Original publication date: MONDAY NOVEMBER 30TH, 2009. Republished with kind permission from John Williams.
His Sin, Her Soul
By Natalia Antonova
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The luster of scandal wore off Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita a while ago. Anyone reading the testimony of Roman Polanski’s teenage victim on The Smoking Gun must have little capacity to be shocked by Humbert Humbert’s fictional crimes. I’m willing to bet that for the modern reader, the only shocking thing about Lolita is how the writing transforms the subject matter into a thing of startling beauty, and how effortlessly Nabokov avoids prurience in order to create something more chilling.
But while the scandal of it may have faded, the book’s vocabulary continues to live a life of its own. When a young girl is called a Lolita, we imagine a knowingly hyper-sexualized child, one who wears too much of her older sister’s make-up and lets her underwear peek out as she wanders into the peripheral vision of some man. If “Lolita” isn’t always code for “she was asking for it,” it’s at least a suggestion of some impropriety or mitigating factor, an indication that an older man’s younger victim wasn’t exactly a gentle-faced virgin — or she certainly didn’t look like it, Your Honor.
In light of this cultural appropriation, I wasn’t surprised when a fairly good friend asked me why on earth I — a stridently vocal survivor of sexual abuse, someone who screams her head off every time someone shrugs that “boys will be boys” — would profess so much admiration for Nabokov’s most famous book. Don’t I realize that Lolita the book and Lolita the term feed off one another in the public sphere? And that even if it were possible to separate it from the hiss of cultural static that has amplified around it over the years, Lolita is still a book that takes an extremely ugly story and makes it extremely gorgeous? Implicit in these inquiries was the real question, of course, which emerged after my replies failed to satisfy: “How can you stand reading it, with everything you say you have been through?”
A girl I knew at college once told me that she would probably never read Lolita, having lived through years of rape by her stepfather. It was an expression of a personal preference, not a general rule, but it made me wonder about the many ways in which individuals relate to art from which they may not be able to emotionally distance themselves. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong way for anyone to respond to a work like Lolita, any more than there is to respond to Hamlet, and I respect a person’s right to not respond at all, to turn away and get on with other aspects of life.
I do, however, think it’s possible to love Lolita — re-read it, recommend it to friends, prattle on about it when everyone at the table is rolling their eyes and checking their watches — and have one of the underlying reasons be precisely the fact that the subject matter is personal. To be blunt, I do not love Lolita in spite of my own history; I love it, in part, because of my history.
In Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams once said that Lolita is a Great American Novel, because, “In the seamy little small-town trysts, in the summer camp deflowerings, in the movie magazines and cheap souvenir shops that dot the landscape, Nabokov showed us a blisteringly funny and painful portrait of our own culture.”
She was right. The book’s details are delicious. There is the morbidly entertaining secondhand embarrassment of reading about the doomed Charlotte Haze’s crush on the exotically European Humbert, who in turn desires her young daughter. There is the alternately adoring and teasing depiction of the American landscape. There is the way an event like the ugly death of Clare Quilty is related in bright colors that underscore the complete and utter ridiculousness of what is actually taking place: a pervert killing another pervert, with lots of self-righteous drama involved in the process. Nabokov even manages to make the list of Lolita’s classmates into something arresting, like the ingredients for a magic spell.
But I also keep returning to Lolita because its lovely language covers a cold and hard interior, like supple flesh over bone, and this interior is the foundation of my love. Nabokov may not have set out to console survivors of abuse, but his ability to capture the tone and pitch of a certain situation meant that he wound up doing it anyway, at least in my case, and profoundly so.
Lolita, like the rest of the human race, is no angel. Aside from being somewhat sexually experienced, she regularly irritates Humbert’s aesthetic sensibilities. She likes movie stars! Ice rinks! Sugary soda! She exists outside of Humbert’s fantasy, no matter how diligently he shoves her into the gilded frame of his imagination. It’s her lack of total innocence and her comparative vulgarity that underscore the tragedy of the story being told. It would have been easier to feel sympathy for — to borrow Lo’s own phrase — a “daisy-fresh girl.” And it is the cruel ease with which little whores are sifted and separated from little madonnas, both equally one-dimensional, that is held up to much ridicule in the book. The chance occurrences that pave the way for Humbert’s unholy union with Lolita make it abundantly clear that any child who captured his attention could have been devoured by him. The child in question just needed to be unlucky enough, and in possession of honey skin and chestnut hair.
When I received the book as a fourteenth birthday present from a friend, it was, to paraphrase Alan Bennett, as if a hand had come out and taken mine. Lolita was an “exasperating brat” and a sucker for cheesy gift-shops, and she was vindication. Looking back on my own past, I could never quite conjure the requisite image of innocence lost. I conjured loathing, despair, and wanting to shrink until I caved in on myself and would no longer have to think about anything, sure, but I could also remember being an exasperating brat myself. I could remember the initial affection I had for the man who became the first to rather spectacularly betray me, and how hard it was to make sense of that affection in light of what was happening. I could remember, very vividly, fretting over the fact that I had “impaired” his “morals,” in whatever confused internal language was available to me at the time. It didn’t matter that I was seven years old and couldn’t fully grasp what was going on, what mattered were the feelings I had to live with.
Reading Lolita at fourteen, I was only beginning to make sense of my experience. I did know that the ordeal of the title character made me feel pity, but not self-pity. There was nothing sentimental about it, despite, or perhaps because of the sublime prose. More importantly, I was angry on behalf of Lolita and the horrible banality of her situation, and anger, it turned out, was a useful emotion, far preferable to pathos. Humbert’s calculated desire to appear as a victim of Lolita’s frail shoulders and gray eyes was infuriating:
I recall certain moments, let us call them icebergs in paradise, when after having had my fill of her — after fabulous, insane exertions that left me limp and azure-barred — I would gather her in my arms with, at last, a mute moan of human tenderness (her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave gray eyes more vacant than ever — for all the world a little patient still in the confusion of a drug after a major operation) — the tenderness would deepen to shame and despair, and I would lull and rock my lone light Lolita in my marble arms, and moan in her warm hair, and caress her at random and mutely ask her blessing, and at the peak of this human agonized selfless tenderness (with my soul actually hanging around her naked body and ready to repent), all at once, ironically, horribly, lust would swell again — and “oh, no,” Lolita would say with a sigh to heaven, and the next moment the tenderness and the azure — all would be shattered.
Here, Nabokov does more than write about a self-contained world of horror in a beautiful way. He also presents a curious way in which the human mind can experience that world of horror. One of the things that always bothered me most was how my awful recollections could come back to me in exquisite wrapping: how I could recall overripe apples thumping to the ground in the night, a shooting star, or Bach being played on the piano in an adjacent room. In attempting to make sense of what happened to me, I seized on those moments as “evidence” of the fact that I “liked” what had occurred. If I could focus on the loveliness of Prelude No. 1 in C Major as something disgusting and illegal was going on, wasn’t I just reveling in that which was disgusting and illegal? I punished myself for a way of thinking that, reading Lolita, was revealed to me as a survival tactic. I realized, for the first time, that there was nothing wrong or strange with how I had been coping, by stepping out of the horror and into the beauty that was running parallel to it.
One problem of telling a story, any story, real or imagined, is the problem of angles. Is there a correct one? And does anyone have the right to marvel at the one that shows the glistening, freshly raped Lolita with her vacant eyes? Before Nabokov, I never really noticed how the world doesn’t bend to the horror of our individual experiences, it just carries on being the world. I would chew away at myself, because I couldn’t divorce something sickening from something that was still very much life, into which light shone occasionally, even when it was only neon. Lolita is a reminder that beauty neither de-claws nor lulls evil, it just exists, and might as well be accepted since it isn’t going anywhere.
Humbert’s terrifying, self-justifying brilliance is a relief in its own right, because it’s hard to admit that you tried to save yourself and failed. But it helps to realize what you were up against. How could have Lolita, no matter how smart-mouthed and full of bravado, outwitted Humbert? How could I have outwitted He Who Spectacularly Betrayed? The illusion that I could have done a thing to save myself — and hence was guilty, since I obviously hadn’t tried hard enough — was impossible to maintain after contemplating the merciless talent of a person like Humbert, how easily he got the girl where he wanted her to be, how effortlessly he rationalized his actions, how magnificently he described his odyssey and tied it up with a pretty bow.
I know there is nothing to celebrate in the book’s events, but likewise, there’s nothing about the earnest writing on the subject that ever gave me much comfort. Reading an unforgiving book like Lolita was like being forgiven. It allowed me my dignity in a way that stories about fair maidens violated or little girls lost simply did not. I believe that’s a legitimate way to relate to the novel.
Martin Amis said that Lolita is a “cruel book about cruelty,” and with that I wholeheartedly agree. The scope of its cruelty is impressive. The narration spares nothing and no one, and that is only fair. Some stories you carry around in your heart. Others live in the throat, in the skull, in the fangs — all worthy places, too.
(Banner image: Natalya Demidova, illustration to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl”)
4 thoughts on “His Sin, Her Soul: On Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (republished from The Second Pass)”
Freedom to read should be a human right. When you read something controversial with thoughtful care, you exercise that right the best way possible.
Thank you for writing this!
Natalia, this may be one of the best essays you’ve written. I particularly liked this: “Lolita is a reminder that beauty neither de-claws nor lulls evil, it just exists, and might as well be accepted since it isn’t going anywhere.”
Thanks! All these years later, I still really like it too 😉