Looking At “Lolita”

December 13, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: The noting of the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Lolita” has occasioned just the sort of predictable responses at which Vladimir Nabokov would have turned up his aristocratic nose.

People look at the subject matter as if that were what the novel is about. So, yes, “Lolita” dealt with a theretofore unmentionable subject in the seduction of a 12-year-old nymphet by a mid-life critical professor.

And yes, because of subject matter, it is to be compared with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and “Ulysses” because those books too were banned in America.

And yes again, the subject matter is particularly disturbing in modern times when one is much more aware of the extent and damage caused by pedophilia.

The responses are obvious and Nabokov probably would have ignored them. He lived on a higher plane where art wrestled with psychology and where art won. “Lolita,” that most amazing work of art displays the triumph of beauty over even the darkest impulses.

Not that style and language make excuses for Humbert Humbert’s offenses, but rather that they elevate and condemn them in the same strokes. Those who are too quick to see only subject matter in art are not so different from those who condemn art because of subject matter.

The famous cases: Mapplethorpe, the urine-soaked Jesus; the depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in elephant dung; the display of the American flag that caused visitors to tread on the flag in order to see it all became euphemistically controversial because certain observers saw only what the works were about in the narrowest terms.

“Lolita” similarly has been vilified by conservatives and liberals alike. Yes, the novel is about pedophilia but it is also about loneliness, longing, helplessness, despair, mediocrity, the destruction of children and the destruction of the destroyer.

Principally though, “Lolita” is about itself: A work in English by a Russian who made better use of the English language than English and American novelists.

Joseph Conrad, born Polish, did that as well. Something about the struggle of the foreigner to get the word right winds up with the right word. Here’s Lolita holding an apple. “My heart beat like a drum as she sat down. Cool skirts ballooning, subsiding on the sofa next to me and played with her glossy fruit. She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air and caught it. It made a cupped, polished plop.”

Plop indeed. Mark Twain said that the difference between the word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. In “Lolita” and “Pnin” and “Pale Fire” and the incomparable autobiography “Speak Memory,” Nabokov dealt only with lightning.

But, of course, the world has paid attention mainly to the subject matter. So a second and bad movie of “Lolita” followed the first good one, emphasizing subject matter.

And Amy Fisher is called the “Long Island Lolita.” And where is the 50th anniversary celebrated but in Playboy?

For those who bother to read or reread the novel, however, they will find what has always been there: Language, torment, mad humor and the excavation of a soul, which like others before it could not be saved by a girl with an apple.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.