by Jasmine Amussen
Yesterday, my friend Elizabeth texted me from a party in Athens, Georgia, where she is attending law school. “Baby. Just had to defend Lolita at a party. She walked away saying she wouldn’t read it because pedophiles use it to justify and I was like NO!!!! UR wrong!!!! and she didn’t understand. I failed.” Elizabeth, along with myself and several other young women, read Lolita last fall together in an attempt to escape the barrage of bad weather that was threatening to overtake us all. Nazis had marched on Charlottesville and killed Heather Heyer, a member of our generational cohort. Our friend and peer Liliana Bakhtiari lost her nail-biting attempt to become the first queer Muslim woman on Atlanta’s City Council. Roy Moore was leading the race for senator in Alabama. Ronan Farrow released the first reports of sexual assault that would become #MeToo. Lolita seemed far away and timely and, while book clubs felt old and stuffy, protesting, writing letters, making phone calls – while bonding – had become wearing. We found ourselves in a country that went from subtly hostile to overtly ugly and deformed.
We read and agreed to not talk about politics at the book club, trying to ignore the Nazis coming for me, coming for Leila, our youngest Middle Eastern member, the racists running for office and winning, Sue Lyon’s red, heart-shaped sunglasses, Dominique Swain’s auburn red hair, and all horrors that have since become infuriatingly mundane.
Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita after an early-life overrun with Red politics. His father was an important lawyer and statesman. The Nabokovs fled newly-Bolshevik Russia first to Crimea, where his father worked as a secretary of justice to England, then Berlin. The elder Nabokov was murdered in Berlin by a Russian Monarchist while he was attempting to protect the intended victim, Pavel Milyukov. Nabokov was shocked by the senseless and violent death of his father, and it cemented in his mind a dislike of Germany. He married his wife, Vera, in 1925, and his only child was born in 1934. Once again the family fled, this time from the ascendant Nazi Germany, oscillating through several cities in France before arriving to New York in 1940.
America, to him, was magnificent.
“In America I’m happier than in any other country. . . I feel intellectually at home in America. It is a second home in the true sense of the word.”*
His full-throated embrace of America came at a time when America viewed those with his biography with great suspicion. A Russian immigrant married to a Jewish woman in the McCarthy era, this must have made his foreignness even more apparent. The epilogue to Lolita, “On a book entitled Lolita,” seeks to reaffirm his steadfast defense of his Americanness and his love of America. He calls the unreliable narrator Humbert Humbert a ‘foreigner’and ‘anarchist.’ Nabokov repeats that he is a ‘writer in a free country’ and laments that his book has been labeled “anti-American.’ “This is something that pains me considerably more than the idiotic accusation of immortality.”
Around book club meeting number three, after lengthy discussions on the repulsion we felt towards Humbert Humbert and his slick solipsism, we dug deeper, past the innuendos and jokes and sexual violence, and found such a glorious, beautiful, stricken picture of America — the shining America only outsiders like immigrants and visitors can see.
Collections of frontier lore. Antebellum homes with iron-trellis balconies and hand-worked stairs, the kind down which movie ladies with sun-kissed shoulders run in rich Technicolor, holding up the fronts of their flounced skirts with both little hands in that special way…A patch of beautifully eroded clay; and yucca blossoms, so pure, so waxy, but lousy with creeping white flies. Independence Missouri, the starting point of the Old Oregon Trail; Abeline, Kansas, home of the Wild Bill Something Rodeo. Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky piercing snow veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities, with a system of neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen; pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, “too prehistoric for words’’ (blasé Lo); buttes of black lava; early spring mountains with young elephant lanugo along their spines; end of the summer mountains, all hunger up, their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plus; oatmeal hills, flecked with green round oaks; a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot.**
Such trumpeted bliss couldn’t have come quickly, or gently, nor could it be easily seen. America, when Lolita was first published, saw too much of itself in Lolita (and Lolita) and didn’t much care for her — her naïveté, her vulnerability, her victimhood, her tennis and roller-skates and jazz records. Nor did America seem to like the strange, plasticky joy the narrator and his victim find in roadside attractions, bad diner food, and other consumerist glories Nabokov must have drunk in compared to the ashes of the war-ravaged Old World; and that my nervous, tired and afraid book club members saw. Who cares about Gay Paree when there are ice cream cones and jackanapes and stalactites and stalagmites! When forced to reckon with the Old World that Humbert Humbert encapsulated, America found Lolita embarrassing; when forced to look at the America we lived in now, we found it embarrassing — reading the same pages, the same words, in the same country, the same girl.
We remade her, Lolita and Lolita, and the joyful absurdity Humbert Humbert found zipping around the country. We gave her more power, more agency, dipping her in red lipstick and red sunglasses, the infernal red lollipops. America gave her power and seductiveness outside of what she truly was, for we were also trying to grow up. America, burgeoning on the world stage, the annoying teenage country that had saved the whole world, with no pedigree of philosophy or any other genteel culture, couldn’t be reflected back in this ‘disgustingly conventional’ girl.
The change was slow but inevitable. Joseph McCarthy, the maniacal anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin, died in 1957, drunk, addicted to heroin and disgraced. The Reds, America had decided, weren’t coming. At least, not then. Stanley Kubrick, directing the first film adaptation, gave Lolita her first major change. Sue Lyon, physically mature and no one’s idea of a tomboy in shorts, was given blood-red lollipops, sunglasses and toenails mostly in an effort to communicate the sexual relationship and violence that couldn’t be shown on film in the era of the Catholic Legion of Decency and Production Codes. The effect was sensational, seductive, bordering on vulgarity. The bloody red slowly inched away from frenzied fear of Communism, of Nazism, and became sensual, hardcore, shot through with American patriotism and violence. Lolita, our American girl, came along for the ride. Nabokov, while alive, asked publishers to leave girls off the cover. That lasted for a short while, but as we approached the 1980s, girls popped up on every cover. She grew older, ever more a siren, with less and less clothing, and seemed to reach peak ludicrousness when Vanity Fair proclaimed for the book’s 50th anniversary that it was the “only convincing love story of our time.”
American Girls like Lolita have always been used as an excuse for incredible racist violence — Dylann Roof, draped in his gory Confederate flags, said “You’re stealing our women” — but now they are fighting back. The 14-year-old girls Roy Moore hunted and leered at are holding him to account. Girls from Hollywood are shouting #MeToo from past,
present, and future. What separates Lolita from Leila, a middle-class, Middle Eastern girl reading Lolita in Atlanta? America projects fear, loathing, and desire on both of them, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.
Lolita, now, though, gave us something else. Proof that, at one time, there was an America that was kind of silly, sort of clever, with intoxicating landscapes, and a girl that was a picture of us at our most bored, disgustingly conventional self. Red lipstick and all.
“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”**
* from Strong Opinions
** from Lolita
Author: Jasmine Amussen is a writer and archivist. She enjoys Nabokov, Lil’ Kim, and French 75s. She can be found @snakemoons, or in Atlanta or Brooklyn.