Annotated Lolita (91 Edition)
by Vladimir Nabokov
A review by Christopher Hitchens
In Azar Nafisi's Reading
Lolita in Tehran, in which young female students meet in secret with Xeroxed
copies of Nabokov's masterpiece on their often chaste and recently chadored laps,
it is at first a surprise to discover how unscandalized the women are. Without
exception, it turns out, they concur with Vera Nabokov in finding that the chief
elements of the story are "its beauty and pathos." They "identify"
with Lolita, because they can see that she wants above all to be a normal girl-child;
they see straight through Humbert, because he is always blaming his victim and
claiming that it was she who seduced him. And this perspective -- such a bracing
change from our conventional worried emphasis on pedophilia -- is perhaps more
easily come by in a state where virgins are raped before execution because the
Koran forbids the execution of virgins; where the censor cuts Ophelia out of the
Russian movie version of Hamlet; where any move that a woman makes can
be construed as lascivious and inciting; where goatish old men can be gifted with
infant brides; and where the age of "consent" is more like nine. As
Nafisi phrases it,
This was the story of a twelve-year-old girl who had nowhere to go. Humbert
had tried to turn her into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had destroyed
her. The desperate truth of Lolita's story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old
by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another.
We don't know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her.
Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not
just of beauty but of life ... Warming up and suddenly inspired, I added
that in fact Nabokov had taken revenge on our own solipsizers; he had taken
revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini ...
It's extraordinary to think that the author of those anti-tyrannical classics
to a Beheading, who would surely have felt extreme pleasure at this tribute,
can be posthumously granted such an unexpected yet -- when you reflect on it
-- perfectly intelligible homage. In his own essay on the fate of Lolita,
Nabokov recalled a publisher who warned him that if he helped the author get
it into print, they would both go straight to jail. And one of the many, many
pleasures of Alfred Appel's masterly introduction and annotation is the discovery
that Nabokov did not realize that Maurice Girodias and the Olympia Press were
specialists in -- well, shall we just say "erotica"? -- when he let
them have the manuscript. (The shock and awe surrounding its publication were
later well netted by the great lepidopterist in one of John Shade's cantos in
"It was a year of tempests, Hurricane / Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.")
Innocence of that kind is to be treasured.
And innocence, of course, is the problem to begin with. If Dolores Haze, whose
first name means suffering and grief, that "dolorous and hazy darling,"
had not been an innocent, there would be nothing tragic in the tale. (Azar Nafisi
is someone who, in spite of her acuity and empathy, fails what I call the Martin
Amis test. Amis once admitted that he had read the novel carefully before noticing
that in its "foreword" -- written not by the unreliable Humbert
but by "John Ray, Jr., Ph.D." -- we learn that Lolita has died in
childbirth. She's over before she's begun. That's where the yearning search
for a normal life and a stable marriage got her. I fear that the young ladies
of Tehran missed that crucial, callous postdate/update sentence as well.)
Then we must approach the question of how innocent we are in all this.
Humbert writes without the smallest intention of titillating his audience. The
whole narrative is, after all, his extended jailhouse/madhouse plea to an unseen
jury. He has nothing but disgust for the really pornographic debauchee Quilty,
for whose murder he has been confined. But he does refer to him as a "brother,"
and at one point addresses us, too, as "Reader! Bruder!," which is presumably
designed to make one think of Baudelaire's address of Les Fleurs du Mal
to "Hypocrite lecteur, -- mon semblable, -- mon frère!" I once
read of an interview given by Roman Polanski in which he described listening
to a lurid radio account of his offense even as he was fleeing to the airport.
He suddenly realized the trouble he was in, he said, when he came to appreciate
that he had done something for which a lot of people would furiously envy him.
Hamlet refers to Ophelia as a nymph ("Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins
remembered"), but she is of marriageable age, whereas a nymphet is another thing
Actually, it is impossible to think of employing Lolita for immoral
or unsavory purposes, and there is now a great general determination to approach
the whole book in an unfussed, grown-up, broad-minded spirit. "Do not misunderstand
me," said Amis père when he reviewed the first edition, "if I
say that one of the troubles with Lolita is that, so far from being too
pornographic, it is not pornographic enough." When he wrote that, his daughter,
Sally, was a babe in arms, and now even those innocuous words seem fraught with
implication. This doesn't necessarily alter the case, but neither can I forget
Sally's older brother, who wrote,
Parents and guardians of twelve-year-old girls will have noticed that their
wards have a tendency to be difficult. They may take Humbert's word for it
that things are much more difficult -- are in fact entirely impossible --
when your twelve-year-old girl is also your twelve-year-old girlfriend. The
next time that you go out with your daughter, imagine you are going out with
When I first read this novel, I had not had the experience of having a twelve-year-old
daughter. I have had that experience twice since, which is many times fewer
than I have read the novel. I daresay I chortled, in an outraged sort of way,
when I first read, "How sweet it was to bring that coffee to her, and then
deny it until she had done her morning duty." But this latest time I found
myself almost congealed with shock. What about the fatherly visit to the schoolroom,
for example, where Humbert is allowed the privilege of sitting near his (wife's)
daughter in class:
I unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to
participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled
hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and reckless of me no doubt, but after the
torture I had been subjected to, I simply had to take advantage of a combination
that I knew would never occur again."
Or this, when the child runs a high fever: "She was shaking from head
to toe. She complained of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae -- and
I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope
of intercourse ..."
Forgive me, hypocrite lecteur, if I say that I still laughed out loud
at the deadpan way in which Nabokov exploded that land mine underneath me. And
of course, as Amis fils half admits in his words about "parents and guardians,"
Lolita is not Humbert's daughter. If she were, the book probably would
have been burned by the hangman, and its author's right hand sliced off and
fed to the flames. But, just as Humbert's mind is on a permanent knife-edge
of sexual mania, so his creator manages to tread the vertiginous path between
incest, by which few are tempted, and engagement with pupating or nymphlike
girls, which will not lose its frisson. (You will excuse me if, like
Humbert, I dissolve into French when euphemism is required.) For me the funniest
line in the book -- because it is so farcical -- comes in the moment after the
first motel rape, when the frenzied Humbert, who has assumed at least the authority
and disguise of fatherhood, is "forced to devote a dangerous amount of time
(was she up to something downstairs?) to arranging the bed in such a way as
to suggest the abandoned nest of a restless father and his tomboy daughter,
instead of an ex-convict's saturnalia with a couple of fat old whores." None
of this absurdity allows us to forget -- and Humbert himself does not allow
us to forget -- that immediately following each and every one of the hundreds
of subsequent rapes the little girl weeps for quite a long time ...
How complicit, then, is Nabokov himself? The common joking phrase among adult
men, when they see nymphets on the street or in the park or, nowadays, on television
and in bars, is "Don't even think about it." But it is very clear that Nabokov
did think about it, and had thought about it a lot. An earlier novella, written
in Russian and published only after his death -- The
Enchanter -- centers on a jeweler who hangs around playgrounds and forces
himself into gruesome sex and marriage with a vachelike mother, all for the sake
of witnessing her death and then possessing and enjoying her twelve-year-old daughter.
(I note one correspondence I had overlooked before: the hapless old bag in The
Enchanter bears many unappetizing scars from the surgeon's knife, and when
Humbert scans Lolita's statistics -- height, weight, thigh measurements, IQ, and
so forth -- he discovers that she still has her appendix and says to himself,
"Thank God." You do not want to think about that for very long either.)
And then there is, just once, a hint of incest so elaborate and so deranged that
you can read past it, as many critics have, before going back and whistling with
... the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually
a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would
be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be dans la force d'age; indeed,
the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in
the remoteness of time a vieillard encore vert -- or was it green rot? --
bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita
the Third the art of being a granddad.
Arresting, as well as disgusting, to suddenly notice that Lolita (who died
giving birth to a stillborn girl, for Christ's sake) would have been seventy
this year ... However, I increasingly think that Nabokov's celebrated, and
tiresomely repeated, detestation of Sigmund Freud must itself be intended as
some kind of acknowledgment. If he thought "the Viennese quack" and
"Freudian voodooism" were so useless and banal, why couldn't he stay
off the subject, or the subtext?
I could very well do with a little rest in this subdued, frightened-to-death
rocking chair, before I drove to wherever the beast's lair was -- and then
pulled the pistol's foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed
trigger. I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man
Many a true word is spoken in jest, especially about the kinship between
eros and thanatos. The two closest glimpses Humbert gives us of his
own self-hatred are not without their death wish -- made explicit in the closing
paragraphs -- and their excremental aspects: "I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested
Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful
of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile." Two hundred pages later:
"The turquoise blue swimming pool some distance behind the lawn was no longer
behind that lawn, but within my thorax, and my organs swam in it like excrements
in the blue sea water in Nice." And then there's the offhand aside "Since (as
the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules
of such girlish games are fluid ..." in which it takes a moment to notice
that "therapist" and "the rapist" are in direct apposition.
Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns
and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed)
that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to
agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne's poem Dolores
sees a young lady ("Our Lady of Pain") put through rather more than young Miss
Haze. Lord Byron's many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages
of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:
"To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thine soft cheek a parent's
kiss," and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold's
absent daughter (who, like Byron's child and Nabokov's longest fiction, is named
Ada). Humbert's first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to
Byron's first wife, Anne Isabella, who was known as "Annabella," and she has
parents named Leigh, just like Byron's ravished half-sister Augusta. The Haze
family physician, who gives Humbert the sleeping pills with which he drugs Lolita
preparatory to the first rape at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, is named Dr. Byron.
And while we are on the subject of physicians, remember how Humbert is recommended
to "an excellent dentist":
Our neighbor, in fact. Dr. Quilty. Uncle or cousin, I think, of the playwright.
Think it will pass? Well, just as you wish. In the fall I shall have him "brace"
her, as my mother used to say. It may curb Lo a little.
Another Quilty, with his own distinctive hint of sadism. "Sade's Justine
was twelve at the start," as Humbert reflects, those three so ordinary words
"at the start" packing a huge, even gross, potential weight ... These clues
are offset by more innocuous puns ("We had breakfast in the township of Soda,
pop 1001") and by dress rehearsals for puns, as when Humbert decides to decline
a possible joke about the Mann Act, which forbids the interstate transport of
girls for immoral purposes. (Alexander Dolinin has recently produced a fascinating
article on the contemporaneous abduction of a girl named Sally Horner, traces
of the reportage of which are to be found throughout Lolita.)
All is apparently redeemed, of course, by the atrocious punishment that Nabokov
inflicts for this most heinous of humanity's offenses. The molester in The
Enchanter was hit by a truck, and Humbert dies so many little deaths --
eroding his heart muscles most pitifully -- that in some well-wrought passages
we almost catch ourselves feeling sorry for him. But the urge to punish a crime
("Why dost thou lash that whore?" Shakespeare makes us ask ourselves in King
Lear) is sometimes connected to the urge to commit it. Naming a girls' school
for Beardsley must have taken a good deal of reflection, with more Sade than
Lewis Carroll in it, but perhaps there is an almost inaudible note of redemption
at Humbert and Lolita's last meeting (the only time, as he ruefully minutes,
that she ever calls him "honey"), when "I looked and looked at her, and knew
as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had
ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else."
The most unsettling suggestion of all must be the latent idea that nymphetomania
is, as well as a form of sex, a form of love.
Alfred Appel's most sage advice is to make yourself slow down when reading
Lolita, not be too swiftly ravished and caught up. Follow this counsel
and you will find that -- more than almost any other novel of our time -- it
keeps the promise of genius and never presents itself as the same story twice.
I mentioned the relatively obvious way in which it strikes one differently according
to one's age; and if aging isn't a theme here, with its connotation of death
and extinction, then I don't know what is. But there are other ways in which
Lolita is, to annex Nabokov's word, "telescopic." Looking back on it,
he cited a critic who "suggested that Lolita was the record of my love
affair with the romantic novel," and continued, "The substitution 'English language'
for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct." That's profoundly
true, and constitutes the most strenuous test of the romantic idea that worshipful
time will forgive all those who love, and who live by, language. After half
a century this work's "transgressiveness" makes every usage of that term in
our etiolated English departments seem stale, pallid, and domesticated.
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