Note: The following is a reprint of the preface from Lolita — The Story of a Cover Girl:Vladimir Nabokov’s novel in art and design. The preface was written by Mary Gaitskill. It is reprinted here with permission from the editors, John Bertram and Yuri Leving.
Pictures of Lo
By Mary Gaitskill
“This love was like an endless wringing of hands, like a blundering of the soul through an infinite maze of hopelessness and remorse.” (Pale Fire)
This could be Humbert Humbert agonizing over Lolita after he has ruined her life and his, but it is not; it is Charles Kinbote, King of fabulous Zembla, musing with wistful offhandedness about his young, beautiful, unloved, and undesired wife, Disa. In waking hours he feels nothing for her but “friendly indifference and bleak respect,” but in his dreams, these dry sentiments are saturated and swollen until they “[exceed] in emotional tone, in spiritual passion and depth, anything he had experienced in his surface existence.” In life he casually, near accidentally tortures her; in his dreams he remorsefully adores her.
In Pale Fire, Disa is a minor character who receives only a pathetic handful of the book’s 214 pages. But with the poignancy and plangency of sorrow, she illumines Pale Fire’s core; the delusional dream, the preposterous poem, the crumbling bridge between mundane reality and fantastic ideal, the tormenting ideal that insists on bleeding through to the surface (“all peach syrup, regularly rippled with pale blue”) even as it sinks in the mud below. If Kinbote, though King, can’t have the one he really wants, Humbert Humbert can: In Lolita the dreamer is in the driver’s seat, reality is broken, and it is the raving dream that broke it. Humbert “seldom if ever” dreams of Lolita, even when he has lost her. Except that he does. In his grossly unbeautiful dreams, Lolita appears as Charlotte, her disgusting mother, and as Valeria, Humbert’s equally disgusting former wife, both of whom disgustingly loved him:
She did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte, or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball’s bladder. I would find myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly mislaid, in horrible chambres garnies where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-a-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.I must’ve read Lolita five times before I even noticed this hideously gorgeous paragraph, this miserable aside linking the fatally despised women with the fatally desired girl. Part of Lolita’s power is in its extreme oppositions: Even Humbert’s fanatically one-directional desire for little Dolly is made more delicious by the sharp tonal oppositions in her “two-fold nature,” the “tender dreamy childishness” and “eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub- nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures,” the “exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud” of her female being — really, of any being. The tension between Humbert’s near-erotic revulsion for women/his miasmic desire for girls, his human despair/his demonic joy, is even more intense; the dream which tragically joins these poles suggests that one has been a palimpsest for the other all along.
So how does one, one very normal one, put this on a book jacket? How even to try? It is remarkable to me how many have succeeded in capturing even a fractional flash of Nabokov’s ingeniously juggled, weirdly populated planets with their many moons. Lolita may be fairly described as “a threnody for the destruction of a child’s life” (“Uncovering Lolita,” p. 145), yet a high percentage of the covers go for cute: whimsical buttons on bright red, an ejaculating pink plastic gun, a crenellated candy-pink shell, a pale-pink plastic necklace spelling the titular name, that name elsewhere spelled with a bobby sock L, still multiple elsewheres with a leopard-print mascara wand, a paper-doll leg, a crushed red lollipop o. Some covers are bric-a-brac-ishly decorated (bleeding old-maidish mum with dripping chocolate petals, Lolita in crazy-quilt neon lace, a silhouette man trapped in a cubist blue teardrop, a pink bird in a rigid cage), still others are subtle to the point of opacity (the corners of two pink walls are unsurprised to meet a white ceiling), while a few others are deliberately ugly (horrible-looking old men, one of them open-mouthed, bare-chested, and practically reaching into his pants).
They are all fun to look at, even the ugly ones. For me, cuteness (Yes, snub-nosed, even when there is no nose! Ads and magazine pictures, of course!) comes consistently closest to the book’s cruel and ardent heart. For Humbert’s aesthetic infatuation is based on a tyrannical ideal, and cuteness is a kind of ideal — one that is heartless, breathless, timeless, and ageless as Bambi, static and hard-edged, perfect in its way, with all excess flesh and unseemly feeling cut out — oh, Humbert, there can be no “aurochs and angels” in this cartoon heaven-cum-hell!
But the best cover, I think, is not cute. It is the 1997 Vintage paperback edition of the book, featuring a simple photographic image with a complex penumbra: a bare-legged girl, shown from the waist down, wearing a flared skirt and oxford shoes. The photo is bright white, granular gray, and deeply dark; it is delicate (the slender legs) and thick (the big shoes and skirt). The girl’s legs are beautiful and very vulnerable, in a knock-kneed position with a large gap between the calves, and the toes adorably, spastically touching each other. Charming, until you consider the full body posture suggested by the position: It expresses fear. Either the girl has cerebral palsy or she is cringing. You don’t see the full image, so your first and (probably) only conscious response is appreciation of the subject’s touching, awkward beauty. But a second, instinctive and less aesthetic understanding of the image (creeping quietly up under the first), shades mild appreciation with something too dark to quite see, which we nonetheless feel intensely in our reptile spines.
But the blurb on that cover is more disturbing than the image, for it sincerely states that Lolita, in which the heroine is seduced, kidnapped, and grossly used, her mother humiliated at length before dying violently, the seducer himself shattered, his rival murdered, the heroine finally dead along with her “still-born baby girl” — according to the blurb, this madcap orgy of Thanatos is “The only convincing love story of the century”!!!! It is not shocking that someone said this, especially given that this someone was Gregor von Rezzori writing for Vanity Fair. But it is quietly outrageous that a mainstream publisher would choose to put it on the cover, directly over those understandably frightened legs.
I am not the only one to feel this way; if you google the phrase, you will find all kinds of online fussing about it: Lolita is not about love, because love is always mutual; Lolita is about obsession, which is never, ever love, and Nabokov himself was so disappointed that people did not understand this and take away the right message. I am in sympathy with the fussers, and almost am one myself, for how could anyone call this feeding frenzy of selfishness, devouring, and destruction “love”? And yet, consider what Nabokov said about Humbert:
That while he, the author, would condemn his character to hell for his acts, he would allow Humbert, for one day a year, to leave hell and wander “a green lane in Paradise,” and that this parole would occur because of the glowing particle of real love he bore Lolita.
Although I find von Rezzori’s words initially repellent and even a little smug, if you rewrite the sentence without the words only and century, I have to agree with them. Lolita is about obsession and narcissistic appetite, misogyny and contemptuous rejection, not only of women, but of humanity itself. And yet. It is also about love; if it were not, the book would not be so heart-stoppingly beautiful. Here is Humbert on finding his runaway sex slave, now married and pregnant at 17:
You may jeer at me, and threaten to clear the court, but until I am gagged and half- throttled, I will shout my poor truth. I insist the world know how much I loved my Lolita, this Lolita, pale and polluted, and big with another’s child, but still gray-eyed, still sooty- lashed, still auburn and almond, still Carmencita, still mine . . . even if those eyes of hers would fade to myopic fish, and her nipples swell and crack, and her lovely young velvety delicate delta be tainted and torn—even then I would go mad with tenderness at the mere sight of your dear wan face, at the mere sound of your raucous young voice, my Lolita.This is love crying with pain as it is crushed into the thorned corner of a torture garden — but it is still love. Purity of feeling must live and breathe in the impure gardens of our confused, compromised, corrupt, and broken hearts. Love itself is not selfish, devouring or cruel, but in human beings it suffers a terrible coexistence with those qualities; really, with any other vile thing you might think of. These oppositions sometimes coexist so closely and complexly that the lovers cannot tell them apart. This is not only true of sexual love, but also of the love between parents and children, siblings, and even friends. In most people this contradiction will never take the florid form it takes in Humbert Humbert. But such impossible, infernal combinations are there in all of us, and we know it. That Lolita renders this human condition at such an extreme, so truthfully, and yes, as von Rezzori says, convincingly, is the book’s most shocking quality. It is why it will never be forgotten. It is also why no one will ever succeed in describing it fully on a book jacket. But how wonderful that so many have tried.