At 50, 'Lolita' Is Aging Well

Lolita — the novel, not the title character — turned 50 this past week. Wisconsin Public Radio's Steve Paulson talks with various writers about the literary influence of the Vladimir Nabokov's story of a grown man's obsession with a very young girl.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This past week marked the 50th anniversary of Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita," one of the most celebrated and notorious novels ever written. It's the story of a middle-aged man's sexual obsession with a 12-year-old girl named Lolita. The novel was first published by a small press in Paris. It was so controversial that no American publisher would touch it for several years. Today, "Lolita" is considered a masterpiece. Wisconsin Public Radio's Steve Paulson spoke with some well-known writers and editors about the novel's enduring influence.

STEVE PAULSON reporting:

"Lolita" is a novel that grabs you from the very first words.

Ms. AMY TAN (Author): (Reading) `Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul. Lolita.'

PAULSON: That's novelist Amy Tan reading the beginning of "Lolita."

Ms. TAN: It is so full of music and immediately seizes you with the sense of a voice and its sensuality. It's as though it is caviar, and each single sentence--it is so dense and yet it's very light at the same time.

PAULSON: "Lolita" is widely admired by contemporary writers; many have read it over and over. In fact, a jury of distinguished authors recently ranked it the fourth-best novel of the 20th century. And despite the controversy over its pedophilia, for many, "Lolita" remains the gold standard for sheer brilliance and lyricism in fiction. Novelist Donna Tartt considers Nabokov the godlike master of her craft.

Ms. DONNA TARTT (Author): I just hold him in absolutely the highest reverence. He's the anthropomorphic deity that presides over my own kind of Mt. Olympus.

PAULSON: Deborah Treisman, the fiction editor of The New Yorker, actually calls "Lolita" a perfect novel.

Ms. DEBORAH TREISMAN (Fiction Editor, The New Yorker): I read it probably five times in college. Even today--I opened it up again and there are passages that I knew off by heart and that could bring me to tears.

PAULSON: This sort of accolade is remarkable considering the scandal that "Lolita" generated when it first came out in 1955. What really set people off then was the novel's charming and lecherous narrator, Humbert Humbert, the decadent European who's come to America to prey on young girls. The book's racy reputation is, of course, exactly what has intrigued generations of teen-agers. Donna Tartt was one of them.

Ms. TARTT: I went to the mall with some friends of my mine and they had it in the bookshop, but I was embarrassed to buy the book because of its cover. It was this cheesy, soft-porn, kind of "Boogie Nights" kind of cover, and I thought, `Oh, no!' And I didn't even have very much money, but I bought another book so, you know, my friend's father wouldn't think I was buying some sort of porno novel.

Mr. MARTIN AMIS (Author): It isn't a sexy read. I looked at it hoping it would be when I was about 15 and soon ran out of interest. It's not some exquisite bit of erotica.

PAULSON: That's British novelist Martin Amis.

Humbert tells the story as though he's confessing to his crimes, though for much of the book, Humbert--read here by Jeremy Irons--revels in his lust for young girls.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (Reading) `Gentlewomen of the jury, bear with me. Allow me to take just a tiny bit of your precious time. So this was la grande momente. I had left my Lolita still sitting on the edge of the abysmal bed.'

PAULSON: The novel is also a labyrinthine puzzle, with clues dropped in throughout about how Lolita will eventually escape Humbert. But above all, it's a dazzling display of the English language; all the more remarkable since Nabokov was a Russian emigre. The author even coined new words--most famously `nymphet'--to describe the rather naughty Lolita.

(Soundbite of "Lolita")

DOMINIQUE SWAIN: (As Lolita) Can we stop at a gas station?

Mr. IRONS: (As Humbert Humbert) We can go anywhere you like.

SWAIN: (As Lolita) Well, I need a gas station. I hurt inside. Well, what do you expect? I was a daisy-fresh girl and look what you've done to me. I shall call the police and tell them that you raped me, you dirty old man.

PAULSON: That's a scene from Adrian Lyne's film adaptation of "Lolita." The movie's screenwriter, Stephen Schiff, says one of his challenges was to make the audience care about a pedophile.

Mr. STEPHEN SCHIFF (Screenwriter, "Lolita"): One of the great things that art can aspire to is to bring the audience into an intimacy and a sympathy with a character whose deeds we nevertheless condemn. You can love Humbert and still hate what he does.

PAULSON: The novel's moral ambiguity is part of its brilliance and one reason "Lolita" still feels so contemporary. Nabokov himself dismissed any moral reading, saying all he cared about was aesthetic bliss. But The New Yorker's Deborah Treisman says the genius of "Lolita" is how it moves from comedy to tragedy, to a shattering moment when Humbert finally admits that he's ruined Lolita's life.

Ms. TREISMAN: What happens is that you have all of this ornate and comic buildup and you think you're reading one kind of a novel, and then you get towards the end, at which point the raw emotion breaks through.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `Reader, what I heard was but the melody of child at play; nothing but that.'

PAULSON: By this time, Humbert has lost Lolita. He stops by the side of the road and hears the voices of children in a town below.

(Soundbite of audiobook recording of "Lolita")

Mr. IRONS: (Reading) `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.'

Ms. TREISMAN: It's the moment at which he actually is able to come clean about what has happened and that he's taken this girl's childhood.

PAULSON: Martin Amis agrees.

Mr. AMIS: What he has done, he's murdered her soul. He has detached her from the human race.

PAULSON: Perhaps what's most astonishing about "Lolita" is Nabokov's affectionate yet unsparing rendering of America. Not only did this Russian emigre master the English language, he wrote arguably one of the great American novels. Like Tocqueville, a century earlier, Nabokov saw the country as only an outsider can. His riffs on self-help books, teen magazines and roadside culture are a terrific send-up of 1950s America.

For all its acclaim, "Lolita" occupies an odd place in American literature. Many writers call it their favorite novel, and yet its influence is hard to gauge. "Lolita" is so distinctive, so complete that is stands alone. Amy Tan says Nabokov is one writer you cannot possibly imitate.

Ms. TAN: Nabokov is somebody whose work you read, and if you're this sort of very insecure writer, we used to say, `Well, I might as well not even try to write because he's just so brilliant and clever and beautiful and nasty,' you know.

PAULSON: For NPR News, I'm Steve Paulson.

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