Thursday, March 24, 2011

We Need to Talk About "Lolita" by Alex Snider

Lolita is a book you read twice, three times, four times but never once. Reading Lolita once will leave you feeling sorry for Humbert Humbert, blaming Dolores, resenting Nabokov for making you a little hot under the collar (only for the first half, the 'tease' leaves you wanting the rest of the novel), in other words: you will miss the whole point.

Rereading Lolita you catch the hints that point to Humbert's monstrousness; you see the bread crumbs left by Nabokov which lead back to the world of morality. Humbert fixes himself up with several defenses: she seduced him, age of consent is arbitrary (Humbert regularly invokes Dante and Beatrice, Plutarch and his young lover but always leaves out that yes, the lovers were children but so were Dante and Plutarch -- a far cry from little Lo and middle-aged Humbert), she was a stupid brat anyway (a close reading will catch her intelligence and survival instincts), followers of Freud will blame Humbert's coitus interupptus with young Annabel Leigh for his monstrous sexual preferences (Humbert quickly falters on that one and mocks "Herr Doktar" from the beginning), still others will see Lolita as a great love story (ugh). 
Although there is definitely something strange going on if a reader believes that a twelve year old child who has been kidnapped and raped repeatedly somehow was compliant but Humbert is very convincing and a reader can be forgiven (with raised eyebrows) for believing any of his defenses; even my beloved Robertson Davies believed that Humbert was the victim of an evil child who exploited his love and Vanity Fair calls Lolita "The only convincing love story of our century" (I don't... I don't even know...). 
It is upon rereading (which Nabokov spent his life stressing the importance of, driving it home in all of his novels) when the reader notices the cracks in the facade. Lo cries herself to sleep every night (he never asks why – not much of the caring lover he postures to be). She doesn't know what sex is when she 'seduces' him. She leaves him on Independence Day. Humbert feels remorse and acknowledges, at the end, that he "broke her life". 
The reader must remember, the re-reader too, that everything we are told is from Humbert, he is the narrator and an unreliable one at that, as is made clear time and time again with brief snippets of dialogue between him and Lo. 
Humbert is a vile monster, a predator who kidnaps an orphaned child and holds her captive for two years, raping her constantly. There is no excuse for this, no defense; perhaps the audience's willingness to lay some of the blame on Lo stems from our culture of rape, where the survivor is always responsible for their attack, how else to explain any ambiguity in the interpretation of Humbert Humbert? Or is it because in the movies Lo is always very sexual and decidedly pubescent? In the novel Lo is a kid, a pre-teen, pre-pubescent with no great skill of seduction because she is a child who does kid things like shun cleanliness and read comic books. The movies and the book covers misrepresent Lo as a sexy teenager when she was hapless kid. 
Lolita has entered our vernacular as a term to describe over-sexed teenagers; missing the point entirely that she was in fact a victim of sexual predators, pedophiles. In fetishizing Lo, the audience has absolved Humbert of any guilt.
The greatest disappointment of Nabokov's life was that the book was so widely misinterpreted, but banking on re-readers was a mistake which helped cause generations of readers to believe in Humbert's innocence, the other mistake was thinking that a patriarchal society would ever sympathize with a female rape-victim.
Lolita is one of the funniest, most perfectly wrought novels and every reader owes it to themselves to read it, then reread it, then reread it again -- there is something to be gleaned every time. This novel will enhance life, it will sharpen the senses and inspire greatness -- sweet fancy Moses, it is incredible! But it is not a love story.


  1. "Lolita has entered our vernacular as a term to describe over-sexed teenagers; missing the point entirely that she was in fact a victim of sexual predators, pedophiles. In fetishizing Lo, the audience has absolved Humbert of any guilt."

  2. There's one other point that we were discussing a few nights ago, that Hollywood has always cast handsome leading men to play Humbert, which totally affects the way the viewer feels about him. In the novel, Humbert might describe himself as having the looks of a movie star, but as you know, nothing he says is objective in any way! Handsome or not, Humbert rhymes with pervert, but we also know that people generally find it harder to believe handsome men are capable of rape :/

  3. YES to all of this. I just--thank you.

  4. Thanks for the comment, lethaea! I really like your blog; the post on slurs really hits the nail on the head!

  5. Hi! Thank you for your insightful post regarding 'Lolita'. It's one of my fav. books, having first read it when I was a little more than Delores's age. I was appalled, even disgusted at times so greatly that I had to stop reading it. I was never convinced by H.H.'s clever, eloquent dialogue. I've been more than annoyed with people over the years who excuse his actions, but much like you said regarding the mistakes in interpreting it, we live in a society that blames rape victims. Look at the Roman Polanski case as the big example. What I do think is that if H.H. were attracted to male nymphs or whatever he would call them, he wouldn't have the great support he receives in patriarchal heterosexist circles. They would see him for what he is, rather than rationlizing his actions & blaming his victim. It was an important novel to be written, one of the most beautiful in English, but it works better at exposing the values of a reader & their ability to perceive truth from falsehoods.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Tracy! I'm really glad you enjoyed the post. Ultimately, I think that the problem is that Western society places too much trust and reverence on "well-bred" (gag) upper-middle class white men who don't fit the criminal mold. H.H. and Polanski both fall into that, as if the thinking is that they can't possibly be monsters because they're like us*; there has to be another explanation.

    Over time, Lolita and the image of the nymphet has become one of an older girl, a teenager which I tend to take as a way of making the story more palatable. I'm reading Nabokov's collection of interviews "Strong Opinions" right now and he chastises one interviewer for neglecting to remember that H.H. is attracted to girl-children, not teenagers and that at 14 L. is his "aging mistress". The ploy to make her the bad guy to alleviate the ickiness is really pathetic, but hey, slut-shaming and victim-blaming happens every time a survivor comes forward.

    Ugh, just seeing the name Roman Polanski makes my blood boil...

    * The class of people making excuses for the white collar pedophiles.

  7. "The only convincing love story of our century" is the quote used on the newest American edition of Lolita. It's terrifying and revolting and depressing, but not surprising, unfortunately.

    1. I don't know how to identify myself, so I will say I am Kay Augustine. It appears that my post disappeared because I didn't click on "publish." I'm 81 and don't have the energy to re-compose what I wrote, except to say the blurb you reference (and alluded to in Snider's excellent essay) appears to be taken not from a review in Vanity Fair (is there even one?) but from an article by D. Barton Johnson, a Lolita translator, published in Vanity Fair, "Gregor von Rezzori & the Nabokovs." In discussing various interpretations of Lolita, Johnson lists the quote among them, although he does not agree with it. It would appear that the American publishers, like so many movie promoters, took words from Johnson's article and misused them to imply that a review in Vanity Fair had described the book as a great love story. Ugh.

  8. I feel the Novel and the Movie produce two entirely different feelings for the most part . I was shocked when watching what to me seemed a poor pathetic H.H merely in the right place at the right time.Delores is a bratty little bitch who at early age 11 was taught how to munipulate and seduce males of any age into getting exactly what she wants.Lets not forget she was not a sweet pubescent virgin ,No H.H was not the first to take her innocent virtue. It a horrid situation that keeps piling ontop untill we teach the peek of Delores at the ripe old age of (according to the Novel) 17 pregnate and married. The movie depicts H.H more as a victim and you can see he truly madly deeply is intact in love with his Lolita and would do anything to protect her from harm , eventually murder. It's a sad love story