Following the publication of the French novels, “Consent: A Memoir” by Vanessa Springora in January 2020 and “La Familia Grande” by Camille Kouchner in January 2021, should we speak of “Lolita”, this monument of modern literature published in 1955 by Vladimir Nabokov? Yes, a thousand times yes: we have to talk about “Lolita”, and more than ever.
“Lolita” is the biggest literary misunderstanding of the past seventy years. “Lolita” is the story of a heinous crime – incest – disguised as a love affair. The disguise is due to the fact that it is the fictional pedophile Humbert Humbert who holds the pen. The disguise is also due to the very particular style of Nabokov, which captivates and hypnotizes the reader, both captivated by the beauty of the words and petrified by the perversion which permeates the text.
The permanent tension between the beauty of the form and the horror of the substance makes the text absolutely terrible. The manuscript, which struggled to find a publisher, landed with an obscure Parisian publisher – Maurice Girodias – to be published in the following years in the United States, experiencing a huge critical and commercial success.
One minor misunderstanding regarded the text as pornographic – when it never is.
Another misunderstanding assimilated the fictional narrator Humbert Humbert with the real author Nabokov.
The major misunderstanding concerns the text as such and unfortunately occurs very quickly after the publication of “Lolita”: the crime of incest is forgotten and only remains in the collective unconscious a “moving story of love”, or even worse, a book “entirely devoted to the hopes, feelings, anguish of this middle-aged man, who becomes the slave of the child he loves” (if I believe the French newspapers of the time, “L’Express” and “Le Monde”).
Maurice Girodias himself only accepts to publish the manuscript because he sees it as an apology for pedophilia which (dixit Nabokov) “could lead to a transformation of social attitude towards this kind of love”.
While Vladimir Nabokov, in his writing – and his wife Vera, the most fervent ally of Lolita the child – will never cease to highlight the absolute perversion of the repulsive anti-hero who inhabits this paper nightmare, Humbert Humbert – nothing will help.
Vladimir Nabokov can say how much admiration he has for Lolita as a person, for her strength, for her will for life – nothing will help.
Vera may wish that “someone would notice the loving descriptions of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence on the monstrous HH, and the courage she shows from start to finish” – nothing will help.
No one will ever hear the tears of an abused child named Lolita, suffocated by the narrative of a so-called “tragic love story” called “Lolita”. No one will hear her anymore, because she is only evoked through the biased and sick prism of Humbert Humbert, who perverts her with his own gaze.
We will never hear Lolita’s voice.
Let me put this right: we are talking about pedophilia and incest. “Lolita” is the mesmerizing confession of Humbert Humbert, soon to be on trial for the murder of a man, Clare Quilty. Surprisingly, this confession almost never concerns his victim since it is Lolita who haunts the whole story.
Lolita was 12 when she meets her mother Charlotte’s new tenant, Humbert Humbert – whose patronymic repetition evokes absolute emptiness. The tenant, who feels secret and unhealthy impulses towards the child, marries the mother for the sole purpose of being closer to the little girl. The mother, who was, by the way, jealous of her daughter, dies very conveniently in a car accident, which leaves the field free for the new (step-)father to abuse his “daughter” during a road trip of almost two years across the United States.
One can debate endlessly about the American society sketched by Nabokov – it’s brilliant, it’s ironic, it’s masterful – but that is not the point.
One can still endlessly debate over the bewitching literary style that Nabokov deploys page after page in English – despite being Russian by birth – but that is not the point either.
Vladimir Nabokov has been developing this story for more than twenty years. A first and short novel from 1939, titled “L’Enchanteur”, describes a pedophile who marries a sick woman for whom he has no desire, for the sole purpose of creating sexual intimacy with the 12-year-old daughter of this woman. The mother dies. The man takes the child to the South of France, but when he tries to abuse the child, she screams. The man runs away and dies in a car accident. This text, which Nabokov saw as a draft of “Lolita” will be published, against his will, posthumously by his son Dmitri.
“The Enchanter” will be the matrix of “Lolita” whose manuscript will be saved from fire several times by Vera (“no, we keep it, this one” she says when she sees her husband throwing the pages into the fire).
But the outcome of “Lolita”, in gestation for so long, will ultimately only be possible thanks to a real-life event. Nabokov will always deny that he was inspired by real life – as if art had to be self-sufficient – but his archives now available for consultation in the US Library of Congress include one of the famous sheets he was working on, and which is dedicated to Sally.
Because we have to talk about Sally. Sally Horner is kidnapped for 21 months by Frank La Salle in 1948. Franck La Salle, who introduces himself to the child like an FBI agent when she has just stolen a five-cent notebook, manages to kidnap the child, drive her around the United States, present herself in the eyes of third parties as her father and sexually abuse her. Sally manages to escape the clutches of her attacker, returns to her widowed mother and dies in a stupid car accident two years after her rescue.
The similarities with Lolita (flagged in 1963 by a journalist, Peter Welding in the magazine Nugget then in 2019 by Sarah Weinam in her fascinating book “Lolita, the true story”) are disturbing even if Nabokov has always denied being inspired by the story of Sally Horner. Mothers are widows, not very protective; the abuser crosses the United States with his prey, whom he sexually abuses while presenting her as his daughter, and the latter escapes in a last instinct of survival. Car crashes punctuate the fictional stories of “The Enchanting” (although written long before) and “Lolita” and Sally’s real story. Nabokov will never admit it, but there are a lot of Sally in Lolita’s story.
There is also a sinister fairy tale in “Lolita”. Charlotte – the rival mother – competes with her daughter Lolita, an inevitable reminiscence of Cinderella and Snow White. The incestuous figure of Humbert Humbert is obviously reminiscent of Donkey Skin’s father and that of Belle (although incest is not consumed in this last tale, but the father places Belle in a conjugal and certainly not in a filial position). Humbert Humbert obviously evokes Bluebeard and his murdered wives, when it comes to recounting the genesis of his sexual pathology. The apple holds a highly symbolic place when Humbert Humbert experiences a first sexual experience alongside an unaware Lolita – and this apple can only recall that of Snow White (and Eve in Paradise, in all her fault – we always comes back to the Bible, right).
Throughout the text, the places are “magical“, Lolita is “an enchanted prey“, their intimacy is a “wonderland“, the journey they make through the United States, “an enchanted journey“. The hotel where Humbert Humbert first raped Lolita is called “The Enchanted Hunters” and the school play which enables Lolita to plan her escape will have the exact same name. So many hunters and so little enchantment, poor, poor Lolita. There is no happing ending here.
Do we have to repeat over and over again that Lolita is only 12 years old and a child? Absolutely.
Do we have to repeat over and over again that Humbert Humbert is an adult sexual pervert? Absolutely.
Because a lot of people talk about “Lolita” without having read it (or they really misread it) or on the basis of what they have read or seen on the subject, these two statements must be repeated over and over again.
The real theme of the novel – incest – is drowned in a lingering misunderstanding.
Whose fault is it?
Nabokov’s distinctive style? Bryan Boyd, Nabokov’s biographer, always felt that readers reacted to the author’s eloquence, not to the facts exposed. As if the beauty of the speech numbed the absolute horror of the content.
Kubrick’s fault, for sure. Kubrick directed the film “Lolita” in 1962, based on a script by Nabokov that he would never use. In my opinion, Kubrick – whom I love elsewhere – absolutely distorts Nabokov’s point.
Sue Lyon, the actress who is 14 years old, embodies a Lolita who already is a young woman in her forms and outfits. The inattentive viewer may believe in a love story between a very young woman and a mature man who, by chance, are “father” and “daughter”.
We are far away from a relationship of authority between a legal father and a 12-year-old orphan, who is sexually abused by the one person who should protect her.
The music is ridiculously cheerful when it comes to the Humbert Humbert and Lolita scenes (the opening credits make me sick).
Kubrick’s mix of genres – film noir, pure detective and… comedy film – absolutely dilutes the dramatic tension of an adult man’s perverse obsession with a child, yet so pervasive in Nabokov’s novel.
Humbert Humbert’s past as a perverted pedophile is absolutely and totally inexistent in the movie.
And worst of all, Kubrick makes Lolita the initiator of the first sex encounter. In the sexually charged first scene, Lolita is on top and appears to dominate and direct the sexual relationship to come. In fact, Lolita, who is only 12 years old, becomes in this film the femme fatale who leads the pseudo-hero towards his downfall. If the real theme wasn’t so tragic, it would be laughable.
Moreover, at this stage, one wonders if Lolita is the main subject of the film, because Kubrick constantly puts forward Clare Quilty (while the latter is almost absent from the novel), played by Peter Sellers (a favorite actor to whom Kubrick gives, for my taste, too much room here). The first and last words spoken in the film are “Quilty” while the first and last words written in the novel are “Lolita”.
We won’t even talk about the movie poster, which is now part of our collective subconscious, evoking a young woman with heart-shaped glasses, sucking on a lollipop and looking – like a hunter – at the prey in front of her.
I love Kubrick, but God I do vomit this movie.
The film’s perverse sexualization of the Lolita poster was echoed on the covers of the vast majority of editions of the novel, even if Nabokov objected to any portrayal of his abused paper child.
The decades that followed kept harming Lolita a little bit more. From victim, she went to archetype and common name: the lolita is “a very young girl with a falsely candid air, who, by her manners, entices men. Lolita, the heroine of Nabokov’s novel, is the type of the nymphet ”. The French Robert dictionary reduces her to a “very young girl, a deceptively candid-looking adolescent who arouses the desire of adults through the image of precocious femininity”.
Marilyn puts one last nail into Lolita’s coffin, adapting in 1960 the lyrics of a Cole Porter song which dates from 1938 and which obviously did not mention any Lolita, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy”:
My name is Lolita
And I’m not supposed to play with boys
Mon cœur est à papa
You know, le proprietaire
So I want to warn you, laddie
Though I know that you’re perfectly swell
That my heart belongs to Daddy
‘Cause Daddy, my Daddy
My little ol’ Daddy treats it so
That little old man, he just treats it so good »
In this song, Lolita’s heart belongs to her daddy (we understand that she is in love and consenting, “the old man treats it so good”), he is the owner and she is not allowed to flirt with boys. The shift from the victim to the consenting, seductive and perverse child takes place.
The sexual liberation of the late 1960s calls for sex for all. “It is forbidden to prohibit” and the absence of standards allows any kind of abuse. Camille Kouchner and Vanessa Springora show all the excesses in their respective novels. However, unlike a Gabriel Matzneff, Nabokov never did and never will praise sexual crimes.
In this vein, it seems relevant to Bernard Pivot (a French renowned speaker) to tell Nabokov that “we may think that you are the father of only one slightly perverse little girl“. Nabokov is once again obliged to rectify the point: “Lolita is not a perverse young girl. She’s a poor child. A poor child who is debauched and whose senses never awaken under the caresses of the filthy Monsieur Humbert” (Apostrophes, 1975).
In this movement, it seems normal to reduce, as Paris Match did in 1977, Samantha Geimer to “a 13-year-old Lolita who made Roman Polanski a damned soul”.
Beyond the common first name – misunderstood – Lolita becomes a “pop icon” (and I am quoting here Christophe Tison in Slate of October 7, 2019). Cosplays, Lolicon, manga culture are invaded by perverted schoolgirl Lolitas who never existed, in a cropped pleated skirt and knee-high socks.
She never existed, the evil child.
There was only one abused child, who “sobs at night – every night, every night” and she has been forgotten. It is not that complicated: Nabokov names this pain, since even before being nicknamed Lolita, the child is called Dolores.
If Lolita is so seductive for Humbert Humbert – as for all pedophiles – it’s because of her very infantilism (and Vanessa Springora describes it in “The Consent”).
In an interview where he was invited to compare the story of Dolores to unions between very young women and mature men, Nabokov specified again and again that Humbert Humbert loved kids (and not very young women) and that when Lolita reaches 14, the pedophile speaks about her like his “aging mistress”.
This clarification recalls another: a journalist wanted to see in Humbert Humbert a touching character, but Nabokov had to recall that Humbert Humbert is only a miserable, conceited and cruel person, who succeeds in appearing touching but that this very last adjective “all iridescent with tears, can only be applied to my unhappy little girl”.
It is ironic that Nabokov hated Freud, the father of psychoanalysis (this “Viennese charlatan” as he called him) so much, because his transcription of the emotional state of the incested child is particularly relevant. Despite the recurring questioning of some of the author’s specialists, no one will ever know whether Nabokov was confronted with incest or pedophilia, whether as a victim or as an abuser – the fact remains that his description of the emotional state of the victim is of rare relevance at a time when little work existed on the subject.
In “Lolita”, Nabokov accurately describes the symptoms and survival mechanics of sexually abused children. If we take current knowledge and apply it to “Lolita,” written in 1955, the accuracy of the novel is mind-blowing.
The initial phase of incest corresponds to the establishment of an environment favoring interaction, the search for intimacy where the adult does everything in his power to be alone with the child – exactly what that Humbert Humbert does in the first weeks of his installation in Charlotte’s home. When Humbert Humbert experiences his first sexual climax (linked to the apple – poor climax born on a sofa, from the innocent rubbing of Lolita’s calves on his thighs, against his crotch), he does nothing other than to try to access the body of the child who has no reason to be wary of the real issues (Lolita will not notice anything, by the way).
The secrecy phase is capital (Camille Kouchner explained it at length, this secrecy carries away the abused victim and other silent victims): the abuser incites the child to participate in an adult sexual activity, by normalizing it (it is exactly what Humbert Humbert does when he explains that they will travel together for a long time and that a form of intimacy will necessarily take place between them), by rewarding and buying the child (as proof, the many gifts that Humbert Humbert buys to Lolita to ensure in return her good sexual disposition).
The secrecy phase is crucial because it locks the child in a deafening silence. The taboo of incest is that strong that silence surrounds the little victim, who must adapt in order to survive. This is exactly what Lolita does by not telling anyone what she is going through, because she thinks that no one would believe her, confronted by this European “father” of rare sophistication.
The abuse persists thanks to persuasion (Humbert Humbert endlessly persuading Lolita of the rightness of their relationship and the impossibility of doing otherwise), the threat (Humbert Humbert threatening Lolita to take her to a reformatory school), the physical threat (the scene where Humbert Humbert grabs Lolita’s arm to silence her), gratification (gifts), verbal violence (insults and screams).
The child trades for her/his survival in an alienating vertical relationship of terror and submission. She/he/they also trade for the survival of their abuser, because the child adapts and anticipates the moods of the abuser so that he/she is more serene and therefore less oppressive.
The abused child is transformed into an object, is reduced only to a body, dispossessed of her/his own personality and this is how Humbert Humbert considers Lolita, since he only speaks of her own body and the pleasure it gives him in his confession. Lolita’s personality and her human dimension escape him completely, which makes him astonished in a moment of lucidity.
But this adaptation obviously generates emotional regulation disorders in the victim.
Shame, the feeling of filth (Lolita: “I was pure and fresh as a daisy, and look what you did to me”), and rejection (the speech of Madame Pratt, worrying about the little interest of a schooled Lolita for relations with the opposite sex or for sex education classes) punctuate the life of the abused child.
Social isolation, withdrawal are the poor companions of the incested child, and this is what happens to Lolita who has little right to interact with anyone. She is locked into herself, and her abuser – to be sure that the secrecy and exclusivity of her prey is preserved, subjects her to a thousand interrogations.
Dysphoria, which is strewn throughout the novel and characterized by sadness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, tension, irritability and indifference, is the black serpent that suffocates the abused child.
Dark thoughts or worse, suicidal state are the norm for the abused child.
Because childish sexuality, which is made up of games and discoveries and which ultimately requires tenderness only, is not the same as adult sexuality, incest produces, by precipitating the two together, a state of shock, a void of affect, a state of bewilderment, an immobilization which can resemble, to the eye of the perverted pedophile, a consent.
To paraphrase Suzanne Robert-Ouvray, Doctor of Clinical Psychology, psychotherapist and researcher at the University of Paris-VII, the abused child is dumbfounded.
And Lolita, despite her lucidity (it is she who immediately blurted out “the right word is incest” after the first rape) and her instinct for survival, is nothing but dumbfounded. She cries (those cries that no one hears) and totally dissociates herself: the emotional rift is so deep that it is impossible to even think about it. Dissociation at this stage allows the kid to no longer be present to himself/herself, to desert the body (which hurts), the emotions (which hurt) and life (which hurts too).
Still, Lolita is a fighter. She is the one who drops the word “incest” following the first rape. She is the one who calls Humbert Humbert a “pervert”. She is the one who manages to escape the unhealthy relation with Humbert Humbert.
In Humbert Humbert’s confession, Lolita never has a voice, we will never hear her. If we hear it, it is through the one-sided filter of Humbert Humbert, who rewrites history as he wants. And this is where Nabokov is a masterful writer to be wary of, because the tension is permanent between the beautiful speech of Humbert Humbert and what the reader senses to be the very different reality.
Lolita is silenced, like all incest victims, when, according to official statistics, one in ten children are incested.
This astounding silence has to stop now.
To Sally and all the Lolitas.
(Editor’s note. Here, an outfit in total inadequacy with the text. No photo would be adequate, by the way. Here we need a big breath of fresh air, nature and an outfit that is neither sexualizing , nor feminizing).
Peter Pilotto blouse – Monoprix shorts – Chanel sunglasses – Repetto flat shoes – Larone Artisans wicker bag