The Vintage cover for Nabokov's Lolita (don't pronounce it like Sting)


  • Author:  Vladimir Nabokov  (1899  –  1977)
  • Rank:  #23
  • Published:  1955
  • Publisher:  Olympia Press
  • Pages:  317
  • First Line:  “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
  • Last Lines:  “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.  And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Modern Library Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century #4; All-TIME List
  • Film:  1962  (***.5  –  dir. Stanley Kubrick); 1997  (***  –  dir. Adrian Lyne)
  • First Read:  Spring, 1999

The Novel:  It begins and ends with such amazing precision in its language.  It evokes such beautiful images, such powerful longing, deep emotions buried deep down under surfaces we don’t want to scratch at.  It starts with that iconic opening sentence, but it doesn’t end there: “My sin, my soul.  Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.  Lo.  Lee.  Ta.”

There are those who read Lolita and think, you can’t get away with this kind of smut just because you disguise it in the flowering beauty of the English language (“The hollow of my hand was still ivory-full of Lolita – full of the feel of her pre-adolescently incurved back, that ivory-smooth, sliding sensation of her skin through the thin frock that I had worked up and down while I held her.”).  There are those who say that Humbert is just too caught up in his own trap, fated to always relive those memories of his youth and never able to cope with any concept of adult life (“But that mimosa grove – the haze of stars, the tingle, the flame, the honeydew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since – until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another.”).  But then there are those who think the former readers are probably going on the reputation of the story and have never actually read the book and that the latter group just don’t understand the humor of the novel (“She was, obviously, one of those women whose polished words may reflect a book club or bridge club, or any other deadly conventionality, but never her soul; women who are completely devoid of humor; women utterly indifferent at heart to the dozen or so possible subjects of a parlor conversation, but very particular about the rules of such conversations, through the sunny cellophane of which not very appetizing frustrations can be readily distinguished.”).

This novel isn’t what most people think of it as being.  It is funny and it is dark and it is tragic and it is satiric and it winds it all up in amazing prose.  We are reminded that the same man who would tell us “There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open (and then I see Annabel in such general terms as: ‘honey-colored skin,’ ‘thin arms,’ ‘brown bobbed hair,’ ‘long lashes,’ ‘big bright mouth’); and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).” would later seek to back away from the responsibility of his actions by simply stating the facts:  “I am nature’s faithful hound.  Why then this horror that I cannot shake off?  Did I deprive her of her flower?  Sensitive gentlewomen of the jury, I was not even her first lover.”

But Dolores Haze, whose flower was unencumbered by the physical desire of her stepfather is so much more than he is capable of handling.  Just 30 pages after being ivory-full of Lolita, we find “She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.”

What can we make of this novel, of poor Humbert, of poor Lo?  I answered this question once, in the midst of a novel, where a character, dealing with her own fire of the loins, with the passion she burns with for an older man, writes the following for her English paper:

He is captivated by the nymphet.  It is something almost pathological, something stronger than desire, something more than love or lust, a need, an urge, a push that can not be ignored.  How can a man with such needs turn away from such a choice as Dolores Haze?

The Vintage cover of Lolita has the wrong picture.  A cover of a book needs to capture the eye, draw the reader in and make them beg to know what will happen (it amazes me that Ground Beneath Her Feet sold a single copy with such an awful dust jacket).  A cover, also though, needs to align with the text, must find a connection to the words, the story, a vital connection with what comes inside, because in spite of everything we are taught we often judge books by their covers.  And the Vintage cover of Lolita is a lie.

The picture is a shy, fifties girl, alive and fresh in her skirt and saddle shoes, obviously wanting us to think this is Lo.  But this is not Lo, nor is meant to be, for Lo has never been shy, has never demurred away from the hope for sexual attention.  It takes us no time to understand the decision of Humbert to fall so desperately under her spell, for her to capture the fire of his loins, to be his light, his soul, so much that when she is gone from his life all he can hope for are aurochs and angels and the immortality of art.  Humbert is a man of desperation and illusions, the old world European come to the new world, only to be enraptured in the beauty and lustfulness of its most entrancing young nymphet.  But all of this merely serves to beg a question: What does our young Lolita see in our sad professor?  What could bring this nymphet, barely a teen, to enter into a dalliance with this desperate fool, perhaps old enough to be her grandfather?  And our answer will help us to see how wrongly placed the Vintage cover is.

Humbert is not quite right at the end of Part One when he says she has nowhere else to go.  She could flee from him and in later pages, will do just that, will fly away to greater sexual debauchery under the wings of Claire Quilty and finally fall from the sky into a simple relationship, will have burned the sexual desire from her system as she soared too close to the sun.  But ladies and gentlemen of the jury, this is not an innocent child.  Perhaps Humbert will shed a tear for her absence from the choir but it was not his lecherous incestuous ways that distracted her from a path to grace.

There is a grace in an older man that she, being a nymphet, can understand, can feel her calling her up the steps to leap into her arms to kiss him, that can draw her into his bed before she has nowhere left to go.  Lolita, our beautiful lo-lee-ta, is the child of Scott Fitzgerald’s flappers, the young sexual awakening of a generation that will come to constant sexual betrayal in the novels of Updike.  This is no shy innocent fifties girl ready to go the school dance, replete in poodle skirt and saddle shoes.  This is the young sexual awakening of a generation and this a man who desperately needs her, wants her.  It gives her a chance to achieve that desire, to learn where her wings are stored, knowing that he will do what she asks, will help her find herself, and when he resists, tries to keep her from the sky, she will disappear and when her awakening is complete she seeks for a quieter life, seeks to settle all accounts.  But she is still young and has never quite come to the understanding of Humbert that perhaps she needed.  And she can not save him.  And for all his hopes and lusts, he can not save her.  And they sing of aurochs and angels.  And the refuge of art is the only immortality they share.

She is right (of course I think she’s right – I wrote it).  Dolores burns brighter than Humbert can ever hope to encompass and even at the end, just before the novel closes with one of the most beautiful ending lines in all of literature, we get another well known line: “I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.”  But just as Lo never fully understands how bright she has burned in the orbit for Humbert, he never understands it either.  Dolores Haze, the Lo-lee-ta of his loins would never, no matter his presence of absence in her life, have stood in that chorus.  As Humbert says, in a line that I felt perfectly encompassed another of my own (unfinished) novels so well, that I used it as the epigraph: “Look at this tangle of thorns.”

The poster for the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film version

The Film  (1962):  This film is a comedy.  I didn’t really think about that for a long time.  But it’s very clear when you watch it.  Perhaps that’s why Sellers and Winters work so well and Mason and Lyon don’t.  Maybe nobody bothered to inform them.  But Kubrick, working with Sellers and Winters, slicing away from the language of the novel and moving towards the satirical core of the story, creates a comedy of manners.

Unfortunately, there is more to the novel (and the film) than just that.  That’s what keeps this film from really reaching for greatness.  If Kubrick had kept to Nabokov’s script (easily available to read) would it have become more an adaptation of the novel than what Kubrick was doing?  No.  Nabakov made his own choices about how to do the novel and Kubrick made his and the film works with what Kubrick is trying to do.

Those early moments of the novel create a sympathy of language for Humbert.  We find, in the beauty of his language, a measure of understanding for this man, especially once we have heard the story of his poor dead Annabel.  Kubrick gives us none of that.  From the very start, we see Humbert murder a poor pathetic madman, and only then do we learn anything about what has come and gone.  If anything, we end up with a strange sympathy for Quilty, that sick madman who deserves none of our sympathy.  But in that perfectly off-kilter performance from Peter Sellers (that deserved at least an Oscar nomination), we find ourselves sharing in his crimes rather than Humbert’s.  Mason is too stolid and stodgy.  We want the fun of Quilty’s life.

Then there is the difference between the performances of Shelley Winters and Sue Lyon.  Winters is absolutely perfect, a desperate woman wanting just a measure of happiness and an illusion of self-respect.  In a career full of great performances (and two Oscars), this is one of the best.  But Lyon is a mistake right from the start.  Her Lo is all cagey predator and never seems to be enough of the young girl.  Look at how she stares at Humbert at the first meeting and watch the corresponding scene in the later version.  One is all about eroticism and the other is all about a power struggle, right from the start.  How could this Humbert ever have been expected to cope with this girl?

In the end, the Kubrick is the superior version because it finds its measure and sticks through with it.  They asked how they ever made a movie of Lolita, but it’s because Kubrick decided exactly what he wanted to keep and ditched the rest, abandoning the Nabokovian language on the side of the road and finding its own subversive story just to the side of the main one.  It may be one of the weakest films he ever did, but this is Stanley Kubrick we’re talking about here.

The poster for the 1997 Adrian Lyne film version

The Film  (1997):  Jeremy Irons finds his performance as Humbert in the first few lines.  This film keeps the language, from the memorable first lines to the powerful last ones.  This is middle age in a sexual longing for youth, nothing more than what we might expect to find from Adrian Lyne, the director of 9 1/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction.  That it is his best film (by far), is not a measure of the film’s quality (it is good, but doesn’t reach past that), but a measure of the trash the rest of his career his produced.

This film took over a year before it was finally shown in the States because it did what the 1962 film could not at the time (and probably would not, given the direction Kubrick decided to approach the novel).  It focuses dead center on the erotic relationship between Lo and Humbert and brings us a romantic drama of desperation and occasional passion.  But, in spite of the eroticism (perhaps, in some part, because of it) and in spite of strong performances from the two leads (Irons is perfectly made for Humbert while Dominique Swain would never find any role as good as this), this film never really quite takes off and it’s for a variety of reasons.

The first is that the supporting performances, which were so great in the first film, aren’t nearly up to par here.  Frank Langella is simply too creepy to ever be believable as an interest for Lo and he possesses none of Sellers’ charm, which is so vital to the character.  Then there is Melanie Griffith, who can play the faded beauty, but doesn’t ever seem believably plain enough for Charlotte and just doesn’t have the acting ability to get the job done.

Second, by focusing much more on the erotic aspects of the novel, the film gets lost.  It is so determined to be daring (and it is – how many films could ever get away with the breakfast scene when Lo is reading the paper – that scene alone is probably the reason it took a year before it played in the States) that it loses focus.  Yes, we have the beautiful language, but the second half of the novel becomes all about the language and not much really happens in the story.  So the second half of this film, without a sense of humor (or direction), it meanders and takes too long and we stop caring.  Yes, Irons is able to bring us back at the conclusion, but it just seems so pathetic.  Without any of the humor that Nabokov had (and Kubrick stressed), this film simply becomes too dreary.