“It is childish,” protests Vladimir Nabokov, “to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country.” Perhaps so, but the fact persists that there is no better portrait of our childish country during its most childish decade than Lolita. Nabokov cannot be taken entirely at his word anyway. He was an exuberant prevaricator, especially when forced to explain his own work. Lolita, a novel that no American publisher would take on until three years after its original publication in Paris, was the subject of most of these explanations. In Lolita’s first American edition Nabokov appended a seven-page afterword defending himself against charges of pornography and anti-Americanism. The second charge, he writes, “pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immorality.” But his defense is winking, halfhearted: “I needed a certain exhilarating milieu,” he writes, describing the tawdry motels, diners, and suburban living rooms that make up the novel’s scenery. “Nothing is more exhilarating than philistine vulgarity.”
Through the philistine vulgarity of pastoral America strides princely Humbert Humbert the refined vulgarian. In Lolita Nabokov sets himself one of the severest self-imposed challenges in American literary history. He must make his reader sympathize with Humbert, a vile deviant bent on violating one of our society’s supreme taboos. We do not need to identify with Humbert—that would be asking too much—but we do have to take pleasure in his company. Humbert does not only have to seduce Lolita; he must also seduce his readers. Otherwise we wouldn’t make it past the first page, in which Humbert confesses not only to pedophilia but murder. This trick of humanizing Humbert would be difficult enough to pull off in 2015. But Nabokov managed it in Dwight Eisenhower’s America, during the year that The Mickey Mouse Club debuted and Ray Kroc opened the first McDonald’s.
How does he do it? Part of the answer lies in the enchanted, incantatory prose, which announces itself in the novel’s immortal opening line. It’s difficult to despise anyone who writes beautifully. Nabokov called Lolita a record of his love affair with the English language and the love beams from every sentence. His prose is as ardently rhapsodic as an adolescent mash note, full of playful flourishes: rampant alliteration (“I spend my doleful days in dumps and dolors”); playful transpositions (the Enchanted Hunters hotel, site of Lolita and Hum’s first sexual encounter, is reincarnated as The Hunted Enchanters, a play by Clare Quilty); and rhyming permutations (“Dolores Haze” becomes “my dolorous and hazy darling”). There are even poems. The language is relentlessly cajoling, flirtatious, seductive.
A more devious front in Nabokov’s assault on the reader’s natural defenses is the depiction of Lolita herself. Despite her 12 years and sheltered rural upbringing, he works hard to make her out to be just as “utterly and hopelessly depraved” as Humbert. A crucial turn occurs a third of the way through the novel. Humbert has moved in with Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, in order to be close to his prey, but doesn’t allow himself to act on his desire. It is enough to ogle her daily, his fantasies quickened by the occasional frottage or surreptitious masturbation in her presence. One day, fortuitously, Charlotte announces that she will send Lolita off to sleep-away camp; during the summer Charlotte dies in a freak accident. When Humbert, now Lolita’s guardian, picks her up from camp, he finds a changed girl. Though he has planned to spare her purity “by operating only in the stealth of night” after anesthetizing her with a sleeping drug, he is shocked to find that Lolita possesses “not a trace of modesty” and a surprising degree of sexual experience. Free of her mother’s influence she is able to act on her desires. Lolita, incredibly, seduces Humbert. Even if we do not take Humbert entirely at his word, he has at least fractionally diminished the moral outrage of his actions. The prey is as depraved as the predator. The girl is looking for an older lover; if Humbert does not accede, then she will find another. It is not an empty threat: before long Humbert is usurped and out-lechered by Clare Quilty.
Humbert blames Lolita’s depravity on “modern co-education, juvenile mores, the campfire racket and so forth.” The “so forth” is significant; it stands for everything else, which is another way of saying America, and American culture. It is not a coincidence that the entirety of Humbert and Lolita’s unholy affair takes place on the road. As they traverse the American heartland, Humbert takes pains to remind us of the country’s vulgarity. It is redolent in the “phony colonial architecture, curiosity shops and imported shade trees,” the “honest brightness of the gasoline paraphernalia against the splendid green of oaks,” the twin-bed cabins with names like “Hillcrest Courts, Pine View Courts, Mountain View Courts, Skyline Courts, Park Plaza Courts,” that offer “a prison cell of paradise” and a “faint sewerish smell,” with “yellow window shades pulled down to create a morning illusion of Venice and sunshine when actually it was Pennsylvania and rain.”
The crudity of American culture has not only an aesthetic quality but also a moral one. The landscape is not merely ugly; it possesses all the acrid banality of evil. Against this backdrop, continental, erudite, decorous, polyglot Humbert often seems less like a sexual deviant than a touring duke. We may not trust him with our daughter, but he makes for good company on a long road trip. We don’t laugh him out of the room when he reminds us of august ancient cultures where child brides were the rule.
Americans reading Lolita for illicit thrills in the ’50s were disappointed—genteel Humbert shuns obscenity and explicit detail—but they were at least compensated by a revealing tour of our own national crudity. At a time of miraculous economic growth, obsession with consumer goods, romantic adoration of the automobile, and rosy visions of nuclear families and nuclear armament, Lolita dosed America with a restorative shot of Old World perversity. Humbert Humbert is one of the best friends America ever had.
Other notable novels published in 1955:
The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy The Recognition by William Gaddis The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor The Deer Park by Norman Mailer
A Fable by William Faulkner
National Book Award:
A Fable by William Faulkner
Bestselling novel of the year:
Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk
About the American Dreams series:
This monthly series will chronicle the history of the American century as seen through the eyes of its novelists. The goal is to create a literary anatomy of the last century—or, to be precise, from 1900 to 2020. In each column I’ll write about a single novel and the year it was published. The novel may not be the bestselling book of the year, the most praised, or the most highly awarded—though awards do have a way of fixing an age’s conventional wisdom in aspic. The idea is to choose a novel that, looking back from a safe distance, seems most accurately, and eloquently, to speak for the time in which it was written. Other than that there are few rules. I won’t pick any stinkers.—Nathaniel Rich
1902—Brewster’s Millions by George Barr McCutcheon 1912—The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson 1922—Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis 1932—Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell 1942—A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell 1952—Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 1962—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey 1972—The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin 1982—The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux 1992—Clockers by Richard Price 2002—Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 2012—Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain 1903—The Call of the Wild by Jack London 1913—O Pioneers! By Willa Cather 1923—Black Oxen by Gertrude Atherton 1933—Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West 1943—Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles 1953—Junky by William S. Burroughs 1963—The Group by Mary McCarthy 1973—The Princess Bride by William Goldman 1983—Meditations in Green by Stephen Wright 1993—The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle 2003—The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2013—Equilateral by Ken Kalfus 1904—The Golden Bowl by Henry James 1914—Penrod by Booth Tarkington 1924—So Big by Edna Ferber 1934—Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara 1944—Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith 1954—The Bad Seed by William March 1964—Herzog by Saul Bellow1974—Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig1984—Neuromancer by William Gibson1994—The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields2004—The Plot Against America by Philip Roth2014—The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez1905—The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton1915—Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman1925—Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos1935—Pylon by William Faulkner