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Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999) SARAH HERBOLD (Berkeley) "(I have camouflaged everything, my love)": Lolita and the Woman Reader "A good reader is bound to make fierce efforts when wrestling with a difficult author, but those efforts can be most rewarding after the bright dust has settled."1 Although commentators on Lolita have often discussed gender issues, they have rarely addressed explicitly the issue of how the reader's gender determines the novel's meaning. Most critics assume a universal reader whose gender is irrelevant. Indeed, they take pains to formulate readings that minimize the novel's sexual tensions in favor of some kind of universal theme.2 But in doing so critics have not only failed to consider an important aspect of the novel's reception; they have also ignored an important aspect of the novel itself. For Lolita's readers are often addressed in a manner that is not genderneutral . Many of these apostrophes suggest that Lolita aims to provide eroticoliterary pleasure for specifically male readers. For example, in an early passage, Humbert Humbert suddenly realizes that he could "kiss [Lolita's] throat or the wick of her mouth with perfect impunity." He continues, I cannot tell my learned reader (whose eyebrows, I suspect, have by now traveled all the way to the back of his bald head), I cannot tell him how the knowledge came to me; perhaps my ape-ear had unconsciously caught some slight change in the rhythm of her respiration.... (50) Humbert suggests that his imagined reader is a middle-aged man who conceals prurience behind a mask of erudition. Similarly, when he embarks on his "greater" poetic "endeavor" of "fix[ing] once for all the perilous magic of nymphets," he implies that his story is written specifically for salacious and perverse men: 1. Strong Opinions, 183. 2. Examples include Alexandrov, Boyd, Pifer, Rampton, and Wood. 72 Nabokov Studies I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper. Oh, you, veteran crime reporter, you grave old usher, you once popular policeman, now in solitary confinement after gracing that school crossing for years, you wretched emeritus read to by a boy! It would never do, would it, to have you fellows fall madly in love with my Lolita! (136) In a third example, when Humbert is describing how he went to the Briceland library in order to get a peek at a newspaper photograph that happened to have been taken just before he had sex with Lolita for the first time, he invokes Baudelaire's "Hypocrite lecteur ... mon semblable ... mon frère ..." from the prefatory poem to Les fleurs du mal: "Reader! Bruder!" (264).3 John Ray, Jr., the fictional editor of Humbert's memoir, also specifically refers to the reader as male ("as any reader will perceive for himself," emphasis added, 6). Nabokov thus seems to imply that Lolita was written for men, and for a certain class of men at that: men who, like Humbert (and perhaps like Nabokov) conceal depravity beneath a civilized demeanor. The circumstances of Lolita's publication also seem to confirm that Nabokov's intended audience was male. After Nabokov could not find an American publisher willing to publish his work, which he sought to do under a pseudonym or anonymously, the novel was finally published by a French firm best known for its pornographic titles. Nabokov later claimed he hadn't known what kind of books Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press published (Appel, xxxiii), but his agent in France, Doussia Ergaz, had informed him before she submitted that book to Girodias that the publisher she had in mind for Lolita was one who published works "one would not dare publish in England" (Schiff, 206). In addition, given Nabokov's wide reading and knowledge of the publishing industry in Europe, his claim to ignorance seems specious. In a letter to Edmund Wilson written soon after he had dispatched his manuscript to Ergaz, Nabokov wrote, "I suppose it will be finally published by some shady firm with a Viennese Dream name—e.g., 'Silo'?" (Karlinsky, 29O).4 And although Nabokov later denied that he had first sought to publish the novel anonymously or under a pseudonym, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 71-98
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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