Home > Literature, Reviews > The Insidious Perspective of Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

The Insidious Perspective of Fiction: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita

Were Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita not centrally concerned with one of western society’s most controversial taboos, it would remain one of the 20th Century’s paragons of literary fiction. Nabokov was a prodigious prose stylist, and his 1955 novel is magnificently written, a giddy rush of wit, innuendo, puns, sly allusions, vivid descriptions, and hilarious, wicked observations of and judgements on human foibles and American culture alike. His infamous unreliable narrator protagonist Humbert Humbert, the learned, urbane European “gentleman” nursing an illicit fascination for prepubescent girls and the titular American nymphet (to use his coinage referring to female minors with a certain inestimable sexual spark) in particular, is surely one of the great characters in the modern novel.

To call him “great” does not imply that he is good. Humbert is pathetic and sympathetic, confident and simpering, delightful and repulsive, a cultured monster like Hannibal Lecter, a more elusive Humbertesque character who would come to define the type. He coolly assesses and dismisses most of the people he encounters through the novel as inherent beneath him, but his snobbish judgement of their inferiority is only rarely applied to his own reprehensible conduct. The reprehensibility of that conduct – he abducts and repeatedly rapes an underaged girl, to state matters in strict legally-defined terms – must be constantly kept fixed in the foreground while reading Lolita, because Humbert’s (and Nabokov’s) intoxicating aesthetic reveries and elaborate web of deceptive justifications insidiously obfuscate the moral dimensions of his actions.

Lolita has been tarred since its publication as button-pushing tittilation and even brushed aside as mere pornography, while Nabokov has been pilloried as a dirty old man for writing it. Dismissing the book as smut is a simple and surely comforting response to its unsettling effect on the reader: its seductive inculcation of its audience into the crimes of its protagonist and the troubling implications for fictional perspective. The unreliable narrator element that Humbert typifies is generally understood in a rather literal manner: although the reader views a text’s events through the imagined gaze (usually male, and Humbert’s is just that, with a twisted intensity) of the narrating character and thus comes to at least identify and perhaps even like this narrator-character, the character’s version of events cannot be trusted, cannot be believed, may be an embellishment, a lie, a perversion. In the most common cases that this narrator-character’s perspective is the only one provided, this trust gap between reader and narrator destabilizes the consistency and internal truth-claims of the fictional work.

There is an easily-detected irony in that last phrase, and it’s one that Nabokov delights in throughout Lolita. Fiction is not truth. Indeed, it is its precise opposite: a lie. At its best, an artful lie, even a profound one, that in its culturally-heightened ideal reveals greater fundamental truths than could an accurate recitation of verifiable facts about the world (which is also far from how the coyly-named “non-fiction” functions, though that is a discussion for another time). Nabokov openly derides that ideal of fiction as “topical trash”, and considers it “childish” to read a work of fiction in order to strive to understand something important about an author’s place and times. His 1956 afterword to Lolita, from which these observations are torn, also focuses on the passages (“favorite hollows”, he calls them) in which his words convey pure sensation, as in Humbert’s obsessively involved description of the bodily movements and contortions made by his preteen paramour Dolores Haze (whom he fondly nicknames Lolita) while playing tennis.

It’s instructive to consider the corollary of this passage, however: namely, that Dolores’ exquisite corporeal aesthetics do not lead to success on the court. Indeed, her impeccable form, romanticized to sublime heights by Nabokov through Humbert’s desirous aestheticized gaze but also through her own internalization of the effects of that gaze (she reads movie magazines constantly, absorbing the cinematic star’s ideal of feminine beauty), detracts from her chances of winning. This reflects quintessential facets of Dolores’ character, of how Humbert’s fascination with and possession of her body is not paired with intellectual fascination (she’s moody and a bit shallow, her interests those of a standard girl her age, in many ways). She is always a bit of a mystery to Humbert even while she is held as his sexual captive, so seemingly simple and yet so inherent inscrutable even to his learned and nimble mind.

But just as Dolores’ visually-evident physical prowess does not make her a tennis champion, Nabokov’s evident prowess with prose quite purposely does not reveal truths. Instead, it shows how truths are constructed, Frankenstein-like, from lies, which is then labelled fiction and sold at a bookstore (though not at so many, any longer). Humbert lived a lie with his Lolita for a lengthy period of time, posing as her father while acting as her lover. His narrative account of that time is another lie, making excuses for his immoral behaviour, his shocking acts, and displaying just enough humour and self-deprecation and well-placed pathos to wheedle the reader’s tentative, fleeting forgiveness. And Nabokov, in constructing this nesting-doll of self-reflexive literary dishonesty, displays fiction’s insidious power to deceive, to pervert the certainty of meaning and of moral conclusions. If words can create such impressions and conceal the inherent nature of things in a novel about a grown man who loves a young girl below the age of consent, what even more troubling perversions can they exemplify and coax into being?

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