Reading Lolita in Public

Lolita seems to have gone missing (second library book in as many months, which isn’t good). She’d just come home from the hospital. I’ve since finished Breakfast on Pluto and am reading The End of the Affair.

In comments to, I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Smart, Mighty Ponygirl said,

The problem is that you have people like Amanda Marcotte saying that Lolita is one of her favorite books, and you have people like the Derbert saying that Lolita is one of his favorite books. Now, I can say with a good deal of confidence that Amanda doesn’t make this call because she fantasizes about raping underage girls–and I can say with a good deal of confidence that John Derbyshire makes this call because he does.

But honestly? I don’t really want to take the time to figure that out. When someone tells me that Lolita is one of their favorite books, I’m not really interested in finding out which camp they fall into. Are they lit lovers who enjoy the prose, irony, and allegory of the novel? Are they perverts who feel that HH is the person they’d like to be? Are they just dipshit hipsters who grabbed the first book on the indie-cred list and clung to it like a life preserver?

Unless I know the person pretty well, I just don’t care to invest the energy to find out.

I empathize. I read a lot, especially now that I’ve rediscovered the joys of a library card (for example: you only have to pay for the book if you lose it). I’ve been covering some of the classics recently. I also take figure-drawing classes, which puts me in the path of a larger-than-average share of pretentious old farts. This means that they will occasionally comment on The Adventures of Augie March or The Pagan Rabbi. They are impressed that a young whippersnapper like me is carrying around a book, never mind opening and reading it with apparent interest. Their opener is usually something like, “Is that for school?” The interview goes on through, “Have you read this by them? Have you heard of so-and-so? Isn’t she/he (usually he) wonderful!”

No book has gotten me anywhere near as much attention as Lolita, especially from guys like this. I’ve been ashamed to read it in public, even though it’s not a graphic book at all. I’m very conscious of seeming like a young man–a teenager–holding a famous softcore pedophilia masterpiece. It makes my palms sweaty. If I were still presenting as a woman, I’d still be anxious, but in a very different way. It never ceased to amaze me how little men realized that they were being creepy, intrusive, or inappropriate. I know that it wouldn’t occur to them that a woman might be a little uncomfortable about bonding with a middle-aged man over a rhapsodical treatise on child rape.

These men do wax rhapsodic. I want to ask, Aren’t you embarrassed? Doesn’t it seem a little weird to you that you can quote the opening paragraph of this book, when last month you couldn’t remember whether it was Cynthia Ozick or Grace Paley who had written The Shawl (which you called a masterpiece)? Do you ever feel a little, I don’t know, gross? Does Humbert Humbert implicate you in any way? Does Nabokov make you think, or did you just find it funny when HH finally got laid?

And then I want to say, Listen, you smug son of a bitch. I was a woman. I was a little girl. I could have been someone’s little Lo. This isn’t a joke. You aren’t sophisticated. You’re just dense.

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31 Responses to Reading Lolita in Public

  1. I won’t read Lolita, but I really enjoyed Nafisi’s discussion of the book in Reading Lolita in Tehran.

    It sure would give you material for an interesting post if you asked those men the questions near the end of your post. I don’t think I could do it, though.

  2. Andreas says:

    piny, I think you’re misreading the creepy pretentious guys, to a certain extent. I think a lot of men do identify with Humbert — not because Humbert is who they want to be, but because Humbert is who they’re afraid they already are.

    — ACS

  3. sly civilian says:

    i’m torn as all hell on this. i keep thinking i need to re-read the book (as in, i read it before i had any damn sense whatsoever), but rather put off by Lolita-as-cultural-touchstone thing going on. That, and all the covers of the recent reprints are nasty objectifying.

  4. spotted: I feel the same way. That was the best review of Lolita I think I’ve ever read.

  5. jah says:

    I got more attention reading Proust in public than I ever did reading Nabokov.

    Of course, the last time I read either author was more than 20 years ago; no one I knew, male or female, would probably have admitted to reading Nabokov. In fact, when I gave the librarian a synopsis of Lolita, she read the book for the first time, then ripped it up and burned it in a trashcan.

    The same middle aged men who ask young women about their reading materials rarely ever ask middle aged women the same questions, which is kind of telling, now that I think about it. I’ve had young adults and teens of both sexes ask me about my books, as well as women my age and older, and sometimes men who are much older. But never men my age. Hmm.

  6. I don’t know…I’ve read “Mein Kampf” at the same time as I read “Lolita”, and that was damn near 20 years ago. Now, I suppose that you could wonder why the hell an 11 year old was reading those books, but does that mean that it colored my future to become a pervert? No. However, I can only speak for me. I also loved Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box, does this mean that I like the thought of leading lesbians on and whips and chains? Well, yes, but that’s neither here nor there. The problem is that we tend to label people by the books we read. “Lolita?” Pervert! “The Bible?” Godly pervert. You can only explain your reasons for reading “perverted” literature, not anyone else’s.

  7. spectral_ev says:

    I never read the book, but what bothered me during the sixties was how in popular culture every little girl became a ‘lolita.’ if you were young at the time it was really creepy. i still find it creepy that no one in literature seems to express any sense that it is wrong to use a child that way. if humbert had been interested in boys would anyone want to read about him? would anyone admire the writing?

  8. Megami says:

    if humbert had been interested in boys would anyone want to read about him? would anyone admire the writing?

    I would say yes, simply because it is such a clever satire (yes, it is a satire) that it transcends whether it is about HH’s freaky fetish for a boy or a girl. The writing is great despite the ickiness of the premise, which makes it doubly great IMHO.

  9. moonrose says:

    When I went to see Hard Candy, everyone else in the theater was male and at least 40. At one point, the pervert offers to confess to the police in exchange for his freedom from the heroine. But she has no faith in the system. She says, didn’t Roman Polanski just win an Oscar? That got a big laugh.

  10. I would be much more receptive to the “it’s just satire!” defense of the book if the term “Lolita” (to describe an underage girl as a predator, rather than a victim) were used in our culture sarcastically, rather than literally, as it is used.

  11. Havva says:

    Lolita is a great book. It’s not about how H. H. was a good guy and how nice it is to fuck little girls. Nabakov is not identifying with H. H., he is telescoping is to his mind. The book is about how this H. H., a pedophile, stole lolita’s childhood and innocence and transformed her into what she was in his imagination. I read the book a long time ago but I do remember that Nabakov clearly says in his introduction that there are many things he doesn’t agree on with H. H., one of which is his lust for nymphettes.

  12. bob mcmanus says:

    “if humbert had been interested in boys would anyone want to read about him? would anyone admire the writing?”

    Is Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” so far from Lolita?
    And I am not entirely happy about Lolita being appropriated as a book about pedophilia, seeing it as about so much more, so more devastating and wider-ranging. Both stories are about Romanticism, Idealism, and Objectification as ecstatic disease.

    Tennessee Williams made a career of it.

  13. Daniel@NYU says:

    “Lolita” is about rape fantasies the same way “Hannibal” is about cannibalism fantasies. “Lolita” is the diary of a monster from the monster’s perspective. Nabokov had a great wit for the turn of the phrase, and it’s to his great credit that the monstrousness of what’s being done seeps through Humbert’s apologia and fond remembrances, even as Humbert remains in credible denial of his own monstrousness.

    You’d have to be just completely delusional to read this as an aspirational expression of anything resembling straight male sexuality.

  14. KnifeGhost says:

    Evidently a lot of dudes who read it are completely delusional.

  15. KnifeGhost says:

    Evidently a lot of dude who read it are completely delusional.

  16. Melanie says:

    Unfortunately, Daniel, many readers DO miss Nabakov’s intent and don’t pick up that HH is projecting his own desires on to Lolita. I have had intensely disturbing discussions with people – both male and female – who argued that Lolita was a willing participant in the relationship. They accepted HH’s assessment of the situation at face value and failed to discern that Lolita is trapped and struggling against the abuse (despite the clear cues in the book)

    I think what disturbs me most about this is the lack of empathy, and the inability to read Lolita’s behaviour as distressed. I can’t help but wonder whether that inability extends into real life. That is to say, I find myself fearing that any one of those people could potentially misread a young girl’s signals and subject her to abuse while thinking their advances were welcomed.

  17. kfluff says:

    The problem with Lolita, I think, is that conversation about the novel inevitably oscillates between its incredibly disturbing elements and its high culture, literary merit (the “Nabokov is a genius because of how he presents this material!)–and these two readings seem incompatible to me. The men you mention, Piny, seem to take refuge in the second, while you are (logically) concerned about the first. I’d love to see someone assess the book and by paying close attention to how both are in play simultaneously.

  18. eteraz says:

    hmm, piny, got a question for you

    seems like this author’s problem with being approached isn’t that she’s being approached but that she is being approached by ‘old farts.’

    what if it were the well read youthful kind of guy who came up to her? who generally wouldn’t know what to say to a girl, except when he sees a book in her hand he is able to make conversations about it. what then? is he presumptively perverted too? i think all women should carry books and all men should read them in advance and we can get back to a subtler, more coquettish kind of courting, where alcohol and sex-text messages will be replaced by ‘remember that part in bend sinister…”

    ah. how lovely.

  19. eteraz says:

    havva,

    that’s a very ‘reading lolita in tehran’ reading of lolita.

    others,

    shouldn’t we keep in mind that there are two kinds of pedophilia? aggressive and celibate? surely we can’t simply hate the celibate kind.

  20. piny says:

    seems like this author’s problem with being approached isn’t that she’s being approached but that she is being approached by ‘old farts.’

    Um, I wrote that part. I don’t differentiate between pretentious young hipsters and pretentious old farts; it’s just that the old farts are that much more likely to know who Humbert Humbert is.

    what if it were the well read youthful kind of guy who came up to her? who generally wouldn’t know what to say to a girl, except when he sees a book in her hand he is able to make conversations about it. what then? is he presumptively perverted too?

    If he were clueless enough to not understand his position with respect to the book’s subject matter, I don’t think he’d be such a great catch.

  21. eteraz says:

    If he were clueless enough to not understand his position with respect to the book’s subject matter, I don’t think he’d be such a great catch.

    Well that is why I asked the question because the post makes it appear that you do not even get to the point of finding out their position with respect to the book. It seems that just the fact that they are interested by talking about Lolita they are presumed to be perverted.

    Maybe they just wanted to flirt and that was a good vehicle to do it.

    If I see a girl holding Dr. Seuss I’ll probably make a comment b/c since that’s all I’ve read it gives me an opportunity to flirt. Doesn’t mean I talk in rhymes. Wouldn’t be fair of her (unless she simply thought I was ugly) to think that I am presumptively a child.

  22. piny says:

    Well that is why I asked the question because the post makes it appear that you do not even get to the point of finding out their position with respect to the book. It seems that just the fact that they are interested by talking about Lolita they are presumed to be perverted.

    Maybe they just wanted to flirt and that was a good vehicle to do it.

    1) Easily twice my age (and more than twice the age I probably seem.)

    2) Largely heterosexual.

    3) It’s a book about raping a little girl over a period of several years.

  23. piny says:

    And no, no flirting. I know what that feels like, so even if they weren’t straight, that’s not what’s going on.

  24. eteraz says:

    Ok thanks for explaining.

    I obviously have a personal stake in assuring that guys who by way of a book (and its contents) initiate conversations with girls not be deemed presumptively perverted (desparate is ok). its a form of dissociative flirtation. if you like nabokov, you should like dissociation.

  25. piny says:

    I obviously have a personal stake in assuring that guys who by way of a book (and its contents) initiate conversations with girls not be deemed presumptively perverted (desparate is ok). its a form of dissociative flirtation. if you like nabokov, you should like dissociation.

    Heh. Now, I could definitely go for someone who wanted to strike up a conversation about Bend Sinister.

  26. bob mcmanus says:

    “I’d love to see someone assess the book and by paying close attention to how both are in play simultaneously.”

    This struck me as decent. (link doesn’t seem to work right)

    http://www.libraries.psu.edu/nabokov/foriles.htm
    “Dolorous Laughter” by Eric Lemay in section “The Lolita Effect”

    I had this long thing going last night comparing Lolita to The Great Gatsby and John Fowles The Collector, but I lost my connection while writing it. Lucky you.

    PS:Lemay makes the strong point that “Lolita” is the name Humbert uses, and “Dolores” might be more appropriate for the rest of us when referring to the girl.

  27. eteraz says:

    Heh. Now, I could definitely go for someone who wanted to strike up a conversation about Bend Sinister.

    Oh yeah, piny? Maybe we should take this to more personal haunts.

    Check your email.

  28. FWIW, I’ve written a more detailed opinion of Lolita on my site. Trackbacks to Feministe and Pandagon aplenty! :)

  29. eteraz says:

    hey pony,

    i read your piece. very interesting.

    one thing: rorty says that nabokov considered political readings of his novels illegitimate. so your european/america allegory is not accepted by the author. further, nabokov called those kinds of writings, “topical trash.”

    i once wrote an interesting piece on the matter in light of ‘reading lolita in tehran’ which demonstrates that iranian women read of lolita as the victim, equated her with themselves, and humbert became the iranian state. such a reading of lolita would be what would make you happy.

    the trouble is, if we go about reading other works of N’s by re-characterizing the ‘less powerful’ individual in an effort to make it comport to our sense of decency, we will have to concede to a lot of nihilistic conclusions. for example, in bend sinister we’d have to come to the conclusion that there isn’t in fact any escape from totalitarianism unless a God saves us (not very hopeful). in ‘invitation to a beheading’ we’d have to conclude with the nihilistic conclusion that a victim really ought to commit suicide in order to “will reality into non-existence.” my point is that re-casting one character into a “victim” when its pretty ambiguous who is the victim would be problematic and questionable in other circumstances, so why do it in this one? it is not something we do the rest of the time. do we, for example, recharacterize a victim in a ‘class’ novel like one by dickens? or in a postcolonial novel?

  30. eteraz — I remember reading that about Nobokov dictating how we are to read his work; but when he says “political,” is he really going to far as to say we cannot read allegory at all, or simply that we are not to view the character of HH as a charicature of a political figure or ideology?

    Also, I never suggested we re-characterize the less-powerful individual. That defeats the purpose of my piece.

    I have read Reading Lolita in Tehran, and frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with the women of Nafisi’s group saying “I know exactly what it’s like to be Lolita. I know what it’s like to be controlled by a pervert, kept in a child-like state, and have people obsessing over your sexlife.”

    The whole point of my piece is that no matter how much you love the book, you can’t control how people will react to it, no matter how much you would like the truth to be otherwise, there are going to be hordes of nasty old men who look at Lolita as an artistic expression of their own pederastic desires; there are going to be women in Iran who view Lo as a metaphore for their own life, and there are going to be dipshit hipsters who read it so that they can come off as disaffected and wordly-wise.

  31. weeklyrob says:

    Hello,

    I don’t know whether I’m joining too late (blogversations, like the good, die so young), but here goes:

    I loved the book. For the record:

    37 y.o. married hetero male. Non child molestor. English major

    I have a couple of points, but I’m brand new to this blog, so please forgive me if I’m doing it all wrong.

    I read Lolita straight. That is, I read it, as Humbert told it, that Lolita was willing and even forward, at first. But the key here is that young girls are often curious about sex, and interested in older men. they DO develop crushes on older guys who show them some attention. I’ve taught girls of that age, and I know it for a fact.

    It’s the older person who normally, once the crush is recognized, would consciously try to cool it off. Humbert was sick because he didn’t want to say no, and disgusting because he didn’t say no.

    One of Pony’s points seems to be that you can tell that most people misread the book, because the term Lolita has come to mean a sexually forward young girl, when actually, she was a normal girl who was raped. I agree that the term is used in a twisted way, but I don’t think it’s because people read the book wrong.

    It’s because they never read it at all! I don’t think that most people would think that this was a normal, or acceptable relationship, but they’ve never read the book.

    Most people haven’t read “The Ugly American,” so use that term to mean a loud, nasty, tourist. Most people haven’t read “Frankenstein,” so they think that the monster couldn’t talk. It’s not that they’re misreading it. They’re NOT reading it.

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