lolita revisited: fame and dolores haze

Lolita was promiscuous! Lolita was hot! Lolita was jailbait!

Right?

Wrong. Separating the miss from the myth is the ultimate aim

of this book. I have approached the task first by giving the Lolita of

Nabokov’s novel a more objective appraisal than its solipsistic narrator,

Humbert Humbert, was able to do. I have then explored some

of Lolita’s predecessors in real life, in books, and in movies, not

only because their examples colored the way people would come

to view Lolita, but also because they themselves would later come

to be viewed in the retrospective light of Nabokov’s famous novel.

In fact, the 1958 American publication date of Lolita may be considered

less of a starting point and more of a literary lighthouse located in
the pivotal center of the twentieth century, casting its

light backward as well as forward.


I have gone on to explore some of the many copied and counterfeited

Lolitas for what they and their creators might tell us about the

capricious nature of our changing popular culture. Here are tawdry

gewgaws (dolls, cosmetics, clothes, sunglasses, toys, and scarcely

believable novelty items) as well as numerous artistic and quasi-artistic

attempts to reincarnate her in other media, for other audiences,

and for other times.


The original spark of inspiration for this book was a little less

ambitious. It came from a moment in a BBC television documentary

that was originally broadcast to coincide with the release of

the 1997 film version of Lolita. Adrian Lyne’s movie (the second

of two film adaptations) had, to the surprise of many, enjoyed the

willing consultative participation of Dmitri Nabokov, the author’s

dauntingly accomplished son, a famously rigorous critic of any

attempts to fool around with his father’s masterpiece. At one point

in the documentary, as I recall, Nabokov fils showed the camera

some tacky plastic Lolita-branded doll and offered his opinion that

there was surely a book to be written about the bizarre and kitschy

nature of the Lolita legacy. He added that this was not, however, a

book that he himself would be writing. Yet such a book seemed to

me to be a worthwhile enterprise, if only—I thought at the time—to

explore the ramifications of the breakdown of cultural class distinctions

that Partisan Review editor Frederick W. Dupee credited

Lolita with bringing about, uniting highbrows and lowbrows, and

making “the fading smile of the Eisenhower Age . . . give way to a

terrible grin.” After all, one of the first Lolita dolls was dreamed

up by none other than the playwright Edward Albee for use in his

ill-starred play of Nabokov’s novel. Even Lolita’s author, Vladimir

Vladimirovich Nabokov himself—a ruined Russian aristocrat, a

world-famous lepidopterist, a distinguished academic, and a sublime

novelist who detested second-rate art—hugely enjoyed newspaper

cartoons, comic strips, and movie comedies, and could bring

a scholarly (not to say sometimes pedantic) precision to discussions

with his wife Véra as to whether they had seen a certain item years

before on the Jack Paar show or that of Mike Douglas. Nabokov

corresponded with Alfred Hitchcock, socialized with Peter Ustinov

and James Mason, and at a Hollywood party once even met John

Wayne—although The Duke’s oeuvre did seem to lie outside the

cultural orbit of Lolita’s author, who innocently asked him what

he did for a living (“I’m in movies,” Wayne is said to have replied).

After meeting her, Nabokov declared fifties starlet and Elvis costar

Tuesday Weld “a charming ingénue, but not my idea of Lolita,”

while his uproarious laughter in a Cambridge movie theater that

was showing John Huston’s eccentric thriller Beat the Devil was

noted as exceptionally disruptive even by those regular members

of the cinema’s audience—many of them students—who were quite

accustomed to their distinguished professor’s uncontrolled laughter

in the dark.


Half a century or so later, in Lolita’s name the world has now

been given erotic lithographs and weird fashion movements, artful

spin-off novels and miscellaneous movies, awkward theater
dramatizations
and ill-judged musical entertainments, and vile Internet

subcultures and lurid newspaper clichés. (We may, I think, give

LoLIta—a name recently coined in the tradition of TriBeCa and

SoHo, in this case to signify Manhattan’s Lower Little Italy district—

the benefit of the doubt; Lolita Haze, conceived in Mexico,

always had more of a Hispanic aura about her.)


In trying to redress the imbalance of Lolita’s popular reputation

and explore her susceptibility to being misunderstood, it is always

worth keeping a single image in mind—that of a certain Russian

writer standing at a lectern or rickety table in rented lodgings (or

in one famous instance using a suitcase balanced on a bidet as his

writing desk when times were hard and furnishings scarce), carefully

conjuring a host of imaginary circumstances and characters

on index cards, in pencil, in longhand, all across Europe and America.

Lolita and her story were just one of these dazzling inventions,

completed and put away in late 1953 and at once, in its author’s

mind, displaced by the next pressing project. If proof were needed

it is furnished by the following anecdote. At the height of Lolita’s

first phenomenal success in the bestsellers, Nabokov was a guest

speaker at the Herald Tribune’s Book and Author Luncheon at the

Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City. There he read his poem

“An Evening of Russian Poetry” and sat down again, making no

mention of Lolita at all. His nymphet’s global fame, and by association

his own, was a distant and unlikely prospect. In Nabokov’s

case—and perhaps in everyone’s case—this was entirely as it should

be, since fame tends to destroy people who pursue it for its own

sake. Fame is of assistance only to people who make their work, not

celebrity status, the point of their endeavors. “It is Lolita, not I, who

is famous,” Nabokov once said, when pressed, but her fame brought

him wealth and independence, and if the suspicion remains that

he would have preferred to have been rewarded earlier and more

evenly for a lifetime of remarkable literary achievement, he was

philosophical about the irony.


The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke defined fame as “the

sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around one

name.” Surely no better definition has yet been devised, and no

more graphic example of the phenomenon exists than what happened

to Dolores Haze in the half century after she died.


—Graham Vickers, Chasing Lolita—How Popular Culture Corrupted
Nabokov’s Little Girl All Over Again.

Chicago Review Press, 2008.

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3 Comments

  1. I have just finished reading the novel for the fourth or fifth time. Your essay has illuminated much of what I already have felt but your reading of the epilogue has added greatly to my own thinking on the meanings within.
    I just wish to offer my thanks for your work here.

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