NABOKV-L post 0022074, Tue, 11 Oct 2011 11:29:26 -0400

with a sexual predilection for Lolita ...


Book Review: Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

THE PROTAGONIST, HUMBERT HIUMBERT (HH), with a sexual predilection for Lolita, his twelve-year old stepdaughter, makes this a deeply disquieting read. A friend who read the book said:

‘HH is the very stuff of nightmares for parents of young girls.’

Why did Nabokov use such an unsettling and scandalous subject?

The answer lies in Nabokov’s refutation of Freudian psychoanalysis, following the publication of Lolita (1955). In an interview (1966):

‘Mr. Nabokov, would you tell us why it is that you detest Dr. Freud?’

‘I think he’s crude, I think he’s medieval, and I don’t want an elderly gentleman from Vienna, with an umbrella, inflicting his dreams upon me. I don’t have the dreams that he discusses in his books. I don’t see umbrellas in my dreams. Or balloons.’

Freudian psychoanalysis was dominant in the US. Nabokov was rebelling against this orthodoxy. In later interviews Nabokov claimed that, of all his novels, Lolita was the most satisfying as a work of ‘pure fiction’.

Based on his own Viennese patriarchal society, Freud argued that the Super Ego represented the father’s voice. The aggression of the Id (unbridled desires/thoughts) are directed against the Ego, but the paternal voice of the Super Ego helps Ego restrain the wild tendencies of the Id.

In HH Nabokov unleashes the Id without the restraint of the Super Ego. Moreover, Nabokov makes HH a compelling anti-hero. HH is intelligent, well travelled and erudite. He cites historical and literary figures to justify his own sexual mores: Henry Broughton’s Rahab, ‘a harlot at ten’; the ‘pre-nubile Nile daughters’ of Akhnaten and Nefertiti; Dante, who fell in love with nine-year old Beatrice, and Petrarch with Laureen, a ‘fair-haired nymphet of twelve’.

HH’s suaveness contrasts sharply with Lolita and her mother, ‘the Haze woman’. He notes disdainfully Mrs Haze’s church attendance, her ‘suburban lawn’, her slipping into ‘bad French’ to match his sophistication and ‘dabbling’ ‘in cretonnes and chintzes’ to redecorate their home. HH accepts Mrs Haze’s proposal of marriage to get access to Lolita, the real object of his sexual desire.

In a bizarre twist Mrs Humbert discovers HH’s journal and is killed while crossing the road to post letters denouncing him. The ‘grieving widower’, HH, startles Beale, a family friend, whose car was involved in the accident, by hastily accepting Beale’s offer of funeral expenses.

HH withholds the news of her mother death from Lolita. He is aware that the impact on Lolita, when he does divulge it, will be all the more devastating. Without her mother, with whom Lolita had a troubled relationship, she is totally at his mercy. During the two years he spends on the road with Lolita, HH bribes her with clothes and girlie magazines and yet complains bitterly:

‘Mentally I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things. The Lord alone knows how many nickels I fed into music boxes that came with every meal we had.’

HH researches the statutory position and duties of a stepfather, vis-à-vis an orphaned girl-child, in the various states that he travels with Lolita. HH revels in the fact that, without the legal protection of her mother, Lolita’s position and relation to him is anomalous. Indeed, HH is finally sentenced not for the sexual violation of Lolita but for the murder of his rival, Cue Quilty.

A seeming drawback of the novel is that Nabokov doesn’t tell us what Lolita thinks and feels. The narrative is entirely of HH. One asks: Did Lolita in some way ‘seduce’ HH and make herself sexually available to him?

Here again Nabokov stands Freudian analysis on its head. In the classic Freudian interpretation of the Electra and Oedipal complexes, it is the child who harbours unnatural sexual feelings for the parent that unleashes a series of events, which culminates in tragedy. The sins of the child are visited on the parent.

In HH we have a parent figure pursuing and violating the child. That HH is a stepfather is Nabokov’s irreverent twist to Freudian theory.

Another inevitable question is: Although HH is more of an antagonist than a protagonist, is he credible?

E. M. Forster maintained that a successful portrayal is not about being moral or wanton but credible. The novelist must be able to draw the reader into the inner workings of the character and hold our attention. In this HH is a frighteningly realistic portrayal of an adult male sexual predator.

I enjoyed Nabokov’s rich descriptions of the motels, roads, the physical and social make-up of America. What is it about America that gives the Lolita its scale – social, physical and psychological? Some critics have argued that Lolita represents America – a young, seemingly open and free society with its promise of the ‘American Dream’; while HH symbolises an older, more sophisticated but weary civilisation. In the ultimate sense the novel is about the rape of young America by old Europe.

In conclusion, once we cross the ‘pain barrier’ of HH’s sexual predation of a child, the novel is rewarding. Nabokov’s wide range of literary references establishes a dialogue with Proust, Joyce, Byron amongst others. In the use of his adopted language (Nabokov learned English at Cambridge), Nabokov is masterly. The book shocks and his language delights in equal measure.

– Golden Langur

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