Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 29, 2010

“it was she who seduced me”

Courtesy FoodCollection

Lolita (1955). Vladimir Nabokov.

While probably not the granddaddy of banned books (a title reserved, perhaps, for Ulysses, or Candide), this one must be at least a great uncle on the family tree of books that make the truly nervous want to lock up their children and close down libraries and publishing houses.

Who wouldn’t object to a novel about a pedophilic relationship, narrated by the pedophile himself? Banned and a best-seller from the moment it hit the bookstores in France in 1955, Lolita‘s reputation is well-known.

Corruption runs through every character: Humbert Humbert’s perversion, Lolita’s sexuality (at 12, already not a virgin when Humbert takes her in hand), her mother’s desperation, Quilty’s secret competition with Humbert for Lo’s “affections”. Is there a single admirable character in this book? Clearly, here’s a perfect example of a text of “no redeeming value”, the argument once used to justify banning pornographic movies, magazines, etc.

So, one is forced to ask, what made Graham Greene give it a rave review in the London Times (1955 — accessible only on the other side of a pay-wall; thank you, Mr. Murdoch)? Why does the Modern Library rank it in the top ten novels of the 20th century? It’s got to be Nabokov’s writing.

A master with language (and remember, English wasn’t his native tongue), Nabokov gives us Humbert, the cosmopolitan intellectual writing his memoirs from jail, one of the most unreliable narrators in literary history. Yet, his sad longings and pitiful explanations very nearly make him a sympathetic character. Then there’s Lolita (whom we see only through Humbert’s eyes): tempting, innocent, pliant, reluctant, childish — perfectly made to bring Humbert to his eventual doom, and so bored with the whole thing. And Quilty, Humbert’s “secret sharer” who keeps popping up, until Humbert finally kills him; his final scene, wrapped in a quilt and collapsed in a heap at the top of his stairs leads to a typical Humbert quip: “quilted Quilty, Clare Obscure.”

My Modern Library edition includes a sort of afterword in which Nabokov very neatly differentiates between pornography and literature:

Obscenity must be mated with banality because every kind of aesthetic enjoyment has to be entirely replaced by simple sexual stimulation which demands the traditional word for direct action upon the patient…. Thus, in pornographic novels, action has to be limited to the copulation of clichés. Style, structure, imagery should never distract the reader from his tepid lust.

Style, structure and imagery. Lolita has these, which is what makes it such a fascinating book. If it were pornography, it would be so formulaic as to be boring and unsurprising. But there’s no formula here at all. Humbert is despicable yet fascinating — the train wreck you can’t take your eyes from. And all the while, you have to keep asking yourself, Is he lying here? Did she really say that? Is there anything he’s hiding from me?

Well, anyway, this post is supposed to be about banned books. There’s no question why Lolita was banned and has continued to be controversial. But Nabokov makes another point in his afterword:

No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who post the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master’s chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown…. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.

Oh, bliss, to be seduced by great literature. I’ll have what he’s having, thanks.

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