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Lying Liars Who


Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them – Nabokov’s Lolita and Fiction

July 6, 2008

by Paul Mikesell

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a work of fiction. It is a made up story. Humbert Humbert is not a real person and his actions did not happen. The issue that arises while reading Lolita is that Nabokov essentially tricks the reader into believing that the story is real, that a work of non-fiction is being read. Nabokov writes with a modernistic intent: his purpose in creating Art is to lie to the reader. Lolita is Art through lies being presented as fact.

Nabokov does as much as he can to remove himself from Lolita. The use of an omniscient narrator would be a continuous reminder to the reader that they are reading a story. Nabokov’s use of a first person narrator makes this a harder assumption to make. The novel begins with a foreword “written” by John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. This forward identifies the novel that follows as a legitimate work, while at the same time it acknowledges the lies that Nabokov will present throughout the entire novel. The first read of the forward will probably not draw much attention to it, but revisiting it at the conclusion of the novel reveals this. “For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the ‘real’ people beyond the ‘true’ story (Nabokov 3),” writes Ray as he reveals details about minor characters with their names in “this remarkable memoir presented in quotation marks. The reader is already being lied to regarding the names of characters and locations “H.H.’s” story takes place. While this is not of much importance in terms of the plot of Lolita, upon a close reading it illustrates that what is on the page is not one hundred percent truth.

If the purpose of Ray’s forward is to make the initial point that Lolita was the work of a real person, the point is proclaimed even more explicitly once Humbert Humbert’s narration begins. Nabokov wants to make it clear that this is Humbert telling his story, not Nabokov telling Humbert’s story. As the narrator of Lolita, Humbert makes many references to the fact that he is writing his memories and that someone is reading it. For example, he writes, “The reader will regret to learn that soon after my return to civilization I had another bout with insanity” (Nabokov 36). The reader is given direct insight to the mind of Humbert, as he is the one who is presenting it. Already in the ninth chapter, Humbert feels he has revealed enough to the reader, he can state, “Knowing me by now, the reader can easily imagine how dusty and hot I got, trying to catch a glimpse of nymphets” (Nabokov 34). Nabokov continues to use the narration of Humbert to help mask that Lolita is a work of fiction. The reader is bombarded with details from Humbert, especially when he is describing Lolita or even something associated with her. Referring to when he was in Lolita’s room, Humbert writes:

“A full-page ad ripped out of a slick magazine was affixed to the wall above the bed, between a crooner’s mug and the lashes of a movie actress…Lo had drawn a jocose arrow to the haggard lover’s face and had put, in block letters: H. H. And indeed, despite a difference of a few years, the resemblance was striking. Under this was another picture, also a colored ad…Under this was Lo’s chaste bed, littered with ‘comics.’ The enamel had come off the bedstead, leaving black, more or less rounded, marks on the white” (Nabokov 72-73).

The reader is forced to believe everything that Humbert writes, as it is the only perspective given to the reader. As they progress through Lolita, the reader is forced to make up their mind regarding how they feel about Humbert. As if he was anticipating this, he refers to the reader as “Gentlemen of the jury!” (Nabokov 73). The readers are the judges of Humbert’s actions, as well as the interpretation of the text, and Humbert does his best to make himself look sympathetic.

Humbert’s narration presents Lolita, a novel about pedophilia, rape, incest, and murder, in a tone consistent with other writings considered to have artistic merit. He describes things in beautiful terms, creating an almost romantic story. When Humber describes Lolita playing tennis, the reader tends to become captivated in the language and the imagery, almost to the point where they may forget the object of his obsession is a young girl.

“The exquisite clarity of all her movements had its auditory counterpart in the pure ringing sound of her every stroke. The ball when it entered her aura of control became somehow whiter, its resilience somehow richer, and the instrument of precision she used upon it seemed inordinately prehensile and deliberate at the moment of clinging contact. Her form was, indeed, an absolutely perfect imitation of absolutely top-notch tennis – without any utilitarian results” (Nabokov 245).

Humbert’s words act to hide his actions. Every action is elaborately explained to the point of justification. The reader thus focuses more on Humbert’s words instead of his actions. By having his narrator write in this style, Nabokov forces the reader to work through the character of Humbert Humbert in order to find out what he has really been doing.

This narration is a conscious choice on Humbert’s part. The opening forward by Ray says, “As a case history, ‘Lolita’ will become, no doubt, a classic in psychiatric circles” (Nabokov 5). Humbert may have used language in the way he did to fool anyone using psychiatrics to interpret Lolita. After all, in regards to his own psychiatric treatment, he states:

“I owe my complete restoration to a discovery I made while being treated at that particular very expensive sanatorium. I discovered there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style (which make them, the dream-extortionists, dream and wake up shrieking); teasing them with fake ‘primal scenes’; and never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one’s real sexual predicament” (Nabokov 36).

Humbert treats the reader with the same regards. He is essentially having fun with the reader’s mind, tricking him into focusing on the words that are “pure classics in style,” without letting them see his “real sexual predicament.”

As Humbert continues to lie, his falsities become more and more surreal. His lie about being Lolita’s true father fools the community following Haze’s death. The reader even starts to believe it as Humbert describes daughterly affection coming from Lolita. It is only towards the end of Lolita that the events as Humbert describes them venture to the undoubtedly bizarre. As Humbert and Lolita cross the country for the second time, Humbert begins to see someone following him, a shadowy-figure of sorts. This turns out to be Clare Quilty. He exists as a shadow of Humbert. This is both in a more literal sense in that he follows behind him, but figuratively, too. They are both pedophiles, but Quilty is much more upfront with his desires and they are not feelings of love as Humbert believes his are. Clues are scattered throughout Lolita about Quilty that create a sense of mystery in the novel. It is only when Lolita reveals that she left with Quilty that Humbert’s entire charade falls apart. The realistic nature of the narrative begins to fall apart at the end of Lolita. The idea of a dark and mysterious man that steals Lolita away is hard to align with the story that Hubert’s narration has already presented. The most telling scene that Lolita is fiction comes in the scene where Humbert kills Quilty. This surreal murder is a contrast with the tone of the first half of the novel. It would feel more at home in an action film than what is supposedly a memoir. The reader’s trust in the story disappears as Humbert shoots Quilty and he does not die. When Humbert has finished and address the people gathered for a party, none of them believe him. They said, “Good for you…somebody ought to have done it long ago,” and “I guess we all should do it to him some day” (Nabokov 323). It is hard for the reader to believe Humbert either at this point.

Humbert Humbert ends his narration of the novel by addressing Lolita instead of the reader. He states that through this work, Lolita, Lolita will live forever. Both Humbert and Lolita are to be dead by the publication of the novel, another attempt by Nabokov to distance himself from the reading of the text. Humbert writes, “I thought I would use these notes in toto at my trial, to save not my head, of course, but my soul” (Nabokov 327). The forward revealed that Humbert died before he could be put before a jury, so the reader assumes the judgment. Was Humbert justified in his actions of destroying Lolita if he then created Lolita? The reader by this point has figured out exactly what Humbert did and what it all did to Lolita. Humbert parallels Nabokov’s intent of the novel as a whole: he has created a work of Art by lying to the reader. They have both told of beautiful things that were untrue, and even though the story of Lolita is a corrupt one, it still remains Art.

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