Consider Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I know that some of you have read this book, but perhaps not all of you, so please bear with me.
Nabokov was a Russian who knew English better than most Americans. He wrote Lolita in English and later translated it into Russian. You may have seen a film of it, but no film can depict Nabokov’s sublime and sometimes flamboyant English. The book is narrated (not always reliably) by Humbert Humbert, a literature professor in his 30s who falls in love with a 12-year-old child named Dolores Haze. This is shocking. The child has already had sex and aims to seduce Humbert Humbert. This is also shocking, though it may be one of Humbert’s lies. Humbert Humbert marries the child’s mother in order to be closer to Dolores, or, as he calls her, Lolita. This too is shocking. The book came out in the late 1950s, a few years before the Beatles shocked the world.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Thus the book begins. Humbert attributes his attraction to young girls a result of his loss of a childhood friend. This may be accurate or it may be an excuse. Either way, he agrees to marry Lolita’s mother, Charlotte. But before long, Charlotte falls out of the book. Humbert and Lolita, or “Lo,” launch themselves on a road trip, driving more or less aimlessly around the country. This is part of the middle. While Lo is convalescing in hospital, a Mr. Clare Quilty swoops in, like a hawk, to grab Lo away from Humbert.
Lo reaches the relatively respectable age of 17. In a letter, she lets Humbert know she is pregnant, broke, and married. Of these challenges, the most urgent is being broke. Humbert comes to her rescue, though requiring her to reveal the name of the man who checked her out of the hospital. Humbert wants her to leave her husband, a man named Dick. She refuses, but he lavishes money on her anyway.
But — and it’s a big but — despite all the apparent “eroticism” and shocking-ness, Lolita is a funny and sad book, and Nabokov’s language lifts it out of the tawdry into the transcendent. I am sure of this, even though Nabokov himself claimed “[m]y private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian language for a second-rate brand of English.”
Lance Olsen, whom I mentioned in the previous chapter, points out in his book titled Lolita: A Janus Text that “[t]he first 13 chapters of the text, culminating with the oft-cited scene of Lo unwittingly stretching her legs across Humbert’s excited lap . . . are the only chapters suggestive of the erotic.” Samuel Schuman, another critic, declared Nabokov “a surrealist, linked to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and Kafka. Lolita is characterized by irony and sarcasm. It is not an erotic novel.”
Cherry on Style
- On Style…
- …And How To Get It
- Everybody Wants More Than Just One Thing
- Desire is Complicated
- Whatever Happens, Happens Somewhere
- A Gun in the First Act
- The Shortest Distance Between Two Points Is a Metaphor
- The Head and the Heart
- Put the Pedal to the Metal
- In the Middle of Things
- Daydreams in Dresses
Erotic or not — and really it is not — the mad invention of Quilty and Humbert is rather like turning Shakespeare’s Hamlet on its head: This is why Lolita is often described as a tragicomedy. Characters who die die extravagantly. Nabokov tangles them up with wordplay that includes double entendres, puns (often multilingual), anagrams, anaphora, literary allusions, and words he has made up, including nymphet. Nabokov, who was also an expert on butterflies, seems to have classified words as well.
For almost a year, Humbert and Lolita travel across the country. Humbert becomes more and more obsessed with Lolita. In the same time, she tailors a fine point on her ability to manipulate him. Sometimes she throws a tantrum or turns her back toward him. At such times, Humbert threatens to leave her in an orphanage.
A strange man follows Humbert and Lolita. Why? They don’t know.
Humbert accepts a teaching post at a Northeastern college. Lolita, as we have seen, enters a hospital and is spirited out by the unknown man, and Humbert spends two years trying to find them.
That’s as far as this summary goes. I won’t give away endings to readers who are still to be amazed.
Road trips are a great way to linger in the middle. Something is going on — miles are being covered — and yet nothing much is going on, just a lot of driving. There is room here to probe the characters’ thoughts or, more specifically, to tune into Humbert’s fantasies and the various alarums that bully his mind. There is time to parse the humor and sophisticated wordplay. There is time to smell the roses and take in the view. We get to look at the this and then the that. We get to look at the this and this, and then that.
Nabokov, who had fled Russia and Europe as Communism and Fascism became visible on the screen, accepted a job as a professor of Russian literature at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Many residents in the area recognized the places he described in Lolita. Moreover, the author undertook an awesome amount of research to sort out details of American life. Biographer Brian Boyd said, “He would do things like travel on the buses around Ithaca and record phrases, in a little notebook, from young girls that he heard coming back from school.” Such research is carried out by countless writers in the course of writing a book, but Nabokov’s research was perhaps more thorough, more comprehensive, and more detailed than that of most writers.
Still, we must remember that he was having fun!
Lolita has been translated into dozens of languages. A website claims the book sold 50 million copies. Not to mention that it is still selling. A year after it came out in America, Nabokov left Cornell for Europe (which was no longer at war). The book earned enough money to allow him to give up teaching and write full time. He and his wife moved to Montreux, Switzerland.
Some readers will focus on Lolita as a tragicomedy. Some will consider it a metaphor for the collision between decadent Europe (Humbert) and the American world of Pop. Perhaps Humbert’s longing for Lolita is a longing for freedom, even outlandish freedom, a country where no one judges anyone. Perhaps some readers will conclude that Humbert longs for a world without rules and restrictions and in which the dark shadows cast by Communism and Fascism are relieved by a kind of light, even if it is not a light that can make anything grow or thrive. A reviewer on Amazon.com refers to “[t]he novel’s strange and potent mixture of romanticism and bitterness,” explaining that the book “is too intense to allow for such superficial and commonplace notions, and it seems to consistently defeat whatever expectation a reader brings to it.” I think this reader offers us an accurate view, for “romanticism and bitterness” are opposites and, united, will rend themselves asunder.
We cannot rewrite Lolita. But we can learn from it — learn something about how to write. And one of the things we have learned is that middles are useful. A middle can keep the reader awake. A middle can oblige us to scour our own minds in search of what may be missing. A middle takes you somewhere and occasionally more or less everywhere. A middle satisfies the reader the way a three-course dinner does. In the middle of Lolita, Nabokov throws in a poem. Here are a few of his 13 stanzas from “Wanted,” wherein he portrays the Lolita he longs for, even if it is not truly Dolores:
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet.
Age: five thousand three hundred days.
Profession: none, or “starlet.”
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
• • •
Officer, officer, there they go —
In the rain, where that lighted store is!
And her socks are white, and I love her so,
And her name is Haze, Dolores.
• • •
Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze.
Her dream-gray gaze never flinches.
Ninety pounds is all she weighs
With a height of sixty inches.
My car is limping, Dolores Haze,
And the last long lap is the hardest,
And I shall be dumped where the weed decays,
And the rest is rust and stardust.
I like that he dares to rhyme “-est” with “-ust.”
Why did Nabokov include this somewhat inelegant poem? Yes, it lets us see just how obsessive, or fanatical, Humbert is about Lolita. It shows us the nearly killing effect Lolita has on him (though this is what he loves about loving). It reveals the depths of Humbert’s wish to submit himself to her. And his wish to have her submit herself to him.
But why did Nabokov decide to write a poem amid all the prose?
You know what I’m going to say.
Because he was having fun. •