Reading Lolita in Tehran, clandestinely, Azar Nafisi defied a repressive régime. In Vladimir Nabokov’s novel of eros perverted and thwarted, Humbert Humbert, a middle-age scholar, recounts his abduction and abuse of a 12-year-old girl. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, her 2003 memoir, Nafisi explains how the book helped beleaguered Iranian women understand the ways others take control of our voices and ourselves.
Two decades earlier, amid the ideological chill of the Cold War, I was reading Lolita in Tbilisi, the capital of Soviet Georgia. Nabokov’s book was banned, but the students I shared contraband copies with devoured the Russian American’s brilliant fiction of coercion. Recently, teaching the book in San Antonio, I was asked by a student to be excused from the reading assignment because she was Christian and had been told that Lolita was offensive. No one rejects Macbeth on the grounds that murder is most foul, and I tried to convince her that depiction of pedophilia does not imply endorsement. Lolita is even more controversial today — after Polly Klaas, JonBenet Ramsey, and the McMartin preschool scandal — than in 1955, when Nabokov could not find an American who dared publish it.
A cultural meteorologist, Graham Vickers examines the causes and consequences of what Nabokov called “Hurricane Lolita.” In Chasing Lolita, he reviews the plot and explicates some of the novel’s arcane allusions — though not as thoroughly, or obsessively, as Alfred Appel Jr.’s The Annotated Lolita. Less concerned with text than context, Vickers provides a lively account of the climate in which the novel was produced and received. While acknowledging it as a masterpiece, American editors, averse to incarceration, passed on the chance to publish it. After Véra Nabokov retrieved the manuscript from the flames to which her disappointed husband had consigned it, raffish Olympia Presss published it in Paris. But it took three years, until 1958, before Lolita became legally available in the United States.
Vickers situates the novel’s debut within the history of literary censorship, following court battles over Ulysses, Forever Amber, Memoirs of Hecate County, and the Kinsey Reports. Lolita escaped prosecution, though Vickers might have noted contemporaneous legal skirmishes that secured the right of Americans to read Tropic of Cancer, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Fanny Hill. He does, though, trace the contrails of Nabokov’s novel through Emily Prager’s Roger Fishbite, A. M. Homes’s The End of Alice, and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, also shaped by “nymphet” love. He sympathizes with Dmitri Nabokov’s unsuccessful effort to enjoin publication of Lo’s Diary, an attempt — in Italian, by Pia Pera — to reconstruct the story from Lolita’s point of view.
Vickers analyzes the two film versions of Lolita — by Stanley Kubrick in 1962 and Adrian Lyne in 1997 — and concludes, convincingly, that Lyne’s is a triumph of cinematic art sabotaged by hysteria over pedophilia. He also examines odd legacies such as Lolita, My Love, a disastrous 1971 musical by Alan Lerner and John Barry; Edward Albee’s even more disastrous 1981 stage adaptation; and Rodion Schedrin’s four-hour opera, performed in Swedish in 1994.
However, Vickers is most interested in exploring how pedophilia intersects with popular culture, and he finds it in Lolita sex dolls, internet porn, Japanese Lolita clothing, and Amy Fisher, the 16-year-old “Long Island Lolita,” whose entanglement with 35-year-old Joseph Buttafuoco led her to shoot his wife. He sees girlish icons of seduction in Mary Pickford, Shirley Temple, Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Brooke Shields and cradle-robbers in Lewis Carroll, Charles Chaplin, Roman Polanski, and Woody Allen.
Vickers notes that the December-May passions of Edgar Allan Poe, Petrarch, and Dante preceded Humbert’s, but Zeus’s dalliances with callow nymphs and old King David’s way of warming himself with young Abishag the Shunammite preceded them. He ignores the ancient Greek practice of pederasty as well as contemporary cases of female teachers who hit on male charges. A complete examination of the subject would need to explore the 19th century’s invention of childhood as a protected, privileged realm, violated in our time.
Though bothered by misreadings of Lolita as “Sultry Teenage Temptress,” Vickers, insisting on seeing her as a victim of Humbert’s psychosis, misses Nabokov’s complex interplay of predator and prey. Nabokov called Lolita “the record of my love affair with the English language,” but Vickers pays scant attention to its virtuoso style. His own repeated misuse of “whom” would make the meticulous stylist cringe. Nevertheless, Chasing Lolita is fitting tribute to a 50-year-old charmer who remains both bawdy and chased. •