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[Note: Nearly a hundred of my fiction reviews by great literary artists and others not so well known are now available in my book, "Novels and other Fictions." Get it at Amazon.]
It is often complained in the postmodern literary world that Lolita did not have a voice in Vladimir Nabokov's famous novel. But in fact it is one of the great accomplishments of that novel that indeed her voice came through loud and clear, even though filtered through an "unreliable" and self-serving narrator in the person of Humbert Humbert. Not only did her voice come through in an indelible way that still enchants readers (and occasioned this book), but so too did her intentions and her actions. Had it been otherwise we would not be discussing her today.
I like to compare what Nabokov did in Lolita to what Mark Twain did in Huck Finn. Both novels are jewels of American literature and both novels are first-person singular narratives. Both narrators can be considered unreliable in the literary sense, Huck because he is mostly unlettered and presumably lacks any literary skills, and Humbert because of his bias. The trick for the novelist when using such a conceit is to make the world (that the narrator sees and describes) authentic and vivid despite the narrator's shortcomings. This is not easy to do.
But what Graham Vickers is getting at here in this splendid cultural "biography" of Lolita is that the persona of Lolita has not only been corrupted by the popular culture but to insist that she never was the girl that she has become, that "Lolita" has become a catchword for something Nabokov's little girl never was. In America she is the Lolita seen in the famous photo of Sue Lyon (who starred in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film) behind heart-shaped sunglasses licking a lollipop. In Japan she has become Lolicon or Loligoth, a pornographic sub genre of child-like sexual objects. Elsewhere she has become a symbol of oppression, "the confiscation of one individual's life by another" (p. 218, quoting Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran).
Vickers shows that Lolita had predecessors, real life ones as well as literary and cinematic, Edgar Allan Poe's Annabel Lee, Lewis Carroll's Alice Liddell, D. W. Griffith's Dollie, Carroll Baker as "Baby Doll," Gigi, etc. And of course Lolita has had successors, many of them. Vickers recalls the real life cases of Elizabeth Smart, Sally Horner, Jon Benet Ramsey, Amy Fisher, and others. He recalls Brook Shields in Louis Malle's Pretty Baby (1978), but missed Melissa Joan Hart in TV's "Clarissa Explains It All." Miss Hart was in the casting call for Adrian Lyne's Lolita from 1997, but by then was a bit too old for the part. There have also been some literary take-offs on Lolita. Vickers gives us a little of Pia Pera's "Lo's Diary," and Emily Prager's "Roger Fishbite." He takes note of the Barbie Doll phenomenon and pornography on the Internet. In short, Lolita or various approximations or misapprehensions of her have become a staple of the popular culture.
A portion of the book is devoted to what amounts to reviews of the two films mentioned above that were adapted from Nabokov's novel. Vickers didn't care much for Kubrick's version, faulting it for lack of authentic atmosphere and for being ten years out of chronological reality. Both of those criticisms I think are valid. However, his faulting of the work of Shelly Winters as Charlotte Haze mystifies me since I think Winters was absolutely brilliant. He also didn't care for all the latitude that he believes Kubrick gave Peter Sellers, and again I tend to agree. However Sellers was brilliant in parts, so much so that his character materially changed the movie. Which leads us to the main criticism of Kubrick's film: it wasn't as true to the book as it could have been. Once again I agree, but overall Kubrick's film was deeply true to Nabokov's black comedic intent in a way that Lyne's film was not.
To be fair, Kubrick's Lolita was an excellent movie, but not the Lolita that Nabokov wrote. It couldn't have been for many reasons, not the least of which is that the Eisenhower America to which it was to be shown, wouldn't tolerate a real Lolita. It was, as Nabokov put it, a "vivacious variant" of his book. (p. 120).
Vickers very much liked Lyne's version. He raves about Dominique Swain's performance as Lolita and extends kudos to Lyne for the more realistic atmosphere. Lyne's film was indeed much more atmospheric employing a myriad of details from the late 1940s road culture as well as authentic music. However, Dominique Swain, was not a nymphet. She was a fully grown teenager, a talented and interesting teenager, but hardly what Humbert had in mind. To try to hid this obvious fact, Swain was dressed in somewhat laughable little girl outfits and swaddling bras. Sue Lyon, also a teenager, was, because of her more delicate figure, closer to Humbert's ideal.
One of Vickers' most penetrating insights is to see the Lolita of 1947 as a precursor of today's teen and preteen consumer. He writes: "America's golden period of consumerism might still be two or three years in the future, but even during the relative austerity of the late 1940s, the constant allure of consumer goods and services is already a potent force in Lolita's young life." (p. 146) Two pages later, Vickers refers to Lolita as "that ideal consumer" who would "become an enduring object of interest to the commercial world."
To this we could add that while teenage and preteen girls have been oh so carefully taught by corporate America through the mass media to consume, they themselves have become articles of consumption. The very interesting thing is they know it. In reference to Prager's role reversal novel, "Roger Fishbite," Vickers notes that it seems that "some dolled-up little girls at a beauty pageant...know all about JonBenet Ramsey and are generally philosophic about the tiresome attentions of men: 'They can't help it,' said Mary Jane. 'We look so beautiful, like little candy women or something.'" (pp. 214-215)