Creativity comes through individuals but no one successfully creates alone. It is mysterious only to outsiders who can't see how it is done and mystify it further by calling it genius. No one has it all life through; their creativity takes off when they find their distinctive technique and their niche in the world of rivals, audiences, and downstream followers. And one learns it by getting deep inside a network of intellectual and artistic life, recombining and flipping techniques to produce something resoundingly new. Creativity via Sociology shows how they do it.

Saturday, February 16, 2019


When Vladimir Nabokov finished Lolita in 1953, he couldn’t get a publisher to take it. One called it “pure pornography,” and all feared prosecution. His agent finally placed it with a press in Paris that specialized in pornographic books for visitors to smuggle into English-speaking countries. When it came out in 1955, the sardonic English novelist Graham Greene praised it in a year-end article in the London Sunday Times as one of the best books of the year. Pushback came next year from a rival paper’s reviewer who attacked Greene and called it “sheer unrestrained pornography,” launching the kind of literary disputes that enliven the world of British intellectuals and the sales of English journalists. News of the scandal was picked up by the New York Times Book Review, and other writers chimed in. Suddenly American publishers were competing for publishing rights, followed by foreign publishers seeking translations. When Lolita came out in 1958, it sold 100,000 copies in three weeks-- the fastest-selling novel in twenty years. Stanley Kubrick (just off from making Spartacus) bought the film rights for $150,000 (worth about 10 times that amount in 2018 dollars), and gave Nabokov $40,000 to write the screenplay.

Succès de scandale, for sure. What else? Literary acclaim grew. Modern Library (which published affordable “quality” editions of world classics) ranked Lolita number 4 in a poll for the hundred greatest English-language books of the 20th century, after Ulysses (the unquestioned number 1), The Great Gatsby at number 2, and another Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, at number 3. A French poll in 1999 by Le Monde had Lolita at number 27. Contemporary reviewers were even more enthusiastic. 

From England, Kingsley Amis: “the variety, force, and richness of Nabokov’s perceptions have not even the palest rival in modern fiction. To read him is... the nearest thing to pure sensual pleasure that prose can offer.”  Daily Mail (London): “He has moulded and manipulated the language with greater dexterity, wit and invention that any author since Shakespeare.”

And America, Time Magazine: “Lolita is a major work of fiction: it is also a shocking book... He has evolved a vivid English style which combines Joycean word play with a Proustian evocation of mood.” The Reporter: “In many ways the most remarkable-- and certainly the most original-- novel written in English during recent years.” Women writers were impressed too. Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes): “The only sure-fire classic written in my lifetime.” Dorothy Parker called it “a great book.”

What would be the judgment today? Less style points, more focus on the Lolita plot. A bare outline:

A cosmopolitan European gentlemen in his late thirties, haunted by a pubescent love affair long-ago on the Riviera, falls for a twelve-year-old American girl. To get access to her, he marries her widowed mother, who he tries to murder but fails. When she dies in a chance accident, Humbert Humbert takes off with his step-daughter Lolita on a long road trip across America, copulating with her as frequently as possible. Lolita turns out not to be a virgin (having been initiated at summer camp), but a precocious sexpot, and at first she finds Humbert handsome and exotic as the movie stars she is stuck on. Naturally this doesn’t last long, as Lolita becomes bored and Humbert tyrannical trying to keep her away from boys, growing increasingly suspicious as Lolita becomes increasingly evasive. Finally she manages to run off with another older man-- a famous playwright who has been toying with Humbert’s paranoia. Bereaved Humbert settles down in a college town for three years, until he gets a letter asking for money from now 17-year-old Lolita--  married, pregnant, living in poverty, and no longer a romantic nymphet. Humbert learns the identity of his tormentor, stalks him in his mansion, and kills him with a pistol. The novel is framed by a psychiatrist’s report and written in prison as Humbert awaits trial, not for child abuse but for murder.

For what it’s worth, Amazon shows considerable falling off from the book’s once-exalted ranking. The most popular edition of Lolita ranks no. 12,487 among electronic books as of October 2018; relegated to best showings in categories of Literary Satire Fiction (no. 17); Classic British [sic!] Fiction (no. 19); and Classic Coming of Age Fiction [Nabokov would be insulted] (no. 27). There are still a lot of customer reviews (1440), 62% giving it 5 stars; some of the recent reviews are very negative. Are we back in 1953? or where, exactly, in the historic moving arc of literary standards and tastes?

What we need to consider:

[1] Sexual standards change. Sex came out of the closet (in literature and real life) from the 1920s, peaking in the 1960s. A counter-movement set in from the late 1970s onwards, shining spotlights on rape, child abuse and sexual harassment, and coining new terms for the dark side of sex.

[2] Why it was Nabokov who rode the literary sex wave with the most shocking and best written of the closet breakouts.

[3] Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot, in his Russian novel The Enchanter.

[4] How Nabokov’s much-admired style made Humbert Humbert the only sympathetic character in Lolita.

[5] And finally, not a decision on how great a novel Lolita really is, but what forces determine that historically located phenomenon, a “Great Classic”.

Sexual/literary standards change

Sex was often a topic behind the scenes in respectable novels, but only alluded to, never actually depicted. The Scarlet Letter is about Adultery, but if you don’t know what that means, Hawthorne was not about to show you. There is little or no overt sex in English-language novels after the time of Tom Jones in the 1740s. France had more sex novels -- Liaisons Dangereuses (1782) is all about seduction, but without explicit scenes. Zola wrote Nana (1880) about courtesans (and even did research interviewing them) but stays out of the bedroom and maintains a moralistic tone throughout. Some Russian novels featured prostitutes (usually low-class); in Notes from Underground (1864) Dostoyevski’s narrator humiliates a prostitute, and in Crime and Punishment (1866) a prostitute with a heart-of-gold guides the young killer to redemption. There are no sex scenes in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) nor in Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891); just what they go off to do in darkest East London is only hinted at in horrified tones.

In the 1920s, the literary sex race was on. Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) centers on an aristocratic English playgirl with a string of lovers, but sex scenes are limited to abortive embraces in a taxi because the hero has been wounded in the war (had his penis shot off or something). D.H. Lawrence features another war-wounded soldier, whose place is taken by the game-keeper in Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). These are the first blow-by-blow sex scenes in serious literature, the first literary micro-sociology of sex. Hemingway was better at getting sex published than Lawrence, with “the earth moved” scenes in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940); meanwhile Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and other explicit celebrations of sex were banned in England and the United States until the early 1960s. Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was admitted by court decision in 1934, but its sexual content was mostly rather oblique (a few snippets in Molly Bloom’s interior monologue).

Nabokov rides the literary sex wave

Lolita was published and got its literary fame by the same route as Ulysses, Lady Chatterley, Henry Miller et al.-- underground publication in Paris and the buzz of reputation in the avant-garde network. Nabokov took pains to distance himself from his predecessors. In an early apologia (“On a Book Called Lolita,” 1956), he summarizes the rules of the genre he is not emulating:

“ modern times the term ‘pornography’ connotes mediocrity, commercialism, and certain strict rules of narration. Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation... In pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust. The novel must consist of an alternation of sexual scenes. The passages in between must be reduced to brief expositions and explanations that the reader will probably skip... Moreover, the sexual scenes must follow a crescendo line, with new variations, new combinations, new sexes, and a steady increase in the number of participants (in a Sade play they call the gardener in), and therefore the end of the book must be more replete with lewd lore than the first chapters.”  [294-95]

Nabokov goes on to say that the publishers who rejected his manuscript apparently read only the first chapters (which are most focused on Humbert Humbert’s sexual thoughts) and assumed the rest would follow the formula. Nabokov, however, insists that “the nerves of the novel” are personally meaningful bits of writing about imaginary scenes or his own observations of the American landscape while driving around hunting butterflies and “trying to be an American writer.”  [296-97]

Vis-à-vis the high-literary world and its race to go farther into sex than anyone before, Nabokov wants to stay away from the rough-and-tumble of Hemingway and Henry Miller, and his aristocratic taste could not condescend to the lower-middle class milieu of Joyce. Lady Chatterley is more his class level, but (a) Nabokov is against novels with a message; (b) disillusioned war veterans has already been done; (c) if anyone is going to be disillusioned, it is a high-toned Russian exile having to teach literature at an insufferably middle-class American college (the story of Nabokov’s life as well as Humbert Humbert’s).

Every breakthrough writer has to find something new, something that combines shock with redeeming higher purpose (in this case literary style). What we would now call sexual child abuse provides the shock. It was mitigated in the 1950s context: marriages between adults and girls of 12 or 13 were still legal in many American states (rock n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957).  During the course of the novel, Humbert has Lolita sexually when she is age 13-14. As Humbert frequently points out to Lolita when they are on the lam together, if the authorities find out she will be sent to an institution for delinquent girls-- the concept of pure victimhood not yet having been developed. Humbert would expect to go to prison too, for a year or so (aging tennis star Bill Tilden received such a prison term around 1950 for his affairs with teen-age protégés). Sentencing would become much more severe in recent decades.

Altogether, the late 1950s was an ideal moment for Nabokov to enter the race. The literary world was primed to acclaim the next big step in literary sex. In Lolita the writing is brilliant but accessible, a golden mean between Joyce’s stylistic labyrinths and Hemingway’s minimalist show-don’t-tell (stylistically Nabokov is the anti-Hemingway, with his narrator constantly commenting on himself). And Lolita is much more filmable than D.H. Lawrence or Henry Miller. The 1962 film starring suave James Mason, clutzy mother Shelly Winters, precocious Sue Lyon, and funny-man Peter Sellers did nothing to arouse the censors.

Lolita also is Nabokov’s great career success. In exile from Russia since 1919, he lived in Russian émigré circles in Berlin, the French Riviera, and Paris, while he wrote nine novels in Russian. In the US since 1940, he kept on trying to publish in Russian. If he eventually made it into histories of Russian literature in the Wikipedia era, it was on the strength of his Lolita reputation. It also brought reflected fame to his other main English novel, Pale Fire (1962), which continued the theme of an exiled professor in America, here obsessed with his childhood affairs before becoming king of an idyllic land resembling pre-revolutionary Russia. Above all, the financial success of Lolita and its film enabled him to move back to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life at resorts in France and Switzerland (like the childhood of his fictional Humbert Humbert). It may well be that Nabokov was never in love with pubescent girls; his nostalgia was centered on living on perpetual vacation among the pre-war rich.

Nabokov’s 1939 try-out of the Lolita plot .

Nabokov wrote an early version in Paris, but never published it. The protagonist is a man in his late 30s who sees a 12-year-old girl playing in the park. He marries the girl’s mother to get access to her, expecting the mother to die since she is an invalid. When she doesn’t, he considers poisoning her but fails. Eventually she dies and he takes the girl south to the Riviera. On the way they stop at a provincial hotel; when he touches the sleeping girl, she wakes up screaming, the hotel guests mob him; he runs into the street and is killed by a truck. The main plot tension is his scheming-- getting the sick woman to consider him a suitor; trying to be alone with the girl; planning how to approach her once he has her. His schemes are interrupted by Hitchcock-like hitches, which serve to keep the story in suspense. In the hotel, just as he is getting the girl in bed, there is a knock on the door-- a gendarme wants to question him. It turns out to be a mistaken identity. But he doesn’t know his room number, bumbles around through the dim-lit stairs and corridors, trying the wrong doors. Finally as he starts his caresses, he sees someone else in the room!-- no, it’s the reflection of his striped pajamas in the mirror. And so throughout.

Aside from the truncated plot (a 50 page story versus a 300 page book), there are numerous differences from Lolita. The 12-year-old girl is the same age as Lolita when Humbert Humbert first sees her, but much more childish and sexually innocent. In the park, she is roller-skating and playing hopscotch. Lolita is sun-bathing in her back yard, wearing a bikini and sunglasses. The Enchanter’s girl (she is never given a name) says little, except she would like to go to the beach and learn to swim. Lolita devours movie-fan magazines, chats cynically about boys, and flirts with Humbert, her mother’s summer lodger. Nabokov observed a real difference between European adolescents, who in the 1930s and later were still treated like children under the eyes of nursemaids, and American kids who by the 1950s had acquired the label “teenagers” with their own culture, pop music, and closed-off-from-parents social life. The reception of Lolita in 1958 was of a piece with the furor over juvenile delinquency, street gangs, and West Side Story (also 1958).

The “nymphet” theme is there in The Enchanter, if not the term. The anonymous middle-aged bachelor is smitten by girls on the cusp on puberty, a look that he knows is ephemeral, due to pass away by age 17 or 20, or even on-rushing 14. Young women become less delicate and more banal; full-grown women are just widening bodies. This is reiterated at length by Humbert Humbert, who finds Lolita’s mother cow-like.

Lolita almost immediately gives us the backstory. Humbert remembers himself at 13, summering on the Riviera and falling in love with the daughter of family friends, a girl named Annabel (echoes of Edgar Allen Poe) who is a few months younger and the archetype of the nymphet. Their sexual liaisons out of sight of their elders are abortive, and before the next season she dies of typhus in Corfu. So the grown-up Humbert never marries, finds prostitutes gross, undergoes more exile until his life lights up when he sees Lolita: “But that mimosa grove-- the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since-- until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.” [12-13]

He goes on to explain about nymphets: “When I was a child and she was a child, my little Annabel was no nymphet to me; I was her equal, a faunlet in my own right, on that same enchanted island of time; but today, in September 1952, after twenty-nine years have elapsed, I think I can distinguish in her the initial fateful elf in my life... Soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.” [15]

In The Enchanter there is no backstory, Riviera luxury hotels or anything else. The bare-bones plot-- a man who loves nymphets, marries one’s mother to get to her; but it comes out badly in the end-- is artfully crafted into  Lolita.

The mothers are different too. “...a tall, pale, broad-hipped lady with a hairless wart near a nostril of her bulbous nose” (Enchanter, 15).   The pursuer has to scheme and play-act to pretend he finds in her some vestige of attractiveness; and the prospect of consummating their marriage sexually fills him with disgust: “it was perfectly clear that he (little Gulliver) would be unable to tackle those broad bones, those multiple caverns, the bulky velvet, the formless anklebones, the repulsively listing conformation of her ponderous pelvis, not to mention the rancid emanations of her wilted skin and the as yet undisclosed miracles of surgery... here his imagination was left hanging on barbed wire.” (30)

Lolita’s mother, on the other hand: “I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of the type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Dietrich.” (Lolita, 33) Humbert finds her gauche and pretentious, stuck in the utterly middle-class world (before such women had careers) of book club and bridge club “or any other deadly conventionality.” Charlotte Haze, unlike her 1939 Paris counterpart, actively pursues her daughter’s would-be lover, and the plot tension in this part of the book is chiefly about Humbert fending her off while keeping her sufficiently happy not to be suspicious. Here he has an ally in Lolita, who likes defying her mother and finds Humbert refreshingly different from her callow age-mates. This develops into mother-daughter rivalry, with Charlotte planning to get Lolita out of the way at summer camp, and then off permanently to boarding school. In The Enchanter, the widow is a self-centered invalid, claiming the privilege of not being bothered by her daughter, who she finds too noisy to have around her apartment, and keeps her boarded with a couple in a provincial town. In Lolita, all this is more pleasant to read about, more comic, and more dramatic than in The Enchanter. Charlotte gets hold of her husband’s secret diary, reads about his designs on Lolita and his real opinion of herself. Humbert reads Charlotte’s shocked/angry note, tries to compose an explanation (just a novel I’m writing) when the neighbour knocks on the door-- his wife has been killed by a car as she was crossing the street to post the tell-all letters in the mailbox.

The Enchanter has no memorable personalities. No one in the story even has a name. The protagonist is simply “he,” the widow is “the old woman” (age 42) and then, since he cannot bring himself to think of her as his wife, simply “that person.” The object of his obsession is merely “the girl.” The narrator sticks entirely to the protagonist’s point of view, with passages of inner dialogue or its paraphrase. The writing has its passages of eloquence and clever word-play (judging from the translation by Nabokov’s son from Russian into English), but this doesn’t rub off on the protagonist, unlike in Lolita, where Humbert Humbert’s first-person account makes Nabokov’s light-touch wordplay into a feature of the character himself. The “enchanter” is polite and respectable on the surface, but his inner thoughts are largely dour, with none of the jokes and self-ironicizing that makes Humbert the most attractive person in the book.

The “enchanter” doesn’t seem very enchanting. Only in the last chapter do we learn what the title is meant to convey. This is his self-image, engaged in schemes to bring the girl under his spell, getting her accustomed to step-fatherly affection, until:

“We shall live far away, now in the hills, now by the sea, in a hothouse warmth where savage-like nudity will automatically become habitual, perfectly alone (no servants!), seeing no one, just the two of us in an eternal nursery and thus any remaining sense of shame will be dealt its final blow. There will be constant merriment, pranks, morning kisses, tussles on the shared bed, a single, huge sponge shedding its tears on four shoulders, squirting with laughter amid four legs... During the first two years or so the captive would be ignorant... of the puppet-master’s panting... He would have to be particularly cautious, not to let her go anywhere alone, make frequent changes of domicile, keep a sharp eye out lest she make friends with other children or have occasion to start chatting with the woman from the greengrocer’s or the char, for there was no telling what impudent elf might fly from the lips of enchanted innocence... And yet, for what could one possibly reproach the enchanter!

“He knew he would find sufficient delights in her so as not to disenchant her prematurely... He knew he would make no attempt on her virginity in the tightest and pinkest sense of the term until the evolution of their caresses had ascended a certain invisible step.”  (42-44)

So he thinks on his train ride to pick her up and take her south. Finally, after a series of petty interruptions, he is in the hotel room, lying down beside her:

“So. The hour he had deliriously desired for a full quarter century had finally come, yet it was shackled, even cooled by the cloud of his bliss. The flow and ebb of her light-colored robe, mingling with revelations of her beauty, still quivered before his eyes, intricately rippled as if seen through cut glass. He simply could not find the focal point of business, did not know where to begin, what one could touch, and how, within the realm of her repose, in order to savor this hour to the fullest. So.” (54)

Descending even more into micro-detail:

“The stuffy air and his excitement were growing unbearable. He slightly loosened his pajama drawstring, which had been cutting into his belly... Then, starting little by little to cast his spell, he began passing his magic wand above her body, almost touching the skin, torturing himself with her attraction, her visible proximity, the fantastic confrontation permitted by the slumber of this naked girl, whom he was measuring, as it were, with an enchanted yardstick...

“...slowly, with bated breath, he was inching closer and then, coordinating all his movements, he began molding himself to her, testing the fit... A spring apprehensively yielded under his side; his right elbow, cautiously cracking, sought a support; his sight was clouded by a secret concentration... He felt the flame of her shapely thigh, felt that he could restrain himself no longer, that nothing mattered now, and, as the sweetness came to a boil between his wooly tufts and her hip, how joyously his life was emancipated and reduced to the simplicity of paradise-- and having barely time to think, ‘No, I beg you, don’t take it away!” he saw that she was fully awake and looking wild-eyed at his rearing nudity.

“For an instant, in the hiatus of a syncope, he also saw how it appeared to her: some monstrosity, some ghastly disease... She was looking and screaming, but the enchanter did not hear her screams; he was deafened by his own horror, kneeling, catching at the folds, snatching at the drawstring, trying to stop it, hide it, snapping with his oblique spasm, as senseless as pounding in place of music, senselessly discharging molten wax, to stop it or conceal it...

“How she rolled from the bed, how she was shrieking now, how the lamp scampered off in its red cowl, what a thundering came from outside the window, shattering, destroying the night, demolishing everything, everything... ‘Be quiet, it’s nothing bad, it’s just a kind of game, it happens sometimes, just be quiet,’ he implored, middle-aged and sweaty...” (56-57)

Then the pounding on the door, the mob in the hall, escape down the stairs, out into the street where the trucks rolled down hill, finding one opportunely to throw himself under. “...and the film of life had burst.” [59]

In every respect, Nabokov made Lolita a more attractive book than The Enchanter. No wonder he tried to trash the early manuscript and even his first attempts at a reworking. Each time it was rescued by his wife. Did she sense it was the key to their future?

The oddest thing about The Enchanter was that Nabokov wrote it in autumn 1939, just after Stalin and Hitler joined to invade Poland. Falling back on sheer escapism? Nabokov as an adult was apolitical (even though, or perhaps because, his father was a reformist party leader, journalist and sometime official in various Russian governments, who was killed in Germany in a fight among exile factions in 1922). (If I can intrude a telling irrelevancy, Nabokov’s next literary project after his father was shot was a Russian translation of Alice in Wonderland.) In Lolita, the one mention of external events is when summarizing his prior life, Humbert says: “the gloom of yet another World War had settled upon the globe when, after a winter of ennui and pneumonia in Portugal, I at last reached the States.” (28-9)  Nabokov’s protagonists are too self-absorbed to be interested in anything else.  

Style creates sympathy

“They kissed, undressed, and smoked a cigarette. I got ready to climb down. At that moment I felt the ladder sliding away under me. I tried to grab hold of the window, but it gave way. The ladder fell with a crash and there I was, dangling in the air. Suddenly the whole apartment exploded with alarm. Everyone came running...”  [114]

“Pink veins glimmered in the white stone of the portal, and above it columns as thin as candles. The organ fell silent and then burst into a laughter of bass notes. The church was filled with light, filled with dancing rays, columns of air, and a cool exaltation...” [287]

“His hatred followed me through forests and over rivers. I felt it on my hide and shuddered. He nailed his bloodshot eyes on my path...” [346]

“Someone’s horse neighs softly like a pining woman, and the cannonade, falling silent, lies down to sleep on the black, wet earth.  Only one window is ablaze in a faraway street. It cuts through the gloom of the autumn night like an exhilarated searchlight, flashing, drenched with rain... I can still hear the sound of water. The rain is continuing to stutter, bubble, and moan on the roofs. The wind grabs the rain and shoves it to the side. The light of the room has dimmed by half. A man rises from the bench, splicing the dim glimmer of the moon...” [339-40]

“I took the manuscript home with me and cut swaths through the translation. When a phrase is born, it is both good and bad at the same time. The secret of its success rests in a crux that is barely discernable. One’s fingertips must grasp the key, gently warming it. And then the key must be turned once, not twice.” [445]

Nabokov?  No. It’s another Russian, Nabokov’s contemporary, five years older Isaac Babel. One might have guessed from the mention of “cannonade” in the fourth excerpt that these are Babel’s Red Army stories from the 1920s, while Nabokov was traversing southern Russia on the Whites’ side of the front and on into exile. But the first excerpt, from “The Bathroom Window” is set in a brothel in Petersburg (Nabokov’s home town), a story that got Babel prosecuted for obscenity in 1917. The last excerpt is again Petersburg in 1916, about translating literature from French into Russian, and both its message and its tone are closely aligned with Nabokov’s thought processes. I am not claiming that Nabokov was influenced by Babel. But that he read some of these stories is quite likely; Babel himself went back and forth between Russia and Paris in the late 20s and early 30s, and it would not be hard to find intermediate network links between them-- except for a big difference in social class between the writers. And in politics, of course; 19-year-old Nabokov considered enlisting in the White Army, then thought better of it-- otherwise the two writers could have shot each other. 

What is more to the point is that startling metaphors and figures of speech were in vogue in avant-garde Russian writing in the early 20th century, and sophisticated analysis of literary effects was being done by Russian theorists such as Viktor Shlavsky and Roman Jakobson. This sophistication reached the West via France, where it transmuted in the 1950s into structuralism. Nabokov took the Russian stream, not of theory but of practice, to America.

In Lolita, Nabokov’s writing hits a new peak and never lets down. Every line is a bon mot, every sentence beautiful, alive, compelling. Even banalities are rendered gracefully.

“...the little diary which I now propose to reel off (much as a spy delivers by heart the contents of the note he has swallowed) covers most of June.” [37]

“At first, I planned to take a degree in psychiatry as so many manqué talents do; but I was even more manqué than that; a peculiar exhaustion, I am so oppressed, doctor, set in; and I switched to English literature, where so many frustrated poets end as pipe-smoking teachers in tweeds.” [13] 

There is hardly a pedestrian sentence in the book, but you never feel it’s overdone, nor do the verbal acrobatics distract from the movement of the story. Hold on-- what movement? -- since not a lot happens in the ordinary sense of the word. More the other way around-- Nabokov’s sentences are the movement of the story.

“In the course of the sun-shot moment when my glance slithered over the kneeling child (her eyes blinking over those stern dark spectacles-- the little Herr Doktor who was to cure me of all my aches) while I passed by her in my adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood), the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride. A little later, of course, she, this nouvelle, this Lolita, my Lolita, was to eclipse completely her prototype. All I want to stress is that my discovery of her was a fatal consequence of that ‘princedom by the sea’ in my tortured past. Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders and false rudiments of joy.” [36]

How does he do it? A salad of word-play, alliteration, American colloquialisms (Nabokov showing off his mastery of yet another tongue), shifts in rhythm and cadence-- now mellifluous, now abrupt. Acres and acres of long run-on sentences, constructed out of parenthetical interpolations; but the piling-on of clever phrases never feels confusing or overwrought. You the reader never lose track of where you are (unlike, for instance, reading Joyce);* the bouncing tropes are in the service of vivid word-painting, the pyrotechnics keep you in the picture. A combination indeed of word-magic and realism.

* Nabokov was not given to footnotes in Lolita,  but here we can mention that he wrote to Joyce in 1933 offering to translate Ulysses into Russian. In 1937, Joyce attended a Nabokov reading; and the two met in 1938 in Paris.

It holds together because the long sentences full of self-interruptions perfectly match the narrator’s character. And that is what drives the plot: not so much what Humbert Humbert does but his ironic self-reflections on what he has done and plans to do.

By keeping his own voice in the foreground, Humbert manages to be the only sympathetic character in the novel. He travels around a country full of people who are crass, ugly, dismal, uncool, unsophisticated and tasteless. The only person in Lolita who is cool, upbeat, fun, a good guy to be around, is Humbert Humbert (the pseudo-Nabokov). Both author and protagonist are Euro-snobs, disdainful of Americans. Probably this is why there is relatively little dialogue in considerable stretches of the book, since only Humbert can talk in an interesting manner. When other characters speak, the effect is almost entirely satirical, such as when Nabokov parodies the headmistress of the girl’s school Lolita attends.

Perhaps we should add Lolita as a dominant character. She gets a certain amount of clipped dialogue, allowing Nabakov to show off his perfect ear for the teenage idiom. She is very unlike “the girl” in The Enchanter, flirting with Humbert and even initiating sex with him in their initial hotel-room scene. The rest of the book is a struggle of wills between them, which Lolita wins. 

Humbert/Nabokov is attractive because of his word-magic. (Was the author conscious of vindicating at least that residue of The Magician ?) The endlessly dancing sentences convey us inside the mind of a light-footed, all-angles-considering, gracefully quick-witted consciousness. He is endlessly self-ironicizing but not self-alienated. Being in Humbert’s presence is never a downer although what happens in his life is.

Here it is worth peeling away Nabokov’s style to get at a bare-bones account of what happens as Lolita winds down.

Lolita as tragedy

Lolita is tragedy, not in the vulgar newsmedia use of the word to mean whenever anyone gets killed, but in the high literary sense. It is even classic tragedy: a hero with great qualities (in this case, a magical style) and a fatal flaw, treading towards downfall with inevitable destiny-laden steps.

As soon as Humbert has Lolita, things start going downhill. Taste mismatches: European high culture vs. coca cola, hamburgers, and movie magazines. Humbert is getting plenty of sex, but he has to pay for it with a continuous stream of bribes, candy, clothes; even money (3 cents a day, which she wheedles up to 15 cents) for her allowance, “under condition she fulfill her basic obligations... [while she] managed to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks.” [172]  Lolita chafing at the bit is a constant source of anxiety, as Humbert becomes increasingly paranoid about any contact she has with boys. This leads to a certain amount of comedy, as school officials complain to Humbert about being too strict and old-fashioned with her. Paranoia takes on a dimension of reality as neighbours grow suspicious and her girlfriends cast knowing looks. Their intermittent quarrels grow worse as Lolita protests about being denied her teenage freedom and resorts to ruses and lying about everyday trivialities. Humbert finds himself resorting to force, from twisting her wrists to slapping her face. [192, 212] Everyone has mutated into their opposite; Lolita recapitulating Humbert’s furtiveness in his clandestine courtship days; Humbert repeating the harshness of Lolita’s mother during their siege of rivalry:

“ ‘Just slap her hard if she interferes with your scholarly meditations.’ ” Charlotte Haze says, finding Lolita putting her hands over Humbert’s eyes from behind as he sits reading a book. [51] 

Finally Humbert escapes with Lolita into an endless, year-long auto trip, where paranoia approaches hallucination as he thinks they are being followed by another car. When Lolita is hospitalized, she manages to escape, allegedly picked up by her uncle. Humbert hires detectives but can never find her. We skip three years to the denouement: he gets a letter from her, telling him she is married and asking for money. This Humbert willingly provides, and in return gets the satisfaction of finding out who took her from him: the famous playwright/screenwriter Quilty, whom Lolita had a crush on for years-- Humbert not being the only mature man she preferred to adolescent boys. Quilty took her to a dude ranch in New Mexico, surrounded by hipsters, drug-using carousers, the Hollywood scene.  Another irony: Humbert’s old-world culture is out-bid by the trendy edge of American life.* Quilty takes none of this as seriously as Humbert, tries out Lolita for the casting couch, offering to get her a movie part. She willingly slept with Quilty but resisted being in a pornographic movie, leaving the dude ranch to enter a downward spiral of dish-washing in restaurants and marrying a workingclass guy. Humbert goes off to avenge himself on Quilty (“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.”) [258] Lolita dies in childbirth. Humbert Humbert dies in prison of heart failure.

* Quilty is the only character besides Humbert who gets to talk at length, in the 10 page section near the end where Humbert tries to torment him before shooting him. Quilty displays a range of rhetoric rivaling Nabokov’s-- perhaps a parodied American counterpart.

Tragedy elevates, purging pity and fear, Aristotle said. Shakespeare’s tragedies are elevating in just that sense; Faulkner’s too.  Can we say this about Lolita ?

What makes a Great Classic?

Simple answer: surviving the test of time. In the history of philosophy, one does not become canonical in the generation after one’s death. There is often a dip in reputation; the real test is 100 or more years later, as the names remembered from the past are winnowed out. Similar processes operate in the history of art. As yet there is no systematic study of these reputational time-patterns for literary writers. Nabokov died in 1977, and now (the late 2010s) is about the time when past fame no longer counts; there has to be something in it people still want to read. Moralistic attacks on literature (which is to say, external to literary criteria) are fairly common in the history of literature. By the same token, books famous for moving-the-boundaries-of-what-can-be-said may not outlive their shock value.

Do standards of what constitutes literature-- internal to the world of serious readers-- change historically to such a degree that one-time classics become outmoded? It happens, although not very often. Literature of the Renaissance period, with its allegories and symbolism, stopped being appealing by the 1700s. We can’t rule out a similar repudiation in the future of the whole realist and psychological (AKA “romantic”) literature of the past three centuries. But our theorizing about literary reception and production has not advanced enough to speculate about what kinds of social changes would make this happen. Come back in a hundred years or so, and we’ll see.


Vladimir Nabokov. Novels 1955-62.  Library of America. Includes detailed chronology of Nabokov’s life.

Vladimir Nabokov. The Enchanter.  1986. translated by Dmitri Nabokov.

Isaac Babel. Collected Stories. 2002.  Originally published 1913-1938.

Peter Steiner. Russian Formalism. 1984. Cornell Univ. Press

Eric Schneider. Vampires, Dragons, and Egyptian Kings: Youth Gangs in Postwar New York. 1999. Princeton Univ. Press.

Randall Collins. The Sociology of Philosophies. A Global Theory of Intellectual Change. 1998.

No comments:

Post a Comment