Paul Bryant's Reviews > Chasing Lolita: How Popular Culture Corrupted Nabokov's Little Girl All Over Again

Chasing Lolita by Graham Vickers
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's review
Jul 15, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: litcrit, modern-life

This is a 230 page meditation on what Lolita was, where she came from and who got their hands on her after Vlad the Impaler had done with her. It's the perfect book to read after Lolita itself. Er, yes, it does have one of those really nasty sub-titles which every damned book appears to need these days. Being charitable, we will overlook that.

In Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at The Novel she says

[Nabokov] does not explore how HH and Lolita became, respectively, a pedophile and a slut; he simply accepts that they are

Oh how Lolita has been used and abused! First by cruel Humbert, next by creepy Quilty, and then by the critics and commentators who should know better. Jane Smiley has, like many others, also accepted that Lolita is a slut. After her stunning entrance in 1958 she very quickly became the poster girl for jailbait, or, in Lo’s own words, “fast little articles”. I was therefore very happy to see that Graham Vickers sees it as Job Number One to squash that lie.

Fact : she was 12 and at a summer camp she did, indeed, have sex with a boy.

Fact : after that, Humbert abducted her for over a year.

Fact : Humbert the nympholeptic tells us in the novel that SHE seduced HIM. This is clearly self-serving bullshit of the worst blame-the-victim type. And look, he has taken everyone in! Victims take note – no one will believe you.

Fact : as soon as she could organise a rescuer, she escaped his clutches. Alas for her, the rescuer was a perv called Clare Quilty who made porn films. He dumped her when she wouldn’t participate.

Fact : after a couple of years about which we know nothing, she got married to a deaf guy. Conclusion : not a slut. Lolita was not, in fact, a Lolita.

Mr Vickers takes us through the twisty turny tale. Were there ur-Lolitas? Yes. Was the book a tough sell to publishers? – yes. It was first published by a classic French dirty books company, so that made everyone think it was high class porn. Graham Greene rscued it from oblivion, abetted by some frothing at the mouth tabloid editors. Finally it came out in Britain & the USA in 1958 and what happened – instant bestsellerdom and no prosecutions.

Mr Vickers runs through the books before Lolita which contravened obscenity laws in the US, a motley crew – in the 20th Century there was Ulysses, Forever Amber, Memoirs of Hecate County by Edmund Wilson, the Kinsey Report, and Peyton Place. Lolita's was the storm that never arrived. No policeman got to finger her cute collar.

Was it difficult to make into a movie? Oh yes – and Kubrick’s 1962 film sinks under its director’s self-imposed caution. There’s absolutely no sex in it. Anyone seeing it at the time having not read the book would think that Humbert merely liked pretty teenagers, and who doesn’t, so what’s the fuss all about? Lolita’s age is never mentioned in the entire film. GV hammers the movie, accusing it of (however understandable) spinelessness. Also – it was all filmed in England, which I didn’t know. Also – VN got an Oscar nomination for the script! I didn’t know that.

Bosley Crowther : they made a movie from a script in which the characters have the same names as the characters in the book, the plot bears a resemblance to the original and some of the incidents are vaguely similar.

VN : It was a vivacious variant

The 1962 poster shamefully promoted the Lolita-as-Temptress canard. There’s little Lo sunbathing with her heart-shaped sunglasses and sucking a lascivious lollipop. Not only are those accoutrements not in the book, they aren’t in the movie either. But of course, it’s a brilliant image, which then got itself stuck onto the front of the book.

Vickers runs through Hollywood’s flirtation with very young girls – Love in the Afternoon, Bonjour Tristesse, Baby Doll, Cape Fear, Gigi (“Maurice Chevalier, a musical Humbert if ever there was one, celebrated the unripe appeal of [the nymphet] with his lasciviously-delivered song thank Heaven for Little girls”), past Lolita to Candy (“supremely vulgar and jokily paedophilic”), Taxi Driver, Obsession (de Palma), and Pretty Baby (“it seems safe to say that such a movie might not be made today” – but available to all from LoveFilm/Netflix), taking in l’affaires de Polanski and Allen and hitting the buffers with a crash : Hard Candy, the anti-Lolita. (Not seen it? See it!) Then in the 50s came “one of the decade’s chief preoccupations, childish feminine innocence wrapped up in an adult body” – enter Monroe.

Monroe had the 1950s version of the damaged little Victorian girl syndrome and projected it with an impersonation of mental vacuity, physical vulnerability and a constant need for a father figure to look after her.

Then we contemplate Lolita as Road Film, musing that Kerouac was typing at the same time as Nabokov was writing, from a different part of the literary universe, although Dean Moriarty considers the age of consent to be strictly for squares.

In the 1990s Adrian Lyne, famous at that point for Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and 9 ½ Weeks, began the hard slog of putting together a second Lolita movie. One’s heart may have sunk, considering his cv, but in 1998 it finally arrived, to general European acclaim and to American silence. It was good! It was faithful! GV notes that in the 35 years between the 2 movies, the attitude to paedophilia had sharpened to the point where the US movie industry itself censored the second Lolita – no distributor would touch it with a ten foot pole. Eventually it slunk out via cable & dvd.

We also may note that there was an Alan Lerner/John Barry musical Lolita My Love which closed after 9 performances (in Boston) and lost $900,000. And an Edward Albee play which was hated by all. And in 1994 an opera performed in Swedish, also unsuccessful. There is a Japanese fashion mag called Lolita, and a punky version called Lolita Goth, or Loligoth. GV scratches his head over these. There are also many crimes to hit the press featuring underage girls, all of whom get called Lolitas if there’s any hint of complicity. And there is the internet and how that uses little Lo’s mellifluous moniker, of which the less said the better.

All in all, excellent reading for fans.

note - I didn't know where to put this bit so I put it here

THE NATURE OF HUMBERT’S CRIME (leaving aside the slight case of murder).

This is probably Basic criminology but it struck me that there are different levels.

1) crimes where the criminal is not aware that his act is a crime (the ignorant and the deranged)
2) crimes where the criminal knows the act is a crime but doesn’t agree with it being so designated (public protests under a dictatorship, for instance, or poaching on the lord’s land to feed your family)
3) crimes where the criminal knows the act is a crime, and does agree that it should be a crime but thinks his particular act should be or will be exempted (assassination of the dictator)
4) crimes where the criminal knows the act is a crime, and does agree that it should be a crime, and further agrees that his particular act is in no way different from all similar acts, it’s a crime like all the others, but does it anyway because a) he has no conscience, or b) he does have a conscience but is in thrall to his earthly appetites, over which he has no control; and is therefore wracked with remorse.
HH fits into 4 b.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
July 1, 2011 – Finished Reading
July 15, 2011 – Shelved
July 17, 2011 – Shelved as: litcrit
July 17, 2011 – Shelved as: modern-life

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Donna (new)

Donna In fact, I wish I could express the good this review did me.

Paul Bryant Now I'm intrigued... in what way?

message 3: by DoctorM (new)

DoctorM So it is Vickers' mission to ruin the novel? To make readers find it...dull? To destroy its allure by undermining both HH and everyone's favourite Fast Little Article? To give support to moralistas, prudes, and the Earnest & Serious?

Paul Bryant Er, I'm not with you. Do you mean - as opposed to encouraging readers to think that Lolita aged 12 was asking for everything she got? If disabusing the reader of that notion is going to spoil it, then yeah, spoil away.

message 5: by Whitaker (last edited Jul 18, 2011 01:56AM) (new)

Whitaker Hoy! I point out that the line is "thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way". I object to aspersions being cast on one of my favourite musicals. ;-)

Leslie Caron is divine.

Paul Bryant Hi Whitaker - well, as I value youe friendship please don't take any notice of my review of Gigi The Book ( !!
I too think Gigi - as a musical movie - is rather lovely and LC is indeed divine - and furthermore that Maurice the Naughty is probably not lusting after the leedle girrrrls until they turn ...what, 16, 17, 18? Still, you have to admit the subject matter of Gigi is well in the area we now know as grooming children for sexual exploitation - people now get jail for what was being done on the screen in Gigi!

message 7: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Paul, I like your comments on the nature of crime.
Can I add a category (or two), which might either be number 5 (more likely) or 4(c):

This is where:
(a) I don't believe the law should apply to me personally (even though it should apply to everybody else); or
(b) if it does, I won't be caught.

There is an element of the Nietzschean Superman or Ubermensch in this suggested category.
A good example is the guys in Hitchcock's film, "Rope".

It always fascinated me that HH was never caught for his sex crime.
His confession was never read by anyone but his lawyer while he was alive, so it could never have been used to actually prosecute him.
He got away with it.

message 8: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Paul wrote: "Still, you have to admit the subject matter of Gigi is well in the area we now know as grooming children for sexual exploitation - people now get jail for what was being done on the screen in Gigi!"

Oh sure! But still, Broadway musicals get a total pass from me. LOL! (unless it's Andrew Lloyd Weber, in which case...) (Man, I hope you're not a Weber fan.)

Paul Bryant No, you may be assured that I'm not a fan of a guy who has only managed to compose one memorable tune in 40 years.

message 10: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Not LoLIta, but pretty close :

message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I've still never seen the Adrian Lyne film. He always struck me as a second-ranking Scott brother.

message 12: by Kirk (new)

Kirk Hard to believe the death of Chuck Berry led me to this review, but anyway, great stuff, I wasn't aware of this book. Agree that Hard Candy is excellent. I haven't seen any movie version of Lolita, but I would only consider seeing the later one. Even before I read the book, I dismissed unseen the Kubrick film. I mean, come on--1962?? I knew there was no way to make the film then in any recognizable form (it was still five years before the Production Code finally ended).

message 13: by Paul (new) - rated it 4 stars

Paul Bryant Hi Kirk - I think the Kubrick version is worth seeing because of two performances - Shelley Winters and James Mason who is a pretty perfect Humbert - and because you're watching Kubrick make a movie that can't be made. It's like one of those intellectual French novels where the author omits the letter e for instance (Georges Perec, A Void). Let's make Lolita and not say that Humbert is shagging a 12 year old! Genius.

message 14: by Dallas (new)

Dallas Whitaker wrote: "Hoy! I point out that the line is "thank heaven for little girls, they grow up in the most delightful way". I object to aspersions being cast on one of my favourite musicals. ;-)

Leslie Caron is ..."

That song came out after the war, when the French were looking for something innocent and fresh. The previous decade had been not at all innocent and fresh.

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