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How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again
By Graham Vickers
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2008 Graham Vickers
All rights reserved.
THE REAL LIFE OF DOLORES HAZE:
Just the Facts
"Humbert Humbert is a middle-aged, fastidious college professor. He also likes little girls. And none more so than Lolita, who [sic] he'll do anything to possess. Is he in love or insane, a silver-tongued poet or a pervert, a tortured soul or a monster — or is he all of these!"
The above summary — either supplied by the publisher or staffers at the amazon.co.uk Web site on which it appears, promoting a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the novel — illustrates the difficulty of synopsizing the plot of Lolita. The book does not lend itself to literal précis. Most attempts to summarize it make it sound melodramatic or even absurd.
Structurally it is easy enough to outline. Nabokov's novel takes the form of a memoir supposedly written in prison by the self-styled Humbert Humbert, a European academic whose lifelong sexual obsession with little girls has at last been fully indulged with Lolita Haze, an American child who became his stepdaughter after a series of unlikely schemes, accidents, and coincidences. The colorful memoir is prefaced with a straitlaced introduction by the fictitious John Ray Jr., who claims to be its appointed editor. The novel's action takes place in various U.S. locations in the late 1940s and early 1950s and presents Humbert and Lolita's story exclusively from Humbert's point of view and in his own often florid literary language.
So far, so good. It is when we come to summarize the book's nature and texture that this infinitely subtle, allusive, comic, and grotesque love story defeats us. "A black comedy about a middle-aged man's obsession with a young girl" is the line most frequently taken by movie listings journalists whom space compels to encapsulate the plot of either of the two film versions of Lolita in around a dozen words. Such doomed exercises recall a sketch from the cult 1970s comedy TV series Monty Python's Flying Circus where, in the setting of a televised competition, contestants are challenged to give a fifteen-second summary of Proust's one-and-a-half-million-word À la recherche du temps perdu. In the case of Lolita, though, it is not the book's size but its elusive nature that defeats meaningful summary; Lolita's life story has a narrator with an agenda and his account is correspondingly light on facts, heavy on textures, echoes, fantasies, fateful coincidences, and self-serving, passionate lies. Such irreducible material has always been anathema to the popular media, where a snappy slogan is what's needed; today, in the age of the sound bite, the elliptical impressionism of Humbert's account leaves the heroine of Lolita even more susceptible to grotesque misinterpretations. Nabokov commentator Alfred Appel Jr. offered a definitive example of how Lolita's racy reputation preceded her as long ago as 1955, when a fellow conscript at a U.S. Army camp in France demanded to read Appel's copy of Nabokov's "dirty book" (at that time solely published by the admittedly dubious Parisian imprint Olympia Press) only to fling it aside in disdain when the first paragraph confirmed his worst fears. "It's God-damn Litachure!!" was his contemptuous off-the-cuff review. Look at this tangle of thorns.
* * *
"You must be confusing me with some other fast little article," says Lolita to stepfather Humbert at one point late in their bleak relationship. Delivered as a riposte to his flawed recollection of one of her early crushes, her wry retort also stands as an unconscious prophecy and rebuke. After her death, Lolita was to become the patron saint of fast little articles the world over, not because Nabokov's mid-1950s novel depicted her as such but because, slowly and surely, the media, following Humbert's unreliable lead, cast her in that role.
The 1950s, a decade superficially so orderly and conformist, was already fomenting social change just below the surface. Overt social revolution might still be some way off, but in what was already beginning to look like a complex postwar world, the popular press and TV were starting to favor simple symbols. The public, they reasoned, wanted cartoonish representatives of complicated things. Accordingly, in the popular imagination wild-haired Albert Einstein became the Wacky European Scientist, surly Marlon Brando the Mumbling Ambassador of Inarticulate Youth, pneumatic Marilyn Monroe the paradigmatic Hollywood Pinup, mad-eyed bald man Pablo Picasso the Famous Modern Artist, and so on. It was a kind of visual shorthand, and it was often accompanied by editorial to match. If this trend did not actually discourage serious debate about science, acting, stardom, and modern art, neither did it do much to promote it. In this breezy spirit Lolita would gradually exemplify the Sultry Teenage Temptress. It was a travesty from the start.
In the first place, Lolita was a twelve-year-old child — not a teenager — when she first succumbed to the middle-aged man who subsequently narrated the saga of his infatuation with her. In the second place, she was not equipped, in any sense, to be an iconic temptress. The novel's descriptions of her stress her physical appeal but only in relation to Humbert's appetites. That appeal owes nothing to any broadly recognizable popular image of a siren, past or present, but exclusively to the lineaments of unformed adolescence — delicate shoulder blades, long tapering toes, and the musky scents not of seductive perfumes but of unwashed hair. In short, far from being overt, Lolita's sex appeal would have been elusive to all but a pedophile with a very specific shopping list of expectations. For Humbert, the first wave of desire for Lolita derived from her resemblance to a particular girl who obsessed him when he was fourteen and whose loss, he fancies, froze his sexual ideal forever, just as a snapshot freezes its subject in time as well as space.
In fact, there is no indication in Nabokov's novel that Lolita looked in any way overtly seductive, that she dressed to provoke, or that her sexual appetites were significantly different from those of her 1940s classmates. It was not until a publicity poster appeared for Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film of Lolita that we first encounter a color photograph of an entirely bogus Lolita wearing red heart-shaped sunglasses while licking a red lollipop (love and fellatio, get it?). Lolita's sunglasses in Kubrick's (black-and-white) film sport regular frames and at no point does she suck that kind of lollipop, so the poster makes false promises on every level. The same synthetic image subsequently graced many international paperback editions of the novel. Yet before Lolita's first American publication in 1958, Nabokov had insisted that there should be no little girl at all on the book's cover because he was in the business of writing about subjective rapture, not objective sexualization.
Bert Stern's famous photo of Sue Lyon defined the posters for Kubrick's 1962 film all over the world. It marks the first blatant visual travesty of Nabokov's grubby chestnut-haired twelve-year-old and does not even resemble the way Sue Lyon looks in the movie.
The Olympia Press edition of Lolita (the one that the good soldier Appel bought on the Left Bank of Paris) had automatically appeared as one in a uniform series of generally risqué novels sharing neutral typographical livery, but Nabokov's concerns were about the first American hardcover edition of 1958 — the edition that was to launch its notoriety on a wider public — and were fully heeded: the front cover design was typographic, with no representational image at all. Before we venture, however, beyond the hearts-and-lollipops checkpoint and on into an infinite hall of Lolita-distorting mirrors, it seems worth pausing to consider a slogan made famous by a program that was just beginning its run of phenomenal popularity even as the short, sad life of Dolores Haze was coming to an end.
Inspired by the 1948 movie He Walked by Night, a film noir with a climactic gun battle in the storm drains of Los Angeles (recalling his moviegoing days with Lolita and her mother, Humbert describes with scathing enjoyment the atmosphere of profligate but inaccurate gunplay in gangster films where villains were chased through sewers), the cop show Dragnet became a big U.S. hit on both radio and TV. A clever Stan Freberg parody ("St. George and the Dragonet") topped the record charts in 1953 and made the show even more famous than it already was. Presented in a spare documentary style and featuring the trademark monotone delivery of its lead actor and creator Jack Webb, the show was a police procedural with a catchphrase. Faced with yet another witness's fanciful recollection of the crime under investigation, Webb, playing Sergeant Joe Friday of the L.A.P.D., would routinely interrupt with, "All we want are the facts, ma'am. Just the facts."
* * *
A few facts, then. On her twelfth birthday Dolores Haze was fifty-seven inches tall, weighed seventy-eight pounds, and had an IQ of 121. Her "vital statistics" (to use an idiom of the time) were 27-23-29, that is to say, twenty-seven inches (chest), twenty-three inches (waist), and twenty-nine inches (hips). Surprisingly, there is more. Her thigh girth was seventeen inches, her calf girth eleven inches (as was the circumference of her neck), and she was still in possession of her vermiform appendix.
This clinical standard of objectivity is not typical of the information to be found elsewhere in the novel. Instead, Lolita is shot through with the skewed perspective and dazzling prose style of its narrator, the self-styled Humbert Humbert, a Swiss-English professor and pedophile recently relocated to the United States from Europe. Capricious Humbert, however, does share Nabokov's miraculous eye for detail, and so, here and there, Lolita's "real life" does stubbornly shine through the miasma of his self-serving narrative, and we can certainly extract a certain amount of factual (or at least fairly objective) data that seem not to have been unduly colored by the narrator's highly partial perspective.
We can be fairly sure, for example, that Dolores Haze was born on January 1, 1935, in Pisky, a disguised midwestern town located in an area noted for producing hogs, corn, and coal. We even know that she was conceived in Veracruz, Mexico, the occasion being the 1934 spring honeymoon of midwesterners Harold E. Haze and his bride Charlotte, née Becker. Harold and Charlotte's second successful attempt to reproduce took place in 1937 (location unrecorded) and in due course resulted in a blond-haired boy who would die at the age of two. This was to be the first of two family losses for Charlotte, who nevertheless treated Dolores, her surviving offspring, as a constantly nagging nuisance. Long before the routine conflicts between mother and preteen child might have been expected to surface, Charlotte was at loggerheads with her daughter. In a diary entitled A Guide to Your Child's Development she would neutrally record Dolores's height, weight, and intelligence quotient as above but then go on to identify her twelve-year-old child's personality as "aggressive ... distrustful ... irritable ... obstinate" — and all the other negative options on offer in the evenhanded menu supplied by the authors of the guide. It seemed the death of her husband had cast a pall over Charlotte's life that would not lift until she met her second spouse, at which point daughter Dolores would simply become a renewed source of intrusion and annoyance. Already a voice other than that of narrator Humbert appears to be weighting the evidence against Lolita.
We learn very few facts about Harold E. Haze's life or premature death from our narrator. After his death Charlotte apparently moved east almost immediately to live in what had been her mother-in-law's house in the town of Ramsdale in an unnamed New England state we may assume to be New Hampshire. Now a widow in her midthirties, frustrated Charlotte set up home in a modest white frame house at 342 Lawn Street to begin a new life with her aggressive, distrustful, irritable, obstinate daughter. Then, in what she almost certainly saw as a divinely motivated second chance at happiness (Charlotte was, we shall discover, a humorlessly spiritual woman), fate delivered a cultured European academic, handsome twin-named Humbert Humbert right to her door. A nearby house in which Humbert was to have lodged had been portentously destroyed by fire the night before his arrival in Ramsdale, and so he had been hastily rerouted to the Haze home by his intended landlord, who believed that Charlotte too was looking for a tenant.
Humbert, the son of a Swiss father and English mother, was an academic who had inherited a small business in New York that now more or less ran itself. His only reason for moving out of the city and going to Ramsdale in the first place had been to rent a quiet place in New England where he could work undisturbed on a book of French grammar. As deeply unimpressed by 342 Lawn Street as he was by its owner, Humbert had already resolved to decline the unsought offer of lodging there when he was overwhelmed by his first glimpse of Lolita. This four-foot nine, seventy-eight pound, twelve-year-old child of the Midwest was sunning herself in the Lawn Street yard, as happily oblivious to this dark stranger's sudden U-turn about lodging there as she was to his lifelong obsession with a certain type of little girl aged between nine and fourteen and in possession of a certain fey sexual charisma, a type he dubbed "nymphets."
* * *
So Dolores — variously nicknamed Lo, Lola, Dolly, and Lolita depending on the social context — was the ultimate embodiment of all the nymphets Humbert had ever desired and his sole reason for moving into 342 Lawn Street. Yet, as Charlotte's lodger, Humbert soon grudgingly allowed himself to be cast in the role his landlady had intended for him all along: that of lover and then husband. With Lolita summarily dispatched to summer camp by her spiteful mother, Humbert and Charlotte married after knowing each other for less than two months. It was a fast and farcical affair driven by doomed impulses: Charlotte desperately wanted a classy husband and Humbert desperately wanted to be near Lolita, whom he assumed would be returning to the Ramsdale home at the end of the summer, so affording him surreptitious opportunities to indulge his obsession. Almost at once his cynical plan began to unravel, and as it happened to some extent had already been preempted by someone whose presence was so far completely unknown to him. For Humbert was not alone in his desire; another middle-aged man with more than a passing interest in nymphets had his eye on her too.
Clare Quilty, born in New Jersey and educated at Columbia University, was a successful playwright, darkly good-looking in the same way that Humbert was, and, to boot, a minor media celebrity. Quilty even promoted a brand of cigarettes in magazine advertisements. He had a dentist uncle who lived in Ramsdale and, through this connection, had been a guest speaker at Charlotte's women's club before Humbert ever arrived on the scene. What is more, Quilty had already lasciviously fondled ten-year-old Lolita on his lap over two years before Humbert managed, eventually, to improve on the trick on the Haze sofa, ejaculating, he assures us, without Lolita ever being aware of his elaborately disguised indulgence. Quilty, however, was to remain an almost completely unknown quantity to Humbert for another five years.
When Charlotte dropped the bombshell that she had decided to send her daughter away to boarding school as soon as summer camp ended, she abruptly abolished Humbert's sole reason for entering into the marriage in the first place. Threatened with permanent separation from the child he desired, Humbert found himself marooned with the wife he never wanted in a smug little town he hated. Desperate to rid himself of Charlotte, he wildly contemplated murder, lost his nerve, and then disbelievingly found himself the beneficiary of a near-miraculous stroke of fate when Charlotte was killed in a freak automobile accident.
Dolores, still at camp in a neighboring state, was now officially an orphan, although Humbert delayed telling her the fatal news when he went to collect her from camp, telling her instead that her mother was hospitalized with a serious but not fatal illness. He took his newly acquired stepdaughter to a hotel some four hours' drive from her camp, where he planned to drug and have sex with her before they drove back to Ramsdale the following morning. The drug failed to work, but to Humbert's delighted astonishment they had sex anyway. Lolita complied — and in the end even initiated the proceedings — in a spirit of casual mischief that probably owed something to the lingering resentment she felt toward the mother she had no reason to believe would not recover. Humbert's stepdaughter had anyway, it turned out, been experimenting with sex at camp and had not failed to notice Humbert's desperate longing. In their hotel room, she shared with him matter-of-fact confidences about those tentative erotic games at camp (sex, Lolita concluded evenly, was good for the complexion) and made it clear that her youthful explorations were neither uncommon nor unduly precocious. The next morning Humbert told her that her mother was dead.
Excerpted from Chasing Lolita by Graham Vickers. Copyright © 2008 Graham Vickers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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