Vladimir Nabokov, whose 120th anniversary we mark this Spring, remains one of the 20th Century’s most acclaimed and enduring writers. He keeps turning up on various Greatest–Books lists, often more than once—for the novels Lolita and Pale Fire, as well as his autobiography, Speak, Memory. And yet in this day and age, Nabokov is clearly a “problematic” fave. Not only is he a dead white male of privileged pedigree, but the novel that made him a literary star is, in the scolding words of feminist essayist Rebecca Solnit, “a book about a white man serially raping a child.” What’s more, Nabokov, a Russian-born refugee from both Communism and Nazism who died in 1977, made no secret of his contempt for both progressive political causes and literature as a means to advance them. He was politically incorrect avant la lettre.
And so it is not surprising that anti-Nabokov rumblings have been bubbling up in recent years. They include Solnit’s widely praised 2015 essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me,” in which she wrote about being lectured by males online after daring to question the misogynistic literary canon. (That piece, as I pointed out in a review of Solnit’s essay collection, is based on a fraud: Solnit’s chief mansplainer turned out to be a woman with a gender-ambiguous name who was not lecturing Solnit, but was talking to someone else in a Facebook group. When caught out by commenters, Solnit made surreptitious face-saving edits such as changing “this man” to “this reader.”)
While Solnit offered the disclaimer that “I had never said that we shouldn’t read Lolita,” she clearly seemed to include it among books that treat women as “dirt.” Some got the message. Author, editor and literary publicist Kait Heacock wrote that, partly due to Solnit’s essay, she has decided to “break up” with her once-beloved Lolita because she will no longer support literature “built on the backs of young girls.” In a 2016 article, Boston Globe columnist Alex Beame also invoked Solnit to condemn Lolita as “a gruesome celebration of pedophile rape…embraced and promoted by the male literary establishment.” (In reality, the novel was disliked by plenty of literary men, from Nabokov’s friend Edmund Wilson to New York Times book critic Orville Prescott—and has had plenty of female fans, including Dorothy Parker and Elizabeth Janeway early on, and Erica Jong and Amy Tan in later years.)
Two years later, in a well-received 2018 book entitled The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, Sarah Weinman tried to convict Nabokov of almost literally building his novel on a real-life young girl’s raped, dead body. Weinman claims that many of the book’s key details, including Humbert Humbert’s cross-country road trip with Lolita, were inspired by the sensational story of Florence Sally Horner, a New Jersey girl who was kidnapped by a child molester and rescued after two years of captivity, only to die in a car crash in 1952 at age 15. The parallel is, in fact, embedded in the text: Returning to Lolita’s hometown near the end, Humbert thinks that a local woman who accosts him with questions, “all aglow with evil curiosity,” may suspect him of having “done to Dolly…what Frank Lasalle, a 50-year-old mechanic, had done to 11-year-old Sally Horner in 1948.”
In truth, Nabokov drew on many fictional and non-fictional sources in constructing Lolita, which he first conceived in the late 1930s. The possibility of Horner’s story being an important source for the book had been explored before. But in Weinman’s hands, the theory becomes a charge of outright exploitation. She goes so far as to assert that Sally was victimized not only by her actual kidnapper/rapist but also by Nabokov—“her life strip-mined to produce the bones of Lolita,” her abuse “subsumed in dazzling prose.” For Weinman and her supporters, Nabokov’s offense is compounded by his denial that the real-life case inspired the novel: One reviewer called it an “erasure” of Horner, even though Nabokov arguably preserved her memory by mentioning her in the book.
From what I can tell, there is no organized push to dump Nabokov from the canon—yet. But notably, a year ago, a (female) professor of Russian at Pomona College in California felt compelled to write a defense of teaching Lolita in the undergraduate Nabokov seminar she had taught for a decade. The essay, published on the website Inside Higher Ed, was occasioned by questions she reportedly had been getting from students: “How could I justify teaching a book that inflicted trauma and even perpetuated rape culture?…Was I not excluding some students simply by teaching the text?”
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An even moderately careful reading of Lolita should make it quite clear that it’s anything but a “celebration” of child rape. Yet some fans have misread it as much as its detractors: Back in 1958, the eminent critic Lionel Trilling hailed the novel as a “prolonged assault” on the prohibition against adult sex with underage girls, a norm that he gamely suggested should go the way of taboos on female sexual activity outside marriage. (Nabokov scholar Brian Boyd recently cited this cringeworthy essay as an example of how Lolita is viewed by “males used to male privilege”; but it may have been more a case of sexual progressivism gone haywire.) Nabokov himself explicitly rejected such interpretations: In a 1967 interview, he not only insisted that Lolita, not Humbert, merited all the sympathy, but brusquely dismissed the idea that there was no essential difference between middle-aged men bedding much younger women and grown men having sex with children.
It is quite true that Lolita pulls us inside the mind of a manipulative, narcissistic child molester, at times inviting us to sympathize with his frustrations and fears—an experience as unsettling as it should be. It is also true that the narrator’s declarations of true love for his victim at times have an equally unsettling beauty (“It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight”). And yes, the writing—which, in the novel’s first-person universe, is presented as Humbert’s—is bewitchingly gorgeous; but it’s not as if Nabokov, or Humbert, hadn’t warned us all the way back on the first page: “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
Moreover, throughout the narrative, Humbert’s self-serving fancy words are punctuated by frequent reminders that he is not a lover but a serial rapist—not just because of Lolita’s age but because, after a single episode of willing juvenile experimentation, she becomes his captive, trapped with diabolical cunning. (Humbert not only makes sure she doesn’t have the funds to get away, but plays on her fear of being sent to a reformatory.) Essayist Caitlin Flanagan has a point when she argues, in a recent piece for The Atlantic, that Lolita’s unique appeal lies in “the combination of revulsion and ecstasy that it engenders.”
The section on the duo’s travels through America ends with a haunting passage:
And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.
Near the end, after his encounter with a now-grown, married, pregnant Lolita, Humbert at last fully confronts the horror of his crime: the fact that “a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac” and that he was willfully blind not only to her pain but to her personhood. In a Quillette essay earlier this year, Zachary Snowdon Smith notes all the ways in which Humbert is alien to Nabokov, including his contempt for Russian émigrés. It also is noteworthy that in his next novel, Pale Fire, Nabokov has the poet John Shade say (almost certainly channeling his creator) that there are only two sins, “murder and the deliberate infliction of pain.” Humbert is guilty of both.
If Humbert denied his “nymphet” her humanity, Nabokov certainly did not. Her point of view may be absent from the text, but she manages to be a fully three-dimensional character. Nor is Lolita simply a victim. She ultimately outwits her captor, albeit with the aid of fellow pervert Clare Quilty; when the latter tries to coerce her into making porn movies, she walks away to fend for herself as a teen runaway, working an honest job and later marrying a decent man.
Nabokov’s assertion in the afterword that “Lolita has no moral in tow,” and his disavowal of the preachy (and hilarious) fictional foreword by psychologist “John Ray,” may have promoted the misconception that the novel is amoral. But that’s not the case. While Nabokov strongly believed that the only true measure of art is “aesthetic bliss,” he also wrote: “I never meant to deny the moral impact of art, which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny, and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink, is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written” (my emphasis).
There is, of course, a great deal to Lolita besides the subject of adult-child sex. It’s a tribute to America as well as a biting satire of suburban life, trendy intellectualism and much else. It’s an exploration of human consciousness and its relationship to reality—truth and fantasy, deception and self-deception, memory and illusion—which were constant themes in Nabokov’s work. And there is, of course, much to Nabokov’s literary legacy besides Lolita, though Lolita may well be his best book as well as his most famous.
That legacy includes several brilliant Russian-language books: The Gift (1938), Nabokov’s tribute to Russian literature and his only novel to feature both a fully sympathetic main character and a “normal” romance; The Defense (The Luzhin Defense in Russian, 1930), the story of a brilliant chess player’s mental breakdown, which blurs the lines between life and chess; and Invitation to a Beheading (1936), the Kafkaesque tale of a man sentenced to death for intellectual non-conformism in a phantasmagorical dystopia. (While Nabokov would have undoubtedly frowned on any attempt to scour his work for foreshadowings of 21st Century realities, it’s remarkable to realize that the protagonist’s capital offense is lack of “transparency” to fellow citizens.)
The English-language books from the second half of Nabokov’s career span the gamut from Pnin (1957), a short, tenderly written, gently humorous novel about a Russian émigré professor in America, an eccentric and profoundly decent man coping with life and loss in his new homeland; to Ada or Ardor (1969), a sprawling “family chronicle” set in an alternative universe with altered history and chronology and focusing mainly on the lifelong amour fou between two cousins, Van and Ada, who turn out to be half-siblings (and eventually get a happy, if morally ambiguous, ending).
But if Nabokov has a masterpiece besides Lolita, it’s Pale Fire. The enigmatic 1963 novel consists of a 999-line poem by the fictional, Robert Frost-like New England poet John Shade—a memoir in verse reflecting on the poet’s search for answers about life after death and on his teenage daughter’s suicide—and a lengthy “commentary” by Shade’s friend, mad professor Charles Kinbote. Kinbote believes that the poem, which Shade was one line away from completing when he was fatally shot, is a coded story of his own life; he also believes he is the exiled king of a country called Zembla that he was forced to flee after a Soviet-style revolution. Does such a country really exist within the novel’s world? Did a Russian émigré named Botkin invent both Zembla and Kinbote? There are plenty of theories, and there isn’t necessarily one right answer. But the book is a delight whether or not one cares to solve its riddles.
Like Lolita, Pale Fire is a mix of (sometimes dark) comedy, irony and tragic poignancy. Kinbote, whatever his “true” identity, is a wonderful invention: a lonely, socially awkward, pompous, egotistical (and extremely gay) man who manages to be pathetic and sympathetic at the same time. The novel’s rich allusions and connections—including the title, explained in a buried clue in Kinbote’s commentary, of which Kinbote himself remains unaware—are not mere brain teasers but relate to a central theme of Shade’s poem: such patterns and design, even coincidental, add up to life’s larger “web of sense.” Whether Nabokov wants us to believe the truth of that proposition is part of the enigma.
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One can only imagine what Nabokov, who spoke to the scholar Alfred Appel Jr. in a 1967 interview of his lifelong “aversion to groups” and disgust with “ideological coercion,” would have made of the current cultural moment—when discussions of art and literature are dominated by identity and ideology and when there is talk of holding past authors and artists “accountable” for racism, sexism, homophobia, and other offenses against present-day morality.
Nabokov himself has been “called out” for such offenses, even aside from Lolita—and even before the current show-trial vogue. He thoroughly detested racism along with anti-Semitism (“Shade said that more than anything on earth he loathed Vulgarity and Brutality, and that one found these two ideally united in racial prejudice,” he has Kinbote report in Pale Fire). But a charge of homophobia was lobbed by Salon magazine in 2000, in a feature by writer Lev Grossman about Nabokov’s gay younger brother Sergey.
Sergey’s story is engrossing and tragic; he stayed in Europe during World War II with his lover Hermann Thieme and died in a Nazi labor camp while Vladimir and his (Jewish) wife Vera found refuge in America. But the real point of the piece was to expose Nabokov as a bigot because he regarded Sergey’s sexual orientation, known to him since adolescence, as “abnormal inclinations” and a shameful family secret. Those were, of course, common attitudes; if anything, by the standards of his time, Nabokov was probably unusually tolerant. As the article conceded, he had a cordial relationship with his more-or-less uncloseted brother when both lived in Europe; he even met Sergey and Hermann for lunch, writing to Vera that “the husband” was quite likeable. (Granted, he also approvingly noted that Thieme was “not at all the pederast type”—i.e., in Russian idiom, not effeminate—and confessed that he still “felt rather uncomfortable.” But give the man a break; it was 1932.)
More recently, Beame added sexism to the list of indictments, citing Nabokov’s comment to his friend Edmund Wilson (who had suggested Jane Austen for Nabokov’s literature course at Cornell University) that he was “prejudiced against all women writers”—but failing to mention that Nabokov later made a rare about-face and did add Austen to his curriculum. His general attitude on the subject was far more complicated than a charge of male chauvinism can sum up. A harsh and cranky judge of literature, Nabokov dismissed plenty of major writers—William Faulkner, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Thomas Mann—as worthless. He apparently believed that even gifted women were particularly prone to writerly vices he abhorred, from fake sentiment to moralizing; but there were also female authors he held in high regard, such as Emily Dickinson, Dorothy Parker and his fellow émigré Nina Berberova. He also had a remarkably equal partnership with Vera, a writer and translator who dedicated herself to his career but was far more than a wife; she served as his agent and editor, and had near-absolute authority in his eyes on literary matters.
In any case, the “presentist” judgment of Nabokov by 21st Century standards brings to mind another apt moment from Kinbote’s Pale Fire narrative: When a chat in the faculty lounge at the college where Kinbote and Shade are teaching turns to the vanished King of Zembla and a leftist professor dismissively says that “history has denounced him,” Shade retorts, “In due time history will have denounced everybody.”
And yet, through the sheer magic of his art, Nabokov may yet defy history. Despite the gripes about his supposed homophobia, the veteran gay novelist Edmund White recently penned an ode to Pale Fire as “the great gay comic novel,” with its “funny and sometimes tender portrait” of Kinbote as an “unrepentant homosexual”—boisterous, lustful and mostly guilt-free. Feminist writers including, recently, Megan Nolan in The New Statesman, have risen to defend Lolita against the charge of child exploitation. The Atlantic’s Flanagan writes that, in an age when even popular movies from the past can be memory-holed for “#MeToo transgressions,” it may turn out that “only Lolita can survive the new cultural revolution” against all odds.
Surely, Nabokov would be amused.
Cathy Young is a Russian-born American journalist and author. You can follow her on Twitter @CathyYoung63.
Featured image: Study of a Young Girl‘ by Charles H. Brown, originally published in Pictorial Photography in America 1922