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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Penguin 1987 (1955)
Mass Market Paperback (movie tie-in edition)
307 pages
Classics

On the cover of my old, battered, secondhand copy, it says under the title: “The greatest novel of rapture in modern fiction”. There’s a lot you could say about this amazing book, and that’s definitely a good place to start. I have to admit to being rather surprised to see that printed on the cover, but it’s just one of the remarkable things about this book: that it was written at all, that it was published at all, that it was written in the way it was and that you shouldn’t be ashamed or embarrassed or guilty about reading it. Really, you shouldn’t.

That said, I’m glad I didn’t read this book at a younger age, mostly because I wouldn’t have understood it. The language isn’t a breeze to read, it requires effort and thought and, dare I say it, education too. It also requires patience and a willingness to withhold censure until you’ve at least read the damn thing.

I always assumed everyone knew the story of Lolita, or had at least heard of it, it being one of those kinds of books. But I’ve since realised it’s not as well-known as I’d thought, so in case you don’t know what it’s about, I’ll give you the brief run-down.

Humbert Humbert is a pedophile. Not of any little girl, no, but of “nymphets” – girls between the ages of nine and fourteen, posessed of “certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm” – Humbert warms rather quickly to his topic and you get the sense he’s like one of those obsessive antiques collectors, where nothing but the “real deal” will do – hence, I have to use his own words:

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs – the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate – the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power. (p.17)

Arriving in America from Europe, circumstances result in him boarding with a widow, a Mrs. Haze, and her ten-year-old daughter Lolita. He falls instantly in love with Lolita, an obsessive, determined yet shy kind of love (he’s well aware that society does not and would not approve), marries the mother, Charlotte and, when she dies, runs off with Lolita.

Written in first-person narration as a true story, we know several things right from the beginning: Humbert Humbert murdered someone; he’s writing this from prison; and he dies after writing it. Because it’s written in Humbert’s voice, what you get is a very passionate, non-repentant account of the years he was with Lolita and afterwards. He tells us his plans for having his wicked way with her, including drugging both mother and child, and his methods of keeping Lolita in his control once he does “possess” her. He doesn’t go into detail about having Lolita, but the mere mention of such things as having intercourse three times that morning, or of ripping her clothes off – these little bits here and there are enough to make you squirm.

This is the problem with Lolita, the reason behind the censure and fear: it’s not so much the glorification of pedophilia, which I’ll go into later; no, it’s the fear that you, the reader, will be turned on by his descriptions and his feelings. Because Humbert is so crazily passionate about Lolita – and I do believe that he truly loved her, in his own warped, selfish, possessive way – sometimes the book reads like a romance, with erotic echoes: he uses the same kind of language, though he’s very wordy, and talks about Lolita in the most personal way, so that he presents a sympathetic character you can’t help feeling for, even though at the same time you loathe him. Because when you’re sympathetic, you can’t help feeling what he feels. Hence the fear of being turned on, because, as a reader, you can’t distance yourself from this book. Humbert draws you in, he’s often talking directly to you, telling you things you just don’t want to know – only you can’t skip them, because that would be to make reading the book itself entirely pointless. No matter how long-winded he can get (and trust me, he gets very wordy!), you have to read every word, because there’s so much detail, so much subtlety involved, you won’t know what’s going on or understand him if you skip bits.

He also expects us to sympathise with him, saying things like “you can laugh” or “don’t mock me” etc. – while the last thing I want to do is laugh – and this, oddly enough, makes it easier to resist him. But that’s the thing about this character, Humbert Humbert: so unrepentant, so brazen and factual, so romantic in a weird and disturbing way (disturbing because of the object of his love). No, pedophilia is not glorified in/by this book, or Nabokov, but Humbert certainly tries. He compares himself to famous historical figures like Plutarch, who loved nymphets as well. He thinks he’s just alive in the wrong period, that it’s perfectly natural for him to love little girls. But we’re not fooled.

The wonderful thing about this book is the non-preachy, non-moralistic, non-judgemental style it’s written in. In fact, it would be pretty insulting if Nabokov wrote it any other way. He lets Humbert speak for himself and he lets us realise what a sad, lonely, pathetic man he really is. Anyone who says Lolita glorifies pedophilia (and I remember John Howard condemning the movie, with Jeremy Irons and Anna Paquin, along these lines – naturally, he hadn’t read or watched it, just knew it was “bad”) either hasn’t read it or didn’t actually read it. There’s nothing here that condones Humbert’s behaviour or actions, but at the same time Nabokov doesn’t come out and say “This is bad, don’t do this”. He really doesn’t need to.

None of the characters are likeable, though Humbert Humbert has enough warped personality and charm to carry the novel. This brings me to Lolita herself. She’s not exactly innocent, and it’s true she makes the first real move with Humbert. She’s a little shit, really, precocious and greedy – a typical child/teenager, really. Humbert tells us her flaws, and recounts her words and actions with no rose-coloured glasses: he really does love her. Though, as he realises after he’s lost her, he never cared about what she thought or felt. He simply had to have her, for his own sake.

When we had our bookclub meeting on this book, we got into a hearty, inconclusive debate about blame: was Lolita blameless? It’s an interesting question, and opens a whole can of worms. Because she was no innocent, even at such a young age, and because she did in essence seduce him, you could argue that she knew what she was doing and deserved what she got. Well, I disagree. Firstly, because she was just a child, and you don’t really understand the scope of what you’re getting yourself into at that age – we’re talking ten, eleven, even thirteen years old here. It’s like a game, and you think you have all the pieces and are in control, but you’re not. Humbert, being the “responsible adult”, was duty-bound to put a stop to it. Of course, that’s the last thing he would have done. Taking advantage of a child who thinks she’s mature is only one of his sins. My point is, every child has the right to make mistakes, to live and learn – you shouldn’t be taken advantage of by someone who knows it was a mistake, an error in judgement: that shifts the blame pretty quickly, in my understanding.

Also, is it not like those mysoginistic comments that because she was wearing high heals and a short skirt, that woman deserved to be raped? No, I’m sorry, but I’m sick of arguments that put all the blame onto women, as if men were unable to control themselves. No one asks to be raped. No child wants their childhood taken away, to be “possessed” by a “Dad” who has a sexual drive that would scare anyone. I’m not saying that there aren’t some manipulative or controlling etc. women out there, “women” being the key word. We’re talking about a child here, one who knows enough to not-quite-teasingly tell Humbert he’s dirty and is raping her, yet is entirely dependent on him for food, shelter etc., and has been psychologically tormented by him.

Lolita is about more than a dirty older man having his wicked way with a girl. At the very least, it’s a fascinating character study (even though Humbert Humbert’s kind of pedophilia is only one kind), and that, more than anything, is what I took away from it. Nabokov is a brilliant writer, and Lolita is very cleverly written. Part 2 is a bit more long-winded than Part 1, and I didn’t really buy the Rita character, but Humbert is a very convincing character and the way you react to him is a very fine achievement for any work of literature. This is not a book to avoid; it’s a book to read and appreciate for the wonderful, skilful way it was written and for broaching a taboo subject that would fare better if we would only face up to it rather than pretend it didn’t happen at all.

The Lolitas of the world deserve nothing less.

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