Here it is at last, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (Putnam, $5.00)—first issued in 1955 by an unorthodox Paris press after being rejected by a string of American publishers; banned by the French government, presumably out of solicitude for immature English-speaking readers (the ban was later quashed by the French High Court); pronounced unobjectionable by that blue-nosed body, the U. S. Customs office; and heralded by ovations from writers, professors, and critics on both sides of the Atlantic.
The novel's scandal-tinted history and its subject—the affair between a middle-aged sexual pervert and a twelve-year-old girl—inevitably conjure up expectations of pornography. But there is not a single obscene term in Lolita, and aficionados of erotica are likely to find it a dud. Lolita blazes, however, with a perversity of a most original kind. For Mr. Nabokov has distilled from his shocking material hundred-proof intellectual farce. His book is slightly reminiscent of Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull; but Lolita has a stronger charge of comic genius and is more brilliantly written. Mr. Nabokov, a Russian émigré now working in his second tongue, has few living equals as a virtuoso in the handling of the English language.
A mock sententious foreword explains that the manuscript which follows is the confession of one Humbert Humbert, who died in captivity in 1952 just before his trial was due to start. Humbert introduces himself as a European of mixed stock who, at the age of twelve, "in a princedom by the sea," loved and lost a petite fille fatale named Annabel Leigh, and has thereafter remained in sexual bondage to "the perilous magic" of subteen sirens—he calls them "nymphets." There follows a sketch of his tortured career up to the time when, in his late thirties, he settles in a quiet New England town (an American uncle has left him a legacy, and he dabbles in scholarship) under the same roof as a fatally seductive nymphet, Dolores Haze—a mixture of "tender dreamy childishness and eerie vulgarity." This "Lolita" is the daughter of his landlady, whom he marries with murderous intent. But an accident eliminates Mrs. Haze, and Humbert the Nympholept finds himself the guardian of his darling, who, on their first night together, turns out to be utterly depraved and plays the role of seducer. Their weird affair—which carries them on a frenzied motel-hopping trek across the American continent—is climaxed by Lolita's escape with a playwright and Humbert's eventual revenge on his rival.
What is one to make of Lolita? In a prickly postscript to the novel, Mr. Nabokov dismisses this question as a problem dreamed up by "Teachers of Literature": he rejects the satiric interpretations which critics have put upon Lolita and asserts, in effect, that it is simply a story he had to get off his chest. That all of this is too ingenuous by half is evident from the parodic style in which Lolita is written: a combination of pastiches of well-known styles, spoofing pedantry, analysis of passion à la français, Joycean word games, puns, and all kinds of verbal play. Wild, fantastic, wonderfully imaginative, it is a style which parodies everything it touches. It surely justifies, at least in part, those critics who have seen in Lolita a satire of the romantic novel, of "Old Europe" in contact with "Young America," or of "chronic American adolescence and shabby materialism." But above all Lolita seems to me an assertion of the power of the comic spirit to wrest delight and truth from the most outlandish materials. It is one of the funniest serious novels I have ever read; and the vision of its abominable hero, who never deludes or excuses himself, brings into grotesque relief the cant, the vulgarity, and the hypocritical conventions that pervade the human comedy.