A Note on Teaching Nabokov’s Lolita
When I retired, after 47 years of college teaching, in the fall of 2016, I could sense that change was in the air and that it was high time for me to sit out the rest of my life on my not overstuffed retirement account. There is no real need to list all of those changes, most of them attributable to younger instructors raised on second-hand Foucault and Lacan, and to a new generation of “woke” students who seemed alert to anything they might find offensive in literary texts; the current debate about allowing open-carry of handguns in Texas university classrooms was, I must admit, also a factor in my decision to quit while I was ahead.
The debate about the “teachability” of Lolita in contemporary college classrooms will continue, I am sure, and I can’t add much to it. My sole experience of teaching Lolita was in a graduate seminar (by far the largest such class I ever taught–succès de scandale!) around the turn of the present century. The expected debates about VN’s narrator came up, though no one suggested that the novel should have not appeared on the extensive reading list.
Here, I want to draw attention to one point, historical and experiential, about the novel and the period in which it appeared. When I was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s, pornographic works were sold (even in the South!) from paperback racks in newstands and even in pharmacies. An odd and paradoxical practice of the time was to “dress up” literary fiction in salacious covers, and to “dress down” pornography in plain covers with innocent-sounding titles. Some of the period covers of Faulkner’s novels can be seen here:
Here are some contemporary parodies of the style:
As for the real “hard stuff” it would probably appear in plainclothes:
When I was in college later in the 60s, some of us would occasionally go to the aptly named “Fox Drive-In” (about as bad a double entendre as John Ray’s “Poling Prize”) to watch what would now be called soft-porn movies, tame enough compared with what one can now find on cable or the Internet. One curious practice then was to preface such films with the appearance of a physician, usually a solemn older man wearing a white tunic and one of those headbands with a metal reflector, who would warn the audience that what they were about to see should be construed as cautionary and instructive! I’m not sure about the cautions, but there did seem to be a good bit of instruction involved. A few years later, when I was a graduate student on a university film committee, we showed I Am Curious (Yellow), at the time a very controversial foreign film. As I recall, that rather tedious bit of cinema verité concluded with the couple’s visit to a clinic where they were thoroughly dusted for a bad case of the “crabs”!
I have no doubt that VN was amused by these strange conventions and parodied them in the introduction to Lolita by the eminent John Ray, Jr., Ph.D. The alternate title that Ray presents, The Confession of a White Widowed Male, is a perfect title for a pornographic wolf in woolens that an innocent child like me may have plucked from the rack at Carolina Drugs (a name that now also strikes me as ironic and prescient), purchased, and carefully hidden. The most salacious paperback of my adolescence, passed from hand to grimy hand with dogeared pages, appeared innocent enough, perhaps a travel book or a medical treatise on the prevention of melanoma:
The point of this overlong comment is that instructors would be advised to spend a little space on the tempes et mores of the cultural and social values of the periods in which books first appeared. This should apply equally to Lolita and to Huckleberry Finn.-----Original Message-----From: Alain Champlain <alainfchamplain@GMAIL.COM>To: NABOKV-L <NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU>Sent: Sun, Jun 3, 2018 9:47 pmSubject: Re: [NABOKV-L] teaching Lolita