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the Complete Review
the complete review - anthology

Lolita in the Afterlife

edited by
Jenny Minton Quigley

general information | review summaries | our review | links

To purchase Lolita in the Afterlife

Title: Lolita in the Afterlife
Authors: various
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2021
Length: 411 pages
Availability: Lolita in the Afterlife - US
Lolita in the Afterlife - UK
Lolita in the Afterlife - Canada
  • On Beauty, Risk, and Reckoning with the Most Indelible and Shocking Novel of the Twentieth Century
  • Edited by Jenny Minton Quigley

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Our Assessment:

B : a good contemporary reaction-collection to the classic novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 2/12/2020 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The essays are uniformly enjoyable, and readers will find this collection full of welcome perspectives on a literary classic." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Lolita in the Afterlife collects pieces by thirty writers on Vladimir Nabokov's classic and (in)famous novel, more than sixty years after its publication in the United States in 1958. While different cultural backgrounds do inform many of the essays, the perspective is almost entirely American -- Aleksandar Hemon on 'Acquiring Lolita's Language' and Zainab Salbi on 'A Living Story of Lolita in Iraq' are among the few pieces that consider the book in in any way a foreign(-country) context --, and, for the most part, very much of the times: the "Me Too"-movement is frequently mentioned -- Morgan Jenkins' piece is even titled: 'Lolita, #MeToo, and Myself' --, and even the COVID-19-related lockdowns come up, and not just in Dani Shapiro's 'Lolita in Lockdown'. The contributions are predominantly but not overwhelmingly female (roughly two-thirds), and range from very personal takes to more general ones considering different aspects of the book and manifestations of its influences, including in fashion and music.
       Editor Jenny Minton Quigley and many of the contributors wonder and/or consider whether it would even be possible to publish Lolita in this day and age. No less shocking than when it was first published -- unlike much that was denounced as outrageous or pornographic decades ago --, the nature of the relationship at the heart of Lolita remains beyond the pale; whatever its artistic merit, there's no getting around the fact that the novel is about the most abhorrent behavior, the violation of a child, and that the perpetrator is allowed to justify his behavior by being the one who narrates the story. (How successful he is is of course an open question, but, as several contributors note, it does make a huge difference that his victim is, essentially, not given a voice in the novel, presented only refracted through Humbert's entirely subjective and self-serving view.) The discomfort of almost all the contributors as they wrestle with the duality of the undeniable appeal of Nabokov's seductive writing and the sheer monstrosity of the subject-matter is palpable
       Minton Quigley is the daughter of Walter Minton, the president of G.P.Putnam in 1958 and the man responsible for publishing the first American edition of Lolita, and her Introduction to this volume includes an interesting description of how that came about. Sarah Weinman adds a bit more to the story in focusing on 'The Showgirl Who Discovered Lolita', profiling Rosemary Ridgewell and expanding on the role she played, while Stacy Schiff's 'Véra and Lo' spotlights Véra Nabokov's role in the publication of her husband's book, providing a useful overview of its early reception. Meanwhile, in 'Witness for the Defense: My Father and Lolita', Emily Mortimer considers what her father, renowned novelist and criminal defense barrister John Mortimer, might have made of Lolita (he defended several cases prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959) and Humbert (acknowledging that, given his crimes: "My father could never have got Humbert off in a court of law") -- with the neat overlap of Emily Mortimer having recently starred in the adaptation of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop, in which Lolita plays a pivotal role.
       The train wreck that was the Broadway stage adaption by Edward Albee (starring Donald Sutherland and Ian Richardson -- and a twenty-four-year-old Blanche Baker in the title role ...) and the Alan Jay Lerner/John Barry musical version, alas, are overlooked (understandably so, since they have disappeared from view, long-dead branches of the otherwise flourishing Lolita-tree), but the longest piece in the collection, Tom Bissell's 'Nabokov's Rocking Chair: Lolita at the Movies', is a thorough look at the novel's path to the big screen, from Nabokov's own screenplay to the versions by Stanley Kubrick and Adrian Lyne. Looking at another form of adaptation in 'The Lollipop Room', Kira Von Eichel: "spent hours and days and weeks" listening to the enormous number of Lolita-inspired songs (two hundred alone titled 'Lolita', for a start), observing that: "at their core, rock and roll and pop are about sex" -- but Lolita decidedly isn't, compounding the uneasy mix.
       She also points out that:

     When we listen to the music of Lolita, she's no longer twelve. She hovers somewhere between sixteen and eighteen, near consent, easier to take.
       Interestingly, much of the discussion in this collection considers more generally the problematic imbalance inherent to older men's relationships with much younger girls and women (generally but not necessarily under the age of majority) -- a reflection of the #MeToo focus on men in positions of (some form of) power and dominance taking advantage of these. It's a valid and important point to emphasize, but Lolita is more (and deliberately) extreme, the story not allowing that softening at the edges that came in song or cinematic portrayals, or Lifetime-movie variations, etc. with their older-teen Lolitas. Nabokov's Lolita is herself not even teen-age but rather, as Nabokov has Humbert repeatedly acknowledge, a mere: "girl-child" -- and the nymphets he worships can be, he suggests, as young as nine --, pushing his transgression even further beyond the pale. Lolita has very much become part of popular culture, the Lolita-phenomenon depicted in countless variations, in movie, film, and music -- yet it would be impossible to present a movie-of-the-week version or the like in which the Lolita-figure was still, as in Nabokov's novel, a mere girl-child. In this sense, the original novel remains one-of-a-kind -- and uniquely difficult to come to terms with.
       Many of the contributions in Lolita in the Afterlife are very personal, the writers describing their own early -- or long put off -- encounters with the book. It is somewhat astonishing how many seem to have first read it at a very young age, but often these reactions -- especially compared to later re-readings -- are particularly interesting. Somewhat discomfiting is also how many could relate, in some way, to the situation presented in the book.
       Lolita in the Afterlife is also filled with very strong opinions, the writers (as readers) torn between Nabokov's artistry and the strong antipathy to the story -- though, as writers, quite a few are fascinated by Nabokov's willingness to go to such an extreme. Many express hatred of and revulsion at Humbert -- Andre Dubus III writes: "I want to kill him" --, and while some mention explanations that are sometimes made in his defense, essentially no one finds these arguments truly compelling. If some identify with aspects of Lolita, she is also an elusive, incomplete figure -- kept also in this way in check by narrator-Humbert. Among the more creative takes some of the contributors attempt to enter into the minds of some of the characters, trying to imagine their perspective: Cheryl Strayed's 'Dear Sugar' takes the form of a letter a now eighty-five-year-old Dolores Mayes (so Lolita's actual surname here) writes, finally: "ready to tell the story I made of myself", while Jessica Shattuck doesn't resurrect Lolita's mother Charlotte Haze but does have her write to Humbert from the afterlife, also in 2020, in 'Charlotte's Complaint', a welcome look at the often overlooked character.
       The collection is also very much of the present-day in how very many of the pieces take that very personal take, the writers writing of personal experience and reaction -- very much the popular form of essays in our time. Many do have interesting relevant experiences to relate -- Kate Elizabeth Russell's 'Maison Nymphette' describing the Lolita-obsession she shared in an online community as a teen, for example -- but the sheer number of personal takes and judgements can be somewhat wearing (as also, at some four hundred pages and with thirty contributions, Lolita in the Afterlife is a collection that approaches being over-sized). Except for the fictional pieces that adopt the voice of another (Strayed doing Lolita, Shattuck as Charlotte Haze), the authorial-I crops up in practically every piece -- even Sarah Weinman, in her otherwise almost entirely documentary piece on Rosemary Ridgewell, mentions: "the more I wondered about her, the more she stuck with me", and Zainab Salbi's 'A Living Story of Lolita in Iraq' includes a mention of her "clapping with joy" at getting her first period. No doubt, it allows for an easier connection for the reader to writer and piece, a let-me-tell-you kind of intimacy (and personal exposure) that obviously has some appeal -- and is arguably preferable to a dry-academic treatment of (this or any) subject matter, but .....
       (To internally contradict myself briefly: I sometimes feel -- especially after reading a collection like this -- that I really don't ever need to see another essay (or book review ...) in which the authorial-I crops up, and even less any that have the writer offering up a (or several ...) personal anecdote(s).)
       There's something to be said for considering things at a greater distance, but, for better and worse, Lolita in the Afterlife is pretty much all up close and personal. The subject matter, of course, makes it difficult to try to take on almost any form of neutrality or would-be objectivity; given free rein to react, the writers here do -- consistently strongly. It makes for a very spirited collection -- though, at thirty pieces, an occasionally wearing one. And, despite the variety, inevitably a sense of repetition creeps in, the feeling that they're beating the same horse, so to speak.
       Still, Lolita in the Afterlife is well worthwhile, and there are many fascinating perspectives here, in consistently well-written contributions. It is, anno 2021, very much of our time (and, as very much an American-based collection, place), but a welcome addition to the voluminous literature and commentary on the novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 April 2021

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Lolita in the Afterlife: Reviews: Lolita: Lolita under review at the complete review: Other books of interest under review:

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© 2021 the complete review

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