‘Look at this tangle of thorns’: Lying with Lolita

Erik Eklund’s thought-provoking, engaging reflection on Nabokov’s controversial novel explains how Lolita reveals the “monstrosity of the self-conscious novel”, for the final article in our series on banned books. 

Immediately banned for pornography in France and the United Kingdom — but never, by some gross miracle or chance negligence, in America — Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is about much more than the evils of paedophilia. Rather, Lolita’s self-conscious aspect, its awareness that it is a literary creation, grants the reader a safe distance from the apparent peril of the narrator’s paedophilia to consider the role of the imagination in love and art, and the ways that language can be used to reduce individual lives to mental phantasms in service of the impotent orgasm of solipsistic thought. Thus, despite the (unfounded) charges of pornography which it was made to suffer upon its publication in 1955, Lolita has endured precisely by virtue of its intimate concern with the ethics of reading, the imagination, aesthetics and confession, which it counterbalances against a devilish passion for the poetry of an English tongue. As I have argued elsewhere, Lolita constitutes an exploration, perhaps even an excavation, of the ways that art provides an imaginative space to pare away at what has become parasitically lodged onto the self, and how art, like the ‘yellowish-violet bruise’ that Humbert observes on Dolores Haze’s ‘lovely nymphet thigh’ (60), is both a trace of trauma and a sign for the continuous struggle for healing.[i] The beauty of art is always strange; its being always somewhat perverse.

          Lolita is presented as the posthumously published confession of a paedophile in his late thirties writing under the ridiculously repetitious pseudonym, Humbert Humbert. Written during his brief stint in solitary confinement while awaiting trial, Humbert focuses his confession on three things: the horrendous evils he inflicted upon a young girl from the ages of twelve to fourteen, to whom he has given the pseudonym, Dolores Haze, with its corresponding diminutive, Lolita; his murder, not of Dolores, but of another man concealed behind another mask, Clare Quilty, who captured Dolores (now fifteen) to satisfy his own paedophilia; and Humbert’s eventual repentance from having solipsised Dolores within the prison bars of his monstrous imagination. At this most cursory level, Lolita is intimately concerned with the morality of style and the imagination, and with the extent to which a confession and apologia can be a self-conscious performance. What kind of criminal addresses judge and jury in this way: ‘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.’ (9)? These concerns are compounded, of course, by the moral scandal of the book’s initial publication by the pornographic French publisher Olympia Press. Indeed, the controversial origins of Lolita’s first edition continue to beg the question not only of whether the novel is pornography and thus rightly banned in Argentina, Australia, France, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom, but whether it is morally problematic to affirm the apparent beauty of the novel, if the act of reading Lolita is already morally dubious.

This problem is felt perhaps nowhere more pointedly than in the question of Humbert’s purported repentance. This is reasonable, of course, but the novel precludes careful readers from retreating into the safe haven of a solemn moralism. In fact, the novel plants several furtive clues which gesture to the possibility that what offends in the novel never happened in the novel, that the fiction within the fiction is a fiction, and therefore that what has really upset us is not a series of events occurring within the space-time of an invented world, but the cooperation between our minds and the squashed black arachnids that make up the text. Indeed, focusing too narrowly upon Humbert Humbert’s paedophilia only occludes the novel’s more fundamental concern with a much more slippery moral problem: the innate perversity of literary art, its writing and its being read.

Many who challenge Humbert’s purported repentance do so upon the basis of a dating problem in the novel, according to which everything occurring after chapter 26 (most notably, Humbert’s final reunion with Dolores and his murder of Clare Quilty) is a lie on Humbert’s part to appear as having changed for the better, thought up during his time in solitary confinement as he awaits sentencing. For many readers, Humbert’s tale, his final reunion with Dolores, and his self-proclaimed repentance, in particular, are too self-conscious, too patently literary, to be sufficient evidence of repentance: ‘What I used to pamper among the tangled vines of my heart, mon grand péché radieux, had dwindled to its essence: sterile and selfish vice, all that I canceled and cursed’ (278), Humbert writes.[ii] Indeed, Humbert cleverly situates his tale within a complex web of intertexts, such as when he says that he ‘had been keeping Clare Quilty’s face masked in my dark dungeon’ (290), which, in the light of Humbert’s cryptic question, ‘Is “mask” the keyword?’ (53), suggests to many readers that Lolita presents a stranger case of The Double: Quilty does not exist, but is Humbert’s dubious creation, a textual double of his evil, an incarnate monster of dubious prose he kills in a righteous rage as dubious evidence of his repentance.

To this may be added the probable hoax of Humbert’s death. Rather than an impish aping of justice, Humbert Humbert may be read as staging his death in order to don the new identity of the other repetitive absurdity of John Ray., Jr. (initials J.R.Jr.), the novel’s fictitious introducer. According to John Ray, Humbert died a few days before his trial was scheduled to begin. Cause of death: coronary thrombosis — the thoroughly cliché death of every great romantic — the broken heart. This possibility, which can be neither definitively proven nor disproven, opens up a chute in the game of interpretation: we cannot be sure whether we should trust the interpretative posture commended to us by John Ray, Jr. in his foreword to Humbert’s confession because J.R.Jr. might very well be H.H.:

In this poignant personal study there lurks a general lesson; the wayward child, the egotistic mother, the panting maniac — these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends; they point out potent evils. ‘Lolita’ should make all of us — parents, social workers, educators — apply ourselves with still greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world. (5–6)

This hilarious joke complicates the common misconception that Lolita is a pornographic or erotic novel. For Humbert is now our inadvertent Vergil through the uneasy tides of the sexual revolution and his confession is a lesson in how to slow our slouch towards Gomorrah. The paedophile has usurped the psychoanalyst. Yet to say that Humbert is an unreliable narrator is, in fact, too weak. Indeed, if he is an unreliable narrator, then he is the apotheosis of the genre. His deceit taints everything so intimately that we must question the apparent ‘reality’ of every bit of the novel.

Whether deployed in good or bad faith, Humbert’s serial pseudonymity makes him much more than a mere unreliable narrator after Henry James. It is not simply that we do not know when to trust him — his is the only voice to be heard, his control, absolute. This should tempt to dismiss Humbert even more resolutely as an unreliable narrator whom we should not trust; and if this is truly the case, we must also concede the possibility that absolutely everything he says is a lie. This would be a viable line of interpretation were it not for the fact that it introduces a false bottom. To paraphrase Michael Wood, we have only Humbert’s word for any of this, of course, but we have only Humbert’s word for everything in the novel.[iii] Can we trust the basic fictional data? We must rather reconsider whether Humbert Humbert — who, again, is a mask adopted by the narrator to protect his identity — is even a paedophile; whether the narrator behind the mask has ever known a young girl named Dolores Haze, let alone whether such a girl ever existed in ‘reality’ — whatever that means. Perhaps the novel is one great lie, we wonder as we uncomfortably stumble over the final revelation of art: lying is its proper aim.[iv] To embark, then, upon Lolita’s moral problem in view of its self-conscious or metaliterary aspect — its awareness of being a verbal creation — risks our losing grip of all interpretative stability, to encounter a monstrous conglomeration of form affording a variety of contradictory readings, according to which Humbert may be both Clare Quilty and John Ray, Jr.; or only Clare Quilty; or that each of the novel’s primary characters are distinct individuals within its interpretative world; or — and this is the frightening part — that we can trust only the dust jacket: a man with a surname almost nobody gets right is the author of Lolita. Perhaps the narrator behind Humbert is not a paedophile at all, but has merely been sitting at his desk, fabricating, crafting, lying to us all, hinting at various points that Lolita is less body than thought, no girl but a self-conscious work of art. Thus, the image of Humbert the paedophile, the one we thought we knew, recedes with Dolores into obscurity, and as we set our sight entirely there, behind the plaster and the paint of the mask bearing Humbert’s name, we seem to see, painted in those same hues, Nabokov at his desk.

Many readers feel that it would be a monstrous miscarriage of justice should Humbert get off easy, and therefore it is only just and by no means monstrous that the carceral system should ensure that he never gets off the chair. Now, I’m playing with puns to illustrate a point, and that is that Humbert is a gleaming example of the monster’s fundamental unintelligibility. He is the monster of Midas, tainting all he touches, and he has touched not only Dolores, but the entire interpretative world of the novel. From this perspective, Humbert’s repentance, if we choose to affirm it, does nothing to lessen his monstrousness. In fact, Humbert only becomes more of a monster in his repentance, because he is re-forming the deformed, reshaping his fundamental unintelligibility. And insofar as ‘there is a green lane in Paradise where Humbert Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year’, as Nabokov affirms elsewhere, he runs the risk of deification, of becoming the very irony of evolution, the freak with opposable thumbs in a world of paws — the saint, the reformed criminal, whose existence neither society nor the prison can acknowledge and which his therefore most properly monstrous.[v]

Illuminative in this regard is a comment made by Humbert earlier in his confession, as he muses, ‘Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!’ (32), he is saying much more than that, being imprisoned in solitary confinement, words are all that he has at his disposal. That is only one aspect of the doubled voice, since Humbert’s lament for having ‘only words to play with’ is also Nabokov’s glorying in the magic of words. Indeed, there is a sense that the novel is less about the unspeakable evils wrought by Humbert upon a young girl than Nabokov’s love affair with the English language. ‘Sex is but the ancilla’ — the handmaiden — ‘of art’ (259), so Lolita tells us. From this perspective, ‘Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!’ constitutes a clever wink in the reader’s direction, whereby Humbert in his jail cell and Nabokov at his desk, both ever the Prosperos, say to us: these are mere words, dark hieroglyphs which have engendered this, your nightmare — what a clever lie it all is, is it not? ‘If you be pleased, retire into my cell / And there repose.’[vi] Thus, what offends is not a series of events that has taken place in the world, except insofar as we have played a part in imagining them by sharing the monster’s gaze. Indeed, the offence lies in the cooperation of our minds with the deformed arachnids that decorate the page. We, too, are guilty, yet we cannot know of what precisely, except that the iconoclasm of the book banner protects no sacred deity, but desires only that they remain unknown, their face remain hidden, that there be no mirror which might question the morality of their gaze. To quote Oscar Wilde: ‘The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.’[vii]

Lolita gestures to the monstrosity of the self-conscious novel, the novel which knows that it is a lie, tells us that it is a lie, and keeps on lying.

Lolita’s self-conscious aspect does not do away with the moral problem of Humbert’s predilection for a prepubescent girl, of course, but rather expands and universalises it. Indeed, the novel pits other competing modes or postures of the imagination against each other — as the vehicle through which we might work to order the chaos of our world and as the source of the greatest self-delusion — in an ultimately self-reflexive gesture. From this perspective, Lolita navigates the uncomfortable analogy between Humbert’s reduction of Dolores Haze to a work of art (beautiful, silent and essentially dead), Nabokov’s love for dissecting and pairing away at the translucent tissue of his beloved nymphs, and the reader’s act of delicately parting the novel’s twin wings while the hand, in an uncomfortably erotic gesture, gently cusps the spine to taste each delectable syllable: ‘the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.’ (9).

In this and other ways, Lolita gestures to the monstrosity of the self-conscious novel, the novel which knows that it is a lie, tells us that it is a lie, and keeps on lying, while we become angry with it and call it a monster because it has bested us. And in our offence, we refuse the truth of the lie. We have not conceded the monster his space — one does not simply walk into Prospero’s cave. Undermining from the outset any attempt to determine not only whether he has truly repented but whether he has anything to repent of in the first place, the real Humbert Humbert, whoever he is, recedes indefinitely through a series of serial selves. We have no access to the evasive identity behind the pseudonyms. As in a mise-en-abîme, his pseudonyms open out into an abyss of signification — his trace: a hoard of discarded masks exposing the fundamental truth of the self-conscious novel. This is all a beautiful lie. We have been bested by a horde of little black beasties.

[i] Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. (London: Penguin, 1991). All quotations from The Annotated Lolita will be provided in the main text. See Erik Eklund, ‘“A green lane in Paradise”: Eschatology and Theurgy in Lolita’, Nabokov Studies 17 (2020–21): 35–60, 49.

[ii] Representative of this view is Gerard de Vries, ‘“Perplex’d in the Extreme”: Moral Facets of Vladimir Nabokov’s Work’, Nabokov Studies 2 (1995): 135–152. On the other hand, Brian Boyd, ‘“Even Homais Nods”: Nabokov’s Fallibility, or, How to Revise Lolita’, Nabokov Studies 2 (1995): 62–86, dismisses the dating problem as an error of Nabokov’s hand. For a clever and persuasive synthesis of the dating problem, see Deborah A. Martinsen, ‘Lolita as Petersburg Text’, Nabokov Studies 13 (2014): 95–123.

[iii] Michael Wood, The Magician’s Doubts: Nabokov and the Risks of Fiction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 178.

[iv] Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, in Plays, Prose Writings and Poems, 69–99 (New York: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 99.

[v] Vladimir Nabokov, Despair (New York: Vintage International, 1989), xiii.

[vi] William Shakespeare, The Tempest, ed. Stephen Orgel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 4.1.161–62.

[vii] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Plays, Prose Writings, and Poems, 127–320, 316.

Author

  • Erik is a doctoral student at the University of Nottingham researching the theological import of Vladimir Nabokov’s metaphysical aesthetics under the supervision of Alison Milbank and Siggy Frank. His research interests broadly centre around theological aesthetics, especially as concerns the imagination's role in metaphysical and eschatological thought. He is also very interested in creative literature as embodying its own form of metaphysical and theological discourse, as well as the revelatory function of the grotesque and other estranging techniques as they relate to theological aesthetics more generally.

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