A Nabokov a Month: Lolita

By BookNerd June 8, 2009

When Nabokov first sent Lolita to American publishers in 1954, they weren't sure what to do with it. Too erotic to be taken seriously as a literary book and too boring and literary to be porn, Lolita had a hard time finding its way to publication. From Nabokov's account in his notes in the U.S. edition:

"Publisher X": Got bored; suggested that he cut part II.

"Publisher Y": Regretted that there were no good people in the book.

"Publisher Z": Said, "If I print this, you and I will both go to jail."

The novel was published in France in 1955—then in the U.K., then finally in the U.S., where it sold so many copies and made Nabokov so much money that he could move back to Europe and focus on his writing full time.

Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male, is the fictional memoir that Humbert Humbert writes from prison about his obsession with young girls (his "nymphets"). His story: He emigrates to America and boards with a woman and her young daughter, Dolores (aka Lolita). The mother falls desperately in love with him, and he decides to marry her so he can be closer to Lolita. There's more, of course, but that's how it starts.

So, why read Lolita?


If for no other reason, you should read it to confront your notions of what you think it's about. Over time, the character Lolita has come to represent a generic form of "teenage seductress" in the pop culture compendium. (And I have to admit that the implications of this in my mind—that all middle-aged men are looking to fall victim to a conniving young sexual goddess—had always teed me off, which is probably why I'd never read Lolita.) But this generic Lolita-type has little to do with the book.

I read so many novels that are so close to being good, or even being great, and yet they almost always fall short in some way. I wish that I could send each of those novelists a copy of Lolita and say, "Try again."

My five reasons why I think you should read Lolita, if you haven't:

1) It's creepy, and you can work through that. Lolita is not a nubile teenager  She's 12. Humbert is not a woebegone middle-aged man victimized by a conniving, sexually astute teen; he's a pedophile. Based on the early passages, I was worried that the whole book would be about how Humbert Humbert wants to get with Lolita. It isn't. It continues to be creepy. But its creepy is more nuanced and expansive.

2) Humbert Humbert. Talk about the ultimate unreliable narrator (pipe down, all you Holden Caulfield fans out there). In a world of confessional memoirs and autobiographical fiction, a wholly constructed narrator is a welcome relief.

The whole pop culture notion of Lolita as a young seductress fail to take into account that the story is told by this guy:

Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor. Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject's displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal. And this was my case. Well did I know, alas, that I could obtain at the snap of my fingers any adult female I chose; in fact, it had become quite a habit with me of not being too attentive to women lest they come toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap.

3) The language. This book is word pornography:
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.

Poet John Hollander called Lolita the record of Nabokov's love affair with the romantic novel. Nabokov corrected him, saying, substituting English language for romantic novel would make this elegant formula more correct.

Hollander was responding to another reviewer who called the novel "Nabokov's love affair with America."

4) "Lolita herself is America," said critic Leslie Fiedler. It's a record of America, 1940s America, as seen through the eyes of a recent immigrant who's learning it for the first time. While Nabokov was writing the book, he and his wife Vera were traveling around the U.S. on their annual summer butterfly hunting trips. Motor inns, truck stop cafes, gas stations, and the occasional odd landmark or museum, make up the landscape of the whole middle section of Lolita—serving as an incidental travelogue of Nabokov's early years in America.

5) It's  amazingly crafted. Nabokov's literary wizardry makes Lolita so much bigger that what you think it is—what appears as a simple memoir of a fictional pedophile is a complex meditation on desire, youth and coming of age, sexuality, parenting, tyranny, the mind of the outsider, and art. He assembles the story through unexpected twists made up of thousands of small but unforgettable moments, like this one:
...little Lo was aware of that glow of hers, and I would often catch her coulant un regard in the direction of some amiable male, some grease monkey, with a sinewy golden-brown forearm and watch-braceleted wrist, and hardly had I turned my back to go and buy this very Lo a lollipop, than I would hear her and the fair mechanic burst into a perfect love song of wisecracks.

And, on top of all five of these reasons, Lolita is funny, especially after the tables turn on Humbert Humbert.

I'm reading A Nabokov a Month. Next up in July: Pnin. And previously in my Nabokov fetish.
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