A gift for comedy seldom comes to a writer unaccompanied. Usually it attaches to some less endearing quality, such as a tendency to preach and moralize. Sometimes, as in parody, it is coupled with the flinty disposition of the critic. Sometimes, as in satire, it is joined to a spirit of ferocious indignation. But of all such pairings the oddest by far is the conjunction of a sense of humor with a sense of horror. The result of this union is satire of a very special kind, in which vice or folly is regarded not so much with scorn as with profound dismay and a measure of tragic sympathy. Literature is not rich in examples of such work, but certain of Mark Twain’s writings come to mind, as does Nikolai Gogol’s “Dead Souls.” And to this abbreviated list we may now add Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (Putnam).
It is the horrific rather than the comic aspect of the novel that has captured critical attention. This is not surprising, since Mr. Nabokov has coolly prodded one of the few remaining raw nerves of the twentieth century. Accustomed as the modern reader may be to scanning, with perfect composure, those clumps of naughty monosyllables that make up the ordinary “powerful” novel of sexual deviation, he is apt to find himself wholly disconcerted by Mr. Nabokov’s restrained and witty chronicle of the lust of a man for a child. Such a lust, it must be admitted, is monstrous. But it must also be understood that the monsters Mr. Nabokov has created belong to mythology or poetry, not to naturalism. They have about them a queer surcharge of meaning, as if they were enormous similes for the insoluble predicaments of life. And while the details of their surroundings—an America of filling stations, motels, and roller rinks—are conjured up with the preternatural clarity of a view through binoculars, the very intensity of this vision admits of no possibility that we are looking at an ordinary world.
The novel purports to be the manuscript of a man who is awaiting trial for murder, and who chooses to crouch behind the pseudonym Humbert Humbert because that name, he feels, “expresses the nastiness best.” His tone, however, is not the characteristic whine of the penitent but an artful modulation of lyricism and jocularity that quickly seduces the reader into something very like willing complicity. He was born in France, of mixed European parentage, Humbert begins, and typically adds, “I am going to pass around in a minute some lovely, glossy-blue picture-postcards.” His father owned a luxurious hotel on the Riviera, and it was there, when he was thirteen, that Humbert met a little girl his own age, named Annabel, and the two fell agonizingly, shamelessly, and clumsily in love. Only their inexperience and the surveillance of their elders prevented the immediate consummation of this romance, but one day—the last of Annabel’s stay—they managed to slip away to a desolate portion of the beach for a brief session of caresses. “I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling, when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.”
Although he takes a sardonic view of psychoanalysis and all its works, Humbert is inclined to believe that his blighted romance in that kingdom by the sea has given him a permanent sexual bias toward little girls between the ages of nine and fourteen who exhibit a special fey grace and insidious charm that link them to Annabel, and whom he designates “nymphets.” As for grown women:
The human females I was allowed to wield were but palliative agents. I am ready to believe that the sensations I derived from natural fornication were much the same as those known to normal big males consorting with their normal big mates in that routine rhythm which shakes the world. The trouble was that those gentlemen had not, and I had, caught glimpses of an incomparably more poignant bliss.
Since society employs a sterner word for this rapture, Humbert Humbert lives a thoroughly miserable life, in which periods of excruciating temptation alternate with residency in the better madhouses of Europe and, eventually, of America. But at last, in a New England town, Humbert comes upon a little girl who seems an absolute incarnation of his lost love, at the sight of whom the intervening twenty-five years of his life “tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.” Her name is Dolores Haze, called Lolita or Lo. Her age is twelve. In a desperate extremity of desire, Humbert marries Lolita’s mother, solely to have access to the child during the brief period of her nymphancy. This heroic sacrifice is promptly and abundantly rewarded by the fates, who arrange that the mother should be struck down and killed by an automobile. Humbert’s most polluted dream has finally come true.
Not altogether a beast, in spite of his grotesque passion, Humbert determines to dose the child with sleeping pills and achieve his transport by indirection, out of a scrupulous regard for her purity. To his consternation and delight, however, it is Lolita who boldly, directly seduces him. Poor Humbert, it seems, is not even her first lover, for she has been learning about sex at her summer camp, and so assiduously has she studied that she finds her eager stepfather somewhat maladroit. With this demonic orphan in tow, a giddy Humbert sets off at once on an aimless tour of America, stopping at every garish resort, Corn Palace, or zoo that promises to keep the nymphet amused and compliant. But Lolita’s appetite is no match for Humbert’s:
There she would be, a typical kid picking her nose while engrossed in the lighter sections of a newspaper, as indifferent to my ecstasy as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.
Inevitably there are quarrels, and inevitably Humbert wins them, for reasons that are made clear in a quietly horrible passage that echoes through the book: “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”
Ultimately, Lolita does find somewhere else to go. She accepts the protection of Clare Quilty, a playwright and pervert with whom she has been conducting a secret flirtation. And so dexterously does Quilty whisk her from sight that several years elapse before Humbert is able to locate his wayward nymphet and learn the name of her seducer, whom he has determined to kill. By then, Lolita is no longer a nymphet, being all of seventeen. And she is married, though not to the perverse playwright, who threw her out when she refused to indulge his taste for sexual fancywork, but to a deaf and earnest young veteran by whom she is hugely pregnant. Yet in spite of “her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose-flesh white arms,” Humbert knows “as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” For her own part, Lolita remembers her bestial stepfather without rancor, but she is politely incredulous at his proposal that she leave her husband for him: “In her washed-out gray eyes, strangely spectacled, our poor romance was for a moment reflected, pondered upon, and dismissed like a dull party.” And now the real horror of their previous relationship, which Mr. Nabokov has kept in solution, so to speak, by skillful comedy, is at last permitted to crystallize. Humbert realizes that the most miserable of family lives would have been preferable to “the parody of incest, which . . . was the best I could offer the waif.”
On his way to assassinate the playwright, he reflects that
Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
But the art that palliates Humbert’s misery has not notably relieved the distress of reviewers, most of whom have felt obliged to ask themselves, “Why has the author done this horrid thing?” Some have concluded, rather desperately, that he hasn’t done it at all. According to one interpretation, Mr. Nabokov has merely written an allegory of a European intellectual who falls in love with America and discovers, to his gentle sorrow, that the country is still a trifle immature. Aside from the difficulty of assigning roles (who plays New Jersey?), the fact that Mr. Nabokov is obviously capable of writing such a story without the aid of a nympholeptic allegory throws considerable doubt on the argument. It has also been suggested, ingeniously, that Mr. Nabokov really wanted to write a tale of romantic passion in the grand, or nineteenth-century, manner, and found that the only way to make such a passion interesting to the contemporary reader was to disguise it as psychopathology. If this interpretation is correct, one can only say that Mr. Nabokov has beautifully concealed his disappointment at having to portray his heroine as a child.
In view of the great amount of thought that has been devoted to the question, it doubtless would seem light-headed to suggest that the author wrote the story merely because he found it fascinating. But perhaps one might plausibly suggest that the artistic (as distinct from the clinical) interest of the novel is all the justification its story requires. For the bizarre relationship of Humbert and Lolita lies at the very heart of the complex and pervasive irony of the book. Sometimes it is an explicit term in the satiric equation, as when Humbert, in a macabre effort to be a good father to his diminutive paramour, immerses himself in wholesome and thoroughly American books on child care. But sometimes the relationship functions invisibly, like one of those strange lamps that scientists and outdoor advertisers delight to use—the kind that gives off no light of its own but kindles a lurid glow in certain pigments For example, there is a conversation, between Humbert and the headmistress of a girls’ school, in which Mr. Nabokov enjoys himself at the expense of progressive education. A mildly satirical point is made by the woman’s cheerful prattle about educating Lolita for adjustment to a group life of malts, movies, and hair-fixing parties. But the total effect of the passage depends upon the reader’s awareness of Lolita’s actual circumstances and Humbert’s melancholy account of her “sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.” Having previously imparted this knowledge, Mr. Nabokov is able to imply, pleasantly, that the modern educator’s sanitary notion of “adjustment to life” leaves the tragedy of life quite out of the calculation, and he is able to do this with the same stroke of the pen by which he indicates the vast distance that separates Lolita from happier children.
Instances of this compound irony might be multiplied indefinitely, for the story of Humbert’s journey across America is no more a simple chronicle of a wandering madman than is the tale of Chichikov’s journey across the Russia of “Dead Souls” merely an account of a roving swindler. A great many aspects of the national life are thrown into high and ludicrous relief at the approach of Humbert and Lolita, and the relationship of the miserable couple is set off sharply by this background of normal American life. The reciprocal flow of irony gives to both the characters and their surroundings the peculiar intensity of significance that attends the highest art. The special class of satire to which “Lolita” belongs is small but select, and Mr. Nabokov has produced one of its finest examples. ♦