A Portrait of the Young Girl: On the 60th Anniversary of Nabokov’s Lolita Part IV—An Interview Series




Left: Olympia Press’s two-volume edition of Lolita as part of its nondescript “The Traveller’s Companion Series,” 1955.

 

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

— Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita


It is through the Young-Girl that capitalism has managed to extend its hegemony to the totality of social life. She is the most rugged pawn of market domination in a war whose objective remains the total control of daily life and “production” time.

— Tiqqun, Introduction to Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young Girl

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FEW 20TH-CENTURY CHARACTERS in literature have endured the kind of multivalent extrapolation and exploitation as Nabokov’s Lolita. Much like a folkloric heroine or commedia dell’arte archetype, Lolita has been resurrected and reinterpreted by authors, film directors, and critics as a generational barometer of the exchange or conflict between one era’s sexual mores and its descendants. In much the same way, the literary scholar and Nabokov student Alfred Appel attributed the structure of Lolita to the various paradigms of the fairy tale, which carries with it themes of sexual enchantment and metamorphosis. As a modern damsel, Lolita became a model of sexual innocence in the ’60s; a namesake for erotic transgression in the ’70s; a second-wave caution for phallocentrism in the ’80s; and a reclamation of feminist eroticism in the ’90s. Such palimpsests of the “young girl” demand that the real figure of Lolita, the ur-Lolita, must be regarded according to the alternative histories of those other, extra-narrative Lolitas, who exist outside the narrow bookends of Nabokov’s canonical text.

Perhaps the most significant of Lolita’s reinterpretations appeared in the late ’90s, with a series of diaries and memoirs told from her point of view — attempts to emancipate her story from Humbert’s omniscient narrative. Nabokov’s decision to use diary as the form for his dubious protagonist’s narrative ensured the unreliability of the text’s actions, and its witting familiarity as a genre, to most young girls who were encouraged to journal their own childhood. It is unsurprising, then, that many of Lolita’s contemporary redactors were female authors using the same form to redress the original narrator’s transgressions. In Romantic Children, Brazen Girls?: An Exploration of the Girl-child’s Representation in and around Nabokov’s Lolita and Three Derivative Novels, Sandra Visser writes of these texts that,

It is evident […] that the authors […] attempt to give voice to the Lolita-character, to restore to Lolita the story that she has been deprived of by Humbert, readers and critics. To my mind, this restoration of Lolita’s story is also a restoration of self and individual identity and thus goes hand in hand with affording her mobility and power — the opposite of the Romantic ideal.

The most famous and literal of these is Italian journalist Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary (1995), the American edition of which suffered a very public injunction from Dmitri Nabokov and included the latter’s unfavorable prologue as part of final publication. Veering closely to Kubrick’s pubescent Lolita, Pera constructs a wiser, and more sexually agentive, teenage vixen who recasts (and outsmarts) stepfather “Humbert Guibert” in her own diary as the doddering object of seduction. Her literal rewrite includes the titular Lo’s point-of-view of many of Nabokov’s pivotal chapters, including Humbert’s tactical molestation scene, in which she “responds”:

I feel sorry for him, for not being able to just take what he so desperately wants — to hold me tight against him, crush me — so I throw the core in the fireplace and end up right on top of him, against that hard little stick, and then I start humming along with him again […] He looks around confused and satisfied, maybe he hasn’t yet realized what happened to him: that I seduced him. That now he’s mine.

In a previous installment of this series, Nabokov scholar Lara Delage-Toriel identifies, among the various Lolita rewrites, this trend of adolescent eroticism, writing that “the various pastiches, parodies and winking allusions that have been spawned by Lolita draw less on the theme of child abuse than on the erotic appeal of a 14+ young girl who would qualify as ‘that horror of horrors’ by Humbert’s book.” Nancy Jones’s Molly (2000) and Emily Prager’s Roger Fishbite (1999) also endow the modern Lolita with a sexual voice, as does Kim Jones, although subtly, in Poems for Men Who Dream of Lolita (1992).

Although it treads much the same thematic path, Roger Fishbite is a far more intriguing satire, which recasts Lolita as the ’90s-era, Upper East Side arriviste-turned-parricide Lucky Linderhof. Prager’s 15-year-old Lucky begins her narration from juvenile detention after murdering her louche stepfather Fishbite. Upon release, Lucky is set to begin hosting a tabloid talk show. Prager radically alters both the setting and motivation of Nabokov’s story from the outset, replacing much of the psychologizing of Pera’s Diary for larger, social commentary on the decade of “girl power” and TV infotainment. Lucky is perhaps the most antithetical of the assorted new Lolitas to the original, determining not only the fate of Humbert but turning his position of unreliable narrator into her own domain as confessing murderess and public celebrity. Prager rather cleverly invokes the zeitgeist here, referencing the judicial aporias of O.J. Simpson, Amy Fisher (often referred to in the media as “Lolita”), and JonBenét Ramsey, the latter of which inspires Lucky’s decision to found WHINE! (World’s Hapless Infants, Notice Everyone!), a children’s rights advocacy and street-theater group. But whether her motives are based on genuine empathy or are rather an elaborate ruse to torture Fishbite for his crimes is unclear, just as her rationale for his murder cannot be reduced to the recriminations of an abused child. Offers Lucky Linderhof of her cryptic intentions:

My work in the future was what made me go for it. And that it generally publicized the abuse of children. But the tricky part of all of it was that I was not just a child abused by this time, I was also a woman scorned, and from both sides of my brain, I felt awful about it.

Prager’s implicit message seems to be that within the dispositif of modern media, the so-called “true story,” often the stimulus for television-based tabloids, is as much a function of the quantity as the veracity of the confessional.

In some ways, Roger Fishbite represented the finale — both chronologically and thematically — to the ’90s Lolitas, relocating her to the great American, pre-911 metropolis, of capitalism, celebrity, and scandal. From a contemporary perspective, Fishbite’s datedness, prior to both the “War on Terror” and the explosion of internet social media, appears almost as naïve as the diaries willfully remanded to Ramsdale, circa 1947. Those Lolitas that followed into the new millennium took on a distinctly politicized tone and international status, abetted in their American and European receptions by the popularity of Azar Nafisi’s bestseller, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s The Caged Virgin: A Muslim Woman’s Cry for Reason (2004). Young girls like Malala Yousafzai, Amina Tyler (and the anti-religious FEMEN group), and Sihem Habchi have galvanized a third-world feminist movement, whose strict, humanist definition of “girlhood” opposes many of the conservative religious and cultural trends of post-colonial Islam. Whether their appeals to Western standards of education and gender equality have sufficiently aided in global discussions of a universal declaration of women’s rights or, rather, have been co-opted by Western, neo-imperial interests continues to problematize the ideological dimensions of “girlhood” in the 21st century.

 

Prager Fishbite

 Emily Prager’s Roger Fishbite, 1999.

 

Nafisi Reading Lolita

 Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, 2004.

 

In this series, the Los Angeles Review of Books assembled a group of female authors, artists, and performers, who, dedicated to examining the faces, bodies, and voices of the young girl, consider the significance of Nabokov’s pubescent protagonist as both a literary conceit and an object of patriarchal fetish. Among the many important themes and motifs they consider are these larger, crucial questions: Who precisely is Lolita and why are we awestruck in her presence? How have our perceptions of her changed since 1955? What does she look like now? Are we all guilty of objectifying the young girl? And why are we afraid to articulate the sex, passion and emotions of the contemporary nymphet?

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Emily Prager is the author of Eve’s Tattoo, Clea and Zeus Divorce, and Roger Fishbite, a ’90s parody of Nabokov’s Lolita, updated and set in New York City. She is also a former writer/contributor to The New York Times, Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video, and The National Lampoon. Fishbite, her most well-known novel, was released among a decade of other Lolita satires — including Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary, Nancy Jones’ Molly, and Kim Morrissey’s Poems for Men who Dream of Lolita. Prager has also lived and written about her travels in Shanghai, China and Pakistan, where she currently resides.

ERIK MORSE: Do you remember when you first read Lolita? What were your initial impressions, both of Nabokov’s story and the character of Lo?

EMILY PRAGER: I don’t remember when I read Lolita but the idea of Lolita was a large part of the ’60s when I matured. Recently I saw the now 50ish-year-old woman whom Roman Polanski allegedly raped. She kept stammering that it was a different time, that you can’t judge Polanski by today’s standards. That’s because the Lolita idea was everywhere — there was a book with almost softcore photos of baby ballerinas that was on every coffee table, tons of very young women with much older men and it was okay. Men ruled after all. Many took Humbert Humbert as their role model. They liked him best of all. A few years ago, I went to dinner with some women who had grown up in the ’60s. It was when the new attitude toward sexual harassment in the workplace was surfacing. We had a great laugh because every single one of us had been importuned in the workplace constantly. When I was 17 and a prop girl off-Broadway, we had to kiss the house manager when we arrived at work. We rolled our eyes and did it. We thought it was ridiculous and those who asked it of us ludicrous. Lolita, the movie, came out in 1962, and it was with Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick directing and it was cool. We all wanted the heart-shaped sunglasses. You know, the myth of the ’60s is that it was all about sex. The truth is we knew nothing about sex except what society told us, which was it was bad. We just didn’t want anyone anymore saying anything to us about how to think about sex. So sexual liberation had to include Lolita. It was every girl for herself. You can’t believe how innocent we were. I doubt most of us registered that she might be being taken advantage of. The other thing was that very young boys were going to fight and die in Vietnam, not 12 but 18, which then was about 13. Young girls having sex didn’t seem that wrong. Of course you read Lolita now — I teach it in my fiction-writing course and modern girls are disgusted by it, horrified.

Many of your novels and various journalism work (“Our Barbies, Ourselves”) have explored the plights of young women in different cultural environments and under different forms of patriarchy. Did satirizing Lolita in Roger Fishbite seem a logical direction for your work?

Yes, it did. I had written Mrs. Mao’s Little Red Book, Philippa Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Lincoln-Prewitt Anti-Rape Device, A Visit From The Footbinder. It seemed only fair that I take on this mother of all fantasies. I don’t really know why I did all this — it was a largely unconscious reaction to a pre-Women’s Lib world whose major icon was Lolita. Mind you, I have always called myself a female supremacist, not a feminist. I was brought up by a single father, maybe that added to things.

 

Lo's Diary

 Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary, 1995.

 

The fundamental aim of the Lolita rewrites Lo’s Diary, Molly, and Roger Fishbite were, in scholar Sandra Visser’s words,

[to restore] to Lolita the story that had been taken by Humbert […] to give a voice to the Lolita-character, to restore to Lolita the story that she has been deprived of by Humbert, readers and critics. To my mind, this restoration of Lolita’s story is also a restoration of self and individual identity and thus goes hand in hand with affording her mobility and power — the opposite of the Romantic ideal.

Is this how you viewed the purpose of Roger Fishbite? Did you have any initial reservations about taking on such an established literary classic, particularly as a woman writing from the female (Lolita) point of view?

Nabokov is a god. It was very scary. I was interested in exploring the nymphet as willing victim, not rape victim and how that was. Why some girls give in easily like Lolita and what that entails — the giving in and getting the power back because Lolita did have power over Humbert Humbert, and yet, she didn’t. She didn’t have a choice. Their affair would never have been her fantasy.

I thought it was interesting that while Roger Fishbite got generally positive reviews at its release, the other Lolita rewrites, particularly Lo’s Diary, were critically disparaged. In fact, Dmitri Nabokov had threatened to sue Pera over the novel’s American publication and actually was given the introduction of the novel to write his own negative review of it — something I’ve never seen repeated in another work of fiction. Certainly, Nabokov deserves respect as one of the great authors and prose stylists of the century, but I wonder if perhaps there is also a real hesitancy among his readers to unchain the character of Lolita? To remove her from the pristine, youthful sarcophagus in which she resides as though she were the literary equivalent of Barbie?

Pera got a lot of publicity out of that, though. Dmitri Nabokov gave her a great gift. I didn’t want to do a parody because Nabokov wasn’t the perp. Actually, if you read Lolita now, Humbert Humbert is completely ludicrous and Nabokov made him that way despite modern girls’ knee-jerk reactions. He’s a nut. A man having a nervous breakdown. I think Nabokov was satirizing the old man, young girl situation and a parody is for something bad that is posing as something good. Woody Allen’s Parenting Tips, you know? Lolita is an archetype. Twelve-year old girls are still importuned by old men and some give in and some are taken. I’m convinced that being taken is worse, but the guilt and confusion that accompany giving in is quite a cross to bear. The literary world loves Nabokov. Dmitri Nabokov’s rage was about the brand, as they say today. He behaved like Disney. Lolita still makes a lot of money for publishing houses. Vladimir Nabokov would have chuckled about it, I’m convinced. He would have seen the books as homages to his creation of two stunning characters, one of which does not speak and is seen as a series of sulky gestures and the turn of a small white anklet. Barbie was designed by the man who designed the cruise missile. That is a truth I just adore, and a completely different story. 

 

 

Untitled Anna Gaskell

 untitled #6 (wonder), photos by Anna Gaskell, 1996.

 

Why do you think there was this collective return to Lolita at a specific moment in the 1990s with these numerous Lolita rewrites? I’m particularly interested in how it might have paralleled the rise of the Yale School of photographers like Anna Gaskell, who was doing similar things with images of the young girl in the visual arts. Or even the rise of the Riot Grrrl or the Girl Power subculture as a form of “youthful” feminist protest. Was there something about this moment that aligned itself with the rise of a new form of feminism, girlhood studies?

I don’t know why the ’90s spawned the Lolitas. I was shocked by it myself. I was just going on instinct. I’m living now in Pakistan and it’s very difficult for me to think about feminism as I used to. The changes in some women’s lives that are necessary in this part of the world, or in Africa, are so fundamental that they are a matter of human rights not women’s rights. I can’t pair Malala’s bullet in the head with Miley’s bankable gyrating, not even on a continuum. But, you know, there have been major strides for women in America. In the ’50s and early ’60s, men looked down on women. Men did honestly believe that men were smarter and more capable and women believed that too. This is no longer true. Men may hate and fear women, but they no longer look down on us. So there’s been progress.

It’s really interesting that you mention Malala here, because the status of girlhood outside of the West is a rather thorny topic to broach, especially in the context of gender and sexual equality. Since you have traveled and lived extensively outside of the United States and Europe, and currently work in Pakistan, I’m curious to know what your thoughts are about Western representations in media of sexual empowerment in conservative, Muslim society. Have we overstated the victimhood of girls in the Muslim world?

I don’t want to write about this part of the world any more. We live in tight security here.

What most interests me about Roger Fishbite is that it somehow lies at the intersection of these classic, patriarchal texts like Lolita and Madame Bovary and the empowered, “young girl” fantasias of millennial TV shows like Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, and Girls. How do you read the current trend of “young girl” television and what, if any, debt it pays to the iconography of the nymphet?

I hadn’t thought about it because young girls with sexual power is the way it is now, but yes, it does pay a debt to the nymphet. We are never getting rid of the sexy young girl and, really, why should we? It’s the sexy child we want to get rid of. Gossip Girl is hilarious to me because I went to one of those NYC private schools and we certainly looked nothing like those girls. But we wanted sexual freedom not sexual power. Funnily enough in the ’90s, I was more interested in the popular movies featuring men wearing women’s clothes, like The Crying Game, Mrs. Doubtfire, when men began to lose power and wanted to wrap themselves in the clothes of the oppressed. In Lolita’s decade, children were children, which is why Lolita was banned and considered pornography for so long. Children played in the street then. They knew who to keep clear of, who was a pervert. Well, you know, in the ’60s, we were fighting for sexual freedom because we had none. I remember thinking that, when I grew up, I would have to live three lives — public, private, and really secret. When sexual freedom came in, what I felt mostly was relief. When I tell kids that when I was in high school, people didn’t talk about sex in public, they can’t even understand that, it’s so vastly different from what they know. So we wanted sexual freedom, and boy, did we get it. So that’s what you have now in teen shows. I really can’t complain except that we wanted space not chaos.

Many of Lucky’s thoughts in Roger Fishbite focus on the talk show and infotainment culture of the late ’90s and its fascination with reporting pedophilia, sex crimes, and child violence, particularly with the case of JonBenét Ramsey, as mainstream entertainment. At one point, Lucky even chastises the reader for only wanting to know about the salacious details of her rape. However, this 24-hour news cycle always remains in the service of “educating” and “protecting” the child’s “innocence.” How do you think tabloid journalism of the era made the topic of pedophilia more or less appropriate to discuss seriously in public? Do you think the talk show’s conflation of “speaking out” and “confessing” sexuality with celebrity and fame strengthened or weakened a young girl’s sense of self-worth?

The ’90s were completely mindless. Using pedophilia, sex crimes, and child violence as a draw was the final gasp of a heartless Republican era, and people are fascinated by those things, they are. I think the brutal bus rape in India two years ago may be the first time that people were completely disgusted by sex crime. There was not one ounce of titillation involved. Actually, I would like to see rape classified as premeditated murder, to divorce it from sex entirely. Because it isn’t about sex, is it? Can we agree on that now? People have forgotten Susan Brownmiller’s definition but I tell it to my college-aged daughter: rape is a crime of opportunity. JonBenét Ramsey was mesmerizing and terribly sad. She was so beautiful and very talented, and dressed in those funny dolly clothes, she was irresistible. Unfortunately, her death was the perfect mystery thriller. It had everything — the party, the secret basement, the pageants, the mystery intruder. And the wonderful videos of her singing and dancing — and this was pre-YouTube or cellphone. There was no getting away from it. People blamed the pageants and her mother’s vicarious enjoyment of them as if they were responsible for JonBenét’s murder, but they weren’t. And it wasn’t a sex crime though people wanted it to be so much. In the ’90s, society began to abandon the protection of children by allowing the emphasis to be on their abuse not care. Now, 20 years later, the preferred target is children. It’s vile.

I also find it interesting that you chose in Roger Fishbite to reverse the small town/urban paradigm that is a fundamental, but often overlooked, aspect of Lolita. Was your decision to resituate the Lolita character as an urban, rather than suburban, archetype a testament to our changing representations of childhood innocence and sexuality?

I don’t know the answer to that. I know urban life and don’t know the character of suburban life. It seems to me easier to get away with nefarious behavior in a city. And it’s true, children are exposed to more unpleasant visuals in a city and exposed earlier.

Reading a text like Lolita in the present day lends it a nostalgic, almost haunting, quality that likely did not exist in its own day. Lolita, herself, so controversial a half-century ago, is a relatively benign figure now, though her contemporary successors like Britney Spears, Lana del Rey, Miley Cyrus continue to push the codes of acceptable behavior in girls in the public sphere. How do you think the mainstream “celebration” of the nymphet over the past two decades has changed how we view girlhood sexuality? Do you think the feminist traditions of the last 50 years have ultimately failed to protect girls?

I’m not sure if you are asking about 12- year-olds or 16-year-olds and I’m not convinced that Lolita is so benign today. When it is read in the writing class I teach, young women are profoundly uncomfortable with it even though Humbert Humbert is so clearly loathsome. They also fail to get the humor of it. If the feminist traditions have failed in anything, it’s in teaching empowerment without caution. It’s great to “take back the night,” but that doesn’t mean there won’t be nuts lurking in the darkness, or that you don’t have to be careful and savvy. A man, as I have always said, is like an abandoned suitcase in an airport lounge — could contain a bomb, could contain pajamas and after-shave. You just don’t know. It’s very damaging to a young woman to be portrayed as a sexual icon. You never get away from that. You are always a target. When you train people to look at you as a pin-up, as Miley Cyrus is doing, you sacrifice an authentic part of your psyche. Because no woman is actually like that, writhing around, tongue hanging out. That’s a man’s fantasy.

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Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2005) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012).


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