Excerpts:

This chapter begins Jane Smiley's reading of 100 novels that is presented in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. View the complete list here.

72 . Vladimir Nabokov . Lolita
(New York: Random House, Vintage , 1955) , 317 pp.


Most people know the basic plot of Lolita -for one thing, two movies have been made from it, one with James Mason and one with Jeremy Irons. Humbert Humbert, an educated European middle-aged man with a fetishistic attraction for twelve- to fourteen-year-old girls, inserts himself into the domestic arrangements of a woman with a twelve-year-old daughter. When the woman is fortuitously killed, HH, as he calls himself, takes the daughter on a prolonged crosscountry car trip, repeatedly raping, molesting, bribing, and imprisoning her as they travel from motel to motel. After she escapes, he pursues her and her "rescuer," first discovering Lolita, now eighteen, married, and pregnant, but still not interested in HH, then shooting the rescuer (a playwright named Quilty). The novel purports to be HH's jailhouse confession.

Lolita is a controversial novel, of course. It has made it into the critical pantheon of great twentieth-century novels, but it is also notorious, and it does not seem possible that it will be dislodged from either category. Even more than Ulysses it stands as a kind of index of literary taste. If you don't like it, then you don't truly understand great art. On the other hand, if you do like it, then what kind of person are you? Nabokov himself was opinionated about the nature of art-working as hard as James or Tolstoy to promote a theory of art and of the novel that led straight to him and his sort of greatness. As a teacher and an essayist, he was a tireless self-promoter who relentlessly demeaned as philistine those who didnŐt share his perceptions and ideas. His particular whipping boy was Dostoevsky, whose reputation he attempted to puncture at every opportunity, possibly because he had read Dostoevsky's books in his youth and didn't remember them very well (as recent translators of Dostoevsky have suggested), possibly because Dostoevsky was very popular in the United States (Nabokov promoted Gogol, for example, who was less well known to a general American audience), or possibly because the two were so philosophically at odds. At any rate, whereas Dostoevsky was always engaged with political and moral questions, Nabokov maintained that he disdained such things as being outside the realm of true art, and at first glimpse Lolita seems to bear out Nabokov's view.

Philosophically, Lolita is in the tradition of conservative novels by novelists who accept the innate evil of human nature, such as Thackeray. In conservative novels such as Vanity Fair, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Lolita, redemption is as impossible to achieve as true connection, and the protagonist either remains isolated at the end or achieves a new degree of isolation as a result of the action of the novel. Conservative novelists are much more likely to reserve a special place for art (or at least aesthetics) as a (or the) pure moral category in a world where all other moral categories have failed. They are also more likely to disdain the social programs of more liberal and socially active novelists who see human nature as either inherently good, or at least neutral, and capable of positive moral change. Nabokov made a vigorous case against the novel as a social or biographical document. In particular, he ridiculed psychological ideas current in the midcentury, especially Freudian ideas, that attempted to make causal connections in the emotional and mental lives of both characters and authors. He does not explore how HH and Lolita became, respectively, a pedophile and a slut; he simply accepts that they are, and that most of the other characters in the novel have secret sins as well. The pleasure and the redemption in the face of human nature is to use the artistic materials at hand to create a beautiful and interesting pattern, preferably one that is as intricate and convoluted as possible, full of internal and external references, wordplay, and complexities that enhance the game aspect of the work of art (and thereby make it more exclusive).

Lolita is an American novel, but Nabokov was a Russian and a European novelist. He was, in some sense, the major heir to the nineteenth-century Russian novelists, and in spite of his own distaste for biographical connection, I think it is fair to observe how the pattern of Russian history produced his ideas. Nabokov's father was an enlightened liberal jurist in Russia who went into exile in 1919 and was assassinated in 1922, when Nabokov was twenty-three. The assassins were czarists. The great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were energized by a single quest-to find a way for Russia to enter the modern world without losing its Russian identity. Nabokov's father's assassination represented the path that Russia did not take, the constitutional Western secular path, and the author never stopped disdaining the path Russia did take. He readily saw that the fervor of the nineteenth-century novelists had resulted in a cruel and irrational upending of Russian society. As far as Nabokov was concerned, that closed off the two traditional forms of redemption-social change and spiritual change. The only alternative was to make the best of the physical world, flawed though it is.

Lolita has to be seen as the story of a man who is making the best of the world as he knows it-his only higher faculty is a particular aesthetic response to a certain sort of girl. He wants to manipulate her as if she were a set of artistic materials. Early on, in fact, before the death of Lolita's mother, Charlotte, when Lolita happens to sit on his lap and he happens to climax without her realizing it, HH says, "Lolita had been safely solipsized," and then, "What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita-perhaps more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness-indeed, no life of her own" (p. 62). Except that fate intervenes to tempt him with custody of the real Lolita, and his instincts are the worst possible guide to either fostering her or finding satisfaction himself. The result is that she escapes, he never stops loving her or regretting his treatment of her, he fails to expiate his sins in his own mind, and he discovers that their relationship has always been unpleasant and meaningless to Lolita. Nabokov was thoroughly familiar with French literature and certainly recognized that the physical trap that the imprisoned girl finds herself in is mirrored by the mental trap the libertine himself resides in-the more HH seeks satisfaction from Lolita, the less he can find it and the more obsessed with her he becomes. Her outer hell is his inner hell, and his inner hell drives him to reinforce her outer hell at every possible point. The difference between HH and other tormentors, even Proust's M., is that HH believes in love and they don't, but the practical methods they all use to imprison their victims are the same. More than that, Lolita is a classic European novel in its preoccupation with the classic European theme of the irreducibly ambiguous nature of women and girls. Nabokov's answer to the traditional question is muted but distinct-when HH finds Lolita married, pregnant, eighteen years old, and living in a shack with her husband, he respects her autonomy-not only her right to choose her life but also her right to judge her history for herself. He gives her money he owes her from her motherŐs estate and leaves, more or less getting his papers in order so he can finish his tasks. But this recognition doesnŐt resolve his frustration. He can't possess her, but he also can't leave the mental hell he has made for himself. Unfortunately for this autonomy theory, Lolita soon dies in childbirth, killed by the author, thereby rendering all of the action of the novel more or less meaningless except as an expression of HH's aesthetic.

Is Lolita a great novel? How does it compare to Anna Karenina, a novel that Nabokov himself respected, or to Middlemarch or to Madame Bovary? How does it compare to the monuments of modernism such as Ulysses or The Trial? For one thing, in 315 pages, Lolita is much more limited and less capacious than the socially descriptive and expansive nineteenth-century novels; it is less stylistically ambitious than Ulysses, less profound and original than The Trial. It doesn't quite sustain each third of the narrative (before Charlotte's death, between Charlotte's death and Lolita's escape, the pursuit of Quilty)-the last third is sketchy and not very interesting, as if the author can't realize HH without Lolita, or as if the stalking and the murder aren't that important to him as a theme, but he has to follow out the plot anyway. The last third shows that his observation of the American landscape is pictorial rather than analytical, not very insightful and similar in this to his observation of Lolita herself (as HH points out toward the end of his narrative). It might be assumed that since both novels ran into censorship difficulties, Lolita is similar to Ulysses in the way Lolita challenges sexual taboos, but Joyce's hero, Leopold Bloom, is a social outcast, not a moral outcast-Joyce makes the case for him that he is kinder and more truly connected than the people around him. Nabokov makes no such case for HH, and in fact HH never defends his abuse of Lolita; rather he never stops expressing his remorse. Lolita is more similar to Madame Bovary, in which the reader is asked to experience the subjective life of a character conventionally considered immoral. But the precedent of Flaubert's technique was a hundred years old by Nabokov's time, so technically Lolita is an advance upon Justine but not upon Madame Bovary. Lolita is a compelling, complex, and intriguing novel, but the only value it expresses is the value of freedom, and freedom, as Nabokov explores it, is highly ambiguous.

When HH and Lolita are driving around the country, doing whatever they wish, their freedom is a prison of idleness and fear. When Nabokov is asserting his artistic freedom from the political and moral traditions of the novel (and the Russian novel in particular), he finally has nowhere to take his plot -the action leads to no revelations that aren't already present in earlier sections of the book. He must fall back on reiteration of his original ideas to wind everything up. So no, I don't think Lolita is a great novel, but I also don't think, as an example of artistic experimentation, that it can be avoided by anyone truly interested in the history and nature of the novel.

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Excerpted from Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.







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