October 28, 2021

Literature Journal

World literature news

Lolita’s three puzzles

Pierre-Alexandre Bah-Szlemp

LITERATURE – If Nabokov’s masterpiece has attracted, at the same time as the glory of world fame, a happy harvest of commentaries, it nevertheless remains a novel which nevertheless failed to keep in unanswered questions as to its true meaning. It contains three puzzles. To which I think I have found answers.
Pierre-Alexandre Bah-SzlempLawyer
LITERATURE – “Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my kidneys. My sin, my soul. Lo-lii-ta: The tip of the tongue takes three small steps along the palate to come and strike, at three, against the teeth . Lo. Lii. Ta. “

“Lo-lii-ta. Triple syllabic slip for a triple scandal: erotic, literary and political,” wrote Lila Azam Zanganeh (Harvard University, French Society Vladimir Nabokov) in her 2006 column at Le Monde .

“The only credible love story” of the 20th century according to Vanity Fair , one of the “hundred best books” of the same century according to Time : do we still have to present this novel? “Alongside Romeo and Juliet, Dr Jekill and Mr Hyde, Carmen, Don Juan and Don Quixote, Lolita is a mythical figure whose fame has traveled across borders to embrace not only other arts, but also ‘whole of our cultural landscape, from America to Asia “, wrote Lara Delage-Toriel (University of Strasbourg, president of the French Society Vladimir Nabokov) in her synthesis on Lolita of 2009.


“Triple syllabic slip” for a triple scandal. “Triple syllabic slip” for a triple riddle too; because if the masterpiece of Nabokov has attracted, at the same time as the glory of a world fame, a happy harvest of commentaries, there remains nevertheless a novel which will have nonetheless failed to keep in suspense some questions as to its true meaning.

With the year 2015 looming fast, which will mark Lolita’s 60th birthday , it was appropriate in this regard to draw the reader’s attention to some of the still unresolved points of this novel. What do we know about Lolita ? Well – one of the great things that we know is that we may not know much about it. The breach, by the way, was opened by one of our best Nabokovians, Brian Boyd (University of Auckland, Nabokov biographer): ” I said I felt I didn’t understand Lolita, none of us really did ” or, “I told [him] that I felt like I didn’t understand Lolita , that no one really understood her.”

So posed in 2003 when he was talking with Tadashi Wakashima (Kyoto University, Japanese Society Vladimir Nabokov), it is this last observation that had subsequently prompted Professor Boyd to write, in 2006, an article for the International Conference held on Nabokov the same year. The name of this article? Lolita; what we know and what we don’t , either, and to quote its French version, Lolita; evidences and puzzles .


“Triple syllabic slip” for a triple enigma. If it will be impossible for us to tackle the three here, what about the first two? The first enigma is the one questioned by Professor Boyd in the aforementioned article, an article which, subsequently published in 2007, has been the subject of several times since: France, United Kingdom, Australia, United States. Equally decisive for the understanding of the work, the second enigma is the one questioned by Professor Delage-Toriel in his reference synthesis of 2009, synthesis planned for the aggregation of literature, and of which a quotation opened our discussion: Lolita de Vladimir Nabokov and Stanley Kubrick . Two eminent Nabokovians therefore, and two enigmas which are not without tending towards the apprehension of the same object:. Where did the “initial inspiration thrill” Nabokov spoke of come from?

“Nobody” would have understood Lolita ? If it would certainly be a vain thing for any commentator to claim to be able to exhaust the content of a work, the fact remains, if I am permitted to propose it now, that we However, it cannot be so categorical. There is indeed an angle of Lolita which, for structural as it is of the novel, curiously, however, has never been approached: that of her trial. Precisely; because it is with regard to this curiosity that I would like here to draw the reader’s attention to the second enigma.

The genesis of Lolita I said? Professor Delage-Toriel, in fact, in his synthesis on Lolita , immediately questioned the following point: “A work is never born ex nihilo , but can we for all that designate a model, a source from which Nabokov would have gone to draw? his history?” Yes, in fact yes. Therefore, I therefore suggest to the reader, from today and here, to lift the veil on this enigma.


What’s going on in Lolita ? Nabokov’s novel, as its reader knows, is built around a trial. The speech of its narrator, in this respect, but doubtless its reader ignores it, in fact overflows with right. To be convinced, it is a question of specifying the nature of the right in question, and I propose, to do so, to rely on the foundations of Western thought.

In fact of law, the fundamental distinction posed by the master of the Academy, Socrates, as explained by Plato, is that of natural law ( to phusei dikaion ) to conventional law ( to nomo dikaion): the law of nature or the state of nature on the one hand, and, on the other hand, human rights. Widely adopted later, this two-thousand-year-old distinction conceals the axiom motivating the doctrines of great legal thinkers, such as Hobbes and Locke, but also, and for the most famous of them, Rousseau. In the sense of the latter, in fact, and to put it with Strauss, “the modern state is presented as an artificial body which comes into existence by convention and remedies the mistrust of the state of nature. for the criticism of the modern state to know if the state of nature is not preferable to civil society. Rousseau suggested leaving an artificial and conventional world to return to the state of nature, to nature “. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, therefore.

“Me, Jean-Jacques Humbert”, explains the narrator of Lolita in the “essential” pages of his story, “I only obeyed nature, I am nature’s faithful dog”. Lolita is overflowing with law, I say: only, and thus suggested, the reader will have understood that it is not therefore a question of conventional law, of law written by men – laws, decrees, articles-, but of law. natural, right by nature, unwritten right. Why rely on such a right?


Although the Nabokovian reason is of a more dense impact than the following motivation suggests, I refer the reader to the famous Antigone. “Figure of natural law” according to the eponymous work of a magistrate and a lawyer, the latter, if he remembers it, to the decree of Créon, to conventional law therefore, opposed the primacy of “non-laws. written, unshakable “, dating” neither today nor yesterday “: the primacy of” unwritten laws “over written laws, law by nature over law by convention. This is the key to reading Lolita: its trial as it is founded on the law by nature. The legal basis of the novel, with regard to this right, is indeed much more structural of the work than what its literary form might suggest. Precisely; because there is another novel whose “legal background” turns out to be much more “structural” of the work than what its “literary form” might lead you to believe. Who? “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family, on the contrary, is in its own way.”

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina . Anna is overflowing with rights. Does the reader doubt it? Let’s see instead; because how does this novel begin? If the preceding words open her first chapter, Anna , in reality, begins on the front page, begins with her epigraph, with an epistle by Paul: “To me belongs vengeance says the Lord, it is am I the one who will pay … “No rights in Anna ? If this is not that this epistle is an epistle of the natural law of war as posed by the jurist Grotius in his main work: The law of war and peace . Recall that the novel written by Tolstoy before Anna was War and Peace. Note that Grotius is the founder of the School of Natural Law. Let us underline that the favorite author of Tolstoy, and whose portrait he always kept with him, was Rousseau. Anna is overflowing with rights, I say: with natural rights.

Whether it is Tolstoy or Nabokov, the two authors, in their creative process, in fact postulate a right by nature in the wake of which their novel then slips. To render the image of it, the postulated state of nature is the initial movement in the rotation of which all the gears of the story will be taken. Precisely ; because Lolita’s state of nature , to answer the second riddle, is that of Anna . After all, yes: if “a work is never born ex nihilo “, if every work is necessarily inspired by another, didn’t Nabokov write that Anna was “the height of creative perfection”? This is where he “drew his story”. Better; because not onlyLolita , in fact, responds to Anna . Nabokov replies to Tolstoy, or, and if I may quote myself: “As regards Lolita to proceed like Anna , in its foundations, of the law of the state of nature, the logic of her trial, in fact of pleading, holds only to the extent that Nabokov, by said pleading, responds very precisely to one of the jusnaturalist positions of Tolstoy in Anna . In a word: there is one thing in Anna Karenina with which Nabokov does not agree at all! And it is from this disagreement that he built Lolita “. From which it follows that it is impossible to identify Lolita without theand its state of nature. From where it follows that “nobody” understood Lolita .


“Triple syllabic slip” for a triple riddle? Adopting an unprecedented reading angle of Nabokov’s masterpiece, this will be the object, for the 60 years of the eponymous novel, and starting from Anna , of a complete rereading of Lolita : d’ un Métaphysique des Loliitas . Good, but what is Lolita’s first riddle already ? I invite the curious reader to read the following excerpt .

Every morning, receive the HuffPost newsletter for free

To follow the latest news live on The HuffPost, click here

Find us on our Facebook page

Subscribe to our YouTube channel

enigma lolita riddle culture literature English literature russian literature books lolita Nabokov’s Lolita Vladimir Nabokov News

Sponsored content