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Selling (Out) Nabokov

A humorless new Lolita mistakes satire for tragedy.

Alan A. Stone

At a small theater near the Latin Quarter in Paris they were showing Adrian Lyne's new film version of Lolita. It was the last week of June and across the Atlantic the media had been buzzing about whether the film would ever be seen in the States. Lolitachallenged the last restraint of the battered American superego--the prohibition against child pornography. The sophisticated French were apparently unimpressed by our controversy: there was no line in front of the theater and I counted fewer than twenty people inside, most of whom seemed to be speaking English. If any of them came to see child pornography, they must have gone away disappointed. Though more explicit than Stanley Kubrick's Lolita ("We're really doing it," says Jeremy Irons, the Humbert Humbert of this production; "with cushions between them" adds the wary director), this version provides surprisingly little titillation. A determined pedophile might find more exciting fare in Calvin Klein ads.

Lyne's Lolita was just as disappointing for anyone who had hoped to see a new and interesting interpretation of what the Modern Library jury recently declared the fourth best novel of the twentieth century. American movie distributors probably made a prudent decision when, on the first go round, they turned down Lyne's film. Even now, with most film critics giving it their full-throated support and all the media hoopla, it is unlikely to find a wide commercial audience. And for admirers of Nabokov, Lyne's Lolita is a bait-and-switch game, using the reputation of the great satirical novel to lure people into the theater and then delivering a psychodrama of the pedophile as tragic lover. This Lolita will do for literature what Oliver Stone's JFK did for history.

Like Joyce's Ulysses (number one on the Modern Library list), Nabokov's Lolita is the kind of book which many people buy, few read, and still fewer understand. Ulysses does end by offering up Molly Bloom's sexually explicit stream of consciousness, the only part of the novel accessible to the average college graduate. Nabokov, in contrast, toys with his readers' prurient interests and leads them on. But every paragraph of Lolita is steeped in arcane literary-cultural-philological allusions. And despite its pedophiliac plot, Lolita offers no Molly Bloom pay-off, no pornographic "copulation of clichés." One Nabokov scholar aptly described its sexual appeal as an "erotic under lock and key, buried deep in the library stacks." If there were ever a demonstration of the "educated aesthetic" (much discussed in the recent debate in these pages provoked by Harold Bloom), it is the reputation of Ulysses and Lolita. These great books appeal as much to literary erudition as to literary imagination.

Nabokov, who was able to retire from teaching on the sales of Lolita, said he was being "kept by a 12 year old girl." In a way he was right. Lolita, like Ulysses, sold so many unread copies because of the double-barreled hype of "taboo-breaking sexuality" and high art. But what is sublime in both books diligent readers will find in the highest reaches of the mind, and only with considerable effort.

Why then make a film about Lolita? The visual images of film are an affront to the subtlety and complexity of Nabokovian language. To his credit, Stephen Schiff, who wrote the screenplay, clearly recognized the problem. "I just want to add one note: I would never claim that we are filming Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. I would say only that we are attempting to translate into a kind of exciting sign language--the language of film--what one of the century's greatest masters of prose rendered so incomparably on the page." Unfortunately, everything greatest about the master has been lost in Schiff's failed and bowdlerized translation.

To be sure, perfect translations into visual images are nearly impossible. But Howard's End, Sense and Sensibility, Wings of the Dove, Mrs. Dalloway, and even Les Miserables gave filmgoers a feeling for the magic of the originals. In this, the new Lolita fails. Nor is the "sign language" medium of film implacably hostile to intellectual depth, as Hal Hartley showed this summer with his brilliant and uncondescending Henry Fool. But Lolita is relentlessly shallow.

Adrian Lyne got his start with slick commercials, hit it big in Hollywood with Flashdance, and went on from there to Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. The commercial success of these films allowed Lyne to set his aesthetic sights higher and he chose Nabokov's Lolita. He was not interested in a remake of the Kubrick film, for which Nabokov wrote the screenplay. Kubrick's Lolita was notable for its over-the-top acting, its weird humor (Pauline Kael dubbed it "black slapstick"), and the decision to foreground Peter Sellers as Quilty. Shelly Winters gave a superb performance as Lolita's absurdly hysterical mother; no film makes better use of her shrill talents as an actress. James Mason was the Humbert Humbert of the novel and an unexpectedly perfect comic foil for Sellers. The improbable contest between the two pedophiles, which lurks in the shadows of the novel, takes the spotlight in Kubrick's film. It was not the novel, but you could hear Vladimir Nabokov's unmistakable voice in the new medium. And Kubrick had the sly wit to put a conspicuous but unidentified picture of Nabokov on the wall in the scene of the fatal confrontation between Quilty and Humbert. This is exactly the kind of literary allusion that Nabokov worked into every page of his novel. And like most of Nabokov's readership, James Mason as Humbert does not get it. In a supremely Nabokovian touch, Kubrick's camera moves in on Humbert as he quizzically eyes the photograph, obviously failing to recognize who it is. To enjoy the humor of this moment, you must know Nabokov's face. But, then, it is a stretch for most people to recognize any humor at all in a movie about a middle-aged man having a sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter.

When it was released in 1962 many critics thought Kubrick's surreal take on Lolita was deranged and morally reprehensible. Even the most discerning film critics were offended. Stanley Kauffmann blamed Nabokov for a screenplay that was condescending to the film medium. Today Kubrick's Lolita is considered something of a milestone in modern film making. Martin Scorcese puts it in the category of "Director as Iconoclast"; as he describes it, a "satirical comedy turns into a bizarre tragedy." Pauline Kael was one of the few critics who got the joke. Unfazed by anything sexual and something of an iconoclast herself, she understood Kubrick's "black slapstick" and in a throwaway line of her film review she gave what may be the most illuminating description of Nabokov's novel: "A satire on the myths of love."

Then as now Lolita produced an agonizing reappraisal of moral standards in film, an outpouring that Kael called "a comedy of gray matter." She reports that Reinhold Niebuhr, the leading American theologian of the day, was invited to a special screening of the film. He obviously did not understand Kubrick's film or the novel, both of which end with Lolita pregnant and married to a young man who is literally deaf and oblivious to his wife's sordid past. The beer-drinking ordinariness and poverty of Lolita's marriage is crucial to the story and careful readers of the novel will know that Lolita the housewife is destined to die in childbirth. Niebuhr wrote uncomprehendingly about this ending as an obscured moral lesson of "Lolita's essential redemption in a happy marriage." And Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. weighed in for the American intelligentsia, declaring that Kubrick's film is "not only inhuman, it is antihuman." Nabokov would have been delighted to invent such lines.

In 1998 pedophilia is even less acceptable as a subject for iconoclastic humor. But that would probably make it even more attractive to Nabokov, the ultimate provocateur. One conventional understanding of Nabokov's style in Lolita is that he is not interested in creating believable and psychologically real characters or developing real relationships between them. The crucial relationship is between the writer Nabokov and his readers; the comic-tragic satirical tone of his novel has its literary roots in Gogol's Dead Souls.

By his own account Nabokov, a chronic insomniac, spent many of his nights thinking up chess problems which were published during his days as a white Russian émigré trying to eke out a living in Europe. He acknowledges that these were not the kind of puzzles that interested chess masters, but he would delight in planting misleading clues that were sure to lead the many addicts of the game away from the solution. Nabokov says he wrote in much the way he composed chess puzzles. But perhaps an even more telling account of Nabokov's project is his description in Ada of a performance in an English music hall: A strange whirling careening figure comes rushing onto the stage. The apparition moves about in a way that defies the laws of gravity and exceeds the elastic possibilities of the human spinal column. It then flips backwards onto its hands and races around even faster. At last a foot reaches down and opens the baggy pants to reveal the head of the man who had brachiambulated (Nabokov's neologism) onto the stage. The audience applauds the acrobatic artistry and astonished children are delighted. This is the essential Nabokov and the characters in Lolita are such apparitions, meant to defy the laws of the moral universe and test the limits of human psychology, all for the sake of artistry. With Nabokov, "reality" should always be put in quotes.

Nabokov thinks the unthinkable and then describes it in detail. For those who doubt this and want to read Lolita as a love story, consider the study hall scene in the novel. Humbert Humbert, sexually obsessed and insatiable, pays Lolita sixty-five cents to masturbate him while he ogles the innocent white neck of her schoolmate who is engrossed in a schoolbook. He confides to the reader he cannot resist because he may never again have such an opportunity. The scene is a typical moment in the novel and seems to have been borrowed from Havelock Ellis. Nabokov had a high regard for Ellis who collected and recorded such bizarre particulars of exotic perversions in much the same way that Nabokov collected butterflies. Nabokov delighted in particularity and famously despised the generalizations of Freud ("a hot air balloonist") and the entire "Viennese Delegation." He carried on a war of witticisms with psychoanalysis in all of his writings. Lolita is written in mockery of middle class convention but even more in protest against the Freudian generalizations about the pedophile and his victim.

Moralists who want to condemn Nabokov for flouting basic moral values and psychologists who want to analyze his characters and their relationships might do better if they realized that Lolita was written to make such attempts seem foolish. Novels like Laughter in the Dark, Pale Fire, Ada, and most of all Lolita, mock all conventions and yield their greatest pleasures to those who appreciate the game. Kubrick's film was true to Nabokov's spirit even if he departed from the novelist's screenplay. The director played games with his audience and no one was better for that purpose than Peter Sellers.

Lyne's new Lolita gets almost everything wrong, but it took a lot of effort to get there. The director wanted to start afresh with the novel; to this end he approached Harold Pinter and David Mamet, who worked on screenplays that he rejected. It is even rumored that Lyne talked with Tom Stoppard. It is a long way from these literary lights to Schiff-lite but this director and his chosen screenplay writer had matching sensibilities: they would make Humbert Humbert a tormented victim. Theirs is a humorless tale of tragic passion and unreciprocated love with a moral apotheosis when Humbert realizes he has stolen Lolita's childhood.

It would be absurd to argue that the novel contains nothing of this kind: many of the film's lines are taken verbatim from the text. But Nabokov's trick--and it is a trick--is to put every possibility of a human relationship into Humbert Humbert's self-serving confession. It is also true that readers come to have a certain sympathy with Humbert even as we loathe him: Nabokov's genius is to induce both reactions. By omitting the loathsome half of our ambivalence and the bizarre comedy of the novel, this film defeats Nabokov's genius and sentimentalizes his acerbic wit.

Schiff, a long time film reviewer, knew that you cannot get your foot in the door with mainstream American moviegoers unless you put someone on the screen with whom they can identify. His unlikely candidate was Humbert Humbert (in the novel an ex-mental patient, alcoholic, sexually insatiable pedophile who is supremely narcissistic and the ultimate snob). Although there seem to be endless layers of irony in the novel, beginning with Humbert Humbert's name, Schiff ignored them all for the sake of psychological realism. The audience is meant to sympathize with Humbert, who suffers everything for love. Remember Pauline Kael's "satire on the myths of love"; Schiff presents the myth of the pedophile's love as the real thing. This to make Humbert sympathetic as we see him enslaved by love and then by the willful Lolita--the victimizer made victim. Jeremy Irons was well cast for that conception of the part. It is much like the role he has played in many recent films (Swann in Love, Damage, M. Butterfly) in all of which he revisits Brideshead Revisited. He plays his tormented part faultlessly. With Lyne's misguided encouragement, he does everything he can to make Humbert Humbert a psychologically transparent and sympathetic figure.

Nabokov would have cringed. His Humbert shares his disdain for psychoanalytic understanding, which Nabokov described as "applying Greek myths to one's private parts." Naturally, Humbert thrives on playing games with his psychiatrists when they try to analyze his sexual orientation. During one of his several stays in the asylum in Europe before he comes to America, he feeds the doctors false dreams and is delighted when they decide he is a homosexual. Humbert's character in the novel is a game mocking the standard psychoanalytic cant about infantile sexuality, pedophilia, and sexual fixation.

The novel also mocks the reader who believes such ideas. Humbert's charming explanation of his own pedophile fixation is psychologically ridiculous and not to be taken seriously. But Lyne and Schiff take the bait. Their film treats Humbert's account of his fixation to his first summer girlfriend as the psychological truth Nabokov was mocking. They begin their tragic love story with gauzy scenes of the twelve year-olds, Humbert and Annabel, playing on the Riviera beach. In voice-over Irons tells us of her shocking death from typhus six months later, and we are supposed to have a psychological understanding of the lovesick traumatized pedophile who can only break Annabel's spell "by incarnating her in another," the 12 year old Lolita. The misguided psychological realism (abhorrent to Nabokov) influenced Lyne's casting of Dominique Swain as Lolita, Melanie Griffith as her angry mother, and Frank Langella as a degenerate Quilty.

Richard Schiff has suggested rather snidely that Kubrick's Lolita, Susan Lyon, at fifteen looked like a twenty-year-old porn star. He thinks Dominique Swain has the virtue of looking like a real girl--I would say a valley girl. She is certainly not diminutive or innocent. She looks like one of those California teenagers who have gone from childhood to womanhood by age 12, and share their mothers' sexual sophistication. On the screen she is almost as large as Irons.

She is, however, inescapably a minor and there are scenes simulating sexual intercourse in this film that were not in Kubrick's. Even though none of it is crudely pornographic, there have to be serious questions about the psychological effects on a teenage girl of acting out a sexual affair with a man who is supposed to be her stepfather. And what we see is not all of it: Lyne reports that he had a lawyer with him in the cutting room. Although the part and the notoriety may have had nothing to do with it, Kubrick's choice, Sue Lyon, had a troubled life after Lolita. Lyne's press releases report that he sent Swain to a fancy Swiss psychiatrist as a preventive measure. That guarantees nothing, and we may ask whether Dominique Swain's childhood--like that of the film's Lolita--has been stolen.

That question can fairly be asked of the new Lolita both because they seem to be "doing it," as Irons says, and because Schiff's screenplay (unlike Nabokov's novel or Kubrick's film) makes the emotional relationship between the stepfather and the daughter the heart of the story. Nabokov's novel is located in Humbert's self-serving confession, not in the real world. Lolita exists as the pedophile's fantasy and although his nymphet is often described in obsessive detail (the down in her armpits as she lifts her tennis racket), the picture of an actual child comes through only in those rare moments when Humbert Humbert feels a twinge of guilt. Kubrick's film cools the heat of the visual medium by downplaying Lolita's role, centering on the struggle between the pedophiles, and adopting as his own Nabokov's surreal "reality." Schiff in contrast makes the emotional relationship the center of the film, giving moviegoers and mainstream film critics what they want: believable relationships in which they can get psychologically involved. They are shown Lolita slowly getting the better of her stepfather, demanding more money in exchange for her sexual favors, then driving him wild with jealousy and leading him across America to locations where she can rendezvous with his rival, Quilty. Not only does she control and exploit Humbert but in the one great (and tragic) irony of the film, she is really in love with Quilty, the other pedophile--a degenerate who wants her to act in his pornographic films. Again, there is nothing in the scenario that is not in Nabokov's novel, but it is all quoted out of context to transform satire into tragedy.

Film critics seem enamored with this Lolita--perhaps because they are innocent of any understanding of the novel. It is cinematically beautiful and the acting is impeccable, but it is not--as these critics say--Nabokov. One need only read the last fifteen pages of the novel, where Humbert kills Quilty, to get a sense of how wrong in spirit though exact in detail this movie is. Nabokov's ending is a comic nightmare and when Quilty finally dies after being shot innumerable times, Humbert recalls "a big pink bubble with juvenile connotations formed on his lips, grew to the size of a toy balloon, and vanished." Lyne has filmed that blood bubble of death in a gruesome moment of exact detail but stripped of all of its Nabokovian layers of meaning.

If you are prepared to read or even skim the original, you will surely agree with Stephen Schiff's candid admission that they were not "filming Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita." In truth their film is very much in the spirit of the short story version of Lolita that has Humbert Humbert seducing his stepdaughter and then committing suicide by walking onto a busy highway at night. It was published by Nabokov's son long after his father's death and presumably without his father's blessing. This wretched version of the great novel lacks all of the wit, style, and mind-bending imagination that was Vladimir Nabokov's genius. Much the same can be said of the new Lolita. If Lyne and Schiff manage to enhance their reputations on the basis of this film, they will, like his son, have done it by selling out Nabokov's.

Originally published in the October/November 1998 issue of Boston Review

 



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