Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

it’s time to talk about the lesbian reader of lolita

Vladimir Nabokov made it clear this book had nothing in it for me, but I read on. Here's why.

by Emma Madden
28 May 2019, 11:54am

Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Allow me to explain Lolita to you. No matter the critic nor their issue, the argument always goes as follows: your interpretation of the novel about a paedophile and his girlchild victim is incorrect. There are always new ways to talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s most famous novel because these tellings off (tut, tut, bad reader) run concurrently with certain discourses and issues that now most often emerge on the internet.

In 2012, Lana Del Rey’s album Born To Die — with its theme of falling for older, hairier men, and its references to Nabokov’s novel — was met with criticism by second-Jezebel-wave feminists. The singer was accused, most commonly by Tumblr users, of ‘romanticising’ the relationship between Humbert Humbert and Lolita, and of misreading the novel more broadly. Don’t read Lolita like Lana Del Rey, so said the crowd. Don’t you dare get off to this book.

"Nabokov makes his paedophile appeal to two kinds of readers so that they may temporarily suspend their repulsion, continue reading and even begin to sympathise with Humbert Humbert’s deranged, obliterating view of love."

More recently, criticism has been more sympathetic towards Lana’s (and the heterosexual women she represents) identification with the novel. When men tried explaining Lolita to writer Rebecca Solnit in 2015, she wrote, with a trendy postfeminist spirit, “When you identify with Lolita, you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” And most recently, a viral Twitter thread circulated, which had one woman asking: “What books are automatic red flags for you with people? I’ll start: I once called off a date when a dude told me his fave book was Lolita.” That encouraged writer Megan Nolan to assert her reading of Lolita, as she reminded readers of the sanctity of art’s ambivalence, and consequently argued against treating the novel as an “instruction manual” in her column for the New Statesman.

I am sure that Nabokov would have foreseen all of these criticisms, just as I’m sure that he would have seen me coming, too.

As a lesbian reader, I’m determined to see myself in everything — from sub-explicit subtexts in Xena Warrior Princess to the faint idea that Taylor Swift is singing about her sexual attraction to women. Unfortunately, I find myself in Lolita too – Lolita in “her rough tomboy clothes”; Lolita kissing a girl at summer camp. Lolita, aside from the hideously obvious, lived a childhood much like my own. But I don’t get to partake in everyone else’s conversations — which I’m either above or below, I can’t tell — because Nabokov makes me aware (painfully so) that this novel is not intended for me. Whether I, a lesbian who bears the supreme privilege of having no obligations to men — neither spiritually nor sexually — am a good reader of Lolita is a moot point. I do not enter into Nabokov’s game, therefore I am cast aside.

Lolita, as one of Nabokov’s most faithful scholars Alfred Appel put it, is a “gameboard, on which, through parody, [Nabokov] assaults his readers’ worst assumptions, pretensions, and intellectual convictions”. He wrote Lolita with the reader’s reaction in mind, and anticipated how these reactions would differ among the various types of people who come into contact with the novel. Getting them to keep reading is a trick in itself. The premise of tucking into a lengthy diatribe on child rape should seem no more appealing than eating a whole onion raw. But Lolita, which in my mind contains some of the most perfect sentences ever written in the English language, is more like an onion disguised as a toffee apple.

In the most basic sense, Nabokov makes his paedophile appeal to two kinds of readers so that they may temporarily suspend their repulsion, continue reading and even begin to sympathise with Humbert Humbert’s deranged, obliterating view of love. The first is the heterosexual female reader (let’s lump Lana in this camp), who is often made aware of Humbert’s “striking if somewhat brutal good looks”. As a “great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood”, he is absolutely Lana’s type.

The second kind of reader, who I can’t help but think of as James Franco as I write this, is the heterosexual male who identifies with, and even aspires to, Humbert’s handsome beauty, his authority (in every sense of the word), his solipsistic romanticism and his old-world intelligence. Yes, he is Franco, but he is also Bradley Cooper, reading the novel aloud to his much younger girlfriend in a Parisian park.

My girlfriend tells me, “Stop. It’s too much,” when I attempt the same. It’s her first confrontation with the novel and she finds no romance in Nabokov’s mellifluous words nor their impeccable syllabic weight. Nabokov often forewarned “Freudians, keep out” when they came to his novels, but “lesbians, keep out” would be just as appropriate.

Of all the thousands of papers written on Lolita, I’ve only once come across a lesbian’s interpretation of it. “I’ve often thought that Nabokov must have stolen the cross-country car trip in Lolita from Highsmith’s novel,” so muses Terry Castle, the lesbian in question. She’s referring, of course, to the apotheosis of lesbian achievement, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price Of Salt. “Therese and Carol, budding sexual outlaws, travel across the same kitschy, motel-studded, American highway landscape later traversed by Humbert and Lolita. And as in Lolita, the sexual tension grows — almost unbearably — with each night the pair spend in cheap hostels or tourist cabins,” Castle writes.

This flippant theory was taken very seriously. On certain copies of The Price Of Salt — later renamed Carol — you’ll find stickers dubbing it “the book that inspired Lolita”. And to a certain extent, I buy Castle’s theory, too. However, Highsmith’s novel was published a year before Nabokov’s, and it’s very unlikely that he wouldn’t have been aware of it. And so, the implication here — that Nabokov parodied a popular lesbian love story for the purpose of his paedophile’s confessions, thereby conflating lesbianism and paedophilia — isn’t a very savoury one.

Nevertheless, Nabokov leaves several easter eggs for his lesbian readers in an attempt to get them to stop reading. And so these readers treat the text with natural resistance — since she doesn’t fall for men, there’s no chance of her being Humbert’s fool. Instead, she reads in an oppositional way, riding on the “queer mirror side” — Humbert’s words — of the novel, noticing ugly little details that your Lanas and Francos skid right past.

"Nabokov anticipates that the 'sensitive gentlewomen of the jury' have stopped reading by the time Lolita’s forced into pregnancy and a never-ending sentence of heterosexuality. But I’m still here. Although I feel like I’m standing in a movie theatre, long after the credits have rolled and the cleaners have come in to sweep up the popcorn; I still remain. Why?"

The lesbian reader will pay keener attention to Miss Lester and Miss Fabian (read back the first and last parts of their surnames), who become Humbert and Lolita’s neighbours when they move to the fictional town of Beardsley — chosen by Humbert because of the “comparatively sedate school for girls located there”, as well as the presence of the women’s college where the Miss Lesbians — the “short-haired Miss Lester and fadedly feminine Miss Fabian” — teach. Women, but more specifically lesbians, are treated as a joke. Humbert, like the majority of readers, settles himself in the battleground of heterosexuality. He revels in steering his Lolita away from the ongoing threat of boys and lecherous, staring old men; his male possessiveness lending his romance an extra fervour. Meanwhile, the non-threat of girls and female homosexuality, despite it appearing several times throughout the novel, is only toyed with and teased.

Lolita’s childhood, pre-Humbert, was peppered with what he calls “sapphic diversions”, and when he forces their first kiss, her use of tongue — ”a comical refinement” — leads Humbert to believe that “she had been coached at an early age by a little Lesbian”. Lolita also isn’t into boys. She makes that clear when she’s made to socialise with them at her sedate girls’ school. And when she’s drugged by Humbert at a hotel in anticipation of his first rape on the road, she thickly calls out the name of her lost girl love: “Barbara.”

“Barbara, wearing my pajamas which were too tight for her, remained poised motionless over the little sleep-talker,” Humbert writes, imagining himself as Lolita’s lesbian. He longs to disguise himself as a “somber old fashioned girl”, and he longs most of all for a “lady-writer’s pen”. It’s not uncommon for Nabokov’s heterosexual male protagonists to yearn like this. “Had I not been born a heterosexual male, I would have been a lesbian,” the lead character of Nabokov’s 1969 novel Ada or Ardor, whose main vice is incest rather than paedophilia, confessed. In the words of my girlfriend: “Stop. It’s too much.”

While Humbert began his confession with an address to the “gentlemen and women of the jury,” by the end of the novel, the latter are no longer addressed. Nabokov anticipates that the “sensitive gentlewomen of the jury” have stopped reading by the time Lolita’s forced into pregnancy and a never-ending sentence of heterosexuality. But I’m still here. Although I feel like I’m standing in a movie theatre, long after the credits have rolled and the cleaners have come in to sweep up the popcorn; I still remain.

Why? Well, first I’d say it’s because I’m not like the other dykes. But secondly and most importantly, Lolita explains heterosexuality to me. Humbert, who reduces the object of his desire from a person into porn, and then resents her when she does not — or rather, cannot — respond in kind, isn’t so different from heterosexual men who supposedly aren’t paedophiles.

As as lesbian, I exist in a world largely tailored to these men. So, when I appear, I am either a footnote, a subtext or a niche. At least Lolita makes me glad to feel this way.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.