My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the most controversial books in the past one hundred years, and yet Nabokov’s novel remains successful despite a grown man repeatedly having sexual intercourse with a teen step-daughter (a topic most writers and readers run from).
Humbert Humbert, an intelligent eccentric, and the nymphet Dolores Haze are woven into a passionate plea of obsession and passion. How, then, did Nabokov transform a perverted plot into a masterful work of art?
One of the primary craft techniques Nabokov uses is found in America’s modern code of civility. Before one can judge, one must listen. Even to a madman. Nabokov understood this societal delay and he took advantage of it in order to have the reader follow one man’s memories of loving a girl-child. “Good stories,” writes Jerome Stern in Making Shapely Fiction, “intrigue readers from the first words of the first sentence” (p 70).
As of the first sentence and the first page, Nabokov, through the character Humbert, implores the reader to listen to the “love” story about Lolita and suspend judgment (i.e., closing the book) on Humbert:
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns” (Nabokov, p 9).
Humbert beckons the reader to “look” and not turn away, but to suspend judgment (i.e., read the book) and then make a decision (i.e., to appreciate or not appreciate the story). And being civil and respectful to social norms the reader agrees with this author-reader contract and continues forward on this untoward journey.
Nabokov, however, cannot abandon this pact with the reader and must return to the device throughout the latter pages. When Humbert has his first sexual encounter with Dolores, like a knowledgeable writer, Nabokov addresses the reader once more with “of the jury” in order to sustain the fictive dream by withholding personal opinions in order to learn the events, no matter how explicit or gruesome they may be:
“There seemed to be nothing to prevent my muscular thumb from reaching the hot hollow of her groin—just as you might tickle and caress a giggling child—just that—and: ‘Oh it’s nothing at all,’ she cried with a sudden shrill note in her voice, and she wiggled, and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentlemen of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known” (Nabokov, p 61).
Notice how the narrator addresses the “gentlemen of the jury” and not the “ladies” as before. Humbert’s confession becomes more like two men chatting over beers speaking about past escapades than it does a regretful man molesting a girl-child.
He is as a magician leaning in with snake-tongue and saying, “Listen. I’ll be honest,” and the next thing the listener knows is that she has been duped out of her life savings.
Later on Humbert even invokes the reader’s intelligence in order to try and convince rather than confess by mentioning historical evidence regarding young teens and sexual relations.
“The stipulation of the Roman law,” Humbert narrates, “according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States” (Nabokov, p 135).
Without question it is a beguiling argument inculpating the law and religion, simultaneously making an exception for Humbert’s guilt, and it is done with ease and skill of a seasoned writer.
In How Fiction Works James Wood argues “that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level” (p 120).
Adapting a reader to the style of the story is vital, and Nabokov is successful at performing this task by addressing the reader as a member of a jury. The tactic also serves, in the end, as a realistic device since the reader discovers that Humbert is likely on trial for his life because he murdered a man who had stolen Dolores from him.
Humbert, nevertheless, is an anti-hero and suspending judgment from within the reader cannot alone maintain the writer’s objective of keeping the reader interested in an incorrigible character or his fate.
Stern defines an “anti-hero” as someone that is “an unconventional central character who lacks the virtues of the traditional hero, but for whom we are to feel sympathy nonetheless” (p 85).
Nabokov understood this as well, and, therefore, needed from the reader sympathy for Humbert; one may listen much longer to a troubled man than to a heartless monster. Humbert often uses a depressing attitude when trying to provoke sympathy:
“I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity” (Nabokov, p 13).
Later, after a three year absence from his nymphet, Humbert confesses his undying love for a pregnant Dolores to the reader:
“And 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 hope for anywhere else” (Nabokov, p 277).
Such emotion. Such intimacy. Despite the infliction. How can the reader not feel sympathy for such a character?
Most readers have leafed through miserable memories and loved another more than anything. For Nabokov the reader’s judgment is swayed because Humbert’s passion, rather than his obsession, appeals to the inner divide of every person. There’s a reason for this.
In David Foster Wallace’s essay “The Nature of the Fun” he explains that “writing fiction becomes a way to go deep inside yourself and illuminate precisely the stuff you don’t want to see or let anyone else see, and this stuff usually turns out (paradoxically) to be precisely the stuff all writers and readers everywhere share and respond to, feel” (p 145).
Nabokov achieves yet another victory and creates a hung jury in favor of Humbert.
Lolita and Nabokov succeed, and will continue to do so, where other books and writers have failed because of Nabokov’s decisions as a cognizant craftsman and his complete control over the writing.
John Gardner called it the “pursuit of the ideal of clarity” and Nabokov is able to achieve this ultimate ideal in this particular piece of fiction (p 113).
By the end, has the jury provided its verdict? I believe not (since Lolita is still not banned but continues to be read and discussed).
Nabokov must have known Chekov’s exponent to fiction as well. Wood extrapolates: “Of course, the novel does not provide philosophical answers (as Chekov said, it only needs to ask the right questions)… it gives the best account of the complexity of our moral fabric” (pgs 178-179).
It appears Lolita asks all the right questions while readers, ipso facto, enjoin non obstante veredicto.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction (1984). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita (1955). New York: Vintage International Books, 1997. Print.
Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. “The Nature of the Fun.” Why I Write: Thoughts on the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Will Blythe. New York: Back Bay Books, 1999. 140-145. Print.
Wood, James. How Fiction Works. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a member of the Hemingway Society, Club Med, and the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America: A Look Back (2020); and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
You can follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers