A MALS Classroom Visit: Reading Lolita
It is an early spring evening in 2017 and already dark when we gather to discuss Lolita. There are nine of us seated around the classroom table with Lena Lencek, Reed’s indefatigable professor of Russian and Humanities. Most of us have come straight from work, and we each take a moment to re-center ourselves here, in this pocket of the week we devote to exploring literature. In typical MALS fashion we are a diverse student body, counting a novelist, an engineer, a filmmaker, and a biologist among our members. As a group we range in age from early twenties to some years past retirement. Some of us are studying for our first graduate degree, one student has just completed her third.
We are nearing the end of a semester spent studying the novels of the Russian émigré author Vladimir Nabokov, and over these weeks have taken a journey into the permutations of memory, the human struggle to overcome alienation, and the role of art as a response to and mediator of suffering and mortality. Nabokov’s famous lyricism illuminates dark themes, and Lolita offers another rollercoaster ride in “the intellectual theme park that is the Nabokovian aesthetic universe,” as one student describes it. Tonight we grapple with the novel’s themes of guilt and redemption: the character’s, the author’s, and our own. What is an author’s responsibility in creating work that can be considered exploitive, and how are we ourselves complicit in that exploitation? Is it possible for art to offer redemption and how? Here are a few excerpts from our class response papers the week we explored the “enchantment and controversy” of Lolita:
(Humbert’s) goal is to seduce the reader-as-jury-member with his erudition and humor and the inexorable and universal logic of love. Humbert engages us in a philosophic and romantic discourse in the early pages of the text, one that is seductive and almost ethically or psychologically persuasive. But Humbert is not as charming as he thinks he is and there is a natural limit to the reader’s empathy with a ruthless, self-professed pedophile. The challenge for the reader is in recognizing that limit, and it is Nabokov who can make that recognition deliberately difficult.
(On) a metanarrative level, by showing the way in which Humbert Humbert, as a retrospective narrator, assigns certain causes and effects to the agent fate—thus transferring culpability—Nabokov’s novel subtly offers the reader moments to ask, to what extent is fate at play—or its cousins, coincidence and chance—and to what extent is Humbert Humbert manipulating apparent cause and effect for his own aesthetic and persuasive ends?
Humbert’s obsession with the ephemeral lifespan of a nymphet only reinforces his integration with the poshlust American fetishization of youth and girlhood as the ideal consumer-capitalist form…Is this dramatic irony simply a key example of Nabokov letting the reader know the extent of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator? Or, further, to allow the reader to question their own place within the poshlust cogs of the advertising machine (and the creation of Lolitas)?
… (Humbert) declares “I am not concerned with so-called ‘sex’ at all. Anybody can imagine those elements of animality. A greater endeavor lures me on” (134). His “greater endeavor” seems to be “art,” for “sex is but the ancilla of art” (259). So what is this artistic purpose served by Humbert’s pursuit of illicit sex with Lolita? His allusions and metaphorical descriptions expose his loftier desire to follow Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in “straining for the faraway,” searching for infinity, and extending beyond “the skyline of the page.” Humbert wants Lolita for those purposes too, associating her directly with Dante’s Beatrice, Petrarch’s Laura, Poe’s Annabel Lee, and implicitly with Yeats’ “glimmering girl.” Like those poets, Humbert wants to transform his young beloved into an objet d’art, making her and himself immortal through his writing.
Vladimir Nabokov survived the greatest political upheavals of the twentieth century. When he was a teen, his wealthy and powerful family barely escaped with their lives during the Russian revolution. They found brief shelter within the Russian émigré community in Berlin, but the revolution followed them there, and Nabokov’s father was assassinated. Nabokov was forced to repeat a penniless exile once again after the Nazi’s took power, fleeing with his Jewish wife and son to America. He later learned that his brother had died in the death camps during the war. These harrowing experiences forged an author whose literary works repeat themes of trauma even in comic contexts. As a class we have learned that each carefully chosen Nabokovian detail exposes the fragility of the human condition, whether it’s a description of a basketball net or a protagonist’s choice to don mauve socks. With Nabokov we have learned to pay attention to and find meaning in the details that hold the power to distract us, expose us, and ultimately console us. At the end of class, after we close our books and say our goodbyes, we carry these thoughts into the evening, made a little more sensitive to this spring night and our own place in it.
—Julie Felix, MALS '13