Vladimir Nabokov intended to invoke outrage and confusion in his readers by romanticizing pedophilia.
While social media has the power to make the world a more interconnected place, it also tends to foster misunderstanding born from too little explanation.
A recent example of this unfortunate effect is the case of Madison Beer, a TikTok star and singer. In an Instagram Live Q&A session, Beer told viewers that her favorite book was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. She went on to emphasize that she "definitely" romanticizes the 1955 novel. Though the video is no longer available from Beer's account, it's been shared widely across social media.
Trigger Warning for child abuse, sexual abuse and assault.
For those who don't know, Lolita is a definitive classic, written in such beautiful prose and narrated so vividly that it can be easy to forget just how disturbing the subject matter really is. Indeed, the book is written from the point of view of a European scholar who the reader comes to know as Humbert Humbert. Humbert is, decidedly, a pedophile. This insatiable source of lust threatens to ruin his life altogether–until he meets a preteen named Dolores Haze, who he begins calling Lolita in his private reflections. He becomes completely obsessed with Lolita, ultimately kidnapping her and subjecting her to years of sexual abuse and statutory rape. The narrator assigns very little humanity to Lolita throughout the book, instead seeing her entirely as an object of taboo desire instead of a person. She is only twelve years old; Humbert is thirty-five.
Given this context, it's no wonder that people were quick to condemn Beer's romanticization of the book. It's dangerous to look at a sexual relationship between a grown adult and a child as anything other than predatory and disgusting, whether it's fictional or not. That being said, one could argue that the very purpose of the book is to try to get the reader to romanticize something objectively evil. And it's successful in doing so.
If it wasn't, why would Lolita still sit near the top of most "Best Novels of All Time" lists, even in 2020? If it wasn't, why would the book have sold 50 million copies worldwide since its publication and been translated into dozens of languages? The narrator is meant to be immediately seen by the reader as unreliable, but there is something macabre and fascinating about looking through his eyes. But that doesn't mean you have to approve of him.
Romance vs. Romantic Prose
While Beer certainly didn't explain herself well, if you've read the book and at all enjoyed it, than you, too, have romanticized Lolita. Obviously, if Beer was in any way condoning the type of relationship shown in the book, then yes, she absolutely deserves rebuttal. But, frankly, there is no way to read Lolita except in a romantic light, because without that light there is no "masterpiece" at all. The prose of the book is so romantic by its very nature and the world it's set in is so often dreamy and almost surreal that it's quite obvious to the discerning reader that Nabokov is daring you to sympathize with his villainous narrator. But, you may ask, to what end?
Firstly, it's worth noting that the book isn't by any means pornographic, and it doesn't offer an abundance of lewd scenes detailing sexual assault. It isn't the child abuse itself that is being romanticized; rather, it's lust, in all its unreasonableness, that Nabokov casts in the soft light of his lyrical prose. But in doing so in the context of child abuse, he forces you to question your view of desire. The fact that the object of Humbert's lust is a child is meant to emphasize to the reader the utter senselessness of desire, meant to make them question their very perception of wrong and right as they inevitably sympathize with the eloquent Humbert. But the book by no means condones pedophilia; if anything, it intentionally makes the reader's stomach turn in disgust and contempt anytime an inkling of pity is awoken for Humbert. But that doesn't mean that readers aren't actively romanticizing the novel at the same time. It's Nabokov's genius that he is able to play with his reader in this way, forcing them into conflict with themselves.
In her review for the New York Times in 1958, Elizabeth Janeway argues that that book is not meant to promote pedophilia, though it inevitably romanticizes it as a test of the reader: "The author, that is, is writing about all lust. He has afflicted poor Humbert with a special and taboo variety for a couple of contradictory reasons. In the first place, its illicit nature will both shock the reader into paying attention and prevent sentimentally false sympathy from distorting his judgment. Contrariwise, I believe, Mr. Nabokov is slyly exploiting the American emphasis on the attraction of youth and the importance devoted to the 'teen-ager' in order to promote an unconscious identification with Humbert's agonies. Both techniques are entirely valid. But neither, I hope, will obscure the purpose of the device: namely, to underline the essential, inefficient, painstaking and pain-giving selfishness of all passion, all greed—of all urges, whatever they may be, that insist on being satisfied without regard to the effect their satisfaction has upon the outside world. Humbert is all of us."
Janeway goes on to write, "This is still one of the funniest and one of the saddest books that will be published this year. As for its pornographic content, I can think of few volumes more likely to quench the flames of lust than this exact and immediate description of its consequences."
While this reading may seem overly chaste or even absurd for such a lusty novel, even a modern reader can't help but to engage with this very line of thought whilst reading the book.
Another reviewer, Robert R. Kirsch, wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 1958 that "Lolita is not a lewd book and if it arouses any prurient interest in anybody, I will be very much surprised. Those who are seeing thrills would be well advised to go elsewhere to those novels which have no other purpose than the collection of sexual scenes bathed in cliched lust. What you will find in Lolita are other pleasures and other sadnesses. If you like Fielding, Smollett and Sterne, if the comic novel of the 18th century appeals to you, you are in for a treat. Lolita is a small masterpiece, an almost perfect comic novel, a rare thing in these days when we have lost sight of the purgative and pleasurable effects of comedy and when tragedy has become the small and poverty-stricken province of southern effetes and New England housewives."
While it may seem in poor taste to consider Lolita a "comic" novel, Kirsch has a point in that part of Nabokov's challenge of the reader is in daring them to laugh in the midst of an objectively disgusting and tragic tale.
Lolita as an American Novel
Additionally, the concept of lust isn't the only thing that is romanticized and subsequently questioned and even condemned by Nabokov in the course of Lolita. The book takes place all across America and paints a vivid picture of a society both fresh-faced and innocent, but also one that breeds loneliness and unhappiness, one that fosters such little meaningful connection in the lives of the average American that it allows the semi-free reign of a monster like Humbert. R.W. Flint wrote for The New Republic in 1957 that the portrait of the United States that Nabokov conjures is "an America where language and event make a seamless web of wonders, terrors, revelations and portents."
Indeed, some have even conjectured that the purpose of the book is to create a "satire of the romantic novel, of 'Old Europe' in contact with 'Young America,' or of 'chronic American adolescence and shabby materialism." If any of the above is the case, then the romanticization that Beer professed in regards to the book is merely an intentional effect created by a clever author trying to trap his readers in a web of moral questions. But the question worth asking is whether Beer, or anyone, can be trusted to see beneath the romantic exterior into the horrific depths of degradation that Nabokov seeks to portray and (hopefully) condemn.
What is Lolita's Place In the Modern World?
Still, literary criticism aside, many modern readers pick up the book, agree that the prose is extraordinary, but can't stomach the subject matter and never finish reading. Indeed, even when Nabokov was seeking publishers, one replied that should he publish the book, he and Nabokov both would "go to jail." Unfortunately, Nabokov himself refused to account for romanticizing pedophilia, writing in his now famous afterword to Lolita, "There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow."
With all this in mind, one can't help but think that perhaps there is no longer a place in the modern literary canon for a book as complicated, controversial, and overtly misogynistic as Lolita.
Ever loquacious, Nabokov goes on in his afterword to address the shocking subject matter of his book, writing, "That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions."
Essentially, this wordy line means that Nabokov is acknowledging the pedophilia contained in his book, but he refuses to be ashamed of writing about it; after all, pedophilia is a fact of life. He seems to be implying that those who would clutch their pearls and turn away from a book like Lolita have little interest in actually understanding the human condition that can create monsters like the fictional Humbert; those who refuse to question the meaning of a book that romanticizes pedophilia subsequently refuse to delve into the complex conversations with themselves that the book is meant to inspire.
While many who have condemned Madison Beer for her offhanded statement on Instagram have called for her "cancellation," maybe what we should be calling for is an explanation, or even a discussion of what exactly Beer meant when she said she "definitely does" romanticize Lolita. After all, that is the point of the book, whether you like it or not.
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