Who's abusing Lolita now?

A new film version of Nabokov's masterpiece is likely to be a travesty of the scandalous but tender original Nabokov's brilliance prepared the way for a new generation of expressionistic p rose The message of the book is that art promises everything and changes nothing
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The Independent Online
First the bad news: Adrian Lyne is to make a film of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita. The novel is 40 years old this year. Perhaps, in general, that is too early to be sure. But I do not think so. Lolita is one of the great works of art of our age. Lyn e is not one of the great film-makers.

The book was first filmed in 1962. That version was directed by Stanley Kubrick, scripted by Nabokov and starred James Mason, Shelley Winters and Peter Sellers, a constellation of talent that resulted in an honourably good movie - "a wild, marvellously

enjoyable comedy" the critic Pauline Kael wrote - that nevertheless fell far short of the book.

Lyne made his name with those glossy, abysmal porno-shockers 91/2 Weeks and Fatal Attraction. Both were crude exploitations of fashionable sexual anxieties, scarcely a promising apprenticeship for taking on Nabokov. Now Lyne is said to be considering Daniel Day Lewis - a hunk of questionable depth - for the part of Humbert Humbert, madman, artist, genius and seducer of pubescent girls.

What little hope there was of any quality at all attaching to this project has been extinguished by Lyne's decision to reject the script he had commissioned from Harold Pinter. Presumably by now he has called in some slavering Hollywood hack with a back-to-front baseball cap.

But in one respect Lyne will be truer to the book than Kubrick could be. The restrictions of 1962 obliged Kubrick to cast Sue Lyon, a pretty adult but at least five years too old to be a nymphet, as Lolita. This made Humbert's love a more or less conventional obsession rather than an absolutely forbidden passion. It was a great but in the circumstances unavoidable loss.

Lyne intends to portray Lolita correctly in age terms - 12 or 13 - and will thus guarantee his film notoriety, outrage and box office. The movie industry, after all, appears to have shown us everything else, why not seriously under-age sex? But quality is everything. Were Lolita being made by Andrei Tarkovsky, he could do what he liked. Lyne should be tortured by the censor. But he won't be. Some sober, social significance will be found in the work, as it was in Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers. One way or another a further chapter is due to be added to the scandalous history of this beautiful book.

Lolita crept out in an Olympia Press edition in 1955, having been rejected by four American publishers. One of these suggested, hilariously and revealingly, that the content might be made more acceptable if Lolita became a 12-year-old boy and Nabokov employed short, "realistic" sentences rather than his magnificent, extravagantly baroque prose.

Debauching boys did not appear to be quite so scandalous as debauching girls and a certain low-life, hardbitten tang would work to distance the whole thing from the respectable, culturally aspiring home life of middle America. Nabokov drily suggested that only two other themes would have been as unacceptable to Fifties America as his own - a completely successful marriage between a black and a white or an atheist "who lives a happy and useful life and dies in his sleep at the age of 106".

Lolita soon escaped from its soft- porn context into mainstream publishing, though. Its reputation as a "dirty" book ensured huge sales and Nabokov was freed from the drudgery of academic life to write full time. Almost at once it was widely and correctly recognised as a masterpiece and, before his death in 1977, Nabokov added two more - Pale Fire and Transparent Things. Subsequently it was realised he had been writing masterpieces since 1926.

Lolita's influence can scarcely be overstated. Nabokov's flamboyant brilliance - born of his attempt to wring as much expression from his acquired English as he had from his native Russian - contrasted sharply with the gloomy Anglo-American realism of the time and prepared the way for a new generation of more sumptuously expressionistic prose writers. John Updike, Martin Amis and dozens of others all emerged from beneath Nabokov's endlessly dazzling sentences.

Yet the book still occupies an ambiguous place in cultural history. Its superficial subject matter defines its popular identity. "Lolita" is a name employed in porn mags, prostitutes' advertisements and tabloids to denote dangerously young eroticism. Even in these contexts a direct evocation of paedophilia itself is unacceptable but somehow, with that magic name attached, some moral scale is balanced.

A girl who is a "Lolita" is seen to be wilfully and precociously available and certainly as much at fault as the older man. She is generally, for the tabloids, a "wild child", an opportunistic disco kid with one eye on the paparazzi and one on the passing celebrity hunks. Lolita becomes Mandy Smith while the glowing eyes of mad, scheming Humbert become the vacant gaze of Bill Wyman. This is all, according to tabloid morality, quite deplorable but, as the shots of flashing thighs proclaim, perfectly understandable. The people's Lolita is "jail bait", the girl who looks like a woman and we all make mistakes, officer.

This is, of course, an abuse of the book and of the "real" Lolita. The whole point of Humbert's craving is that it is not understandable to others. He is a pervert, certainly, but his longing is not for young girls in general but specifically for what hecalls nymphets - another Nabokov coinage that has entered the vernacular - with their "elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm". This charm is only visible to the connoisseur and, in Humbert's eyes, is infinitely far removed from either the "healthy", sanitised sex of the American teen-dream or the sleazy fumblings of the dirty old man or the more routine pervert.

In making this distinction Humbert has some fun at the expense of the psychoanalytic business. He toys with psychiatrists and expresses comic dismay at the attempts of schoolteachers to discover why Lolita is not relating properly to boys of her own age.Their idea of sex is gymnastic, Humbert's is ecstatic. The phoney foreword to the book by "John Ray, Jr, PhD" makes the solemn point that, had Humbert gone to "a competent psychopathologist", there would have been no seduction of Lolita. "But then," fictional Ray adds, saving himself with a single shaft of immensely poignant perception, "neither would there have been this book."

But his stature as an aristocrat among perverts has, as Humbert knows, no direct moral significance. He is not saved by the sophistication of his taste and some of the book's most painful moments occur when he remembers how damned he really is. He is a monster and the fact that Lolita is a rare and delicious nymphet in no way mitigates the evil he does. She remains a hideously abused child.

Yet the aesthetic significance of Humbert's passion is limitless and this is where the true morality - a word that would have had Nabokov's nostrils flaring in dandyish disdain - of the book resides. For Humbert, above all, is an artist, and Lolita is one of the most profound meditations on art and the artist in all of literature.

Nabokov said the inspiration for the book came from a newspaper story about a keeper at the Paris Zoo who trained an ape to draw. The first recognisable picture the animal produced was of the bars of its cage. And this is all that Humbert's genius and his peerless prose ever achieve. With fabulous invention and in crystalline detail, he draws the bars of his cage.

Humbert is caged by his forbidden obsession, by the brutal, selfish corruption of his own personality and, most cruelly, by his own gift for savouring and elucidating his passion. As the critic Lionel Trilling said: "No lover has thought of his beloved with so much tenderness, no woman has been so charmingly evoked, in such grace and delicacy, as Lolita; it is one of the few examples of rapture in modern writing ..." Humbert is caged by his own genius, a genius that creates an order, beauty a nd perfection that, inside the cage, cannot exist except in his imagination and his passion. And there is no outside.

So the message - again the nostrils flare - of the book is that art promises everything and changes nothing. It offers perfect, transcendent visions that turn out to be no more than unusually elaborate bars.

And now the good news: Lolita, after 40 years, is beyond criticism or desecration. Doubtless the movie will be a glossy travesty, but it will pass in less than nine and a half weeks. The book will live as long as there are readers and that, as Humbert, an artist to the last, says, "is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita".