Nabokov and Trilling (September 2014 and June 2023)

Nabokov and Trilling

Fran Assa, Anthony Stadlen, Brian Boyd

I want to correct, and apologise for, my impetuous statement, below (3 September 2014) about Nabokovs response to Trilling in the 1958 film of their discussion about Lolita.

On studying the film again (21 June 2023), I see that I was wrong to claim that Nabokov succumbed to Trillings seduction. He was polite, but firm, in contradicting him.

The situation was as follows.

Nabokov, himself unremittingly hostile to Freud and psychoanalysis, wrote Lolita (1955), as an imagined autobiographical account by an intellectual in his thirties of how he systematically sexually abused an early-adolescent girl, starting when she was twelve. Lolita became a bestseller, because it was widely assumed, in particular by many of the literary intellectuals who praised it, to be a kind of superior pornography legitimating the sexual abuse depicted therein as some kind of story of ‘forbidden love. It is clear from the book, and from Nabokovs many comments on it, that, on the contrary, he has written his novel to do what he said a novel should do: create a test, an ordeal, for the reader, whose task is, in a struggle with the author, to become a good reader, able to resist the paedophile narrators monstrous attempts to seduce the reader into collusive sympathy with him and approval of his evil. Lolita, therefore, is a subtle phenomenological study of the evil of seduction and the seduction of evil.

On 26 November 1958 there was a crucial filmed discussion of Lolita on CBC-TV, Close-Up, 


between Nabokov and the psychoanalytically oriented literary critic Lionel Trilling, author of the influential essay ‘Freud and Literature’ (Horizon, Vol. 16, No. 92, September 1947, pp. 182-200; reprinted in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society, 1950).

In that essay Trilling had written:
[...] the Freudian man is, I venture to think, a creature of far more dignity and far more interest than the man which any other modern system has been able to conceive.
This was radically at odds with Nabokov’s view.

Trilling and his wife Diana were often described, apparently with their acceptance and perhaps even approval, as belonging to the ‘New York Intellectuals’.

In the film, Trilling proposed to Nabokov that Lolita was in the great literary tradition of stories of what he called ‘forbidden’ or ‘scandalous’ ‘passion love’. But Nabokov was decidedly unhappy with this characterisation, and pointed out that there had always also been within the great literary tradition ‘as in life’ the theme of ‘passionate love, amorous love, within the terms of normal marriage’, exemplified by Kitty and Lyovin in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenin. Trilling objected that the novel was called not Kitty’ or Lyovin’ but ‘Anna Karenin’. But Nabokov insisted that Kitty and Lyovin were ‘just as alive as Anna’.
Trilling also stated and elaborated his own interpretation in his essay ‘The Last Lover: Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita’ (Encounter, October 1958, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 9-19), contrasting the ‘rapture’ of Humbert’s description of Lolita with boring accounts of modern so-called ‘healthy’ marriage. Trilling did not mention his filmed discussion with Nabokov or that the latter explicitly invoked the story of Kitty and Lyovin’s passionately happy love and marriage as central to the  literary tradition and to life. Perhaps he submitted the article before the television programme was made or filmed.

Why was this distinction so important to Nabokov? Clearly, he was not claiming that the perverted ‘love’ of Humbert Humbert for Lolita was in that tradition of passionate marital love. He explained that in writing Lolita he had been helped by reading many case histories. His insistence can only mean that it is with reference to, in the light of, and contrasted with, the authentic standard of the great literary tradition of happy, passionate marital love exemplified by Kitty and Lyovin that the depraved and perverted pseudo-love of Humbert Humbert for Lolita is to be seen for what it is. This is the test Nabokov sets the ‘good reader’: not to be seduced by the seductive ploys of a pervert. Trilling, the ‘New York Intellectual’ and literary admirer of and expert on Freud, fails the test. But so do virtually all writers on Lolita, with the exception of Nabokov’s biographer Brian Boyd.

As  Nabokov’s wife Vera wrote:
I wish someone would notice the tender description of the child’s helplessness, her pathetic dependence upon the monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along.’

Nabokov’s ‘good reader’ is supposed to discover anew, by a kind of via negativa, something of the distinctive being of children and of adults.
Anthony Stadlen
21 June 2023

In response to Anthony Stadlen’s semi-prompt [below, on 3 September 2014, AS]: from what I recall of Trilling’s article, he makes a valid point about the appeal for Nabokov of a situation that keeps desire at its steamy peak, as in the hothouse conditions of the courtly love tradition.

On the other hand Trilling missed the fact that in Lolita Nabokov shows what love is, not by showing it in a form that conserves its intensity, but by showing exactly what it is not, in Humbert’s relations with Lolita. This strikes me more vividly than ever after my prolonged recent immersion in Nabokov’s Letters to Véra, which I have just finished editing and translating with Olga Voronina (864 pages, Penguin, September 23; Knopf will not publish it in the US until 2015). Nabokov’s relationship to Véra in the letters reveals exactly what’s missing in Humbert’s relationship to Lolita in the novel, and what Nabokov meant readers to sense was missing: a mutual delight in what their minds can share, a sense of immediate attunement even when the tune is surprising or distant or momentarily jarring; a constant sympathetic awareness of her perspective and concern for her needs; a refusal to manipulate her, while always trying to enchant her. Very different indeed from The Enchanter, or Humbert’s attempted drug-rape of Lolita at the Enchanted Hunters. 

Brian Boyd


On 3/09/2014, at 10:55 pm, Anthony Stadlen <STADLEN@AOL.COM> wrote:

I have always found Trilling's article deplorable: a paradigm case of psychoanalytically corrupted misunderstanding of, and debasement of, the concept of "love".
I didn't find the sound quality of the Nabokov-Trilling conversation prohibitive. It was all too audible. I was deeply disappointed by Nabokov's succumbing to Trilling's flattery and colluding with his psychobabble. The would-be fierce opponent of the "Viennese quack" was seduced without a murmur of protest. 
I imagine Brian Boyd will understand what I am talking about, if nobody else does.
Anthony Stadlen
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In a message dated 03/09/2014 03:43:47 GMT Daylight Time, franassa@HOTMAIL.COM writes:
I've just reread Lionel Trilling's "Encounter" piece on Lolita.  I was even more impressed than the first time I'd read it.  I think it is one of the best things I've ever read on the book.  I'm wondering what others might think.  Also, I've tried to watch the youtube conversation with Nabokov and Trilling, but the sound quality is prohibitive.  Does anyone know of a source with good sound quality?  Did the Nabokovs and the Trillings see anything of each other socially?
Fran Assa

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