Humbert, or the Confession of a White Spinster Female: A Millennial’s Reading of Lolita

I need to seduce Humbert Humbert. I have no hope of succeeding. I’d have no hope even if he were not a fictional character. I am a 27-year-old freshman comp lecturer. Even when I was 12, I wasn’t his type, I don’t think. Still. Just as for Humbert it had to end with him and Quilty, for me it seems an encounter with Humbert will be the only natural ending, the only way I’ll move on from what has been an interminable girlhood waiting for him. You see, I’m getting old, for a girl, and now we’re both creeps, Humbert and I, both old and hairy and waiting for something to happen to jog us back into dreamland. I miss butterflies and stardust and shorts. I miss American highways, the sun setting behind gas stations. I jumped some strange divide, and now I live in Los Angeles: all the way west. What happened? Where did he go, why didn’t he want me?

Lolita is known for its dazzling contrast between aesthetics and morality. Readers say they wonder how such gorgeous writing can coexist with such horrific acts, and how the combination can seduce us, make us root for Humbert. I think some of this wonder and horror is feigned, coy and prudish and sexist, and that when we talk about the novel this way, we are pretending to know far less than we do about the way this man looks at girls and about the way art forges itself out of life. We flatten the novel and present a wishful picture of reality. We pretend we hadn’t been seduced already: hadn’t already seen this girl, and taken note, before ever opening that book.

I read the novel right around the 50th anniversary of its publication, in 2006. Here is Lolita sunbathing, the first time Humbert, and I, see her: 12 years old, her shoulders are “frail” and “honey-hued,” her back “silky supple.” She has a kerchief around her chest, shielding her breasts from Humbert Humbert’s “aging ape eyes.” She has a “lovely indrawn abdomen,” and “puerile” hips. She looks familiar to him: like Annabelle, the dead love of his youth.

She looked familiar to me, too, though I don’t think I realized it at the time. She was familiar, probably, from many iterations, but here is just one: The O.C., which I had just started watching on DVD. Mischa Barton, 17 when the pilot airs, plays Marissa Cooper, ambiguously 16 at the start of the series, sunbathing in Orange County, California. She bears some obvious similarities to Lolita: puerile hips, silky, honey-hued flesh. The hair color, too: both girls are blonde, but not platinum. They’re tawny, like an animal you glimpse through trees, a perfect, wild creature that may fright at any moment.

They’re both American princesses, trapped in the very fairy tales they conjure around themselves. Humbert imagines himself as Lolita’s “fairy-tale nurse”; Marissa, too, is a kidnapped princess: high up on a balcony of a seaside McMansion — where her stepfather blackmailed her into living, threatening to ruin her father if she doesn’t — she drinks from a flask. But there are some obvious differences, between Marissa and Lolita sunbathing. Mischa Barton is 17 and her character, too, is in high school, old enough to be looked at sexually, at least by her peers. In an accepted device from this and other teen soaps of my youth, the actors who play her friends, also high-school aged, are older: 24, when the pilot airs, in one case, almost as old as I am, writing this, and almost as old as the youngest of the actresses who play their mothers, 33 when the pilot airs. Also, of course, the people ogling her are real girls, not imaginary men. My friends and I, in 10th grade, on the couch, still as Narcissus gazing into his own image, more beautiful than we ever thought possible.

When we turn away, we are amazed: my friend is Marissa (tall and thin and blonde, with a dramatic sadness and a complicated love) and I am her best friend, Summer (small and dark-haired and interested in nerds), and our guy friends are Ryan and Seth (we all go to the diner together, and have these intertwining love stories, or might soon have them). These coincidences seem wild and undeniable: like magic, like destiny, like what we’ve been waiting for. We prowl the quiet streets of brownstone Brooklyn at night — they were quiet then — telling ourselves this story, acting it out, waiting for the boys to somehow know we are out here, surprise us by taking our hand as we lean on the wrought iron railing of the Promenade, staring out at the BQE and the East River. At last, or, any minute now, we are real girls, which is to say, imaginary girls. We are ever thinner. We have fallen into a dream, passed through an enchanted door, like our earlier literature, our childhood reading, always promised we would.

The O.C. creates for its girl-viewers a safe-seeming space in and about which to fantasize. Marissa’s boyfriends fight over and for her, getting jealous as she forms friendships with other boys, who fall in love with her and then go crazy because of their love for her: Oliver locks her in a hotel room with him and threatens to kill himself; Johnny gets wasted and falls off a beachside cliff to his death; Luke has an affair with her mom; Volchok kills her — accidentally — in a jealous rage. Marissa is a projection of the other characters’ desire, and also of the young female viewers’. As such, she is absolved, lacking any desire of her own. She can admit nothing: she has no time, for instance, to decide which boy she likes before one of them is dead at the bottom of a cliff because he loved her so much. Her body is confusing — thin enough you want to accuse her of something, some eating disorder — but then, for that reason, perfect: boyish hips absolved of the shameful spread of womanhood. Her long golden limbs are absolved, too, of the strange textures of girlhood — the acne and mosquito bites.

This paradise could easily be revealed for the weird rottenness it belies, though. I think sometimes about how different the teen dramas of my adolescence would be if you had real children playing the children: if we watched Marissa’s mom have an affair with a real 16-year-old boy, say, instead of a man in his mid-20s playing a 16-year-old. We would be watching a rape scene, rather than a scandal. The fantasy would collapse, and we adult prudes, we descendants of Puritans, would be left looking at the weirdness of what we must have wanted, when we summoned this fantasy for ourselves, perhaps, as much as for our daughters. The American high school on TV in the early 2000s: big and beige and bright. One wants to get back there, because there, one is washed clean. There, one is neither ugly like a child, nor ugly like an adult. Never having wanted anything, and never having failed, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

Humbert shares that fantasy, and for him, too, of course, there’s a violence in it. Humbert thinks grown women are gross and absurd. He’s hilarious about us. Upon re-reading the novel, at 27, I laughed at his horror of “deodorized career girls” and of Lolita’s mother, Charlotte Haze, with her affected, girlish voice and “heavy hips, round knees, ripe bust, the coarse pink skin of her neck [“coarse” by comparison with silk and honey] and all the rest of that sorry and dull thing: a handsome woman.” He sees womanhood as a grotesquely effortful facsimile of girlhood. His Lolita, by contrast, is effortless and unaffected: is without the strained twist of womanly desire-to-be-desired. Which, of course, Marissa lacks as well.

The place where I first read Lolita was also a kind of fairy kingdom. We went to what we told strangers was a “progressive private school, founded in the ‘70s” — all terms whose meaning I had only a vague sense of. I was proud to be reading Lolita: I knew that, at most schools, students didn’t get to. Most schools censored it. But at our school, they trusted us, and they didn’t treat us like children. Or rather, they knew what children really are. I grew up thinking that children were natural artists compared to adults, which is of course true. Adult artists were few: they were the lovely, wild, fairy-like people who had chosen to stay here with us. Teachers. Teachers who read us Wallace Stevens while we painted in high school, who explained the dirty jokes in Shakespeare in fifth grade, and to whom we dictated our poems before we could read or write, in preschool and kindergarten. I learned, basically, that when I went to museum retrospective or read a famous novel, the artist was just some legendary teacher I hadn’t had yet: someone who had figured out how to linger long enough in the world of children that they had become an expert in our craft. I knew I would be one of them when I grew up: one of these magic adults who managed to stay. My teachers alluded to some risk associated with staying — a risk I knew I would someday take, because the alternative, the only other kind of adult, was a parent. Parents were on the outside: the people who taught us table manners and made spreadsheets for our college applications; the censors, the bourgeoisie with their idées reçues, the people who, we learned, would interfere with school if given the opportunity. In an ordinary school, we learned, parents who complained about reading material would be taken seriously. In an ordinary school, teachers would speak to your parents, rather than to you, if you skipped class or were disrespectful. In a lot of ways, it was a real paradise: that rare place where a child could feel empowered rather than disempowered at school.

Nonetheless, here is how I annotated my copy of Lolita in 11th grade, for a class called Literature of Obsession:

Nabokov wants the reader seduced by Humbert, of course. That’s the trick of his prose that everyone talks about: that you can on the one hand be horrified by what he, and by association, you, who keep turning the pages, are doing to this child and at the same time be entranced. By page 284, though, we are meant to be stepping out of this dream: peering beneath the surface of Humbert’s fantasy, watching him see, a little bit, the pain he’s inflicted. And I, at 16, apparently did not want to step out of this fantasy. Next to Humbert’s, “She would mail her vulnerability in trite brashness and boredom,” I wrote, “But she’s actually just bored — not pretending.” Next to Humbert’s, “There were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one,” I wrote: “but it doesn’t really seem like he had any affect [sic] on her.” I remember what I meant by “phcycoanalysis.” I was thinking about earlier passages in the book, when a diagnosis, a label, the idea that you could pin down what a person of genius was, what he had, seemed hopelessly bourgeois and moralistic and idiotic to Humbert, as it did to me. Now, on page 284, I thought I’d caught him in an act of hypocrisy, or betrayal, psychoanalyzing Lolita and landing on this conventional idea that he had hurt her.

This was, I realize now, a different time. Progressivism was not necessarily associated with gentleness, or inclusion. There was also no sense that true freedom was at odds with elitism, and that living with art had to mean finding out about living, too: finding out about the worldly forces that worked on characters and on us. At school we didn’t talk about race, we didn’t talk about class, we didn’t talk about gender. We thought that our school made us special, or that we went there because we were special: we didn’t know that this happy system mostly worked out because we were mostly rich and white.

Like Humbert, I thought intellectual superiority could set you free. Intellectual superiority was, I was told, the force that had freed me and my classmates from the prison of an ordinary childhood. It was why I had his book in my hands in the first place and why, although a child, I had been told I could write on printed pages, that my misspelled words belonged there. Of course, then, reading this novel, I didn’t want to be one of those prudes, those moralizers, those readers Humbert keeps addressing: the “ladies and gentlemen” of the jury who refuse to do away with conventional categories of right and wrong, child and adult — who sounded a lot like parents. Because he was an artist and an intellectual, Humbert could molest a child. Because I was an artist and an intellectual, I, although a child, could read about it. To conclude that Lolita suffered was, in that sense, to misunderstand me. It was to see me the way most people saw female children: vulnerable, confused, trapped.

It was to see me the way I was, I realize now, outside of school. Outside of school, I obsessed, increasingly, over the idea of being chosen. There were two sets of people who did that choosing: boys, who might appear on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade any minute now, to slip their hands into my fellow O.C. viewers’ and mine, and colleges, for which our parents hired SAT tutors, outside college counselors, and sent us away for summers abroad. These colleges were powerful institutions, old for a young country, and built to look even older. Inherent in their neo-Gothic architecture is the whispered promise of being chosen by some powerful force of oldness and maleness: when those thick, stone, old-looking walls welcome you instead of shutting you out, the idea is, you are shining and safe. Only, there’s always another, inner door. At college, I needed to be chosen again and again. I needed teachers telling me yes; I needed prizes; I needed a diamond-studded resume.

Mine was a bad reading of the novel. I didn’t see all that Nabokov wanted me to see. I saw exactly what Humbert wanted his reader to see, though. He assumed it would be a gentleman he had to make fall for him, but in fact a spoiled, 16-year-old American girl, high-achieving, consumed, in my own way, with pop culture and brand names, an anxious creature whose brash, unselfconscious hubris the patriarchy was about to confound, was, weirdly and inevitably, Humbert Humbert’s ideal reader.

The real Orange County is beautiful, too, of course. In Laguna Beach, a turquoise sea breaks against craggy cliffs. It’s also ugly: its malls and apartment complexes and office complexes and planned communities just plain new instead of neo-anything. I went there for an MFA program: another kind of fairy land. I found the real O.C. freeing in its beauty and in its ugliness: fewer locked doors. I thought of The O.C. only ironically, but still, the fantasy of the show seemed true: one could throw off the shame of one’s past, here, the ugliness of childhood and the ugliness of adulthood. One could be young forever and make art and not care.

Only, time passes so easily in California. This year, people back east started asking when I would get published, and if I had “found someone” yet. Subsequently, I started noting a difference between my skin and my students’. Some ossifying has taken place. The shining girl in me is at risk of being trapped forever in the dull woman. Men my age, and institutions much older — publishers! — can make her live again, a bride and a debut author. In the meantime, I re-read Lolita and am astonished how much I’d missed in high school. Mostly, the space between the book and the narrator: the extraordinary way it depicts his ordinariness. I learned that we’re actually not supposed to believe as Humbert does — as I did — in his own genius. A better reader than I was in high school would see through his characterization of himself in a moment like this one, for example, as he looks at another, non-Lolita nymphet: “The pale child noticed my gaze (which was really quite casual and debonair), and, being ridiculously self-conscious, lost countenance completely, rolling her eyes and putting the back of her hand to her cheek, and pulling at the hem of her skirt, and finally turning her thin mobile shoulder blades to me in specious chat with her cow-like mother.”

Similarly: Humbert says nymphetry is a quality separate from conventional ideas of beauty, that to perceive it you have to be unusual: “an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy.” But of course we’re all that madman. The qualities he worships are in fact deeply conventional: they are youth and whiteness and wealth and Americana. A nymphet is a girl like a mirage, ever-further on the highway, innocent yet raunchy, free yet trapped, gaudy yet effortlessly elegant, your own discovery yet always eluding you, and, in an instant, gone: faded like a flower and rotten like fruit. That’s true, and yet Humbert is of course correct that children are otherworldly, that they contain in themselves “immortal daemons,” untouched, for a minute, by our conventional ways of worshipping them. How easy it turns out to be, to confuse the dying daemon with the fading vision they tried to pin her to, the vision of girlhood that eludes and torments all of us, even, or especially, those of us who — almost — possess it, once maybe possessed it, could have possessed it.

The prose in Lolita seduces us because it’s beautiful, yes. But it’s beautiful because it’s true, not because Nabokov invented some fantastical creep. We root for Humbert because we are him. The part that “ladies and gentlemen” won’t admit is that we want nymphets, too. We want the freshness and freeness of ourselves. Humbert’s disruption of the American home is hilarious and thrilling before it’s tragic, because it’s how we want to disrupt our own homes: kill the conventionality of the nuclear family that makes her a daughter until she’s a girlfriend until she’s a mother, or the American school that types her name on class lists as if it was one of many. Except, of course, then Humbert turns out to be conventional, too: delusional and creepy, another thief and rapist of children, only literally. He was never going to save us, of course, and we’re creeps, too, for wanting him to. In his moments of horror with himself, Humbert is a hairy-fisted ogre, disgusting and huge, a disfigurer of girlhoods. So, of course, am I. The season of Lolita’s nymphetry was the season most of our bodies started betraying us. Attempts to tame the beast and free the princess are themselves grotesque: waxing, disordered eating, which can seem romantic until a doctor is weighing you with your mother in the room, the poison of Accutane. It’s frustrating because you know she’s inside you — she is you — and everyone would see except you’ve imprisoned her in this weird, monstrous flesh, which is also you. You participate in this system, you cowardly pillage your own childhood, which, if you were better, would have been different: less boring and shameful, less full of waiting.

In my other job, I organize events for a bookstore in Los Angeles built in an old, Art Deco bank building, and fashioned to look like a labyrinth of books. To me, the bookstore looks like the east coast: there are the stone pillars and marble floors of my girlhood, and, also, the sense — you can see the grown-up customers feeling it, Instagramming it — that the enchanted door into something they believed in when they were younger is around every bend.

The weekend after the Parkland shootings, we happened to be holding an event with Rowan Blanchard, star of Disney’s Girl Meets World, in conversation with the 19-year-old actress Amandla Stenberg. By the time I arrived, the store had already filled with girls. Of our blockbuster events, I prefer the ones for teenage girls because the crowd is so pliable: they’ll stand in line forever without complaint. They tell me thank you and that they like my outfit. We lined them up for the book signing first, while Rowan waited in our breakroom: girl after girl snaking through the shelves of books, winding around the aisles where we keep the records, once, twice around the cavernous store, a more diverse crowd than any I’d been in at that age, hundreds of girls looking hip and sweet and happy in thrift store overalls, bright red sneakers, long patterned skirts, the book in their hands. The book — purple, with the title scrawled in handwriting, next to a drawing of a sunflower — was supposed to be Rowan’s diary.

By the time the event started I was tired, so I went to sit behind the counter and look at my phone, tuning out the boring O.C.-like fantasy of girls meeting worlds that I assumed was about to ensue. I started paying attention the first time I heard the word “patriarchy.” Then I heard it again. Then: “systems of oppression that affect all of us.” Rowan’s book was, she told the crowd, about the emotions that adults dismissed as teenage angst, but that were actually so much more nuanced, and that were actually constructed by the systems around them. The actresses and the hundreds of girls talked about Trump, and about getting “inspired” by each other rather than by adults, and about finding their way as artists and activists. My 2000s girlhood felt weirdly distant: like the 1950s. Some era where we didn’t talk about sex or money or race, where homogeny felt natural, where adult sins were hidden and, as a result, projected confusingly back onto children.

The girls at the bookstore knew everything, including, as of that weekend, that school isn’t safe. I want school to be wildly, deliciously, dangerously safe for them: so safe, that is, that it’s actually dangerous to the rest of us. I hope that school is where they come to know that real art is one of the rare spaces where adults — the artists, not the characters — are good enough for them. I hope that the immortal daemons who read Rowan Blanchard’s diary at home, get to read Lolita at school, and that they know it’s funny and brilliant and dark, and that it’s for them, by one of them.

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