Lolita turns 50

We've just made it through the American library Association's 27th annual Banned Books Week, and I hope you spent it as festively as I did. You might have read your kids the most-challenged book of 2007, Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson's "And Tango Makes Three," the 2005 children's book about the pair of real-life male penguins in Central Park who hatched an egg together. (Its alleged offenses, according to the ALA: "Anti-Ethnic, Sexism, Homosexuality, Anti-Family, Religious Viewpoint,

Unsuited to Age Group.") Or you might have revisited that perennial recidivist "Huckleberry Finn," No. 5 on last year's list ("Racism"), or perhaps the book that just edged out Huck for fourth place, Philip Pullman's "The Golden Compass" ("Religious Viewpoint"), or the book Huck displaced, Alice Walker's sixth-place "The Color Purple" ("Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language"). So many transgressive pleasures, so little time.

Or you might have followed the lead of the folks who run the Carnegie-Stout Public Library in Dubuque, Iowa, who observed Banned Books Week with an event called "Reading 'Lolita' in Dubuque." "How can I participate?" its Web site asked. Why, simply "by checking out Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 classic novel 'Lolita' and Azar Nafisi's 2003 memoir 'Reading Lolita in Tehran'." Iowans have been touchy about their supposed censoriousness since the 1920s, when Harold Ross, founder of The New Yorker, announced that his new magazine would not be edited "for the old lady in Dubuque," and this event seemed to be their latest act of defiance. But "Lolita" hasn't been seriously threatened in the United States for decades. As far as I can tell, the book's last skirmish with the foot soldiers of decency was back in January 2006, when the Marion County, Fla., library system fended off a challenge to remove it from unrestricted access; county commissioners backed the librarian by a 3-2 vote.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the first American edition of "Lolita." It had appeared in France three years earlier, under the imprint of Paris's Olympia Press, an arty-shady purveyor of both edgy English-language literature and straight-up erotica. Nabokov, not wanting to endanger his job at Cornell, had at first wanted to publish it under a pseudonym; it was banned in France in 1956. When the G.P. Putnam edition came out in August 1958, New York Times critic Orville Prescott called it "repulsive" and a work of "highbrow pornography," but he was drowned out by praise from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Graham Greene, William Styron and Lionel Trilling. By late September, "Lolita" was the best-selling book in America, and Life magazine had sent reporters and photographers to Ithaca, N.Y., where Nabokov had lived in a series of rented houses and apartments and was beginning what turned out to be his final semester. Nabokov delighted in the success of "Lolita," which enabled him at last to quit the teaching he'd done to support himself since coming to the United States in 1940, although—in a characteristic fit of aggrieved egotism—he wrote to his sister that "this all ought to have happened thirty years ago."

Despite its subject matter, "Lolita" makes a tough target for the censors. Unlike "And Tango Makes Three," it's hardly a book addressed to impressionable children. They wouldn't get past its lacily alliterative first line—"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins"—with its carefully balanced pairings ("light/fire," "life/loins"). Nor would they be able to decode its fancy-dan language. Humbert Humbert describes his hyperbolically large erection as "a foot of engorged brawn," and he reports Dolly Haze's blunter mode of speech with Francophonic delicacy: " 'I said no, I'm just not going to [she used, in all insouciance really, a disgusting slang term which, in a literal French translation, would be souffler] your beastly boys'." And "Lolita" now comes impregnably armored in literary reputation. In 1998, the board of the Modern Library voted it No. 4 on its list of the 20th century's greatest English-language novels, behind "The Great Gatsby," "Ulysses"—another distinguished dead horse the prudes have given up on beating—and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." And Nafisi's memoir, in which she surreptitiously teaches the novel to a group of Iranian women, testifies to its broad and enduring appeal.

There are probably a few people left who still have the idea that "Lolita" is a Ribald Classic (a.k.a. "romp") like "Tom Jones" (which Nabokov, by the way, found "horribly dull") or a pornographic farce in which we slaver along with an aging roué in his pursuit of a seductive (a.k.a. "nubile") young minx who basically has it coming to her. But anyone who's read the book knows that Humbert Humbert is a fearful, treacherous and guilt-ridden man in early middle age, and that his victim is a confused 12-year-old, whose father has died and whose mother fears and resents her budding sexuality. The dominant note of Humbert's yearlong erotic rhapsody is "her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep."

In the dozen or so years I've been teaching "Lolita" to graduate writing students, more than one now grown woman has told of having read the novel in early puberty and finding the title character an empowering figure—and except for their use of the cant term "empowering" they seem to have turned out just fine. Humbert's "victim," they point out, actually initiates the first full-on sexual encounter, and thereafter she's in control, playing him for clothes, junk food, doodads and a grand tour of America's tackiest tourist traps, doling out her favors while holding a rape charge over his head, and ultimately abandoning him for a new "protector." I'm all for taking empowerment where you find it, but the novel makes clear that, despite her small Pyrrhic victories, this is a broken child. The heartbreaking scene in which we see her playing tennis shows her life in microcosm. She's supremely graceful, "always at ease, always rather vague about the score, always cheerful as she so seldom was in the dark life she led at home," and she always loses. Her form, Humbert concludes, is "an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis—without any utilitarian results."

Those who know the novel understand that there is no such person as the enchantress "Lolita"—only an ordinary American girl named Dolores Haze, fond of pop music, chewing gum and roller skates, encumbered with a nickname too exotic for her to inhabit. The book's title is an artful misdirection: it points not at its putative heroine, but at her representation in the narrator's mind. And while Humbert Humbert works hard to beguile his readers, he never seduced his creator; in one interview Nabokov called him "a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear 'touching'." The closest Nabokov came to an expression of sympathy was in the foreword to his own translation of his 1936 Russian novel "Despair." Both Humbert and Herrmann, the narrator of "Despair," are "neurotic scoundrels," Nabokov wrote, "yet there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year." And while Nabokov's afterword to "Lolita" asserts that the book "has no moral in tow"—that is, it's not a didactic work—he told the critic Edmund Wilson that it was "a highly moral affair." On Halloween night in 1958, a little girl came trick-or-treating to Nabokov's door in Lolita costume, complete with tennis racquet; according to Brian Boyd's definitive two-volume biography, the man who'd brought Dolores Haze into being was "quite shocked."

In much of Nabokov's work, this bedrock humaneness can be hard to see beneath the baroque artifice, and his preference for high-altitude playfulness over conventional "sincerity"—a word he didn't use without quotation marks—is often mistaken for mandarin iciness. It may in fact have been his way of mastering emotion that might otherwise have mastered him: it's significant that he once said such "beastly" characters as Humbert were "outside my inner self," like gargoyles on the façade of a cathedral, "demons placed there merely to show that they have been booted out." In such subsequent novels as "Pale Fire" and "Ada," Nabokov's art may show more prominently than his heart, but "Lolita" strikes an ideal balance. Take, for instance, the climactic moment in which Dolly Haze makes a crucial confession to Humbert. To understand it, you'll need a little refresher on the plot, so sit back and make yourself comfortable.

All through the book, Dolly has been stalked not only by Humbert, but by another pedophile, a famous playwright named Clare Quilty; Quilty first meets her on a visit to her hometown, where his uncle happens to be a dentist. Humbert misses the many clues to Quilty's shadow presence—and so will the first-time reader of the novel, though they're clear enough in retrospect. On a summer road trip across the U.S., Quilty, with Dolly's connivance, follows Humbert and Dolly's car, keeping in touch with her by surreptitious phone calls and furtive meetings. Finally he succeeds in stealing her away to his ranch, where he attempts to inveigle her into making pornographic movies. (And where she refuses to souffler the "beastly boys" he's lined up for her.) Years later, Humbert manages to track her down again—she's married a sweet and clueless young man and has become pregnant—and insists on knowing the name of her abductor. At last she tells him, but in reporting it to us, Humbert is exasperatingly coy: "And softly, confidentially, arching her thin eyebrows and puckering her parched lips, she uttered, a little mockingly, somewhat fastidiously, not untenderly, in a kind of muted whistle, the name that the astute reader has guessed long ago." Then, instead of the name, we get a flare-up of Humbert's ever-active memory: "Waterproof. Why did a flash from Hourglass Lake cross my consciousness?"

Why indeed—and what's he talking about? He's expecting us astute readers to recall an episode 183 pages earlier, when Humbert is swimming with Charlotte Haze, Dolly's mother, at a lake near the Hazes' hometown. When they're far from shore, he has an impulse to drown her in order to possess her daughter unobstructed. (He needn't have worried; she'll shortly be hit and killed by a conveniently passing car.) But he can't bring himself to do it, and when they come out of the water it's noted that Humbert had forgotten to take off his wristwatch. Charlotte (who had bought it for him) proudly says the word "waterproof"—as Humbert describes it, "softly, making a fish mouth." And why should this moment come back to him, several years and 183 pages after the fact, when Dolly makes her revelation? Look in the mirror and watch your lips form the same fish mouth when pronouncing the words "Quilty" and "waterproof."

It's a surpassingly clever stroke—one of many small marvels in this intricately constructed novel. But Nabokov isn't merely a literary watchmaker, with busy little hands and a loupe in his beady eye. From the very first paragraph of Humbert's narrative, he directs our attention to the movements of the mouth: "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." A few pages later, Humbert gives an unappetizing description of his first wife, the unhappy Valeria: " The mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama." This first mouth-to-mouth comparison of mother and daughter anticipates the second, the far more important resemblance between Charlotte and Dolly Haze.

And why is this important? Because in Humbert's private mythology, Dolly is the "nymphet" Lolita, a creature whose "true nature is not human, but … demoniac," a changeling without family or history, existing on an "intangible island of entranced time," where neither she nor Humbert will ever grow up. In everyday reality, however, which Humbert, solipsize as he will, can never entirely manage to ignore, she is simply "a North American girlchild named Dolores Haze," who will grow into a woman like her mother—"she of the noble nipple and massive thigh"—and who will take her place in the world of "normal big males consorting with their normal big mates," the world of passing time. Time, not little girls, is Humbert's truest obsession—and the novel's as well.

The book's faux foreword, written by Nabokov impersonating a preposterous academic named "John Ray, Ph.D.," calls it "a case history" which will become "a classic in psychiatric circles." But Nabokov found psychoanalysis grotesque and inhuman—he habitually called Freud "the Viennese witch doctor"—and the "trauma" that sets Humbert on his pedophiliac path is a mockery of psychological realism. (If you care, as a 13-year-old, he was interrupted as he was about to make love to his 13-year-old girlfriend.) "Lolita" lets us watch Humbert's pursuit of his quarry through his eyes, but it offers no useful insights into the mind of a madman—only into the mind of an artist.

"Ray" also argues that the book tends "unswervingly to nothing less than a moral apotheosis." This might make an attractive argument should a new dark age descend—on Inauguration Day 2009, say—and the book banners once again put "Lolita" in the cross hairs. But ultimately it won't wash. True, Humbert has his apotheosis, on the second-to-last page of his narrative, when he claims to realize that "the hopelessly poignant thing" about his story isn't his loss of Lolita—as he persists in calling Dolly—but her loss of her own childhood. Nabokov, though, is perfectly ambivalent. As Keats said of Shakespeare, he's possessed of "Negative Capability"—that is, he's "capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason." This wouldn't get him or his novel off the hook if they came up before the mullahs—of whatever faith. "Lolita" answers to a stern morality, but it's the morality of esthetics, in which, to quote Keats again, beauty is truth and truth beauty. Humbert has ruined a life—two lives, if you count his own—in attempting to defy the passage of time, but in writing his story, he's preserved his victim and himself forever. Or at least as long as language will last. "I am thinking of aurochs and angels," he concludes—and how like Nabokov to pull out of his magician's top hat the name of an extinct European bison, which will send readers to their dictionaries in the middle of his peroration—"the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita." The name of the beloved, then, is the alpha and omega of this immortal novel. Though, of course, it's not her name.

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