Not the callow, knowing underage girl herself, but the novel.
In a recent survey * in which 125 writers – from the likes of Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer to Annie Proulx and Alexander McCall Smith – choose their favourite books of all time, there it is at number 4 in the all-comers list, sandwiched between War and Peace and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov. And in the sub-set, Top Ten Works of the 20th Century, it’s number 1, one place ahead of The Great Gatsby and several in front of Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury, One Hundred Years of Solitude and To The Lighthouse. I mean, really!
I have a slim recollection of defending it to the staff of Wesley Road School where I was teaching when it was first published in 1959, on the lines, I believe, that it wasn’t a dirty book at all, it was a love story. Well, I was barely out of my teens. And, though I saw and quite enjoyed the film, nothing had propelled me to read it since. Until last week, that is, when the prospect of discussing it with a group of sixth form English students made me take an unread paperback down from the shelf.
And to paraphrase (or is that pinch?) Geoff Dyer’s recent remarks in his New York Times review of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, I just don’t get it, and the more I read it, the more I don’t get it.
Okay, I can see the writing has a kind of over-intellectual, verbose brilliance, and as long you’re prepared to accept the superiority of that voice (which I do always hear in the tones James Mason adopted in the movie) it’s amusing to hear the all-too-obvious put downs of suburban America and Americans. Up to a point, I can even admire the deviousness Nabokov’s narrator, Humbert, employs in his desperation to get his hands on pouting Lolita – but this is achieved in part by making Lolita’s mother – the greatest obstacle to his success – sufficiently crass that we couldn’t possible want her to prevail. (And besides, just when he’s sufficiently fed up with her, Nabakov has her run over in a whopping deus ex machina of an accident.) The other technique is to disguise the bare fact of what his middle-aged protagonist is setting out to do – namely, seduce a 12 year old girl whom he presumes to be sexually innocent – as little more than a harmless lark.
Here’s Humbert (page 42 in the Penguin edition) spying on Lolita from his rocking chair, while she stretches out on the lawn reading comics. Comics!
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, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.
See firstly what he does with “showing me” is to make the girl, who is in this scene, passive, into the active party; he is not to be blamed for looking, she is the one showing him, leading him on. And then look at the final phrase, “the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs”, where Nabokov’s/Humbert’s choice of language is such as to link Humbert’s intentions with innocent fun, seaside games, the language a (self-deceiving?) lie that masks the reality of his intentions. Innocent or not, she is a twelve year old girl he intends to have sex with it. There’s a name for that and we’re all familiar with it, and no high-flown phrases or self-justification can make it into something else.
What’s certainly true in the book is that once Humbert’s objective has been achieved [She seduced him - Oh,come on!] and he and Lolita have set out on an increasingly desperate and despondent road trip around the motels of America (to facilitate which he masquerades as her father), both the book and Humbert lose their sparkle. The whole thing becomes almost irrevocably dull, close to unreadable. So close in fact, that I missed the bit where Lolita escapes (for that’s what it is, however much from the fat into the fire) with Quilty, and had to go back.
“One of the world’s great love stories”, trumpets the Penguin blurb. “The greatest novel of rapture in modern fiction.”
” … no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita.” writes the veteran critic, Lionel Trilling. Come off it, Lionel.
It’s still not a dirty book – not in the sense that the staff at Wesley Road meant it – not ‘dirty’ enough for that. But it’s not a love story, either. A clever-clever glimpse into the mind of a self-opinionated man in the throes of aberrant sexual desire, that just about nails it. As for the Greatest Work of Fiction of the 20th Century …
* The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books. Edited by J. Peder Zane. Norton, 2007.