Something Good #7: Dolores
I first came across comedian and writer Jamie Loftus when a friend recommended her podcast My Year in Mensa. Loftus joined the brainy organization on a lark when she unexpectedly passed the entrance exam, but decided to examine it more closely when she started to get angry pushback from its members.
In a development which in retrospect should be not at all surprising, Mensa turned out to be a sort of high-IQ Chive, consisting of what seemed to be largely MAGAhead Big Bang Theory megafans who spent all their time shitposting to an unmoderated Facebook group (if you don’t understand any of that, I envy you). It made for a fascinating, frequently dismaying four-episode series centred around a very perplexing trip Loftus took the organization’s annual get-together in Phoenix.
So I was very excited when I heard that her next project was a deep dive on a book by one of my favourite authors, Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita Podcast is a 10-episode series exploring the creation and deep cultural legacy of Nabokov’s most famous—and most misunderstood—novel.
I have so far listened to about seven episodes as of this writing and honestly, I feel like I’ve practically earned a master’s degree in the subject. This is an astoundingly well-researched and persuasively-argued study. Loftus asks a question that has been hanging there in plain sight but almost never addressed since the book’s original publication in 1955: “Why did Lolita become a story about a child inviting their own abuse?”
Meaning: how did a book about the horrific abuse and kidnapping of a 12-year-old child become so misunderstood in adaptation, starting with Stanley Kubrick’s film version in 1962 and continuing pretty much to this day? Why is it presented as the story of a seductive younger woman in heart-shaped sunglasses and her flustered middle-aged beau? Why do covers of the book still feature a quote calling it a “the only convincing love story of the century” (emphasis mine)? And how does this grievous misreading still continue to shape culture to this day?
Loftus takes us into the origins of both the book and its many adaptations (including a horrifically misbegotten stage musical), looking at contemporary reviews, interviews and correspondence. And she doesn’t stop there: the podcast also examines the book’s many salacious covers, the musicians and online communities it continues to influence, and even the knock-off softcore B-movies that proliferated in the ‘60s and ‘70s with titles like Black Lolita. We learn about how the study of child abuse was stifled by the theories of Freud (whom Nabokov despised) and hear from survivors with profoundly conflicted relationships to the source material.
She approaches the subject with extraordinary intelligence and sensitivity, careful to distinguish between the character of Dolores Haze, as her mother and friends in the book call her. and “Lolita,” her abuser Humbert Humbert’s pet name for her—a distinction to which most adaptations are oblivious. And she leaves us feeling pretty positively about Nabokov himself, who for the most part strenuously opposed these misreadings and insisted that this was not a story of seduction, but one of abuse.
I highly recommend Lolita Podcast. It is a tour-de-force. You should be able to find it on any podcast app.
I’ve made another crossword for you. This one has a theme, which if you can guess (and tell me every clue that refers to it), will earn you a shout-out in next week’s newsletter.
Bonus tracks: Sometimes the Spotify curation team turns out something that just hits the bullseye of my tastes. Check out this great disco playlist, with selections from incredible African musicians like Hugh Masekela and Oby Onyioha, as well as classics from Grace Jones, Loose Joints, Patrice Rushen, Talking Heads, Taana Gardner and many more…
Speaking of, Chris Johns of The Globe & Mail interviewed me for this piece on pandemic playlist-making. The quote from me in it is… ridiculous.
Here’s the playlist made up of “days of the week” songs I talk about in the article:
Bonus fact: Did you know that Ruth Bader Ginsburg studied under Nabokov and credited him for influencing the way she wrote?
At Cornell University, my professor of European literature, Vladimir Nabokov, changed the way I read and the way I write. Words could paint pictures, I learned from him. Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.
Thank you for reading this issue! Every Wednesday I’ll send you Something Good. If you like it, please send a friend my way.