• Libbie

My Dark Vanessa and Lolita: A Mirror and Its Reflection

[Content note: rape, grooming]

Recently I had the pleasure of being interviewed for a new podcast, Best Book Ever, hosted by Julie Strauss. As always when I agree to participate in a podcast, I dove into the archives to listen to several back episodes so I could get a feel for the show’s format and tone. As it happens, Best Book Ever is so new that I could comfortably listen to every episode in preparation for my interview (there are only six shows available as of the writing of this review/essay, though Julie is a smart cookie and has banked many finished episodes, which are scheduled to come out at regular intervals until at least early September, when my episode will air, so I can assure you that getting into BBE won’t be a waste of time. There’s plenty more great content coming.) But as soon as I saw that one of the episodes—featuring author Amy Teegan—was about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, I knew I had to listen to that one first. There was no other possible place for me to dive into that podcast; if Lolita was an option, Lolita would be my first choice.

Like many writers, I count Lolita among my most admired books and Nabokov among my most admired authors. And like most people who read Lolita, I am uncomfortable with the book, too. That, I believe, was Nabokov’s point: to make the reader uncomfortable, to draw the reader into a disturbing dance where our desire to be good people is constantly challenged by our very human susceptibility to the charming sociopath. The conversation about Lolita on Best Book Everwas honest and frank, with host Julie professing her extreme revulsion and her inability to finish the book countered by Amy’s attempts to explain why the book meant so much to her and touched her so deeply. It’s an interesting discussion. I, too, am deeply moved by Lolita, and have been since I first read it at the inadvisable age of fifteen. But anyone who has read my books knows that they often venture into dark places, and my preferences as a reader are darker still. Give me an upsetting, unsettling story any day over a simple tale with a happy ending. I like my reading to challenge and provoke me, to make me work a little, and to demand that I surrender a little bit of control. I was firmly on Amy’s side in the conversation on Best Book Ever, while at the same time fully understanding and appreciating where Julie was coming from. I also felt that there was so much left to say about Lolita; there always is. It’s one of the most enigmatic, powerful, and culturally influential novels ever written in the English language. Whether you love it or whether you are repulsed by it, Lolita never leaves a reader unmoved. I wrote to Julie and encouraged her to open up Lolita for discussion again on Best Book Ever, this time perhaps in panel format, with several writers sharing their varied opinions on the novel, its characters, and its themes to create a broader discussion and a better understanding of a book that can never be entirely understood.

During the BBE episode, Julie and Amy mentioned a just-published debut novel, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, several times—and this was fortuitous for me, as I’d just downloaded that audiobook myself and was planning to start listening the following day. My Dark Vanessa has been touted by reviewers and publicists as “Lolita for the MeToo era”, so naturally I was interested. I will admit that I didn’t expect much of My Dark Vanessa beyond an interesting if rather grim premise; any book is sure to suffer by a comparison to Lolita. Few novels ever written can hold a candle to the complexity, voice, and impact of the book most consider to be Vladimir Nabokov’s crowning achievement in an already remarkable career. (Personally, although Lolita is among my favorite books, my favorite work by Nabokov is Pale Fire—from which, incidentally, My Dark Vanessa takes its title.) What I found instead in My Dark Vanessa not only an excellent literary novel worthy in its own right of the highest praise, but also a necessary complement to Lolita—a counterbalance so perfectly pitched and so carefully positioned that now I can’t imagine re-reading Lolita without re-reading My Dark Vanessa immediately after. The two novels belong together. They are almost necessary to one another, so much so that I find it difficult to countenance that Lolita could ever have existed before My Dark Vanessa came along. At the very least, My Dark Vanessa puts Lolita into a context that makes the latter still enjoyable (inasmuch as one can “enjoy” a book like Lolita) during this new era of striving for real justice for victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Allow me to paraphrase His Nabs in Lolita for a moment (that’s a thing I am capable of doing frequently and with astonishing ease, paraphrasing or even directly quoting Lolita from memory; I’ve read it that many times): My learned reader’s eyebrows have traveled, I suspect, all the way to the back of his bald head. Yes, you saw it here. I truly said it: My Dark Vanessa is as necessary to Lolita as Lolita is necessary to My Dark Vanessa. I’m not sure you can entirely understand everything that’s going on in My Dark Vanessa, all the subtext and hidden meaning, if you don’t have a deep, almost instinctive familiarity with Lolita. But the two books are so meticulously intertwined that I’m also no longer sure it’s possible to fully appreciate all the subtext and hidden meaning in Lolita without also embarking on a close reading of Kate Elizabeth Russell’s debut. It happened, party people—the thing I thought no mortal mind capable of achieving: Someone Nabokoved Nabokov. My Dark Vanessa and Lolita are a mirror and its reflection—the mirror your break your nose against, to quote Lolita again. (I told you I can do this a lot. My brain is at least 10% composed of the text of Lolita, just sloshing around and bumping into itself over and over again.)

Learned Reader, let me explain. And in order to do that, let me digress back to that episode of Best Book Ever, wherein Julie Strauss and Amy Teegan discussed Lolita.

As happened in that episode of BBE, and as happens inevitably whenever I witness any discussion of Lolita, a particular point was made. That point being: Vladimir Nabokov, via his narrator Humbert Humbert, fails to develop Lolita as a character. Occasionally I’ve even seen readers claim that Humbert/Nabokov dedicates more time to describing one of Lo’s ankle socks than Lo herself—a patently untrue accusation that belies a lazy reading of the novel. Or perhaps, to be more generous, an accusation that belies a shallow reading because the reader is so incredibly uncomfortable with the premise that they can’t bear to go any deeper.

But the point of Lolita isn’t to tell a love story, no matter what Humbert would have you believe. Nor is the point of My Dark Vanessa to tell a love story, which everyone in that novel seems to understand except the narrator Vanessa herself. Each novel requires the reader to make peace with their profound discomfort, accept that its narrator is, as we say in the biz, unreliable, and look past the narrator’s insistence and hand-waving to discern the truth for themselves. And now that we have My Dark Vanessa, it’s a little easier to pry open Lolita and stare into its terrible abyss. The narrator/character Vanessa Wye becomes a useful stand-in for Dolores Haze (alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta).

By observing Vanessa’s reactions to being groomed and subsequently raped by a sexual predator, a careful reader begins to understand why Lolita herself seems so distant or even absent from the text that bears her name. It’s because the act of grooming children for sexual abuse has a distinct and specific purpose. Sexual abuse of anyone, whether the victim is a child or an adult, is partially about the sexual pleasure of the abuser, yes. But particularly in the case of child victims, it’s about so much more than that. We get the clearest hint of that grim purpose near the very end of My Dark Vanessa, when Vanessa has a frank and somewhat healing conversation with Taylor, who is another victim of the high school English teacher who has made his indelible mark upon her life. “There must be a point,” Vanessa thinks, “where you’re allowed to be defined by something other than what he did to you.”

That is the purpose. That is the point. That is the dynamic which both Lolita and My Dark Vanessa are illustrating with such subtlety and skill. The abuse both Strane and Humbert impose upon their victims is less about sexual gratification than the destruction of a human psyche; it’s about building in place of a whole, self-defining personality an automaton, an emotional slave who is dependent on the abuser, a puppet who will forever after be easily manipulated into giving the abuser whatever he or she needs in order to fill their own emotional voids. That’s why children are preyed upon in this way: Because it’s easier to destroy a not-yet-fully-formed personality and remake it according to your own whims than it is to destroy the concrete ego and clearly defined self one usually finds in a mature mind.

That is why Lolita is a ghost inside her own story. Because Humbert has succeeded in deconstructing her—at least for a while—and the reader must make an active, conscious choice to believe Humbert—slick, charming, eloquent, intellectual, unspeakably charismatic—or to believe Lo. To see Lo, despite Humbert’s distractions, and to hear her distress, even though she is afforded no voice. My Dark Vanessa gives the reader a roadmap to understanding Lolita in this way. Usually the parallels to Lolita are subtly and sneakily played, but one moment in My Dark Vanessa makes the parallel nature of the two novels clear, when a college-aged Vanessa reads Titus Andronicus as part of a Shakespeare unit.

Lavinia, the general’s daughter, is gang-raped and subsequently mutilated. The men who rape her cut out her tongue so she can’t speak and cut off her hands so she can’t write. Still, she’s so desperate to tell, she learns how to hold a stick in her mouth and scratches out the men’s names in the dirt.
When I reach that part of the play, I stop reading and grab Strane’s old copy of Lolita from my bookcase and thumb through until I find the section I’m looking for on page 165: Lo laughing at a newspaper column advising kids that if a strange man offers you candy, you should say no and scratch his license plate number on the side of the road. I pencil Lavinia? in the margin and dog-ear the page. I try to pick up Titus Andronicus again, but my brain won’t focus.

Vanessa goes on to write an essay on Lavinia, focusing on her mutilation, “her subsequent silence, the failure of language in the face of rape.”

The scene from Lolita which Vanessa and Russell describe has always chilled me more than any other in that book. Here’s how it reads in Nabokov’s hand:

She went on, her cheek (recedent) against mine (pursuant); and this was a good day, mark, O reader!
“If you don’t have a pencil, but are old enough to read—”
“We,” I quip-quoted, “medieval mariners, have placed in this bottle—”
“If,” she repeated, “you don’t have a pencil, but are old enough to read and write—this is what the guy means, isn’t it, you dope—scratch the number somehow on the roadside.”
“With your little claws, Lolita.”

The mockery in Humbert’s tone is horrifying, if you look past the cheerful, jack-the-lad spin he puts on this scene—on almost every scene in Lolita, up until the end. Lolita, who is naked in that moment and held on Humbert’s lap, reading advice about how to get away from a predator, and Humbert taunting her, knowing that no one will believe her, knowing he has her trapped like an animal.

These two parallel scenes in these respective novels—Vanessa’s epiphany about Lavinia and the failure of language in the face of rape; Lolita’s recognition of her own helpless imprisonment by a gloating abuser—represent the most blatant and undeniable spot where the two novels meet and reflect one another. But there are many more—breadcrumbs leading you along a quiet trail to the conclusion that Vanessa and Lolita are the same; that in understanding the damage done to Vanessa by her abuser, we can also finally see with perfect clarity the wholeness and realness of Lolita, the character who has so often been dismissed as not really there or not fully developed in her own sad story.

I found numerous scenes in My Dark Vanessa that are reflected in Lolita. Here are just a few:

A sexual act performed in a car which is pulled to the side of a country road.

Strane and Humbert both dismissing their victims’ tastes in music as trite and silly.

Humbert, in discussing the bodies of fully mature women:

…there are few physiques I loathe more than the heavy low-slung pelvis, thick calves and deplorable complexion of the average coed (in whom I see, maybe, the coffin of coarse female flesh in which my nymphets are buried alive)

--reflected in a scene in which twenty-five-year-old Vanessa comes across Strane unexpectedly as he leads his students on a field trip to a museum:

Just before he disappears inside, he glances over his shoulder and notices me in my dowdy work clothes, faded and old. For years I wanted nothing more than his eyes on me, but now I’m too ashamed of my own face, its fine lines and signs of age, to take a step closer.

In another scene, when Vanessa is older and talking on the phone (and doing other things on the phone) with Strane,

He describes the pale underbellies of [his young students’] arms when they raise their hands, the tendrils that escape their ponytails, the flush that travels down their necks when he tells them they’re precious and rare. He says it’s unbearable, the way they drip with beauty.

Compare those lines to these from Lolita:

If I close my eyes I see but an immobilized fraction of her, a cinematographic still, a sudden smooth nether loveliness, as with one knee up under her tartan skirt she sits tying her shoe.

There she stood and blinked, cheeks aflame, hair awry, her eyes passing over me as lightly as they did over the furniture…

She was not pretty, but she was a nymphet, and her ivory pale legs and lily neck formed for one memorable moment a most pleasurable antiphony (in terms of spinal music) to my desire for Lolita, brown and pink, flushed and fouled.

I remember at the very first [tennis] game I watched being drenched with an almost painful convulsion of beauty assimilation.

When Vanessa finally has the beginnings of a good conversation with Taylor, one of Strane’s many other victims (and the only one aside from Vanessa whom the reader ever sees), this moment struck me as another subtle reflection of Lolita, as well:

Taylor smiles up at me, flashing small straight teeth. Her canines are pointy, like little fangs, same as mine.

With your little claws, Lolita.

There are many more careful and quiet reflections of Lolita in My Dark Vanessa. I don’t know whether the author consciously put them into the text, or whether they slid in subconsciously, for she is obviously as great an admirer of Nabokov as I am and clearly has at least as much familiarity with Lolita. I’m sure it would be easy for some of these references to slip in without the author noticing, given the subject matter of both novels. But whether these references were done intentionally or subconsciously, the end result is the same. Vanessa provides the reader with the necessary framework for seeing and understanding Lolita; Vanessa is the sick in Lolita’s mouth, scratching out the truth so her story may finally be known.

This difficulty in getting to Lolita’s character, the obscurity of her story, was (I believe) Vladimir Nabokov’s purpose and intent. As I’ve said before, he is one of my favorite authors of all time. I’ve read all his works written in the English language and a fair number of translations of his Russian works. The plots and settings and characters are usually pretty disparate, but the one unifying factor in Nabokov’s work is that he demands active participation from his readers. You can take his stories as simply stories (though if you do, you’ll probably be left wondering why so many book nerds swoon so hard over Nabokov.) Or you can approach them the way I believe the author intends for you to approach his work: As pieces of performance art. Nabokov didn’t just write books and short stories. He created intricate psychological spaces and then lured readers into them. Once inside his various worlds, you have to surrender to his manipulations in order to fully understand what’s going on. He isn’t ever merely telling a story. He is making you react; he is playing a game with you. Kate Elizabeth Russell knows this; there is a perfect little moment in My Dark Vanessa where Vanessa says to one of her schoolmates (talking about Pale Fire), “It’s a novel that resists meaning and demands that the reader relinquish control…”

That’s the ever-present tension in all of Nabokov’s work, and nowhere is more evident than in Lolita. The novel Lolitabegan its life as a novella or a long short story called The Enchanter, written in Russian (his final work in Russian, in fact.) The plot is similar to Lolita, but The Enchanter is moralistic, straightforward; Nabokov himself called it “precise and lucid,” which wasn’t necessarily a compliment coming from him. The Enchanter lacks the sense of trickery and disorienting charm, the sense of disgust and horror amid a proliferation of unbearably beautiful and artful prose—the hallmarks of Lolita. But it’s key, I think, to note its title. The finalized version of that story, which became Nabokov’s most lauded novel, is an enchantment. Humbert Humbert is a magician, a deceiver, who is not only working his sly enchantments on Dolores Haze and everyone around her, but on the reader. The point of Lolita is to trick you, seduce you, entrap you in Humbert’s slick guile and make you forget that at the heart of this story is a suffering child. And only near the end of the novel, after Lolita escapes her captor and tries to forge a life of her own—only in the very last paragraphs, when Humbert comes to the stark realization that he has only ever been a monster all along—does the reader realize how thoroughly they’ve come under Humbert’s enchantment, and feels ashamed.

But re-read Lolita, this time remembering that Lolita herself is the heart of the story, and you’ll be able to see right through Humbert’s spin and discern the truth. The reality is vastly different from the fantasy Humbert asks you to participate in. If you watch the literal action in Lolita but ignore Humbert’s frantic and charming attempts to interpret this action for you, an entirely different story plays out across its pages.

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night—every night, every night—the moment I feigned sleep.

The same dynamic is at play in My Dark Vanessa, but in a sort of reversed order—as is appropriate for a mirror image, I suppose. Everyone, reader included, can see Strane’s manipulations for what they are. Vanessa herself is blind to them, and even as she ages she keeps herself willfully blind, refusing to openly characterize what Strane did to her as rape (though she does come close to touching on that truth several times), and refusing to label him as an abuser and herself as a victim. (Side note: I actually really loved this feature; in real life, issues of abuse and victimization are seldom cut and dried, and it’s often not so simple to easily state that X was abuse and Y is victimization, especially when you’re one of the parties being discussed. I am sure a good many readers will feel disappointed in Vanessa’s resistance to the idea of calling herself a victim, but I though Russell handled an incredibly difficult and sensitive topic with honesty and honored the reality of such a complex human interaction. It’s not satisfying for Vanessa to refuse to join in “the movement”, but it is very human of her to refuse.)

Vanessa never seems to be aware of the fact that her narration is revealing the truth to the reader. She continues to insist that all these interactions she describes between her teenage self and Jacob Strane are “careful” and “loving” and “good”, and all the while the reader is recoiling in abject disgust. It’s the photo negative of Humbert’s proud and enchanting descriptions of the same kinds of interactions between himself and Lolita. Humbert is unaware that he is failing to deceive his readers; Vanessa is also unaware that her readers can see the truth despite her attempts to conceal it, even from herself. Vanessa comes infuriatingly close to hitting on the truth several times, yet always she reels away from reality and hides once more in her delusion.

This disturbing pattern is most evident in a scene where Strane coerces Vanessa into sex after she borrows her mom’s car and instead of going to the store like she promised, goes to Strane’s house, where he once more coerces her into sex. Sixteen-year-old Vanessa thinks, “Is this rape? Is he raping me?” And then she never answers the question for herself, leaving the reader to draw the terrible and inevitable conclusion for themselves. Vanessa insists throughout the book that Strane asked for and obtained consent with every single encounter, yet when she actually remembers those encounters, it’s clear that the consent either isn’t actually obtained, or is coerced—which of course is no consent at all.

The reader must actively participate in My Dark Vanessa, looking through the narrator’s repeated insistence that Strane was good and loving and careful and always prioritized consent, and then the truth becomes objective, monolithic, inescapable—the same way the truth becomes inescapable when the reader rejects Humbert’s slick manipulations in Lolita. It’s easier to do in My Dark Vanessa, since all the other characters are so insistent that Strane is a monster. Strane himself knows this and tells the reader clearly that he knows exactly what he is.

Watching my face, his fingertips slide up my leg and keep sliding until they brush the crotch of my tights. Reflexively, my legs clamp together, trapping his hand [Another callback to a scene in Lolita, by the way.]
“That was too far,” he acknowledges.
I shake my head, relax my legs. “It’s ok.”
“It’s not ok.” His hand slips out from under my skirt and he slides like liquid out of his chair and onto the floor. Kneeling before me, he lays his head on my lap and says, “I’m going to ruin you.”

Reader, he does.

One of the reasons why Vanessa is so damaged while Taylor, Strane’s other named victim, is still relatively functional and successful, is that Strane was able to carry the abuse much farther with Vanessa than he was with Taylor. He gets inside Vanessa—not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and succeeds in turning her into the emotional puppet he wants her to be, subservient to all his whims and utterly dependent on him for approval.

My Dark Vanessa explores the emotional fallout from grooming and abuse so brilliantly that it provides a certain context that’s missing from Lolita. By studying the character of Jacob Strane, the reader can come to understand what Humbert Humbert was lacking in himself, and why he thought he had to destroy Lo in order to create an emotional mechanism which he believed he required for his own survival. My Dark Vanessa doesn’t shy away from depicting Strane as the unforgivable monster that he is. But it also humanizes him in a very necessary way. Sometimes the very worst monsters are all too human. Even as Vanessa grows up and struggles to build an independent life of her own, Strane keeps re-appearing and manipulating her toward his own ends. It’s clear from his behaviors throughout Vanessa’s adult life that he thinks he is entitled to control and define her. And in the end, that’s really what grooming and sexual abuse of children are all about, isn’t it?

My Dark Vanessa increases the complexity of Lolita, and if a reader is familiar with Lolita, they’ll find an increased complexity within My Dark Vanessa, too—which is already a remarkably layered, sensitive, and meaningful novel on its own. I believe the two must be read together, preferably Lolita first, in order for the reader to fully comprehend the entire picture that is being presented by both novels.

What a remarkable achievement, for any author to take a long-cherished piece of the literary canon and create an entire other work of art that not only stands on its own, with its own great strengths, but also lends new, valuable insight into the first text. That a new author was able to pull this off with Vladimir Nabokov— one of the greatest Enchanters of the English language—and Lolita—one of the most important and culturally influential novels of the past few centuries—is nothing short of miraculous. Russell’s debut is potent. As an author myself, I’m in awe that she had the steel ovaries to even attempt something like this. I’m blown away that she pulled it off with such skill and confidence. And I’m almost dismayed for her (but only a little bit), because how do you follow up an achievement so great?

I have no doubt she’ll pull it off, though. A powerful new voice has stepped to the front of the American literary stage. I, for one, will be watching Russell’s career with great interest.

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