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Catching up with 'Lolita', 50 years later

A 1997 film remake of Lolita starring Dominique Swain, left, and Jeremy Irons was shunned by American distributors because of its theme of sexual obsession.

Showtime

A 1997 film remake of Lolita starring Dominique Swain, left, and Jeremy Irons was shunned by American distributors because of its theme of sexual obsession.

If Dolores Haze and Humbert Humbert were alive today, she would be 73, he 98, and that 25-year age difference wouldn't mean a thing. ¶ But 50 years ago this month, when Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was first published in the United States, its tale of a 37-year-old man obsessed with a 12-year-old girl was such a scandal that its title character's name entered the language as shorthand for a seductive teenager. ¶ Poor Lo. Always misrepresented. ¶ Nabokov's Lolita is nothing like the bottle-blond, lollipop-licking sex kitten played by Sue Lyon in the 1962 film directed by Stanley Kubrick (who, as was his habit, based his movie on the novel in only the very loosest sense). Nor does she bear much resemblance to the show-biz pop tarts and tramp-stamped bad girls often compared to her today. ¶ The Lolita of the novel is a 12-year-old with unwashed auburn hair and grubby jeans, so uninterested in being seductive with Humbert that she picks her nose while sitting in his lap. ¶ Humbert doesn't desire Lolita because she's a highly sexualized teenager but because she's a child. He is, as he tells the reader plainly if in high-flown language, a pedophile. He wants her not because she's a little hottie but because he believes she's an innocent.

The lascivious Lolita

Yet today the name Lolita evokes for most people a girl who knows she's sexy and uses it. Half a century of such misperceptions about Lolita and the novel that bears her name have inspired a new book, Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again, by Graham Vickers.

Vickers, who has written books about architecture and a biography of another mid-20th century icon, Neal Cassady, surveys Lolita's many offspring: films (Kubrick's and a 1997 version by Adrian Lyne), plays (a musical by Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry, a drama by — no kidding — Edward Albee), operas, novels, comics, paintings, even a bizarre Japanese fashion cult called Lolita Gothic.

Vickers also looks at the book itself. Often decried as pornography, usually by people who haven't read it, Lolita contains not one explicit sex scene — not even an obscene word. Its subject matter is certainly sexual, but it's sex veiled by the most elegant language.

Although banned for a time in England and France, Lolita was published in the United States by G.P. Putnam's Sons in 1958 without legal problems and became an immediate bestseller, garnering glowing reviews, selling 100,000 copies in the first three weeks and giving Nabokov his first and biggest commercial success after decades of writing fiction.

Vickers brings together many fascinating facts about Lolita's lasting influence, but he doesn't finally answer two questions: Why did the title character undergo such a dramatic change in the public's perception? And why, in the supposedly uptight and family-friendly 1950s, did the flamboyant tale of Humbert's seduction and exploitation of his subteen stepdaughter become a cultural phenomenon?

And the moral — isn't

Certainly it must have seemed an unlikely subject for Nabokov. The aristocratic, multilingual Russian expatriate was a legendary professor of literature at Cornell and an erudite devotee of chess and lepidoptery, the study of butterflies and moths.

Nabokov's theories of literature were controversial even before Lolita was published. He rejected the idea that novels ought to teach moral lessons; he considered ridiculous the notion that readers must empathize and identify with its characters for a novel to succeed.

To him, structure and language — the art of the novel — were far more important. His fiction, which also includes Ada, Pale Fire, Bend Sinister and Invitation to a Beheading, is marked by highly complex, experimental plot structures, a brilliantly polished prose style and intricate wordplay.

Lolita is his masterwork and most influential novel, shaping the work of generations of fiction writers, from John Updike and Thomas Pynchon to Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith. But Nabokov himself had doubts about it; his wife, Vera, snatched the manuscript from the flames after he tossed it into a backyard incinerator.

Nabokov knew its subject matter was incendiary, but he saw the book as a parody of romantic and confessional novels (Humbert tells us he's writing it from his jail cell). The author called it his most difficult book; it was an exercise in both his mastery of English and his ability, he said in a 1962 interview, to convincingly create a story "which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real."

The seduction of art

He did indeed. Humbert is one of the most dazzling examples of the unreliable narrator in all of literature. The novel comes to us entirely in his voice, which is cultured, witty, playful, observant and quite mad — he mentions offhandedly his many stays in various mental asylums.

Humbert doesn't just seduce and carry away Lolita; he does it to the reader as well. He is such an accomplished storyteller that his obsession begins to sound plausible; outrageous as it seems, he even makes himself sound like a victim.

The novel begins in 1947, when America teetered on the brink of becoming the youth-obsessed culture it is today. The term "teenager" had been coined just three years earlier, and the baby boom, which began in 1946, was in its infancy.

The first tremors of that youthquake didn't escape Nabokov's notice. Although he claimed to disdain literary symbols, it's hard not to see Paris-born, scholarly Humbert as the old world and Lolita — born in the Midwest and raised on movie magazines, pop music and junk food — as the new. And the novel's meandering, yearlong, 27,000-mile car trip all over the United States is certainly Nabokov's paean to the undeniable (if sometimes vulgar) energy of his beloved adopted home.

It's also Humbert's report of his abduction of Lolita, whom he keeps under control, and in his bed, by alternately showering her with treats and threatening to send her to foster care or reform school.

More sinned against?

That phase of their relationship — what happens after the ideal that Humbert is obsessed with becomes real — is analyzed at length in another bestseller engendered by Nabokov's novel, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, published in 2003.

Nafisi, an Iranian professor of literature who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, writes about a private class she taught in her home in Tehran. Her students, all women, find freedom there, not just to remove the veils they must wear in public but to speak openly about books and about their lives.

The relationship between Lolita and Humbert does not shock Nafisi and her students as it does American readers. In Iran, she writes, the age of consent for girls is 9, and marriages between girls Lolita's age and men two, three or more decades older are legal and not uncommon.

That does not mean Nafisi's class approves of Humbert; indeed, they abhor him as a tyrant who selfishly robs the girl of her identity — a plight they can identify with.

"The desperate truth of Lolita's story," Nafisi writes, "is not the rape of a twelve-year-old by a dirty old man but the confiscation of one individual's life by another. We don't know what Lolita would have become if Humbert had not engulfed her. Yet the novel, the finished work, is hopeful, beautiful even, a defense not just of beauty but of life, ordinary everyday life, all the normal pleasures that Lolita . . . was deprived of."

Perhaps, in an American culture that equates beauty and desirability with youth, it's inevitable that Lolita the little girl was transformed into Lolita the siren. Perhaps we have to see her that way because it's too heartbreaking to see her as she really was. Or perhaps Humbert, that elegant monster, has persuaded us to see her as he did, as a willful temptation responsible for her own fate. Victim or vixen, she haunts us still.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Lolita

By Vladimir Nabokov

Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again

By Graham Vickers

Chicago Review Press, 247 pages, $24.95

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

By Azar Nafisi

Random House, 384 pages, $15

Catching up with 'Lolita', 50 years later 08/09/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 11:05am]

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