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Book Review: Chasing Lolita – How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again by Graham Vickers

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I’ve always had a curious relationship with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. I love the book and yet detest the image of Lolita as she’s been used in popular culture. The image seems to me to miss the point of the book to point of distortion. So when I came across Graham Vickers’ Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again, I grabbed the chance to review it. Vickers examines in detail the way Lolita has been translated in various media and pop culture, comparing these incarnations with Nabokov’s construction. Along the way, he offers some possibilities for Nabokov’s source material, other examples of stories with similar themes and just enough gossipy bits about the making of the films to keep the book from descending into academic dryness. The book is a very readable treatise on the way Lolita has been used and abused at other hands than Humbert Humbert’s.

Vickers uses a line from the book to launch his investigation into Lolita’s public image: “’You must be confusing me with some other fast little article,’ says Lolita to her stepfather Humbert.” Dolores Haze in the book was far from the sultry teenage temptress soon to be associated with her character. She was a 12-year old prepubescent girl when she attracted Humbert’s attention, and her appeal was her resemblance to the child the narrator loved when he was fourteen. Nabokov does not present Lolita as an overtly seductive girl nor a girl whose sexual appetites are particularly different from other girls of a similar age. She was fondled to some extent when she sat on a man’s lap when she was ten, she and a female friend practiced how to kiss, and she had some kind of sexual experience with a boy at summer camp.

Vickers points out that to Humbert, Lolita’s sexiness was that of a child: delicate shoulder blades, long toes, unwashed hair. She is a conventional mix of charm and vulgarity, a child of her age fixated on music and magazines. The author notes that Nabokov fought having a picture of Lolita on the cover of his book at all, saying that he was “in the business of writing about subjective rapture, not objective sexualization.” In other words, we only see Lolita’s sexuality filtered through Humbert’s very particular appetites.

To Vickers this distortion is a key part of the novel, because Humbert is our authority on Lolita, despite his being far from a reliable narrator, obsessed as he is with his own sexual urges. Yet the poster for the 1962 film had actress Sue Lyon wearing heart shaped red sunglasses, sucking on a red lollipop (as Vickers says, “love and fellatio, get it?”). This famous poster entered popular culture almost immediately, defining Lolita for the public all over the world. In Vickers’ opinion, it “marks the first blatant visual travesty of Nabokov’s grubby chestnut-haired twelve-year-old and does not even resemble the way Sue Lyon looks in the movie.” The basic problem with the poster, as Vickers sees it, is the emphasis on Lolita’s sexuality, making her complicit with what happened to her.

Vickers then takes an interesting little detour down the lane of Lolita precursors. He discounts a couple of the relationships Humbert uses to justify his appetites as natural, but notes that Edgar Allan Poe did indeed marry his thirteen-year old cousin when he was 27. The reference to Poe is interesting, as Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee,” supplied Nabokov with plot details and imagery for the young girl in Humbert’s past. Taking leave of the book’s references, Vickers brings up Charles Dodgson, who wrote as Lewis Carroll and was very open about his appreciation for the beauty of little girls – to the extent of having several come to stay with him and be drawn and photographed in various states of undress. Nothing was ever conclusively proven about the nature of Dodgson’s contact with these girls and his reputation did not suffer – Vickers postulates partly because the Victorian era’s focus on controlling sexuality made it define almost everything in terms of sexuality, including childhood.

In the twentieth century, Vickers finds some very direct Lolita precursors. There is a 1916 short story by Heinz von Lichberg about a young girl called Lolita who gets sexually involved with a much older man. Whether Nabokov ever read the story is unknown and his son says his father’s weak knowledge of German makes it unlikely. In any case, despite the similarities, Nabokov’s story is very much his own creation. Nabokov himself wrote a story in Russian called Volshebnik in which a middle-aged pedophile marries a woman in order to be near her 12-year-old daughter. And then we get a gossipy bit, where Vickers discusses Charlie Chaplin’s tendency to get involved with very young teenage girls. The most interesting part of the discussion, though, is Vickers’ unearthing of a case eerily similar to Lolita’s, which Nabokov slyly references in his book, showing that he had followed the news reports.

In 1950, the media carried stories about Sally Horner, who had been abducted at 11 by a 52-two-year old man and taken on a two year tour of the country, controlled by threats of being sent to reform school because he had noticed her shoplifting. Like Lolita, she was made to submit to sexual relations. Vickers notes that unlike Lolita, the media did not portray Sally Horner as the author of her own misfortune. Vickers wraps up the chapter with the more recent case of Natascha Kampusch, a child abducted at ten and kept captive until she escaped at 18. In this one, the extent to which the child succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome is yet to be established.

Vickers argues that the issue of complicity and Lolita was taken up by the media with a vengeance in the Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco case. Sixteen-year-old Amy Fisher was cast as a sultry teenage temptress with an out-of-control sexuality focused on ensnaring men. And the sound bite tag given to her was The Long Island Lolita. Vickers writes that at this point, “the ‘Lolita’ label carries with it a certain assumption of guilt,” and the name is now in the public consciousness associated with the tawdry case of Amy Fisher. And interestingly, he says that “Lolita-tagged titillation tended to gravitate to cases like that of 15 year old Georgina Brundle [a fifteen-year-old who had an affair with a married man], while crimes involving pedophilia, kidnapping, and murder were often just too gruesome — or the victims too young — to risk implying that the little girls were somehow complicit in their own misfortune.” Elizabeth Smart, for example, was never tagged with the Lolita label in the media. Lolita is now media shorthand for “a provocative teenage sex siren, a tart, a slut, a voracious and proactive seducer of middle-aged men.” And Vickers says a far cry from Dolores Haze.

Chasing Lolita examines the different ways Dolores Haze has been transformed into Lolita. The first Kubrick film cast 14-year-old Sue Lyon (soon to turn 15) in the part. Vickers says that “Kubrick had a vested interest in making his Lolita look as old as possible on the grounds that a teenager was less likely to fall foul of the Production Code Authority than might an ostensible twelve-year-old.” So nervous was Kubrick about the possible ramifications of making Lolita that he omitted sex altogether from the film, and the decision to age Lolita and remove the sexual overtones betrays the book by removing pedophilia as a theme. The author writes that the first step in Lolita’s transformation to teenage temptress had begun, despite the curious lack of sex in the film.

Vickers then looks at two failed stage productions, one a musical (!) of Lolita, before delving into Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version. His take on Lyne’s production is much kinder than his opinion of Kubrick’s. This Lolita, he writes is “a superior film that is not only far more faithful to Nabokov’s novel than the 1962 version but more faithful to the novel than any film version might reasonably have been expected to be.” Vickers particularly liked Dominique Swain’s take on Lolita, despite the fact that although she looked a good approximation of Lolita’s age in her audition tape, she quickly filled out during shooting. One scene in the movie is singled out as particularly powerful: one in which the shot opens with the top halves of Lolita and Humbert in the shot, Lolita with a look of calm pleasure as she reads the funny pages of a newspaper. As the camera pans down, the audience realizes that she is rocking back and forth against a naked Humbert, having sex as she reads. Vickers writes that “it is a genuinely erotic scene enhanced by the audience’s delayed realization and all the more disturbing because here for once Lolita is shown as apparently complicit – contented even.”

I found it rather odd that the author did not deal with the issue of complicity, since he admits that Lyne upped the ante in the scene. In the novel, Lolita sits on a naked Humbert on hot afternoons in their motel room, but she is only reading the funnies, not having sex. The most common association in the novel between Lolita and sex is tears, not languorous sexual pleasure. Given Vickers’ contention that Jeremy Irons’ commendable performance showed Humbert to be more of a weak and misguided man than a committed pedophile, I was expecting more of a discussion on how much the movie presented Humbert’s view of Lolita as a distorting lens. However, Vickers does do a good job of gathering up the issues surrounding the casting, filming and distribution of the movie – and they make good reading.

Chasing Lolita rounds up the look at media by examining a few contemporary books drawing on Lolita. The most interesting is Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi. I greatly enjoyed that book and Vickers nails its take on Lolita, which is the Iranian women’s identification of the theme of Lolita as “the confiscation of one individual’s life by another.” Nafisi writes: “Like the best defense attorneys … Humbert exonerates himself by implicating his victim – a method we are quite familiar with within the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

Vickers notes that this version of Lolita is one Nabokov’s wife, Vera, would have recognized. She gave her opinion in her diary, writing, “I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along, culminating in that squalid, but essentially pure and healthy marriage, and her letter, and her dog … They all miss that ‘the horrid little brat’ Lolita is essentially very good indeed – or she would not have straightened out after being crushed so terribly, and found a decent life with poor Dick more to her liking than the other kind.” On this note, Vickers ends the discussion, writing that this observation returns him to his starting point: Lolita’s bad press has shaped her image in popular culture more than her character in the novel.

Vickers’ book is a good read, giving a thorough investigation on the many ways Lolita has entered the public consciousness, including entertainment, fashion, artifacts, tabloid news and sexual mores. His own position is made clear from the beginning of the book, and he makes a persuasive argument about the distortions the character suffered as she became a quick slogan for a teenage temptress. The writing is lively, spiced with enough stories about the people involved in the various productions to keep the narrative from dryness. I enjoyed Chasing Lolita and recommend it to anyone with an interest in Nabokov’s novel. The book comes out in August, published by Chicago Review Press, and helps mark the 50th anniversary of the August publication of Lolita in the US.

About Gerry Weaver