The Perilous Magic of Vladimir Nabokov

Grace Clover & James Soderholm

JS:  I am often struck by how certain works of fiction create happily-manipulated readers. We live in a time when all forms of manipulation seem to be regarded as nefarious, if not evil, and yet there may be a benevolent form of manipulation where the literary text beguiles us into complicity and we are no worse off for the coercion. In Nabokov's

Lolita, for example, many readers end up laughing not so much at Humbert Humbert as with him. How does the author accomplish that feat? We should be morally outraged but we end up aesthetically charmed. It is a kind of magic, I think, or perhaps alchemy. Nabokov transmutes leaden, moralistic responses into golden, beautiful appreciations. That alchemy begins in the famous first paragraph:

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. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

It is indeed a tangle of thorns. In it, Nabokov/Humbert tells us that his main goal is "to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets.” Shall we examine this thorny magic?

GC: I find when reading Lolita it’s not that we are aesthetically charmed by Humbert’s poetic wanderings in lieu of being morally outraged, but that Nabokov strives, and succeeds, in charming us and violating our morals simultaneously. The same glorified prose style that leads us to unwittingly fall into a literary stupor, relishing the sunlit imagery, are the same words that rightly make our toes curl with discomfort. Yet knowing this coercion, we continue to read. This is the alchemy as you put it. Perhaps this acceptance is due to our knowledge of our manipulation, benevolent or otherwise?

The fictional pre-face writer John Ray Jr Ph.D. states that “[a] desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”

I feel that this is exactly the point; the vulnerability one feels when reading the book is mirrored in Humbert’s intense honesty. As Humbert opens his mind to us, in an extravagant self-dissection, we abhor him. The mention of ‘that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue” from the first introducing us to the sense of repugnance that we must adjust to. It is also notable that in modern society, one easily feels our very thoughts are being surveilled, so I find his open lust for ‘nymphets’ gives me a sense of personal exposure, shocking me into silence. Whether I desire to or not, I feel we share a secret with Humbert in which he is the guilty party and us the onlookers, closing the gap between reader and speaker. So finally, we accept his rich verbal textures and savage humour, despite our nagging moral compass.

I do wonder whether the secret to our enjoyment lies purely in the obvious delight of a non-native English speaker making music with his words.  

JS: Nabokov claimed he was ‘bilingual as a baby.’ Russian and French were his mother tongues, with Latin both a stern yet ‘romantic’ father tongue, to which the migrating genius added a saucy and suggestive ‘nymphet tongue’, the code word for which is ‘Lolita’. So I think you’re right to suggest that the love affair is less about a naughty and frankly filthy teenage girl than it is about a love affair with a nubile and vulgar language called ‘American English.’ The actual girl perfectly embodies that blend of the erotic and the coarse that is both cause and effect of the charming violation we are presently discussing. Nabokov, as you suggest, loves having it both ways, almost to test the reader’s good will towards the ominously-playful novelist and his handsomely-diabolical Humbert. Can the author have HH do anything to make the needle on our moral compass spin crazily out of control? 

After a brief ceremony at the mairie, I took her to the new apartment I had rented and, somewhat to her surprise, had her wear, before I touched her, a girl’s plain nightshirt that I had managed to filch from the linen closet of an orphanage. I derived some fun from that nuptial night and had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise. But reality soon asserted itself. The bleached curl revealed its melanic root; the down turned to prickles on a shaved shin; the mobile moist mouth, no matter how I stuffed it with love, disclosed ignominiously its resemblance to the corresponding part in a treasured portrait of her toadlike dead mama; and presently, instead of a pale little gutter girl, Humbert Humbert had on his hands a large, puffy, short-legged, big-breasted and practically brainless baba.

Let me get this straight, Humbert—you stole a nighty from an orphanage to nymphetise your already young, new wife (Valerie). Yes, he did. And Nabokov’s prose—and Humbert’s confession—just trots along like a happy, Hollywood pony, as if nothing morally disgusting has not just been revealed. The humour is savage and the paedophile’s ingenuity is relentless. And those ‘p’ and ‘b’ plosives in the final phrase are coming from someone who enjoys the simple—childish or childlike?—pleasures of alliteration. It almost does not matter that he is demeaning his wife. Or does it not matter at all? Is there anything that Nabokov/Humbert can conjure that simply revolts us? And who can decide when a ‘guilty pleasure’ is actually a pure pleasure?  

GC: I’m certain that ‘Lolita’ is a novel which incites very different feelings among individual readers, so I’d argue the question that you so concisely expressed (‘Is there anything that Nabokov/Humbert can conjure that simply revolts us?’) can be more easily answered with an in-depth character evaluation of the reader, than an analysis of Nabokov. Indeed, in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Miscellaneous Aphorisms,’ he says that “It's the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors’. This is a statement that I feel truly applies to ‘Lolita’, as everyone reading it has very personal beliefs about how much they should ‘be allowed’ to enjoy it. We do also know that the novel was originally sold only in France by Olympia Press, which had cornered a lucrative niche by publishing books that ran into censorship trouble elsewhere, books entitled things such as "Until She Screams" and "There's a Whip in My Valise." Perhaps this suggests something about the people who originally read ‘Lolita’, and whether they read it initially for a sexually literary thrill. Its sales also grew exponentially when it was reviewed as ‘pornography’ by The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1958. Is this telling in any way?

However I do think you are a little rash to suggest that maybe Nabokov never truly succeeds to ‘simply revolt’ us. There are those who manage to overlook the nature of their relationship when they forget her age, seeing instead Humbert caring for his ‘little ward’ but I believe that anyone who can easily overlook phrases such as ‘her narrow white buttocks’ and ‘little breast buds’, to name a few examples, has become too entranced by Nabokov and forgotten the book’s name-sake; or, alternatively, the reader has become immune to the emotionless and disgusting descriptions such as this.

Nevertheless, I’d like to discuss something of greater importance. That is, the masterful way Nabokov evokes emotion throughout the novel. One of the greatest tragedies I find when people read ‘Lolita’ is that the get consumed in it as a sexual novel, and overlook it as a heartrending story of loss. How does Nabokov suddenly manage to portray HH as so very human? As Lionel Trilling wrote, "Humbert is perfectly willing to say he is a monster; we find ourselves less and less eager to agree with him." This is part of Humbert's ingenuity: he wants us to sympathize with him, and I believe he does win us over. In the novel’s great last scene, Humbert stands on the mountaintop listening to the sound of children’s games below. In this he comes to the conclusion that "the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita's absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord." His great crime, he now understands, is not so much debauching Lolita as depriving her of her childhood, her place in that laughing concord.

I find this incredibly moving. Do we believe then that HH does have a functioning moral compass? Does he develop one as Lolita drifts away from him? Or is he truly the ‘monster’, ‘the artist and madman’ that we initially believe?

JS: I think that to complete his high-wire act of “I dare you not to find Humbert Humbert at once revolting and charming,” Nabokov must include the sentence you quote, which gives us the penitent and wistful HH, infinitely forgivable because he knows what a moral leper he has been. That self-awareness puts HH leagues beyond the non-fictional panting paedophile that does not stop to listen to the children’s games because he is too busy planning an abduction. Does self-awareness make any act tolerable, especially if it is buffed to high gloss with what looks like an honest confession of one’s depravity? Or is HH’s ‘poignant thing’ also a Nabokovian literary performance daring the reader to sentimentalize HH just when we should be damning him to hell? This novelist loves to play games with readers and possibly the most diabolical game is teasing us into forgiving poor Humbert because the old wretch is being so hard on himself and it would be churlish not to forgive him.  

I hasten to add that HH is just ink on paper and never has nor ever will exist except as a figment—and pigment—of Nabokov’s imagination, temporarily given life whenever a reader picks up Lolita. So why should anyone get upset about nighties, bereft orphans, breast-buds, etc. They are merely words and, as HH says, he has ‘only words to play with”—just like the novelist. What’s the point of reading novels as if the characters actually existed? That’s why it’s called fiction, no?

Flaubert said that “life is essentially shabby.” But Art is pure Style, or can be, no matter how tawdry, seedy, and disgusting its content. Does the content really matter at all? To whom? Why? And if you’re right about Art reflecting not life but the spectator, then Art has nothing to answer for. And let’s add this to the mix:

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” writes Wilde, “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

And who would argue that Lolita is not well written, if not exquisitely written?

GC: Although undeniably HH and Lolita are just fabrications of literature, who scarcely succeed to live beyond the short three hundred pages they are given, let alone ‘the immortality’ HH attempts to provide them, they appear to exist to Nabokov as much more than just figments of his imagination. ‘Pigment’ is a more appropriate word for what is at play here I believe. Nabokov speaks very tenderly about Lolita, implying as many writers do that they know their characters inside out; moreover, that the characters exist vicariously, but in the author’s imagination.

As we see in the following passage, Nabokov views Lolita as very real indeed.

No, I shall never regret Lolita. She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle—its composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other, depending on the way you look. Of course she completely eclipsed my other works—at least those I wrote in English: The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, Bend Sinister, my short stories, my book of recollections; but I cannot grudge her this. There is a queer, tender charm about that mythical nymphet. 

This statement that Nabokov gives to Playboy in 1964 truly exhibits the way he created Lolita, that perhaps she materialized to Nabokov as an already in depth and flawed character with independent wishes of her own, prepared to flirt and charm, that he purely had to unveil rather than create. However, in terms of how she exists to us as a reader, what is the point of fiction at all if not to entertain the characters as if real people, their lives our lives, their thoughts our musings? Surely that is the reason any of us read in the first place. Why wouldn’t you completely invest in the world of the novel. I find when I read in that way, I enjoy the luxury of being able to escape the imaginary world much more when I’m finished. 

I do relish the way Nabokov gives yield to some literary wit, both with us and with himself, outwardly delighting in the intellectual games he constructs. We see this literary wit most clearly when HH appears to forget his bereavement and indulge in the hide and seek of ’his brother’ pedophile. Rarely do we see him so pleased as when he’s appreciating ‘the trite poke of “A. Person, Porlock, England.”’ and other such insulting pseudonymous clues. So, I think you could be right that Nabokov is purely teasing us, daring us to forgive HH. Wouldn’t it be rude entirely to deny Nabokov this ludic satisfaction? He’s inviting us to play a game with him, and as you say, it’d be churlish to refuse. In any case, Nabokov knows HH well enough to give us an accurate perception of his remorse. 

And finally, I doubt anyone could testify to Lolita being anything other than exquisitely written. If it doesn’t actively attempt to indoctrinate, surely we must accept that it is neither moral nor immoral? Just a piece of Art to be held accountable for nothing? And yet I struggle to remain unbothered by it. Nevertheless, such a beautiful synesthetic exploration of light and dark is rarely seen, and never fails to astound.  

JS: I think Nabokov has us both happily dangling in his web of realism and fancy. ‘Lolita’ is both a plausibly pubescent and ‘real’ teenage girl with absolutely no morals and she is ‘the composition of puzzle.’ Like HH, Lolita is a ‘mythic nymphet’ and a creature that Nabokov is at pains to make real to us.

Speaking of pigments, I am reminded of the very end of the novel—an address to Lolita.

Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my spectre shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C.Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.

We two are also using those durable pigments, now pixels, to create our own bit of qualified immortality in the form of a dialogue. One begins to see life, especially a literary life, as a series of fabrications. It seems ‘real’ as it transpires and yet it is made of unreal words, not even inking a page but staining the silence of cyberspace. 

But have we sorted out the moral problem? What do you say to people who insist on not seeing the aesthetic games that’s afoot because they are too cross about the ‘content’—HH’s paedophilia—to appreciate the strange beauty of the writing. I once taught the novel to someone your age who said to me, with great bitterness in her voice, “The day I read Lolita is the day I stopped being one.” I just nodded my head at the time and said nothing.  

GC: What I’d say to your student is that we are disgusted by the parts of ourselves we see mirrored in others. It’s as simple as that. Our contemporary, and completely British self-questioning, leads us to dislike, and reject those similar to ourselves. And Nabokov truly presents an unsettling character to recognise in oneself. 

You may well be right that there is no tangible reason to write anything at all, and irrefutably we are purely just ‘staining the silence of cyberspace’, but at the risk of sounding too pretentious to function, Nietzsche would argue that in light of ‘the death of God’ we must create ourselves, in pursuit of sanity. So, any form of ‘qualified immortality’ is then justified. And just as we can ‘count on a murderer for a fancy prose style,’ we can count on Humbert Humbert and Lolita to act as vehicles for the words that represent the perilous magic of Vladimir Nabokov.