Insider, June 2020
(Continued from part 1.)
Let’s not waste time talking about the beauties of Nabokov’s prose, as do many uncomfortable readers in desperate need of some angle from which Lolita might be safely appreciated. As you can see, there isn’t one.
In any case, pure aesthetics are unreliable: prose can look beautiful or overwritten just as easily, and in fact, Lolita has purely literary deficiencies that are fairly glaring. It is quite ironic that, in his commentary on A Hero of Our Time, Nabokov criticized Lermontov for “extremely unconvincing” dialogue and over-reliance on coincidence. The Ramsdale chapters of Lolita are grotesquely, defiantly unconvincing, and end with the coincidence of having Dolores’ mother die under the wheels of a car that appears out of nowhere, just at the moment when she has run outside with the intention of exposing Humbert to the world. Charlotte in general is an “extremely unconvincing” character. She has apparently picked up enough education and culture to affect high-class airs and fall for Humbert’s European charm (personally, I find it hard to imagine any American woman doing this, but perhaps I just do not meet the right people), but her greatest ambition is to be “engaged as a receptionist in a great elegant city.” (Lolita, 59) Charlotte’s description is not consistent with any one background or social class. She is deliberately left one-dimensional. Come to think of it, so is almost every other character.
Perhaps that is just because the novel is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a narcissist who is unable to see more than one dimension in anybody else. In that case, we should begin with the question: who is Humbert Humbert? Other than “a monster,” I mean. And, thinking about it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Humbert is…Nabokov. No, not in the sense of lusting after Dolores Haze. Put away the pitchforks; Nabokov was married to Vera Slonim for 50 years, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of writers, artists and musicians whose personal lives were far more carnivalesque.
Humbert is Swiss, which is shorthand for “generic European” — he is a carrier of European culture in general, but without any specific individual features that might tie him to a particular European culture. Humbert is fluent in English and French, and well-versed in both cultures, but he himself is neither English nor French, equidistant from both. Not coincidentally, this is also how any European looks to American eyes. An American has a certain conception of what a “European” is like, which is different from his conception of an “Asian” or a “Latin American,” but does not make more than superficial distinctions within that category. To some extent, this reflects Nabokov’s own relationship with Europe — Berlin, Paris and Montreux were all the same to him — but Humbert also lacks any connection to any other culture. This is useful for the plot, since it frees him to focus entirely on his own desires, untroubled by any cultural barriers. But in the eyes of the intended audience, Humbert’s blurred identity actually makes him more clearly recognizable.
A European can make it big in America, as long as he is a freak. It is perfectly fine if he is smarter than Americans, but then he should make up for it by being a slovenly mad scientist who does not know how to behave in public. It is also perfectly fine if he is more cultured and has better manners than Americans, but then he should have a dirty mind, some sort of prurient obsession that turns him into an indecent spectacle. The paying public will happily line up to marvel at any outlandish feat of physical or mental ability, but the sideshow must always have a seedy air.
Well, Humbert is a freak. And, by writing about him, Nabokov became one too. From that moment his financial success was assured. Millions of people murdered or displaced in the Russian Revolution would henceforth be personified by a dumpy middle-aged man, chasing after butterflies, languorously grimacing on camera, writing dirty stories, fit for an intellect like Martin Amis to leer (in the appallingly written introduction to my edition of Lolita), “Even today, after two of Lolita’s lifespans, people are still wandering up to Dmitri Nabokov and asking him what it was like, having a dirty old man for a father,” (xviii) as the lead-in to a patronizing lecture about how, wouldn’t you know, that isn’t really what the book is about after all. Lolita was a Faustian bargain: in exchange for a couple decades of material comfort, Nabokov traded his dignity, not only for the rest of his life, but forever. To this day he serves as a kind of whipping boy, a convenient target for middlebrow indignation, which sees Lolita as proof positive that all culture is inherently morally suspect — grown adults must be protected from “inappropriate” books, or Nabokov will jump out of the bushes and coerce them into sympathizing with Humbert Humbert. Those writers are insidious, you know.
You rolled your eyes at my Star Trek analogy earlier, but I am not done with it. Star Trek was the one time when American culture made a great, uncomfortable effort to acknowledge the existence of other “alien” points of view, and to look at itself, temporarily, from those angles. In doing so, it demonstrated greater humanity than any Western European culture, not one of which has ever done anything of the sort even once. For a European, the mere existence of a non-European is an aesthetic affront, a kind of cosmic absurdity that threatens the logical order of the universe — just look at how generations of European historians, all extremely educated people who were steeped in a culture of the most sophisticated intellectual activity, instantly descended to the level of tabloid-style sloganeering whenever the topic of the Byzantine Empire came up. From their tone, you would think that Byzantium was a rival great power instigating a proxy war against their colonies, rather than an ancient civilization that had perished centuries ago. So if that is the baseline, then Star Trek is the height of moral philosophy in comparison. But the intensity of this effort only lays bare a core conviction of American culture — the European aristocrat, in Star Trek, is a villainous madman; his cultural sophistication is unquestioned, but inherently sinister. For example, to our American captain, whom we have already seen, and to the writers, “education” is synonymous with “intense mind training programs” which produce nothing but genocidal nationalists.
The writers grappled with the treacherous seductive charm of European culture, but eventually the struggle became too much for them: the foreigner’s professions of honor and patriotism must all be phony (Europeans always unfairly use their rhetorical ability to “bend the truth into whatever shape suits them”), mere covers for his narcissistic madness. He even becomes a sexual maniac; don’t give those Europeans a chance to whisper sweet nothings into your ear.
Thus, the European author of Lolita wrote his reptilian European rhetorician in a way that made perfect sense to an American audience. Just as the alien foreigner in Star Trek, Humbert achieves his dramatic effect from a pre-existing deep cultural discomfort with language. About him you can certainly say that he “bends the truth into whatever shape suits him.” His descriptions of his life with Dolores are full of elaborate euphemisms, self-justification is built into his verbal constructions. He repeatedly refers to “the dreamy performance of her enchantments and duties,” (Lolita, 244) complains that “I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita’s morals,” (194) insists that “I did everything in my power to give my Lolita a really good time.” (172) Even details of landscape become inseparable from his excuses: “I did my best for hours on end to give her the impression of ‘going places,’ of rolling on to some definite destination, to some unusual delight… Voraciously we consumed those long highways, in rapt silence we glided over their glossy black dance floors.” (160) At times he affects the tone of a favorite American genre, the road-trip memoir — two years before On the Road! Evidently these philological curlicues are what “charmed” American readers and critics, leading to the inevitable backlash once they had a chance to think about what was really meant. Both the charm and the backlash are well-chronicled.
The Globe and Mail, January 2019
The dark obverse of this strangely giddy celebration was summarized in a 1979 paper in the academic journal Poetics Today as, “What enraged or at least disquieted most readers and critics was the fact that they found themselves unwittingly accepting, even sharing, the feelings of Humbert Humbert… [It is just assumed that “most” readers do this. -FL] Instead of passing moral judgement on this man who violated a deep-rooted sexual and social taboo, they caught themselves identifying with him. Many literary critics have pointed out this strange effect which the novel has on the reader.” This conventional wisdom subsequently seeped into the mass consciousness. A 2014 article in regional news outlet The Oregonian, which I cite here only because it is so utterly generic, introduces Lolita as “Nabokov’s novel about charming Humbert Humbert,” but warns that “Humbert’s ‘gagged‘ discomfort as [Dolores’] ‘legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap,’ will make you want to gag yourself.’” Our plucky “news and entertainment writer” at this periodical then concludes (emphasis in the original), “such is the beauty and power of Nabokov’s prose. We sink luxuriously into Humbert’s perversity; we even — dear God — understand Humbert’s lust, his need.” I don’t quite follow how the novel’s insisted-upon emetic quality ends up leading to “understanding,” but evidently, the point here is that it is the written word itself that is at fault; the reader can’t possibly be expected to withstand such unimaginable power. The 1979 article cites another paper in which Lolita is literally called “an assault on the reader.”
This heinous literary felony was committed in cold blood and with malice aforethought. Nabokov did not bother to hide the artifice of the construction, which is best seen in the preposterous character of Charlotte, but really pervades the entire novel down to the very premise. Humbert, too, is manufactured from mechanical parts, which can sometimes be recognized in unexpected places:
Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, “The Seducer’s Diary”
Either/Or appeared 112 years before Lolita, but now reads like an astoundingly complete recreation of Nabokov’s prose style. It is a collection of essays whose authorship is attributed to fictional characters, and which are “compiled” by an equally fictional editor. (If only Kierkegaard had thought to have “Victor Eremita” write an index, we might have had Pale Fire a century earlier.) There are varying degrees of separation between these fictional authors and Kierkegaard: “The Seducer’s Diary,” in particular, is included among the “papers” of “A,” the main authorial voice of the first half of the book, but it is written, not by him, but by “Johannes, the seducer.” This allows both “A” and “Victor Eremita” to vociferously disapprove of “the designing mind of this depraved person,” much like “John Ray, Jr.,” the fictional editor of Humbert’s manuscript, hastens to moralize, “No doubt, [Humbert] is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy[.]” (Lolita, 5) All of these devices make Either/Or a work of literature as much as (perhaps more than) of philosophy. Kierkegaard and Nabokov had an identical fascination with bending the physical, material aspect of literary work (editing, publication, printing) to the service of its fictional content. Kierkegaard lacked Nabokov’s fondness for parody and caricature; every author in Either/Or is never anything other than gravely serious. But perhaps we should not mistake that for Kierkegaard’s own view — through “A,” he writes, “Behind the world we live in, in the distant background, lies another world standing in roughly the same relation to the former as the stage one sometimes sees in the theatre behind the real stage stands to the latter.” The theatrical artifice of his earnest mouthpieces was clearly not lost on him.
It is interesting to look at Lolita through the lens of “The Seducer’s Diary,” because the latter does not make the slightest pretense of being “realistic” fiction. Neither Johannes, nor his victim Cordelia, is at all plausible. To Johannes, the actual seduction is only a small part of his aesthetic experience, which is the real subject of Either/Or. He deliberately postpones the dirty deed as long as possible in order to enhance the “beauty” of the situation — for example, he spends a great deal of time to manipulate Cordelia into breaking off their engagement, because that is just so much more exquisite than doing it himself. No doubt there are people to whom things like this matter, but Johannes is written with such outlandish excess (there is much florid inner monologue about his machinations, but little descriptive detail to clarify what they actually look like) that it becomes hard to work up real indignation over his crimes, and of course Kierkegaard never expected them to be “real” to anyone. Perhaps the various detached, intellectual interpretations of Lolita (“According to one interpretation, Mr. Nabokov has merely written an allegory,” quoth The New Yorker in 1958) arose because Humbert came across the same way to some readers. It is hard to blame them when Nabokov himself regarded his book, and his audience, with even greater detachment. The foreword by “John Ray, Jr.” preemptively mocks any attempt to connect Lolita to reality: “…still more important to us than scientific significance and literary worth, is the ethical impact the book should have on the serious reader; for in this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story; they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils.” (5)
At the end of Lolita comes the least believable character of all, namely Humbert’s nemesis, Clare Quilty. In defiance of all norms of narrative structure, Quilty is first seen in person on page 312, when it is really too late to introduce the antagonist of a novel. He is mentioned in passing before this, but the reader has no way of knowing that the name will become significant. Apparently, Quilty met Dolores at some point without Humbert knowing, seduced her and convinced her to run away with him (all this occurs offscreen). She then entices Humbert into bringing her on a long road trip, to make it easier to get away from him, and finally disappears. Since Humbert’s obsession with Dolores has left him with no other content in his life, his sole comfort is to take revenge on Quilty, which occurs just 15 pages before the end. Humbert then writes the actual text of the novel in prison, where he dies “a few days before his trial was scheduled to start.” (3)
Even before the spectacularly surreal murder, there is nothing remotely realistic about Quilty. During that last ill-fated road trip, Humbert constantly feels that he is being followed; every time he turns his back, the pursuer literally leaps out of the shadows to conspire against him with Dolores. Retracing his steps later, Humbert discovers that Quilty “had foreseen my investigations and had planted insulting pseudonyms [in hotel guestbooks] for my special benefit.” (264) Evidently, he also had a whole host of underlings at his beck and call, with nothing better to do than to follow Humbert around the country and plant silly taunts in obscure places, including license plate numbers made “of shifting numerals, some transposed, others altered or omitted, but somehow forming interrelated combinations…which however were so cunningly contrived as to never reveal a common denominator.” (267) The last time someone put so much effort into something so pointless was when Johannes seduced Cordelia.
When Humbert catches up to Quilty, reality is warped beyond recognition. It somehow becomes excruciatingly difficult to pull the trigger, and when he does, the bullet appears to limply fall out of the barrel to no effect. Humbert shoots Quilty over and over, but the man simply will not die: “I fired three or four times in quick succession, wounding him at every blaze; and every time I did it to him, that horrible thing to him, his face would twitch in an absurd clownish manner, as if he were exaggerating the pain; he slowed down, rolled his eyes half closing them and made a feminine ‘ah!’ and he shivered every time a bullet hit him as if I were tickling him…and in distress, in dismay, I understood that far from killing him I was injecting spurts of energy into the poor fellow, as if the bullets had been capsules wherein a heady elixir danced.” (321) When you think about it, none of this really has anything to do with Dolores or with any previous events in the novel; it does not naturally grow out of, is not justified by, anything we have previously seen. The fact that Quilty has never shown up before only makes the scene of his murder into something completely self-contained, free of any narrative content. It ends with a dash of Chandleresque wit, the sort of inventive, mean-spirited banter that substituted for plot in the hard-boiled genre:
The author of Lolita contemplates his audience.
The utter lunacy of this material has given rise to the interpretation that none of it is “real” — that is, Quilty is a figment of Humbert’s imagination; Dolores did not run off with him, but rather died in the hospital at Elphinstone, Arizona, where by Humbert’s admission she was seriously ill; and Humbert invented this cartoonish revenge as a form of self-exoneration, with Quilty serving as a convenient foil who can credibly look worse than even Humbert himself. Well, Nabokov is after all the founder of the Charles Kinbote school of literary criticism, and his own books are the best fuel for it, but there is some rationale behind this reading. Humbert noticeably begins to sound much more paranoid than usual (and also admits to drinking heavily) around the time of the Elphinstone episode, and readers have found odd inconsistencies in the dates that he gives — on the last page, he writes, “When I started, fifty-six days ago, to write Lolita, first in the psychopathic ward for observation, and then in this well-heated, albeit tombal, seclusion,” but this does not reconcile with the date of his death (November 16) in the foreword, and the date when he claims to have received a letter from Dolores (September 22). Nabokov even added a new inconsistency in his Russian self-translation, rendering “and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska” (327) as “even though I am in New York, and you are in Alaska,” which suggests that he never left his New York apartment in the first place.
Unfortunately, this reading causes more problems than it solves: if Dolores died in Elphinstone, then John Ray, Jr. must also have been fabricated by Humbert, since he clearly says that Dolores “died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest.” (4) Perhaps Humbert is devious enough to misdirect readers in this way — but then, why didn’t he bother to make his murder of Quilty sound even slightly plausible? Why did he depict himself reading an absolutely terrible free-verse poem out loud to Quilty? And why, after going to all that trouble, didn’t he do something as simple as checking his own made-up dates? Furthermore, if Humbert made up Clare Quilty, there is little reason to believe that Charlotte (or Dolores herself, for that matter) was real, since every character in the book is a caricature to some extent.
In the end, I think the simplest explanation suffices: Humbert is reporting his own perception of events; his descriptions and interpretations may be dishonest or self-justifying, but the events themselves occurred more or less as written; and any problems with the record are simply an indication of Nabokov’s lack of respect for the reader, just like his totally unnatural plot contrivances and wooden characters. Humbert’s revenge is so idiotic because, through it, the author is exacting, from the world at large, a measure of satisfaction for what he knows will be a permanent stain on his name (while also making it internationally famous, but that is just another reason to despise the audience). The only productive approach for the reader is to view the denouement of Lolita as “real,” within the conventions of the novel’s world, and consider the implications.
But, real or not, it is hard not to walk away with the impression that the murder of Quilty is somehow of overriding importance, despite its blatantly unnatural character and weak connection to everything that precedes it. It is highlighted in Dmitry Galkovsky’s philosophical novel The Infinite Deadlock, where Nabokov plays a significant role, and given the following interpretation:
from The Infinite Deadlock, comment #178
This reading is used to illustrate one of the recurring themes of Galkovsky’s work, namely what he sees as the inferior quality of individual consciousness in Russians as opposed to Europeans. That is far outside our current subject, but as for the interpretation itself, I have to disagree with both parts of it. First, Humbert is assigned the role of “Russian,” but there is nothing Russian about him. His attitude toward Russians is one of detached disdain (cf. the comic description of the White Army officer-turned-taxi driver who seduces Humbert’s first wife), the kind of vague impersonal feeling that one has for something distant and unimportant. He has little knowledge of, or interest in, Russian culture, unlike French and English culture. You would at least expect a literary-minded Russian to express himself in metaphors from Russian literature, as indeed Galkovsky does throughout his work, but Humbert does not, even though he does mention King Lear and Emma Bovary. Nor is there anything specifically Russian in the confrontation with Quilty. Revenge is not a major theme in Russian culture. People may be killed impersonally, or out of perceived necessity, or out of passion or spite, but for this particular sort of premeditated theatrical revenge, it is simpler to turn to European culture (Hamlet, Rigoletto). The showdown between Humbert and Quilty reads like a parody of a duel, where Humbert first reads his challenge as a European knight in armor would — the enemy must understand why he is to be killed, and by whom. But it is not a Russian duel. Those happen for no reason; if you were to ask Onegin what caused his quarrel with Lensky, after the fact, he wouldn’t be able to explain.
On the other hand, there is also nothing European about Quilty. He is an American — “Born in Ocean City, NJ” (Lolita, 33) — and his response to Humbert’s accusations is purely American: he proposes to settle the conflict with material goods, which he believes can override any point of honor. He offers numerous increasingly bizarre bribes to Humbert, then tries to talk him out of his murderous intent, stupefying him with lively but idiotic monologue that goes nowhere (American diplomacy in action). His sales pitch, laden with Americanisms, jumps chaotically from one offer to another, on the off chance that he might hit upon something that works:
Stanley Kubrick, another American who actually did retire to England forever, understood the essence of this exchange so well that he actually improved upon it, with Nabokov’s gleeful cooperation, in his film adaptation of Lolita. Quilty is now not only an anachronistic “playwright,” but also a “TV writer.” In the book, “Clare the Impredictable sat down before the piano and played several atrociously vigorous, fundamentally hysterical, plangent chords” (320) right in the middle of his own murder. In Kubrick’s film, he accompanies this with an offer to co-write a hit pop song with Humbert (“We could dream up some lyrics, maybe. You and I dream ’em up together? You know, share the profits?“). The film is far more overt in satirizing American culture; even Charlotte looks more believable as a histrionic, pretentious nymphomaniac. (“Oh, you do arouse the pagan in me!” is another invention that improves on the book.)
As long as Quilty feels that he has an advantage, he can keep his confidence, and indeed almost succeeds in catching Humbert off his guard and overpowering him. But as soon as it becomes clear that his opponent will not back down and there is no way out, Quilty immediately folds, literally hiding under the covers. Humbert then demonstrates his European cruelty by killing him anyway — a Russian would have spat on the floor in disgust and let him live, if he still hadn’t shot him by this point.
Kubrick picked up on this setup so quickly because Nabokov did not really invent it. The hyper-dramatic confrontation between the mercantile American and the principled European is a product of American, not European culture. Here is another instance of it, this time by an American writer, and without the slightest trace of irony:
The thug is a stereotyped American, who talks and thinks in street jargon. His interrogator is technically also American, but has undergone Europeanization by transforming into an invincible undead avenger, which causes him to quote Rimbaud and speak in poetic metaphors. Unbeknownst to their author, these characters then perform a surprisingly complete reenactment of the Humbert/Quilty standoff, including the European’s solemn declaration of intent (even the cause for the vendetta is a woman) and the American’s attempt to weasel out of the accusation using money, and ending with the European killing his opponent in a manner that is not a little sadistic. Only the comedy is missing.
Thus, Lolita may have been deliberately constructed to be compatible with American perceptions, but it is no less American for it. In fact it is more so than many literary works produced by actual American writers, many of whom were simply attempting to follow European trends — Romanticism for Poe, Naturalism for Dreiser and Norris — with a little American color thrown in. Even Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” is really an entirely European concoction, an awkward fit at best for the country whose losses in World War I were a tiny fraction of those suffered by the European nations. Nabokov may not have been above poking fun at American culture — certainly he was Kubrick’s willing accomplice — but at the end, even Quilty looks like a harmless comic figure. And, after all, nobody forced Nabokov to manipulate American culture by writing this book. That was entirely his choice; in light of that, one of Humbert’s rare honest moments takes on an ironic second meaning: “And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned to sleep.” (Lolita, 186) Whatever Nabokov’s intentions may have been, in the end Lolita is not a satire, and what emerges from it is, if not the real America, then a clear reflection of it on a smooth surface.
The name of Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the Russia Today television network, is infamous in Western journalistic circles (less so these days, since they now have enough to do denouncing and purging each other). But even if you have heard of her, you may not know that, in 1996, as a teenage girl, she spent a year living in New England as part of a student exchange program. In 2018, she wrote a remarkable memoir about this experience:
entry in Simonyan’s personal blog
It is impossible not to think about this in the language of Lolita, and Simonyan does: “The lake was literally out of Nabokov’s Ramsdale — I think Lolita begins somewhere in these parts. Actually many things in these parts were literally taken out of Lolita, but today we won’t talk about that.” At times, Lolita almost seems cheerful in comparison:
from Simonyan’s reminiscence
One might say that Simonyan was writing an “anti-American” text on assignment, but then, that is exactly what some people said about Nabokov in 1955, and even his Olympian contempt for humanity was not enough to prevent him from writing, in a later afterword, “Another charge which some readers have made is that Lolita is anti-American. This is something that pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality.” (Lolita, 333) If Simonyan’s reminiscence expresses any sentiment toward Americans, it is lyrical sympathy; her most vivid memory from this time is of a high-school outcast named John McCue, with whom she maintained a secret friendship — “secret” because, according to one of her classmates, “You can’t talk to an outcast, or you’ll be an outcast yourself.” Simonyan, by her own account, wasn’t strong enough to violate this social taboo, but apparently it never even occurred to John to hold it against her. As a matter of fact, that very same unthinking generosity, which Simonyan gratefully remembered 20 years later, also appears in Nabokov, in the scene of Humbert’s final meeting with Dolores. Her final words to Humbert are, “Stop crying, please. You should understand. Let me get you some more beer. Oh, don’t cry, I’m so sorry I cheated so much, but that’s the way things are.” (296)
Nabokov’s mangled, grossly artificial freak show of a novel, which can barely be said to even have a coherent plot, interwove itself with the strands of American life and character. Not a single individual aspect of it is believable, but if you step back, the garish colors coalesce into something recognizable and emblematic, in the same way that a Hollywood movie poster has no connection to real human life and yet remains authentically American. But, as in Pale Fire, the joke is ultimately on the author, the true villain of his own novel. The European monster sits alone in his cell and weeps, but remains unredeemed. In the end, Humbert knows very well that neither giving money to Dolores, nor murdering Quilty in that farcical manner, atones for what he did before. He understands his own horrific cruelty, but is unable to feel any real contrition. His punishment does not match his crime, but that is the surest sign of his damnation.
I honestly never understood any of that talk about Humbert’s “charm” or how Nabokov’s poor, gullible readers are deceived into “unwittingly accepting, even sharing” Humbert’s pathology. Some people evidently cannot see the difference between loquacity and charm. For all of his clever turns of phrase in writing, Humbert is directly, brutally nasty in speech, and his mannered euphemisms and insinuations can easily be read as expressions of sadism:
What Humbert calls his “methods to keep my pubescent concubine in submission and passable temper” (157) basically reduce to blunt threats: “Finally, let us see what happens if you…complain to the police of my having kidnaped and raped you? Let us suppose they believe you… So I go to jail. Okay. I go to jail. But what happens to you, my orphan? Well, you are luckier. You become the ward of the Department of Public Welfare — which I am afraid sounds a little bleak.” (159) Kierkegaard’s Johannes would never have stooped to such crudity. You would think that a “charming” psychopath would have tried to get inside his victim’s head, to manipulate Dolores into accepting the situation and even believing herself to be a willing participant (as Johannes does). But Humbert is quite ineffective in this respect. On some level he understands this, and it only makes him uglier:
And surely even the most ingenuous, impressionable readers cease to “identify” with Humbert once he informs them that “I could switch in the course of one day from one pole of insanity to the other — from the thought that around 1950 I would have to get rid somehow of a difficult adolescent whose magic nymphage had evaporated — to the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force de l’âge; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time…bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.” (184) From then on, if you still feel that (to quote a 2016 NPR broadcast), “As a character, [Humbert is] terrific. He’s charismatic. There is something horribly fascinating about seeing the world through Humbert’s eyes. I mean, he’s the best company you could have for a very dark and depraved story,” you’re on your own — I don’t think you can credibly blame Nabokov anymore.
It is certainly true that Humbert’s overbearing, controlling attitude, and the stifling and isolated life he imposes on Dolores, would be bad enough even without the rest of it. This has led to an inversion of the “allegorical” reading, which is well summarized by a 2011 article with the very generic title, “Gender and Power in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita,” (it is Nabokov’s eternal punishment to have such articles written about his work) whose author asserts that, “Time and time again through Lolita we see Humbert’s most extreme actions and emotions not as a result of his physical desires but rather his psychological need to win, to possess, and to control.” In other words, Humbert is now evil, instead of “charming,” but strangely, for all the critical protestations on Dolores’ behalf, the physical filth of his actions is turned into some sort of sterile metaphor for “power” or “domination.” In the same way, “seduction” for Kierkegaard’s Johannes is so heavily stylized as to remove any physical element.
But, at the end of the day, Humbert is not Johannes, and Nabokov is not Kierkegaard, and Lolita is not a philosophical essay. Humbert’s “psychological need to win, to possess, and to control” is of decidedly secondary importance to his “physical desires.” He is, occasionally, able to criticize himself or show concern for Dolores. But he is never able to distract himself from his ever-present lust, not even for a moment. One of the most significant and formative experiences in his life was a boyhood infatuation, at the age of twelve, with a girl named Annabel Leigh (after Poe), who stayed at his father’s hotel in Switzerland. Humbert describes her in the wistful, sentimental tone often used for such memories, but where for most people the intensity of first love has at least some sublime, poetic aspect, for Humbert it was parodically carnal: “our healthy and inexperienced young bodies” were in “such a state of exasperation that not even the cold blue water, under which we still clawed at each other, could bring relief,” and the young Humbert is interrupted “on the point of possessing my darling[.]” (Lolita, 13) Not only is there no hint of romantic affection, but “She would try to relieve the pain of love…and let me feed on her open mouth” (15) does not even sound particularly pleasurable — it is more like substance abuse long after the initial enjoyment has disappeared. And that was the most elevated, ideal experience in Humbert’s life.
Humbert simply cannot stop. No diversion, no change of scenery can distract him from what is always on his mind. After a tennis lesson, “I would lead my reluctant pet to our small home for a quick connection before dinner.” (173) Even illness is not a reason for a break in the schedule: “Around Christmas she caught a bad chill and was examined by a friend of Miss Lester, a Dr. Ilse Tristramson… She diagnosed bronchitis, patted Lo on the back (all its bloom erect because of the fever) and put her to bed for a week or longer. At first she ‘ran a temperature’ in American parlance, and I could not resist the exquisite caloricity of unexpected delights — Venus febriculosa — though it was a very languid Lolita that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace.” (210) One might say that this is all part of Humbert’s “need to control,” but there are times when he wants to stop, if only for a moment, and still cannot:
It seems to me that these are the most damning lines in Lolita. The rest of the novel describes a twisted aberration of a man, who can easily be disliked and reviled, despite all the assurances to the contrary. There is no difficulty in maintaining a distance from him. But here, in this passage, what Nabokov described is…male desire. Change Dolores’ age to 25, and this would be the only part of the entire book that would remain unchanged. It is impossible to ever truly satisfy physical lust. Even if every one of your urges were to be suddenly fulfilled, over and above, down to the least, slightest ones that you weren’t even aware of — in a laughably short time, “ironically, horribly,” they would be back all the stronger, and your satisfaction would be so completely gone that you would not even remember it. Desire debases both its subject and its object. No matter how much aesthetics one tries to pile on top of it, in essence it is always accompanied by a loss of human form.
A famous example, by a director who may have been looking in the mirror.
Among all the teachings in New Testament, perhaps the most difficult to accept is, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.” It is even more shocking than, “But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” That, at least, still allows the possibility of “decent” desire, without adultery, in marriage. Indeed, that is how this statement has always been interpreted in Christian tradition — even as St. Paul argues that, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman,” he still tells them, “Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time,” where “defraud” means “abstain from.” If that still sounds ambivalent, St. John Chrysostom also added, “because such abstinence leads to great evil; it has often caused adultery, fornication and disorder in family life.” And yet, from Matthew 22:30, it seems that even marriage is after all a product of our ungainly earthly form, and has no place “in the resurrection.”
Maybe now we can see why. People are capable of love, but some part of it always remains unfinished, and even a sincere effort, with genuine labor and sacrifice, is still only a weak echo of the love of God. Our all-important self is not able to overcome the final distance separating it from those we love the most. In this prison of the self we remain alone with only our animal lusts for company, eventually contaminating even our highest thoughts and aspirations, reducing them to ugly parodies of themselves. In that sense, yes, Humbert Humbert, in whom there is nothing other than ugly parody, is never very far away. The Biblical admonition does not deny humanity, but offers to rescue it, to give the human ability to love a chance to finally exist.
Nabokov made Humbert disgusting out of self-disgust. The beautiful, harmonious childhood memories which he sculpted so lovingly in Speak, Memory are here sarcastically inverted into lifeless “lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards,” (Lolita, 5) the exalted, youthfully earnest feelings of his first love are twisted into the comic priapism of twelve-year-old Humbert slavering over Annabel. European culture, art, language all turned into empty words, but life drags on — an ignominious, pointless life as a beast. Don’t judge him for Lolita. He already punished himself for it.
(Continuation: part 3.)