Lolita: A Janus Text

Front Cover
Twayne Publishers, 1995 - Literary Criticism - 143 pages
The crude details of Vladimir Nabokov's story Lolita are well known: The protagonist, Humbert Humbert, marries a widow in order to seduce her provocative teen-aged daughter, Lolita. He succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, becoming in the process not only a child molester (of Lolita) but a murderer (of her lover Quilty). These facts of the story have never been in dispute, but their import has often been the subject of confusion and controversy. Even the book's publication history - it was issued first by a French press known for its pornography in 1955 and finally by the respectable New York firm of Putnam in 1958 - reflects the divided nature of the response to it.
Since its publication, critics have categorized Lolita variously as too cerebral or too sensual, too neoclassical or too romantic, too complex or too obvious, too depressing or too witty, too immoral or too didactic. If Lance Olsen would take issue with the "too" in these descriptions, he would also question the "or." In fact, the novel is cerebral and sensual, neoclassical and romantic, complex and obvious, depressing and witty, immoral and didactic. "Like the Roman god Janus," Olsen writes, "Lolita gazes in two directions at once."
In this lively and discerning study of Nabokov's complex tale of sexual obsession and immorality, Olsen clarifies for the reader its many seeming contradictions, brings into focus its many points of view. Its method of characterization, narrative form, themes, tone, use of language, and subtle, yet nearly innumerable literary allusions are all taken up with the idea of laying bare the sophisticated underpinnings of the story.
Olsen examines Lolita's place in literary history, explaining how here, too, the novel shows its Janus face as Nabokov acknowledges his debt to modernists such as James Joyce while anticipating the deconstructionist bent of such postmodernists as Donald Barthelme. This meeting of modern and postmodern in a single text marks a crucial moment in the evolution of the novel.
His literary venturesomeness notwithstanding, Nabokov himself held fundamentally conservative values that seem at odds with his experimental prose style and his interest in sexual metaphors and attitudes. This paradox, too, contributes to the double-faced nature of the text as the ethical dimensions of the story are complicated by Nabokov's artistic concerns.
Olsen's Lolita: A Janus Text uses the Roman god as a guiding image of entry into the world of what remains one of the most elegantly composed and thematically complex novels in the English language.

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Mystery and Minutiae
Hurricane Lolita
Umber and Black

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About the author (1995)

Lance Olsen is director of the creative writing program and associate professor at the University of Idaho.

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