September 3, 1958
A novel by Vladimir Nabokov
All writing begins somewhere on a scale streching from Farthest Inside to Farthest Outside. Vladimir Nabokov’s widely heralded “Lolita” is the outsidest, most artificial book I’ve read in years. To its admirers, that may be its spendor. I want something else in novels.
But whatsa matter with ya? “Lolita” is an anti-novel, deliberately.
Fine, my friends. If this be Philistinism, make the most of it.
But “Lolita” is a satire
Fine, my friends. Of what—and why?
Of romanticism. Of America. Of youth. Of America’s zany glorification of youth. Of Mme. De Goncourt or De Stael, or somebody or other like that in the eighteenth century or something. Or maybe it’s the Marquis de Sade. Or you know.
Fine, my friends. But I don’t know. And nobody, certainly not Mr. Nabokov, is helping me to know.
The definitive and perfect review of “Lolita” is the one contributed by Robert Hatch to the Current (August 30) issue of the Nation. Nothing of my own could add further illumination, so let me steal the best of Hatch: “I cannot praise too highly the finesse with which Nabokov sketches the vacuous elegance of his hero’s mind. I am impressed by his mastery of English and amused by his accurate though not very profound gibes at American mores and American pretensions. Nevertheless, the hours I spent with Humbert Humbert were achingly tedious—best explained, perhaps, by the premise that Mr. Nabokov was indulging himself in a prolonged practical joke.”
That vacuous Mr. Humbert Humbert, as you must by now know, is a 40-year-old Continental introvert who sets out to seduce a 12-year-old American girl, only to be seduced and ruined by her instead. It is an ambiguity both pragmatic and spiritual, for to me the most irritating aspect of this “sensational” and “shocking” book is that nowhere in it will you be able to discover just which of its cardboard figures does what, and with what, and to whom. I should say: what, if anything. For did it all just take place in Humbert Humbert’s head? That would be the cruelest joke of all on the Partisan Reviewers who have pushed so hard—who have virtually “made”—”Lolita.” Three hundred pages of sex in the head. A good number of them funny pages, I admit. Even delicately Joycean. But too many, and too much.