A Memory Speaks on the 40th Anniversary of Nabokov's death: Reading Lolita in Nicaragua
The original cover of Lolita, published in 1955, several years after Nabokov finished it. Unable to find a conventional publisher, it finally got published in Paris by the pornographic press, Olympia. All its books had this pea soup cover in a branding move that permitted the reader to take it anywhere while announcing to those in the know exactly what he was reading.
Lolita. Love of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue makes a trip of three steps down the palate to tap at three on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
I can remember where I was when I read it. I can’t remember where I was when other hugely important events happened. When man walked on the moon? I don’t know, probably in bed asleep. When the Berlin Wall fell? I don’t know, probably in a library. But I can tell you exactly where I was when I read those lines. Nicaragua. In a hammock under the shade of a mango tree. Late afternoon after the siesta. And the words caught my breath. I read them again. And a third time.
I must confess it wasn’t the first time I’d read the book. It had a reputation as a dirty novel that had struggled to find a publisher despite Nabokov’s reputation and his offer to write under a pseudonym. Finally, in 1955, it found a pornographer in Paris. Graham Greene thought it brilliant and the editor for the Sunday Express found it “sheer unrestrained pornography.” Which is the kind of publicity authors can only dream of. As a pubescent, I’d pulled it off my parents’ shelf and scanned it for the lurid bits: heaving bosoms and manly flesh. I was so deeply disappointed that I didn’t even bother to finish it. I doubt I was the only one.
In 1991, I was doing doctoral research in Nicaragua, a nation broken by civil war, profound poverty and oppression. It was not the happiest of places. Tourists stayed away in droves. The only foreigners were deeply committed NGO workers, nuns, and students. A blond American photographer, too old for his haircut, too preppy for the location, showed up, curious about us and reluctant to brag about his dashing exploits as a war photographer. We took him for a CIA informant.
When we couldn’t escape him, we tolerated him. He listened to our gripes and complaints, which we kept innocuous. One was the lack of decent reading material.
Let me explain. In the early 1990s, email only existed in the universities. Nothing was on-line. People still wrote letters. No, really. People carried paperbacks and traded them at opportune moments. You read what you could and were grateful.
While discussing novels, he broke into conversation to announce that his all-time favorite book was Lolita by the Anglo-Russian novelist, Vladimir Nabokov. I remember sneering. He fished in his pocket and produced a battered copy, its loose pages kept in place with a thick elastic band wrapped around its outside. He insisted that I read it. I offered to swap 100 Years of Solitude or whatever it was that I reading. It was his turn to sneer. “I need it back,” he told me. “I don’t go anywhere without it.”
Like Humbert Humbert, I fell in love with Lolita: the book, not the child. But then, she was a hard child to love. She was the kind of girl that parents despair of having: manipulative and vulgar, cutesy and dull. The fact that she was also sexually precocious, losing her virginity young while experimenting at summer camp with another youngster, did not endear her to me. I just knew that if we’d been at school together she would have picked on me for being a bookworm.
But that’s the genius of Nabokov. He showed us the rape and destruction of a child’s life through the eyes of a narcissistic narrator, who knew exactly what he was doing but didn’t care enough about her to stop, while nonetheless exclaiming at length of the profundity of his love. Nabokov ensured that the narrator is clever and well-educated, young, slim, well dressed and good looking, with an ironic, knowing voice. He’s the kind of man we’d all like to be.
All sorts of critics were quite fond of Humbert Humbert, his erudition and his eloquence. Dorothy Parker. Robertson Davies. Vanity Fair called it, “The only convincing love story of our century.” Nobody really liked Lolita, except Nabokov’s wife, who was baffled that none of the critics commented on how brave she’d been. That’s because Humbert Humbert seduces the reader with his rapturous, soaring love. The little girl, in comparison, is a pill. In case you missed the point: at the end of the book she forgives him, calling him a good father, while hitting him up for money and telling him that his competitor, another pedophile, was the great love of her life. “He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.”
Poor Humbert Humbert: to love someone so unworthy. We feel his pain; we don’t care so much about hers. It makes us complicit. And we find ourselves downplaying the abuse, or even ignoring it.
Now Lolita is used as a metaphor for oppression. Martin Amis argued that Nabokov meant it to refer to the Soviet Union and the Cold War. Azar Nafisi wrote Reading Lolita in Tehran and uses Humbert Humbert’s erasure of Lolita’s dignity, rights and feelings as a metaphor for living in post-revolutionary Iran. We also live in an age that analyses books by discussing the author’s inner motivation and, unsurprisingly, some critics have decided that to write so beautifully of pedophilia, Nabokov must have been that way inclined himself. I don't know. Maybe he did intend it as a complex metaphor for oppression. Maybe he was a repressed pedophile. I'm a simpler person. I think that Nabokov wrote a story about how a pedophile justifies pedophilia. And we end up agreeing with the justification.
I was still part way through Lolita when the creepy American showed up at my hostel. I read aloud the passage I happened to have been reading, which was exceptionally beautiful. He quoted the rest of the paragraph back to me. I flipped to another page and picked a paragraph at random. He recited the rest of it. Occasionally I could catch him out, but mostly he’d memorized the book. Although Nabokov’s writing is like poetry, to have memorized it was an extraordinary achievement. Not a comfortable achievement, but extraordinary nonetheless.
We talked about it, at length and in detail for hours over several days. I was hungry for a literary discussion and he was a mess of a man trying to understand himself through a book. We took that book apart, analysing what kind of man Humbert Humbert was and to what an extent Lolita asked for it. Because he had read it so often, the charm and wit of Humbert Humbert had worn off and his conniving was obvious – and the pain and bravery of Lolita, seen in snatches and acknowledged in asides, was more evident. It was one of the most intense and lengthy exegeses of any book that I've ever done.
Was the war photographer a pedophile? Most likely. But he was no narcissist. He understood exactly what Humbert Humbert had done to Lola. He may have loved her but it was a monstrous selfish love that ruined her against her will when she had no choices. He could quote the passages where even Humbert Humbert recognized that.
Years later, I was listening to BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day. For 15 minutes, some spiritual leader, generally a local vicar, has to announce to the nation what he (or she) considers to be of such worthy insight that we can ponder its intricacies for the rest of our day. I tend not to listen. But on that morning, a priest told a story of a young seminarian who had confessed that he was attracted to children. He insisted that he had never done anything about it and never would, and instead had turned his mind to God. Oh yeah, I muttered to myself, because priests have such a great track record in that area. On Thought for the Day, the priest grappled about what was the best course of action to take. In effect, he asked us listeners, what would you do if you had been in my shoes? The priest confirmed this young man for religious leadership. Me, I would have given the student a copy of Lolita and told him to memorize it.