EDITOR’S NOTE: This review ran in the Nov. 22, 1958, issue of National Review. (You can dig into NR’s archives anytime here).
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
Never has a society been more smugly proof against satire than ours. When one idea is as good as another and one institution is as good as another, when a dully equalizing relativism destroys all definitions and distinctions, satire is impotent. For the satiric genius works by shocking the reader into using the standards he implicitly holds but has failed to apply. It achieves its results by creating so savage a presentation of contemporary evil (exaggerated, caricatured, grotesque, but a true simulacrum of the essence of the social scene) that the bland and habitual surface of actuality is riven apart. But where there are no standards, satire has no ground from which to fight.
It is not on record that even the bitterest enemy of the Irish greeted Swift’s A Modest Proposal with dithyrambs of praise for his great acuity and daring in breaking the bonds of conventional morality that had previously kept men from publicly espousing cannibalism. The smuggest of the eighteenth century recognized satire when it hit them in the face.
Today things are different. Vladimir Nabokov writes a novel, Lolita. With scarifying wit and masterly descriptive power, he excoriates the materialist monstrosities of our civilization–from progressive education to motel architecture, and back again through the middle-brow culture racket to the incredible vulgarity and moral nihilism in which our children of all classes are raised, and on to psychoanalysis and the literary scene. He stamps indelibly on every page of his book the revulsion and disgust with which he is inspired, by loathsomely dwelling upon a loathsome plot: a detailed unfolding of the long-continued captivity and sexual abuse of a 12-year-old girl. To drive home the macabre grotesquerie of what he sees about him, he climaxes the novel with a murder that is at the same time horrible and ridiculous, poised between Grand Guignol and Punch & Judy.
What happens? The critics hail his “grace and delicacy” and his ability to understand and present “love” in the most unlikely circumstances. The modern devaluation of values seems to have deprived them of the ability to distinguish love from lust and rape. And first among them that dean of critics, Lionel Trilling, who compares Lolita to the legend of Tristan and Isolde!
This succcs d’estime is matched only by its success of pocketbook, as it reaches the top of the best-seller list with a current sale of over 100,000 copies, completely successful and having completely missed the target at which the author shot. One wonders what Mr. Nabokov thinks. It is as if Swift had been fitted for his pamphlet by the King’s Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, or Juvenal banqueted by the degenerate Roman rich and powerful, and their more degenerate toadies, whom his satire celebrates.
Without exception, in all the reviews I have read — and they are many — nowhere has even the suspicion crept in that Lolita might be something totally different from the temptingly perverted surface it presents to the degenerate taste of the age. Not a whiff of a hint that it could be what it must be, if it is judged by the standards of good and beauty which once were undisputed in the West — and if it is, as the power of its writing shows it to be, more than a mere exercise in salaciousness.
Only the editors of The New Republic, speaking in their editorial columns (after the fact of their review, and against their reviewer, who had done the usual with Lolita), smelled a rat. But, as so often with The New Republic when it departs, as it sometimes does, from the safe paths of moderate liberal conformism, it smelled the wrong rat and went dashing off in the wrong direction. The editors of The New Republic, to their credit, cannot stomach the idea advanced by the critical gentry that no moral judgment of the brutal and tawdry central theme of Lolita should be made. They accuse Mr. Nabokov of saying that the moral abomination he describes does not matter, since it is no worse than the tawdriness of our social scene–a view of the fruits of liberalism that very much upsets them.
They have at least come close enough to the secret to suspect that Mr. Nabokov is implying some sort of relation between the horror of his plot and the social scene; but they reverse his meaning. Mr. Nabokov is not saying that what happens to Lolita is excusable because it is no worse than the general mores of our society. So insensitive a judgment would be impossible for a man who can write with his intense sensitivity. He is saying the opposite–and saying it clearly to all who have ears to hear. He is saying that Lolita’s fate is indeed fearful and horrible; and that the world ravaged by relativism which he describes is just as horrible. He is not excusing outrage; he is painting a specific outrage as the symbol of an outrageous society.
The editors of The New Republic, with justice, attack the indecent blindness of Lionel Trilling, who writes of the perverted protagonist of Lolita: “In recent fiction no lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness.” They themselves, however, look with so much tenderness upon their world that they cannot recognize the terrible satire whose essence they have dimly perceived. De te fabula narratur. Satire couches its lance in vain.
And satire, I am sure, considering his ability and the quality of what he has written, was Mr. Nabokov’s intention. Of course I may be wrong. He may simply be an immensely gifted writer with a perverted and salacious mind. But if the latter is true, it does not change the situation much. Lolita, in the context of the reception it has been given, remains nevertheless a savage indictment of an age that can see itself epitomized in such horror and run to fawn upon the horror as beauty, delicacy, understanding. But I hope that this is not so, that Mr. Nabokov knew what he was doing. It is so much more exhilarating to the spirit if the evil that human beings have created is castigated by the conscious vigor of a human being, not by the mere accident of the mirror, the momentary unpurposeful reflection of evil back upon evil.