Child’s play it ain’t

Published

Sage Pearce-Higgins discusses the importance of satire in Nabokov’s fiction

In 2008, Woolworths briefly stocked a range of children’s bedroom furniture with the brand-name Lolita. Initially baffled by the complaints that were made, the company subsequently withdrew the items from sale. It seemed that their marketing department was not only ignorant of the literary connotations of that name, but was also naïve to its sexual connotations in popular culture (Lolita is used to refer to anything from child pornography to sexual fantasy costumes).

The origin of such connections lie in Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial 1953 novel Lolita, in which Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European academic, becomes obsessed with a twelve-year-old American schoolgirl, Lolita. Written in the first person from Humbert’s perspective, the novel appears to offer excuses for his reprehensible behaviour. Nabokov has often been crudely equated with Humbert, yet I think the book has something far more sophisticated and subtle to offer.

The recent publication of Nabokov’s unfinished novel The Original of Laura has reignited the controversy surrounding Lolita. Sadly, this new novel makes for disappointing reading, as it contains merely a few disconnected scenes and some incomplete notes. Despite its value as an insight into Nabokov’s creative process, its lavish edition (single sided printing on thick paper, with both facsimile and typeset spread out to around two hundred and fifty pages) and retail price of £25 seem something of a money-spinner. Like Lolita, it contains some borderline pornographic scenes of sex between a young girl and a middle aged man. The same theme occurs in others of Nabokov’s novels; Martin Amis described this recurrence as ‘embarrassing’, seemingly implying that Nabokov fantasised about paedophilia, a view which is not entirely uncommon.

Why does this theme feature so strongly in Nabokov’s work? Can it be excused? First of all, it is important to understand Nabokov’s approach to writing. A highly intellectual man, he was interested in riddles, in wordplay and puzzles; his other hobbies were collecting butterflies and composing chess problems. He wilfully courted controversy: “I don’t give a damn for public morals,” he declared in one interview. This is not to say that he had no standards, merely that he was an iconoclast who enjoyed breaking conventions, exposing hypocrisies and provoking pomposity, if only for the sake of it. While certainly not a roman à thèse, Lolita can be read as a satire of contemporary sexual attitudes.

Lolita is sent to a girls’ school which claims to have a modern curriculum, teaching “the four Ds: Dramatics, Dance, Debating and Dating”. As well as taking a swipe at progressive education, this highlights the gender stereotypes foisted upon children. Nabokov draws attention to the way contemporary culture encourages Lolita to behave in ways that are sexually suggestive beyond her years. It is here that we can find hypocrisies which, perhaps, Nabokov sought to attack. Today, also, you don’t have to look far to see the gross contradiction between the taboo of paedophilia (perhaps our greatest taboo) and the sexualisation of children.

Connected to this is the converse issue of the way women are encouraged to present themselves as childlike. The continual pressure exerted on women to appear as young as possible, to dye or remove body hair (arguably for a pre-pubescent look), to conform to the artificial and unblemished appearance of teenage models in adverts or to act in childish, naïve or deferential ways all form part of a society-wide fantasy that barely legal is the ideal. While paedophilia is rightly condemned, much contemporary culture seeks to make it a template for legal sexual relationships. Seeing the grossness of this contradiction can help us understand why Nabokov turned repeatedly to the theme of under-aged sex in his novels: it is a merciless attack on the hypocrisy of social attitudes.

Nabokov also touches on the conceptually complicated issue of the interplay of fantasy, advertising and objectification that occur in the ancient but ever more accessible archetype of pornography. Humbert muses that “what I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita.” Nabokov was fascinated by the way imagination and memory extrapolate from reality into fantasy. Advertising and pornography manifest this, creating distance between the actual world and our ideas of it. Since Nabokov’s time, the issue of pornography has undoubtedly become bigger; advertising has become more invasive; and pressure to conform to sexual stereotypes more pernicious. The result is that his satirical novels are now more significant than ever.