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A Fancy Prose Style

In 1955, Vladimir Nabokov shocked readers with a novel of forbidden lust; 'Lolita' still has the power to disturb

By Richard von Busack

FIFTY YEARS AGO, on Sept. 15, 1955, an émigré professor of literature dropped a bomb on Western civilization. The reverberations haven't ceased. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (just reissued by Vintage Books) is still an affront.

One encounters people who consider themselves too moral to read it. It's their loss. With its mixture of acid satire and saline sadness, Lolita is equaled in English-language writing only by a novel that Lolita refers to as "another, considerably more outspoken book": James Joyce's Ulysses.

But where does Lolita stand in today's world of Barely Legal? In Broken Flowers, a girl called Lolita (Alexis Dziena) acts like the popular notion of a Lolita, but she's never heard of her namesake. When Dziena flashes her nude body at Bill Murray's character, it's something that Nabokov's Lolita never would have done.

The novel is about a girl's childish capriciousness as she wriggles out of the grasp of her wordy, overage seducer (and the book's narrator), Humbert Humbert. Humbert is a hawk devoured by the mouse he pounced on. Or as it goes in Nabokov's Pale Fire: "I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane." We don't have waxwings here, but anyone who has a sliding glass door in their house has sorrowed to see a dead finch laying beside it, brained by what he thought was a patch of the sky. Humbert is such an old bird—dazzled by an illusion, he destroys himself against it.

Faced with the revolvers of the law, Humbert reaches for his culture: he cites Poe and his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia; Dante and young Beatrice; Petrarch and his Laura: "When Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of 12, running in the wind, in the pollen and the dust, a flower in flight."

Humbert's defense encourages those who believe that there is such a thing as decadent literature, writing that's dangerous to society. This, like so much in Nabokov, is a trap for fools. While one sympathizes with Mark Twain's urge to shoot all moralists trespassing in a novel, the moral is clear in Lolita. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, suggests that Lolita loses its humor in an Islamic Republic where you can legally marry a 9-year-old. A man remaking a child into the image of a lover is nothing but a monster. But portraying Lolita as nothing but a victim of men's lusts doesn't give her credit for her adventurousness or her toughness in surviving.

Olympia Press first published Lolita. Its green-cover paperbacks usually contained an effective brand of porn. By contrast, Nabokov's book thwarts the masturbator. Lolita's annotator, Alfred Appel Jr., recalled his college roommate's anger at finally getting his hairy hands on the infamous book: "This is litter-atur!" he said, tossing it across the room.

What Lolita has in common with the smut of the 1950s is an introduction by a professor—"a white-coat," exploitation director Dave Friedman called such a character. Before a porn film, a so-called doctor sits at a table, arguing that an exposé of nymphomania was a look into a disordered mind, more to be pitied than scorned. Just so, a history of hot adulterers reminded us all of the pitfalls waiting to destroy that honorable state of marriage. John Ray Jr. is Lolita's "white-coat." The book sums up societal dangers, harrumphs Ray (imagine Dr. Phil): "The wayward child, the egotistical mother, the panting maniac: these are not only vivid characters in a unique story: they warn us of dangerous trends, they point out potent evils."

Nabokov's white-coat is not as square as he seems. The doctor comes to the same conclusions that Humbert reaches. Ray calls Lolita "a tragic tale unswerving toward nothing less than a moral apotheosis." Humbert weeps with remorse, with "despair and shame and tears of tenderness." He addresses himself as a monster; it's Nabokov's gift that he's a true and faithful lover all the same.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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