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t's been fifty years since Vladimir Nabokov's little girl first endured — and manipulated — the desire of her overaged suitor, Humbert, and yet Lolita is more present as a pop-culture reference than ever. She's been a trendy bar, a children's bed and countless newspaper headlines referencing any sexual woman under eighteen. But a new book asserts that as a character and an idea, Lolita was not the one-dimensional notion she's become over decades of simplification.
In his new novel Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again, Graham Vickers goes back to Lolita's roots, and then takes, in his words, "a happy-go-lucky romp through the culture." Observing Lolita in all her many pop-cultural manifestations, from Amy Fisher to Hard Candy, he teases out the gaps that separate Nabokov's character and her legacy. — Meghan Pleticha
What is the chase in Chasing Lolita?
I guess it's partly a snappy title, and it's partly indicating if you would like to find out who Lolita really is, there's an element of trying to track down the character, because most of the contemporary information is highly misleading.
Do you think she can be caught?
Easily. You simply have to read the book. I'm sure that a large percentage of the disinformation about Lolita comes from people who never read it.
When you were writing the book, did you find any interpretations of Lolita in our culture that really surprised you?
The whole Long Island Lolita episode. I sort of knew about it, and looking into it, it seemed more convoluted than I'd expected. It was particularly interesting that the Lolita title in this case was not entirely crassly applied. I think the journalists working on it were ambivalent about the whole thing, and [Fisher] was keen to point out this was a very male-dominated view of things.
Why do you think that our culture labels things Lolita that aren't Lolita?
Once something gets started, it tends to get handed down with less and less consideration. It started in the fifties, and I feel that one of the characteristics of the culture in the fifties was to give very simplistic labels to things, because it made it easy to simulate difficult ideas — Albert Einstein was the wacky European, Marlon Brando was the surly voice of disaffected youth. They became cartoon characters.
Why do you think everyone thinks they understand who Lolita is, even if they haven't read the book?
I'm sure that more people saw Kubrick's film of Lolita than read the book over a certain period. Even though it wasn't a hugely successful film, it's always on TV, it's always kind of dribbling around. But if you read the book, [Nabokov] actually tells you very little about her. She almost doesn't exist as a person to him. Today we have whole industries springing up around abusive childhoods, confessions and the rest of it. If you're a celebrity now, you're not really delivering the goods unless you come up with some sort of childhood recollection. It's something that exists in the public consciousness in a very different way than it did in the late '40s and '50s.
It's a very ambivalent role, that of the imprisoned child. With Lolita, it wasn't just the role of victim — at times she was complicit. This has been reinforced in real life with the case of Natasha Kampusch in Austria — she's a very bright cookie, but she was held for eight years from when she was a child to when she was a teenager, and at one point appears to have been taken on vacation by the gentleman who was holding her. It's like a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, this idea that victims who are held hostage develop a degree of complicity with the person who's in control of them.
Why do you think our culture has focused on Lolita instead of Humbert?
Humbert is wonderfully invisible, isn't he? He's a series of attitudes and cerebral musings. And why would people find a middle-aged European a more interesting cliché than what they imagine to be a sexually charged teenager?
What do you think about the disconnect between our fear of sexualized young women and our deliberate sexualization of them?
Why would people find a middle-aged European a more interesting cliché than what they imagine to be a sexually charged teenager?
I think it's always going to be there. One of the things I tried to show in the book was that it was there before. Before it had the label, it was there. The difference now is that kids of Lolita's age are much more clued up. The movie Hard Candy, I think, was originally inspired by some Japanese schoolgirls who set up exactly that kind of trap, because they knew the internet was the tool whereby men could lure very young girls to meetings. The amusing thing is that they were much better at using the internet than the men, because they were younger and they actually knew how it worked. I know it wasn't intended to be a modern take on Lolita, but that was a very good example of how things change.
Why do you think society is so scared of pedophilia?
I think it's one of the few crimes that almost everybody can look down on. You see it here in England too: when someone is released from prison for this crime, there's usually a kind march, people waving banners around. And what's kind of amusing about this is you can guarantee they'll never spell it correctly, particularly in Britain where pedophilia is spelled with an "A" — "P-a-e-d-o..." They never get it right. Someone had actually sprayed offensive graffiti on one of the premises and I think it said "pediatrician." There's a wonderful mixture of illiteracy and vigilante mentality.
Is Lolita, as a novel, sexy?
It's driven by sex, but I don't think it's sexy in the sense of being stimulating. I think people who picked it up with it's reputation preceding it quickly put it down again, because it's shot through with sex certainly, but only if you buy into the way Nabokov has written it. He was very dismissive of books that set out to be titillating. His view was that pornography had to be written to a recipe — I think his phrase was, "You end up with a copulation of clichés." There's an erotic undertow in Lolita, but that's actually one of the extraordinary things about the Edward Albee play of it, that it's incredibly crass and explicit. It seems so extraordinary that a book he claimed to revere, he would make such a dreadful job of it. That was one of the many reasons that his play failed.
Is there anything else you'd like to say about Lolita?
The final point I would make: I cannot understand why there's such reluctance to accept Adrian Lyne's film of Lolita from 1997. It's not without its faults, but it seems to me so much better than Kubrick's, and so much better than any film you might reasonably have hoped to be made of Lolita, I'm surprised to find so many people seem to think this is an eccentricity of mine for saying that this is a pretty good film. I do think it's a pretty good film, and I think its reputation will rise in future years, and I remain frankly puzzled as to why it isn't better thought of.
Do you think a third film could be even more successful at portraying Lolita?
I think Middle America is probably not ready for the first Lolita, let alone a third one.