My secondary school, though public (in the American, not the British, sense) and day, not boarding, followed the wise English boarding-school tradition of leaving senior pupils alone a great deal to discover things for themselves.
The school sat on the upper north slope of a river valley. The main school buildings were at the high end, and the grounds then fell away for a few hundred yards towards the river. These grounds were terraced into levels, each level kept neatly flat and grassed, marked out for rugby, cricket, or track, according to the season. At the bottom of the lowest slope were some unkempt woods, and just where the grass gave way to the woods was a small hut used by the school’s contingent of naval cadets, of which I was a member for three or four years. On sunny afternoons in this hut, in the spring of 1962, with nothing to look at but instructional displays of ship silhouettes, knots, and insignia of rank, and nothing to hear but birdsong from the woods, I first read Lolita.
I suppose–though I honestly can’t remember–I had heard that it was a dirty book, and been attracted to it for that reason, having, like every other healthy 16-year-old male, a dirty mind. I very soon discovered my error. Much more important than that, I found myself in a new and very strange imaginative space, like none I had ever visited before, and filled with such wonders and delights that if I experienced any disappointment at not having been titillated, that disappointment was swamped by sheer esthetic pleasure, so much so that I retained no memory of it.
I was decently well-read for my age. My strong preference, from ages 12 to 18, was for science fiction, of which I read anything I could get my hands on. I had a good grounding in mainstream literature, though, having read through shelves-full of Victorian boys’ authors**, wellnigh committed to memory all twenty-odd of Richmal Crompton’s “William” books, got in a lot of Dickens (though more by osmosis than actual reading), read random bits of Conan Doyle and Kipling, been flogged through some representative Shakespeare at school (Macbeth, Twelfth Night, Henry V–pretty much a standard secondary-school canon for that time), and acquainted myself, sometimes through abbreviated kids’ versions or the splendid Classics Illustrated comic-strip series (whatever happened to it?), with a broad scattering of Eng. Lit. masterpieces. Of “real” writers, the one I liked best at that time was, I think, Mark Twain.
Lolita resembled none of that. It was new and astonishing, to the degree that I was swept away by it. I knew about word play from Lewis Carroll, and from the comic verse and competitions in Punch, which I read pretty regularly, and which was then at one of its peaks–its last one, I think–under Bernard Hollowood’s editorship (which followed a trough under Malcolm Muggeridge’s). Still Nabokov’s prose was at some level beyond that. I sucked it in, reading and re-reading, of course not getting a tenth of the allusions and effects, but knowing that there was something there to be got. I even started to talk like Humbert Humbert, the book’s first-person narrator, dropping words like “callypygean” and “phocine” into my conversation, to much derision from my peers. To this day I can recall the expression on the face of one of my schoolmasters–a rugged old RAF veteran with a clipped George Orwell mustache, who had slaughtered thousands in the great bombing raids on German cities–when I slipped the term “soi-disant“ into an otherwise humdrum sentence. His expression was more amusement than amazement, and he started to say something, but checked himself and turned away, I suppose to hide his swelling mirth.
Later, in the 1970s, I got a copy of Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita, and filled myself in on all the dismayingly many allusions I still had not got. I lost that book in my travels, and bought another, and lost that, and bought another. The Annotated Lolita in front of me now is my fourth or fifth. This is a book I have known for most of my life.
The 50th anniversary of Lolita fell last September. It was in September of 1955 that the novel was published by Olympia Press in Paris, after four American publishers had refused it. Of the last three of that four, Nabokov wrote:
Publisher X, whose advisers got so bored with Humbert that they never got beyond page 188, had the naïvete to write me that Part Two was too long. Publisher Y, on the other hand, regretted that there were no good people in the book. Publisher Z said if he printed Lolita, he and I would go to jail.
British novelist Graham Greene read the Olympia Press edition and broadcast his praise of it. Other literary folk followed suit. At last, in August 1958, Putnam’s brought out a U.S. edition, giving us a second shot at a Lolita anniversary. There was much controversy, which of course did no harm to the book’s sales: It stayed at the top of the fiction best-seller lists for more than six months (though librarians reported that few people finished it). Lolita was, as every reviewer with a smattering of book-reviewer’s French felt obliged to remark, that very rare thing: a succès d’estime that was also a succès de scandale. Nabokov, who had lived by his wits, for paltry wages, since his family fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, became a wealthy man, and attained his ambition (which I share) to live permanently in a large, comfortable hotel–Switzerland’s Montreux Palace, on the north shore of Lake Geneva.
Lolita was subsequently much written about, with critics lining up pro and con. Some thought it was a dirty book; some thought it nihilistic; some, to (Nabokov said) the author’s great pain, thought it anti-American. Some just didn’t like the style. Britain’s Kingsley Amis was prominent among this last group, declaring Nabokov’s prose grotesquely over-developed, like the muscles of a bodybuilder. This was back in pre-Arnold days when bodybuilders were widely regarded as narcissistic freaks. Nabokov, Amis was saying, was a narcissistic freak, “a literary Charles Atlas.” Anyone who has written much about literature has an opinion on Lolita. Last year’s anniversary brought a new flurry of comments. Here is Stephen Metcalf’s take in Slate.
Reading the book again the other day, I found my own admiration very little diminished across 44 years. Lolita is, to my taste, irresistibly readable even when the author seems not to be trying very hard. Here is a passage from near the end of the book. Humbert has just seen Lolita (respectably married, pregnant) for the last time. She has told him the name of the man who seduced her away from him. Humbert is driving cross-country to see that man’s uncle, so that he can locate his rival and kill him. Tired, he has pulled up in “an anonymous little town.”
The rain had been cancelled miles before. It was a black warm night, somewhere in Appalachia. Now and then cars passed me, red tail-lights receding, white headlights advancing, but the town was dead. Nobody strolled and laughed on the sidewalks as relaxing burghers would in sweet, mellow, rotting Europe. I was alone to enjoy the innocent night and my terrible thoughts. A wire receptacle on the curb was very particular about acceptable contents: Sweepings. Paper. No Garbage. Sherry-red letters of light marked a Camera Shop. A large thermometer with the name of a laxative quietly dwelt on the front of a drugstore. Rubinov’s Jewelry Company had a display of artificial diamonds reflected in a red mirror. A lighted green clock swam in the linenish depths of Jiffy Jeff Laundry. On the other side of the street a garage said in its sleep–genuflexion lubricity; and corrected itself to Gulflex Lubrication. An airplane, also gemmed by Rubinov, passed, droning, in the velvet heavens. How many small dead-of-night towns had I seen! This was not yet the last.
Alfred Appel, in his notes, construes “genuflexion lubricity” as “worshipful lasciviousness or lewdness.”
Which brings us to the content of Lolita, the actual story. Humbert Humbert, born 1910, grew up on the French Riviera. In the spring of 1947 he rents a room in the house of Mrs. Haze, in “green-and-pink Ramsdale,” a sleepy New England town. Mrs. Haze has a daughter, Lolita, born January 1, 1935. Humbert is in love with Lolita. Mrs. Haze falls in love with Humbert. Humbert marries her to be close to the girl. The mother dies in an accident. Humbert has a sex affair with Lolita. The affair ends when she deserts him for a famous, but mediocre and decadent, playwright. After three years Humbert locates Lolita. Then he tracks down the playwright and murders him.
It is of course a dreadful story, of awful crimes narrated by the criminal. Like all criminals, Humbert is a solipsist, a person who does not really believe in the existence of anything outside himself. Also like all criminals, he is full of self-justification. There is really nothing to like about Humbert Humbert. The more you get to know him, in fact, the more unpleasant things you uncover. Discussing the book with a woman friend the other day, she pointed out a thing I hadn’t really noticed: Humbert is probably a lousy lover. Once you have been told this, it’s obvious. Why would a solipsist give any thought to another person’s gratification? And the sexual history the author has given Humbert–a succession of whores, then two brief marriages to women he despises–offers Humbert very little incentive to hone his erotic skills. (On slight and indirect evidence, and in so far–which is not very far at all–it is possible to make estimates of such things, I would guess that in this respect, Nabokov was far superior to Humbert.)
And yet, by the magic of his art, Nabokov manages to bring us, at least grudgingly and partially, round to Humbert’s side–to be of Humbert’s party, as Milton made us of Satan’s. In an interview, Nabokov said that he thought Humbert should be given one day’s vacation from hell every year, to stroll a green country lane in the sunlight. That is the position the author wants his reader to arrive at; that is the position we do arrive at, if ignorance or prejudice do not get in our way.
With any book one admires, it is interesting to speculate on its chances of survival. What will people think of Lolita in another fifty years? My guess is that it will last. Nabokov detested all theorizing and systematizing about human nature, and nursed a particular animus against Freudianism, which then dominated popular thinking on the subject. “Voodoo,” was one of the kinder things Nabokov said about Freud’s theories. (“Psychoanalysts wooed me with pseudoliberations of pseudolibidoes,” quips Humbert; and I recall, but have not been able to locate, an interview in which Nabokov derided Freud for trying to achieve cures “by the application of Greek myths to our private parts.”) Yet for all Nabokov’s dedication to the uniqueness and strange particularity of every human personality, and for all his metaphysical skepticism–“reality,” he said in the Afterword that is appended to every edition of Lolita but the first, is “one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes”–underpinning Nabokov’s narratives are some truths, mostly dark truths, about the realities of life and humanity. How could there not be? That’s what great writing is.
Ah, the realities of life! Was there ever a civilization more uncomfortable with them than ours is today? Humbert Humbert is a monster and a sociopath. He was a human monster, though, and a human sociopath. His monstrousnesses are hypertrophied growths of our own flaws; and his sociopathy consists in breaking rules for which, if there were not some fairly widespread propensity to break them, there would be no need.
Some of the most vituperative emails I have ever got came in after I made an offhand remark, in one of my monthly NRO diaries, to the effect that very few of us are physically appealing after our salad days, which in the case of women I pegged at ages 15-20. While the storm was raging, biologist Razib Khan over at Gene Expression (forget philosophers, theologians, and even novelists: the only people with interesting things to say about human nature nowadays are the scientists) decided to look up some actual numbers. Reasoning that a rapist is inspired to his passion mainly by the physical attractiveness of his victim, Razib went for rape statistics.
He found a 1992 report (Rape in America: A Report to the Nation) from the National Victim Center showing the age distribution of female rape victims. Sixty percent of the women who reported having been raped were aged 17 or less, divided about equally between women aged 11 to 17 (32 percent) and those under eleven (29 percent). Only six percent were older than 29. When a woman gets past her mid twenties, in fact, her probability of being raped drops off like a continental shelf. If you histogram the figures, you get a peak around ages 12-14… which is precisely the age Lolita was at the time of her affair with Humbert Humbert. As Razib noted, my own “15-20” estimate was slightly off. An upper limit of 24 would be more reasonable. The lower limit really doesn’t bear thinking about. (I have a 13-year-old daughter.)
Behind such sad numbers, and in the works of literary geniuses like Vladimir Nabokov, does the reality of human nature lie. It is all too much for our prim, sissified, feminized, swooning, emoting, mealy mouthed, litigation-whipped, “diversity”-terrorized, race-and-“gender”-panicked society. We shudder and turn away, or write an angry email. The America of 1958, with all its shortcomings, was saltier, wiser, closer to the flesh and the bone and the wet earth, less fearful of itself. (It was also, according to at least one scholarly study, happier.)
One of the first media sensations ever to impinge upon my consciousness was the visit to Britain by rock star Jerry Lee Lewis in May 1958, four months before Lolita’s American debut. This was supposed to be a concert tour, but 22-year-old Jerry had brought his wife Myra along, and the British press got wind of the fact that Myra was only 13. This wasn’t an unusual thing in the south of that time; Jerry himself had first been wed at 15 (when he already had a drinking problem). Myra was his third wife, and also his second cousin once removed. Back then country people grew up fast and close to their kin. Neither Jerry nor Myra could understand what the fuss was about. He: “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?” She: “Back home you can marry at 10, if you can find a husband.” (This was not true, even in the south, though Myra likely believed it. She also, according to the British press, believed in Santa Claus.) It didn’t help that Jerry’s new record was titled High School Confidential.
How long ago it seems! Nowadays our kids are financially dependent on us into their mid-twenties, and can’t afford to leave home till they are 35. Marriage at 13? Good grief! And so, while Lolita met with a fair share of disapproval in 1958, and was denounced from many pulpits, I believe its reception would have been much more hostile if it appeared now. It would also have been differently politicized. Back then the complaints came mostly from social conservatives, who I imagine would disapprove of Lolita just as strongly today. The Left, however, almost unanimously championed the book. Would they still do so? A woman! Who was also a child! Exploited by a man! And both of them from stifled, self-denying bourgeois backgrounds! Oh, that evil Patriarchy! It’s amazing how far this stuff has spread: There is a strong whiff of it in Azar Nafisi’s memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (whose author went to college in the U.S.A.)
Here you see one of the paradoxes of our strange times. Our women dress like sluts; our kids are taught about buggery in elementary school; “wardrobe malfunctions” expose to prime-time TV viewers body parts customarily covered in public since “the lamented end of the Ancient World B.C.” (Humbert); our colleges have coed bathrooms; songs about pimps rise to the top of the pop music charts; yet so far as anything to do with the actual reality of actual human nature is concerned, we are as prim and shockable as a bunch of Quaker schoolmarms. After 40 years of lying to ourselves, we are now terrified of the truth. Which is an unhappy thing, because the truth is bearing down on us fast.
What would Vladimir Nabokov say if he could view our present scene? I think he would weep. Political Correctness was only embryonic in the mid-1950s, and Nabokov poked some gentle fun at it in Lolita:
…according to the rules of those American ads where schoolchildren are pictured in a subtle ratio of races, with one–only one, but as cute as they make them–chocolate-colored round-eyed little lad, almost in the very middle of the front row.
He would have been horrified to see how this how these silly but harmless and well-intentioned courtesies have swollen into a monstrous dreary tyranny, shutting off whole territories of speech and thought, acting as a sheet anchor to hold back our commercial and intellectual progress, corrupting our constitutional jurisprudence, turning unscrupulous mountebank attorneys into billionaires, and making art like Nabokov’s incomprehensible to millions who, had they been born a few decades earlier, would have gotten from it such unexpected, unimagined delight as I got among the birdsong and bowlines in the Sea Cadets’ hut at Northampton School for Boys 44 years ago.
That we are stupider, coarser, duller, lazier, narrower of mind, more fearful of strangeness, more abject, and more craven than the Americans of 1958 is bad enough. What really shows that our civilization is, and richly deserves to be, on its way out, is that we are less able to savor and love a surpassingly beautiful work of art like Lolita.
** Which in those unhurried days included the works of Sir Walter Scott–there was actually an early-evening TV series based on Ivanhoe. (The book itself was the mid-20th-century young English male’s first introduction to the great national tradition of philosemitism.) My own favorites, though, were R.M. Ballantyne, Rider Haggard, and R.D. Blackmore. I feel sure that, if the expression “boys’ author” has not already been outlawed in several states, it can only be a matter of time.