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7 june 2022

I never read Lolita till I was in my mid-thirties, a long time ago now, but late in life for somebody with a Ph.D. in American literature to be picking up one of the greatest American novels. I was not inclined to like it. Arch novels about sexual abuse – I'm not sure how many there are, but Lolita is one – are in the worst possible taste from any perspective, left or right, humanist or philistine, feminist or family-values. And I was predisposed, as readers often are, to disdain a classic that so many readers made so much fuss about, and spoke about so knowingly.

It took Nabokov one phrase, on the second page, to win me over (picnic, lightning). Billy Collins would use Picnic, Lightning for the title poem of a collection. It is a good poem, oblique to Lolita, trenchant about the nature of mortality; but I've sometimes thought, irrationally, that Collins shouldn't have appropriated "(picnic, lightning)." It is too perfect; it is a phrase that should exist just for the sheer headlong intoxication that can propel you through the next 300 pages of one of the most insane novels ever written.

Nabokov said that the theme of Lolita was one of three "utterly taboo" topics in the United States, the others being happy racial intermarriage and contented atheism. He said that in his 1956 essay on the book, usually printed along with the novel and almost, despite the intentional fallacy and all that, welded into the text itself; Lolita, more than any other novel, seems to need supporting evidence to assure us that the author hadn't completely taken leave of his senses.

In his essay, Nabokov famously discussed his own attachment to Lolita by listing what he called "the nerves of the novel" (316). But they are of course his own nerves, and readers are free to make up lists of their own. Mine would spin onwards from "(picnic, lightning)" to "moving with my sleepy nymphet from inn to inn while her mother got better and better and finally died"; that mother's death with "the car and the dog and the sun and the shade and the wet and the weak and the strong and the stone"; very palatable potato chips; "Welcome, fellow, to this bordello"; "I beg your pardon," I said, "what zones?"; the township of Soda, pop. 1,001; "Why do those people guess so much and shave so little."

Lolita, Nabokov famously claimed, has "no moral in tow." But he goes on to say that good novels should conduce to "curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy." Whatever about curiosity and ecstasy, tenderness and kindness imply moral dimensions. Of course in Lolita they are not the standard moral compass points. The theme of the book makes such orienteering futile. Nobody is even interested in whether Humbert Humbert is good or bad. He abducts a young teenage girl and keeps her as his sex captive for years: "Good or bad?" is not going to inspire much debate.

Lolita has inspired lots anyway, but the moral clashes have seemed somewhat of a sideshow. A few readers have seen it as a bold stroke for true love, and others have seen it as a nightmare advocacy for pedophilia: readings that rehearse earlier versions of cultivated edginess or moral panic. Commentary on Lolita instead has largely emulated the scholarship devoted to other dense modernist works: Ulysses, Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha cycle, Pound's Cantos, Proust. No allusion is too recondite, no internal verbal echo too slight, to support great edifices of critical tracery.

I love a good obscure allusion as much as anybody, especially one I "get" without resorting to footnotes or Google. But as my own "nerves" of Lolita listed above may suggest, I am not primarily moved by the novel's hordes of verbal echoes of other books, or by its constant references back to itself. In Lolita, I love best the throwaway humor, the crazy non sequiturs, the awkward adoption of an impossible American argot.

I do think Lolita is a great American novel; if not the GAN, at least on the shortlist. And this despite how much Humbert hates America, how much contempt he has for it. Contempt, but at times too, grudging admiration for its beauty. And not just a natural beauty populated by boors; Humbert loves both America and Americans, loves even the people he treats worst (Dolly most of all, but Charlotte too: in fact the contempt he showers on Charlotte is oddly balanced by respect for her and some insane degree of genuine affection).

A lot of commentary on Lolita can take the form of the book being about anything other than what it's about, because its actual subject matter is batshit demented. So it must be about the nature of love, or the tragedy of immigration, or "language itself," or butterflies. If I think the novel is about America, I am avoiding the issue like anybody else, but I at least have the excuse that Humbert spends so much time elaborately evoking America:

Some way further across the street, neon lights flickered twice slower than my heart: the outline of a restaurant sign, a large coffee-pot, kept bursting, every full second or so, into emerald life, and every time it was out, pink letters saying Fine Foods relayed it, but the pot could still be made out as a latent shadow teasing the eye before its next emerald resurrection. (282)
It has to be said, though, that for all its lyricism, Lolita is a fantastically dirty book. Only a crazed narrator would write the things that Humbert does, but presumably everybody has thought some of them in some unguarded moments. The novel's constant sneering at a kind of knee-jerk "everything's about sex" Freudianism clashes with Humbert Humbert's character note: for him, everything's about sex. Threading his way through a house so he can kill its owner, in the climactic scene of the novel, Humbert reflects:
The house, being an old one, had more planned privacy than have modern glamour-boxes, where the bathroom, the only lockable locus, has to be used for the furtive needs of planned parenthood. (294)
Ultimately, I don't think I've ever read a novel that achieved what it set out to do better than Lolita. There is either not a false move in the entire text, or – the reverse of the tapestry – every move in the entire text is utterly wrong: baroquely overwritten, hideously pretentious, cavalierly evil, monstrously narcissistic. You cannot get through a sentence without cringing. That is the point.

Many other great novels, however magnificent … you sort of get the feeling that if their own authors hadn't written them, somebody else would have come up with something like them. (In many cases, other writers had or would independently.) Les misérables, Anna Karenina, The Age of Innocence, even Proust's Recherche (which is just a writer's Bildungsroman, after all: Marcel devient écrivain).

Lolita, though, stands with Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and not many other wholly successful novels: out at the reaches where, if they hadn't existed, it is certain that no-one would have invented them. And of those three, Lolita is the strangest.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. London: Penguin, 1995.