By Alfred Appel Jr. (editor)Vintage
How complicit, then, is Nabokov himself? The common joking phrase among adult men, when they see nymphets on the street or in the park or, nowadays, on television and in bars, is "Don't even think about it." But it is very clear that Nabokov did think about it, and had thought about it a lot. An earlier novella, written in Russian and published only after his death—The Enchanter—centers on a jeweler who hangs around playgrounds and forces himself into gruesome sex and marriage with a vachelike mother, all for the sake of witnessing her death and then possessing and enjoying her twelve-year-old daughter. (I note one correspondence I had overlooked before: the hapless old bag in The Enchanter bears many unappetizing scars from the surgeon's knife, and when Humbert scans Lolita's statistics—height, weight, thigh measurements, IQ, and so forth—he discovers that she still has her appendix and says to himself, "Thank God." You do not want to think about that for very long either.) And then there is, just once, a hint of incest so elaborate and so deranged that you can read past it, as many critics have, before going back and whistling with alarm.
… the thought that with patience and luck I might have her produce eventually a nymphet with my blood in her exquisite veins, a Lolita the Second, who would be eight or nine around 1960, when I would still be
dans la force d'age; indeed, the telescopy of my mind, or un-mind, was strong enough to distinguish in the remoteness of time a vieillard encore vert—or was it green rot?—bizarre, tender, salivating Dr. Humbert, practicing on supremely lovely Lolita the Third the art of being a granddad.
Arresting, as well as disgusting, to suddenly notice that Lolita (who died giving birth to a stillborn girl, for Christ's sake) would have been seventy this year … However, I increasingly think that Nabokov's celebrated, and tiresomely repeated, detestation of Sigmund Freud must itself be intended as some kind of acknowledgment. If he thought "the Viennese quack" and "Freudian voodooism" were so useless and banal, why couldn't he stay off the subject, or the subtext?
I could very well do with a little rest in this subdued, frightened-to-death rocking chair, before I drove to wherever the beast's lair was—and then pulled the pistol's foreskin back, and then enjoyed the orgasm of the crushed trigger. I was always a good little follower of the Viennese medicine man …
Many a true word is spoken in jest, especially about the kinship between eros and thanatos. The two closest glimpses Humbert gives us of his own self-hatred are not without their death wish—made explicit in the closing paragraphs—and their excremental aspects: "I am lanky, big-boned, wooly-chested Humbert Humbert, with thick black eyebrows and a queer accent, and a cesspoolful of rotting monsters behind his slow boyish smile." Two hundred pages later: "The turquoise blue swimming pool some distance behind the lawn was no longer behind that lawn, but within my thorax, and my organs swam in it like excrements in the blue sea water in Nice." And then there's the offhand aside "Since (as the psychotherapist, as well as the rapist, will tell you) the limits and rules of such girlish games are fluid …" in which it takes a moment to notice that "therapist" and "the rapist" are in direct apposition.
Once you start to take a shy hand in the endless game of decoding the puns and allusions and multiple entendres (the Umberto echoes, if I may be allowed) that give this novel its place next to Ulysses, you are almost compelled to agree with Freud that the unconscious never lies. Swinburne's poem Dolores sees a young lady ("Our Lady of Pain") put through rather more than young Miss Haze. Lord Byron's many lubricities are never far away; in the initial stages of his demented scheme Humbert quotes from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: "To hold thee lightly on a gentle knee and print on thine soft cheek a parent's kiss," and when we look up the lines we find they are addressed to Harold's absent daughter (who, like Byron's child and Nabokov's longest fiction, is named Ada). Humbert's first, lost girlfriend, Annabel, is perhaps not unrelated to Byron's first wife, Anne Isabella, who was known as "Annabella," and she has parents named Leigh, just like Byron's ravished half-sister Augusta. The Haze family physician, who gives Humbert the sleeping pills with which he drugs Lolita preparatory to the first rape at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel, is named Dr. Byron. And while we are on the subject of physicians, remember how Humbert is recommended to "an excellent dentist":
Our neighbor, in fact. Dr. Quilty. Uncle or cousin, I think, of the playwright. Think it will pass? Well, just as you wish. In the fall I shall have him "brace" her, as my mother used to say. It may curb Lo a little.
Another Quilty, with his own distinctive hint of sadism. "Sade's Justine was twelve at the start," as Humbert reflects, those three so ordinary words "at the start" packing a huge, even gross, potential weight … These clues are offset by more innocuous puns ("We had breakfast in the township of Soda, pop 1001") and by dress rehearsals for puns, as when Humbert decides to decline a possible joke about the Mann Act, which forbids the interstate transport of girls for immoral purposes. (Alexander Dolinin has recently produced a fascinating article on the contemporaneous abduction of a girl named Sally Horner, traces of the reportage of which are to be found throughout Lolita.)
All is apparently redeemed, of course, by the atrocious punishment that Nabokov inflicts for this most heinous of humanity's offenses. The molester in The Enchanter was hit by a truck, and Humbert dies so many little deaths—eroding his heart muscles most pitifully—that in some well-wrought passages we almost catch ourselves feeling sorry for him. But the urge to punish a crime ("Why dost thou lash that whore?" Shakespeare makes us ask ourselves in King Lear) is sometimes connected to the urge to commit it. Naming a girls' school for Beardsley must have taken a good deal of reflection, with more Sade than Lewis Carroll in it, but perhaps there is an almost inaudible note of redemption at Humbert and Lolita's last meeting (the only time, as he ruefully minutes, that she ever calls him "honey"), when "I looked and looked at her, and knew as clearly as I know I am to die, that I loved her more than anything I had ever seen or imagined on earth, or hoped for anywhere else."
The most unsettling suggestion of all must be the latent idea that nymphetomania is, as well as a form of sex, a form of love.
Alfred Appel's most sage advice is to make yourself slow down when reading Lolita, not be too swiftly ravished and caught up. Follow this counsel and you will find that—more than almost any other novel of our time—it keeps the promise of genius and never presents itself as the same story twice. I mentioned the relatively obvious way in which it strikes one differently according to one's age; and if aging isn't a theme here, with its connotation of death and extinction, then I don't know what is. But there are other ways in which Lolita is, to annex Nabokov's word, "telescopic." Looking back on it, he cited a critic who "suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel," and continued, "The substitution 'English language' for 'romantic novel' would make this elegant formula more correct." That's profoundly true, and constitutes the most strenuous test of the romantic idea that worshipful time will forgive all those who love, and who live by, language. After half a century this work's "transgressiveness" makes every usage of that term in our etiolated English departments seem stale, pallid, and domesticated.