In this day and age, is it worth it to revisit Lolita?
For me, after I got very into audiobooks over the past decade, I recently had to ask myself this question. As I exhausted all my favorite novels and must-read literary canons over the last few years, #MeToo then happened. I found myself wondering: Has this book, as they say, aged badly? Fanciful prose or not, is Nabakov’s famous opus no longer appropriate in the 21st century?
I do remember reading back in my precocious and wannabe-edgy early twenties; why I specifically recall posting quotes on MySpace. There was no question that I was absolutely mesmerized by the language. Was younger-me, however, glamorizing child abuse way back then?
The whole molestation and kidnapping plot struck me as fucked up, surely, but like in a literary way. Honestly, I don’t think I was ever quite the sort to romanticize the disturbing premise as a “love story.” Yet it was quite fascinating.
I did consider it brilliant, and worthy of the reputation. I did watch the two film adaptations as well, which did not hold up. But now, as a more well-read and more knowledgeable man (of Humbert’s age no less!), it does feel kind of wrong to just read this like a normal novel.
I’m not saying old problematic stories must be—as they say so insincerely—“cancelled.” But I am saying that there are some questions that need to be considered. We need to think about these things.
Anyhow, I apologize for this droning disclaimer, but allow us to enter comedian Jamie Loftus’ 10-part Lolita Podcast. I first became familiar with the Robot Chicken writer’s excellent Mensa podcast, which highlighted so many problematic issues with that particular organization. It turned out, her latest was the exact context I so very much needed before revisiting.
A progressive and feminist take on Lolita comes at as a welcoming time as ever. It may be even more relevant to male readers (the demographic who tend to grossly take the notorious unreliable narrator at his word). As Loftus share so expertly, there is an extremely long and detailed history of popular culture not getting the point of this book.
Firstly, let’s make it absolutely clear. There is no question Humbert Humbert is the villain of this story. This really isn’t interpretable, look it up, author Vladimir Nabakov wrote extensively on how opposed he was to glamorizing the abuse of 12-year olds and calling it romantic. Again and again, he fought with the romantic notions that outgrew his novel and into its various adaptations.
Merely a cursory literary analysis gives endless evidence: Pedophile Humbert is introduced as a criminal in the introduction, the unreliability of his narration is laid out instantly! He is profoundly unlikable, and is consciously intended to be that way. He constantly lies to everyone around him. He spends his free time at the pool ogling children. He is contemptuous and hates all around him, insulting every random he meets with the worst kind of snobbery. Seriously, just because he claims he toxically loves one person so much and that is supposed to make him some sort of flawed hero?
He is pettily cruel to his new wife Charlotte Haze, he gaslights her, he fantasizing killing her in excruciating detail, he dismisses the tragic death of her son. (So much death, by the way. A theme that sure comes up a lot with his mother and his exes. But I digress.) Hell, if one really reads between the lines, he may have killed her himself and lied to the reader about the car accident just as he compulsively lies to his victim and every single person they meet. He drugs her with sleeping pills, then he drugs the eponymous character on their first night together so he can take off her clothes and fondle her, all while writing beautiful poetry of the sky-blue color of these rapey creep pills.
Indeed, Nabakov seems to be taking up a personal challenge to create the most creepy and cringing scenarios imaginable, and then dress it up with the most flowery of poetic language like it’s some kind of dare to see if the audience will buy his take. This takes seriously writing skill, no doubt. It can even be funny. But how very unfortunate that so often the public does just and are so easily impressed with this guy.
On the subject of the unreliable narration, the most egregious monstrosity of all must be the first rape after he picks her up from camp. The famous line, “Gentlemen of the jury. I wasn’t even her first.” As if that mattered. But whatever adolescent sexual experimentation his victim may or may not have engaged in, the very next day she specifically states that he “tore something inside me.” He was just plain lying through his teeth.
And then, the heartbreaking quote that really gives away the nature of this relationship. “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.” To further illustrate, how Lo “sobs, every night, every night.”
So romantic, amiright? Furthermore, he threatens that if she turns him in then she’ll be a pitiful ward of the state. He calls her a whore and a slut and unjustly imagines the worst sexcapades. She accuses him of rape multiple times, using up a significant allotment of her rare moments of dialogue with which to express her truthful side of the story.
As a reader, I wholeheartedly thank podcater Jamie Loftus for preparing me to read between the lines with such careful analysis. Thank you.
Well, after that summation, if I may, I’d like to add some conclusions I have come to on my own. Much has been said in criticisms of the assumption that Delores Haze is a “brat.” There is the issue of the so-called perfect victim, how that shouldn’t matter, but upon my reread that still doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t help thinking she’s only a normal child. Was Charlotte really a terrible parent who hated her daughter, or were they just having the normal bickering that happens in any family? The poor girl was certainly traumatized after the sudden death of the mother. Furthermore, there is the indication that she flirts with Humbert and has a crush on him: Again, he’s a damn unreliable narrator sociopath. Perhaps just let the kid be herself without putting so much on her.
My main maybe-somewhat-original perspective, is that I contend Clare Quilty does not even exist! That is, perhaps he was some celebrity playwright within this world, and perhaps Humbert was jailed for murdering him after inventing a reason. But I do not believe Quilty was following them around their Americana road trip, and I do not believe he was the one who helped Delores escape. There were other ways, and it must have driven Humbert mad to never know. He is a controlling paranoid predator, who admits hallucinations by the way, and the whole gimmick of someone driving behind does not ring true. That she ends up with an even worse abuser after leaving his clutches is just something his mind would project and imagine. The perfect rationalization for it all. I don’t buy it.
So, these are some of my thoughts after re-reading the book. On the subject of the podcast, the literary analysis and interviews with Nabakovian scholars made a supremely positive difference. But Loftus’s contribution doesn’t end there.
In fact, Lolita Podcast is as much about society at large as it is about one book. Popular culture has taken the trope of the sexy underage lover, sadly influenced far more by movie posters and YouTube clips than by actual reading, and the social impact is terrible. There’s the online Tumble “nymphet” fashion scene (ugh) which I previously knew nothing of, and that Lana Del Rey sure hasn’t helped. As a casual movie buff if nothing else, insider information about the 1962 Kubrick film and the horrible world of Hollywood was crucial and interesting. The 1997 film, featuring noted problematic male Jeremy Irons, was even worse. Note both of which aged up a star character who was twelve in the source material. There were also a couple of bizarre aborted stage productions which further reinforces how bad the sexualization of children has been, and how more modern audiences still don’t get it. The interviews and biographies of the main actresses showcases how their voices deserve to be heard. An important and informative work of journalism indeed.
Loftus concludes by asking the question of whether yet another adaptation would still have relevance and make a positive difference. For one thing, it’d be nice to have one helmed by a female creator for the first time ever. While there is the controversy of utilizing teenage actresses, and another question of how simulating ages can be just as bad, Loftus concludes animation may be the most ethical way. I’d argue a graphic novel could work, but in any case point taken. A new take does seem necessary. The themes of abuse and grooming and gaslighting are absolutely as valid as ever. The trope of a “Lolita” (and Loftus compassionately makes sure to always call the character Delores), often taken up by an opportunistic news media sensationalizing real-life tragedies, is still a term in our language today. The public deserves to know better of what this really means.
The novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov is a horror story told from the point of view of the monster. It is, I strongly argue, a masterpiece of horrifying and toxic obsession. The ultimate anti-love story.
In the decades since, this tale has permeated the broader culture at large, drifting far from its literary roots, and the world has quite literally lost the plot. The solution is not to try any ill-fated attempt to send Lolita down the memory hole, but to think harder, and fix this mistake of pop culture by staying true to one brilliant author’s intentions and share the truth. Lolita can be a powerful tool for education on toxicity and abuse, and it is still worth a try.