'Lolita' Hits Fifty

To be overrun by feeling, yet able to marshal words with such precision -- this was Nabokov's knack. That he did so on behalf of a pervert makes the achievement that much greater.
One night early in grad school, a bunch of us aspiring writers gathered at a bar to blab about the books we loved and of course Lolita came up, because Lolita always comes up in such conversations.

The other guys and I took a cold, analytical approach to the book. We wanted to say how much we adored it, how much we secretly identified with Humbert Humbert and his excessive, illegal passion for prepubescent Lolita. But we were also hoping to get laid (of course), and we figured such a confession might not put us in good stead with our female classmates.     

There was one in particular, a women I'll call Rita, who, as it happened, had more than a hint of the nymphet in her. She wasn't exactly "four-foot-ten in one sock." More like five-one in black stockings. But she was small and pale and occasionally dressed like a schoolgirl, and this made us all the more leery about directly endorsing Lolita. So we sat around parsing Nabokov's intricate wordplay and sipping our beers until, toward the end of the night, emboldened by a shot of George Dickel, Rita stood up and addressed us in an imploring tone: "But you guys, don't you get it -- he loves her!"     

And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the whole ball of wax when it comes to Lolita. He loves her. Without the blinding force of Humbert's passion, the book -- newly reissued for its fiftieth birthday -- would never have endured its initial ignominy, nor become the most influential novel of the last century. I feel vaguely qualified to speak about the book's influence, because I spent so much of grad school either writing dreadful imitations of Lolita, or reading them as the fiction editor of our literary magazine. I have friends who still keep a copy of the book by their keyboards, as a kind of talisman they can rub when their own prose starts to flag.     

There is no need to belabor the plot of Lolita (man meets girl, man seduces girl, man loses girl -- that about does it) nor the oft-cited symbolism (old, refined Europe seduced by young, vulgar America). What matters, in the end, is the heartsick love song of Monsieur Humbert. Here he is describing the boyhood tryst that presages his eventual coupling with Lolita:

She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves ... She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face.

To be overrun by feeling, yet able to marshal words with such elegance and precision -- this was Nabokov's knack. That he did so on behalf of a quivering pervert makes the achievement that much more astonishing. We root for Humbert because, when you come right down to it, most of our own wishes are illicit.

And there should be no doubt about it: Humbert is a perv. "The bud-stage of breast development appears early (10.7 years) in the sequence of somatic changes accompanying pubescence," he informs us, dutifully."And the next maturational item available is the first appearance of pigmented pubic hair (11.2 years)."

It should come as no surprise that Lolita was originally published by a French press. Nor that it was only published in the U.S. three years later, after being dubbed "the filthiest book I have ever read" by a critic in a British newspaper. Such is the American lust for scandal.     

And yet it is our awareness of Humbert's pathology that makes his seduction so powerful. He knows he's doing wrong. We know he's doing wrong. He can't stop himself. And we can't stop ourselves from watching.     

Nor, if we are honest, do we look upon Humbert with pure disgust. In our covert hearts, we root for him, because he loves her, and because, when you come right down to it, most of our own wishes are illicit, or feel that way to us. Humbert's crimes, in other words, may be of a greater scale than the ones we commit, but the same cauldron of deviance bubbles within us. (Note: this last sentence does not apply to registered Republicans, who manage to avoid immoral thoughts by hating gay people.)     

Lolita has enjoyed periodic resurgences, owing to two excellent film adaptations by Stanley Kubrick (1962) and Adrian Lyne (1997). But the novel itself remains the vital artifact, because only it can capture -- with unflinching fidelity -- the fevered consciousness of Humbert himself.     

"There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades," he tells us. "Every movement she made in the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and sensitive chord of my abject body."     

In moments such as these, Nabokov is nothing less than a poet of desire. He is not writing about sex, but about the tumultuous feelings that illuminate our clumsy acts of love. These are what sweep us along -- despite the bleatings of our conscience. Big ideas, witty observations and tricky plotlines are all fine and well. But the engine of any great book is desire. And by that standard, Lolita is a Mack truck.     

It's worth noting that the scenes of physical contact between Humbert and Lolita are fairly restrained in the particulars. They feel lurid mainly because our narrator is so fraught by his own yearning: This is the true scandal of Lolita: not that a man should love a child, but that he should be so helpless.

Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice -- every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty -- between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

This is the true scandal of Lolita. Not that a man should love a child, but that he should prove so helpless to stanch his desires. Deep emotion is the book's central transgression and its saving grace.     

Never has this been more obvious than the current era, which has placed carnality in the service of capitalism by stripping from sex any vestige of authentic feeling. We see more and more these days -- virtually any dirty image is at our fingertips -- but feel less and less. Everywhere we look, glistening parts are pumping away in congress, yearning to excite our wildest consumer fantasies. Every day, it becomes harder and harder to make a clear distinction between pornography and advertising.     

But Lolita? It has nothing to sell but the truth of ourselves: our afflictions of want, our shame, elusive and horrible and blessed.

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Steve Almond is the author of the story collection My Life in Heavy Metal and the nonfiction book Candyfreak.