By SUSAN CHOI
With thanks to Morgan Jerkins
When I was sixteen years old, I had a relationship with a man who was twice my age, thirty-two. He was white and brunet, more attractive than conventionally handsome, with a slightly hooked nose that lends him, in memory, an appearance of far greater maturity than I associate with thirty-two now that I’ve passed that age by more years than what separate the man’s age from mine. But to paraphrase the writer Stefan Hertmans, our memories age along with us. Regardless of the appearance of my erstwhile lover’s nose it’s inevitable that in memory he would possess the remote gravitas of a person in late middle age, a person who might be my parent or professor or boss. The impression is compounded by his name, an old-fashioned man’s name even then, as if he’d stepped out of the 1940s. He even owned a fedora, mouse-colored, soft as velvet, its untended crown reverted to a slightly dented dome as if it hoped to be a homburg. I admired that hat so much in the time I spent with him he finally gave it to me when I left home for college, after which I never saw him again.
Ned, as I’ll call him—not his real name but in the right spirit—was a figure of intrigue to my female coworkers at the restaurant where I met him, he working as a waiter, me as a lesser-paid hostess, because local law found me too young to pour alcohol. The restaurant was one of those doomed places that combine homestyle cooking, like pot roast, with white tablecloths. It felt outdated the day that it opened, but it formed a fine visual background for Ned, who combed his straight brown hair back from his forehead and knew how to wear a white Oxford shirt. He even managed to make the waiter’s standard black apron look smart, as if it were a cummerbund exposed by a gentleman’s temporary removal of his tailcoat. In his pre-restaurant life, it was generally known, Ned had been a stockbroker with a very famous firm that still exists today. While his new job represented steep downward movement, I don’t think Ned’s aura of cool self-possession is entirely the result of retrospective myopia. Even at the time, even through the eyes of other women—older women, who included me in their restroom conferences and gossip—Ned was not viewed as a loser, but as a man who could have what he wanted. I remember a lanky waitress with a wide lipsticked mouth and unruly blond hair, and the rumor she and Ned were involved. But soon it was me he wanted, and I was pleased by his attention. I was pleased by his interesting freestanding garage apartment in a shabby-cool non-suburban part of town. I was pleased by his frank admiration of my ass, by his confident adeptness in bed, by the cocaine he sometimes shared with me. By that tender age I’d already had my heart broken more than once, and yet I feared nothing from Ned, perhaps because I didn’t love him but I liked him just fine, and his attitude toward me seemed to match. On one of the worst days of my life to that point, when I’d taken a wrong exit off the freeway, become lost, and, in a panic, run a stop sign and been struck so hard by a pickup that the car I was driving—my mother’s—was totaled, it was Ned that I called. He came for me right away and took me to our shared workplace. Then he put a meal in front of me and sat with me until the beam of his steady attention had calmed me.
The safety I felt with that much older man didn’t surprise me at all at the time. What shocks me now is that my trust in that hoary scenario didn’t get broken. This was pure luck, as my unscathed survival of the car crash was pure luck. Yet, in the case of the car crash, I would have had no difficulty recognizing the possible danger. No one sets out to have a car crash, with the idea it might do them some good. While in my relationship with Ned, not only did I fail to recognize a potential for danger, but in fact I expected advantage. Thirty-two-year-old Ned, as the lover of sixteen-year-old me, represented particular aptness, and safety. By mere fluke, these preconceptions were borne out. But where had they come from?
They’d come from everywhere, of course. The question seems silly to ask, because its answer is self-evident, which only underscores how entrenched the ideas are and how hard it is to feel them as strange, how hard to reject their cozy familiarity: experienced, attentive older man, precocious young girl, how romantic. Even if we know that every idea underpinning this romance is patriarchal and sexist, insidious and outright dangerous, symptom of a cultural sickness that explains everything from the Trump presidency to the fact that I’m wearing lipstick right now in the utter solitude of my study just because it makes me feel more worthy of the world’s consideration, it remains dismayingly difficult to feel the wrong of the ideas where our wiring runs deepest, through the guts. I thought of this while rereading Lolita for the first time in more than two decades. Though I’ve thought of the book as one of my very favorites, though I’ve consciously aspired to learn as many lessons as I can possibly discern from Nabokov’s style, though I’ve taught other works of Nabokov’s with such ardor I recently had a student complain, in an anonymous course evaluation, that on the subject of Nabokov I behaved like “a sage onstage,” that is to say, tediously—for years I avoided Lolita. I finally reread it only because I’d been asked to participate in a panel about it and was afraid of making a fool of myself.
My reasons for having so long avoided it weren’t clear to me when I embarked on the reread, for I didn’t find the book hard going or overly familiar; on the contrary, I was so enthralled, again, I had difficulty putting the book aside to complete other tasks. In the final sprint, as Humbert sets off to kill Quilty, which I read while waiting for a commuter train to take me from Connecticut back to New York, when the train arrived I walked onto it holding the book and leaving behind my backpack containing my wallet, keys, laptop, and all my work; I simply walked away from the single most important object I owned, blindly following Humbert. A few minutes later I was off the train and in a careering taxi, out of which, having reversed direction to the previous station, I burst in lunatic panic like Humbert bursting into the hospital in pursuit of disappeared Dolores, after she’s been discharged to the care of “Uncle Gus.” Blindly following Humbert; after it was all over—the backpack safely found, the next train boarded, the book finished, myself left with all the breath literally and metaphorically wrung out of me—I realized that this, my own blind following of Humbert, might be why I’d avoided Lolita’s thrall for all these years. Regardless of my careful analysis, of all those Post-its left over from my qualifying exams back in grad school, regardless of all my knowing, I was still, when inside the book (which is to be inside Humbert), rendered blind. Still the ghost of impervious, gum-chewing Lolita occluded that of even ghostlier—almost invisible—Dolores defiled. Still Humbert—for all his devastatingly eloquent self-condemnation—was devastatingly eloquent. And why was I surprised? Not despite his protestations but because of them Humbert is a dreamboat to my doomed Charlotte Haze; even reading his vile diary, as she does, I’m unable to resist his magnetism. Which is, of course, the whole point of the thing; Lolita gives careful lip service to the unutterable wrong of the relationship between Humbert and Dolores, but in the manner of the Talmud giving basis to an abstruse argument one might be able to follow if possessed of the specialized training and a high motivation; it’s not an argument that grabs you by the gutstrings, not one you can feel.
Of course this is owing to myriad glaringly obvious facets of the book’s design: the book is told from Humbert’s point of view; Humbert is, as already noted, devastatingly eloquent; Humbert also is terrifically funny. But the ingenious disingenuousness of Lolita is far subtler than this. In depicting Dolores/Lolita, Nabokov carefully saves her finest incarnations to serve double duty for Humbert’s most explicit, and most moving, expressions of regret—“there was in her a garden and a twilight.” The effect is never genuine empathy for Dolores so much as admiration for the lyricism of Humbert’s remorse. Nabokov excels at honing such double edges. He depicts Dolores’s sexuality as ignorant, oblivious, and “childlike”—her intercourse with Charlie is described by her as “a game” she gamely then imposes on Humbert; she reacts to being held on Humbert’s lap, atop his “massive nakedness,” in a scene of starkly obvious if euphemized penetration “as if it were something she had sat upon, a shoe, a doll, the handle of a tennis racket, and was too indolent to remove.” If that wasn’t enough to drive home the point of her blithe indifference to being penetrated, she’s also reading the comics and picking her nose. Thus Nabokov can both overtly acknowledge Humbert’s rape of a child, inoculating the book against any charge that it might seek to obscure beneath gauze what is happening to Dolores, and at the same time covertly, and I think far more effectively, present Dolores as perfectly (as in, entirely but also ideally) oblivious to her own rape. It’s a finely calculated wish fulfillment: the highly sexualized, yet sexually oblivious child, in possession of agency—“it was she who seduced me”—yet entirely lacking in feeling, uninjurable.
Nabokov does thinly sow the text with unambiguous evidence of Dolores’s misery and victimization, as if, like his protagonist—whose confession we are reading—he imagined himself writing for a jury, and hoped to provide just enough evidence to suffice for his acquittal, if not so much as to spoil the predominating mood. While hatching plans to drug her so as to rape her without attracting her notice, Humbert imagines Dolores as “a frail little sleeper at my throbbing side”; the adjective “frail” provides some frail counteraction to the far more numerous references to Dolores’s imperturbable vigor. Leaving the Enchanted Hunters, Humbert feels accompanied by “the small ghost of somebody I had just killed”; and of course there are “her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.” That repetition, those two times two words—“every night, every night”—has always been one of the more indelible moments for me of a narrative overstuffed with indelible moments. In both film versions of the book those words unsurprisingly form the basis of a scene, because they satisfy the reader’s or viewer’s most basic desire to acknowledge Dolores. But the scenes, like the book itself, once again aren’t about Dolores but Humbert: Humbert’s noticing of Dolores’s pain, Humbert’s agony, Humbert’s remorse. Note also Humbert’s inaction and duplicity, his faking sleep rather than do anything to help the dependent child he holds captive—though given that his offers of comfort usually entail the use of her body, perhaps he’s doing her a favor.
Even if those two times two words did somehow focus on Dolores, which they don’t, remember that they stand in for more than seven hundred nightly storms of sobs. Close one eye, stand back from the masterpiece, and squint: whether funneled through Humbert or not, Dolores’s misery and victimization just don’t rate all that many dabs of paint. Literary effect, as any writer will tell you, is made out of words put together. Devote a very large pile of words—gorgeous words—to Dolores as nymphet, Dolores as daemon, Dolores as already casually deflowered, not to mention Dolores as hardened hooker driving up the price of sexual favors—and a much smaller pile of words to Dolores as child, and it’s little wonder that even the most attentive reader has to go through the book with a lorgnette and pen noting down the rare appearances of the child. And those appearances, as I’ve argued above, very often function more effectively to burnish Humbert, by demonstrating the swoony lyricism of even his most apologetic moods. Self-burnishing is to be expected of any homicidal pederast writing literally for his life, but it’s Nabokov’s artistic choices that consistently privilege Humbert’s humanity over that of his victim, that give Humbert’s most full-throated expressions of regret an odd showiness, as if to provoke in us a reassuring response: “Oh, it wasn’t so bad! After all, you really did love her.”
It’s the dazzling—as in beautiful and as in blinding—representation of Humbert’s love for his “Lo” that makes the book not just morally hazardous but psychically deforming, as uniquely efficacious a replicator of abusive and sexist cultural norms as was ever invented to persuade a teenage girl that the path to self-realization lies through the pants of a much older man. The reader’s head might know the girl is a child, the man a pederast, a liar, a murderer; advanced students might even recall that the entire narrative is a jailhouse confession, the narrative voice “unreliable”—but all this is abstruse, Talmudic, impotently cerebral, and utterly inadequate to the onslaught of unremitting beauty Nabokov unleashes in the service of romanticizing “foul lust” (to again use Humbert’s own heroically self-lacerating words). As brilliant a literary critic as he was a prose stylist, Nabokov surely realized that intellectual Easter eggs like unreliable narration—by which one might, in a lit-crit court of law, convict HH and so acquit creator VN—are as nothing to the Nabokovian prose style. Ravishing beauty exudes from the book like a gas, debilitating even the most vigilant reader.
When Adrian Lyne’s 1997 film version of Lolita was finally released in the United States after a yearlong struggle to secure distribution, I followed the story with keen interest, yet never made it to the movie. I was dimly aware of my avoidance but couldn’t explain it. My belief in my love for the book was by then well established—I’d discussed it in those qualifying exams in grad school just a few years before. Even more, I was totally, slavishly infatuated with the film’s lead actor, Jeremy Irons (and still am—Mr. Irons, if you are reading this, I can be reached via my publisher, Henry Holt). But my avoidance of the film may have been not despite, but exactly because of the Jeremy Irons factor. History is unlikely to see an actor better qualified to reduce me to an unenlightened Charlotte Haze. I avoided the Lyne Lolita for more than twenty years, until the same invitation to participate in the panel about Lolita that finally compelled me to reread the book also finally sat me down in front of the movie. It was just as bad as I had sensed it would be: not the film itself, but my reaction. And not my articulable, feminist’s literary critical personal-political reaction, but the reaction hidden deep in my guts, where strings were strung long before I ever first read Lolita, onto pegs that the culture keeps turning and tuning no matter how I try to loose them or lose them. Adrian Lyne’s film, which I hated and admired and watched in a horrified trance, struck a chord deep in me, on those strings. I was devastated by Jeremy Irons’s ardor for a child the same age as my seventh-grade son. I found it actually, achingly beautiful, beauty billowing out of that film like a sweet-smelling poisonous gas, so that the hard facts of the case, the abduction and rape of a child, were as lost on me—not in my brain, but in my sadly more formidable, ungovernable guts—as they are in the book Lyne so loyally adapted.
It was while recovering from watching that film that I thought of waiter Ned again: how when I was barely sixteen I had accepted his attentions with the calm entitlement of an ambitious young girl coming into her power. That the power of a young girl directly correlated to her attractiveness to older men was self-evident to me then. It remains self-evident to young girls today, whether or not they have read Lolita. Lolita doesn’t create the abusive sexist culture; it celebrates and beautifies it under the label of deathless romance. By the time I read Lolita, at some unremembered moment in college, I was primed to not merely accept its story but recognize it, and aspects of myself within it: the chord was struck on those strings that were already tuned. This isn’t to say I was duped: I deplored, I deconstructed, I considered myself a smart reader, I wrote critical essays. But the insidious beauty of the book never lost its hold on me. The gaseous cloud of romance was never fully dispelled. It’s built to last.
During the panel on Lolita, which consisted of myself and the writers Sarah Weinman and Morgan Jerkins, we discussed the cliché of the older man lusting after the young girl. During our own comings-of-age, how had we viewed it when older men sexually pursued us? “It was a badge of honor,” Morgan said, shrugging. The audience—a mix of races, ages, and genders—all nodded, even chuckled a bit, as did Sarah and I. We all affirmed the comfortable familiarity of this idea. We all found that the idea almost went without saying, was so ubiquitous as to seem almost normal, and so normal as to seem almost natural.
“Badge of Honor” by Susan Choi, from LOLITA IN THE AFTERLIFE: On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century, edited by Jenny Minton Quigley, published by Vintage Books, and imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Essay copyright © 2021 by Susan Choi. Compilation copyright © 2021 by Jenny Minton Quigley.
Susan Choi is the author of the novels, Trust Exercise, 2019 National Book Award winner; My Education; American Woman, finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize; A Person of Interest, finalist for the 2009 PEN/ Faulkner Award; and The Foreign Student, winner of the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. With David Remnick she co-edited the anthology, Wonderful Town: New York Stories from The New Yorker. A recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation, she was named the inaugural recipient of the PEN/W.G. Sebald Award in 2010. She teaches at Yale and lives in Brooklyn.