There were two authors in our family’s library forbidden to me as a child: Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov. The first was forbidden because, in the words of my mother, my “nerves wouldn’t be able to handle all the drama and tension.” And Nabokov’s works, kept in the glass-fronted cabinet of the living room, were taboo for the time being because I “wasn’t ready to appreciate the greatest Russian prose writer.” That sounded like a challenge and so, while still in middle school, I decided to prove my parents wrong on both accounts: my emotional maturity and intellect.
I first smuggled a collection of Dostoevsky’s short stories from our library and hid it under my pillow. I was enticed by the cover: an eerie painting depicting the wedding of a creepy military-looking grandpa and a young girl, the flower garland on her auburn head recalling a funerary wreath. Some years later, I’d learn the title of the painting: The Unequal Marriage (1862) by Vasili Pukirev. The title that immediately caught my eye in the collection was The Christmas Tree and the Wedding (1848). Christmas trees and weddings: how bad could it be? The tale turned out to be about a children’s Christmas party where an older landowner spots his future bride to be, an eleven-year-old girl with a hefty dowry. He kisses her on the forehead and she recoils in horror. The story then cuts to a wedding where the older landowner marries the girl, now sixteen. I was so disturbed that I would not pick up Dostoevsky until compelled to at school.
But there was still Nabokov. His was not a name pronounced at school along with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, or Turgenev. Nabokov was nowhere to be found in the school curriculum among the Great Russian masterpieces featured on the state exam. Yet it was a name thrown around frequently when my family had guests over, especially when a close family friend, Aunt Natalya, came over. Aunt Natalya worked as a philologist at an institute for literature. I had no idea what a philologist was. I assumed it meant an occupation that required Aunt Natalya to wear elegant clothes and say one-liners that made everyone roar with laughter. Once when she came over, my mother took out with pride a pale green, cardboard-bound facsimile. Aunt Natalya seemed to approve and said another word I didn’t understand at the time: samizdat.
It wasn’t simply that Nabokov’s name was shrouded in mystery that piqued my curiosity. The Russian word nymphetka, which rhymes with and was often used interchangeably with maloletka (Russian for female minor), was constantly in the air in Moscow during the nineties. My parents had read Nabokov as adults in samizdat, secretly passing facsimiles of his banned prose. They marveled at his language and laughed at his pitch-perfect parodies of Soviet officials. Reading Nabokov was the social currency of Russian intelligentsia along with watching French new-wave cinema and owning a pair of American jeans procured on the black market. In 1988, at the height of glasnost, Gorbachev organized the official publication of Nabokov’s works. By the time my generation—the millennials—came of age as readers, Nabokov’s works were widely available and words likenymphetka and Lolita were widely in circulation. Yet for girls growing up in the post-Soviet Russia of the tumultuous nineties, Nabokov’s Lolita was passed down to us already pale and polluted, corrupted, and dangerously seductive. At one point in Lolita, Humbert Humbert regrets not having captured his nymphet on film: “Idiot, triple idiot! I could have filmed her! I would have had her now with me, before my eyes, in the projection room of my pain and despair!” We had only images of Lolita to play with.
Our first contact with Nabokov’s legacy came through secret viewings of Adrian Lyne’s 1997 Lolita: a videotape was found in someone’s uncle’s collection. We styled our hair in two braids mimicking Dominique Swain’s portrayal of Lolita, wore chocker necklaces copying Natalie Portman’s character in The Professional, put tissues in our bras. We thought of ourselves as invincible and wise. By thirteen, we knew which kiosks would sell us beer and cigarettes. The magic code phrase was always: “It’s for our parents.” We would get drunk in bars that let us buy alcohol as long as we looked like we were trying to look older than we were. We left boys our age outside nightclubs that opened their doors to us.
Without having read a word of Nabokov, we thought we knew everything there was to know about Lolita from the billboards and music videos that kept proliferating before our very eyes. Growing up one of the most popular songs we’d hear blazing from music kiosks was “Vosmiklasnica” (“Eighth-Grade Girl”) by the Soviet post-punk band Kino. A male husky voice sings about walking somewhere deserted with an eighth-grader who’s wearing her mother’s lipstick and her older sister’s boots. Her outfit aside, she’s pretty much still a kid interested in dolls and balloons. The nature of the relationship and the narrator’s intentions are only hinted at by his interjections, especially the not-so-subtle “mmm” before he croons “eight-grader.” The lyrics reveal a considerable age difference: she’s eating candy, he’s smoking; she tells him she’s got a C in geography, he couldn’t care less; she wants to go to the movies, he invites her to the pub (in a later cover by the cult band Mumyi Troll, the singer invites her over to his place); she tells him some boy at school got in a fight because of her, he remains suggestively silent. The song ends with the seductive male voice recalling that the girl’s mother wants her home by ten. Whether she will make it home by curfew is anyone’s guess. (The Russian singer seems to have fewer scruples than the narrator of The White Stripes’ “A Martyr for My Love For You” who sings about how he heroically chooses to not get involved with a sixteen-year-old he spots at the zoo). Some of us later aspired to be that eighth-grader, who seemed to have so much enchanting power over a grownup man that he was inspired to write a song about her.
Another popular song of the time was “Winter Dream” by fifteen-year-old Alsou, a Russian Britney Spears, the music video of which recreated scenes from Lolita in a kitchy Russia-winter setting: Humbert Humbert, with snow on his coat, stumbles upon Dolores Haze wearing heavy wool socks not on a “mat in a pool of sun,” but on a fur rug next to a fireplace. Of course, we were not all that different from other teenage girls around the globe emulating sexualized models of femininity from Britney Spears to Miley Cyrus. But we were younger than the starlets we copied and less protected. In 1998 the age of consent in Russia was lowered to fourteen. (Today it is set at sixteen). Born in a country that no longer existed by the time we learned to read, we were too young to remember or understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall or the tanks in the Red Square. We saw these events as flickering images like the video footage of our first birthday parties we ourselves had no recollection of. We grew up with lax parenting; after all our parents were the lost generation. Most of our parents were struggling to make sense of the transitory period in which they were caught midlife. They grew up, built their careers, and started their families in socialism, but now had to make do in capitalism. They had a hard time convincing us of the value of education, having themselves lost their PhD-requiring jobs. It would take us many years and our own losses to appreciate and marvel at their sacrifices and strength. But growing up we thought them losers.
Nymphetki, a familiar word to us, meant a very specific thing. They were girls around our age who dated older men, chiefly the Novyi Russkiy (New Russians), businessmen who had recently gained enormous wealth and become estranged from their high-school-sweethearts wives whom they often never bothered divorcing. A too-easy stereotype that a twelve or thirteen year-old could wrap her head around. Nymphetki were cool and sophisticated. They left their pathetic parents behind and got into the Mercedes-Benz and BMWs of men who had figured out this brave new world. They didn’t need to care about school because they were already adults having adult relationships.
It was in this atmosphere that we tried to read the Russian copy of Lolita I snatched from my parents’ library. We were perched on our school’s roof, skipping a class called “Trud” (“Labor”), a Soviet relic of a course that divided the class along gender lines. Boys learned woodwork and how to be handymen, which usually involved the boys making necessary repairs in the school’s building. Girls were taught how to be good housewives (how to cook, iron, and sew), which usually involved making lunch for the boys. We were going to learn Lolita’s tricks, but we didn’t get far into our reading. It was poetic, no doubt, but it was difficult and dense. It smacked of school. The episodes were not as piquant as the films we’ve become accustomed to.
The close circle of my family that once mostly comprised of academics, artists, and writers was changing as well. Many former PhDs and one-time gentle artists were now going into business and bringing the mores of that world into the safe haven that my parents created during Brezhnev Stagnation. Once a family friend brought over to dinner his two girlfriends with whom he was living in a cottage near Moscow, both fourteen years old. My parents asked him—them—to leave.
Shortly after, my family moved to the United States and I forgot about Nabokov until the age of eighteen when I picked up a used copy of Lolita during the summer of 2004. Incidentally, I was at Cornell University (where Nabokov composed most of Lolita), enrolled in a literature seminar before I was set to go off to college. I cannot imagine a more perfect setting for the first encounter with Nabokov. I read the novel, this time in English, in the solitary hours I’d spent in Ithaca’s gorges to the sound of waterfalls. I remember feeling rage, not at Nabokov of course, but at the way his novel was misread and misused by popular culture, at the way we, girls, were given the images but not the words. We were encouraged to grow up too fast and to seize the day because our peak was at sixteen and it was all downhill from there. After eighteen, we’d hear over and over again, we would start to lose our tovarni vid (“marketable image.”) But this was not at all Nabokov’s Lolita, a novel that captures so poignantly the impulse behind a child’s game at being an adult, the loss of innocence, the difference between lust and tenderness. What is more, in contrast to Dostoevsky whose characters sin, feel remorse, and often find redemption, Nabokov, for all his compassion and gimlet-eyed observations, never allows the victim’s plight to be brushed off for anyone’s quest for redemption however changed they might be. As Humbert puts it:
Unless it can be proven to me—to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction—that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
After Lolita came many other novels by Nabokov, then his short stories, and plays, and chess problems. In Russian, English, and French.
But what I still grapple with in Nabokov goes back to my not reading Nabokov. Nabokov is a difficult writer (my parents were right that at twelve I wasn’t yet ready for his prose). So, often by the time a reader encounters Nabokov and appreciates his writing, he or she has already lived a life, so to speak. The very fact that Nabokov believed that one could only be a re-reader suggests that reading Nabokov is not only an experience but literally requires acquiring experience, if only through patient rereading. In Nabokov, who after all was also a great lepidopterist, metamorphosis plays an important role. The attentive reader cannot help but be transformed by the end. Yet some transformations, just as some words of wisdom, come a little too late. As Russians like to say: “If youth only knew; if age only could.” Then, indeed, all that remains is “the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.”