Lolita at 50
Is Nabokov's masterpiece still shocking?
To inhabit a pedophile—and not just a pedophile, but a European pedophile, on an American soil Nabokov had himself grown to love!—was to torture in extremis his faith in the sanctity of the exquisite inner life. We are clearly meant to regard Humbert as a moral abomination, and even Humbert eventually concedes (it is one of the book's most beautiful and unforgettable passages) that in exploiting Lolita he has gratuitously destroyed another human being. And yet, how close to absolute Nabokov makes Humbert's claim to his own thoughts and feelings! There are two competing accounts in Lolita for why Humbert is a pervert. The first is a bit of personal mythopoeics put forward by Humbert himself, who believes his (entirely natural) love for a young girl named Annabel when he was a young boy, and its brutally abrupt interruption, explains the origin of his adult nympholepsy. Later, Humbert tells us of having once bribed a nurse to show him his psychiatric files, in which he discovered he has been labeled "homosexual." The first explanation is poetic, beautiful, intensely rendered, utterly self-serving, and probably untrue. The second explanation is clinical, dispassionate, probably true, but so neglectful of the intensity of Humbert's own consciousness as to be repulsive to Nabokov.
Nabokov overcame the worst affliction of all, from a writer's point of view: a happy childhood. He was an eldest child who chose to pretend he was an only child. Testimony from acquaintances relates how loath he was even to casually discuss siblings, and one can read dozens of pages of Speak, Memory without ever sensing he had to share his parents' affections. ("There was a sunny quality about the way he talked of his own family," one of his Wellesley students has recalled, "One had the feeling of the much-loved little princeling. Clean linen and hot milk and never a scolding.") That utter primacy, of the little princeling basking in the eyes of his justly revering parents, seems never to have left Nabokov, but as a genius, he understood it both as his burden, and as his unique portal to aesthetic discovery.
Lolita is most commonly remembered as one man's living poem to his own daemonic perversity, and as such, is overpraised by its adherents for its technical virtuosity and hilarity, and misconstrued by its detractors as little more than a frost-encrusted monument to Nabokov's own monumental arrogance. Its real genius is too easily missed. It lies in what Nabokov called the "nerves of the novel," the "secret points, the subliminal coordinates by means of which the book is plotted." In these, Nabokov has hinted at the life that exceeds the perimeter of Humbert's encompassing obsession—at the inner lives of those others whom he so casually dismisses or destroys. It cost Nabokov, by his own admission, "a month of work" to write one sentence in which Humbert gets his hair cut by a barber who has never stopped mourning his dead son—a fact that scarcely dents Humbert's exquisite consciousness. And one last detail, hidden by Nabokov in the book's sham preface: Mrs. Richard F. Schiller, previously Miss Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, died on Christmas day 1952, giving birth to a stillborn baby girl.*
Correction, Dec. 19, 2005: This article originally and incorrectly stated that Vladimir Nabokov gave his character Dolores Haze, aka Lolita, an IQ of 150. In fact, her IQ was 121. The sentence in question has been removed. The article also may have given the impression that Lolita was 14 years old at the beginning, or for the duration, of the book. In fact, she is 12 at the beginning and 14 when Humbert Humbert settles them in Beardsley. Click here to return to the first corrected sentence.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.