Nabokov’s Most Famous Book is, Truly, a Minor Work
It is a fact universally acknowledged that Vladimir Nabokov is a genius. His stylistic brilliance, the intricacy of his post-modern narratives, his glittering mastery of two great languages, the brooding depth of his intellect and his prolific output all elevate him above most other contemporary writers. So, if he’s a genius, what is his masterpiece?
Probably not Lolita.
Lolita was a succès de scandale when it came out 60 years ago this month from Olympia Press, with a first print run of 5,000 (Graham Greene called it “one of the three best books of 1955”). The furor crested on a wave of prurient excitement over the possibility of sexually explicit material entering the literary mainstream. The book was hailed as a masterpiece for its inventiveness, its questions of authorship and narrator, its layers and complexity, its linguistic high-jinks, its trickery and cleverness and glittering word-play. But the real reason it received such enormous attention was the sexual content: it was the book about the pedophile, the man who has sex with his step-daughter. But for the subject matter, it would have been a succès d’estime, admired but little-known: it was the scandalous, forbidden sex that created a huge storm of interest. The publisher, Maurice Girodias, wrote hopefully that he thought the book was “not only admirable from the literary point of view, but also might lead to change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described in Lolita”—that is, the love of pedophilia and serial rape.
The contemporary laws against pornography were widespread and powerful. Nabokov’s narrative, which was both literary and erotic, provided the perfect challenge to these rigid Victorian prohibitions. Courts were disinclined to fly in the face of such a united outcry of support. Critics and reviewers responded to the book’s beautiful glittering surface and its dark, subversive interior, its confusing shape and its transgressive morality, represented the world of the modern. Readers, maybe publicly interested in the avant-garde, maybe privately interested in the erotic parts, flocked to buy it.
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Lolita was shocking when it appeared, and now, 60 years later, the pedophilia and the serial rape are still shocking: Girodias’s hope of normalization is unfulfilled. The book still carries a whiff of pornography, of the forbidden, offering a new iteration of the Jamesian theme in which the innocent New World is defiled and corrupted by the decadence of the Old World.
But what’s shocking now, 60 years later, about Lolita is not the sexuality but the lack of it. What’s striking are the genteel euphemisms—all salacious metaphor and suggestive similes—that characterize Nabokov’s writing about the sexual act. What’s striking is the odd absence of any kind of real erotic passion, in which two people connect powerfully. Humbert’s feelings for Lolita are completely solipsistic. They are no more than masturbation fantasies, and might as well be directed at a blow-up sex toy. Humbert has no understanding of Lolita as a person, and his sexual activities with her are entirely self-involved. He himself is a two-dimensional caricature, and he sees her as one as well.
Despite its pornographic plot, the book subverts the classical pornographic model. It eschews the easy comfort of texts like Fanny Hill, or Histoire d’O, in which the female sexual partners are at first resistant, but soon become blissfully willing. This allows the reader to feel guiltless: no matter what physical travails are visited upon the sexual partner, the reader finds himself in a paradise of happy acquiescence. Nabokov denies his readers this comforting fantasy. After the first ill-advised moment, Lolita never again wants sex with her ageing, hairy, trembling abductor, but she has no choice. He is a serial rapist, he forces her to have sex again and again. He cares nothing about her wishes, only about the itch he insists on scratching, like a dog humping a pillow.
Nabokov’s intent is to frustrate, not gratify, the reader, and he subverts, too, the form of the traditional erotic novel. In this the world provides the support system for the sexual adventurers. The looming castles in the Marquis de Sade and the Story of O, for example, conceal, protect and encourage sexual license. Their inhabitants are all part of a lively and engaged community. But in Lolita the dreadful motels, the Kumfy Kabins, the peering neighbors and lurking policemen all act as dampeners and restraints on sex, reminders of the real quotidian world.
Though much of the appeal of the book depends on titillation, Lolita is a novel of postponement and deferred gratification. Nabokov leads us enticingly toward gratification, first sexual, then homicidal, but he delights in mocking the eager reader, holding off the climactic moment through a series of rambling digressions and detours. And he denies the reader any peak moment of experience that might offer psychological satisfaction. If Nabokov mocks the trope of the erotic novel, he also mocks the reader who was secretly hoping to read an erotic novel cloaked in literary respectability.
The sexual energy in Lolita is unremitting, but oddly impersonal, and in fact the truly passionate energy comes from another emotion. The sexual narrative functions as a screen, which distracts the reader and disguises the real story: this is the expression of Nabokov’s rage and resentment toward a world that had betrayed him. The writer is driven by fury at the fate that decreed the loss of his father, his wealth, his aristocratic heritage and his elegant, cultured, sophisticated and beautiful motherland. His entire country.
Nabokov was forced into permanent exile, first in 1919, by the Communist Revolution. He ended up in Germany, a place he cordially disliked and where he lived for a decade. Later, during World War II, he moved to America. Coming from war-ravaged Europe he found himself in a huge young country, beautiful, innocent and ignorant. In Lolita he takes out his feelings on his new terrain, and the United States is seen as uniformly contemptible. Its citizens are boorish, mannerless and often grotesque, and the whole country is lit by the glow of unearned prosperity. Nabokov arrived here as an immigrant, impoverished and unknown.
Nabokov never forgave the Bolsheviks for assassinating his liberal, aristocratic father, or for betraying his family, for seizing his estates and property. Why should he? It was the trusted family footman who was guilty of the most intimate betrayal, telling the soldiers about the secret hiding place in his mother’s bedroom, where her jewels were kept. It was the Communists who cynically betrayed their own people. The sophisticated culture of the aristocracy, like a Faberge flower, bejeweled, tremblant, was crushed beneath the Soviet boot. These betrayals informed Nabokov’s sensibility, staining it with a deep and pervasive cynicism.
Lolita stands as a monument to Nabokov’s resentment: it is not a novel of sexual consummation but of cultural contempt. Contempt is the true driving passion: the landscape, the characters, the narrator, the narrative are all drenched in it. Nabokov despises his characters and their bright vulgar world, with its populist architecture and cheap displays, its tawdry, ersatz culture. Lolita is a raging cry for the world Nabokov lost, which was one of refinement, perception and beauty. It’s a cry of rage at a world that represents his world’s counterpart: young, vulgar, unrefined and irredeemably seductive.
Lolita becomes the object of his perverted desire. Early in his life, in Europe, Humbert had an adolescent fling with a girl who died. Now that he has been exiled from Paradise, now that his first love is dead, America and Lolita are what Humbert must endure. Lolita herself is common, superficial and unintelligent, though Humbert ignores her mind and her sensibility. He despises the vulgar clothes and makeup, snacks and advertisements that entrance her, America’s cheap post-war offerings. He hates these philistine vulgarians for owning this huge green continent across which he drives his unwilling partner, full of meadows and mountains and sunsets, rich and open and empty, “end of the summer mountains, all hunched up, their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush… a last rufous mountain, with a rich rug of lucerne at its feet.” These people don’t deserve this place.
Lolita acts as a counterpart to Pnin, another novel that chronicles Nabokov’s clumsy immigrant story. But while Pnin is full of compassion, for the narrator, the place, and the other characters, and it explores the possibilities of strengths and benefits in the new world, Lolita is an indictment. It’s an unrelenting cry of rage at an order that places a cultural sophisticate, a European gentleman-scholar, in the position of wooing a vulgar adolescent America. This provincial place lacks the means to understand his value, his lineage, his intellect, the deep abiding worth of what he represents. His culture has been crushed by proletarian Russia and ignored by demotic America.
Humbert Humbert “…grew up a happy, healthy child in a bright world of …sea vistas and smiling faces.” His photogenic mother famously died early (picnic, lightning) but his “cher petit papa” doted on him and taught him to swim. His European childhood is Paradise Lost. Humbert finds himself in an American Hades, peopled by boors, filled with hideous architecture and appalling taste.
The unlucky Charlotte Haze lives in “a white-frame horror …dingy and old, more grey than white—the kind of place you know will have a rubber tube affixed to the tub faucet in lie of shower.” As to Charlotte herself, “I had better describe her at once, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.” The interior of the house is decorated with “Mexican trash” and is otherwise a “tragedy of decrepit rockers and rickety lamp tables with dead lamps.”
The wash of contempt sluices over everyone. The head of Lolita’s summer camp is “a sluttish worn-out female with rusty hair.” Lolita herself is vulgar, shallow, and duplicitous, and Humbert says primly, “I really think she should wash her hair once in a while.”
When Humbert and Lolita finally arrive at the consummation site, they find outside the hotel “a row of parked cars, like pigs at a trough.” “A hunchbacked and hoary Negro” takes their bags. Inside, at the desk, “a bald and porcine old man” called, unbelievably, Swine, questions them. His colleague, Mr. Potts, is “also pink and bald, with white hairs growing out of his ears and other holes.” When they accept Humbert’s story, he declares, “the two pink pigs were now among my best friends.” Everyone in America (and Humbert travels all over it) is unattractive, uneducated or both.
Humbert’s trembling lust, his kidnapping and serial raping, provide the engine of the book. Critics often ignore the salacious shimmer of sexual predation that lies at its molten center, but that shimmer is what drew the public’s attention. Bend Sinister, published in 1947, hinges upon the torture and murder of the protagonist’s adolescent son. The subject is just as cynical and disturbing, but without the sexual frenzy of Lolita, the book created little furor.
Nabokov was praised for his boldness in challenging sexual mores, but this was not his intention, and he told his publisher that a succès de scandale would distress him. In fact his true boldness lies elsewhere. Using the erotic narrative of Lolita as a screen, he blinds his readers to his real intention. In a dazzling act of prestidigitation, he invites his readers to enter into a tirade of contempt which is directed at them. Contempt is the most serious element in this mocking, ironic, satirical narrative; it’s the one emotion that comes directly from Nabokov’s heart. Exiled from a country that no longer exists, terminally embittered, grieving and resentful, Nabokov reviles an undeserving America, his unintended refuge. This is a place that knows nothing of his great fortune or his unspeakable loss, an America which provides him with both the target of his contempt and his largest and most enthusiastic audience.
Lolita is a brilliant book in many ways, but it’s not a masterpiece. It engages us on a literary and intellectual level in a masterful manner. But the book lacks a crucial component of great fiction: compassion. Great fiction is more than artifice and wordplay, it’s more than cleverness, more than irony. It’s certainly more than unabated rage. As we see in the works of Sophocles, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Bronte and Woolf, the way great writers stretch and inform us involves the heart as well as the mind.
Nabokov creates a brilliant, glittering, snow-queen’s castle, a dazzling confection of lust and artifice and irony and deception. But this isn’t enough to make a great masterpiece: that requires a heart. The only real emotion in Lolita derives from Nabokov’s embitterment, and its expression lies in his interior laughter.
The joke’s on us.