Friday, October 30, 2009

Perfectly Perfect

Sue Lyon

The most interesting debate about Lolita is between the aetheticists who think the book has nothing to do with sex and molestation, but with poetry and butterflies, and those who think there is a connection with the real world in his book, however much Nabokov might want to deny it. Nabokov always insisted great novels have no relation to the social milieu that produce them, that they are a pure concoction of the writer's imagination. In Lolita, according to this view, the idea is to mock the reader who is so swept up in moralism and titillation that he fails to see the pathos of Mrs. Haze, the vulnerability of Lolita, and the humanity of the dozens of others characters, including Humbert himself, despite his moral monstrosity. The main vehicle for this critique of the reader is the elaborate series of Quilty-clues spread throughout the book; those who fail to pick up on the identity of Humbert's tormentor are chided as bad readers by Humbert himself late in the book. So the novel is a great fairy tale; whatever horrors are inflicted on Lolita are merely effects, like the plan to bake the children alive in Hansel and Gretel.

To me this reading was always reinforced by my distaste for the rash of novels in the 80s and 90s with a molestation theme. Because it only happens to a minority, it didn't seem to justify the attention. Of course, many novels include some sort of violent death, something most of us will not experience. But we will all die, and so a killing is valuable as a metaphor and as a way to give shape (that is, endings) to a narrative. Since molestation is located in the past, it could never serve to represent human experience with the same universality as a killing. But it occurs to me now that we are all damaged in childhood in one way or another, so the molestation theme might serve as a dramatization of that fact, in the same way literary murders force us to grapple with the inevitability of endings.

This opens me to seeing the molestation theme in Lolita as real, not a ruse. When the Jeremy Irons version of the movie came out, James Wood made this point in the New York Review of Books. But Nabokov himself emphasizes in his Lectures on Literature that the writer is three things at once: storyteller, moralist, and enchanter. The enchanter is by far the most important, but he doesn't deny the other two functions. In this sense the novel does say something about the nature of predatory sexual behavior, as well as the absence of a sufficiently attentive aesthetic sense. It would be interesting to consider how Nabokov, given his distaste for Freud, would have explained the sexual elements of the Russian Revolution, in the way that Klaus Theweleit does for fascism in Male Fantasies.


  1. Isn't Nabokov's repeated denial of the way others characterize his intentions and writing strategies the most annoying thing about him? It's as if he thinks he understands himself better than others do.

    And of course it isn't that were damaged in childhood--just that it's convenient for us to think this is the case. But, as Christian theology teaches us, we were lousy right out of the womb.

  2. Well, I don't know. As Philip Larkin says, "They f*@* you up, your mum and dad/They might not mean to, but they do/They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you."

  3. No, if you've been around kids, you know that they are obnoxious even at an early age. They don't get worse under their parents' influence. They have bad personalities right from the start.

  4. How do you separate the two? Have you ever met a kid who was raised in a closet?

  5. Have you ever met a kid who was locked in a womb for nine months?