Fwd: Steve Almond on Lolita
----- Forwarded message from email@example.com -----
Date: Fri, 16 Sep 2005 19:57:57 -0500
From: James Twiggs <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Reply-To: James Twiggs <email@example.com>
Subject: Steve Almond on Lolita
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum
Don-- I don't know whether Steve Almond's piece
on Lolita has been posted yet or not. In case
not, here it is. Jim Twiggs
AGELESS: Why Lolita, now fifty, endures.
By Steve Almond
One night early in grad school, a bunch of us
aspiring writers gathered at a bar to blab about
the books we loved and of course Lolita came up,
because Lolita always comes up in such
conversations. The other guys and I took a cold,
analytical approach to the book. We wanted to say
how much we adored it, how much we secretly
identified with Humbert Humbert and his
excessive, illegal passion for prepubescent
Lolita. But we were also hoping to get laid (of
course), and we figured such a confession might
not put us in good stead with our female
There was one in particular, a women I'll
call Rita, who, as it happened, had more than a
hint of the nymphet in her. She wasn't exactly
"four-foot-ten in one sock." More like five-one
in black stockings. But she was small and pale
and occasionally dressed like a schoolgirl, and
this made us all the more leery about directly
endorsing Lolita. So we sat around parsing
Nabokov's intricate wordplay and sipping our
beers until, toward the end of the night,
emboldened by a shot of George Dickel, Rita stood
up and addressed us in an imploring tone: "But
you guys, don't you get it - he loves her!"
And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury,
is the whole ball of wax when it comes to Lolita.
He loves her. Without the blinding force of
Humbert's passion, the book - newly reissued for
its fiftieth birthday - would never have endured
its initial ignominy, nor become the most
influential novel of the last century.
I feel vaguely qualified to speak about the
book's influence, because I spent so much of grad
school either writing dreadful imitations of
Lolita, or reading them as the fiction editor of
our literary magazine. I have friends who still
keep a copy of the book by their keyboards, as a
kind of talisman they can rub when their own
prose starts to flag.
There is no need to belabor the plot of
Lolita (man meets girl, man seduces girl, man
loses girl - that about does it) nor the
oft-cited symbolism (old, refined Europe seduced
by young, vulgar America). What matters, in the
end, is the heartsick love song of Monsieur
Humbert. Here he is describing the boyhood tryst
that presages his eventual coupling with Lolita:
She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner
of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A
cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between
the silhouettes of long thin leaves . . . She sat
a little higher than I, and whenever in her
solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head
would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement
that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught
and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and
her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of
some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of
breath came near to my face.
To be overrun by feeling, yet able to
marshal words with such elegance and precision -
this was Nabokov's knack. That he did so on
behalf of a quivering pervert makes the
achievement that much more astonishing.
We root for Humbert because, when you come right
down to it, most of our own wishes are illicit.
And there should be no doubt about it:
Humbert is a perv. "The bud-stage of breast
development appears early (10.7 years) in the
sequence of somatic changes accompanying
pubescence," he informs us, dutifully. "And the
next maturational item available is the first
appearance of pigmented pubic hair (11.2 years)."
It should come as no surprise that Lolita was
originally published by a French press. Nor that
it was only published in the U.S. three years
later, after being dubbed "the filthiest book I
have ever read" by a critic in a British
newspaper. Such is the American lust for scandal.
And yet it is our awareness of Humbert's
pathology that makes his seduction so powerful.
He knows he's doing wrong. We know he's doing
wrong. He can't stop himself. And we can't stop
ourselves from watching.
Nor, if we are honest, do we look upon
Humbert with pure disgust. In our covert hearts,
we root for him, because he loves her, and
because, when you come right down to it, most of
our own wishes are illicit, or feel that way to
us. Humbert's crimes, in other words, may be of a
greater scale than the ones we commit, but the
same cauldron of deviance bubbles within us.
(Note: this last sentence does not apply to
registered Republicans, who manage to avoid
immoral thoughts by hating gay people.)
Lolita has enjoyed periodic resurgences,
owing to two excellent film adaptations by
Stanley Kubrick (1962) and Adrian Lyne (1997).
But the novel itself remains the vital artifact,
because only it can capture - with unflinching
fidelity - the fevered consciousness of Humbert
"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," he tells us. "Every movement she made in
the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and
sensitive chord of my abject body."
In moments such as these, Nabokov is nothing
less than a poet of desire. He is not writing
about sex, but about the tumultuous feelings that
illuminate our clumsy acts of love. These are
what sweep us along - despite the bleatings of
our conscience. Big ideas, witty observations and
tricky plotlines are all fine and well. But the
engine of any great book is desire. And by that
standard, Lolita is a Mack truck.
This is the true scandal of Lolita: not that a
man should love a child, but that he should be so
It's worth noting that the scenes of physical
contact between Humbert and Lolita are fairly
restrained in the particulars. They feel lurid
mainly because our narrator is so fraught by his
Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my
live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the
right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the
bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit,
singing through its juice - every movement she
made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to
conceal and to improve the secret system of
tactile correspondence between beast and beauty -
between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty
of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.
This is the true scandal of Lolita. Not that
a man should love a child, but that he should
prove so helpless to stanch his desires. Deep
emotion is the book's central transgression and
its saving grace.
Never has this been more obvious than the
current era, which has placed carnality in the
service of capitalism by stripping from sex any
vestige of authentic feeling. We see more and
more these days - virtually any dirty image is at
our fingertips - but feel less and less.
Everywhere we look, glistening parts are pumping
away in congress, yearning to excite our wildest
consumer fantasies. Every day, it becomes harder
and harder to make a clear distinction between
pornography and advertising.
It has nothing to sell but the truth of
ourselves: our afflictions of want, our shame,
elusive and horrible and blessed. n°
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Almond is the author of the story
collection My Life in Heavy Metal and the
nonfiction book Candyfreak. His new collection,
The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories, contains
several of his stories for Nerve.com. To find out
what kind of music he listens to, check out
©2005 Steve Almond and Nerve.com.
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