Lolita may be the greatest love story of all time, but for me, it’s the only immigrant memoir anyone needs to read.
If you’ve contemplated artistic brilliance that’s left you absolutely cold, then you know how I felt the first time I read Lolita, in my twenties. I loved it – but I didn’t like it, like certain youthful romances with people who were impressive rather than interesting. The prose was matchless, the observation precise, the form of Humbert’s ecstasy as transcendent as its content was appalling. Otherwise, this panting story felt curiously heatless – masterful without being interesting, educational without being engaging.
Due to a certain masochism that sometimes befalls the young immigrant, I did not allow myself to give up on the book, or it to give up on me. Immigration is the surrender of certainties about the right way to do things – the only reason you’re right and I’m wrong is that it’s your country, but it is your country – and I could imagine the failure only as mine, even if it involved a fellow immigrant author telling a story shaped enormously by Europe. America had decided that this novel mattered, and why.
The second reading, several years later, was warmer. Lolita is one of the least sexual novels about sex I’ve read. Nabokov took pains to point out that he wrote about the sex only as much as was dramatically necessary, and references to “buttocks” on p. 137 and “strenuous intercourse” on p. 140 of the Vintage edition are the most explicit he gets. Poetry and euphemism take care of the rest. But – like the covering that, in its pressure on the imagination, is meant to arouse more than bare skin – locutions like “having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school’s theatrical program” (pp. 184-85) conjure erotic transgression far more than actual organs in coitus, as John Updike and Philip Roth never learned.
Once again, however, the baroque prose (relentless), intricate scaffolding (gratuitous), and madcap wordplay – only male authors ever think clever wordplay is adequate art – subsided into a pile of dull embers, and I began to wilt in the doomed hope that I’d read something rich in story rather than trickery, eventful rather than merely exquisitely accurate. (How I envy those free of this pedestrian longing in their approach to high literature!) For me, plot was hot – that was the excitement I lacked.
I’ve never found it. But like the 24-year-old whose mother thinks she should really try to find feeling for the very nice boy courting her, I’ve kept going, and on my most recent reading, I found something else: Kinship. On previous readings, Humbert had always seemed enthralled by a sublime ecstasy. (“We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do”; we are the “great sleepless artists who… die for a few hours in order to live for centuries.”) During this one, it suddenly seemed very clear that Humbert wasn’t ecstatic at all. Humbert is terrified, of course, by the prospect of being found out, but that’s not what I mean. After more than 30 years of not having been able to accommodate myself, beyond a certain point, to American mores, all I could see was the ways Humbert is a disenfranchised foreigner desperate not to offend.
Like a good refugee whose fate is always in the hands of implacable and inexplicable forces, Humbert takes for granted that he participates in a universe with its own scheme. (Humbert is an immigrant rather than a refugee, but here he is a conflation with his author, whose deeply rooted and aristocratic early existence in Imperial Russia gave way to pan-European nomadism before an escape from the closing fist of the Nazis to the United States in 1940.) Humbert may escape discovery by mortals, but fate knows all. Fate keeps him from drowning Charlotte in Hourglass Lake when Jean Farlow turns out to be just around that bend, sketching. Fate throws Charlotte under a “big black glossy Packard” after she has discovered Humbert’s terrible secret. As Humbert says, “what stopped me” – from consulting a legal authority about his and Lolita’s situation – “was the awful feeling that if I meddled with fate in any way and tried to rationalize her fantastic gift, that gift would be snatched away.”
The trouble with fate is that, like the Greek gods, sometimes it goes the other way for no comprehensible reason: Humbert can (sometimes) imagine himself to be responsible for Lolita’s tragic perversion, but only fate can answer for the injustice of her seduction away by another. (The vagueness, good and bad, with which Nabokov executes the Clare Quilty subplot is the very embodiment of the way a powerless person understands power, content made into form.) Fate is the ultimate authoritarian government – familiar because ubiquitous, foreign because unanswerable. You curry its favor even as you flee its judgment.
On this reading, this uncertainty, even anxiety – in a novel once, I described it as a readiness for the axe to swing down – was the very sound of Lolita, of Humbert’s most central self. The tragedy of exile is the division from self it occasions: Even as you seek a new home with ever more readiness, all you notice is the ways every place misses the mark. Settled in New York City by immigrant parents desperate to find financial security – you could make money here – the place always felt wrong to me, and my attempts to find a replacement have taken me everywhere from Montana to Miami to Mexico. (Maybe it’s an M thing – when Lolita finally gave Nabokov the financial ease immigration had taken from him, he found his peace in Montreux, Switzerland.) The irony in my travels was that the preceding years in New York meant the new place would take that much longer to feel comfortable. And one way in which I differ from most immigrants is that I have no patience.
But it wasn’t as if I could return to Belarus. The original home is now gone, too, its Edenic comfort having been lost to the exile. “I happen to be allergic to Europe” (p. 91), Humbert reminds us in case we mistake his gentle eviscerations of America for homesickness. Even though the Continent could offer a hideout from American law enforcement and Puritan mores, it is not where he dreams of escaping with Lolita.
No, the Lolita story must begin – must try, hopelessly, to find roots – in New England, that cradle of America. But then, just as certainly, it must give up and set off for the freedoms of the road and the West. But then that wandering becomes intolerable, and one must come back, and try again. (Beardsley!) Before long, however, it’s time to set off once more.
Humbert is born into transience – the only home he knows is a hotel. And the hotels that become his home in America serve, at once, as ready-made fantasies of home and reminders of his extreme alienation. The towels “unhygienically heaped” on the toilet; the “propensity” of the bathwater “to turn instantly beastly hot or blindingly cold”; the night train “mingling power and hysteria in one desperate scream”: This is not only a man in perennial transit, but a soul doomed to know it – and to notice the very same things in hotels that I do. (Is all art not a matter of what you notice and another person doesn’t?)
When it comes to fugitives, only American extremists hole up; the Humbert Humberts keep going. And going. It’s the pursuit that is an exile’s home. The home and the hell. The Greek gods have nothing on the tragic futility of a simple old refugee, the ultimate ouroboros. “Why did I hope we would be happy abroad?” as Hum says. “A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lungs rely.”
There are two things Humbert dwells on whenever he’s not dwelling on something having to do with Lolita: His looks and his diffidence. When is Humbert more pitiable than during his apologetic, conciliatory rebellion against Charlotte Haze’s desire to relocate to Europe? (“I love being bossed by you… I am not cross at all…But I am one half of this household, and have a small but distinct voice.”) His arguments beg for her approval even as they challenge her wishes. Humbert is also strenuously forgiving of inconveniences he must endure: not for him to make a noise complaint in a hotel, or to feel outrage at a doctor’s “ignorance of, and indifference to, medical science” (p. 94). The immigrant doesn’t complain.
Humbert’s terminal tentativeness is about more than a criminal’s desire not to draw attention to himself; it’s the eternal visitor’s hesitation to be heard from. A certain kind of immigrant never loses the certainty that he will be punished for speaking up, as may very well have been the case in his old country. And he was a native there, fluent.
A literal reading of Lolita makes us think the problem has to do with Humbert’s perversion of Lolita’s sexual and moral development – what is more macabre than Lolita’s obsession with “photographs of local brides”? – and it does. But Humbert’s greatest crime is, simply, to make Lolita a refugee from herself, to endow her with the same catastrophic sense of division. Immigration endowed me with the poisonous understanding that it was possible to feel at home in places, and not at home. (In Lolita’s case, to feel at home in her body and conscience, and not.) Until then, as deeply flawed as Soviet life surely was, it was invisibly but ineluctably mine, and it was my blessing to be oblivious to the alternatives. This is why I described the experience as Edenic: Leaving it, you gain knowledge that makes it impossible to turn back. For Humbert, pedophilia is the content. Exile gives the form.
More than a decade after I first opened it, Lolita still feels masterful merely the way that a power plant does – indispensable, intricate, and domineering, but a place to be awed by rather than enjoy. I try to build power plants myself, and they deliver energy in a different way. After having read it so many times, however, it’s impossible not to feel a begrudging tenderness for it: Here we are once again, Volodya, squaring off across this sorcerous chess board.
If this isn’t commitment, I don’t know what is. By this point, it doesn’t matter if I don’t like Lolita. I feel helplessly married to it, the way Humbert and Lolita sometimes feel about each other. (Take the immaculately handled encounter between Humbert and Mrs. Dick Schiller at novel’s end after years of separation, two old familiars too intimate in their hostile knowledge of each other to bother with something as simple as fury.) It would be inconceivable to stop thinking about it.