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The Case for Nabokov

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 GreatestBooks 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.)

Florence Sally Horner

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?”

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

Vladimir (L) and Sergei (R) Nabokov, in 1916.

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


  1. M. says

    Even Humbert knew he was a monster, so to claim it was a celebration is ridiculous. At best, it’s an admission that some people have compulsions/natures that they cannot escape, and sometimes they have no choice but to beautify them.

    Also I was under the impression that Marina gave baby Van to Aqua, playing him off as mad Aqua’s child.

    • Lolita2Jezabel2Freedom says

      All “people [without exception] have compulsions/natures that they cannot escape”.

      All people, with the possible exception of those with severe mental handicap, can also decide not to give in to their compulsions.

      It is absolutely untrue that “they have no choice but to beautify” {monstrous} desires.

      We all have a choice to reject or accept whatever temptations beset us and when we reject them we do not beautify them. It is only when we give in to wrong/questionable thoughts and/or actions that we try to excuse them with pretty explanations of why we just can’t help it.

      People do not usually reject the temptation; instead, we often claim we are “born this way” as an excuse to ‘act that way’.

      “I was born this way” is a valid truth. I MUST, therefore, ACT this way is a lie. A lie that may in fact be encouraged by literature such as this. (I have never read Lolita, only a synopsis of the novel.)

      I was personally born to desire fornication with whomever I feel a physical attraction. (I was BORN to be attracted to beautiful people and at puberty I began to desired sexual relations with said beautiful persons.)

      After living this way for a time, I decided it was in my interest to deny that desire and remain celibate. I chose not to ACT anymore upon the lust to which I was BORN susceptible. This is not always an easy thing, I assure you, I am not the epitome of stoicism, but it is very possible to abstain from sexual intimacy/acts.

      When people say “I was born this way”, what they usually really mean is “I refuse to deny myself what I want and I am going to do whatever I feel like doing”.

      I decided that if I wanted to do something, I was going to do it. Nothing I heard to the contrary convinced me that I should abstain and deny myself. I was going to do what made ME feel good and besides, “I’m not hurting anybody” and “It’s none of your business”.

      Being “born” with lust is common to ALL people; and all people are responsible for their response to those temptations or “compulsions”.

      If we are honest, we are born with the desire to take what we want, to strike out when harassed or irritated, to refuse to obey a directive we are not inclined to follow, etc. (go to a daycare center) Yet, we know we must (and should) learn to control these impulses.

      People can be attracted to men, women, children, farm animals, or indoor plumbing. This in no way makes it impossible to refuse to gratify ourselves. The attraction doesn’t require justification (beatification); giving in to the desire, the temptation, the lust…this makes us want to pretty up our perversions and justify our thoughts and behaviors.

      I have known pedophiles who deny themselves pedophilic fulfillment, homosexuals who deny themselves homosexual gratification, adulterers who deny themselves extramarital relations, and sexual deviants who deny themselves sex altogether.

      I also know all of these types of people who do no such self-denying. The one thing these have in common is that #1: their own desires come before anything else and #2: they all attempt to justify themselves in some way and it is almost always someone or something else’s fault why they MUST act the way they do (God made me like this, my partner needs me, he/she/it is no victim, I’m the victim because he/she/it seduced me, I was born this way, etc.).

      Am I saying people can ‘change’ their attraction? Not necessarily but that is not the point. People can and do learn not to indulge their temptations, we can learn not to indulge in action by refusing to indulge in the thought. Sexual acts are followed by sexual thoughts. Refuse to indulge in the thoughts as they pass and you will not be tempted to the actions. Let unwanted thoughts pass without thinking on them and they die. Otherwise, make no excuse and say what is true, “I will do as I please” not by compulsion but by choice.

      I am a sexual deviant refusing to act on my natural compulsions; I am successful and content with this choice. I will make no more excuses to justify acting on sexual behavior.

      No one in polite society would accept a murderer’s or rapist’s plea of “I was born this way” as a statement of innocence of rape and murder. Neither could we accept this truth (that a man can be born with the desire to kill or rape) as a pass on incarceration.

      One can think of **** all they want but the moment they cross into carrying out that act, they are accountable for making that choice. The more you indulge the thought, the more likely you are to indulge the act.

      Think thoughts of platonic love for all humanity, think on acts of kindness.

      “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable— if anything is excellent or praiseworthy— think on these things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put into practice. And the God of peace will be with you…” Philippians 4:8-9

      • Peter from Oz says

        I agree that the point is not having the desire, but refraining from carrying out the desire.
        But surely the real argument is over which actions, if carried out, are evil. I suspect that most people would argue that homosexual acts are not evil. So I was born that way is a reasonable argument to make against those of us who, whilst we don’t think homosexual acts are evil, but are definitely gross.

      • Graham says

        ‘I have known pedophiles who deny themselves pedophilic fulfillment, homosexuals who deny themselves homosexual gratification, adulterers who deny themselves extramarital relations, and sexual deviants who deny themselves sex altogether.’

        Odd group of people to lump together, very telling of the writer’s prurient-cum-prudish mindset. 🙂

  2. markbul says

    I read Lolita decades ago, and havn’t picked it up since. The writing sparkles. It’s not just the style, the balletic turns of phrases. It’s the observations of the American landscape of the day. For a Russian emigre to see America with such clear and perceptive eyes was a wonderous thing.I’ve been reading books for 55 years, and I’ve never read a better book than Lolita. The accusation that the author was his character is so tedious and dull-minded that it doesn’t deserve a response.

    • ianl says

      The novel Lolita is a black satire. People who insist with their look-at-me virtue signalling clearly cannot grasp satire. The choice of the name Humbert Humbert is alone sufficient to make the point; Humberts’ constant self-deluding rationalisations of the damage he’s causing are as black a satiric painting as I’ve read. The butt of this satire in the novel is the childish urge for instant gratification, which Nabokov thought he saw in abundance in the US.

      The really deplorable aspect to the contemporary rash of virtue signalling is its’ superficiality. Deep satire is beyond recognition for such a mindset. Loss of self-awareness is behind contemporary inappreciation of satire.

      • Peter from Oz says

        ”The butt of this satire in the novel is the childish urge for instant gratification, which Nabokov thought he saw in abundance in the US.”
        Exactly right.
        And the ugre to signal virtue by the modern puritan left is today’s greatest example of the desire for instant gratification.

    • Fuzzy Headed Mang says

      Good comment, esp. the last sentence.

  3. Andrew Mcguiness says

    Insightful AND sensible. An article that is worth reading, and makes me want to read the books it talks about.

    • jakesbrain says

      Dive in, if you want. Lolita wasn’t my taste, but Pale Fire is arguably my favorite book of all time — Nabokov has a gift for combining absurdity and hilarity with tragic melancholy in a way that sticks in the mind.

  4. Gera says

    “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” Sounds like Nabokov prefers to show rather than moralize about the evil mind. Yes, very unsettling. Not easy to draw a moral? I’m not sure about that. We get a powerful insight into the rationalizations and pleasures of Humbert Humbert without the filter of the ‘moral’ observer. We are left with a bad taste in our mouths, as we should. The author however, does not draw the moral for us.

    I can understand how this would be terribly disorienting to someone who has been taught what instead of how to think.

    • jakesbrain says

      “Nabokov prefers to show rather than moralize about the evil mind.”

      He does the same with madmen. Professor Kinbote in Pale Fire is a creation on the level of Humbert Humbert; Nabokov asks us to regard him with equal amounts of scorn and sympathy — he’s clearly off his rocker and narcissistically self-obsessed, but he’s also a delusional, depressed and lonely exile circling the drain.

  5. Vivian Darkbloom says

    I’ll give you my LOLITA when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.

  6. Zachary Snowdon Smith says

    My middle name is spelled with an “o” rather than an “e.”

    I’m pleased to have rated a mention; I greatly enjoyed your piece on J.D. Salinger.

  7. Constantin says

    What an insightful, generous, cultivated, and revealing essay! Bravo! Quillette managed to attract a wide range of writers and this is the second or third time I felt so thoroughly thankful and inspired by a contribution.

    • Martin Michael says

      “What an insightful, generous, cultivated, and revealing essay! Bravo!”

      Agreed. I am so happy to have found Quillette; there is always a new and interesting essay to find here when I tire of digging through the internet wasteland to find, and fail, at discovering something worthwhile to read about, think about, and learn about.

      Thank you Quillette.

  8. Hmmm says

    Agree with Constantin. I’m very grateful to have discovered Cathy Young on Quillette.

  9. Jeremy H says

    Nabokov’s short stories are also worth mentioning. Two in particular, “Terror” and “Razor”, are the kind that you think about for years afterward even though they take only minutes to read. In the first, the protagonist experiences a catastrophic collapse of all learned associations and meanings and is forced to cope with his existence as though a newborn. The second has a former victim of the Russian regime, now barber, standing over his current customer, and former tormentor, with razor in hand. Both are psychological masterpieces; highly recommended.

    • Zachary Snowdon Smith says

      “An Affair of Honor” is one of the great ones, for me. I think that, even if I were never to reread it, it would still come to mind from time to time even decades from now.

  10. Jean Levant says

    Very good review of Lolita, Cathy (I haven’t read “Pale Fire” yet). We may suspect Nabokov for sexism but for misogyny…? What a poor understanding of how male brains work!

    • Jean Levant says

      I add that the Kubrick’s Lolita is stangely touching and beautiful (and dark and funny of course). Stangely because in general I’m very bored by his movies and he’s certainly not the touching kind. My favorite film by the great K by far.

  11. Closed Range says

    Excellent article, very thought provoking and well researched. I’ve never heard of Nabokov, but now I will try reading a few of his books before they are banned.

  12. Another C Young says

    Lolita was outrageous when published and it remains outrageous. It was designed to remain that way forever.

    The only people who lose from unpersoning Nabokov are the unpersoners themselves. They will never succeed in banning the book. Conformists and authoritarians abhor it. That personality type has always been with us, and always will. They shouldn’t read a book like Lolita.

    The interesting question is to what extent the modern phenomenon of the modern, self-avowedly woke individual (like Solnit) is the contemporary reincarnation of the 1920s prohibitionist, the 1940s book-banner, the upright 1950s church go-er, the 1960s anti-pornography campaigner?

    Women in the West were notoriously church-ridden until the late 20th century. So much so, that liberals campaigned against the vote for women in some European Catholic countries, as given the chance, women would have voted in the most authoritarian government they could.

    I have a relative from the most socially conservative area of the UK – Ulster. She is an extremely judgmental and intolerant member of the progressive left. Her sister has exactly the same personality/outlook, but is attached to the nostrums of the regressive right.

    Has the decay of the church forced its substitution with a new religion of feminism/progressivism? They share the same tribalism, the easy division of issues into black and white, the same belief in jousting forces of good and evil, and provoke the same creeping behind net curtains.

  13. Heike says

    Look, you are barking up the wrong tree here. You can make all the arguments you like; it won’t change anything. The novel’s crime is it made a feminist feel icky. Since you’re never going to stop her feeling icky, logical defense of the novel will never work.

    This “it made me feel bad” tactic is used all over the Left. Since their only value is harm reduction (along with justice, which will always lose to harm reduction) they think the proper response is to (1) assuage their hurt feelings with self-righteous diatribes and (2) ban the offending material so it can’t make other people feel icky too.

    Once you realize this, a lot of things click into place and you understand reactions a lot better.

  14. Nabokov is my favourite writer, he is unparalleled in 20th century for psychological insight, and for literary flair, wit and grace

  15. Very sensible piece, just as you would expect from Cathy Young. I read Lolita before I had any views on pretty anything and was bowled over by the brilliance and beauty. It is the only novel I can read purely for the language and sometimes you just want laugh out loud, it is so clever. Of course you can spoil it all by taking offense at one aspect of the novel to the exclusion of all else, but why would you want to do that? Ah I see, because some people actually like to be offended. Of course.

  16. ga gamba says

    That’s one helluva defence, Ms Young. So strong is it that from my perspective it knocked Nabokov’s accusers to the back foot. An entertaining read as well. Thanks and well done to you.

  17. scribblerg says

    Nabakov’s prose is quite good and he has a great “eye” in the sense of how he observes and portrays any scene. But I found Lolita not worthy of greatness based on its subject matter. An important aside is that I only took two lit courses at university, and my literary views are based on my broad reading of literature. I’m an autodidact. The advantage is that I have to figure out what an author is up to for myself, the downside is sometimes I miss important aspects. That said…

    Lolita was lurid in a way that I found self-indulgent. In fact, I found the entire story self-indulgent. Indeed, Nabakov clearly avoids third party moralists or obvious moral lessons in the story. But in fact, by doing so, he’s necessarily adopting an alternate morality. The absence of a strong moral POV in the story implies a more Progressive sensibility about this issue given the transgressive nature of Humbert’s actions. Nabakov may have denied it all he wants, but there is a pornographic aspect, the style invites a kind of passive enjoyment of his sexual titillation with a child. I felt like Nabokov was tempting me to perversion.

    What seems absent from this analysis is how Lolita is portrayed. At times, she’s portrayed as possessing and lording her sexual power over Humbert, not always as a suffering victim. This seems more like Humbert’s fantasies but still, it’s quite jarring.

    When younger, I was convinced that the literary community was “better” than me and just listened to what I was told about many 20th century writers and why I had to read them and accept their greatness. Lolita was a real turning point for me in this regard as while I could appreciate Nabakov’s style immensely, I found the content unnecessarily vulgar. It felt like Nabakov wanted to lord this over me as a sign of a level of sophistication he possessed that I was lacking.

    Nope. Simply not true. It was a well written but deranged book. It uplifted exactly nothing. It was morally corrupt, not morally vacant or conflicted. What put me off Nabakov were his attempts to wriggle out of the obvious morality presented in his book. We don’t generally grant pedophiles a voice in our society, as we already know what their depravity is about and don’t need to “learn” how they see things.

    There was nothing edifying about Humbert. I learned nothing from the story. If I’m going to be told a work of literature is “great” it must be more than just great writing. The story itself should be important. But Lolita was not important, it dealt with nothing important. And it clearly was about humanizing Humbert, whether Nabakov ever admitted it or not. As such, it was immoral, and hence, garbage.

    Great writers are a dime a dozen. Turning a good phrase, creating powerful narratives and mental images – there are thousands and thousands of writers out there who can do this. The question for me is what will an author aim himself at beyond just skill? Me? Art that doesn’t move, inspire, edify, uplift and educate isn’t art at all. It’s self-indulgent. And in this case, it was in fact subversive, all while Nabakov objected to being seen as subversive.

    I’m not saying don’t publish it. I’m asking what makes a literary work great? In my eyes, the story itself isn’t worthy of being considered great, no matter how well written.

    • Jean Levant says

      “But Lolita was not important, it dealt with nothing important. And it clearly was about humanizing Humbert, whether Nabakov ever admitted it or not. As such, it was immoral, and hence, garbage.”
      Lolita dealt with humanity, indeed, Scribblerg. Is this not important? Watching the humanity in a murderer is not a flaw, it’s just a part of reality, whether or not you like it.
      I also think of the Melville’s novel “Pierre” which dealt with incest ( and other more serious crimes) that you could dismiss for the same reason. In fact, with such an argument, you could dismiss half of the most brilliant writers, at least.

      • scribblerg says

        Jean – Not an argument in any meaningful sense. All stories are at some level about “humanity”. I haven’t read Melville’s Pierre (no need to put quotes around it, lol, capitalizing is what’s grammatically correct), so I can’t comment on it.

        I’ll contrast it to Dosteovsky’s Crime and Punishment. Worse crime, yes? Murder. Well written, obviously, I cannot stop reading a Dosteovsky due to his style. What made the story, however, was the moral arc of the main character. His moral struggle and observations about morality were incredibly compelling.

        Whereas most of Humber’s mewling was base and bestial and ugly and revealed little the edified me. Mostly is seemed about trying to shock me over and over, yawn…

    • Peter from Oz says

      I think there is something in what you say. It’s as if Nabokov was too clever by half. He knew that making child molestation the central issue of his book that he would at least ensure a lasting fame because, as you say the chap can write well. He made the choice to go for notoriety hoping that it would make people notice his clever satire on American mores. But my problem with this is that it was like those comedy sketches that satirise something banal and low rent. The satire itself is merely holding up a mirror to something that we all already know is trite and boring. It thus becomes trite and boring itself.
      There’s a wonderful scene in Anthony Powell’s “At Lady Molly’s” when one character asks another (a novelist) what he thinks of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.
      “I didn’t like it”
      “The woman can write, you know.”
      “Yes, I know that, but I still didn’t like it.”
      That’s how I feel about Lolita.
      Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is much more fun and has lot more to say about the human condition

    • Fuzzy Headed Mang says

      That is interesting that you say a novel can be considered great based on its subject matter. That then would make greatness very subjective. How you interpret Lolita tells me about you, and your perspective on the world. Thomas Mann’s “Death In Venice,” Shakespeare’s “Othello” and “MacBeth” (both about narcissistic murderers) Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” and even works from Plato like “Symposium” would not be great works, based on your analysis.

      • scribblerg says

        Completely absurd and reductionist reading of my comment, but you did stumble on some truth. Clockwork Orange was subversive, transgressive garbage. It was spectacle, not art.

    • Why do you have to ‘learn’ something from literature, or be ‘uplifted’ by it? Primary school view.

      • scribblerg says

        As a published author and singer/songwriter, I guess I’ll have to educate you about art. Art occurs in the viewer/the audience/the reader, not in the artist. Art that only the artist experiences is mental masturbation. I actually like mentally masturbating sometimes, I’ll fire up the looper and jam for hours sometimes. But I’d never unleash that on someone as a “song”.

        Being merely aesthetically pleasing can be a good enough threshold for a work of art but it will never be great. There has to be some underlying weight or narrative or message. And good art edifies and brings us “up” out of our more base state. Does’t mean it’s “positive”, rather it means I’m at a higher level of being due to the numinous experience of the art.

        I remember an abstract artwork I was introduced to by an abstract artist, Robert Natkin. Called “Epiphany”, here’s a link It had an emotional effect on me with no bidding by the artist, and no conscious effort on my part. The work was very consciously designed to elicit that effect from me and the skill required to do so was immense. The artist explained to me that say a Picasso became extremely skilled technically as an artist before doing anything abstract and that he’d followed the same path. He also explained that much abstract art was careless and that seemed obvious to me.

        The artist must care about how they impact the viewer/experiencer of the art. Most non-artists crave the numinous experience great art provides and artists like me see it as my responsibility to respect that.

        I get it. You don’t agree. This an age old disagreement about art. I’m not postmodern, rather, I’m modern and hence don’t appreciate much of the garbage that passes for “art” across all media in this postmodern wasteland of a society. In fact, much of it is what I consider “anti-art”.

        Do continue to talk down to me as though you have some superior pose or view though, it reveals far more about you than me.

        • Fuzzy Headed Mang says

          Scibblerg, basically what you seem to be saying is the response to art is subjective. Whether there is a message or not can be open to interpretation. For example, Freud’s “Civilization and Its Discontents” is great writing, and it also carries an intended message. Some may disagree with the message and say that it’s not great writing because its mental masturbation. Its not quite the same with Nabokov, Burgess, Golding, Salinger, Hemingway and other contemporary writers, because their method of communication is the novel or short story. Still, when you say “Art occurs in the viewer, the audience, the reader” that supports the idea of art interpretation as subjective. Where you say “I’m modern and hence don’t appreciate much of the garbage that passes for art….” that is your opinion based on what you like or don’t. I see my comment touched a nerve, though. Despite your thoughts, I’m not talking down to you, I’m simply giving you my opinion of what you said, similar to what you wrote in response.

  18. Vivian Darkbloom says

    DEAR CATHY YOUNG … quite seriously, I would LOVE to see a real WEINMAN take-down. Gloves off. Nabokov spent his life condemning the mentality behind her book. Any responsible scholar would know this. She has used his name to claw her way out of anonymity by portraying Nabokov as the sort of literary cliché he despised. Really… I mean … REALLY try to imagine the language Nabokov would use to excoriate her book. It would be epic. What she has done … and the benefit she is enjoying from doing it … is simply wrong. Shameful. She should be confronted with a literary crime she surely knows that she committed.

    • XT says

      I just finished Sarah Weinman’s book. It was troublesome. She repeatedly affirmed the literary value of Lolita, and reported that she had read it many times. Part of the thread of her book, then, is an appreciation of Lolita. Another thread is interesting accounting of Sally Horner’s life, about which little is known in the end; another is a recitation of the Nabokovs biographies. Padding? Maybe. I suspect the conjecture was that Weinman would find some smoking gun. She didn’t. Everything had already been disclosed by other writers, except maybe she found a clipping of Sally’s obit in the Nabokov papers. But she faithfully reports on when this story-line first occurs to Nabokov in 1937 or something; and then Lolita itself he started writing a couple years before Sally was taken. But after 4-5 years of expanding an article into a book, Weinman has to produce! Please her audience. Hence the utterly unjustified and shameful “stripmining” line. I was shocked when I read that! The book had interesting stuff in it, that I was completely unaware of (though I knew much of Nabokov, nothing of Sally Horner). Shameful! For that one phrase alone, Weinman’s book needs to be ignored, sorry to say. Marketing, and identity/gender politics took over the book. It also should be better after 4 years of work. There are repetitions in paragraphs on consequtive pages; odd authoritative descriptions of California geography. And the very sad, need-a-real-creative-fiction-writer attemps on (thankfully only) a few pages where she tries to imagine what Sally was thinking. What WAS Sally thinking? We don’t know. Why did/does this happen to girls, e.g., Elizabeth Sharp? The book was a failure, interesting in part, highly annoying and unjustifiably polemic in part. I had really looked forward to this book, but if nothing else, the stripmining line disqualifes Weinman for participation in the discussion.

      • Vivian Darkbloom says

        Thanks for this comment. It scratched my itch to read this criticism of the book.

  19. C. M. Satwell says

    Seems strange that no one ever discusses Humbert’s love of Lolita as a metaphor for the artist’s evolving understanding of what is beautiful. Humbert continues to love her although she is pregnant (i.e. no longer a child) because he has discovered her reality as a woman, which in the end is her real beauty.

    • Fuzzy Headed Mang says

      That is a very interesting way of looking at the book. Thomas Mann wrote a novel “Death In Venice,” that explores the same territory, albeit with an aging man who longs for a young boy.. he never acts on his desires but the theme is similar to Lolita. The fact that there’s so many interpretations of Lolita makes it a great book, in my opinion.

  20. TWC says

    Solnit is an utter twit….talented, maybe, but a twit nonetheless. She is the T Coates of feminist gobbledygook (not a compliment!).

  21. Pingback: The Case for Nabokov | 3 Quarks Daily

  22. The book Lolita commits the one unforgivable crime. By placing the reader inside of Humbert’s mind, empathy for a white male wrongdoer becomes possible, even inevitable. And we can’t have that, now can we?

  23. From his ¨Lectures on Russian Literature¨:

    ¨Though never concerned with providing a social or ethical message, Chekhov’s genius almost involuntarily disclosed more of the blackest realities of hungry, puzzled, servile, angry peasant Russia than a multitude of other writers, such as Gorki for instance, who flaunted their social ideas in a procession of painted dummies. I shall go further and say that the person who prefers Dostoevski or Gorki to Chekhov will never be able to grasp the essentials of Russian literature and Russian life, and, which is far more important, the essentials of universal literary art.¨

    Nabokov was standing up for literature, and his description of Gorki: ¨a procession of painted dummies¨ is a fine picture of the sermons from our current social justice Sunday schools.

  24. Sylvia Weiser Wendel says

    Kudos to Cathy Young for a much-needed article. I do wish she’d given more space to Pnin, which remains at the top of my pantheon right alongside Lolita and Pale Fire. Pnin, even more than Lolita, is an America idyll seen through the eyes of an immigrant living an imperfect life under difficult circumstances: the eponymous protagonist, exiled from his beloved homeland, is in constant danger of further uprooting and lives in a fog of near-constant loneliness. In the center of the book, however, there is a wonderful set piece in which Pnin can relax, at a New England resort favored by his fellow emigres. He is younger than most of them, healthier, tanned, even resembling Eisenhower as another guest remarks. Central to this chapter is a reminiscence of a young woman, Pnin’s onetime fiancée: “history [in the form of the Russian Revolution] broke their engagement.” That young woman was Jewish and ended up being murdered in the Holocaust, and some of Nabokov’s most moving prose considers the possible manner of her death.
    I’ve been a Nabokovian since I read Lolita as a 13-year-old and found it screamingly funny (although many innuendos flew far above my head). As a child of immigrants who’d fled Hitler’s Europe, I found the author’s love for this country bracing and well worth championing, Nabokov’s anti-communism was always present in my mind, and probably helped me fend off the political excesses of the 1960s when those arose during my college years. I was livid when the Soviets invaded Prague in 1968; most of my peers thought I was nuts.
    Vladimir Nabokov set me straight and kept me sane. He knew how immigrants — and their children — lived. From Pnin: “My twins are exasperating. When I try to tell them the most fascinating things, for example the history of the first medical schools in Russia… they just drift away and turn on the radio in their rooms.” Exactly.

    • Mpick says


      Total agreement on Pnin. I would actually leave Lolita in favor of Pale Fire, Pnin, and Bend Sinister as the top masterpieces in Nabokov’s catalog.

      Pnin Chapter 5, section 5 is the most stunning bit of prose I’ve ever encountered. A balance of joy and sorrow, minutia and grandeur, harsh reality and all the ways we seek to escape it. Absolutely amazing.

  25. Fuzzy Headed Mang says

    Nabokov’s Laughter In the Dark is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Lolita is also a great book. Nabokov writes about human nature and obsession. Human nature is a powerful thing we can not escape from completely. He was an incredibly gifted writer, the fact his work is interpreted many ways is witness to that.

  26. Victoria says

    A great essay, the thoughtfulness and nuance of which, contrasts with Young’s often dishonest, denunciatory style (reminiscent of the feminists she criticizes here) when writing about immigration and politics these days.

  27. C Young says

    If you want a grim laugh, read this interview with Solnit by the famously pleasant female journalist Rana Foroohar.

    ‘Mansplaining’ is the term Solnit is famous for. It was invented for a man speaking over a woman on a topic that she is an authority on.

    Rana was a technology correspondent for years and is an authority on the topic. Solinit is not.

    When the topic moves to technology and Rana begins a ‘data-driven discussion’, Solnit ‘cuts her off’ and talks over her.

    The word ‘hypocrite’ could have been invented for Solnit.

  28. Alain aka Trickster says

    “Lolita” is a masterpiece. It has to be published in France due to wasp rigid mind frame. Even now
    fanatic critics use it to proclaim their inexistences. Thanks for an intelligent and fair review.

  29. lordmyrt says

    Excellent article. I’m old enough to remember when it was the conservatives who had their panties in a bunch over Lolita, and the left defending it on freedom of speech grounds.

    It remains one of my favorite novels. Cathy is quite right to quote the passage that first clued me in to the tragic perspective, which I didn’t get until probably my third reading in my late teens.

    However, I believe Cathy misunderstands the phrase “…not the pederast type.” Based especially on Richard Tarushkin’s thoughtful essays about Tchaikovsky’s sexuality in the 19th C. Russian aristocrat tradition (before the current meaning of homosexual, much less gay), what we would now call gay hookups with young men (and even boys, e.g. Saint-Saens in Egypt) was an established practice among what we would now call homosexuals. I think it’s this that Nabokov refers to rather than effeminacy.

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