DEFENDING LOLITA

My favorite novel is Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.

There, I’ve said it.

I couldn’t tell you how many times in conversations about books, that I’ve mentioned this fact to seemingly mature people, and then asked if they’ve ever read it.  The answer is always a firm and indignant “No . . . and I’ve got no desire to read it either.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s a pedophile!”

It’s a mystery exactly who they think is a pedophile, the author, the character, or me for admitting it’s my favorite novel.  A fundamentalist would probably lump us all together and skip all that complicated middle ground that requires thinking.  If any of you are fundamentalists, and you know who you are, please stop reading this and find something else.  Be warned.  You’ve stumbled into enemy territory.  Disappear back into your mental darkness and watch for landmines on the way out.

Lolita is one of the most notorious novels ever written, this is true, but it is also one of the most celebrated.  It is so distinctive, so complete, that it stands alone as the gold standard for sheer brilliance and lyricism in fiction.  For all its acclaim, Lolita occupies an odd place in English literature. Many, many writers call it their favorite novel, and yet its influence is usually apologized for.  Lolita suffers from a deep irony.  It is about a pedophile, but so brilliantly written that we fall in love with the book.

At age fourteen, I found a copy of Lolita in a bookshop but was too embarrassed to buy it.  The cover had a sticky, porno feel to it.  Hiding in the corner behind some shelves, my fingers leafed through its pages and decided it wasn’t an erotic read.  No direct, lewd references to any sex acts.  Nothing salacious.  But not taking any chances, I slid the book back where I found it and bought something else so the clerk wouldn’t figure me for a pervert.

When I was twenty, I was better able to appreciate the novel’s greatness and labyrinthine puzzles.  It contained such dazzling displays of the English language.  There were depths beneath depths, layers upon layers, textures among textures.  Every word was a caviar.  I was reading a shocking novel about a pedophile, a novel that danced on the edge of the literary envelope, but I was also vaguely aware of being in a game.  Vladimir Nabokov toys with you.  Under his prose is a treasure hunt with clues on almost every page.  There’s a whole other masterpiece hidden behind the written words.  The clues are buried in the foreign words, the double entendres, the puns, the symbols, the clever rhymes.

But from the novel’s very first words . . .

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul.  Lolita.”

. . . to it’s final declaration . . .

“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigment, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

. . . the novel pulls you in and seduces you with some of the most lush narrative ever written.  The rhythm and cadence of the sentences are lyrical and have a singsong quality.  But Nabokov is a hyper literate, cultured, old world European and he aims his considerable intellect like a laser at American culture and how it carnalizes our children.  He understands the taboo against sex with underage girls more deeply than people who’ve simply internalized it.  He knows it’s in the nature of taboos that we stubbornly refuse to examine them.  Read Lolita, and you will genuinely be disturbed because you spend 300 pages inside the mind of a charming psychopath who’s smarter and more reflective than you are.

This is the story of Humbert, a foreign literature professor recently arrived in America, and his infatuation with a particular type of underage girls he calls nymphets.  It is told from his perspective and centers on his interest in a particular nymphet, Dolores Haze, whom he affectionately calls Lolita, during the late 1940‘s.  While renting a room in the Haze residence, Humbert becomes obsessed with Lolita, and even goes so far as to strategically marry her mother in order to get closer to the girl.  After the mother dies in a freak accident, Humbert takes Lolita on a cross-country road trip where they develop a physical relationship.  As time passes, Lolita grows to deeply resent Humbert and his affliction, so she devises a plan with another pedophile, Quilty, to escape from Humbert‘s control.  Years later, Humbert is reunited with an older, shabby Lolita who confesses the identity of the man who stole her away and ultimately discarded her.  Humbert tracks down Quilty and murders him, thereby ending the story.

The novel’s moral ambiguity is part of its brilliance and one reason Lolita still feels so contemporary and controversial.  It’s real genius is it’s meditation on love, love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation, revelations of love shimmering like hot desert road mirages of truth.

Lolita is a test for any aspiring writers.  Try reading it and still believe you can accomplish what Nabokov accomplishes.  It is a mind blowing and humbling experience.  Most will quit the profession before they even begin.  It’s simply that good.   This is literature with a capital “L”.  This is a masterwork by an immensely talented author who just happens to also be a genius.

There have been two movie adaptations of Lolita.  In 1962, director Stanley Kubrick released a version starring James Mason as Humbert and Sue Lyon as the underage object of his desire.  It steered clear of all those dirty whispers and kept things fairly clean with Humbert merely obsessed with a voluptuous teenage girl.  Nothing physical.  The actual sickness of the novel was sacrificed in exchange for dark comedy and widespread distribution.

In 1997, Adrian Lyne released a newer version starring Jeremy Irons as Humbert and Dominique Swain as Lolita.  At the time of its release, the film was mired in controversy regarding its treatment of an already touchy subject matter.  Nobody wanted a love story between an adult male and a female child.  To make things worse, the film’s perspective is placed solely back to Humbert’s point of view, something the first film eliminated.  Just as it is in the novel, the movie is his story.  Voice-over narration and the constant presence of Humbert, either directly on screen or implicitly off screen, helped to create this effect.  This subjective choice resulted in an empathetic treatment of a pedophile.  Critics felt that Humbert was made to look like a victim of Lolita’s charms, rather than the sexual predator he was.

This was seen as a perversion and forces me into the position of having to defend the movie.

The film was merely being faithful to the novel and does not, at any point, celebrate Humbert’s actions.  His pedophilia is presented as an aspect of his tragedy.  An intelligent viewer can distinguish between the evil he does and the way that evil is presented.  The story ultimately serves as a descriptive account of his descent into fatal madness.  It’s not a love story.  It’s the story of a man’s obsession with an ideal.

Distributing the movie proved to be almost impossible.  Having cost about $58 million to produce, it premiered in Europe almost a year before the Samuel Goldwyn Company chose to release it in America.  The film had an exclusive engagement in a single Los Angeles theater to qualify for awards season, and was then unceremoniously dumped on the Showtime network.  The controversial subject matter of this newer adaptation continues to have an effect on its reception to this day.

Mostly, the critics dismissed the movie for three reasons: the sexual content of the director’s previous films, his presentation of Lolita as a predator with Humbert as the victim, and the lack of Nabokovian humor that had been present in Kubrick’s version.

The first point is an attack on the director more than it is an attack on his adaptation.  Only a simpleton could dismiss a film on the basis of the director’s previous works.  It’s rather like criticizing the quality of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven because he had once made two films with an Orangutan.  Or dismissing Citizen Kane because Orson Welles ended his career making wine commercials.

The third point is undoubtedly true.  Comedy was jettisoned in favor of the tragedy.  But this blog wants to deal most explicitly with the second of these criticisms since it is the one most closely related to the controversy that has plagued this film for fourteen years.

Critics complained that Jeremy Iron plays a wistful, emotionally vulnerable Humbert, a victim of tragedy and childhood grief, haunted by the memory of his lost love, Annabel Leigh, and is then ruthlessly manipulated and inevitably betrayed by Lolita.  The critics suggested that the movie blames Lolita for Humbert’s madness and the death of Quilty.  Contrary to the critic’s interpretations, making Humbert a sympathetic character is not the same as making him a hero.  Being ‘wistful’ and ‘emotionally vulnerable’ is not the same thing as being acceptable.  Humbert is made sympathetic, but his actions aren’t condoned.  The decision to make Humbert the storyteller again does not necessarily lionize Humbert, or demonize Lolita.

The film merely stays true to Nabokov’s vision, and there is a temptation for people to watch this as a love story.  Humbert is lovingly obsessed with Lolita.  Since he’s the narrator of the story, his passion is the lens through which everything is viewed.

The film opens with Humbert driving his car erratically. Ennio Morricone’s provocative music score plays in the background.  As a bloody gun slides across the seat, there is a sound pan.  The audio also pans as the car moves from one side of the screen to the other.  When the car wheel goes into the ditch on the left side of the screen, we only hear it from the left speaker.  The sound of everything is slightly softened and muffled because we‘re meant to feel as if we are in the car with Humbert.  It is his subjective perspective that we are experiencing, and his senses have been dulled by having just committed a murder.

This scene fades to a gorgeous flashback sequence that links both the beginning and end of the story.  Humbert’s voice-over that “there may never have been a Lolita at all, had I not first met Annabel” and the music underscores a sense of fate.  His love for Lolita has its origins in his love of Annabel, his childhood paramour who died at fourteen.

Kubrick’s 1962 film provides Humbert’s first view of Lolita with romantic music, suggesting love.  His past encounters with nymphets are never mentioned.  The viewer is therefore left to infer that Humbert loves only Lolita.

By contrast, the long story of Humbert’s sexual development is introduced at the very beginning of the newer film.  The flashback sequence features quiet sounds, chirps of birds, chatter and footsteps, the rustle of silk.  Also quiet is his recollection of Annabel.  She never says a word.  All we hear is the sound of her laughter, which echoes the sound of Lolita’s laughter later in the film.  Even the sound of sand falling through fingers is louder than the sound of surf and seagulls in the beach scene.  Since it is slipping from Annabel’s hand, it is of great importance.  Humbert’s recollection of these memories is vital because it marks the stage in his sexual development that he never grows out of.  He is frozen in the past.  For the rest of his life, he attempts to recreate this original love.  Annabel undresses and the sound of a silk ribbon being removed from her petticoat is imprinted in his memory.

Humbert is rarely off screen in the film.  For instance, a scene where Charlotte Haze is arguing with Lolita over whether or not the girl should go to summer camp ends with Lolita bringing Humbert his breakfast.  The whole scene is witnessed over Humbert’s shoulder, rather than the traditional over the shoulder shot-counter shot technique.  Our view is often confined to what Humbert sees, just like in Nabokov’s original text.  The unreliable narrator of Lolita remains in the film.  This helps to create a more sympathetic Humbert, but the spectator is warned not to trust those sympathies.

The plot helps to create this sense of Humbert as an untrustworthy character.  He lies to those closest to him.  When Charlotte discovers his journal and its written obsessions of her daughter, Humbert tries to convince her that it is just notes for a novel he is working on.  Later, after Charlotte’s death, Humbert does not tell Lolita about the accident.  He claims that Charlotte is in the hospital and that they will visit her soon.  Even Humbert’s voice-overs are suspicious because they are based on the journal.  When Charlotte reads from it, she finds herself described as “the fat cow”.  Charlotte is anything but that.  We are well aware of Melanie Griffith’s star persona as a Hollywood beauty.  She is married to one of Hollywood’s major sex symbols, Antonio Banderas.  This movie does nothing to hide her beauty.  This is in keeping with Humbert’s madness that he is unable to recognize adult physical beauty.

By establishing the length of Humbert’s life long search for his lost love reincarnate, the movie helps the viewer understand Humbert’s actions, however deplorable they may be.  Remember, this is not a love story, but the story of a man searching for an ideal.  He finds his ideal in fantasy, the nymphet Lolita, not in the real life child that is Dolores Haze.  This makes the tragedy all the more poignant.

Understanding the story does not mean accepting the reprehensible nature of Humbert’s actions.  Even he recognizes the potential psychological impact his actions could have on Lolita.  After Lolita and Humbert have sex for the first time, Humbert is racked with guilt.  A close up of Humbert driving the car with a blank stare on his face is accompanied by voice-over narration, “I felt more and more uncomfortable.  It was something quite special, that feeling, as if I were sitting with the small ghost of somebody I just killed.”  Granted, the ‘special’ nature of his guilt suggests that he finds some sort of thrill in it, but this is in keeping with the multidimensional nature of Humbert.  Nabokov has created a dazzlingly complex character in his Humbert, whose motivations we follow with disgust while still able to perhaps empathize with.  Nowhere in this film is Humbert portrayed as a victim.  The deplorable nature of his actions are made explicit.  Does Lolita manipulate him?  Of course, she does.  But we don’t feel bad for Humbert because his tyranny has already been established and this is her only sense of power in their relationship.  Even if one mistakes Lolita as a sexual predator, her character is far more complex because of it.  Lolita’s character is just as well developed as Humbert’s, even though we are kept at a distance from her by the story’s decision to create a point-of-view based on Humbert.

Critics say that the new version of Lolita presented “the child heroine as a sexual predator, with a worldly maturity far beyond her twelve years.”

I had to search the film for these criticisms.  In one scene, Lolita coaxes an increase in her allowance.  Here, the movie suggests that Humbert increasingly had to buy Lolita’s body with increasing amounts of gifts.  Lolita was conscious of her new position of power and used it to her advantage.  The scene is shot with Lolita on her knees in a medium close-up from a high angle.  She looks submissive.  By contrast, Humbert is sitting in a chair, shot from a low angle.  Conventionally, high angle shots suggest weakness and low angle shots suggest strength, but the movie reverses this convention to demonstrate how Lolita is able to use the appearance of weakness to achieve greater power in the relationship.  Appearing like a child, she speaks like an adult and is able to gain power over her tormentor.  Again, the poignancy is that in Humbert’s attempt to find the innocent lover of his youth, he has created a sexual being forced to grow up before her time and now capable of using adult means to get what she wants.

The greatest contribution of the newer version of Lolita, is that her character is developed through the usage of popular culture.  That was one of the most striking problems with Kubrick’s adaptation, in that he decided to cut all the culture allusions that were crucial to the novel.  This eliminated an essential aspect of Lolita’s character.

In the novel, all of her personalities, the adult as well as the childlike, were products of the movies she watched.  Movies created her persona.  She lived in a fantasy world of film where she was the starlet.  She was consumed by pop culture.

Humbert, an immigrant from Europe, is unfamiliar with American pop culture.  His intellectual professor is seduced by Lolita’s Hollywood fantasy.  Her bedroom is covered with photographs of movie stars.  Early in the film, he sees a photo of two Hollywood stars together on her wall.  She has written “H.H.” across the male star and drawn a heart on the female with an arrow pointing to the male.  At first, Lolita sees Humbert as a living movie star with whom she can be a starlet.  This is a direct visual recreation of Nabokov’s original text.  Lolita’s speech repeatedly takes the form of Hollywood clichés.  Sitting at a drugstore soda fountain, she asks Humbert, “Buy me a drink?”  She then returns to the child by ordering ice cream.  Pop culture inspires Lolita to enter the relationship, then it leads to the conflict between them, and ultimately, she uses it to sneak away to be with Quilty.

Unlike Kubrick’s, the newer version places us squarely in the proper era.  Lolita sings novelty hits of the late 1940‘s.  There are old-fashioned iceboxes, radios, automobile ashtrays.  This Lolita exists in a particular time and place and she is defined by the culture of her time.  Her room is plastered with movie posters and she reads movie magazines on the road.  She is reading about movie stars the first time Humbert sees her on the back lawn laying in a bath of sunshine.  She reads about movie stars in the car after they first have sex.  The story tells us that living in a world of pop fantasy can have devastating results.

Lolita’s favorite pop record plays on her turntable in a cheap motel room.  Humbert returns with the suspicion that she has just slept with another man.  A violent confrontation causes the needle to jump on the record while he demands to know the name of the man, but she refuses to answer.  He slaps her.  She transforms herself into a femme fatale seductress in both her action and her dialect, a character in a sordid melodrama.  The record reaches its end and all we hear is needle scratch.  When the music stops, so does the fantasy.

Humbert often sees Lolita listening to music.  He is forced to take her to movies.  She patterns her life after characters in the films she sees and searches for an identity through mass culture.  It is music and movies, in particular, that create her psyche.  Humbert never recognizes this.

In Kubrick’s version, Lolita and Humbert’s arguments resembled a typical fight between a father and daughter.  Sue Lyon plays Lolita like a spoiled princess.  In Lyne’s version, the fight is an all-out war with Dominque Swain playing Lolita on the verge of childish hysteria.  And all the sexual aspects of their relationship are brought out into the open.

Years later, when Humbert is reunited with Lolita, she is nothing but the dead leaf echo of the spirited girl he had once known.  He asks if she can ever forgive what he has done to her.  The question has meaning because we have seen the psychological damage of his seduction.  She was never a sexual predator out to get Humbert.  She was just a tragic young girl thrown into a relationship because she had nowhere else to go.

At the end of the film, as he leaves Lolita’s home and goes to kill Quilty, the narration returns and Humbert says that he regrets everything he did prior to killing Quilty, but not the act of murder itself.  He is presented as an intelligent, sensitive man who is poisoned by his affliction.  He feels guilt for what he has done.  He knows that he is a monster.  But he does not feel guilty for his bizarre sense of justice because he feels Quilty robbed him of his redemption.  This is Humbert’s psyche.  The audience is asked to sympathize with a madman, but even the madman urges us not to sympathize with him.  He has committed moral evil.  He has murdered Lolita’s soul and detached her from the human race.

The 1997 version of Lolita isn’t in the same league as the novel.  No movie could be.  But it’s a great film and I admire it immensely.  The acting, cinematography, soundtrack, narrative structure, and the painful development of two damaged characters, work together to create a stunning carnival mirror and work of art that has, unfortunately, been dismissed and forgotten.

Experience Lolita for what it is, not the twisted fantasy of a pedophile, but as a warning of how we corrupt our innocence.

One thought on “DEFENDING LOLITA

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