How Lolita Seduces Us All

A new book about a terrible crime sheds light on the novel’s enduring allure.

Katie Martin

Let us now reread the old texts, examining them with a cold eye to determine what they reveal about the #MeToo transgressions of the artistic past. Even the popular entertainments must be probed for common savagery. Molly Ringwald watched her film The Breakfast Club in the company of her young daughter and realized that one scene contains within it a suggestion of offscreen physical harassment. And just like that, the movie—the Citizen Kane of 1980s teen cinema—went whistling down the memory hole, a plaintive echo of its hit song fading to silence as it plummeted: “Don’t You (Forget About Me).”

Is nothing safe? Perhaps—and at Vegas odds—only Lolita can survive the new cultural revolution. No one will ever pick up that novel and issue a shocked report about its true contents; no feminist academic will make her reputation by revealing its oppressive nature. Its explicit subject is as abhorrent today as it was upon the book’s publication 60-plus years ago.

Bored on a quiet afternoon during my first year out of college, I looked through some books I kept in a milk crate and reached for one I’d never read: Lolita. I’d spent the previous summer in Italy, where every jukebox and car radio seemed to play either a dance track called “Vamos a la Playa,” or the mesmerizing hits from the Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, including “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which informed me of the smoldering allure of “that book by Nabokov.” With that endorsement—hadn’t Jim Morrison directed us happily to William Blake?—and with nothing else to do, I opened the book, and the room quickly faded around me, and then I faded, too, leaving behind a girl-shaped vapor.

The opening pages: a delight. O, Nabokov! O, Sting! Didn’t we speak the same language? Weren’t we sophisticates? There was the charmed, European childhood of Humbert Humbert, “a bright world of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas.” There was the comically unsentimental dispatch of his lovely mother in a freak accident—“picnic, lightning”—and the fellow feeling he shared with a little girl named Annabel during a childhood romance: “The softness and fragility of baby animals caused us the same intense pain.”

But then, just a few pages later, he is an adult who is—what the hell?—cursed to live in “a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.” One had heard certain things about Lolita—but 12? Here was Humbert extolling “certain East Indian provinces [where men of] eighty copulate with girls of eight, and nobody minds.” And here he was on his habit of seeking out very young girls wherever he could find them, in orphanages and reform schools and public places: “Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.”

And this is the exact point at which the sensible reader—the moral reader, the reader who does not leave behind a vapor when she enters the book but keeps one foot squarely planted in the corporeal world—parts company with Humbert Humbert. A sound decision. Lolita is a novel about a man who kidnaps and repeatedly rapes a 12-year-old girl, holding her captive until she escapes at 14. No one can blame the people who won’t read it.

But then there are the rest of us. The book is about obsession, and its uncanny feat is to create that very same emotional state in the successive generations of readers who defend it. Moreover, many who have loved it most ardently are young women—the ones whom we might imagine being its most furious critics. Lena Dunham has called it her favorite novel. The singers Lana Del Rey and Katy Perry have declared their passion for the character Lolita, whom they envision as both sexually knowing and deeply innocent. Countless Tumblrs and Instagram accounts show teenage girls and young women similarly inspired by this combination, picturing themselves the objects of an older man’s transfixing lust. That they are all far too old for Humbert Humbert—who cooled on girls once they hit 15, and was repelled once they hit the college years and were “buried alive” in the flesh of womanhood—is of no concern to them.

What is to be done with us, the women and girls who love Lolita? Can nothing bring us to our senses, break the spell? A new book is determined to set us straight: The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World. In it, Sarah Weinman unearths the case of Sally Horner, a schoolgirl who was kidnapped in 1948 from Camden, New Jersey, by a serial child molester. For almost two years, they traveled across the country under the guise of father and daughter; for a time she was even enrolled in school. It was a sensational news story, and Weinman argues that the road-trip and school details provided Nabokov with the scaffolding he needed to finish Lolita. Weinman is not the first to note the connection—Vladimir and Véra Nabokov both bristled when they were asked about it—but she’s essentially clinched the case: The stories are starkly similar, and Nabokov even makes direct reference to the Horner case in the novel.

But Weinman’s claim that awareness of the case “augment[s] the horror he also captured in the novel” isn’t quite right. Knowing what was done to Sally Horner is indeed ghastly. But for “horror,” little can match the mural that Humbert Humbert dreams of painting on the dining-room walls of the Enchanted Hunters motel, the site of his first sexual congress with Lolita: “There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smearing pink, a sigh, a wincing child.”

If anything, Lolita augments the horror of reading about Sally Horner. I always forget how direct the novel is about the crimes at its center. All of that ugliness was hidden, we tell ourselves each time we close its pages, covered in Nabokov’s exquisite language. But then, at some remove of years, we pick up the book once again and discover what frauds we’ve been. Here is Humbert Humbert telling himself, and us, what he’s done: “This was a lone child, an absolute waif, with whom a heavy-limbed, foul-smelling adult had had strenuous intercourse three times that very morning.” And here she is, in the passenger seat of his car, “complaining of pains,” he tells us. She “said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside of her.”

You can rail against Lolita forever. You can maintain, as Weinman does, that “the abuse that Sally Horner, and other girls like her, endured should not be subsumed by dazzling prose, no matter how brilliant.” But these reasonable impulses will get you nowhere. Lolita does not ask us: Are you a feminist, a crusader, an upholder of morals, a defender of girls? Lolita asks us only one question: Are you a reader?

Those early pages—with the clean sand and the delicate Annabel—those are the enchantment, the incantation. Those are the words that suck us in. The book, as funny as much of it is, never pardons us for the sin of participating in it. On its most powerful level, it implicates us deeply in the project: “Imagine me,” Humbert says. “I shall not exist if you do not imagine me.” Like tiny Humberts, we are availing ourselves of morally troubling pleasure.

Nor can we say it’s just a work of fiction, unconnected from the lives and actions of real people. Surely among its more than 60 million readers are those who read it not in spite of the descriptions of sex with a 12-year-old child but because of them. Perhaps the most frightening passage in The Real Lolita is the note that Nabokov’s European agent sent him about a publisher’s response to the manuscript: “He finds the book not only admirable from the literary point of view, but he thinks that it might lead to a change in social attitudes toward the kind of love described in Lolita, provided of course that it has this authenticity, this burning and irrepressible ardor.”

Only in rare cases—in Hollywood’s prolonged insistence on viewing the child-rapist Roman Polanski as a martyr, for example—has such a change come to pass, and even in that seat of perversity some sense has finally come calling. That’s good for the girls of the world, and it’s good for the novel, too, because Lolita depends on the combination of revulsion and ecstasy that it engenders in its readers. The revulsion is why it endures—long past Story of O or Tropic of Cancer, or any other forbidden text of the past—as a book that shakes its readers, no matter how modern. Lolita will always be both ravishing and shocking, a fire opal dissolving in a ripple-ringed pool.