I have read Lolita differently at different times in my life. At first I read it flat-footedly, just as an object of dazzling beauty. I must have found it on my parents’ shelves, where I often foraged for reading on nights when I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t grasp much of what I grappled with in my fits of insomnia, both because everything passed through the gauze of my stale exhaustion and because most of my parents’ books described a world I could not yet imagine. I had just survived the seventh grade, and for months the greatest trial in my life had been the weekly bar and bat mitzvahs I dreaded but could not, on pain of rudeness, avoid. Week after week, I shifted in shoes that pinched my feet. On the sole disastrous occasion when I consented to a slow dance, my partner told me I rocked back and forth too violently, as in fact I had. It had yet to occur to me that I could be an object of sexual interest to anyone, probably because I, by dint of my glow-in-the-dark retainer and the attendant spittle I spewed whenever I spoke with enthusiasm, was emphatically not an object of sexual interest to anyone at the time.
Back then I was too naïve to register that Lolita should offend me, and it is a relief to even remember how unreservedly I was able to love it. Maybe the book did not outrage me because its subject matter struck me as the least important thing about it. The point, I felt, was just the breathless, flushed sexuality of it all. I had only lately graduated from crooked teeth and acne. Lolita’s subjectivity may remain a conspicuous omission, but her body glimmers in all its inimitable specificity on close to every page. Humbert Humbert pauses over the unlikeliest parts of her: “the glistening tracery of down on her forearm,” “the little scar on the lower part of her neat calf.” He admires the warm flush of her nape, the taper of her fingers, her “monkeyish feet.” He notices “the crenulated imprint left by the band of her shorts,” “the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs,” “the little bone twitching at the side of her dust-powdered ankle,” her toenails showing their “remnants of cherry-red polish.”
Surviving summer in D.C. is like living in a fever, and I read my contraband copy of Lolita pressed against the kitchen floor, thirsty for the coolness that was stored up in the tiles. The night was cellophane-sticky, and I felt fleshy in a bad, bulbous way. the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs! the glistening tracery of down on her forearm! The bodies around me—most intimately, my own—were beginning to smell sour and sprout hairs in strange places. It was revelatory to me that any body could be so electrically, aesthetically charged. Lolita had lips “as red as licked red candy,” and reading about her physicalized me.
There is an important erotic lesson to be discerned in what I was reading that perhaps I sensed, though I had at that point kissed only one person, and I had done it badly: our fumbling tongues had been like slimy fish squirming against each other. Lolita’s “slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet” was leagues more alluring than a kiss as clumsy as that. The lesson that was at least available to me, whether or not I learned it then, was that eroticism is not just a question of what you see but also a question of the quality of your observation. Rote sexual gestures—like my dud of a kiss, or all the writhing that transpired on the Boschian dance floors of the bar and bat mitzvahs—are invested with less sensuousness than the least wriggle of Lolita’s big toe.
The summer before eighth grade, I sensed this but did not yet know how to think it. I first read Lolita seriously in a high school English class, when I was sixteen and newly in love. And reading it then was like being sixteen and newly, lushly in love. Its language—irrepressible in its lavishness—is like those early hungers that throb so fully through you. It is like peeling your skin off so that what you want can prick you. “Pearl and umbra, with infinitely soft partings,” writes Humbert of a pornographic book he discovered as an infant. Pearl and umbra, sheer as a childhood memory. Even if there is something ridiculous about Vladimir Nabokov’s maximalism, his totality, offered up without reservation, touches me. The notes scrawled in the margins in my loopy high school hand proclaim such portentous platitudes as “orgasm = death,” and maybe I was right. Surely there is a terrible finality about the termination of our early passions, and Nabokov evokes, with wincing rapture, the lost intensities that constitute cherished worlds for each of us.
In high school I was learning how to read for symbols in addition to surfaces, and I read Lolita as a symbol for the things we love but cannot keep. I was old enough to know, if not accept, that my hormone-fueled infatuation would dim, just as Lolita’s charms fade into a banal adulthood. (She looks “pale and polluted” when Humbert sees her last.) “Lolita has to be impossibly young,” writes Elif Batuman in the London Review of Books, “because the brevity of youth is a metonym for the brevity of life, and the monstrousness of Humbert’s passion is the monstrousness of facelifts, or of Lenin’s tomb, or of the wedding cake in Great Expectations.” A passion for youth is a passion for what is at every moment in the process of decline. Lolita, then, is not only about the irretrievability of innocence but about the doomed structure of desire itself. Desire, like youth, is endangered by its very continuation. To try to remain young is to grow old. To want all the way to the culmination of consummation is to stop wanting. Orgasm = death. What romance doesn’t come to seem “pale and polluted” in the aftermath?
Most adult readers are not able to love Lolita as simply and unabashedly as I could when I was thirteen and freshly traumatized by the memory of picking popcorn out of my braces. When the novel was first published, it was banned in France and the U.K., and one reviewer dismissed it as “sheer unrestrained pornography.” More recent charges are more complex, if equally unoriginal. In The Real Lolita, a work of dutifully researched and duly gripping true-crime reportage that came out last fall, Sarah Weinman follows a young girl named Sally Horner. As the book’s title suggests, Weinman attempts to frame Horner as Lolita’s real-life analog. Lolita and Horner do have a lot in common. Like Lolita, Horner was abducted by a middle-aged man posing as her father when she was still a preteen. Her ordeal began in 1948 and lasted 21 months. Nabokov acknowledges his debt to Sally, such as it is, in a parenthetical in which Humbert muses, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year-old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?” The implicit answer is yes.
It’s clear, then, that Sally was one inspiration, surely among many. (Alice in Wonderland is often cited, as is Nabokov’s friend Henry Lanz, a Stanford Slavist with a scandalously open taste for prepubescent girls.) What is less evident is what Weinman hopes to make of this fact. Even if Nabokov had taken Sally as a model for Dolores Haze, it wouldn’t matter as far as Lolita’s luminosity is concerned—a truth that Weinman grudgingly concedes. “Knowing about Sally Horner does not diminish Lolita’s brilliance, or Nabokov’s audacious inventiveness,” she admits in her introduction. Still, she seems intent on suggesting that Nabokov is at fault. “The abuse that Sally Horner, and other girls like her, endured should not be subsumed by dazzling prose,” she writes.
There’s no need for The Real Lolita, which fascinates by virtue of its sheer salaciousness, to justify its existence any further. “Beauty is its own excuse for being,” wrote Emerson of a flower, and so, as far as I’m concerned, is the mindless pleasure of binge-delving into the freakish foibles of creeps and criminals. But Weinman contorts herself in an effort to establish the ethical import of her intervention. “With this book, Sally Horner takes precedence,” she proclaims. “Like the butterflies that Vladimir Nabokov so loved, she emerges from the cage of both fiction and fact, ready to fly free.”
These remarks make for a tired addition to the anti-Lolita canon, which has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. The present wave of criticism began in 2015 with Rebecca Solnit’s viral essay “Men Explain Lolita to Me.” Solnit’s piece is, in large part, a rebuttal targeting a male interlocutor’s unwelcome assertion that his “favorite novels are disparaged in a fairly shallow way.” “To read Lolita and ‘identify’ with one of the characters,” the male interlocutor pronounces, “is to entirely misunderstand Nabokov.” But no one, Solnit replies, “gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett. It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” Her disapproval anticipated both Weinman’s potboiler and a spate of recent articles with titles like “I Re-Read Lolita in the Age of #MeToo—and I’m No Longer Standing for Its Overt Misogyny.”
It goes without saying that the revelations of #MeToo give us good reason to grapple with questions about the relationship between men, morals and art. One question is how we should treat—or mistreat—sexual transgressors themselves. Another is what we should do with art created by lechers, particularly if it remains, despite everything, defiantly beautiful. A final, separate question asks after the moral status of artworks portraying the abuses we are anxious to condemn. In our (understandable) zeal to purge and purify, we have run these three questions together, assuming that artworks representing wrongdoing are essentially reenacting it.
The suspicions that Solnit stoked are by now both familiar and frayed. So many of the repudiations of Lolita in circulation today share an old, insipid insistence on interpreting Humbert as hairy delinquent and Lolita as live, literal little girl. But we can hate men who hurt women without hating what they make. And we can hate both bad men and their art without hating every book that dares to depict them with any measure of panache—or even, God forbid, loveliness.
One mistake that detractors of Lolita (and Balthus’s suggestive paintings of young girls, and Game of Thrones, and just about everything else that has come in for an acid bath in recent years) often make is that they fail to distinguish between representation and endorsement. This distinction is not applicable in the case of actual sex pests, who do not depict brutality but enact it. Art, in contrast, has the option of portraying what it does not itself perform. In order to condemn something—in order to represent it as harrowing or awful—we must represent it in the first place. Fiction, when uncensored, can censure. And Lolita does.
The book, the unofficial subtitle of which is “The Confession of a White Widowed Male,” is rife with near-outright admissions of Humbert’s wrongdoing. When Lolita creeps sobbing into her protector’s bed in the wake of her mother’s death, he makes a chilling remark. “You see,” he concedes, “she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” This line comes at the end of Part One, where it can quiver into the empty half-page that follows. Later, in an uncharacteristic burst of regret, Humbert openly acknowledges that “even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.” And of course, Humbert’s dramatic indictment of Lolita’s second kidnapper functions to convict Humbert himself. “You took her at the age when lads play with erector sets,” Humbert reproaches his rival-cum-doppelgänger (who is wearing “a purple bathrobe, very like one [Humbert] had”). “A little downy girl still wearing poppies,” he continues, “still eating popcorn in the colored gloam.” When he ultimately murders his double, we can rightly regard him as having exacted revenge on himself.
And then there are the many moments when Humbert embeds hints of his own myopia within his ostensibly strident monologue. Once, he overhears Lolita in the midst of a private conversation—and it occurs to him he does “not know a thing about my darling’s mind.” For all of Weinman’s grumbling, Lolita is allowed to be herself. Her brutalization stains Humbert’s chatter like a bruise. “Oh no, not again,” Humbert imagines her crying, when he imagines resting his head on her lap. Lolita is the perfect portrait of victimhood, for it models how the cruelest violations colonize not only our bodies but also our self-descriptions—how a woman’s suffering is left to saturate the stories told on her behalf.
So Lolita condemns its content. But there’s a second charge leveled at Lolita and other examples of “controversial” art that’s trickier to dismiss. It is often claimed that works like these cause the harms they illustrate by inspiring imitators. Readers of Goethe’s tongue-in-cheek The Sorrows of Young Werther failed to appreciate its irony and tripped over themselves to emulate its suicidal protagonist, offing themselves en masse. As an empirical fact of the matter, Lolita has not given rise to mass abductions. Even if systems of artworks jointly glorifying the same behavior can be expected to normalize what they depict—just think of the accusations (in my view, justifiably) levied against heterosexual pornography—the consequence of any individual work of literature is impossible to predict or measure. All the more so when the work of literature is so wholly idiosyncratic! Lolita treats pedophilia—a pathology that fascinates precisely because the taboo against it is so widespread and so inviolable. The hundreds of books that enshrine boring, garden-variety misogyny are far likelier to fortify the architecture of real-world oppression. If you’re really worried about the pernicious effects of literature on women’s lives, go pick on Philip Roth, whose proclivity for stereotyping actually makes some of his books uglier and less interesting. The Humberts of the world are vanishingly rare, but I’m besieged by Portnoys.
Besides, Lolita and many of the erotic novels in its cohort do not normalize: their whole point is to appall. Not all fictions invite, much less license, us to apply their logic to our lives. In Georges Bataille’s delightfully vile The Story of the Eye, the main characters enucleate a corpse and insert its eyeballs into an onlooker’s vagina. In J. G. Ballard’s eerily oneiric Crash, a cabal of car crash fetishists ejaculate into the orifices of gaping lesions. And throughout the Marquise de Sade’s unreadably stiff—and not in a good way—corpus, necrophilia abounds. No one protests that readers are likely to recreate these perversions, though I would be the first to read any true-crime chronicle about someone who did.
What the man mis-explaining Lolita to Solnit asserted is not true: to identify with the characters in a novel is not always to misunderstand it, or to read it shallowly. But identification certainly does not exhaust the possibilities and pleasures of fiction. Imagining characters and their predicaments to be literally real and thereby marshaling just the sort of feelings you would harbor toward their real-world counterparts is one perfectly good way of reading. It’s just that this is not the only good way. Different works make different interpretive demands. And even a single book (at least if it’s a good one) presents a rich density of interpretive possibilities. I would be cheating myself if I committed to a sole reading—a single exoneration—of Lolita, a book that justifies its existence in so many different ways.
William Gass once remarked that the people in fiction “are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes.” Reading Lolita as a symbol is not the same as reading Sally Horner, who lived and suffered, as a symbol. Reading Lolita as a symbol is not even remotely like collapsing the women around you into symbols, any more than reading Gregor Samsa as a symbol amounts to wronging all the insects in your yard. It matters, morally, that Lolita is a vision and a vapor, lacking a body to be debased or a voice to be silenced.
Watching denizens of the #MeToo movement squint so suspiciously at a book I have found so beautiful in so many ways, I can’t help but feel that we are depriving ourselves to no end. We, the survivors of male abusers and the victims of workplace harassment, are supposed to become gluttons for the additional punishment of excommunicating artworks bearing the slightest tint of taint. But what good is this festival of renunciation? It only broadens the scope of our already substantial losses.
This reading around, Lolita seemed to me to enact a fantasy of impossibly perfect curation, like Ingmar Bergman movies in which every scene is composed as exactly as a painting. Life could never look so good, which is why we need the movies. The point of erotica, at least to some extent, is that it is so radically unlike fumbling tongues in middle school or struggles with stubborn zippers. Books like Lolita and Story of O are fairy tales. In them, desire does not undo itself. Pain does not hurt. Youth does not age.
For reasons I cannot fully adduce, much less understand, my favorite part of Lolita has always been the scene in which Humbert orgasms against Lolita as she is sitting in his lap. As Humbert unforgettably put it, “I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.” But this dramatic climax is not the part of the chapter that I love the most. Before the buttock-crushing, Lolita and Humbert mock-struggle over an apple. Lolita: “Give it back.” Humbert: “I produced Delicious.” This sentence, one of the simplest in Lolita, is one of the most moving: I produced Delicious. Even the apple acquires, as if in a spell, a name, a carnality, a talismanic significance. Everything in Lolita, from Lolita’s socks to the bathroom mirror, drips with delectability. The book achieves an opulence that is fantastically discontinuous with the dull drudgery of life.
And why should a woman have to relegate her identity as a reader and a devotee of enthrallment to a place of secondary importance? Historically, sexists are the ones who have urged female-presenting persons to be women and women only—political placeholders devoid of further content. Isn’t it my prerogative to fill myself in as someone with an extra-political identity, someone to whom the sheer beauty of Lolita matters? So I protest in my small voice: every object in the book is enchanted. Ethics obligates, but aesthetics thrills. Nabokov’s prose is dense with lyric, velveteen with assonance: Delicious.
Art credit: Rachel Gregor