Lolita: Nabokov’s Greatest Hoax – by Dr Joanne Morgan
I really believe that one day a reappraiser will come and declare that far from being a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist - kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel – and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent and pride.
Vladimir Nabokov (Bayerischer Rundfunk interview, 1971)
At first glance you may wonder how or why the potentially explosive issue of literary hoaxes can be relevant to Vladimir Nabokovs best-selling novel Lolita (1955). As most people understand it, hoaxes typically involve documents or persons that purport to be historically real or genuine, but are not. Whether we consider Thomas Chattertons misguided impersonation of a 15th century monk, Vrain Denis-Lucas concocted letters of Isaac Newton and Joan of Arc, the Pedigree of the Merovingian Dynasty forged by Pierre Plantard in the 1960s, The Hitler Diaries or William Boyds biography of the fake, rediscovered American artist Nat Tate (which left a trail of embarrassed art critics in its wake), most acts of literary fraud satisfy one or both of these criterion. Novels dealing with the exploits of fictional characters, generally speaking, do not.
The Oxford English dictionary, however, defines the word hoax in more generous terms as a humorous or mischievous act that is intended to deceive. Nabokov was an ardent lover of practical jokes, sleight of hand tricks, puns, gags and hoaxes. Throughout his novels and memoirs he reveled in games of hide-n-seek involving entrapment, deceit, mistaken identity and farcical biography. He did not hesitate to play tricks on his readers, reviewers, scholars or his critics. Unlike many hoaxers who tend to keep their duplicitous acts secret, Nabokov shouted his from the mountain-top. Art at its greatest he unapologetically declared is fantastically deceitful and complex.
For over half a century now, the public has blissfully accepted Lolitas uncomplicated fictional façade. Yet in reality, it is so much more than a novel. Lolita is Nabokovs heroic attempt to debunk Sigmund Freuds Oedipus complex theory of incest. Within his best-selling novel the author advanced a covert, moral agenda that demonstrates how children are subjected to hidden acts of training by incestuous relatives, child pornographers and other kinds of child predators. Nabokov knew about this unhappy reality from personal experience. As a young boy he was badly abused by his paedophilic Uncle Ruka. Thats what I argued in my self-published book Solving Nabokovs Lolita Riddle (2005).
Back in the 1960s Nabokov put us on notice that he had a hidden or ulterior purpose for writing Lolita. During an interview with the BBC in 1962, he confessed to planting a riddle in his novel with an elegant solution (see the promotional trailer for my documentary The Lolita Riddle (2010) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUhE_ZAv63Mts). Two years later during his Playboy interview with Alvin Toffler, Nabokov made yet another mysterious comment. He likened Lolita to a beautiful puzzle whose composition and solution presented a mirror view of each other.
In October 1999 my monthly book club – made up predominantly of mature aged students who had recently completed a degree in social work at Sydney University – decided to read Lolita. We ended up having a rather fierce debate about its merits. Some members loved it, others had deep reservations. I found myself landing in the latter camp an awkward stance given my deep admiration for the actual writing. Despite the mesmerising, tragic-comedy effects of Humberts rambling confession, I did not find anything funny about the novels actual plotline. Indeed, I was so horrified by Nabokovs harrowing portrait of his paedophile protagonist, and worried by the unknown consequences of his too erotically charged davenport scene, that I vehemently argued Lolita should never have been published. I was not surprised when I subsequently discovered that back in the 1950s many publishers and members of the public thought likewise. As someone who has worked at a women’s refuge with sexually abused children, I was furious with Nabokov for luring readers into believing Humberts claim that his twelve year old step-daughter Lolita had ‘seduced’ him at the Enchanted Hunters Hotel. My worries about Lolita were such that I decided to investigate Nabokov further.
At the time I had just embarked on my PhD studies at the University of Sydney so I had plenty of time and resources at my disposal. I initially thought I would simply include Lolita as a case study in a sociologically oriented investigation into paedophilia. The more I read of Nabokovs novels short stories and poems however, the more alarmed I grew. This heightened sense of anxiety was not helped by the too timid approach taken by so many of his literary scholars. In the end I decided to devote much more time and research than I originally intended to Nabokovs life and art.
What I did not expect when I first started delving into Nabokovs interviews and memoirs was that my instinctual, knee jerk feelings of repulsion would gradually give way to puzzlement, followed by a growing sense of disquiet that we have not properly understood this very influential 20th century author. I did not know what to make of the disparaging remarks Nabokov made in regards to Sigmund Freuds oedipal theory or his strident criticism of Charles Dodgsons (alias Lewis Carroll) nude portraits of prepubescent girls. I was also confused by the contradictory statements Nabokov made about Lolita itself. For example, in his 1956 postscript On a Book Entitled Lolita (now routinely tacked on to the end of the novel) the author insisted Lolita had no moral in tow. In his 1962 BBC interview he similarly stated the novel had no moral purpose. Yet in a letter sent to his friend Edmund Wilson Nabokov defended his controversial novel on the basis that Lolita was concerned with a highly moral affair. During his 1961 interview with LExpress magazine the author repudiated his libertine postscript outright, insisting Lolita conveyed a very moral message, namely ne pas faire mal aux enfants (do not hurt children). My sense of unease was compounded by the letter sent to the prospective US publisher James Laughlin in 1954 where Nabokov described the accompanying draft manuscript of Lolita as a timebomb. Vexed by my inability to reconcile these statements or comprehend Nabokovs confusing motivations, I decided to try my own luck at solving the authors neglected Lolita riddle.
Several months after I first started out on Nabokovs trail in 1999 I finally had a breakthrough. The transformative moment arrived when I picked Page Stegners Escape in Aesthetics (1967) off the library shelves. In his analysis Stegner drew attention, by way of a small academic sic, to a curious error found in Conclusive Evidence. The mistake raised the hoary spectre of Nabokovs own paedophilic orientation an issue that I myself was curious about. By this stage, I was aware that Nabokov had confessed to planting three blunders in his novel Ada (1969), two of which generate degrees of gender ambiguity. I decided to check the error out myself. However, it was absent from the UK edition of Speak, Memory that was available on the bookshelves of the Fisher Library. As Conclusive Evidence and Speak, Memory were both published in 1951, I was deeply puzzled by the discrepancy. So much so that I decided to traipse down to Canberra to check out what might be the only copy of Conclusive Evidence available in Australia. Upon requesting Conclusive Evidence from the stacks at the National Library of Australia, I duly found Nabokovs tell-tale howler, just as Stegner had annotated it.
In the wake of this discovery I began to scrutinise Nabokovs memoirs very carefully. I soon spotted yet another strange error, this time evident in both editions of his memoirs. It involves a mistranslation of a callous French statement uttered long ago by Vladimirs flamboyant and effete Uncle Ruka. Somewhat intrigued, I decided to order a copy of Nabokovs original New Yorker article Portrait of My Uncle (1948) through the inter-library loan service. When the article duly arrived in early 2000, I quickly discovered Nabokov had indeed correctly translated this French word in his original New Yorker article.
As many literary scholars have now observed, Nabokov was intensely interested in a range of arcane matters, including alchemy, umerology, encrypted messages and codes. He planted a numerical cipher, as well as a symbolic chess code within his memoirs. Several references to codes are found in his disturbing novel Bend Sinister (1947) where a boy is admitted to a childrens institution and tormented in a sexualised manner. At one stage Nabokov even donned the garb on an ancient Sibyl in order to tap out a thoroughly eccentric, acrostic message in the closing paragraph of his short story The Vane Sisters (1951).
It is clear that the errors and discrepancies found in the various editions of Nabokovs autobiographical writings were neither random nor without purpose. Indeed, the vast majority converge on the discussion Nabokov devoted to his overly affectionate Uncle Ruka.
After much more time and searching, I eventually discovered that Nabokovs strategic code of revealing blunders was reinforced by a triptych pattern that links Lolita to Speak, Memory and his translation of Pushkins epic poem Eugene Onegin. The pattern highlights how children can be swept into a sordid underworld by adult perpetrators. It indirectly reveals that as a young boy Vladimir was himself lured into meeting his uncle in secret and sexually abused over many years.
From Book to Documentary
After finding the elegant solution to Nabokovs riddle, I quickly wrote a book that explained his code. I argued the authors covert child protection agenda was meant to repudiate Sigmund Freuds mythological, fantasy-based Oedipus complex theory of incest. My book also documented Lolitas sociological impact and a range of serious social problems associated with paedophilia, including child sex trafficking, pornography and prostitution. I approached the Australian literary agent Rose Creswell with my analysis of Nabokovs neglected Lolita riddle in 2000. She assured me that she had the right contacts in New York to get my book published. A draft manuscript of Solving Nabokovs Lolita Riddle was duly sent off. More than 9 months later, I was still anxiously waiting to hear news about the outcome. And then 9/11 happened. A short while later Creswell rang to say her contact in New York had been unable to find a publisher. She informed me she saw no point in pursuing with the project as the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre Towers had put a stop to business as usual in the Big Apple.
Needless to say, I was very anxious about my ground-breaking analysis being out there for anyone to appropriate, without my considerable efforts at decryption being acknowledged. By this stage an intellectual property lawyer had already informed me that you cannot copyright the cracking of a code. I consequently set out trying to find a publisher myself. I contacted and sent copies of chapters to various university presses including Lehigh, Oxford, Cambridge, Nebraska, Virginia and Princeton without success. In the end, rightly or wrongly, I felt I had no option but to self-publish.
As my work fell outside accepted literary paradigms of analysis the review copies I dispatched in 2005, with one or two exceptions, were ignored. My case was not helped by the fact that I proved to be an incredibly bad editor and proof-reader of my own writing. To date the many, substantial arguments I made in Solving Nabokovs Lolita Riddle in regard to Nabokovs code, secret history of sexual abuse, battle against Sigmund Freud and his anti-Wonderland chess duel against Lewis Carroll have still not been properly assessed.
As I remain convinced that my discoveries are significant, I felt grateful when an opportunity arose to translate my work into the visual media. In 2008 my friend John Laidler offered to produce a documentary on Nabokovs Lolita in his small sound and video production studio at St Peters in Sydney, CutSnake. In August 2010 we launched The Lolita Riddle at the Red Rattler Theatre. The documentary has been made for non-commercial, educational purposes only. It will be made available from this site soon. If you would like to be sent an email when the DVD is available, please drop us a line.
As I have documented in Chapter Four of my book Nabokovs Lolita had an incredibly negative impact on popular culture. Humberts perverse perception of his flirtatious nymphet Lolita acted like a slow, leaching poison on popular culture. The novel greatly accelerated the inappropriate, exploitative sexualisation of young girls by various mass media.
Despite turning 55 years old this year, Lolita shows no sign of losing her perilous grip on readers, the market and/or consumers. She must surely rate as the greatest literary hoax of the 20th century. Isnt it time Nabokovs timebomb finally went off?