From edition

Solving Nabokov's Lolita Riddle

‘There is a certain type of critic who when reviewing a work of fiction keeps dotting all the i’s with the author’s head. Recently one anonymous clown, writing on Pale Fire in a New York book review, mistook all the declarations of my invented commentator in the book for my own’ — Vladimir Nabokov (SO 18)

Over the past ten years, some of the most challenging and exhilarating exegesis of Nabokov’s oeuvre has emerged — Michael Wood’s The Magician’s Doubts and Brian Boyd’s The Magic of Artistic Discovery spring to mind, among others — so it gives me no great pleasure to announce that with the advent of Joanne Morgan’s Solving Nabokov’s Lolita Riddle, this decade is now host to a work which must rate among the most alarmingly unscholarly efforts in living memory. Indeed, it would be difficult to envisage that such a text — riddled with factual inaccuracies, irresponsible speculations and inventions, and grating grammatical and syntactical errors — could be published in the present day. Morgan admits that her text was met with an ‘extremely hostile and dismissive response’ (311) when proffered to university presses and reviewers in 2001, which evidently only steeled her resolve to self-publish. Unfortunately, all the crucial checks and balances that are in place during the institutional publication of an academic work have been removed by the self-publication process, allowing Morgan to reach farcical and thoroughly libellous conclusions with immunity. In her debut work, Morgan offers the thesis that Nabokov wrote Lolita in order to encrypt information about some alleged sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his uncle: sexual abuse which Nabokov never explicitly or implicitly hinted at, and which one can only conclude Morgan has fabricated. She unfolds her analysis through an examination of Nabokov’s response in a 1962 interview to the question, ‘Why did you write Lolita?':

It was an interesting thing to do. Why did I write any of my books, after all? For the sake of the pleasure, for the sake of the difficulty. I have no social purpose, no moral message; I’ve no general ideas to exploit, I just like composing riddles with elegant solutions. (SO 16)

Morgan treats Nabokov’s mention of a ‘riddle’ as a challenge specific to Lolita, bringing into relief one in a slew of methodological blunders she commits. Nabokov frequently drew analogies between the composition of his novels and riddles or chess problems,1 so his comment regarding Lolita is hardly an anomaly; however, Morgan reads it as an entreaty to investigate the novel with a view to solving an embedded riddle. Despite the obvious questions of authorial intention and the possibility of a metalanguage that such a reading-contract invokes, Morgan proceeds without undertaking even a cursory metacritical interrogation, instead belatedly admitting that she finds Derrida ‘incomprehensible and ultimately, [sic] pointless’ (300). However, the Derridean analysis of the simultaneous impossibility and possibility of the secret in literary fiction is the very thesis Morgan is repudiating: in Given Time, Derrida argues that

the readability of the [literary] text is structured by the unreadability of the secret, that is, by the inaccessibility of a certain intentional meaning or of a wanting-to-say- in the consciousness of the characters and a fortiori in that of the author who remains, in this regard, in a situation analogous to that of the reader…it is the possibility of non-truth in which every possible truth is held or is made. It thus says the (non-) truth of literature, let us say the secret of literature: what literary fiction tells us about the secret, of the (non-) truth of the secret, but also a secret whose possibility assures the possibility of literature. (153)

Even if we adopt Morgan’s dubious presupposition that Nabokov was alluding to a singular riddle embedded in Lolita, we still arrive at its function in the text as a secret, and no claim to know the truth or non-truth of that secret can ever truly know. Morgan, however, triumphantly proclaims that she has delivered ‘the solution…as promised, in the master’s own hand’ (60).

Morgan admits that she approached Lolita with a view to use it as a ‘literary case-study of paedophilia’ (145), and her quest resembles a instance, as Derrida articulated in ‘Le Facteur de la Vérité,’ of psychoanalysis always refinding itself [se trouver] (413). By approaching the text with her paedophilic bent, while aiming to uncover the ‘true’ answer to a riddle, Morgan has (coincidentally and conveniently) identified a riddle revolving around paedophilia. Despite the manifestly inadequate evidence she adduces to identify the riddle — a flimsy nexus of ‘intentional Freudian slips’ and mistranslations in Nabokov’s Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited, a recurrent symbolic motif of a ‘green leaf,’ and the close lexicographic resemblance between ‘insect’ and ‘incest’ — Morgan asserts with staggering self-certitude that she has discovered ‘the key to Lolita‘ (60). The alleged ‘key’ might be summarised as follows: Nabokov’s ‘riddle’ belies a history of Nabokov’s sexual abuse by his Uncle Ruka (Vasiliy Ivanovich Rukavishnikov); Quilty and Humbert are Nabokov’s fictional renderings of Ruka; Lolita is a ‘gender-disguised’ boy (that is, Nabokov himself), all of which leads Morgan to the self-evidently ludicrous conclusion that Nabokov was a paedophile:

I am keenly aware that the conclusion I have arrived at about Nabokov’s paedophilia is both extremely sensitive and controversial. I hasten to add that I do not feel personally driven by a crude agenda of exposing and condemning Nabokov as a paedophile…we cannot ever know the total truth. (36)

Curiously, ‘crude’ seems an entirely apposite descriptor for Morgan’s conjecture. Nabokov’s legendary disdain for the brand of Freudian literary criticism reliant upon derivative symbolism makes it exceedingly unlikely that he deliberately encoded ‘green leaves’ in his novels to symbolise sexual abuse. Morgan’s assertion becomes particularly absurd in the light of Nabokov’s comical dismissal of a student ‘for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as ‘green’ because Fanny is hopeful, and ‘green’ is the colour of hope’ (SO 305). One of Nabokov’s more responsible2 characters, John Shade, iterates a concordant opinion in Pale Fire: ‘there are certain trifles I do not forgive…looking in [texts] for symbols; example: ‘The author uses the striking image green leaves because green is the symbol of happiness and frustration”(PF 126). Further, although Nabokov never — explicitly or implicitly — hinted that his uncle behaved with impropriety (indeed, to the contrary, in Speak, Memory, Nabokov recalls rescuing with alacrity an inherited cane of Ruka’s from beneath the wheels of a train (188)), Morgan maligns him as an ‘insensitive monster’ (45) who ‘committed the first act of penetrative sex at age ten, thereby breaking Vladimir’s life’ (144). Ruka is mentioned on a total of fourteen of the some 256 pages of Speak, Memory, and Nabokov recalls a ‘sense of security, of well-being, of summer warmth’ (62) attached to his memories of his uncle, so Morgan resorts to a conflation of the author and his fictional characters in order to make her case. She cites Nabokov’s fictional novels, Bend Sinister, Lolita, and The Enchanter, to fill out her imaginative version of events; in one particularly invidious act of inventive interpellation, she ascertains a chronology of events by citing fiction as fact:

What age was Vladimir when Uncle Ruka started sexually molesting him? While the time-lines in The Enchanter and Lolita imply that penetrative sex began at the age of twelve, there are sound reasons for deducing that Vladimir’s abuse escalated well before this. In Bend Sinister, Nabokov indirectly implies that David’s childhood ended when he was eight years old. This was how old Vladimir was when he was left alone with Ruka after summer lunches at Vyra. (143)

Morgan’s spurious allegations of paedophilia are not restricted to Nabokov and his uncle, however; over the course of her work, she also suggests that Shirley Temple was controlled by a nefarious paedophile network:

It seems highly likely to me that a paedophile ring of some kind, based in Hollywood, was behind at least some of Shirley’s carefully orchestrated performances. Given the clandestine nature of this underworld and the time that has elapsed, future investigative journalism may or may not be able to uncover more conclusive evidence about this matter. (165)

It is hardly necessary to underscore the superfluity of engaging in guessing games in a purportedly ‘academic’ text, yet such serious methodological errors pepper Morgan’s analysis. Further on, she also suggests that Dostoevsky may have been a paedophile:

There are grounds for believing that Dostoevsky did indeed confess on a few occasions to engaging in sex with a minor. Scenes of adult-child sex crop up in The Devils as well as Crime and Punishment. Nabokov’s unsympathetic attitude toward Dostoevsky suggests he believed Dostoevsky did commit an act of child rape…he possibly also held deep suspicions about the language of spiders and leaves found in The Devils. (304)

One would surmise that it is far more likely Nabokov’s enmity towards Dostoevsky was founded on the epitomisation of techniques from ‘second-rate detective thrillers and [the] cheap psychology of the abyss’ Dostoevsky’s fiction represented to him (Nivat 398) than on the possibility Dostoevsky was a paedophile. In particular, Nabokov took issue with Dostoevsky’s ‘literary platitudes’ (LRL 98) delivered by his ‘sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes’ (SO 42). Nabokov’s quarrel with Dostoevsky was both epistemological and stylistic: indeed, he once referred to Dostoevsky’s fiction as ‘reactionary journalism’ (SO 65), yet it is imperative to note that, as Georges Nivat puts it, ‘God knows that Dostoevsky was not the unique target of Nabokov’s animus’ (398). Nabokov routinely took literary giants to task for the flaws he perceived in their texts, and Dostoevsky was but one in a long line of authors who were often acerbically dispatched by the master prose stylist. Indeed, Morgan’s theory begs the question: even if, at a momentous stretch of the imagination, Nabokov and Dostoevsky were both paedophiles, why would Nabokov have eschewed Dostoevsky for his paedophilia? It would be a laborious and tedious task to identify all of Morgan’s risible hypotheses, so let the above examples stand as representative of the calibre of her scholarship.

Morgan’s work is also riddled with factual inaccuracies: for instance, Humbert Humbert, the French protagonist of the novel, miraculously becomes ‘Swiss’ (19); Humbert’s first love, Annabel Leigh, transforms into the eerie twin of Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’ (19), and Quilty’s peculiar handwriting becomes Humbert’s (50), to name but a few. Morgan’s superficial knowledge of Nabokov’s work is manifest throughout the text: she asserts that ‘Lolita was one of very few pieces of prose by Nabokov where he adopted the first person narrative’ (180), when, in fact, his novels Pnin, Pale Fire, Despair, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, his autobiography Speak, Memory, and a large number of his short stories were all narrated in the first person. The text is also rife with distracting typographical errors; one particular howler, ‘Kubrick also did not rejected Nabokov’s proposal,’ (239) evoking the spectre of Nabokov’s bumbling protagonist Timofey Pnin. To be strictly accurate, Morgan’s scholarship is more reminiscent of Charles Kinbote’s — Nabokov’s comically deranged commentator in Pale Firesans the incidental chuckles which ensue as a result of Kinbote’s hilarious misreadings. Much of the comedy in Pale Fire arises through Kinbote’s dismal failure as a critic an editor: he not only misinterprets the text in question at every opportunity, but he also attempts to stuff his fantasy life as Zembla’s King Charles the Beloved II into his critical apparatus. Morgan’s efforts mimic a similar imaginative flight of fancy: no amount of rhetoric will convince the reader to accede to her framing Lolita as a thinly-disguised incest-survivor’s account, nor will her paltry evidence on the question of Nabokov’s paedophilia sway even the most impressionable of readers.

Ultimately, Morgan’s fare is severely wanting in terms of its mode of expression, methodology, and its scholarly integrity. It is an unapologetically amateurish expedition that will infuriate serious Nabokov scholars and enthusiasts, misinform initiates, and contribute to the growing body of distorted and hysterical work that continues to circulate around Nabokov’s most famous novel. Morgan careens from Nabokov to child pornography to Calvin Klein commercials, paying scant regard to the serious nature of the allegations she levels along the way. Her conclusions, that ‘a new annotated version of the novel Lolita be issued…[with] carefully integrated footnotes to highlight how Nabokov generated gender and sexual preference conclusions’ (301), and that ‘we simply excise’ passages which ‘promot[e] paedophilic responses to children’ (214) demonstrate her profound naïveté and misplaced moral righteousness. Nabokov once called his readers ‘the most varied and gifted in the world’ (Boyd, Magic 12), but it is difficult to envisage Nabokov, as Morgan does, finding anything about her text ‘rather pleasing’ (306), particularly as she daringly calls Nabokov ‘woefully inadequate’ (185) at one point, and describes his readers’ activities as ‘floundering and flailing’ (148). It is supremely ironic that Nabokov, famed for his exacting precision, has been subjected to such a zealous display of critical buffoonery; however, it is not difficult to imagine the few choice remarks he might have made in response; perhaps something along the lines of his demolition of Edmund Wilson:

I do not believe in the old-fashioned, naïve, and musty method of human – interest criticism…that consists of removing the characters from an author’s imaginary world to the imaginary, but generally far less plausible, world of the critic who then proceeds to examine these displaced characters as if they were ‘real people.’ (SO 263)

Far more interesting than Morgan’s text is the manner in which Nabokov’s novel continues, much as it did in 1950’s McCarthyist America, to expose the hypocrisy of our contemporary society which simultaneously consigns sex ‘to a shadow existence,’ yet dedicates itself to ‘speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret’ (Foucault, History 35). Foucault identified that the relatively recent medicalisation of sexuality has produced a fear that aberrant sexuality is both an illness in itself, yet also capable of ‘inducing illnesses without number’ (Power 191); consequently, in the discourse relating to Lolita‘s supposedly paedophilic content, there is a hysteria that can be associated with the fear of contagion. That very fear of contagion evokes the spectres of prohibition and censorship, which in turn gives rise to ‘inquisitiveness and transgression’ (Flint 318) on behalf of the public. This mechanism whereby censorship contributes to a work’s infamy and popularity is illustrated aptly by Lolita itself: Lolita‘s publication on September 15, 1955 went almost entirely unremarked until December 25, when, in a small column in the Sunday Times, Graham Greene selected it as one of the three best books of the year. Greene’s selection prompted John Gordon, the editor of the Sunday Express, to purchase and read it. Horrified, Gordon delivered this broadside to Lolita:

Without doubt…the filthiest book I have ever read. Sheer unrestrained pornography. Its central character is a pervert with a passion for debauching what he calls ‘nymphets.’ These, he explains, are girls aged from 12 to 14. The entire book is devoted to an exhaustive, uninhibited, and utterly disgusting description of his pursuits and successes. It is published in France. Anyone who published or sold it here would certainly go to prison (St Jorre 130).

The protracted and vehement debate which ensued between Greene and Gordon ensured Lolita achieved instantaneous mass celebrity and, by the time of its American publication by Putnam’s in 1958, most of the major American press were bracing themselves to review it (Dennison 188). Lolita swiftly became an ubiquitous cultural referent — the regular subject of celebrities like Steve Allen, Dean Martin and Milton Berle (Boyd, ‘Year’ 31) — and, as such, it played an important part in the renegotiation of sexual normality and abnormality in an America reeling with new insights into its own sexuality. The attempts to censor Lolita — to exert power over the text and to restrict the dissemination of its knowledge — would prove to be the very agents which popularised its allure, and today, Morgan’s work feeds right into that very double-bind. Foucault’s contention that censorship of sex is in reality an ‘apparatus for producing an even greater quantity of discourse’ (History 23) is evident in the Lolita phenomenon that continues unabated: rather than an injunction to silence, the various movements to ban Lolita become incitements to enter into discourses of sexuality. As Eric Larrabee states, ‘every disagreement over sex censorship is,’ by implication, ‘a discussion of the sexual state of the nation’ (682), and Lolita continues to provide us with the opportunity to redefine sexual deviance and normalcy.

Ultimately, the discourse that surrounds Lolita is replete with paradoxes: not only do its censors incite a explosion of discourse about sexuality, but by attempting to exert power over the text, they instead ascribe power to it. Nabokov’s text still operates as a condensation symbol for paedophilia and pornography — as recently as 1990, police in San Francisco seized a copy of Lolita as evidence of perversion in a case of alleged child pornography (Stanley 20). This brings into relief the manner in which ‘perversion is inscribed into the very act of censorship’ (žiek 182): with a text like Lolita that is devoid of profanities, the censor must determine what is intended to arouse the common reader — yet, as Elizabeth Janeway noted in her review, for most readers, nothing is ‘more likely to quench the flames of lust’ (25) than Humbert’s account. Morgan, however, stakes her unflinching conviction that Lolita ‘might even prompt men who have never previously been aroused by young girls (or boys) to begin a masturbatory fantasy life that has the potential to carry them down the road to hell’ (193). Despite the fact that pornography is an inadequate referential symbol as it means different things to different people (McConahay 32), Morgan argues comfortably in concrete terms about what is and isn’t pornography, which essentialises pornography, arousal, and the text itself. In the current climate of renewed hysteria over paedophilia, Lolita is invoked again and again as the seminal text which has made paedophilia more ‘thinkable,’ that ‘greater toleration’ now exists for what ‘had previously been regarded as…the most horrible of crimes’ (Podhoretz 17), yet, as per žiek, the question must be asked of the censor precisely why Nabokov’s text must shoulder the blame since, as to many readers, Humbert’s exploits seem a far cry from pornography. Regardless, Nabokov’s text has earned its place in the canon as a permanent ‘classic of contemporary literature’ (Appel 204); the inherent irony, of course, is that its censors today, much like those in the past, assure its continuing notoriety and popularity.

Joanne Morgan, Solving Nabokov’s Lolita Riddle, Sydney: Cosynth, 2005.

Sarah Holland-Batt is a postgraduate student in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland.

A Note on Abbreviations:

The following abbreviations for Nabokov’s works have been employed in the above review:

LRL       Lectures on Russian Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New
           York: Harcourt, 1981.

PF       Pale Fire. Middlesex: Penguin, 1973.

PP       Poems and Problems. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.

SM       Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited. London: Penguin,
           2000.

SO       Strong Opinions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.

References:

Appel, Alfred, Jr. Introduction and Annotation. The Annotated Lolita. By Vladimir
Nabokov. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970.
Boyd, Brian. Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery. Princeton:
Princeton UP, 1999.
—.’The Year of Lolita.’ New York Times 8 Sept. 1991: 1+.
Dennison, Sally. Alternative Literary Publishing: Five Modern Histories. Iowa City:
U of Iowa P, 1984.
Derrida, Jacques. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. Chicago:
U of Chicago P, 1992.
—.’Le Facteur de la Vérité.’ The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond.
Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1987. 411-96.
Flint, Kate. ‘Reading Practices.’ The Book History Reader. Eds. David Finkelstein
and Alistair McCleery. London: Routledge, 2002. 316-23.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert
Hurley. Middlesex: Penguin, 1981.
—.Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Trans.
Colin Gordon, Leo Marshall, John Mepham and Kate Soper. New York:
Pantheon, 1980.
Janeway, Elizabeth. ‘The Tragedy of Man Driven by Desire.’ Rev. of Lolita, by
Vladimir Nabokov. New York Times 17 Aug. 1958: 5+.
Larrabee, Eric. ‘The Cultural Context of Sex Censorship.’ Law and Contemporary
Problems
20 (1955): 672-88.
McConahay, John B. ‘Pornography: The Symbolic Politics of Fantasy.’ Law and
Contemporary Problems
51 (1988): 31-69.
Morgan, Joanne. Solving Nabokov’s Lolita Riddle. Sydney: Cosynch, 2005.
Nivat, Georges. ‘Nabokov and Dostoevsky.’ The Garland Companion to Vladimir
Nabokov
. Ed. Vladimir E. Alexandrov. New York: Garland, 1995. 398-402.         
Podhoretz, Norman. ‘Lolita, My Mother-in-Law, the Marquis de Sade, and Larry
Flynt.’ Commentary 103.4 (1997): 17pp. Infotrac. Gale. U of Queensland Lib.,
St Lucia. 4 Apr. 2005 <http://www.infotrac.galegroup.com>.
Stanley, Lawrence A. ‘Art and ‘Perversion': Censoring Images of Nude Children.’
Censorship. Spec. issue of Art Journal 50.4 (1991): 20-27.
St Jorre, John de. Venus Bound: The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press and Its
Writers
. New York: Random, 1994.
žiek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. London: Verso, 1997.


1.See, for instance, Speak, Memory 223; Poems and Problems 15.
2. Nabokov indicated that some of his ‘more responsible characters’ were endowed with his own opinions, with particular reference to Shade (SO 18).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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