November 16, 2009



Nabokov was composing the first Twitter novel, decades before its time.

I'm glad it's been published. Nabokov has an illustrious reputation that is beyond revision at this point, so there's no harm to come from letting his last work see the light of day, even if it's a weak effort.

(The Other) Niall

Lengthy piece also by Martin Amis:


Amis retains the copyright on most of his journalistic work, so don't be surprised if The Guardian removes this from its website after a week or a month. It's well worth reading and properly (as opposed to strainingly) provocative.

Contains the usual sprinkling of show-off moments: 'The word we want is not the legalistic "paedophilia", which in any case deceitfully translates as "fondness for children". The word we want is "nympholepsy", which doesn't quite mean what you think it means.'


That's a rather diffuse and imprecise analysis of Nabokov's oeuvre from Amis. And not terribly insightful. Nowhere, for example, does he mention how pedophilia functions within the larger allegorical structure that Lolita expresses and inhabits. Yet it is this allegorical structure that makes it impossible for us to see Lolita's pedophilia as the mere droolings of an erudite perv.

Also, I would think Invitation to an Execution would have to figure somewhere in his analysis.

(The Other) Niall

"Nowhere, for example, does he mention how pedophilia functions within the larger allegorical structure that Lolita expresses and inhabits"

Nabokov is wrinkling his posthumous nose at that one. Allegorical? He'd have had your kidneys for that word alone.

And I would say that Amis has written very well and at much greater length about Lolita before. And I think he makes a number of more than fair points about the structural role of nympholepsy in the later work.


But Lolita is clearly an allegory about the relations between Europe (Humbert Humbert) and America (Lolita, Clare Quilty). The French saw this long, long ago. It's not at all a controversial reading of the novel.

It's nice to know that Amis has produced more coherent, insightful appraisals of Nabokov. But this current piece is slapdash and scattershot. "He's written six books about lusting after young girls! But three of them were brilliant! But three weren't! Pause: Holocaust! And books originally written by Nabokov in Russian are different from the ones he originally wrote in English then translated! Nympholepts!"

It's just a mess. He just shoots out judgments without justification ("Mary" was a little gem? Really? Why?) or rhyme or reason. Also, he doesn't put any of this in a broader perspective. If we're going to talk about Nabokov's nympholepsy - what about Mann's? Death in Venice, anyone? There's a literary context even for this stuff. Why discuss Nabokov in isolation from it?

All in all a weak performance.

(The Other) Niall

"But Lolita is clearly an allegory about the relations between Europe (Humbert Humbert) and America (Lolita, Clare Quilty)"

As Flann O'Brien would have said: that is all my bum. If mild and intermittent comedy of cultural misunderstanding is allegory, then one of use doesn't understand allegory. And I don't think it's me.


Sorry, OtherNiall, but it clearly is. Humbert Humbert represents Old Europe, arriving in America and finding only uncultured vulgarity. Until he lights upon the nubile, innocent Lolita, who represents all the Old Europe finds irresistible about vulgar America. He immediately begins a mission civilizatrice on his naive savage, only to discover that he is the one being seduced and changed - or, finally, destroyed.

It's a wonderful parable of European imperialism and its downfall. As the French say 50 years ago. I guess England still needs to catch up.

Nabokov was uniquely placed to write such an allegory, given his life history.


You can read it that way if you want, but there is no "clearly" about it. Frankly, that's an extremely boring reading of the book.


What's not clear about it, Richard? And why is it boring? What is a more interesting reading?

I'm surprised at the resistance to allegory here. Even though we have other examples of sexual obsession used in the service of allegory. Death in Venice is an excellent example of this. No one finds an allegorical reading of this story "boring" or weird or reductive.

Allegory is also a style that Nabokov deployed in Invitation to an Execution, as is widely acknowledged by his critics. So its not a novelty even within his oeuvre.

At least it provides a coherent framework for understanding Lolita. Something Amis has failed to offer with all his flailing about nympholepsy, the Holocaust and anything else that fell into his mind while he was writing his article for the Guardian.


Your reading of the book as allegory is clear enough. What rankles about your "clearly" is that you are asserting, with complete confidence, that your reading of the book is not only correct, but self-evident. It's so obviously what the book is about! Only a fool could miss it! I'm not resisting "allegory", per se, I'm resisting the obnoxious assertion that the allegorical reading of Lolita is "clearly" the correct or most important one (and saying that "the French saw this long, long ago" doesn't actually help your argument). It is thus not necessary for me to offer an alternative reading.

I don't care about Amis' article, haven't even read it. (I have no doubt it's worthless.) I'm only responding to your confident assertion, which seeks to colonize others into your own reading.

Also, it's Invitation to a Beheading.


True on all counts. In the same way I would expect someone to realize that The Magic Mountain is an allegory about ethnic nationalism, and that The Master and Margarita is an allegory about Stalinism. There's nothing obnoxious about point this out "clearly".

I think rather the obnoxious response is the one that thinks it doesn't need to provide one. For someone who hates confident assertions, your posts are quite full of them. Physician, heal thyself.


Richard:PS -

It's only "Invitation to a Beheading" if you don't read Russian.

(The Other) Niall

Well, I'm taking Nabokov largely at his own estimation here. And to be fair to the 'Lolita as allegory' reading, Nabokov took such very great pains to deny that he was an allegorist that it might be seen a nervous acknowledgement of why his particular method of combining signs and symbols might be read allegorically.

Nevertheless, there is a significant chunk of his work that is pretty much explicitly anti-allegory. Signs & Symbols, Pale Fire and (in its own difficult way) Ada are all to a large extent cautions against the systematic export of fixed meanings onto lived events. And he was drawn again and again to creating protagonists whose moral flaw is (under the fancy-dan verbiage) to treat life as though it were allegory.

My main objection to the allegorical reading of Lolita is precisely that you export Humbert's cast of mind onto Nabokov. It's true that Humbert takes Dolores to be a "representation" of a great deal of things (not just American vulgarity), but this is the root of Humbert's sins against the girl: he cannot allow her to be herself; and he cannot allow himself to see her as singular and unique - she has to be a type. Nabokov is so completely aware of this that to say the book is allegorical is to mistake the creator for the character.


I'm not "exporting Humbert's cast of mind onto Nabokov", if by that you mean that I'm claiming Humbert's view of America are Nabokov's. There's nothing about the allegorical aspect of Lolita that would require this transference. Rather in Humbert's case, Nabokov is parodying the careless arrogance of many Europeans he surely knew when the first came to America. Lolita is, in its own strange way, a paean to American ingenuity in the face of decrepit European colonialism.

And Nabokov wouldn't be the first writer to engage in a type of writing that he otherwise strenuously condemned. Writers are the worst theoreticians of their own work.

(The Other) Niall

"Rather in Humbert's case, Nabokov is parodying the careless arrogance of many Europeans he surely knew when the first came to America"

Parody isn't allegory. So case closed, I think.


Wow, that's rather peremptory! Could you explain to me why parody (a goal of narrative) automatically excludes allegory (a technique of narrative)? I'm all ears.

(The Other) Niall

"Wow, that's rather peremptory!"

As is claiming that Lolita is 'clearly' or even in some obscure measure an allegory; and the onus is rather on you to prove - or at least give a substantive argument - as to why that is.

Given that the whole intellectual and moral thrust of the book is away from the imposition of prefabricated meaning onto lived existence (in other words, that it's anti-allegorical), I think you're building castles in the air.


Does anyone else find the spectacle of two almost identically-named men sqaubbling over their conflicting readings of a novel somewhat Nabokovian?

Interesting argument all the same though, Nialls - despite the fear that it might end in a silken robed shoot-out.


It's not "peremptory" to classify one of the narrative strategies of a novel, since this is not an exclusive judgment. But you, on the other hand, are making a judgment about what is *possible* in literature, namely that parody and allegory can't co-exist. Which is a far stronger, more far-reaching claim than my very simple observation about Lolita. I'm sorry you can't back it up. But I can see why you can't, because otherwise you'd have a very hard time explaining away works like "Animal Farm", which is obviously both a parody and an allegory. "Animal Farm" also refutes your claim that allegory has no relation to "lived experience".

Mark - We're tracing your IP as I write this.

(The Other) Niall

"you, on the other hand, are making a judgment about what is *possible* in literature, namely that parody and allegory can't co-exist"

Direct me to the bit where I said this, or go back and read what I actually said. My point was that you hadn't been able to back up your assertion that Lolita is allegorical, and that pointing to parodic elements in the plot or the telling doesn't make that argument. In other words, that you're wielding a received opinion, badly.

Now that that's cleared up, you can get to grips with the argument that Lolita is actually fundamentally anti-allegory. Go on! You know I'm right.


You have a short memory, OtherNiall:

"Parody isn't allegory. So case closed."

And I have been able to back up my assertion that Lolita is allegorical on one level, by showing how the allegory works in the context of the novel and its preoccupations. You've offered nothing in response except olympian stipulations about what is and is not possible in literature. With, of course, nothing to back them up.

(The Other) Niall

We're going round in circles here. If you can't engage with another person's argument without exporting artificial restrictions onto it, then I wish you luck in your career as a Fox News anchor.

I repeat: pointing to parodic elements in Lolita doesn't make it an allegory. And you have yet to take (or even acknowledge) my point that the novel means to resist the export of prefabricated meaning - both social and personal - onto lived events or other human beings.

Dolores is an allegorical figure to Humbert, for sure, but this is precisely his first sin against her: but she will not fill the mould he would have her fill, because she is singular and unique. And because the book is so much on the side of singularity (we are finally led to see the singular Dolores, rather than the composite Lolita), it cannot be an allegory. Every page of the novel is against it.


I'm not distorting you, I'm quoting you. You're the one who said parody and allegory were mutually exclusive. Please provide support for that very odd claim.

(The Other) Niall

"Please provide support for that very odd claim."

I would, if it had been a claim I made. But it isn't. I repeat (I re-repeat): pointing to parodic elements in the book doesn't make it into an allegory.

Anyway, I think I'll leave you to your joyless certitude. The rest of us can enjoy the book.


But I did much more than point out parodic elements. Indeed, pointing out the parody was incidental to my elucidation of the allegory. I pointed out how the allegory actually works. You rejected that on the basis of parodic elements. Now you say parodic elements don't rule out allegory. So I'm afraid we're back to square one. Let me know when you've got it all figured out.

(The Other) Niall

"I pointed out how the allegory actually works."

You didn't, and it doesn't. If we're back to square one on this, it's largely because of your unwillingness (or inability) to progress beyond it. For the final time: pointing out parodic elements in the novel does not support the idea that Lolita is an allegory. The rest of your "elucidation" is guesswork, hostile projection and third-hand hack criticism.


But I did. Go back and read what I wrote. I explained very clearly what is allegorical about Lolita, and how an allegorical reading is perfectly consistent with other aspects of the novel. Stop harrumphing and start reading.

(The Other) Niall

"an allegorical reading is perfectly consistent with other aspects of the novel"

Except that it isn't. See my point about the anti-allegorical tendency of the book: its criticism of allegory applied to life, as instanced in the narrative's move away from the composite Lolita to the singular Dolores.


Well, but you're working with a dichotomy between allegory/life that is reductive and not at all supported by looking at modern allegorical fiction (of which I've already given examples). Lolita invites the allegorical reading of Humbert Humbert as "old Europe" and Lolita as the quintessential European fantasy about American innocence and delectability. This reading neither reduces the novel, nor excludes other readings.

You just keep saying, "No!" to the question of allegory without presenting a single meaningful criticism of its application to Lolita.


That Lolita is "clearly" an allegory for the relations between Old Europe and America is hardly is hardly the resisted revelation -- legitimized by its welcome in France -- that you seem to think it is. It is one of the most common (in every shade of meaning) around. why, here it is at Gradesaver:

"While Nabokov denied his novel was in any way an allegory of the culture clash between Old Europe (represented by Humbert) and Young America (represented by Lolita), the reader can extract much about America from their relationship..."


I agree with Richard and (The Other) Niall; it takes a high school-ish misreading of Lolita to reduce it to such a vulgar cliche as "a paean to American ingenuity in the face of decrepit European colonialism."

Assuming Lolita (the girl) is Humbert's fantasy of "American innocence and delectability," that only strengthens the case for why the novel can't be an allegory in which she is precisely that.

(The Other) Niall

"a dichotomy between allegory/life that is reductive"

Spell this out to me as though I'm really stupid, Niall. That it reads like empty bluster may be another instance of my reductiveness, and needn't exclude other readings.

Anyway, Lolita invites an allegorical reading to precisely the extent that Dolores invites strenuous sexual intercourse twice a day: that is to say only to somebody so enchanted with their own plastic cleverness that they can't see what's actually before them.

So let’s have some clarity: according to your reading, Humbert arrives in America and finds “only uncultured vulgarity”, until he “lights upon the nubile, innocent Lolita, who represents all the Old Europe finds irresistible about vulgar America”.

Actually, Humbert has spent at least six years in America – and twenty months in Canada – before he meets Dolores. He has nothing to say about American vulgarity before he crosses the Atlantic, and doesn’t seem to encounter any specifically American vulgarity in the years before he meets Dolores (the vulgar shrinks who treat him are vulgar Freudians; America can hardly be blamed for them, and it isn’t).

Likewise, the argument that Dolores represents an irresistible American vulgarity would be sounder had Humbert not brought his disease across the Atlantic with him; but his taste for young girls is well established (neither Dolores nor America makes him what he is). That Dolores “represents” America for him – or even selected aspects of America – is further called into question by the fact that she has precursors even in America: all those girls he spies on and follows in public parks.

Related to this is the fact that ‘Lolita’ is a composite figure. She has no reality outside of Humbert’s past. His attraction to Dolores is not based on what she singularly is, or even what she singly represents, but that she can be fit into a predefined mould. And that mould has nothing to do with her Americanness or her vulgarity, let alone her “innocence” (about which Humbert never says a word) or that she is “nubile” (a word I suggest you look up).

So what we have here so far isn’t a convincing argument for the allegorical status of Lolita. You misread Humbert’s attitude to America; you misread the source of his attraction to the girl; you misread the nature of his attraction to the girl. And this hang-up about the bankruptcy of Europe is purest projection. But let’s carry on. It might be fun.

Humbert now apparently begins “a mission civilizatrice on his naïve savage”. Of what does this mission consist? His private lessons with Dolores are ruses to get her to sit on his lap. And even later, you can’t say he exposes her to much in the way of Old Culture: her habits of dress, eating and entertainment don’t change. On the one occasion Humbert visits Dolores at school, it’s to take her into a classroom alone and make her give him a handjob. This part of the allegorical reading doesn’t hold up very well, either, does it?

And here things just get confused. In the course of all this civilising activity, Humbert discovers “that he is the one being seduced and changed - or, finally, destroyed” and because Lolita is America and America finally wins out against the dastardly Swiss, the novel ends up being a strange “paean to American ingenuity”. Now, I have no end of admiration for Dolores’s singular ingenuity in getting away from Humbert and then Quilty, but I don’t see anything representatively American about it. And how about that Quilty, anyhow? If Humbert’s crime is a species of “decrepit European colonialism”, then what is Quilty guilty of? Or might you have to finally drop “European” from your list of allegorical pejoratives?


Humbert represents "Old Europe" because he is old and European. Lolita, being young and American, is a stand-in for "Young America," and Quilty, being dead, is an allegory for the dead. Nabokov's ape drawing the bars of its own prison is just a distraction, and allegorical readings are not at all flattening.

So, if Lolita is this allegory, what is The Enchanter?

(The Other) Niall

Incidentally, this:

'Assuming Lolita (the girl) is Humbert's fantasy of "American innocence and delectability," that only strengthens the case for why the novel can't be an allegory in which she is precisely that.'

... is pretty much entirely what I've been trying to say all along, only in one paragraph.

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