Delicate snares are everywhere in Lolita, and the tread of 50th anniversaries can be as crushing as Hallmark (and middle age). So let’s insist on this: The book is still brand-new, drying on the page, filled with play, prescience and humor. But if you want a new angle, think of it as a novel about education.
Humbert Humbert is a model of lifelong learning and intellectual ferment, a connoisseur and scholar who has come to the dark forests of New England to spread cultivation. Similarly, Vladimir Nabokov, as he wrote this novel, was an esteemed professor at Cornell, not just an earnest lecturer on Joyce, Proust, Madame Bovary and Kafka but a nonpareil lepidopterist who had already mapped out the motels and the sweet evenings of sunset across America as his wife, Véra, drove him in pursuit of shy butterflies.
So it is, along with the nymphet obsession, that the lofty Hum beholds Lo and wonders about darkness, the light and determining a grade; she’s a child he will not leave behind. And while he goes into raptures over her dorsal down, he cannot stifle plans for her chewing-gum mind. So it’s encouraging to stress, 50 years after its first publication, that Lolita stands up for the notion of a poppet with a modest mental age—think Paris Hilton—in lap-chat with some Albert Einstein. It’s the legend of Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, so potent in the 50’s, and let me remind you that in Let’s Make Love (1960), one of her last films, Marilyn slides down a pole in sweater and tights and announces, “My name is … Lolita!” We’re talking about kids revealing the dark fields of life to lawn-trimming professors.
Yes, education was assumed to work the other way around, and I daresay in 1955, when academia’s stars were still shabby or bearlike, not yet polished by television, it was possible to think of education as that thrust, that seduction, that … that might improve us and our society, and so forth. Even in those reassuringly dull books—Lectures on Literature (1980)—in which Nabokov’s teaching strategies are reproduced, there’s the plain civic duty being addressed of helping the young to know or feel more.
But he was not student-friendly. He proposed “awesome required reading lists,” 400 pages of study text and perhaps 10,000 pages of reading in a year. When it came to grading the young, there was little room for students drawing up their own tests. Professor Nabokov’s exams were ruthlessly to the point: “Discuss Flaubert’s use of the word ‘and’” or “Whose style are we reminded of when Dickens raises his voice?” He did not stoop to such modern conveniences as “On the whole, do you feel yourself more Jekyll or more Hyde?” (though he did teach that book).
On today’s campus, where you pay for your degree and get what you pay for, Nabokov’s curricula and austere schedules would look punitive. (He probably even failed people.) Our new resolve to preserve the callowness of our young (along with their flesh) isn’t just admirably American—it’s the future, the place Americans go to settle arguments. And Lolita is a landmark in that cultural shift—think of it as a gesture toward the way in which learning has yielded to knowingness.
I cannot claim that this theme was absolutely new to Lolita. After all, the situation in The Blue Angel (about which Nabokov claimed a far-fetched ignorance: He was living in Berlin when the film was made) is that of a child in a grown-up body—called Lola Lola—who knows enough (and Dietrich, the actress, was so knowing it was absurd) to deflate the immense, heavy-breathing pedantic pomp of Emil Jannings’ Professor Rath. She humbles and humiliates him, and all of that satisfies the undoubted sadomasochism of Josef von Sternberg. But this schooling doesn’t humanize Rath.
The comparison only adds greatness to the scene in Lolita where Hum finds Lo as an adult. She lives by then in the glum provinces; married to a Dick named Schiller, she’s pregnant. Hum has made his journey seeking vengeance, with a revolver in his pocket: Discovering her is the jolt that sends him after Clare Quilty. But he’s truly in love, and lost there, and so he cannot—against all the forlorn indicators—stop himself from asking whether she’ll come away with him.
Nabokov’s next lines are as bleak and tough as James M. Cain, as moving as Mahler:
“No,” she said. “No, honey, no.”
“She had never called me honey before.”
It’s not just the most quietly emotional part of the book—it’s written with a modesty that must come from Hum’s and Nabokov’s sense that Dolly isn’t really all that verbal, not even a likely reader. (How bizarre that Kubrick’s 1962 film of Lolita deprived itself of that moment and made such a mawkish lump of the scene where Hum goes to “Coalmont.”) Dolly Schiller doesn’t really get Hum, or know what’s there for the getting—talk about a lover’s last pain. That “No, honey, no” can break your heart; it’s a superb balancing of her blunt words and his scholarly filing system that cherishes her every utterance, her every mouth-noise.
I can never come to that passage without recalling a moment in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965): An oddly over-verbal Jean-Paul Belmondo has run away (in a straight line to hell, even if it looks like southern France) with an Anna Karina who’s fiercely instinctive. The couple have been lovers in the past, and they’re reunited for a moment that summer. As the picture was being made, so the real marriage between Karina and Godard was ending. And there in the hot, dark sun, there’s a moment of mounting regret and loss where she says to Belmondo (and to the camera)—in answer to the question, “Why do you look unhappy?”—“Because you talk to me with words and I look at you with feelings.”
You can see this standoff wherever you look these days—it’s there in a magazine juxtaposition of a face from Darfur, say, that cries out “Save me,” and the accompanying nice-speak text from some under secretary responsible for such things or such areas which points out that the ethical desirability is tangled in practical and bureaucratic difficulties such as only a degree-holder in business administration could understand. We know that the facing-page layout is an admission of helplessness, and it crushes us as much as the lying over language that the Bush administration has done in waging war. To put it very simply, these trends are fierce encouragers of the twin notions that it’s folly to trust man’s intelligence, and so much wiser to believe in holy providence.
This may seem far from Lolita, and I know that it sounds odd in a country that pursues higher education more regularly than any other. But what I’m trying to suggest in America (and Lolita, as Nabokov always asserted, is an American novel) is a realization that education is forlorn. Along with that rides a concomitant theory—it can amount to a religion (though not for Nabokov)—that kids have some native knowledge, or things taken for granted about life, that may yet carry us through.
That’s why Lolita is at the same time so funny and so poignant. We don’t know a great deal about the intimacies Nabokov may have shared with his Cornell students. He had an impeccable reputation, and he carried himself as someone so intent on his subject that he might not notice his adherents. Yet there’s a picture of him lecturing at Cornell, with 1958 “girls” crowding the front-row seats. And a decade or so earlier, at Wellesley—“a women’s college”—two courses straight, he admitted, left him exhausted. I suggest nothing untoward, but neither am I about to deny the unquestioned powers of observation—the eye, the ear, the nose—in one of our greatest and most sensuous writers.
Lucky him that he didn’t have to teach Lolita. When I tried that on American students in 1972, a young woman from New Hampshire named Misty came up to me after class to say that she thought it might be “wrong” to teach this book to someone of her age. It was summer and warm, and I saw at once that even if it wasn’t wrong, it might be dangerous. (Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, may I offer the argument that when a student is named “Misty,” education has already given up the ghost?)
What I’ve always loved about Lolita is that whiff of danger, and the subsequent realization that the push in education might go in an unofficial direction. Lo and Hum are driving after he retrieves her from camp. “When did you fall for my mummy?” she asks. He answers, “Some day, Lo, you will understand many emotions and situations, such as for example the harmony, the beauty of spiritual relationship.”
“‘Bah!’ said the cynical nymphet.”
There you have our Dolores Haze, age 12, intelligence quotient 121; “thigh girth (just below the gluteal sulcus), 17.” All of which, I daresay, is authentic enough, and scientifically arrived at. But that’s also a Lo to match Hum’s dreams, a glorious back-talking smartass, a conversationalist with a sense of rhythm and counterpunch, sneaking a bomb into a small pause worthy of Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (an alternative title to Lolita, not to be thrown out too quickly).
Professor Humbert affects to be shocked by “Bah!” and every other trace of Dolly’s anti-intellectual bent. But it’s plain that his upraised eyebrows and lofty prose are a Bracknellish act from a linguist with an ear enormously ticked by this slangy, insolent girl who may yet teach him to fuck. And here we are at the heart of this tragic and hilarious work. For not only does the embodiment of European scholarship and comparative literature know that he’s met his match in this New Hampshire girl, he’s delighted by it: He has a longing to be ravished. He may have the greatest command of acquired English ever known, yet now he meets his “Bah!”
And so Lolita is not just the love affair between a middle-aged European master of words and an underage American girl unimpressed by school or scholastics and inclined to tell him that he sounds like a book. Don’t forget that from the outset, this Dolores has the power to surprise the sophisticated Humbert. There he is, bored by the old gray house on Lawn Street, Ramsdale, by his potential landlady, Mrs. Haze, and her piazza, when he notices the unmentioned bonus, Dolly on the lawn, and then blasé is instantly abashed, as “a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses.”
Like all scholars, Humbert lives chiefly in the past, and the sight of Lo, alive in New Hampshire, is delivered first as the fulfillment of his age-old addiction to the nymphet figure. But what’s still most exciting—in a sexual and a literary sense—is the magical way in which a book and its traditions stumbles up against an American pre-teen just a few years before rock ’n’ roll and Tuesday Weld and the astonishing bomb-like impact on order, culture and letters of a race of sweeties so knowing they are beyond education. (The names here are not just at random: Tuesday—His Girl again—was actually a candidate for the lead role in the Kubrick film.)
As the plot unwinds, as Hum and Lo take to their road, nearly everything turns on the way a would-be omniscient author (so beautifully rendered in James Mason’s voice) gets his come-uppance because he’s not quick enough on the uptake, because he’s too sublime to read the signs, and so cocksure of being an auteur that he doesn’t feel the heat in naughty characters. As he guesses by the end, Hum is the only person who hasn’t seen the life design in Clare Quilty’s crazy patterns. And at that most crucial point, at the Enchanted Hunters motel, it’s Hum the rapist who’s not just surprised but shanghaied into the corps of “technical lovers”:
“Suffice it to say that not a trace of modesty did I perceive in this beautiful hardly formed young girl whom modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth had utterly and hopelessly depraved. She saw the stark act merely as part of a youngster’s furtive world, unknown to adults. What adults did for purposes of procreation was no business of hers. My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected with me. While eager to impress me with the world of tough kids, she was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kid’s life and mine. Pride alone prevented her from giving up; for in my strange predicament, I feigned supreme stupidity and had her have her way …. ”
There you are, the fateful action, the ruinous bump of love and sex, the brave new world and old Europe. It’s like George W. Bush having sex with Virginia Woolf, and Mrs. Woolf clinging to the notion of being the author and keeping control of it all. Or it’s Paris Hilton with the Marquis de Sade, when Paris comes so fast she rolls over in the required stupor and tells Sade not to be sad. Or it’s like the clash of David’s ichthyology and Susan’s very brimming and disturbing aliveness in Bringing Up Baby (1938)—yet another variant title for Lolita.
For those of us who reread the novel, there’s grown up a small industry of related works—not least Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita, revised and updated in 1991, the same year Brian Boyd completed his endlessly interesting two-volume biography of the author; Stacy Schiff’s 1999 book on Véra Nabokov; Nabokov’s own screenplay of Lolita; and, not least, Richard Corliss’ 1995 monograph on the movie in the British Film Institute series. It’s as if the novel has become a small country, every bit as plausible as Zembla, to which anyone weary of camp life today—I beg your pardon, campus wives—may return.
And now, 50 years later, it’s hard not to see Lolita as a marker for the end of the world (including the larger way in which education has been abandoned) and the shattering of complex artifacts of civilization like the novel. I’ve found no novel in the years since 1955 with so many mixed feelings, or such a natural grasp of a strange, special story and its universal meanings. This is a book in which the caress of words breaks adoringly on the skin-bright beach of the new land, refreshing it briefly but not disturbing its snooze. And so it becomes language’s last gasping tribute to silence or the loss of words.
Still, I don’t think the status of Lolita will be significantly spoiled if I raise one quibble. How shall I put it? Nabokov did have serious fears of being thought of as a dirty old man. He never seems to have had a doubt about the literary eminence and purity of his Lolita (though the book itself offers sufficient perspective on being doubt-free), but he knew the grubby world of the 1950’s, the wretched postmortem nose-picking of Freudianists and the shade of calumny that could fall on university professors. I haven’t the least reason to think that Nabokov ever had an affair with a nymphet, an underage girl or anyone except the few ties tied up in Mr. Boyd’s biography. Still, the immense imaginative effort made in Lolita does denote a good deal of thinking about the thing. And we did learn later that there was an apprentice work, The Enchanter, on the same theme. (Written in 1939, the novella wasn’t published until 1986, nine years after Nabokov’s death.) Moreover, I think every prof sniffs the air and senses possibility. And nothing builds guilt better than possibility.
We know from the letters and the life—and from any study of the 1950’s—that Nabokov anticipated and feared prosecution or recriminations. This 50th birthday is not actually to mark the American publication— it’s 50 years since the Olympia Press edition in Paris by Maurice Girodias (remember the days when Paris led the world?), after four respectable publishers had rejected it because it was disgusting, awful or likely to land them in court. In this case, saucy Olympia offered not just an accommodating and loving embrace; she also got our author into quite a pickle.
So let me suggest that that shadow was dark enough to affect Nabokov’s sense of the light. Raised in a literary tradition in which the very typeface of the book seems to know that Anna Karenina cannot survive, he did make sure by the close of Lolita that there would be no survivors. (It’s like a movie censor saying, well, if Tony Camonte in Scarface is going to have such fun killing people, at least have him disposed of by the end of the picture.) Fifty years later, I am going to assume the temerity—if only on your behalf—of suggesting that this Elliot Ness drive for cleaning up (or away) went too far.
Yes, Clare Quilty has to go—he himself would have it no other way, since ghostliness is his best light. Equally, Hum has every right to resort to the coronary thrombosis that removed him on Nov. 16, 1952. His heart is already broken anyway, and he might have been relied upon to die for his book: Otherwise there could have been the messy complaint that he was profiting from the story of his wickedness. But with Hum dead, as John Ray Jr., Ph.D., points out in the foreword, the general lesson of the book could be passed on: “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. ‘Lolita’ should make all of us—parents, social workers, educators—apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world.”
The calm delirium of Nabokov in this university voice is bliss, of course—and Pale Fire, its inferno, was to come. But I want to say just that I miss Lo … and not just Lo at 12, but Dolly Schiller in dreary Coalmont, the one—the only one—who ever called him “honey.” (If you’ve never known the thrill of having that word spread on you late in life, you haven’t lived.) And I marvel still that Nabokov could extinguish that bright, spunky, knowing kid (or that she has ended up with Dick Schiller instead of Andy Warhol). Then it occurred to me that her “death” was only his kindly subterfuge, a way of making sure that she was not dogged all her life by sightseers, Charlie Rose and so on. She had to be spared. After all, she is America.
I know—she’d be 70 this year, and surely not still a Schiller. (I keep a list of suspects, adequate second husbands, but that’s for another day.) Meanwhile, join me if you will in honoring some beguilingly hidden old lady inclined to say “Bah!”, a crusty kid who—like her nation—has not the least intention of growing up, and who has a taste for lurid murder stories, especially if they have a fancy style. She has a bitterness that keeps her alive—in the Pierre and a Tempe trailer park, split years. It’s the something Humbert taught her, and as she grows older the message burns brighter. It’s something Nabokov said in his Lectures on Literature, and it haunts our “You’ve got mail” America: “The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.”
Dolores is a little girl, as well as a literary creation, and the little girl is a victim and a prisoner, no matter who takes the lead from time to time. It’s not surprising that the reading circle described by Azar Nafisi in her recent Reading Lolita in Tehran (some of them clutching Xerox copies, because the book is forbidden) feel that Lo is Humbert’s prisoner, her life his romance. And that recalls Nabokov’s recollection of “the initial shiver of inspiration” for the book: He read about an ape in the Jardin des Plantes, encouraged to draw by its keepers, which produced the first picture ever made by an ape. The drawing shows the bars to a cage.
Nabokov teases us; he says this inspiration has no “textual connection” with his novel. Moralists and would-be banners have always been quick to see Dolores Haze as an imprisoned creature—and it’s not to be denied. But that’s a dull book compared with the one where Humbert is in chains, too, serving the life sentences of his literature. I think both readings are necessary, as well as a third—that Nabokov, the sublime creator, has his own cell, the one made by words, a rectangle like his index cards or a printed page.
David Thomson, author of The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer.