What We Write About When We Write About Lolita


Lynn Crosbie

Originally published in Toronto's National Post and featured in The Evergreen Review Issue 103 in 1999.
Errol Flynn, once a paragon of virility with a penchant for young girls (he was tried for statutory rape, and acquitted, in 1942), completed his last film, Cuban Rebel Girls, in 1959. This film co-starred his then-l6-year-old girlfriend Beverly Aadland, and was filmed on location during the Castro revolution. Flynn spends much of the film obviously drunk, staggering beneath strafing planes and drinking from his flask, while the athletic Aadland assists both the overthrow of Fulgncio Batista, and the bloated wobbling Flynn. Lord Byron, another dashing figure and practicing chicken hawk, spent his final days in Missolonghi, supporting the struggle for Greece's independence from Turkey. His last poem, composed deep within the ranks of the army of the liberation, piteously complains: "Tis time this heart should be unmoved,/Since others it hath ceased to move:/Yet, though I cannot be beloved,/Still let me love!" The desiccated Byron's lament-like Flynn's own final grasp at a baroque, dignified manliness - is absurdly poignant. What does a man do, after all, when the radiance of his asculinity begins to fade, when "The worm, the canker, and the grief/Are (his) alone"? This is but one of the questions that Vladimir Nabokov raised, implicitly, in Lolita, his pioneering 1955 novel that explores and caustically mocks a certain male condition, and the flimsy elegance of I its rationale. Humbert Humbert, his paedophiliac speaker, offers a series of analytical and cogent arguments toward understanding his psyche, the most memorable of which is his adolescent sexual fixation on a girl, Annabel Leigh, who dies tragically and young. Annabel, like the spectre torn from Edgar Allan Poe that she is, "haunt[s] him" through his adulthood, until he breaks "her spell by incarnating her in another." The other, of course, is Dolores Haze, the infamous Lolita, a genus of girl Humbert calls the "nymphet" - "the deadly little daemon among the wholesome children ... unconscious herself of her fantastic power." Lolita, as it turned out, had a shrewd sense of her power over Humbert, and she ultimately eludes him, leaving him distraught and languishing in a prison of his own design. It is this element of the novel - of Humbert's own narrative voice - that has caused such confusion and debate among commentators and consequent interpreters. Read simply, as Adrian Lyne does in his 1997 film adaptation, in which he portrays Humbert as (in Charles Taylor's words, writing for Salon magazine) A "brokenlhearted romantic," the novel is a catastrophically foolish apology for paedophilia, with a Freudian verification, if not justification, at its centre. Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film (written for the screen by Nabokov himself) is far shrewder in its reading of Humbert as a foolish, untrustworthy narrator, whose mendacity and maudlin delusions compromise the story and make it more comic disaster than romance. (Peter Sellers' ingenious turn as Humbert's Freudian interlocutor underscores what is, in essence, fraudulent about how desire is rationalized here). What Lyne does understand about Lolita is that it is a sexy story, adamantly transgressive, and easily adaptable to the erotic mind, which tends to flow unchecked by morals or reason. Sexual fantasies, the writer Mary Gaitskill has observed, cannot be legislated. What Lyne misses is the ephemeral life of pornography: Watching his film version of Lolita twice is like rereading a Penthouse letter - this genre loses its juice quickly and almost never bears repeating. But if Lyne's work, once viewed, detumesces, Kubrick's film persists - as a study in male hubris, and the conflict between the body that yearns and the mind seeking explication. In his essay On a Book Entitled Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's afterword to the novel states: "every serious writer, I dare say, is aware of this or that published book of his as of a constant comforting presence. Its pilot light is steadily burning somewhere in the basement and a mere touch applied to one's private thermostat instantly results in a quiet little explosion of familiar warmth." This wry (and none too subtle) metaphor perfectly describes the lingering effects of Nabokov's 1955 novel - widely considered a masterpiece - on both our contemporary literary and sexual imagination. And it is precisely the "familiar warmth" of this story that Italian novelist Pia Pera's American publisher, Foxrock, evoked in an attempt to defend the publication of the novel. Lo's Diary is a version of Nabokov's novel, as told by Dolores Maze ("Dolores Maze" in Pera's book). Nabokov's son, Dmitri, representing the estate, took umbrage at this "piracy" and entered into a much-publicized legal skirmish with Foxrock. The publishing house capitulated recently, by agreeing to share Pera's royalties with the estate (which will be then donated to PEN International), and by including a preface, called On a Book Entitled Lo's Diary, by the author's son. Pera was to provide an afterword, but has since declined. Dmitri Nabokov's foreword, which Pera has described as "disappointingly dull," raises a number of questions about the legitimacy, implied the very legality, of "transformative works" that seek to revise and reconsider established, commonly read texts: Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, based on Jane Eyre, is one example cited as a significant precedent. But Wide Sargasso Sea is in no way an attempt to imitate Charlotte Brontë. The novel provides a spectacular fusion of fiction and critical theory in its acute location of a political lacuna in the source text. Rhys' examination of the madwoman in the attic, Bertha Rochester, is an artistic and social parallel: The West Indian woman's captivity is a study in practices and ideology extending beyond the confines of the text. It is unfortunate for Pera that this foreword exists, as it demands that the reader assess her novel's worthiness by comparison, as a study of Nabokov's writing or a guild painter's approximation of his master's hand. Worse, its petulant, copyright-grubbing tone casts a pall over the book, reducing what is an ambitious and important novel, on one level, to topos, not text. It is worth noting, too, that Vladimir Nabokov wrote that his inspiration for Lolita was a newspaper article about an ape in Paris' Jardin des Plantes, who, "after months of coaxing," composed the first drawing ever rendered by an animal: "This sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage." Nabokov, who appeared to have no shortage of wit or compassion, likely would have been engaged by Pera's attempt to see clear of the structural confines limiting Lolita as a woman, not observing, but observed. Lo's Diary is a finely wrought novel of consider able eloquence. Her Lolita's voice is sharp, acute, and often cruel: She tortures small animals, refers to her mother as "Plasticmom," and dismisses entirely her first sexual encounter with Humbert - "That's that. Hummie's definitely a bore in bed." Pera's decision to downplay this scene is strategic. Where the encounter was ripe with unexpressed lust in Lolita, it seems here an impotent non event, of less interest than the death of a hamster. Pera's is also an angry novel, its fury driven by the very novelty of its speaking subject. And the author has not been alone in trying to "coax" expression from Lolita. Emily Prager's excellent parodic novel, Roger Fishbite, published earlier this year, uses Lolita as a template, telling a similar story from a different perspective - that of a 13-year-old girl named Lucky Linderhof. Lucky ends up killing her seducer with a shotgun, while evoking everything from child prostitution to the death of JonBenét Ramsey. Plager's parodic concerns are political - as is the eye of Fishbite, which rolls vacantly in its socket, and the larger, figurative eye (something like The Great Gatsby's looming optometrist Sign) of all sexual predators. Even Lucky's gunslinging is not an unusual measure: Many films, for example, have emerged in the past 10 years (including the Poison Ivy series and Wild Things) that are perhaps best described as Nymphet Noirs - films that focus on sexy, teen girls who use what sexual power they have as a form of counter-vanality. Pera's Dolores is more refined, yet the hatred with which she regards her surroundings is still potent; an unusually acute commentary on the experience, perhaps, of being the actual Alice (Emily Prager casts Lewis Carroll as another of her "special men")- what it's like to be contained in someone else's wonderland of surreal and punishing truths.