Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again by Graham Vickers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
No novel polarizes opinion like “Lolita”.
True or false?
I thought I’d be on a sure bet, but if you assess the polarization by GR ratings details, this statement is wrong.
Its average rating is about 3.8. 86% of readers like it (a rating of three, four or five). 34% rate it five, 29% four, while only 5% rate it one.
I was going to contrast it with “American Psycho”. How’s this:
Its average rating is about 3.77. 86% of readers like it. 30% rate it five, 34% four, while only 5% rate it one. (The main difference is that the four and five star ratings are more or less reversed.)
What about “Ulysses”?
Its average rating is about 3.77. 82% of readers like it. 36% rate it five, 24% four, while 8% rate it one.
So I’ll recast my proposition: those who love “Lolita” adore it, those who hate it, vehemently hate it.
Usually for moral, rather than aesthetic, reasons.
The question is: why?
I thought “Chasing Lolita” might have the answers.
It came recommended by Paul Bryant, a GR friend who is knowledgeable about these things.
Paul’s and my opinions about “Lolita” and “American Psycho” (but not “Ulysses”) diverge.
However, I assumed that, if Paul liked “Chasing Lolita”, it must at least argue the case for and against “Lolita” as well as Paul is able to.
Instead, I found it to be a second-rate, almost pseudo-intellectual enterprise.
Admittedly, I learned a few facts that I didn’t know (Vickers usually refers to them as “factoids”), although I probably would have known them, if I had already read the works in his very limited bibliography.
My biggest gripe is that you can’t detect a subtle reading of the novel, whether pro or con.
It doesn’t reflect an aesthetic response to the work as literature.
It wants to capture the sense of scandal in the public response to it, whether or not people had read it (or seen any of the films based on it).
It is mediocre and tabloid in tone. It is the work of a hack, a hired gun. (I was going to say “workmanlike”, but that would insult the working class.)
Maybe Vickers can smell a controversy, but he reveals no passion of his own, and he doesn’t do justice to the passions of others.
He plays it safe. He doesn’t want to alienate anyone. The most important thing for him is that you buy the book, regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, regardless of whether you intend to read it, as long as you give him your money.
Ultimately, by trying to please everybody, Vickers pleases nobody.
He’s like the first person to write a biography of a writer. It’s good that somebody bothered, but usually it doesn’t take long for somebody or something more distinguished to arrive.
All Chase and No Catch
What annoys me most is the way the book has been presented to us.
The title “Chasing Lolita” is racy, as if he or we are “pursuing” the character herself, not “investigating” her innermost secrets (which it fails to do anyway).
The book plays on the reader’s prurience, without satisfying either erotic or intellectual curiosity.
The less said about it, the better.
Take Me to Your Lolita
I think there are three general responses to “Lolita” as a literary work.
One, which is mine, is that every aspect of human behavior is a legitimate subject matter of art.
To write about something, does not imply endorsement of the moral stance, nor does it imply that the author has some first-hand experience (i.e., the suggestion that Nabokov himself must have been a paedophile).
The other two responses reflect the way you feel about the character, Lolita.
You can see her as an innocent victim of a paedophile, and sympathise with her, so much so that you think her story should never have been told.
She is a symptom of the premature sexualisation of children, and the whole issue of children’s sexuality and awareness of sexual behavior must be swept under the carpet, even in a novel intended for mature adults.
Alternatively, while not approving Humbert Humbert in any way, you can treat her as a sexually precocious brat who deserves no sympathy.
For those who have never read the novel, the last interpretation seems to be the one that prevails.
The very word “Lolita” has become shorthand for adolescent girls who “prey” on men’s libidos, as if the men are somehow innocent and vulnerable and not in control of their sexuality.
“It wasn’t my fault, she made me do it.”
She’s jailbait of the most cynical and calculating kind.
As if all girls aren’t equally deserving of protection from men who would prey on them, for the very reason that they are children.
Part of Nabokov’s genius is that “Lolita” is actually Humbert’s story, and he tells it his way.
The Lolita that we get to know is his creation, although in reality both Humbert and Lolita are obviously Nabokov’s creations.
However, we the audience see Lolita with Humbert’s eyes.
This puts us in an uncomfortable position.
Do we empathise with Humbert, because we see things from his point of view?
Are we compromised or criminally implicated as accessories, because we see and do what he does?
Do we take his honesty for granted, because he is the first person narrator who is effectively us?
Do we distance and protect ourselves from these moral dilemmas by treating him as an unreliable narrator?
These are the sorts of question I was hoping Vickers would at least ask.
The converse of the way Nabokov tells Humbert’s story is that we can’t know Lolita’s story.
She doesn’t speak a lot. To the extent that she does, Humbert summarises or paraphrases her.
We don’t know what words are on her lips or in her mind. We don’t know what she thinks about her plight. We witness her solely as object, and not as subject.
We don’t know how much to sympathise with her, even though a natural temptation is to relate to her as the victim.
On the other hand, there is a temptation for both Lolita and reader to empathise with Humbert in a perverse version of Stockholm Syndrome.
Ultimately, the whole form and content of the story conspires against the person, the child that is Lolita.
She is the one person in the novel who is most deserving of sympathy, yet she is the one who has been most demonized in popular culture.
The Premature Sexualisation of Children
What I find most disgusting is the people for whom Lolita is a cause (the crusade against premature sexualisation of children), yet at heart there is no personal sympathy for this one example.
It’s as if Lolita had to fall, had to suffer, so that others might be saved. She is a lost cause, better focus on the plight of others. We can talk her down, as if she were a real tart, and we can use her name to demonize others. It’s OK, she’s only a fictional character anyway, as if real girls aren’t hurt, when they in turn get labeled “Lolita”.
While I don’t condone the sexual abuse of children, I feel quite strongly that other aspects of premature sexualisation are equally deserving of condemnation, e.g., placing three and four year old girls in beauty pageants and grooming them for a lifetime of the presentation of self as an object of beauty, rather than as a fully-rounded person of intelligence, social functionality, energy and charm.
As long as girls and women present themselves solely as objects of beauty and adornment, there will be men who cannot react to them in any other way.
This social definition of beauty and sexual attraction is what really interests me about the novel.
It’s very easy to judge Humbert solely as a paedophile and to assume that his sex drive is solely dictated by the desire to possess and defile a girl’s childhood and innocence.
I think society has to make a genuine scientific attempt to understand the motivation of Humbert, if not paedophiles generally, as an objective sexual aesthetic that just happens to be taboo in our society in this age.
Humbert describes his love of Lolita in terms of aesthetics, as well as an attempt to relive his unconsummated early childhood relationship with Annabel Leigh.
It is too glib to treat Humbert as disingenuous and an unreliable narrator.
That just avoids the real issue.
So much of our culture is concerned with the polarity between youth and age, innocence and experience, naivety and wisdom, ugliness and beauty.
These dichotomies are the immediate context of sexuality, yet we understand so little about them.
As a result, we are condemned to perpetuate ignorance and guilt and lack of personal, social and sexual fulfillment.
Not only is it important that science investigate this subject matter, it’s vital that art be able to portray and explore motivations and options (whether transgressive or not) openly and honestly and creatively.
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