Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0001306, Sun, 15 Sep 1996 11:56:08 -0700

3) Walter-Schiff Exchange on Lyne's LOLITA

Rather than responding to Stephen Schiff's comments point-by-point, I
thought it might be most useful here to shift the focus to the
interesting and important problem of the expectations (and, in my case,
anyway, the concerns and reservations) that have been sparked by the
movie's advance publicity. Adrian Lyne may well have been quoted out of
context when he declared his new adaptation of the novel "Humbert's
film," but the fact remains -- in the apparent absence of any libel suits
-- that the director _did_ make this statement, which, in any context,
would have enormously disturbing implications (again, in my understanding
of the novel, at any rate). And although Schiff has the benefit of
actually knowing Lyne personally, and therefore has far more authority
than I to comment on his likely intentions in making such a statement,
nevertheless, it seems to me ingenuous to think that Lyne could fail to
realize that a reporter employed by a hype rag such as ENTERTAINMENT
WEEKLY would inevitably seize upon such a statement and trumpet it in his
article with no sensitivity to any qualifications that Lyne might have
attached to it. Lyne, it seems safe to assume, is no naif when it comes
to the machinery of Hollywood gossip and sensationalism, and so would not
(one hopes) make such a statement -- with such enormous interpretive
ramifications -- unless he were willing for it to see print.

What we are left with, then, is a statement that (however unfairly
decontextualized) must spark concern that the director has ceded Humbert
more authority than the novel does -- surely a very real and very
dangerous possibility. Schiff reassures us that both he and Lyne were
well aware of the need for detachment from the sneaky, manipulative, and
very clever narrator's perspective, but if (as Lyne's statement
undeniably suggests) the director at least did not maintain sufficient
distance, it would hardly come as a surprise; there is certainly ample
precedent. An advance notice of the movie that appeared in NEWSWEEK this
past spring (with a photo of Dominique Swain in pigtails) described the
title character as 'obliviously sirenic,' a term whose glib oxymoronic
qualities unfortunately tend to obscure its bald (if unintentional)
falsehood. While Nabokov's Lolita (character, not novel) certainly is
oblivious to many things, there is nothing intrinsically 'sirenic' about
her. Only readers who have been seduced completely by Humbert's
persuasive efforts, readers who have failed to exercise proper detachment
from the narrator's diseased perspective, could describe Dolly Haze as

'Obliviously sirenic,' nevertheless, is the kind of misleading term that
is all too frequently applied to Lolita, with an emphasis typically on the
'sirenic.' Interestingly enough, I have found that, as a group (with
exceptions, of course and always), my female students have been better
readers of LOLITA than their male counterparts, and that largely because
the former find it easier to step outside their admiration for Humbert's
magnificent, compelling rhetoric and go on to imagine a Dolores Haze
entirely distinct from the narrator's feverish embroideries upon her (a
reading strategy sketched ably in both Brian Boyd's chapter on the novel
and in Ellen Pifer's NABOKOV AND THE NOVEL, to cite two prominent
examples). I have always been a bit disheartened by the number of my male
students who find it easy to write the whole affair off as Lolita's
'fault.' After all, they will contend, she did 'seduce' him, quoting
Humbert's wonderfully, subtly misleading term for blissfully blunt
Lolita's still more blissfully blunt proposition in the Enchanted Hunters
hotel. And it has little effect on such readers to unpack Humbert's
self-serving euphemisms for detailed inspection, or to point out that if a
twelve-year-old child, walking through the grocery store with her adult
guardian, begs him to break the law and steal a piece of candy for her, he
is under no compulsion to comply (that he is, in fact, under legal and
moral obligation to turn the child down flat). To many readers
(implausibly enough), fetching, winsome Humbert really is (as he works so
diligently and memorably to suggest) the pitiable victim, Lolita (in fact)
his daemonic tormentor. (One of my most stupefyingly clueless students
once attempted the triply impossible trick of justifying Humbert's
nympholepsy by citing Kristeva's reading of Freud's description of a
defiant sexual iconoclast marginalized and excoriated only by a heedless
and sexually-repressed mob; Lolita, of course, was, in this student's
reading, little more than an irredeemable slut, the improbably and
unjustifiably glorified vehicle of transcendent Humbert's sociosexual
martyrdom. This student proved to me that it is possible, despite the
author's and the teacher's best efforts, to like Nabokov for all the wrong

It would be terribly premature, of course, to accuse Lyne of falling into
this particular kind of misreading at this point. Moreover, Schiff's
praise for the segments he has seen (as my original posting pointed out)
affords us some reason to hope for a movie worthy of (not 'true to,' of
course) Nabokov's novel. But in reference both to Schiff's and Dmitry
Nabokov's high hopes for the final version of Lyne's adaptation, I hope
it does not sound too curmudgeonly to point out that the author of an
earlier screenplay of LOLITA had very high hopes for director Stanley
Kubrick's 1962 film version, but afterward limited himself to tactful
praise for a smattering of scenes and performances. One can only hope
that former film critic Schiff does not find himself in similar position
a few months hence, valiantly but futilely attempting not to damn Lyne's
LOLITA with faint praise.

Brian Walter
University of the Ozarks
415 N. College Ave.
Clarksville, AR 72830
(501) 979-1339 or 754-3499