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Lolita isn’t a love story. It’s a gothic horror novel.


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The front cover of the 1997 edition of Lolita, the one I’ve dog-eared and underlined, features a black-and-white photograph of the lower half of an adolescent girl wearing bobby socks, saddle shoes, and a very short skirt, one leg self-consciously—or coyly—bent. The accompanying blurb, from Vanity Fair, proclaims that this novel is “the only convincing love story of our century.” The publisher’s ad copy on the back describes it as “a meditation on love.” The description on the book’s Amazon page calls the relationship between Humbert Humbert, in his late thirties, and twelve-year-old Lolita “a love affair,” “a love story with the power to raise both chuckles and eyebrows,” and “undoubtedly, brazenly erotic,” though it concedes that “Lolita refuses to conform to [Humbert’s] image of the perfect lover.”

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After the novel was published, the term “Lolita” entered the lexicon as a synonym for young seductress. This book and its subsequent movie adaptations seem to exist somewhere in our collective cultural imagination between Britney Spears’s schoolgirl-fantasy video and little-girl beauty pageants featuring six-year-olds wearing fake eyelashes and evening gowns. The cover of the fiftieth anniversary edition of Lolita features a close-up of half of a glistening, baby-pink female lip of indeterminate age.

But Nabokov’s portrayal of Lolita (aka Dolores, Dolly, Lo) is far more complicated than the publisher’s positioning— and a wide swath of the critical response over the years—would have you believe. The reader is never allowed to forget how vulnerable and defenseless she is. Nabokov casts a gimlet eye on his antihero Humbert and his underage victim, often reminding us that this is a “miserable story.” Indeed, Humbert says, “Nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. . . . A North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac.” We get glimpses throughout of Lolita’s despair, her degradation, her heart-wrenching and futile efforts to escape from Humbert’s clutches. We see her cry herself to sleep. The book ends with Humbert’s melancholic recognition of his own brutal erasure of Lolita— a full confession that he not only kid-napped and raped her and robbed her of a childhood, but that he “simply did not know a thing about my darling’s mind and that quite possibly . . . there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate.”

Rereading Lolita for the first time since I was in my late twenties, I was struck by its Springtime for Hitler qualities. Did Nabokov, like the fictional Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, deliberately prod the limits of ethics and human decency, proving something in the process about his audience’s moral hypocrisy? Like the terrible actor playing Hitler, Humbert is often a clownish, absurd figure, a pain­fully deluded laughingstock. How did a book this monstrously outrageous—a dark comedy, in many ways—become not only a hit, but an enduring “love story”?

How does he get away with it?

In fact, as I found, there are many reasons to read Lolita. But not because it’s a love story. As one online commenter noted dryly, “This isn’t a love story. It’s a horror novel.”

***

Recently, for a month of afternoons, I served on a grand jury in lower Manhattan. The twenty-three jurors, ranging in age from twenty-five to seventy-eight, came from all walks of life: an internet executive, a personal trainer, a store clerk, a school­teacher, a lawyer, an antiques dealer, several retired and unem­ployed people. We heard multiple cases a day from a revolving door of district attorneys, up to fifteen a week, and then voted whether or not to indict. Soon enough, it became clear that we jurors had wildly divergent opinions about the same facts.

On the first day in the grand jury room, we were told that defendants rarely appear because it is seldom in their best interest; they hurt their own cases by revealing too much or by appearing shifty. But on the two occasions when a defen­dant testified, our views were swayed. In one, an alleged drug deal, the defendant’s insistence that he wasn’t doing what he appeared to be doing on the grainy security-cam footage made us doubt the DA’s case. His alternate scenario was, if not entirely plausible, not so easy to dismiss. In another, the well-mannered, seemingly reasonable defendant insisted that what the alleged victim claimed was rape was actually consensual rough sex. In our heated discussion after he’d left the room, some members of the jury invoked their own relationships in arguing that rough sex was not uncommon, pointing out, additionally, that the alleged victim didn’t immediately call the police.

I thought of this defendant often as I reread Lolita. Like Humbert, he was charming and self-knowing. It was hard to imagine this erudite gentleman committing the violent sex crime with which he was charged.

Throughout Lolita, Humbert builds his case through direct address: a defendant addressing a jury. He speaks first to the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” then to “My judges.” Soon enough, he narrows the reference—“gentlemen of the jury”—but eventually he pleads for the attention and understanding of females alone: “Gentlewomen of the jury! Bear with me!” Insidiously attempting to weaken the (imagined) case against him, he says, “Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover.” And “Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! . . . By six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were techni­cally lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me.”

As his tale unfolds, Humbert switches between appeals to a jury and increasingly desperate pleas to “my learned reader (whose eyebrows, I suspect, have by now traveled all the way to the back of his bald head).” He has a clear picture in his mind of this high-minded, moralistic personage “whose meek temper Lo ought to have copied,” and begs him or her to hear the whole story before making a judgment: “Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages!” He is all too aware of how bad things look. “I have to tread carefully,” he says. “I have to speak in a whisper.” Eventually he changes tactics. He stops protesting his innocence and begins to imply that moral judgment is a sign of unsophistication: “Oh, do not scowl at me, reader,” he says, later adding, “I hope I am addressing myself to unbiased readers.”

As I read Lolita in the wake of a litany of revelations about sexual misconduct by powerful men, it appears as if the most cartoonish of today’s #MeToo villains may have used it as an instruction manual. I thought of disgraced comedian Bill Cosby when Humbert talks about “administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity.” If former film producer Harvey Weinstein—whose alleged sexual abuse of more than eighty women sparked the #MeToo movement—has a conscience, he might admit that he has “hurt . . . too many bodies with my twisted poor hands to be proud of them.” You can imagine billionaire financier and convicted child molester Jeffrey Epstein thinking, Oh Lolita, you are my girl, as Vee was Poe’s and Bea Dante’s, and what little girl would not like to whirl in a circular skirt and scanties? Like Louis C.K., who freely admits in his comedy routines to “constant perverted sexual thoughts,” Humbert confesses to, and attempts to justify, the most sordid of his transgressions: “As I look back at . . . that strange and monstrous moment, I can only explain. . . .” And former television news anchor Matt Lauer’s indignant response to being accused of rape that “each act was mutual and completely consensual” recalls Humbert’s: “I insist upon proving that I am not, and never was, and never could have been, a brutal scoundrel.”

The great racket of mid to late twentieth-century masculinity—indeed, of patriarchal power up until the pres­ent day—is that men have been able to get away with the sexual exploitation of vulnerable girls and women with impu­nity because, for so long, any objection to it was derided as puritanical moralism. In the sixty-five years since this novel was published, Humbert’s behavior has been endlessly mans­plained and excused. Many critics have asked some version of this question: Is Lolita the victim, or is Humbert? Is this the story of an adult who corrupts a young child, or is it about a corrupt child who controls a weak adult?

It is Humbert himself who provides an answer. By the end of the novel, he claims, “Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dis­missed the rest of the charges.” (With Quilty dead, there’s one fewer pedophile, after all.)

Ultimately, on my own jury, a majority of us voted to indict the alleged rapist. (We weren’t deciding on this man’s guilt or innocence; we needed to determine only whether there was probable cause.) Like Humbert, he told a rambling, shifting story. He alternately appealed to our sympathies and derided us as unworldly. When he told us that the woman was “crazy,” that she had a lot of boyfriends, that she enjoyed the pain he inflicted on her, that her tears were simply for our benefit, I thought of Epstein, who had killed himself weeks earlier in the prison next door; and of Weinstein, with his ankle bracelet, under house arrest; and Cosby, serving three to ten years in a Pennsylvania prison. “I have eight years and nine months left,” Cosby told BlackPressUSA .com. “When I come up for parole, they’re not going to hear me say that I have remorse.”

I thought of Humbert’s frank admission of guilt at the end of a narrative filled with self-justification. An admission, mind you—not an apology.

***

From the beginning, we are aware of Humbert’s many faults. We know that he is a murderer and a scoundrel, having been told up front that a “desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning.” Oftentimes he comes across as a clownish, pathetic figure, bumbling around like a Marx brother. He calls himself “Humbert the Wounded Spider” and “Humbert the Humble”; we watch him “beat a gloomy retreat” and “scuttle out of [the] room.” He is preening, self-pitying, petty, and defensive.

But Humbert also possesses the perilously seductive appeal of a classic narcissist. He is always the smartest, most magnetic, funniest man in the room. Throughout the first half of the novel in particular, the reader is buoyed by his wit and charisma. Writing in The Atlantic (December 2019), psychology professor Dan P. McAdams explains: “[The narcissist’s] admirers feel a rush of excitement and allure. They enjoy being in the presence of such a beautiful figure— or a powerful, creative, dynamic, charismatic, or intriguing figure. They bask in his reflected glory, even if they find his self-obsession to be unseemly.”

Humbert’s narrative is propelled by a comedian’s timing, a willingness to debase himself, and surprising insights into the human condition. In the way that stand-up routines can be a rationalization of politically incorrect or morally dubious opinions that the viewer may share but is afraid to articulate, Humbert’s “confession” seduces the reader into collusion. He appeals to our sense of humor, our snobbishness, our disdain of ignorant, small-minded mediocrity, and our shared delight in wordplay.

Furthermore, Humbert exists within a semi-comic universe in which everyone is calculated, has dual motivations, and is at least slightly absurd. All along the highways and byways of America, he is forced to suffer fools and placate conventional bores. He may be an inveterate snob, but he’s pushed and pulled by so many mediocre, trivial, and frankly loathsome characters that it’s a miracle he hasn’t driven more of them to their untimely deaths. Charlotte Haze, for example, is small-minded, manipulative, and even worse, cruel to her only child, Lolita. She schemes to send her off to a harsh boarding school; she mocks her letters from camp and treats her with open con­tempt. “Oh, she simply hated her daughter!” Humbert tells us. Quilty, Humbert’s archnemesis, is perhaps—if immorality is relative—an even worse pedophile than he is.

For a long time, we, like Lolita, are Humbert’s prey; he pur­sues, captures, and manipulates us as skillfully as he does her. Inevitably, though, like the members of my real-life jury, we turn from the charming narcissist. Not because we see through him—he has always been transparent about his motives and his behavior—but because we tire of his ruthlessness, his inability to express empathy, and his fragile self-esteem. The reader becomes annoyed, if not infuriated, by the narcissist’s relentless inability to see beyond his own needs. As McAdams notes, “When narcissists begin to disappoint those they once dazzled, their descent can be especially precipitous.”

By Part 2 of the novel, nearly exactly halfway through, what sympathy we have left for Humbert wanes as he confesses to more and more barbaric behavior. The chasm between Hum­bert’s elevated language and the sordid nature of his revelations becomes so vast as to be impassable. Roiled by anger and resentment, he concocts grandiose fantasies of revenge. The final third of the book is spent in breathless suspense as we wait for him to get his comeuppance.

Near the end, descending into alcoholic madness, he tells us, “My mind was cracking.” He describes a poem he writes as “a maniac’s masterpiece.” A little later, he says, “Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically undistinguishable from a madman’s fancy.” Essentially, Humbert pleads guilty by reason of insanity. But like Lolita, we have endured his gaslighting and his manipulations long enough. At this point we just want to know how it’s going to end.

***

Part of the enduring appeal of Lolita lies in the fact that though it is unquestionably literary, it provides many of the delights of genre fiction. On one level it can be read as a crime novel, the erratic yet mesmerizing confession of a convicted murderer. We flip the pages to find out how and why our charismatic narrator committed the awful deed we’ve learned about in the prologue. But as the story progresses, it takes on the tenor of a gothic horror novel, in which a malevolent figure arouses fear, shock, and disgust in both the victim and the reader.

One reason we find novels like The Talented Mr. Ripley and American Psycho so intriguing is that they give us the chance to get inside the heads of psychopaths and sociopaths, to limn the differences between their behavior and motivations and our own, to make sense of the senseless. Another is that they force us to contemplate our similarities with these deviants, thereby making our own psyches stranger, more dangerous, and ultimately more complicated and interesting to ourselves. Like Tom Ripley and Patrick Bateman—and Count Dracula and Hannibal Lecter—Humbert fascinates mainly because of the chasm between his sophisticated urbanity and his brutal rapaciousness.

But perhaps the best gothic-horror analogy is with Frankenstein, in which a doctor whose desire to create an ideal human being clashes, to devastating effect, with the reality of the monster that results. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Humbert is both fully aware of the moral impropriety of his actions and ultimately unable to control the monster, whose destruction was built into its conception. “What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita— perhaps, more real than Lolita,” Humbert says, “overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness— indeed, no life of her own.” For Humbert to so easily negate the “real” Lolita, he must deny her humanity. Dr. Frankenstein calls his creation “demoniacal” and “the creature”; Humbert similarly asserts, “Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who . . . reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as ‘nymphets.’”

In the end, like the monster’s, Lolita’s life is a tragedy. Used and abused, kept out of school, denied agency and autonomy, deprived of real love and friendship, she manages to wrest her-self from her captor-creator’s clutches but is too damaged, too scarred, to find peace.

In an essay titled “Elements of Aversion,” the speculative fiction writer Elizabeth Barrette notes that “the best horror intends to rattle our cages and shake us out of complacency. It makes us think, forces us to confront ideas we might rather ignore, and challenges preconceptions of all kinds. Horror reminds us that the world is not always as safe as it seems.” Ultimately, we come away from Lolita, as we do from the best horror fiction, unsettled. Like Dr. Frankenstein with his monster, Humbert is repulsed by and yet still emotionally connected to the product of his experiment.  “ There she was with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her gooseflesh white arms . . . there she was (my Lolita!), hopelessly worn at seventeen, with that baby . . . and I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.”

But Humbert’s expression of love is chilling. Indeed, he has already conceded that he was never truly interested in who Lolita was, but in what she represented: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. . . . The word ‘forever’ referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood.” In a dismissive aside, he’d confided, “Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl.”

In many horror stories, a mysterious supernatural element—often the devil himself—controls or terrorizes the central character. (Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, and The Exorcist come to mind.) Over and over, Humbert tells the reader that he is soul-less, a “plaything” of the devil, whom he calls Aubrey McFate: “First he would tempt me— and then thwart me.” Justifying despicable behavior, he says, “hell screamed its counsel.” He and Lolita dwelled in a “paradise whose skies were the color of hell-flames.” Like the serpent in the Garden of Eden observing Eve, Humbert says that “the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her bright beauty.” Later, he “slithered off [his] stool.” And indeed, “Our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country.”

We readers— Humbert’s jurors—should regard with suspicion his dubious claim that the devil made him do it, however. Like Dr. Jekyll, Humbert has a lightning-quick ability to shape-shift. On the one hand, he describes himself as “practically harmless,” “innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid . . . [an] unhappy, mild, dog-eyed [gentleman].” On the other, he is “a shining example of moral leprosy” who commits “sins of diabolical cunning” with “a cesspool of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile.”

Humbert, a skilled prosecutor might argue, is the devil himself.

Like a twist in a classic horror tale, there comes a moment when Humbert eventually acknowledges the brutal truth: he knew from the beginning that Lolita was terrified, vulnerable, and desperate, and he didn’t care. “It was always my habit and method to ignore Lolita’s states of mind while comforting my own base self,” he says, noting coldly that she would “mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom” because it was her only defense against him. He admits to having glimpsed, years earlier, a “look on her face . . . an expression of helpless-ness so perfect that it seemed to grade into one of rather comfortable inanity just because this was the very limit of injustice and frustration.”

“I hope you will love your baby,” he exhorts Lolita on the final page of the book, adding darkly, “I hope it will be a boy.”

To call Lolita a love story is to misread it. Nabokov’s novelistic intent is clear. We read Lolita for the kinetic beauty of its language, the depth of its characterization, the humor, the pathos, and the overwhelming sense of heartbreak we feel at the end. We read it for its unsettling depiction of a sociopath. Humbert’s confession could not be starker; he forced a “poor, bruised child” to live “in a world of total evil,” he says. “And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.”

_________________________

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From LOLITA IN THE AFTERLIFE: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, to be published by Vintage on March 16, 2021. Compilation copyright © 2021 by Jenny Minton Quigley. Essay copyright © 2021 by Christina Baker Kline.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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