Modern Library Revue: #4 Lolita

March 17, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 7 4 min read

coverNormally I’m not much interested in knowing about the moment when a big book gamboled (or shuffled) onto the scene, but I like to think about Lolita hitting the shelves in its unobtrusive green wrappers.  What did the first buyer think, fondling those fragile, flexible volumes?  Who was the first person to purchase this signal event in the English language?  (A signal event in English, by a Russian, about sex with children, published by a French purveyor of mostly-filth of a pretty banal sort.)

I don’t have much to say about my “process,” such as it is, but I’ll tell you that I was feeling parched, critically speaking.  I just reread 1984 with an eye toward revueing.  George Orwell compels people to muster profundities about the current state of affairs.  He plucked all of the smart ideas about politics out of the ether and arranged them on paper for us to wantonly reinterpret to fit the times.  But what can I think or say about 1984 and these times we’re in?  I love George Orwell to distraction, but he gives me a blockage.

When you want the consolation of art, and not to figure out what it has to do with labor unrest in Wisconsin or the fate of Planned Parenthood, what can you read but Lolita?  When you are feeling mute, who better to remind you of the wondrous lexical depth and fecundity of the English language but Nabokov, the aforementioned Russian, writing of the aforementioned sex with children?  To whom could I turn for sweet release but Lolita (light of life, fire of loins, etc.)?

Ironic that a book full of death (cf. Amis) and sex with no question of offspring imbues this particular parched reader with a sense of renewal and intellectual fertility.  Of course, said renewal and fertility don’t necessarily translate to the speedy conception of pithy remarks about the book itself.  To produce even 600-1000 words on this novel in a hitherto un-utilized combination is a nervewracking proposition.

Tonight I will probably dream that a scowling Martin Amis is putting a cigarette out on my neck.  Or Nabokov himself will appear and tell me that he’s having a party but I’m not invited.  And that’s okay.  It’s like this with any novel, but with Lolita especially: it’s not what you can do for the book, but what the book can do for you.

Lolita has caused so many people to wring their hands and besiege librarians on behalf of those delicate blossoms, the children.  To be sure, it is a very disgusting book.  The rape of Lolita: “a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child,” after which the fiend Humbert buys “four books of comics, a box of candy, a box of sanitary pads, two cokes, a manicure set,” and so on.

And then, “At the hotel we had separate rooms, but in the middle of the night she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently.  You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”

This is viscerally horrible.  And yet this book, with its veritable panoply of horrors, is maybe the most bracing and perfect work of art I know.  Nabokov said “for me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss.”  By that arresting measure, Lolita is a triumph, the ne plus ultra of the novel form.

Sometimes I get a little teleological in my interpretation of the world, but words are on my mind these days.  I went to a career fair for would-be linguists, wherein a lively presenter told the assembled that if we could give a snappy presentation in our target language, we had come to the right place.  Feeling inadequate to even a deeply un-snappy presentation in any language, I thought of Nabokov with wonder.

How might his want-ad read?  If you can write a prose miracle in the target language, this is the job for you.

Yet, Nabokov, in his own remarks on the novel, tells the reader

My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled rich, infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses–the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions–which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.

The author’s apologia for his linguistic shortcomings manages in one lengthy sentence to be finer than anything most “native illusionists” could muster.

Any reviewer of Nabokov is in danger of excessive quoting; it feels rather pointless not to let Nabokov do the talking.  Here’s Humbert on reproduction: “The tiny madman in his padded cell.”  Now Humbert on Humbert: “I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens.”

Just as he takes English and puts it through its paces, Nabokov, “trying to be an American writer and claim only the same rights that other American writers enjoy,” tells Americans of our vast spaces, our Hell canyons, our dusty cow paths:

Independence, Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; and Abilene, Kansas, the home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities…

With Humbert and beleaguered Lo we pay our entrance fee (children under twelve free) to caves and gardens and ghost towns, the spectacular majesty and equally spectacular vulgarity of the American landscape, in which the compass ever swings from the sublime to the ridiculous.

What this book does for me, with its unparalleled linguistic verve, is remind me of what language and art can do.  Art restores us to life’s possibilities even as it offers solace from life’s trouble.  For Humbert, art is his and Lolita’s single mausoleum, their brilliant and grotesque offspring: “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.”

Even if you’re not a mad pervert genius, for my money there’s no better refuge.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at


  1. You also have a way with words, L.K. I enjoyed your take on Lolita, Nabokov, and Art very much in this Revue.
    Now I have to go back and read your Modern Library list. I have only just stumbled upon it.
    Thanks for the encouragement to revisit literature’s classics.

  2. I liked this piece, too, along with elle. I write just to mention an experience
    I had with “Lolita.” The first time I read the book I loved it, but when the
    author came to listing a long–I mean long–list of colors in which he’d
    bought a series of dresses for Lolita, I said to myself that I didn’t have to read
    the entire list–I mean, how interesting can “grass-green” and “lemon-yellow”
    and “raspberry red” be? So, the first go-round, I skipped to the end of the list
    and went on reading and loving the book.

    The second time I read the book I read through the list–no skipping–because I
    I was mesmerized, and there, like a snake in the silverware drawer,
    was the color “glans-mauve.” A reader skips over any words in Nabokov
    at his peril.

  3. Amendment: at the risk of belaboring this list of colors, I’ll say that I just searched
    for the list and found it on Google. (Still amazes me). My memory hasn’t
    served me so very well–it’s a list of bathing-suit colors, not dresses, and the
    list is only five colors long. The first two, “dream-pink” and “frosted aqua”
    convinced me to skip to the end of the list, but the last one was good enough
    (oohlala black) that a better reader than I would have instantly gone back
    to the beginning and re-read. I didn’t, and so I never saw the mauve color
    until I read the book for a second time.

  4. Robert, I admit I have also been a word- and list-skipper in the past. I think there are probably a lot of things I missed the first time I read Lolita in high school (maybe college?), when I was just trying to figure out what happend (who the F is this guy following them, etc.) I like how you put it–truly, the reader ¨skips over any words in Nabokov at (her) peril.”

    Thanks for reading!

  5. A good example of Nabokov’s artistry in the seemingly mundane details is the list of students in Lolita’s class, early in the novel. Names like Grace Angel, Rose Carmine, and Aubrey McFate — which is of course the name Humbert will later give himself in the poem he writes to Lolita. (Happy, happy is gnarled McFate/Touring the States with a child wife,/Plowing his Molly in every State/Among the protected wild life.)
    Also, there’s the name Irving Flashman, for whom Humbert feels a twinge of pity — he’s the only Jew in the classroom.

  6. A very nice appreciation Lydia, thanks. It must be hard to approach something like Lolita without feeling that whatever you say will be entirely inadequate or superfluous, but you’ve pulled it off admirably.

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