Marilynn and I have been battling for years over the derivation and significance of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous 1955 novel. To refresh your memory, the first-person narrator is a middle-aged literature professor obsessed with a 12-year-old girl whom he nicknames Lolita and with whom he becomes sexually involved after marrying her mother. The premise is creepy, but the book is an acknowledged masterpiece of world literature often cited as one of the best books of the 20th century.
Our disagreement centers on her belief that the book could only have been written by someone who experienced or fantasized about what is described in its pages, while I think it’s a work of pure literary imagination. The Annotated Lolita unpacks my side of the story. The Nabokov text in The Annotated Lolita is 309 pages, but the book is itself is 455 pages, including Editor Alfred Appel Jr.’s 67-page introduction, 6 pages of bibliography, 6 pages of Nabokov notes, and 138 pages of annotations. Serious scholarship.
Now…why am I talking about Lolita? It’s because the same creepy, icky subject matter is swarming around us again – but this time it’s not a work of literary imagination. Real people are involved.
The flood gates opened a couple of years ago: for months in 2018-2019 we were treated to salacious tales of Jeffrey Epstein’s sexual obsession with teenaged masseuses and questionable friendships with Prince Andrew, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Clinton and others, until it ended last year with his suicide in a rat infested New York jail.
Now, it’s Representative Matt Gaetz, the Trump whisperer, who’s under investigation, suspected of sex trafficking a 17-year-old girl and other possible crimes. And, while that saga plays out, HBO’s four-part series Allen v. Farrow reminds us that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow have been fighting since 1992 over her accusation that he sexually violated their 7-year-old adopted daughter Dylan, now 35.
Yes, Lolita is back or least the syndrome is. A recent New Yorker article revisited the case of Joyce Maynard, the 18-year-old Harvard freshman who became J.D. Salinger’s lover when he was 53. More about that later.
I have skeletons in my closet too, but none of them are teenagers. Tell me, what’s the lure? Is it their innocence? The sweet smell of youth? The risky “game?” Or is it a sickness? Anthropologists tell us girls are fertile and ready for sex when they begin menstruation. That’s the rule in primitive cultures but ours draws a line. The age differs in various jurisdictions but in America it’s a crime to have sex with an underage girl or “to induce someone cross state lines to engage in sex in exchange for money or anything of value.” This was Jeffrey Epstein’s problem. Now, it’s Matt Gaetz’s problem.
Like Lolita, the whole thing is both creepy and criminal. Epstein and Gaetz, assuming the latter is implicated, were trafficking teenage girls for sex. It’s close to child pornography – another variation on the theme.
These subjects don’t touch most of us. But they can. Several years ago, I discovered that someone I knew had done prison time for possessing a huge cache of compromising photographs of children. He was the father of my son’s friend, a husband and well-respected doctor in the community. So, what’s that about? Is it more deviant than being romantically involved with a teenager? I suppose it depends on whether it was acted upon. In that case, it’s even more deviant. As an aside: while there was no evidence that he acted on his obsession, when he was released from prison one of the straightest smartest women I know began a relationship with him. Go figure…
Nabokov was a provocateur. My friend and classmate, Frederick “Hoddy” Schepman, chose graduate school at Cornell because Nabokov taught there, specifically because he taught a graduate course in which Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the 19th century’s scandalous novel about an unfaithful young wife, was the only text. Nabokov believed it was the greatest novel ever written. But, then again, maybe not. Nabokov was a shape-shifting provocateur.
At the end of Madame Bovary and Lolita the title characters die. Emma Bovary commits suicide with arsenic and Lolita dies in childbirth. These are not happy stories and many of the real-life stories of older men and very young women are even harder to read. What about the women?
Last week, Joyce Maynard discussed the phenomenon in a Vanity Fair article about what J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen have in common. She answers the question by saying, “The world knows them as iconic artists whose work transformed the cultural landscape of America. I see them both as predatory men with a taste for teenagers. Both possess the outlook of aging cynics who idealize and seek out innocence and—having done so—destroy it. Here comes another disturbing similarity in their stories: In the case of each of these celebrated men, when a woman has dared to shine a light on their dark and disturbing behavior—in Allen’s case, possibly criminal behavior, which he continues to deny—their supporters close ranks in the manner of a human shield. Often with stunning success, they deflect allegations made against the object of their devotion and turn on the person responsible for delivering them. That person would be a woman.”
Maynard knows from experience. At 67, she has spent the last 50 years trying to become something or someone other than the predatory tramp who besmirched the reputation of a great novelist. And she has. In those same 50 years she has written 11 novels and 9 works of non-fiction yet her reputation is frozen in relation to Salinger. Women who act as she did are shamed, dismissed, devalued, humiliated and demonized. Older men who prey on young women are often excused with a wink as in “boys will be boys.” Lolita is fiction. Matt Gaetz is a sitting U.S. Representative and the 17-year-old girl he’s accused of trafficking is a real person. It’s time for a reckoning.
Marilynn and I will continue to disagree about Lolita. I recognize it’s controversial but think it’s great art. She focuses on the depravity of the predator and the unforgivable violation of the child. I get it. I feel the way she does about Epstein and Gaetz but I’ve tucked Humbert Humbert and Lolita away in an art-for-art’s-sake silo. If we’re going to forgive, let’s forgive Joyce Maynard, Monica Lewinsky, and all the other women who have been shamed for falling in love with older men who knew better but preyed on teenage girls.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palette to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.” (The opening lines of Nabokov’s Lolita.)
Photos by Penguin Books, MGM, and New York Pos