by Vladimir Nabokov
A review by Charles Rolo
[Ed. Note. This review was originally published in the September 1958 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.]
Here it is at last, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (Putnam, $5.00) first
issued in 1955 by an unorthodox Paris press after being rejected by a string of
American publishers; banned by the French government, presumably out of
solicitude for immature English-speaking readers (the ban was later quashed by
the French High Court); pronounced unobjectionable by that blue-nosed body, the
U. S. Customs office; and heralded by ovations from writers, professors, and
critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
The novel's scandal-tinted history and its subject the affair between a
middle-aged sexual pervert and a twelve-year-old girl inevitably conjure up
expectations of pornography. But there is not a single obscene term in
Lolita, and aficionados of erotica are likely to find it a dud.
Lolita blazes, however, with a perversity of a most original kind. For
Mr. Nabokov has distilled from his shocking material hundred-proof intellectual
farce. His book is slightly reminiscent of Thomas Mann's Confessions of
Felix Krull; but Lolita has a stronger charge of comic genius and is
more brilliantly written. Mr. Nabokov, a Russian émigré
now working in his second tongue, has few living equals as a virtuoso in the
handling of the English language.
A mock sententious foreword explains that the manuscript which follows is the
confession of one Humbert Humbert, who died in captivity in 1952 just before
his trial was due to start. Humbert introduces himself as a European of mixed
stock who, at the age of twelve, "in a princedom by the sea," loved and lost a
petite fille fatale named Annabel Leigh, and has thereafter remained in
sexual bondage to "the perilous magic" of subteen sirens he calls them
"nymphets." There follows a sketch of his tortured career up to the time when,
in his late thirties, he settles in a quiet New England town (an American uncle
has left him a legacy, and he dabbles in scholarship) under the same roof as a
fatally seductive nymphet, Dolores Haze a mixture of "tender dreamy
childishness and eerie vulgarity." This "Lolita" is the daughter of his
landlady, whom he marries with murderous intent. But an accident eliminates
Mrs. Haze, and Humbert the Nympholept finds himself the guardian of his
darling, who, on their first night together, turns out to be utterly depraved
and plays the role of seducer. Their weird affair which carries them on a
frenzied motel-hopping trek across the American continent is climaxed by
Lolita's escape with a playwright and Humbert's eventual revenge on his
What is one to make of Lolita? In a prickly postscript to the novel, Mr.
Nabokov dismisses this question as a problem dreamed up by "Teachers of
Literature": he rejects the satiric interpretations which critics have put upon
Lolita and asserts, in effect, that it is simply a story he had to get
off his chest. That all of this is too ingenuous by half is evident from the
parodic style in which Lolita is written: a combination of pastiches of
well-known styles, spoofing pedantry, analysis of passion à la
français, Joycean word games, puns, and all kinds of verbal play.
Wild, fantastic, wonderfully imaginative, it is a style which parodies
everything it touches. It surely justifies, at least in part, those critics who
have seen in Lolita a satire of the romantic novel, of "Old Europe" in
contact with "Young America," or of "chronic American adolescence and shabby
materialism." But above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power
of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish
materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the
vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings
into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions
that pervade the human comedy.
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