As a preface, of sorts, to this essay, I want to begin by admitting that I made the rather demoralising choice of reading Christopher Hitchens’s 2005 The Atlantic piece entitled ‘Hurricane Lolita’ after having already written my own. No prizes for guessing whose pales in comparison (although I would advise desisting from his until after you’ve read the novel). In the introduction to Hitchens’s 2011 book of essays, Arguably (in which his Nabokov piece is included), he writes: ‘It took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Vladimir Nabokov…’ I have dared, perhaps rather prematurely, to write about Lolita, and the ersatz result is an essay that cannot possibly do the novel justice, and which I will, in all likelihood, later come to detest. But, alas, one must try to hone their craft, however crude the prototype. In an optimistic mood I might tell myself, quoting from Macbeth, which I seem to do a lot in this essay: ‘My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.’
In a recent interview with CBC’s fantastic Eleanor Wachtel, Martin Amis expressed his belief that Lolita ‘may be the richest comedy in the language’: he cites the book’s complexity of humour, the fact that it engages with the ‘laughter of disgust, self-disgust.’ That the tale of the sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old girl could be humorous may beggar belief, but Amis’s assertion isn’t far off the mark. The brilliance of Nabokov’s most celebrated novel is indisputable, and it lies in the fact that taboo and troubling subject matter is rendered so beautifully by playful and lyrical prose. Nabokov once declared to his university students that ‘it is no use reading a book at all if you do not read it with your back.’ The shiver of delight he refers to, which he believed to be ‘quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and science,’ is precisely what one experiences again and again in reading Lolita.
The book is framed as a memoir: it has been written, we are told in the prologue, by self-styled Humbert Humbert during the period of his incarceration. It details the particulars of his ‘humiliating, sordid, taciturn love life’, which may not have eventuated in his affaire du coeur with poor little Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze had he not had a teenage relationship another ‘girl-child’ in ‘a princedom by the sea.’ Humbert, a Frenchman who moved to the US in 1939 because he felt his ‘life needed a shake-up’, grew up in his father’s hotel on the French Riviera, where at age thirteen (1923) he fell in love with Annabel Leigh, a half-English half-Dutch girl a few months his junior. Humbert’s memories of the attachment echo that of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’:
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
Coveted her and me.
Humbert’s darling Annabel and he ‘were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.’ Their trysts – as teenage ones often are – were limited by parental suspicion to surreptitious romps in public places, and unfortunately for Humbert, the consummation of their pubescent passion was prematurely interrupted by two bearded men yelling ‘exclamations of ribald encouragement.’ A few months later, Annabel died of typhus. The probable effect on Humbert was an arrest of his sexual development, preventing him – as he ages – from finding his female coevals attractive. Of that formative relationship he writes:
We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.
In the early stages of the novel, when adult Humbert fantasizes about certain pubescent girls but has not yet acted on his desires, his unhappy adolescent relationship almost – not quite wholly, but almost – justifies his adult state of sexual deviancy. Humbert designates certain girls as ‘nymphets’: they are, he explains rather didactically, roughly aged between nine and fourteen, ‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children’, which ‘you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy’ to discern from the innocent rest. The attraction is relatively harmless and hysterical (Humbert recalls sitting ‘on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book’ while ‘nymphets played freely’ around him; his attempt at procuring a young French prostitute results in ‘a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen’ whom he refuses but is forced to pay the relatives of anyway) until, of course, he meets Lolita in 1947. At twelve, she is ‘changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful with the tart grace of her coltish subteens’, the daughter of widowed Charlotte Haze, Humbert’s proprietress. The decisive moment, the fateful first sight of her is described in a passage of stunning prose:
I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery – “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day…The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.
Humbert’s fascination with nymphets, and with Lolita in particular, while aberrant, is at this point pitiable rather than reprehensible, because we understand that it results as ‘a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea”’. Meeting Lo in the piazza, he conflates the two girls: ‘Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta’.
The balance tilts towards monstrosity when Humbert succumbs to temptation, realizing his obsessions in an escalating series of reprehensible acts. When phocine ‘Big Haze’ isn’t around, he kisses Lo on the eyes, or grooms her while she sits on his lap on a sofa. That the girl clutches an ‘Eden-red apple’ before the sofa incident isn’t lost on the reader. Then there’s the fact that Humbert marries the adoring Charlotte Haze, whom he finds much too thick-thighed and ‘plain-faced’, in order to be close to her daughter. He fantasizes about ‘administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity.’
Initially, at least, Lolita is not entirely blameless: she, like her mother, nurses a girlish crush on Humbert, who describes himself as an ‘exceptionally handsome man’. In a memorised diary entry from 1947, he recounts:
I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl: clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. Moreover, I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.
After Humbert picks the girl up from summer camp, the following exchange occurs:
“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”
“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”‘
Dolores, impetuous and flirtatious, then proceeds to ‘positively flow’ into Humbert’s arms. Humbert, overwhelmed by the passion of a twenty-five-year long desire on the brink of coming into fruition, is unable to resist. ‘Remember she is only a child, remember she is only—’ To quote Macbeth: things bad begun make themselves strong by ill.
Humbert, in his sexual rapacity, willfully overlooks the inevitable damage of his abuse and control. Lolita’s vulnerability and emotional trauma become subjugated by his sexual appetites. He pries her with money and attempts to manipulate her thinking by quoting sections from apparently reputable books:
I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child…I quote…: Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part.
Addressing the reader he similarly draws upon literature, history and religion (well-read Humbert is a scholar of French and English literature) as if other instances can justify his own behavior, which he in the end knows to be monstrous: ‘Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen’; ‘when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind’; ‘Virginia was not quite fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her.’
Humbert believes that nymphets lack the ‘purity and vulnerability’ of ordinary children, for whom he proclaims to have ‘the utmost respect’, yet Lolita’s obvious immaturity serves as no deterrent to his appetites. In her interests, poor Lolita is like any other non-nymphet child: ‘Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things.’ Despite the fact that mentally, he finds ‘her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl’, despite the fact that he listens to ‘her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment [he feigns] sleep’, Humbert fears any potential obstacle to having his way with her.
Humbert’s attraction to Lolita, which he describes as ‘pederosis’ (paedophilia), technically constitutes hebephilia, the attraction to pubescent individuals (aged approximately eleven to fourteen), distinguishable from paedophilia, which primarily involves an attraction to prepubescent children. That Humbert is not perceived as insurmountably evil owes to this distinction; the variable legal grounds pertaining to sexual relations with girls of pubescent age shed a slightly less morally dubious light on Humbert and Lolita’s relationship. The legal age of consent – which must consider the consenting party’s maturity, both sexual and emotional, as well as their vulnerability to exploitation – varies from country to country. Had Humbert and Lo travelled to Spain, where the age of consent was 13 until last year, their relationship – technical incest aside – would have been legal, as it would have eventually been in Italy, Germany, Portugal and other countries where the age is 14.
Whether legality necessarily equates with morality is altogether another question. In Lolita’s case it is not so much that her age and immaturity undermine the validity of consent as the fact that she becomes an unwilling participant altogether. As an afterword to Lolita, written a year after its 1955 publication in France, Nabokov details the original ‘shiver of inspiration’ for the novel: a newspaper article about an ape who produced the ‘first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal’ – a sketch of the bars of its cage. Lolita is similarly imprisoned by Humbert, resentful, and so cannot requite the love and passion Humbert so uncontrollably experiences.
In a Guardian article compiling various writers’ advice for others, Geoff Dyer made the following suggestion: ‘Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.’ It seems like a pragmatic, timesaving measure considering Nabokov’s trilingualism (he was fluent in Russian, French and English – but also to a lesser degree German and Italian; Lolita is peppered with Humbert’s French and humorous parodies of those poor Americans’ attempts at it), his nonpareil talent and his inimitable, blissful writing style; one might as well quit while they’re ahead. But awe and admiration are reflexive responses to his writing, so perhaps one just can’t help themself. Writing for the newyorker.com, Jay Caspian Kang recounts that Lolita became a treasure trove of inspiration for him in college, a ‘personal literary liquor store – whenever I got stuck in a scene, or whenever my prose felt flat or typical, I’d open Lolita to a random page and steal something.’ Its effect seems to be universal. In The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books (2007), the novel was voted as the best fiction work of the 20th Century by 125 of ‘modernity’s greatest writers’, which included Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey and Norman Mailer. Perhaps literature since Lolita has benefited all the more for sucking up a little to Nabokov. I suspect that – as uncontrollably as Humbert lusts for his Lo – from Nabokov’s magnus opus I will end up borrowing many gems ‘“– you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”’
by Vladimir Nabokov
Penguin Books, 1995
Christopher Hitchens’s The Atlantic essay can be found here.