The Menlo Roundtable

Deliberate Artistry

What’s the difference between romantic and Romantic? Is one more noble than the other?

Actually, it makes all the difference in the world to know when you read a book like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Students in Maren Adler’s Dangerous Ideas class explore these questions and so many others as they unpack one of the most complex and controversial works in the English language. It can be hard enough to make sense of the style, in which Nabokov “revels in the unbalancing of traditional structures, in the freaky distribution of details. The slumbering past is jerked awake by a slap of the present tense” (critic Anthony Lane on Nabokov). But how can a high school student be expected to contextualize the subject matter: a grown man’s obsession with a young girl?

Read Tiffany Tam’s analysis of the protagonist of Nabokov’s Lolita, whom she argues “is no ordinary storyteller, and the tale he spins is no love story. Humbert uses his pedophilic relationship with a teenage girl to craft a narrative about himself as a Romantic artist.”