the Paris Review in 1967, Nabokov was asked if he had “any conspicuous or secret flaw as a writer.” He answered: “The absence of a natural vocabulary. An odd thing to confess, but true. Of the two instruments in my possession, one—my native tongue—I can no longer use, and this not only because I lack a Russian audience, but also because the excitement of verbal adventure in the Russian medium has faded away gradually after I turned to English in 1940. My English, this second instrument I have always had, is however a stiffish, artificial thing, which may be all right for describing a sunset or an insect, but which cannot conceal poverty of syntax and paucity of domestic diction when I need the shortest road between warehouse and shop. An old Rolls-Royce is not always preferable to a plain jeep.”

That we should all be so lucky to drive that Rolls, or even see it drive by: as readers, we are. If we’re willing to pick up Lolita and never stop reading: “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.”

—Pierre Tristam

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