Examination of the Narrative Form

(Novels for Students)

Some critics read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita as a story of Humbert's unrequited love for the title character; others consider it a record of the rantings of a mad pedophile, with, as Humbert himself admits, "a fancy prose style." Nabokov's innovative construction, in fact, highlights both of these aspects as it reinforces and helps develop the novel's main theme: the relationship between art and experience. By allowing Humbert to narrate the details of his life with Lolita, Nabokov illustrates the difficulties inherent in an attempt to order experience through art. As he tries to project an ideal vision of his relationship with Lolita, Humbert manipulates readers' responses to him in order to gain sympathy and to effect a suspension of judgment. Ultimately, though, tragic reality emerges within his art.

In 'Lolita' and the Dangers of Fiction Mathew Winston comments on Humbert's motive: "The artist wants to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets. The lover wants to write a history that will glorify his beloved for future generations ... In his final words, 'this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita,' Humbert appears as Renaissance sonneteer, boasting that he will make his love immortal in his writing." Humbert does accomplish his goal in part: his manuscript contains beautiful and heartfelt descriptions of "the perilous magic of nymphets;" it also records, however, the devastating results of his illicit obsession for a young girl.

Humbert tries to manipulate his readers' response throughout his memoir by presenting a poetic portrait of Lolita and his life with her. He admits, "I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers." In an effort to provide himself with an excuse for his obsession with Lolita, he details his relationship with Annabel, Lolita's "precursor" at the beginning of the novel. Of his adolescent relationship with Annabel, he writes, "the spiritual and the physical had been blended in us with a perfection that must remain incomprehensible to the matter-of-fact, crude, standard-brained youngsters of today." He suggests that educated readers will thus comprehend the beauty of that relationship, as well as his with Lolita.

Before he begins the details of his life with Lolita, Humbert introduces the following idea: "Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets.'" This description suggests he was a "hunter," "enchanted" by the "nymphet" Lolita almost against his will. He asserts that "under no circumstances would [he] have interfered with the innocence of a child."

In another effort to suspend readers' judgment, Humbert frequently interrupts his memoir with descriptions of sexual customs in other countries and other time periods. He notes that society dictates sexual taboos and that they change from culture to culture and in different time periods. "Let me remind my reader" he begins, that in the past girls Lolita's age frequently married and that artists like

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Lolita: A Modern Classic in Spite of Its Readers

(Novels for Students)

Lolita stays like a deep tattoo. Critics tumble over one another racing to publish articles on its twists, myths and artifices. Paperback houses have reprinted it again and again. It is the second most-often-cited title in Book Week's Poll of Distinguished Fiction, 1945-65. It has been made into a movie, a successful one at that. Sales and critical attention have opened the way for the appearance of many of Nabokov's other novels, particularly his early or Russian novels. Without Lolita, Nabokov's rise to literary sainthood might have been delayed beyond his natural years. Indeed, it might never have occurred.

Nabokov's twelfth novel was brought out in 1955 by Maurice Girodias' Olympia Press in Paris when the author was fifty-six years old. It had been rejected by four American publishers on a variety of grounds, all, according to Andrew Field, stemming from "a compound of fright and incomprehension" (Nabokov, His Life in Art). Though Girodias had now and then published the works of distinguished writers such as [Lawrence] Durrell, [Samuel] Beckett and [Jean] Genet, he was known mainly for an output of "dirty books." He saw in Lolita, some of whose literary values he recognized, mainly a weapon in the fight against moral censorship. Nabokov was soon forced to insist that he would be hurt if his work became a succes de scandale. The author needn't have worried; during the year following its publication, Lolita was given not a single review and soon became just another book on the Olympia list, not even sufficiently pornographic to compete with some of Girodias' other titles, such as White Thighs and The Sex Life of Robinson Crusoe.

An early sign of the lastingness of Lolita seems to be the unanimity of contempt it aroused in snobs and slobs alike after it did find a public of sorts. Orville Prescott in the daily New York Times (August 18, 1958) declared:

Lolita, then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worthy of any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.

Prescott shared contempt with "Stockade Clyde" Carr, a barracks-mate of Nabokov's former student and, later, editor, Alfred Appel, Jr. Appel found and purchased the Olympia edition in Paris in 1955 and brought it back to his Army post, where Clyde, recognizing the publisher said, "Hey, lemme read your dirty book, man!" Urged to read it aloud himself, Clyde stumbled through the opening paragraph: "Lo ... lita, light... of my life. Fire of my ... loins. My sin, my soul. Lo ... lee ... ta" then tossed down the book and complained, "It's goddam littachure!" ... Nabokov seems to have anticipated some of the fads, fashions and contempts of both schools. In the foreword to the novel, Nabokov's alter-ego, or mask, the scholar John Ray, Jr., says "... those very scenes one might ineptly accuse of a sensuous existence of their own, are the most strictly functional ones in the development of a tragic tale, tending unswervingly to nothing less than moral apotheosis." Nabokov's works are full of such clues and warnings, but only sensitive readers pick them up. In fact, Lolita remained an underground novel until 1956 when Graham Greene in The London Times placed it on his list of the ten best novels published during the previous year. As Field points out:

Greene's pronouncement aroused great controversy, but also stimulated the interest of many important and respected critics and writers, who, with few exceptions, were quick to recognize the enormous importance and non-pornographic nature of the novel.

By 1959 many literary people had taken and followed Greene's signal (I might say, "Not until 1959 ..."). V. S. Pritchett in The New Statesman appreciated the novel and addressed the problem of the so-called pornographic content, no doubt aware that the U.S. Customs Bureau had for a time confiscated copies of Lolita:

I can imagine no book less likely to incite the corruptible reader, the already corrupted would surely be devastated by the author's power of projecting himself into their fantasy-addled minds. As for minors, the nymphets and schoolboys, one hardly sees them toiling through a book written in a difficult style, filled on every page with literary allusions, linguistic experiment and fits of idiosyncrasy.

Such praise seems mild, given what we now know of the general richness of the novel. To one degree or another, for example, critics have demonstrated that Lolita is a full-blown psychological novel with roots deep in nineteenth century models; a detective novel with conventions that date back to Poe, perhaps beyond; a confessional novel; a Doppelganger Tale; an extended allegory for the artistic process; a sexual myth more complicated and mysterious than comparable Freudian stereotypes; even a fable with correspondences to the Little Red Riding Hood story. And of course it to some degree parodies these types.

In his final confrontation with Quilty, "the kidnapper," Humbert, "the detective," comically plays his role to the extreme. Then, as if to remind us that popular genres often share both conventions and cliches, Nabokov mixes matters; that is, for moments at least, a scene from a detective novel becomes, as well, a scene from a Western, "detective" becoming "cowboy," etc. Quilty has just knocked Humbert's pistol ("Chum") under a chest of...

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Lolita. Overview

(Novels for Students)

The apparent subject of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is the titillating perversion of a madman who virtually kills his wife in order to make captive and lasciviously possess her 12-year-old daughter; and when the child, who has in fact seduced him, escapes him, running off with another man, he apparently kills that man. This lurid tale would seem to invite either a sensational or a moral response. The problem Nabokov deliberately sets for himself, however, is to persuade the reader to transcend the erotic content and eschew moral judgment in order to perceive his novel as an artistic creation and not as a reflection or interpretation of reality. Lolita is not immoral or didactic, he has said; it has no moral. It is a...

(The entire section is 1021 words.)