The Lolita Legacy

Estelle Tang on the inheritance of Lolita in Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast, Amity Gaige’s Schroder, and now, Alissa Nutting’s Tampa.

Last month, Alissa Nutting’s debut novel, Tampa, made the Australian news: The Age reported that some Australian bookshops had decided not to stock it for moral reasons. Given the types of books that have challenged social standards in the past – Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Story of O – I wasn’t surprised that the Texan author’s tale of a woman, Celeste Price, who seeks a teaching career in order to seduce teenage boys has attracted similar disgust and criticism.

Nutting’s description of her book as a contemporary version of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita piqued my interest. Lolita is a classic controversial novel, with a sympathetic monster and a troubling crime at its core. I’m always curious about the books I think of as Lolita’s children; a decade ago, Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal and Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast also imagined an affair between a teacher and a student. What would Nutting’s take on this be?

On the surface, there are clear similarities between Nutting’s novel and Nabokov’s. Both explore the internal workings of an adult who craves, and eventually orchestrates, sex with an adolescent. We get a direct line to the thoughts of these protagonists, a confronting experience when our natural instinct is to abhor their actions and empathise with their victims.

Tampa is the racier novel. Once Celeste has picked her target – the shy, blond Jack Patrick – she encourages him with explicit, post-pornographic conversation: ‘I love that you’re hard,’ she says to him one day after class, fondling him through his cargo shorts. But Tampa lacks Lolita’s subtlety and powerful characterisation, giving brazen Celeste the mic and Jack a convenient, bland passivity. In Nabokov’s novel, even through the famously solipsistic haze of Humbert’s prattlings, the personality of Lolita emerges bit by bit; she’s every part a being in her own right.

The idea of such literary succession had me thinking about other ‘offspring’; Lolita has undoubtedly been an influence upon many later novels. A book that is, unexpectedly, as much Lolita’s spiritual successor as Nutting’s is Amity Gaige’s Schroder, even though there are no sensibility-curdling sexual relations here – just a father and a daughter.

The novel opens with a child’s wishful thinking: 14-year-old Erik Schroder sees a summer camp brochure that features all-American boys splashing around and adventuring. Having only been in America for five years, having never fully achieved Americanness, Erik realises that at Camp Ossipee he could be someone other than a German transplant. First, though, he needs to write an application. ‘What sort of statement were they looking for?’ he wonders, ‘What sort of boy?’ He dreams himself a new identity – Eric Kennedy – and is accepted to camp.

Skip forward a couple of decades. He falls in love, gets married, has a child – and has remained Eric Kennedy his whole life. But then it all unravels in a cruel reversal of what has gone before: his wife falls out of love, they separate, and gradually she wrests increasing custody of their child, Meadow, from him.

At first, Eric Kennedy doesn’t seem at all like Humbert. He’s a loving husband and father, and he’s not a paedophile. But his love of language and fastidious usage recall Humbert’s glorious way with a sentence. (Another authorial wink: Meadow claims she wants to be a lepidopterist, recalling Nabokov’s famous love for butterflies.) As Eric describes it, the moment he awakens to fatherly love is this:

that day occurred when I came home from soccer and Meadow – eighteen months of age, a whisper of a being – pointed to my sweaty face and said, ‘Daddy rains.’

Thereafter, he sees something of himself in his daughter, something he can admire and foster. He teaches her how to read by the time she is three years old.

When Eric files for divorce, the custody battle begins to sour. A parental assessment goes poorly – Meadow ends up atop a tree – and his ex-wife’s lawyer is superior to his. Eric fears his visitation rights will be cut off completely, and one weekend he takes off with Meadow, hoping to escape to Canada on his German passport.

It’s a wild decision that, to Gaige’s credit, is entirely credible. The Schroder layer of the palimpsest gradually begins to show; Erik is self-regarding and erratic, capable of enough self-deception to describe the incremental decisions that lead to abducting his daughter without laying the blame at his own feet. Eric/Erik is a magnetic character, arresting and repellent in equal measure.

Emily Maguire’s Taming the Beast forms a neat triangle with Tampa and Lolita, and is for me the most emotionally affecting of the three. This searing novel about a girl reconstituting her life after an affair with her English teacher is a sparking livewire, full of rage, sex and unresolvable trauma.

Sarah Clark, a bookish, preternaturally bright student, is surprised to find herself happy and insatiable when Mr Carr seduces her after class one afternoon. Sex seems a natural complement to her love for literature; after all, it’s what Shakespeare called ‘the beast with two backs’. ‘Fucking,’ Sarah thinks, ‘was poetry unbound.’ But the teacher’s wife soon discovers their secret, and he’s spirited interstate, out of her reach.

What follows in Sarah’s life is a whirl of sex, drugs and alcohol. While her friends are getting engaged and pregnant, she works night shifts at a restaurant and brings men home to her flat indiscriminately. The only meaningful relationship she has is with her school friend Jamie, who desires her as much he wants to protect her.

Years later, Mr Carr reappears, looking for her. Sarah is both thrilled and thrown to find the cause of her dysfunction back in her world. But what is most affecting about this novel is that there is no resolution. Humbert and Schroder write their testimonies from prison, but Sarah Clark must live, ‘free’, with the consequences of her seducer’s actions. It’s in Sarah that I felt I finally heard Lolita, muted by her captor’s self-justifying monologue, truly speak – and the account’s raw uncertainty is both disturbing and electrifying.

Estelle Tang is a writer and editor. She is the co-founder of the food blog Flavour Palace, and a bibliotherapist at The School of Life.