Amy Teegan on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Guest: Amy Teegan
Books discussed in this episode:
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated
Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler
Edgard Allen Poe, the Complete Poems (including Amy’s favorite, Annabel Lee)
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
The Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
Discussed in our Patreon Exclusive Episode
Ready Player One by Earnest Cline
EPISODE 006 TRANSCRIPT
Amy Teegan on “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov
Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and my guest today is Amy Teagan. Amy is a writer, editor, and bibliophile. She is the author of the literary fiction novel No Day Like Today, and the short story collection Poison. Amy lives in Austin, Texas, and today she’s here to tell me why Lolita is the Best Book Ever.
For more information on how to support this podcast, check out my Patreon. For about the cost of a latte, you can have access to exclusive interview clips that are only available to my patrons, advanced access to the books we discuss and more. Go to patreon.com/bestbookever to learn more about how you can help me keep the candles burning over here in my reading cave. Now back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Amy Teagan.
Amy Teegan: Hello, Julie Strauss.
JS: How are you?
AT: I am great. I am reading a lot of books recently and it is so nice.
JS: Quarantine has increased your reading capacity, then?
AT: It has, yeah. We used to go to the movies like two or three times a week, and now I read for hours instead.
JS: It is decreasing my reading capacity and I’m hearing that a lot too. So it’s interesting how readers are responding to the general stress of this. I love hearing that you’re reading more, cause I know what you like to read and I can’t.
AT: Yeah, it’s been all fun.
JS: So Amy, we know each other, I guess, initially from a conference for writers. And now we are online besties in our writers group.
AT: You are 100% my, like a book recommendation guru.
JS: And you are mine as well. My book whisperer. I have multiple books on my shelf that you’ve told me to buy.
AT: Yes. And I have the same thing.
JS: And it’s always fun for me to go to you and say, I’m thinking about this one because you’ve inevitably almost read it. And you can tell me, yes, it was like this. That’s what you’re really good at is saying it will remind you of XYZ, which I always love. Cause if I can connect it to something else. But also, I’m just at the point with you, where if Amy says read it, I’ll just read it because I trust you.
AT: That is literally my goal in life. Book recommendations are my favorite thing to talk about. And especially with you, because we have such similar tastes. I’ll be like, Oh, well Julie needs this one.
JS: With the exception, of course, of the book we are going to discuss today, which I cannot wait to discuss.
AT: I’ve been nervous for two days that you’re gonna yell at me.
JS: And I’ve been nervous you’re gonna call me and old fuddy duddy.
AT: Well, I mean you are right, but I lean into that.
JS: Well then we’re on even playing ground. So the book we’re going to discuss today is Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. How do you say his last name?
AT: Nabokov, Nabokov, Nabokov. Yes. I believe that Russian names emphasize the second syllable.
JS: Oh, okay. Thank you for telling me. I’ve already learned something. So how did you first come across this book? What was your introduction?
AT: A friend of mine had it on their shelf and like I had heard roughly about it and I read the back copy and then I read the book and I was like, This is weird, but I’m intrigued. And then I read it for a college class and the same professor, I wish I could remember his name. I took two semesters with him, all of 20th century literature, from Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser all the way up to Anne Tyler in like the 1970s. And and Lolita was one of them. And when reading this book with somebody else to teach you what you’re looking at was life-changing. And in that class, I was like, Oh, he’s a genius. I see. And then I bought the annotated version and I read that. So that would have been almost 20 years ago would have been my first read of it.
JS: And do you reread it a lot?
AT: Not a lot. No. And actually I’m rereading it now, since we decided to talk about this and it’s been a lot slower going this time and I’m pretty sure that is because this is my first time rereading it since I’ve become a writer. And so I only get like a page in. And I’m overwhelmed by how great it is. And I want to go write myself. Or I want to like make notes about what he’s doing with the craft and I get slowed down. I think this is maybe the fourth or fifth time in 20 years.
AT: So for listeners who have maybe not heard of this book or only know the title and don’t know what it’s really about, can you describe what this book is and what’s going on?
JS: It is a first person, unreliable narrator. So it’s told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, who is essentially trying to defend his behavior. He addresses ladies and gentlemen of the jury, for example, um, and he uses this main character. It uses this narrative to describe how he essentially seduced and fell in love with and ruined the life of his stepdaughter. ISo the very, very surface level plot is a pedophile, but there’s approximately 17,000 layers beyond that. So you you’re able to see the way that he sees himself the way that he knows that he’s doing bad things, but then justifies it, but then makes himself the victim, but then turns around another way. And it’s just beautiful. It’s great. Really the craftsmanship of this book is a masterpiece. The character’s a shitty person, obviously, but the book itself, that medium, it’s beautiful because of the method of him defending himself. The subtext of what Nabokov is doing with and through this character and through his voice is … I want to write multiple unreliable narrator books and I can’t imagine ever getting to this level. There are so many times where you’re reading the main character describing a scene or describing something that he got somebody else to do. And it’s not until after you’re through the scene that you realize what it is exactly that must have happened, but the way that he talks about it distracts you, or it plays with your sympathy, it actually makes you repulsed. Even though the language is poetic, there’s just so much going on in every single sentence that I just think it’s brilliant.
AT: It’s not a fun read. It’s not like, I don’t know, Star Wars, but. Yeah, it was great.
JS: I think I told you when we talked once before that I also had to read this for a college class and I was, you know, fairly uncaring 20 year old and I thought, Oh, this guy’s gross and whatever, it’s a fine book. I was never as artistically impressed with it. I mean, I thought it was fine, but it didn’t knock my socks off. I obviously didn’t have that great professor that you had, which truly makes all the difference.
AT: It really does. He’s actually the reason that I went on to grad school because he showed me what books could be. And I was like, I could do this forever. Now I have a graduate degree that nobody cares about but me.
JS: Did you read more Nabokov?
AT: I have most of his books. I think all of them. I like things that challenge me. I like books that are a puzzle, and that imrove upon rereads. All of Nabokov’s books are too smart for me. Lolita is the one I loved the most because I had that professor to be like, here, this is what you’re looking at. The rest of them are difficult. And I love them. But none them are the rest of them about pedophiles. You know, it’s interesting. This book Lolita came out in 1955 and I’ve read a few things about this, but I haven’t, like, fact checked this, but I believe in the fifties that most people who’d be reading this book didn’t actually believe that this kind of sexual perversion was a thing beyond like one in a million or whatever. So the fact that Nabokov used this character to show how the person next door to you could be doing this terrible thing like that. When you think of it within the context of its time, it’s even more impressive. I believe that American publishers wouldn’t publish it. It had to be published by a French publisher. It’s so interesting, beause it’s not an obscene book. There’s not anything explicit enough in it to get it banned on a language level. But there are people like this out there and they think like this. How on earth are we going to identify them if we can’t see them?
JS: I was thinking as I tried to reread this in preparation for this conversation, that it was the fact that it was so well-written that made me unable to read it because. It was so sexual. Everything he described was so perversely, sexual, not normally sexual, that was very terrifying to me. And I thought if this was just some, you know, random weirdo who doesn’t know how to write, I’m just going to go, this is a gross book. But the fact that I had such a gut reaction to every description did tell me the man obviously knows how to write. You know, I have two teenage daughters, and so I definitely have a, uh, personal revulsion to it. A stake in it. Because of course I’m reading this thinking, goddamn, is this my neighbor looking at my daughter like this? That’s immediately what I’m thinking, which I would never have thought that when I was 20. It wouldn’t have occurred to me. I just wonder if I’m going to approach this book differently when I’m 80 and my girls are grown up.
AT: With novels specifically, but any piece of art, are you able to divorce the content from the craft?
JS: Well, usually yes. I know I’ve said this to you many times, but Roger Ebert, the late great movie critic, he always used to say a movie is not about what it’s about. It’s how it’s about what it’s about. And normally, yes, I can divorce myself from it, but this one – as I texted you 20 pages in, I was in tears. I couldn’t do it. I was so sick to my stomach and I was trying to force myself through it and I thought I’m going to give myself an ulcer.
AT: Do you remember what part it was?
AT: Like I said, it’s not an obscene book. There’s not like four letter words and organs glistening or whatever you find in erotica. I think you were reading because you’re so fucking smart. You’re reading the subtext on a much deeper level than a lot of people would because it’s subtext it’s deep in there.
JS: I was grossed out from the beginning because I knew what was coming. On page 17 of my copy, where he says, I wish to introduce the following idea between the age limits of nine and 14. There occur maidens who to certain be, which travelers twice or many times older than they reveal their true nature, which is not human, but nymphs. And these chosen creatures I propose to designate as nymphs fits. So. Already, I hate this man. Hate. Like there’s nothing explicit that he sexually that he’s saying in that sentence.
AT: Absolutely. That’s what I mean, like the, the language is just doing so many things.
JS: Yes. And what it’s doing is dehumanizing a certain subset of females that he wants to victimize. That was how I read it. And so then on page 20, Humbert Humbert tried hard to be good. Really, truly he did. He had the utmost respect for ordinary children, their purity and vulnerability, and under no circumstances would he have interfered with the innocence of a child? And that was where I slammed the book shut because I thought, Oh, absolutely not.
AT: So, what you’re saying is the writer was successful in what he was trying to get the reader to do.
JS: One hundred percent successful.
AT: It’s great that the level of emotion that this book brings up in people is to me, just evidence of how well it’s written. I’m really sorry that you have to suffer such grotesqueness.
JS: I can see how the writing is good, but in this instance, I can’t get past what he’s actually saying. For sure, I’m taking it very seriously because I have daughters. I don’t know. What is our responsibility as readers? Are we supposed to put that kind of gut reaction aside to appreciate art or does that dehumanize us somehow to put aside those reactions?
AT: Um, yeah, a related question: Are we responsible for setting aside feelings about the creators for the sake of their art? Like Nabokov himself was not a pedophile, so, but then are we okay with Woody Allen not being able to publish a book? And then there’s another factor. Like, I don’t mean this in any insulting way, but I am a heartless robot. I have far fewer emotions than a lot of people. I recognize what the character is doing in this book. And yeah, of course it’s awful, but I don’t have the physical reaction that you are having.
JS: It’s interesting you brought up Woody Allen, becasue what an interesting contrast. His movies are fairly tame with the exception of Manhattan, which is a young girl. But I believe all of his movies are older male/youngish woman, but always of age. And yet we know his personal story. And so, and, and there is a level of acceptance to it because the art. Let’s just put it this way. I’ve watched a lot more Woody Allen movies than I’ve read Nabokov books. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons for that.
AT: I don’t know anything about Nabokov’s history, but he was not a pedophile. He was married to the same woman for decades. I don’t know much about his personal life. I mean, that’s for me, like I can recognize that this is fiction and appreciate the puzzle and the brain challenge that it gives me. I mean like how there are people like this in real life. Are you doing anything about that? You know, if you set down a book because of the pedophilia story, does that mean that you are going to go fight pedophiles down the street?
JS: I don’t know.
AT: To me, it’s different that the masterpiece of the craft of this book is makes it so much more than that.
JS: Can you give me an example of the puzzle aspect that you keep talking about? Like a sample of when it says one thing, but means something else entirely?
AT: Well, there are a lot of doppelgangers in the book. Humbert Humbert uses the duplicate name, right. And the character who steals Lolita away from him at the end is described in very similar physical terms that Humbert Humbert describes himself. And it’s meant to be his double. But there’s no way that you would pick that up until the second or third read. There are other characters that are doubles for each other. Like there’s a character named Blanche. And another character whose name translates to, Melanie Weiss, I think, which is white in German. And you know, their roles are similar throughout the book. There are numerable allusions to Edgar Allen Poe and Annabel Lee and others that you read the annotated version, they point them all out for you. Wordplay. Lolita’s last name is Hayes. H a Z E. And he uses the word haze and rhymes words with haze throughout to describe her. And there’s a whole motif of roses. She’s a thorn between two roses. A lot of different examples. But they’re so subtle and they’re so fleeting that it’s not until you take a look at the whole book, literally on a clause-by-clause level. It’s really a book that rewards very close reading, very deep dive. I mean, you can read it once and be like, Oh, creepy pedophile, that was weird, but you’re not getting the point of the book. It’s a surface skim of the book and what’s actually going on.
JS: So, Amy, is there anything you won’t read? Is there anything that gives you the reaction that I had to this?
AT: Um, yes. Almost always the only examples that I can think of, off the top of my head, which I will not name for legal reasons, are books that the author does not realize that they are dehumanizing women. Like, obviously Lolita does that. And it’s pretty clear that that Nabokov knows that’s what he’s doing. There are books where I have gotten to the end and been like, okay, so you had three female characters in the entire thing. And none of them had names. Really? Those are the books that make me want to punch somebody in the face. But again, most of those that I can think of are pretty clear that the author doesn’t know what they’re doing.
JS: So the difference being that in Lolita, he’s using this language to make a point and he realizes what he’s doing as opposed to the casual misogyny we often see in real life?
AT: I read a book that, there were only two female characters. One of them was the daughter. So she was used as a prop for motivation, and one of them was the ex-wife, and she was essentially just a sex object. Every other character was male. And then at the very end, the thing that the main character did to, quote unquote, win back, his wife, was so clearly abusive and it was so clear the author had no idea. Those are the kinds of books that, yeah. I can’t, I can’t.
JS: I, I had to edit a book once where I had to write in the margins in a sex scene, this was not a consensual encounter and I felt like that broke me in half that I had to even point it out.
AT: That’s the kind of thing that, because it’s so clear that it’s part of a real person’s real life, frustrates the hell out of me. Things that are clearly fiction and clearly done for the sake of a story, those don’t bother me. I can appreciate all of the other things that it’s doing.
JS: One of my main questions to ask you was how one can be a feminist and appreciate this book, but you, you just answered it because it’s in the it’s in that the writing. I think what you’re saying is if the writing is there to eliminate a problem in a deep and artistic way, they,
AT: …yeah. Like there’s things that he does that, like I mentioned, people reading this book in 1955, didn’t really believe that this kind of person existed. And so this is a way, through the language that is beautiful and lyrical at times, the author was able to draw attention to the fact that this does happen and this exists, and they might not have recognized it before. I feel like I marked some sections where the main character borders on self-awareness, but there’s definitely some places within the book where Humbert Humbert is drawing attention to the kind of person he is in a way that is very obviously self-aware and deliberate on the part of the author.
JS: How does it end? I’m not going to read it so you can just tell me.
AT: And so listeners can just mute 30 seconds?
JS: Yes. Spoil it for us. Cause I am curious, is there, you know, I kind of needed Disney ending for this. I need him to rot in hell, honestly. I don’t think that happens in Disney books.
AT: So you know, it starts with him seducing her, essentially, and like taking her on a road trip across the country. And then after a couple of years of that, they settle in a town so she can go to school. Some, I forget all the details, cause I haven’t gotten that far in my reread, Humbert Humbert double, whose name is something Quincy, I’ve forgotten. He essentially steals her away-slash-seduces her himself. And she, Lolita, the 15 year old girl, sees this other man as her savior from the monster that has been basically keeping her as a concubine for the last couple of years. So she manages to escape him, and Humbert Humbert loses her and never sees her. And he’s distraught and I think he gets arrested and I forgot again, I forget all the details. But he basically has his true love taken from him, and he is destroyed emotionally by that. And then several years later he ends up finding her again, and she’s married and she’s pregnant and she’s moving on with her life. And he can’t move on with his life because you know, his entire being is caught up in his idea of a 14 year old girl.
JS: Oh, poor guy.
AT: And then he’s writing, you know, the characters writing the book from jail.
JS: There’s a murder somewhere in it, isn’t there? Am I misremembering that?
AT: No, no, you’re right. I believe he murders the double. He, Humbert Humbert, is in jail for murdering the guy who stole her away from him.
JS: The other thing that is so interesting is all the scholarship around this that for sure also clouded how I read this. As I went looking this up in the library, there are books about the Lolita effect and how we sexualize girls in this culture. I went to college with a woman who was just a couple of years older than me, but she was married to a significantly older man, which at the time I thought he was a thousand years old, but he was probably 50. When you’re a college girl, that’s significant. First of all, it was weird to be married in college, but people frequently called her Lolita. She was very gorgeous and it was meant as a gold-digging slur against her. Like, you young seductress you got this rich guy who, which he was, so it’s interesting what has grown around this book.
AT: And in fact, the word nymphet, in the way that it’s used in this book, was created by Nabokov. When somebody now, in 2020, when somebody calls a little girl a nymphet, that’s because of the influence of this book.
JS: Which it always has a sexual connotation, right?
AT: Since 1955, it has a sexual connotation.
JS: Because nymphs are originally a mythology word, right?
AT: Yeah. This book is the reason that that word has been sexualized. Have you heard of the book My Dark Vanessa?
JS: I have heard of it. I have not read it.
AT: It’s miraculous. It is so good. It is essentially the other side of the Lolita story. It is a first person book told from the point of view of a high school girl who is seduced by her teacher. And like with Lolita, it’s full of subtext. My Dark Vanessa is a hundred percent full of like, Oh girl, that is not, that does not mean what you think it means. And part of the way that this teacher seduces this girl is to suggest that she’s special and she’s smart enough to read Lolita. And this girl obsesses over the book Lolita, because she thinks it’s a love story. My Dark Vanessa shows that character as she grows up, sees what happened to her as she comes to terms with that abuse. You might love it actually, because it’s the same kind of story, the same kind of unreliable narrator, but from the victim’s point of view.
JS: Amy, what are you reading right now in your, in your quarantine reading binge?
AT: I just finished Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clark, which is another one of my all-time favorites. It’s another book that requires investment. Have you read it?
JS: I have not.
AT: Okay. So it was written in like 2010 or so, so it’s a new book, but it is written as though it as written in 1820. And so all of the language is old fashioned and British, and it’s got all kinds of footnotes for books and stories that are made up by the author. It is about magic returning to England in the Regency period. It’s the humorous fantastic. And the writing is just a little quirky and the magic system is fun and I loved it. I just finished that. So. I mean, I’m in between books right now.
JS: In this self-isolation period, are you rereading a lot or are you trying to go for new books?
AT: Um, both. I had a lot of books that I own that I need to read so I can decide whether or not I’m going to keep them. I’ve got probably an entire bookshelf worth of those books that I need to get through. My boyfriend has set aside another several shelves of books that he owns that he wants me to read. So I need to do those. And then I am constantly reminded of this book that I love, and want to reread .
JS: What’s that one?
AT: The Heart’s Invisible Furies. I want to reread A Little Life. I want to reread, um, Our Kind of Cruelty. I want to read all of the things.
JS: My heart is racing for every single one of those books.
AT: You just see, we normally do have really similar reading times. It’s just this one. Have you read Our Kind of Cruelty?
JS: I have not. That one is on my list.
AT: Love it. It’s going to make you angry. It’s going to make you furious and want to throw the book. Maybe as much as Lolita, but for a different reason. I love it. It’s so good.
JS: Okay. I can’t wait. That sounds so fun. I love books that make me throw them across the room. And I have thrown books across the room because they were so good, and it hurt my feelings so much that someone could do that.
AT: Our Kind of Cruelty, the whole time I was reading it, I was like, Oh my God. Oh my God, this is so good. Oh my God, this is so good. And then I got to the end and I was like, SO good.
JS: Okay. I cannot wait. And actually, it’s interesting, you said Heart’s Invisible Furies, because that’s on my list to read next. I’ve been thinking, man, I love that one so much. One of my all time top 10.
AT: Same, same. There’s a bunch of books that I’ve read thatI got from the library or on Kindle and I read them and then I went and I bought a physical copy just so I could put it on my boyfriend’s shelf to make him read it. And Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of those. I own a paperback that’s never been read. Because I’m waiting for Spencer to read it.
JS: So, he has a bookshelf of books he wants you to read, and you have a bookshelf of books for him to read? That is the cutest thing I ever heard.
JS: Does he read as much as you? I know that you can tear through the books.
AT: Yeah. Yeah we read pretty closely. And then he also reads books to me while I cook. So we read books together right now. We’re reading book 11 of the Lemony Snicket series.
JS: Oh my gosh. That is adorable. Y’all are too cute.
AT: You need to get Joe to do that.
JS: Well, when I have insomnia, I ask him to read to me.
AT: Not while you’re cooking or driving or anything like that.
JS: For me, it’s because, you know, I have a very racing brain and a lot of anxiety issues. And when he reads to me, he reads very slow and monotone. And I think he does that intentionally. And I just feel comforted. And so I just fall asleep. So he has read to me, but I don’t remember any of it.
AT: Yeah. Spenser has a background in theater. So he like, he does the voices and stuff.
JS: Yeah, there’s no drama when Joe read to me. It is purely like, I need to calm this bitch down.
AT: At least, you know what his strengths are.
JS: Exactly. Amy Teagan, this has been such a delight. Can you tell our listeners how they can find you?
AT: I am online. My website is Amyteegan.com. I am Amy Teagan at most social media, including, Medium, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook.
JS: Excellent. Thank you so much for being here with me today.
AT: Thanks for letting me talk about my favorite book.
JS: I am still sorry it’s your favorite book, but it’s okay. I still love you.
Thanks for listening book nerds. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website or follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, nd you can find me everywhere as JulieWroteABook. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it on social media and leave a review on whatever podcatcher you use. Reviews really help our visibility to new listeners, and we are grateful for everyone. Thanks for joining me today, and I will see you at the library.