Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Time It Takes to Blog recycle-o-matic

I recently discovered that the literary blog Metaxu Cafe has gone out of business. This makes me sad because I liked it. For instance, a regular feature was a recently-published writer discussing a "classic" that had influenced his or her writing. Great idea, right? Will someone else please pick that up?

Anyway, I was asked to write one of these around the time my book came out, and now that the site is gone, I will have to put it on my blog or it will not exist on the internet at all. It will be like it never even happened.

Margaret Lazarus Dean on Lolita

I first read Lolita when I was a teenager, much closer to Lolita’s age than Humbert’s. When I picked it up, all I knew was that Lolita was a dirty book, that it was a salacious account of a nasty old man’s lust for a young girl, a defense of his indefensible behavior. (Like many people of my generation, I got the false impression that Humbert was old from the song “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by the Police: “Just like the old man in that famous book by Nab-uh-koff.”) So what I found was a revelation. Humbert is not old, and his behavior is never excused. The subject matter is treated with a complexity and a decency I had not been led to expect. The portrait of Lolita that seeps through Humbert’s narrative is nuanced and sympathetic, even as he objectifies her—we are left with an indelible image of her monkey toes, her sunny curls, her slangy speech, her harsh high voice. And, of course, the language: Humbert is pompous and showoffy, but within and around that excess Nabokov gives him a caustic precision I adored. Most surprising: Nabokov’s treatment of pedophilia was funny, not in a slapstick way but in a tragically revealing way. So my experience of this novel was an experience of being surprised continuously and variously— maybe the ideal literary experience.

For anyone, to read Lolita is to be forced to look at a pubescent girl through a series of distorting lenses: she is reduced and amplified by Humbert’s lust for her, but also humanized by his developing tenderness, all of which is muddied by the haze of his recollection and by his knowledge that he will lose her. All this is refracted through the additional lens of the manuscript’s fictional editor, John Ray, Jr., Ph.D, who seems to feel a disturbing empathy for Humbert’s predilection for young girls. A reader might legitimately ask: is the book’s main character Humbert Humbert, or is it this series of frames and ciphers? We might assume that Lolita is a book about a man tormented by a girl-object; having so recently been such a girl-object, I felt certain the book was about the girl.

Lolita has very little power in this story, ruled completely as she is by people who do not love her—first her mother, then Humbert, then Quilty. Lolita reaches a certain age—nearly thirteen—and discovers a new power over men. Should it be any surprise that she starts having sex, or even that she initiates sexual contact with Humbert? Many readers feel that because it is Lolita who crawls toward Humbert in The Enchanted Hunters hotel bed that early morning, everything that follows is her doing, that Humbert is in fact a victim of sorts, as Lolita’s act robs him of his last shred of self-control. In the dictionary, a “Lolita” is not a victim of sexual abuse, but a sexually aggressive young girl. Anything that happens to her, it would follow, is her own fault.

But Lolita is not a sexual predator; she is a child, with a child’s need for attention and a child’s propensity toward selfishness and sweetness and goofiness, and one of the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius is that we can see her as a child, even through this series of distorting lenses. No one has ever read my novel and said it was reminiscent of Lolita (nor would I expect anyone to), but my book is infected by that book, as if by a blood disease. My protagonist is a thirteen-year-old girl named Dolores, and her precocious sexuality is an expression of a gene planted by Dolores Haze, her ghostly great-aunt. My Dolores chooses to initiate sex with an older partner—hers is eighteen, less shocking that Humbert’s thirty-eight, but still quite illegal. Of course, the scene feels significantly different told from the point of view of the girl rather than the man: we can understand her motives and can only wonder at his, rather than the other way around. The novel does not spend a great deal of time on this sexual relationship—readers can expect to learn much more about the space shuttle program of the 1980s than about Dolores’s sexuality—yet I have heard from more readers about this scene than any other. I think the scene disturbs readers because, while Dolores does pay certain costs for having sex with an adult, she is not irrevocably changed by it as Lolita is. Seeing the scene from the girl’s point of view, we can see that she is not a predator, but a child with few other choices available to her. Yet it’s hard for some readers to see Dolores make this choice and get away with it. This is the form our prudishness takes now: a book containing such a scene will no longer be banned as pornography, but we want to see the girl punished for her choice. Like Lolita, Dolores is a child who has discovered this one power, this one loophole, but Dolores is spared the stigma of being a “Lolita,” a girl reduced to the barest outlines of her body. Fifty years after the publication of Lolita, with younger and younger girls sexualized more and more, you would think this scene would have lost the power to shock. I’m still not sure whether this reaction is shock at the audacity of a girl using her sexuality to claim power over a man, or shock that her circumstances offer this as the only source of power she has.

Reading Lolita for the fiftieth time, I’m still moved by the fact that Lolita wants only the things we are all supposed to want, like love and autonomy. One could argue that the choice she makes in that hotel she makes out of a desperate hope of achieving these. One could argue that she eventually succeeds.