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Fwd: Hitchens on Lolita

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Date: Tue, 8 Nov 2005 14:53:32 -0600
From: James Twiggs <>
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Subject: Hitchens on Lolita
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum

The Atlantic Monthly | December 2005

Books & Critics
Hurricane Lolita

Fifty years ago Vladimir Nabokov published his
most notorious novel. Its ravishing effects can
still be felt

by Christopher Hitchens


The Annotated Lolita
by Alfred Appel Jr. (editor)

In Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, in
which young female students meet in secret with
Xeroxed copies of Nabokov's masterpiece on their
often chaste and recently chadored laps, it is at
first a surprise to discover how unscandalized
the women are. Without exception, it turns out,
they concur with Vera Nabokov in finding that the
chief elements of the story are "its beauty and
pathos." They "identify" with Lolita, because
they can see that she wants above all to be a
normal girl-child; they see straight through
Humbert, because he is always blaming his victim
and claiming that it was she who seduced him. And
this perspective-such a bracing change from our
conventional worried emphasis on pedophilia-is
perhaps more easily come by in a state where
virgins are raped before execution because the
Koran forbids the execution of virgins; where the
censor cuts Ophelia out of the Russian movie
version of Hamlet; where any move that a woman
makes can be construed as lascivious and
inciting; where goatish old men can be gifted
with infant brides; and where the age of
"consent" is more like nine. As Nafisi phrases it,

This was the story of a twelve-year-old girl who
had nowhere to go. Humbert had tried to turn her
into his fantasy, into his dead love, and he had
destroyed her. The desperate truth of Lolita's
story is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a
dirty old man but the confiscation of one
individual's life by another. We don't know what
Lolita would have become if Humbert had not
engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work,
is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of
beauty but of life Š Warming up and suddenly
inspired, I added that in fact Nabokov had taken
revenge on our own solipsizers; he had taken
revenge on the Ayatollah Khomeini Š

It's extraordinary to think that the author of
those anti-tyrannical classics Bend Sinister and
Invitation to a Beheading, who would surely have
felt extreme pleasure at this tribute, can be
posthumously granted such an unexpected yet-when
you reflect on it-perfectly intelligible homage.
In his own essay on the fate of Lolita, Nabokov
recalled a publisher who warned him that if he
helped the author get it into print, they would
both go straight to jail. And one of the many,
many pleasures of Alfred Appel's masterly
introduction and annotation is the discovery that
Nabokov did not realize that Maurice Girodias and
the Olympia Press were specialists in-well, shall
we just say "erotica"?-when he let them have the
manuscript. (The shock and awe surrounding its
publication were later well netted by the great
lepidopterist in one of John Shade's cantos in
Pale Fire: "It was a year of tempests, Hurricane
/ Lolita swept from Florida to Maine.") Innocence
of that kind is to be treasured.

And innocence, of course, is the problem to begin
with. If Dolores Haze, whose first name means
suffering and grief, that "dolorous and hazy
darling," had not been an innocent, there would
be nothing tragic in the tale. (Azar Nafisi is
someone who, in spite of her acuity and empathy,
fails what I call the Martin Amis test. Amis once
admitted that he had read the novel carefully
before noticing that in its "foreword"-written
not by the unreliable Humbert but by "John Ray,
Jr., Ph.D."-we learn that Lolita has died in
childbirth. She's over before she's begun. That's
where the yearning search for a normal life and a
stable marriage got her. I fear that the young
ladies of Tehran missed that crucial, callous
postdate/update sentence as well.)

Then we must approach the question of how
innocent we are in all this. Humbert writes
without the smallest intention of titillating his
audience. The whole narrative is, after all, his
extended jailhouse/madhouse plea to an unseen
jury. He has nothing but disgust for the really
pornographic debauchee Quilty, for whose murder
he has been confined. But he does refer to him as
a "brother," and at one point addresses us, too,
as "Reader! Bruder!," which is presumably
designed to make one think of Baudelaire's
address of Les Fleurs du Mal to "Hypocrite
lecteur,-mon semblable,-mon frère!" I once read
of an interview given by Roman Polanski in which
he described listening to a lurid radio account
of his offense even as he was fleeing to the
airport. He suddenly realized the trouble he was
in, he said, when he came to appreciate that he
had done something for which a lot of people
would furiously envy him. Hamlet refers to
Ophelia as a nymph ("Nymph, in thy orisons, be
all my sins remembered"), but she is of
marriageable age, whereas a nymphet is another
thing altogether.

Actually, it is impossible to think of employing
Lolita for immoral or unsavory purposes, and
there is now a great general determination to
approach the whole book in an unfussed, grown-up,
broad-minded spirit. "Do not misunderstand me,"
said Amis père when he reviewed the first
edition, "if I say that one of the troubles with
Lolita is that, so far from being too
pornographic, it is not pornographic enough."
When he wrote that, his daughter, Sally, was a
babe in arms, and now even those innocuous words
seem fraught with implication. This doesn't
necessarily alter the case, but neither can I
forget Sally's older brother, who wrote,

Parents and guardians of twelve-year-old girls
will have noticed that their wards have a
tendency to be difficult. They may take Humbert's
word for it that things are much more
difficult-are in fact entirely impossible-when
your twelve-year-old girl is also your
twelve-year-old girlfriend. The next time that
you go out with your daughter, imagine you are
going out with your daughter.

When I first read this novel, I had not had the
experience of having a twelve-year-old daughter.
I have had that experience twice since, which is
many times fewer than I have read the novel. I
daresay I chortled, in an outraged sort of way,
when I first read, "How sweet it was to bring
that coffee to her, and then deny it until she
had done her morning duty." But this latest time
I found myself almost congealed with shock. What
about the fatherly visit to the schoolroom, for
example, where Humbert is allowed the privilege
of sitting near his (wife's) daughter in class:

I unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents
plus the permission to participate in the school
play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky,
red-knuckled hand under the desk. Oh, stupid and
reckless of me no doubt, but after the torture I
had been subjected to, I simply had to take
advantage of a combination that I knew would
never occur again."

Or this, when the child runs a high fever: "She
was shaking from head to toe. She complained of a
painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae-and I
thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent
would. Giving up all hope of intercourse Š"

Forgive me, hypocrite lecteur, if I say that I
still laughed out loud at the deadpan way in
which Nabokov exploded that land mine underneath
me. And of course, as Amis fils half admits in
his words about "parents and guardians," Lolita
is not Humbert's daughter. If she were, the book
probably would have been burned by the hangman,
and its author's right hand sliced off and fed to
the flames. But, just as Humbert's mind is on a
permanent knife-edge of sexual mania, so his
creator manages to tread the vertiginous path
between incest, by which few are tempted, and
engagement with pupating or nymphlike girls,
which will not lose its frisson. (You will excuse
me if, like Humbert, I dissolve into French when
euphemism is required.) For me the funniest line
in the book-because it is so farcical-comes in
the moment after the first motel rape, when the
frenzied Humbert, who has assumed at least the
authority and disguise of fatherhood, is "forced
to devote a dangerous amount of time (was she up
to something downstairs?) to arranging the bed in
such a way as to suggest the abandoned nest of a
restless father and his tomboy daughter, instead
of an ex-convict's saturnalia with a couple of
fat old whores." None of this absurdity allows us
to forget-and Humbert himself does not allow us
to forget-that immediately following each and
every one of the hundreds of subsequent rapes the
little girl weeps for quite a long time Š

How complicit, then, is Nabokov himself? The
common joking phrase among adult men, when they
see nymphets on the street or in the park or,
nowadays, on television and in bars, is "Don't
even think about it." But it is very clear that
Nabokov did think about it, and had thought about
it a lot. An earlier novella, written in Russian
and published only after his death-The
Enchanter-centers on a jeweler who hangs around
playgrounds and forces himself into gruesome sex
and marriage with a vachelike mother, all for the
sake of witnessing her death and then possessing
and enjoying her twelve-year-old daughter. (I
note one correspondence I had overlooked before:
the hapless old bag in The Enchanter bears many
unappetizing scars from the surgeon's knife, and
when Humbert scans Lolita's statistics-height,
weight, thigh measurements, IQ, and so forth-he
discovers that she still has her appendix and
says to himself, "Thank God." You do not want to
think about that for very long either.) And then
there is, just once, a hint of incest so
elaborate and so deranged that you can read past
it, as many critics have, before going back and
whistling with alarm.

Š the thought that with patience and luck I might
have her produce eventually a nymphet with my
blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the
Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960,
when I would still be dans la force d'age;
indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was
strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of
time a vieillard encore vert-or was it green
rot?-bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert,
practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third
the art of being a granddad.

Arresting, as well as disgusting, to suddenly
notice that Lolita (who died giving birth to a
stillborn girl, for Christ's sake) would have
been seventy this year Š However, I increasingly
think that Nabokov's celebrated, and tiresomely
repeated, detestation of Sigmund Freud must
itself be intended as some kind of
acknowledgment. If he thought "the Viennese
quack" and "Freudian voodooism" were so useless
and banal, why couldn't he stay off the subject,
or the subtext?

I could very well do with a little rest in this
subdued, frightened-to-death rocking chair,
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. I was always a good little follower of
the Viennese medicine man Š

Many a true word is spoken in jest, especially
about the kinship between eros and thanatos. The
two closest glimpses Humbert gives us of his own
self-hatred are not without their death wish-made
explicit in the closing paragraphs-and their
excremental aspects: "I am lanky, big-boned,
wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black
eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of
rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile."
Two hundred pages later: "The turquoise blue
swimming pool some distance behind the lawn was
no longer behind that lawn, but within my thorax,
and my organs swam in it like excrements in the
blue sea water in Nice." And then there's the
offhand aside "Since (as the psychotherapist, as
well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and
rules of such girlish games are fluid Š" in which
it takes a moment to notice that "therapist" and
"the rapist" are in direct apposition.

Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless
game of decoding the puns and allusions and
multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may
be allowed) that give this novel its place next
to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree
with Freud that the unconscious never lies.
Swinburne's poem Dolores sees a young lady ("Our
Lady of Pain") put through rather more than young
Miss Haze. Lord Byron's many lubricities are
never far away; in the initial stages of his
demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe
Harold's Pilgrimage: "To hold thee lightly on a
gentle knee and print on thine soft cheek a
parent's kiss," and when we look up the lines we
find they are addressed to Harold's absent
daughter (who, like Byron's child and Nabokov's
longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert's first,
lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not
unrelated to Byron's first wife, Anne Isabella,
who was known as "Annabella," and she has parents
named Leigh, just like Byron's ravished
half-sister Augusta. The Haze family physician,
who gives Humbert the sleeping pills with which
he drugs Lolita preparatory to the first rape at
the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, is named Dr. Byron.
And while we are on the subject of physicians,
remember how Humbert is recommended to "an
excellent dentist":

Our neighbor, in fact. Dr. Quilty. Uncle or
cousin, I think, of the playwright. Think it will
pass? Well, just as you wish. In the fall I shall
have him "brace" her, as my mother used to say.
It may curb Lo a little.

Another Quilty, with his own distinctive hint of
sadism. "Sade's Justine was twelve at the start,"
as Humbert reflects, those three so ordinary
words "at the start" packing a huge, even gross,
potential weight Š These clues are offset by more
innocuous puns ("We had breakfast in the township
of Soda, pop 1001") and by dress rehearsals for
puns, as when Humbert decides to decline a
possible joke about the Mann Act, which forbids
the interstate transport of girls for immoral
purposes. (Alexander Dolinin has recently
produced a fascinating article on the
contemporaneous abduction of a girl named Sally
Horner, traces of the reportage of which are to
be found throughout Lolita.)

All is apparently redeemed, of course, by the
atrocious punishment that Nabokov inflicts for
this most heinous of humanity's offenses. The
molester in The Enchanter was hit by a truck, and
Humbert dies so many little deaths-eroding his
heart muscles most pitifully-that in some
well-wrought passages we almost catch ourselves
feeling sorry for him. But the urge to punish a
crime ("Why dost thou lash that whore?"
Shakespeare makes us ask ourselves in King Lear)
is sometimes connected to the urge to commit it.
Naming a girls' school for Beardsley must have
taken a good deal of reflection, with more Sade
than Lewis Carroll in it, but perhaps there is an
almost inaudible note of redemption at Humbert
and Lolita's last meeting (the only time, as he
ruefully minutes, that she ever calls him
"honey"), when "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 hoped for anywhere else."

The most unsettling suggestion of all must be the
latent idea that nymphetomania is, as well as a
form of sex, a form of love.

Alfred Appel's most sage advice is to make
yourself slow down when reading Lolita, not be
too swiftly ravished and caught up. Follow this
counsel and you will find that-more than almost
any other novel of our time-it keeps the promise
of genius and never presents itself as the same
story twice. I mentioned the relatively obvious
way in which it strikes one differently according
to one's age; and if aging isn't a theme here,
with its connotation of death and extinction,
then I don't know what is. But there are other
ways in which Lolita is, to annex Nabokov's word,
"telescopic." Looking back on it, he cited a
critic who "suggested that Lolita was the record
of my love affair with the romantic novel," and
continued, "The substitution 'English language'
for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant
formula more correct." That's profoundly true,
and constitutes the most strenuous test of the
romantic idea that worshipful time will forgive
all those who love, and who live by, language.
After half a century this work's
"transgressiveness" makes every usage of that
term in our etiolated English departments seem
stale, pallid, and domesticated.

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