He’s been on my mind recently. It’s a bit cheeky, I’m sure, to cite him as an influence, especially as a non-fiction work entitled Getting Real About Sex Addiction would seem to have slim relevance to the author of Lolita. Was Humbert Humbert a sex addict? Is that where I’m going with this? Or a sex offender? That’s a more likely assessment, actually; that is, if we’re going there.
A brief, crude biography: Nabokov had a life before writing Lolita, as a writer and revolutionary. He was part of the provisional government that formed after the October uprising of 1917, but quickly became disillusioned with Leninist politics, the later brutality of Stalin. Marginalized and penniless until long after he’d emigrated to America, and later fell out with fellow Soviet-bloc commentators like Edmund Wilson. Before that, he’d produced notable works like The Gift (1938), a novel in part about proto-revolutionist Nicolai Chernyshevsky, and was undoubtedly one of the most talented Russian writers of his generation, which—as many have observed of Soviet politics—will have helped cause his exile, not spared him from it. Though he fled to the US in the 40s, the publication of his shocking novel of an aged literature professor who seduces (or is seduced, depending on your viewpoint) a 12 year old girl was first published in Paris in 1955, and not in the US until 1967. That should say something about the chaste sensibilities of American publishing, juxtaposed as they were by a prurient readership that would make it one of the most influential novels of the twentieth century.
But despite its subject matter, Lolita is not primarily known as an erotic or salacious novel, but rather as a masterpiece of unreliable narration by a literary ironist known for clever wordplay, and wry understatement. The English novelist Martin Amis essayed that Nabokov wrote with a perspicacious eye for cruelty, and above all, that Lolita is a coded study of tyranny, likely an allegory about Leninist/Stalinist Russia. To be sure, if the reader is looking instead for lewd passages, the novel will surely disappoint. Instead, what Lolita offers is a first-person account of seduction and obsession, as told from the viewpoint of the tyrant. Less of a brute than an effete fantasist, Humbert Humbert is an amoral observer, narrating with a detached air, reporting truthfully of events in a general sense, but sparing the reader details, suggesting a distasteful reticence and pretense of civility. In the beginning, we learn the pedigree of the narrator’s hebophilic interest: a long-lost innocent love for a girl named Annabelle, who dies of typhoid at the age of thirteen. HH is candid about the link between Annabelle and Delores Haze (the girl he dubs Lolita), but adds little to sustain consciousness of this psychic link.
Instead, what proceeds is a despairing objectification of the pubescent Delores, who is variably termed the nymphet, the faunet, or just Lolita. Anything but who she actually is. Far from idealized, except in physical terms, HH actually exudes a disdain for the coquette’s gum-smacking, sassy adolescence, and at times acts as if embarrassed before the reader that he’d ever deign to partner such a callow figure as her. His reaction formations intensify as he attempts to play the role of father, following the death of Lolita’s mother. In conversation with a school headmistress, he is protectively heavyhanded, refusing to allow Lolita to participate in a school play, fearful of boys who may be less lascivious than him, actually. Still, what is most offensive about this narrative is not the self-pity of HH but rather the distance the reader feels from Lolita. At no time are we allowed to feel the original Delores. Even as the character finally escapes the clutches of her captor, our attentions and strained sympathy is cornered into the solipsistic mind of HH. As far as we know, we are with him as he writes from within the sanitoriums he mentions only in passing. As much as we may long to know the titular figure, he forces us to think with him, and only him.
And yet, as contemptible as his most famous protagonist is, Nabokov writes in a fashion that is enviably insightful and searching. Having endured the savagery and censoring presence of the communist nightmare, he shows all writers—fiction and even non-fiction scribes—how to write between the lines and tease with his secret knowledge; to avoid tendentious prose, high-hand didacticism, and yet cut into the reader’s heart with cryptic thoughts. There is no explicit direction in this novel: no “shoulds”; no appeals or morals—no “takeaway” as my patients sometimes ask for. As a reader, one is gripped by human inhumanity, eager to delve into the mind of HH and perhaps hopeful that he and his symbolic antecedents will get their just desserts. Meanwhile, our impression of Nabokov is that he also identifies with the othered and demeaned Lolita, for it seems to us that he will have known all too well a life in the dark, subservient to the macabre wishes of despots. One is left to marvel at how he managed to write so many pages, so many witty, insightful thoughts, and yet reveal so little of himself. That’s the talent of hiding. That’s the talent of a sublime fiction.