I just stumbled across this strangely-timed review of Appel’s Annotated Lolita, written by wannabe-effete Christopher Hitchens. It’s truly remarkable how similar this written piece is to listening to him thread together a series of jingoistic non sequitors on cable TV talkshows.
I’m also struck by his inability to express how Nabokov’s novel is transgressive *beyond* the taboo of incest. Hitchens claims to have read the novel several times, yet seems incapable of discussing it as a work which fundamentally resists fundamentalism. Like so many of Nabokov’s novels, and much like Nabokov himself, Lolita is a masterwork of delicately-balanced contradictions that ultimately leave the reader making uneasy choices. And these are choices not about kneejerk morality, but about the underpinnings of language and meaning.
Let me say this a different way. To render an essentialist reading of this text is to misread the novel entirely. In Hitchens’ case, the “Aha!”-moment is, supposedly, Nabokov’s grudging affirmation of psychoanalysis. Hitchens writes, “If he [Nabokov] thought ‘the Viennese quack’ and ‘Freudian voodooism’ were so useless and banal, why couldn’t he stay off the subject, or the subtext?” Hitchens doing the psychoanalysis treatment on a text that resists such totalizing, easy-come answers is intellectual laziness at best, a sophomoric insult at worst.
Nabokov’s trepidations about Freudianism weren’t so much about the particulars of psychoanalysis, as they were based in a much deeper suspicion of ontological totalitarianism of every shade and stripe. You need only look to the novel Nabokov wrote after “Hurricane Lolita,” Pale Fire, to understand his gripes with essentialism weren’t exclusive to Freud and Marx. By taking on the academy in Pale Fire with such bravado and humor, Nabokov makes it clear that the enemies of thought are the ones who would impose their impossible agendas upon the work of art, leaving it ravaged and one-dimensional. This, of course, makes it even more ironic that Hitchens’ review isn’t on the novel itself, but Appel’s annotated edition. Clearly the novel and the annotated version aren’t the same text, and Nabokov himself would be the first one to say so.
See, Lolita‘s “transgressiveness” isn’t found in its plot, themes and characters. And Hitchens knows this, too; otherwise, he wouldn’t have written, “you will find that — more than almost any other novel of our time — it keeps the promise of genius and never presents itself as the same story twice.” I’m not sure which “etiolated English departments” Hitchens is referring to, but my sense of things is that Lolita‘s serious scholars have always been able to separate the novel’s literary and aesthetic merit from its scandalous public persona.
What, then, is “transgressive” about Lolita? I say it’s that the novel doesn’t challenge us to judge its characters that so obviously demand we judge them; rather, Lolita dares us to find meaning and reality where both probably do not exist. Is Humbert sick? Of course. Is he crazy? Again, yes. These are easy questions to answer, and that’s precisely why we shouldn’t waste any time on them; after all, Nabokov was a chess master, not a piddler in tiddlywinks. And to his credit, Hitchens does appreciate Lolita as a novel of complication, but only where it’s convenient and obvious to do so. And that’s probably what’s most maddening about this review.
Then again, I’m but a simple, etiolating wonk who’ll never appear on FoxNews…