The LA Book Club: Lolita in the Afterlife by Jenny Minton Quigley - Arts & Culture

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita has long shocked readers—a new collection of essays on the book asks questions on the appreciation of difficult art.

In this new series, we highlight interesting pieces of literature that have lived in our brains long after reading. As we look back at these literary creations every week, we hope that your life is enriched, your perspective of what’s happening in the world is widened, and that you get to happily add one more good book to your collection.

In Lolita in the Afterlife, editor Jenny Minton Quigley, the daughter of the man who published Lolita in the United States, opens her introduction of the collection with: “I’d guess most people remember reading Lolita for the first time. I do.” She was a freshman in college, in 1989, reading it for a class.

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I read Lolita myself in the summer of 2008, before my first year of college. My mom, who in no way was a conservative person at all (my parents let my brother and I watch movies that would be considered inappropriate for kids below the age of ten, like Raise the Red LanternFarewell My ConcubineAmadeusSchindler’s List, etc.

The point of this was to expose us to all kinds of art: they believed age was not a limit, and during the inappropriate parts would shuffle us off to their bathroom, before plucking us out again and answering all our questions), responded by wrapping the front and back cover of the book in white paper because she knew I liked reading in public and wanted to save me the hassle of public pearl-clutching from nosy people. 

Book Club: Lolita in the Afterlife by Jenny Minton Quigley
Lolita in the Afterlife by Jenny Minton Quigley

I don’t have a record of my immediate feelings. I always knew Humbert Humbert was a monster but I loved and appreciated the book anyway because of the writing.

I remember I probably thought, “You hate him but understand him because you get into his head.” I don’t know if this is a good opinion to have because “understanding” is very different from “condoning.” But due to the current climate, the book understandably has no room for grey areas. So my feelings remain the same: still a great book because of the writing and Humbert is still a monster.

One of the questions asked a couple of times in the essay collection is if Lolita would still be published today. I think it would but Nabokov would have to be ready to answer questions.

The idea that “wokeness” has hastened the death of art is a thought-terminating cliché because oftentimes “wokeness” just means people asking questions that never would’ve been asked before. In this case, I fully believe some questions should be asked: 

  • Why is he writing this? 
  • Who is it for? 
  • Why is the book called Lolita and yet the POV is all from a sick depraved man and we hardly ever know what Dolores is feeling?

And more. These were questions I had never thought of before. The publicity would also have to be markedly different: Walter Minton (Minton-Quigley’s father) advertised the book on the hype that it was a controversial piece of literature being banned abroad. There was a release party at the Harvard Club. You can’t do that today, lest the publishers are accused of celebrating rape. 

Book Club: Lolita in the Afterlife by Jenny Minton Quigley
Vladimir Nabokov

Reading the essays has given me a better idea of why I liked the book so much. It has given me a much more sensible way to explain “you hate him but understand him because you get into his head.” Because now I realize this means, and what this book/my personal growth/the post #MeToo era has given me the tools to say (that I didn’t have at the age of 18): it’s not Humbert I understand, it’s that the privilege of his character being a white educated man of means is what afforded him the belief that he could brazenly put his plans into action and let him get away with it for so long. It’s for this reason that we willingly read it.

The writers selected for this project were all very diverse, and while they were all interesting I could tell which ones were weaker than the others. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the whole thing.

I learned a lot about 1950s-era publishing, about the relationship between Nabokov and his wife, Vera, of why the language is so captivating (Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth) of the power of art to put us outside of ourselves and reckon with difficulty (I think this is what my parents were trying to drive home with all of those movies). 

It made me think of things I have never thought about in connection with the book. Ian Frazer’s essay, On the Road with Humbert and Lolita, had me realizing it functions like a travel novel, something I never made a connection to: “In no work of literature are the wonders of the vanished Motel Age preserved and celebrated better than in Lolita. Motes and hotels and lodges dance by like a colorful all-American chorus line in the novel, while recurring road trips move the plot.”

I learned why the movie adaptations never really worked. The description of Nabokov’s screenplay for the 1962 Kubrick version sounds terrible: censorship dictated that he couldn’t show on screen the terrible things Humbert did. How do you adapt Lolita on the big screen and not show any of that?

The 1997 Adrian Lyne version fails as well. If the greatest part of the book is the language, it stands to reason that imagery can only go so far in depicting language on screen. You would still have to portray the despicable things Humbert does on screen, and no amount of language will top imagery.

I don’t know if I’ll ever read Lolita again, because I don’t want how I felt to have changed. But perhaps I might buy the annotated edition, if only just to read the Easter eggs and more background stories.

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