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one night early in grad school, a bunch of us aspiring writers gathered at a bar to blab about the books we loved and of course Lolita came up, because Lolita always comes up in such conversations. The other guys and I took a cold, analytical approach to the book. We wanted to say how much we adored it, how much we secretly identified with Humbert Humbert and his excessive, illegal passion for prepubescent Lolita. But we were also hoping to get laid (of course), and we figured such a confession might not put us in good stead with our female classmates.
    There was one in particular, a women I’ll call Rita, who, as it happened, had more than a hint of the nymphet in her. She wasn’t exactly "four-foot-ten in one sock." More like five-one in black stockings. But she was small and pale and occasionally dressed like a schoolgirl, and this made us all the more leery about directly endorsing Lolita. So we sat around parsing Nabokov’s intricate wordplay and sipping our beers until, toward the end of the night, emboldened by a shot of George Dickel, Rita stood up and addressed us in an imploring tone: "But you guys, don’t you get it — he loves her!"

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     And that, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the whole ball of wax when it comes to Lolita. He loves her. Without the blinding force of Humbert’s passion, the book — newly reissued for its fiftieth birthday — would never have endured its initial ignominy, nor become the most influential novel of the last century.
I feel vaguely qualified to speak about the book’s influence, because I spent so much of grad school either writing dreadful imitations of Lolita, or reading them as the fiction editor of our literary magazine. I have friends who still keep a copy of the book by their keyboards, as a kind of talisman they can rub when their own prose starts to flag.
    There is no need to belabor the plot of Lolita (man meets girl, man seduces girl, man loses girl — that about does it) nor the oft-cited symbolism (old, refined Europe seduced by young, vulgar America). What matters, in the end, is the heartsick love song of Monsieur Humbert. Here he is describing the boyhood tryst that presages his eventual coupling with Lolita:

She trembled and twitched as I kissed the corner of her parted lips and the hot lobe of her ear. A cluster of stars palely glowed above us, between the silhouettes of long thin leaves . . . She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face.

To be overrun by feeling, yet able to marshal words with such elegance and precision — this was Nabokov’s knack. That he did so on behalf of a quivering pervert makes the achievement that much more astonishing.
    

We root for Humbert because, when you come right down to it, most of our own wishes are illicit.

And there should be no doubt about it: Humbert is a perv. "The bud-stage of breast development appears early (10.7 years) in the sequence of somatic changes accompanying pubescence," he informs us, dutifully. "And the next maturational item available is the first appearance of pigmented pubic hair (11.2 years)." It should come as no surprise that Lolita was originally published by a French press. Nor that it was only published in the U.S. three years later, after being dubbed "the filthiest book I have ever read" by a critic in a British newspaper. Such is the American lust for scandal.
    And yet it is our awareness of Humbert’s pathology that makes his seduction so powerful. He knows he’s doing wrong. We know he’s doing wrong. He can’t stop himself. And we can’t stop ourselves from watching.
    Nor, if we are honest, do we look upon Humbert with pure disgust. In our covert hearts, we root for him, because he loves her, and because, when you come right down to it, most of our own wishes are illicit, or feel that way to us. Humbert’s crimes, in other words, may be of a greater scale than the ones we commit, but the same cauldron of deviance bubbles within us. (Note: this last sentence does not apply to registered Republicans, who manage to avoid immoral thoughts by hating gay people.)
    Lolita has enjoyed periodic resurgences, owing to two excellent film adaptations by Stanley Kubrick (1962) and Adrian Lyne (1997). But the novel itself remains the vital artifact, because only it can capture — with unflinching fidelity — the fevered consciousness of Humbert himself.
    "There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades," he tells us. "Every movement she made in the dappled sun plucked at the most secret and sensitive chord of my abject body."
    In moments such as these, Nabokov is nothing less than a poet of desire. He is not writing about sex, but about the tumultuous feelings that illuminate our clumsy acts of love. These are what sweep us along — despite the bleatings of our conscience. Big ideas, witty observations and tricky plotlines are all fine and well. But the engine of any great book is desire. And by that standard, Lolita is a Mack truck.
    It’s worth noting that the scenes of physical contact between Humbert and Lolita are fairly restrained in the particulars. They feel lurid mainly because our narrator is so fraught by his own yearning:

This is the true scandal of Lolita: not that a man should love a child, but that he should be so helpless.

Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice — every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty — between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

    This is the true scandal of Lolita. Not that a man should love a child, but that he should prove so helpless to stanch his desires. Deep emotion is the book’s central transgression and its saving grace.
    Never has this been more obvious than the current era, which has placed carnality in the service of capitalism by stripping from sex any vestige of authentic feeling. We see more and more these days — virtually any dirty image is at our fingertips — but feel less and less. Everywhere we look, glistening parts are pumping away in congress, yearning to excite our wildest consumer fantasies. Every day, it becomes harder and harder to make a clear distinction between pornography and advertising.
    But Lolita?
    It has nothing to sell but the truth of ourselves: our afflictions of want, our shame, elusive and horrible and blessed. 


To buy Lolita: The 50th Anniversary Edition,
click here

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steve Almond‘s new essay collection is (Not that You Asked). It is, like much of his work, filthy.

©2005 Steve Almond and Nerve.com.

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Once, Twice, Three Times Lolita

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS









Once, Twice, Three Times Lolita

by Philip Martin







The antics surrounding the August 2 release of the film version of Lolita are a refresher course in
American hypocrisy — either that, or in our peculiar, giggly squeamishness about sex.

As with the original novel,
the new film of Lolita had to sneak into the country through
back channels. This time it arrives via the servant’s entrance to make its American debut on cable television
months after having been released abroad. They love Lolita on the continent — it received rave
reviews in France and at its premier at a Spanish film festival last year — yet no U.S. distributor would pick
it up until Showtime, the cable movie channel, acquired the rights.

    

People who have never read Vladimir Nabokov’s 1953 book or seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 movie
know — or at least think they know — Lolita. Everyone has heard the vague outlines of the story;
Lolita is about a pedophile who falls in love with a twelve-year-old girl and marries her mother to
be in closer proximity to the object of his affection. When the mother dies, Humbert Humbert and his
Lolita light out for the territory across an American landscape littered with motor courts and roadside
attractions, pursued by Clare Quilty, the bizarre playwright who wants Lolita for his own.


    

What everyone doesn’t realize is that Nabokov’s book is a highly moral work — all of the guilty
are punished at the end, even Lolita herself, the ostensible “innocent.” Getting off on a copy of
Lolita requires hard work — there are no coarse words in the book and the sex scenes are explicit
only in the sense that Nabokov has perfect command of language and understands
the sensual possibilities of rubbing noun against verb.


    

Yet the popular misconception of Lolita has succeeded in erecting a scrim of mystery
about our girl, a spell of Garboesque intrigue. We wonder about Lolita, this Lolita. Has Adrian Lyne made
another sinewy stroke film like Nine and a Half Weeks? Is Jeremy Irons fittingly dissolute as
Humbert Humbert? And what of Dominique Swain, the chosen one, the latest Lolita? Sure, we saw her in
Face/Off, with John Travolta as her father, but she was so much older then; she’s younger than that
now.


    

Swain, who was only fourteen when she sent her audition tape to Lyne and fifteen when the movie

was shot, is a leggy, horsey little girl. She makes a proper nymphet with the “honey-hued shoulders” and
“silky supple bare back” the mythology requires. She hasn’t the chestnut hair, but never mind, she’s from
Malibu and her performance is acute and natural and certain to induce a certain tittering nervousness in all
heterosexual males who look upon her. She is a child, but a child with erotic potential, someone for whom
we must watch out.


    

Irons — who was born to play Humbert Humbert — is vitally contemptible, a shockingly well-
oiled dandy of a pedophile. Frank Langella, while no Peter Sellers, is adequately creepy as Quilty. Melanie
Griffith is so perfectly cast as the silly cow Charlotte Haze, Lolita’s mother, one wonders if she wasn’t the
victim of a cruel joke. And America is almost as stunningly vast and heartbreakingly forthright as she appears in the
book.


    

Of course, any film of Lolita is bound to disappoint the few who insist on the primacy of
Vladimir Nabokov’s novel. But it should be said that Lyne’s movie is only mildly disappointing. It has a
kind of aching sweetness of its own and does not betray the fundamental thrust of the book. It is a fine
movie, a Vanity Fair kind of movie, well-photographed in a sleek conventional way but,
ultimately, not particularly sexy. And, curiously, it is precisely the sexuality that we think is there, but
isn’t, that conceals what the fuss is really about.


    

In the age of JonBenet Ramsey and the 1996 Child Pornography Prevention Act, any movie about
a middle-aged man’s erotic obsession with a twelve-year-old girl is bound to set knees to jerking. Yet Lolita
has long been a dominant trope of the advertising industry. America may have a certain puritanical streak
but she is no prude. Look in any magazine that’s not devoted to hunting or fishing or golf and you will see
her, pouting off of every other page, with her hollow eyes and her damaged frown. Lolita — light of my life,

fire of my loins — Ivory clean and Revlon rouged. This pouting vixen, this firm yet yielding archetype, this
sexy virgin at once available for inspection and independent of her audience: this is Lolita.


    

Or at least this is the Lolita of Calvin Klein. Kate Moss with her arms folded over her chest, her
eyes voided and hungry, obscuring the tank top she is allegedly selling, or the short-lived ads featuring
pubescent children responding to a man’ directions: “Take off your clothes. Turn around. Can you slip that
down?” — these are not what Nabokov had in mind. His Lolita was a little girl, a twelve-year-old. Her
“nymphet” status was conferred by the fetid imagination of the sick Humbert Humbert. That doesn’t matter
to Madison Avenue. Are we actually to believe that Lolita was suppressed because Hollywood
decided the glamorization of pedophilia was so potentially destructive to the social order that not even a
faithful adaptation of one of the finest modernist novels of this century should be allowed in the cineplexes?
More likely they just didn’t think it would go gangbusters at the box office.




When Kubrick adapted the book in 1962, the posters screamed, “How could they make a film of
Lolita?” The truth was, they couldn’t — not really. No commercial film could sustain the velvet-
sanded subtlety of Nabokov’s Lolita. At best they could make a movie that borrowed some of the
novel’s notoriety and grace.


    

Despite fine performances by James Mason as the hedonistic Humbert Humbert, Sellers as the
shadowy, surreal Quilty and Shelley Winters as the hysterical Haze, Kubrick’s film was a severely
compromised affair.


    

To begin with, Kubrick shot his film in Europe, which robbed it of the American breadth essential
to the book. (Lolita is perhaps more of a road book than it is a twisted romance — more akin to
Huckleberry Finn than Story of O.)


    

Even more importantly, the crucial relationship is practically disarmed. In Kubrick’s movie,
Humbert and Lolita (played as a fourteen-year-old, not a twelve-year-old, by the then-eighteen-year-old Sue
Lyon) never even kiss. Mason’s cultured Humbert seems more an art lover than a predatory pervert and
Lyon’s Lolita is a more adult object than Nabokov had in mind (though the author himself did not object to
the casting; he himself insisted that an older actress play the girl: “Let them get a dwarfess”). A certain
sophisticated slatternliness emanates from her curly pedal pusher poses; as she rolls the lollipop in her
mouth she is more predator than game. What red-blooded man could be expected to resist the lures of this

Lolita? Sue Lyon is something, for sure, but that something is quite a remove from the twelve-year-old
Dolores Haze Nabokov crafted from black marks on paper.


    

Nabakov’s Lolita was ravaged by a deluded, rationalizing monster who stole her childhood. And
though Humbert labeled her a “nymphet” and protests that she seduced him, he is not exactly a reliable
narrator. Nabokov opens the novel with a “foreword” by a psychologist he calls John Ray that introduces
the text as the work of a “demented diarist,” saying that he has “no intention to glorify ‘H.H.’ No doubt he
is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy . . . He is abnormal. He is not a
gentleman.”


    

One might conclude that Ray reflects Nabokov’s views on Humbert Humbert. At least that was the
novelist’s story. Kubrick’s story was different — he used only scraps of the screenplay Nabokov himself had
written. Nabakov nonetheless went on record saying that he liked the film, despite its departures from the
novel, saying that “infinite fidelity may be an author’s ideal but a producer’s ruin.”


    

Perhaps Lyne and his screenwriter Steven Schiff were less afraid of this ruin than Kubrick. Not
only have they successfully avoided remaking Kubrick’s film, but they have made, perhaps surprisingly,
what might be a better, more durable movie. At the very least, they’ve made a film that more accurately
reflects Nabokov’s intentions (all the more interesting considering Lyne’s track record of making beautiful
but essentially empty movies).


    

Then again, opinions differ. Entertainment Weekly called the film “borderline
pervy,” and made fun of Irons’ penchant for playing “dirty old men.” In fact, Lyne’s Lolita only
kept its R rating and avoided possible problems with the new federal child pornography statute by excising
a couple of sex scenes with Irons and an adult body double for the fifteen-year-old Swain. Apparently a body
double is used in the film’s only remaining female nude scene.


    

Yet the fact remains that having seen Lyne’s Lolita, one wonders if one reason it took the
film so long to find an American outlet is that there might not be enough sex in the film. Perhaps

the studios were being honest when they claimed they weren’t worried about the sexuality of Lyne’s
Lolita but were instead concerned that the film didn’t have blockbuster appeal. They figured that
once we rubes figured out it wasn’t a skin flick, we’d stay home en masse. Nor does it exhibit the other
trappings of Hollywood cinema: there is a murder, but it comes at the end, almost as an afterthought; the
car chase is carried out over the course of weeks and there are no explosions. How odd that a scandalous new
film-version of Lolita risks seeming dull — as dull perhaps as Dolly Haze might have appeared to
any other but Humbert Humbert.


    

From a marketer’s point of view, the chief flaw of Lyne’s Lolita might be that it fails to
misrepresent Nabokov’s Lolita to the degree that might have made it a commercial success. Lyne
and Schiff opt not to play up to the vulgar and common misconception of Lolita that all the hubub
has only propogated. Nor, however, are they ultimately faithful to the book, leaving out the layers of irony
and judgement in which lurk Nabokov’s real authorial voice and intention. Instead the film sees Lolita as if
through the eye of Humbert himself, as the noble lover, glorifying and aggrandizing what might otherwise
be horrible, or simply banal.


    

But in a way this is how it must be. Nabakov’s Lolita encourages its misreading, giving
the reader few options beyond outrage or complicity. That was Nabakov’s game, and accounts for much of
Lolita’s greatness.


    

Perhaps then there is something in the superstitions; the camera has stolen Lolita‘s soul.
Lolita has been transformed by whispers and innuendo. She has been abridged and glammed up and
mass-marketed by the people who sell us things. This is the pop Lolita, racy yet respectable, hip
and smart and able to smile and wink at the blushing mob who crowd her peep show cage.






©1998
Philip Martin
and Nerve.com