Lolita, who would be 65 by now, is immortal, and so is Nabokov


May 09, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov would have turned 100 last month. Reminded of that, I was drawn back to "Lolita," one of the great novels of the 20th century. Lolita herself would have turned 65 this year. Humbert Humbert, one of the great obsessed perversities in all literature -- and what hero is not obsessive? -- would be a doddering 92.

By the grace of art and bliss, years make no difference. All three are immortal.

I cannot remember exactly when I first read it. Rejected by four major American publishers, it was published in 1955 in Paris, and finally appeared in the United States in 1958, swiftly becoming enormously successful. I read it when I was young and given to intense enthusiasms -- some studious, many stupid.

I remember falling in love with it. Hopelessly. And, as it turned out -- forever. I learned that the other day, as I finished my second reading. (This is powerful evidence in support of Elizabeth Teachout's "Argument," on these pages, in favor of rereading books.)

Everybody knows the story, right? Humbert Humbert, a wandering European almost-intellectual of 40, marries, in 1947, an American widow in order to be near her 12-year-old daughter, thus to slake his obsession since early adolescence for a certain sort of young female. HH calls these girls "nymphets" and Dolores Haze -- Lolita, Lo-lee-ta, Lo, Lola, Dolly -- was the consummate specimen of the species.

The widow dies, innocently crushed by a shiny black neighborhood Packard. Chance thus frees HH's appallingly lascivious dreams. He spirits Lo, who seduces him, off on a year-long auto tour of America.

The trip is 150 days of moving on the road, 206 places, covering 27,000 miles, eating mostly in diners and staying in inexpensive motels. It is a breathlessly admiringly, gloriously condescending fugue: The hugeness of space, variety, openness and energy of America is one theme; the other is America's vulgarity and superficiality and immediacy -- so contemptibly un-European.

Lolita is sullen and bored; Humbert is utterly, indomitably in love with her. Sex is important, constant. No page goes by that is not touched by sensuality -- and yet there is not a single word in the book that would not readily be published in a family newspaper.

At the end of the trip, there is another year of cohabitation in a college town, and then another long motor trip. The pair is together, in every sense of the term but healthily, every day and night until she is spirited away. The book is narrated, retrospectively, by HH under prosecution for a murder that remains mysterious till late-on.

The exquisiteness of the depictions of American places, artifacts and life are beyond description: hotels, motels, gas stations -- what is now called the "hospitality industry." Who could do better than "to patronize those restaurants where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crusted salads"?

But the ultimate joy of the writing is in the celebration of love. Hundreds of passages and paragraphs sing, but none more lyrically than the opening: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

The book is a symphony of this obsession. It is a hymn to implacable love. Though he is a monster of depravity, HH's narrative voice is contrived with unwavering directness and delicate irony.

Famously, Nabokov called the book his love affair with the English language. That's not enough. The book is about, among other things, the fact of language being life: Without words there are no ideas. Without ideas, there is no humanity.

I found last week that I had misremembered much, and discovered a youthful stupidity or two of mine. That included the residual impression that the core of the tale is the metaphor of HH as decadent and hypercivilized Europe and Lolita as brash, immature, vulgar America. I was also wrong in recalling that the book is implicitly judgmental, suggesting moral conclusions.

That popular and flaccid metaphoric interpretation ignores -- savages -- the enormity of Nabokov's art and wit. As an earnest kid, I searched for Greater Meanings everywhere. I contrived moral messages in this and other blameless books. Since then, I have learned finger-wagging is the mortal enemy of art.

To that point, Nabokov, in his brief but extraordinarily comprehensive postscript to the book, wrote: "I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and ... Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss ... All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster."

Nabokov's success makes it impossible, I believe, to guard a genuine human heart from invasion by Humbert Humbert, however repellent you may find him. It is near impossible, I believe, to conjure up love -- except in a general, love-of-humankind way -- for Lolita herself, who epitomizes insensitive adolescence -- vacuous, selfish, mendacious and corrupt.

I belong to a tribe that holds the term genius to be sacred. The word applies to persons and works that are accessible, immediate, enduring and original. It belongs singularly and solely to persons and works that have come about through a magic that is beyond the reach of our ordinary imaginations to comprehend.

"Lolita" is a work of genius by a man of genius -- which should endure for centuries to come.

Pub Date: 05/09/99

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