by Vladimir Nabokov
I originally started this blog in 2012 as a way to keep track of what I’d been reading, and to put (somewhat) coherent thoughts together right after I finish a book. I had a lot of time for reading, given my general lack of employment, but I didn’t always having someone to talk to when I finished something. Finally, finding that I had no one to talk to about Pale Fire, another Navokov work, I decided that if I wanted someone who would reliably listen to my scattered thoughts, that someone would have to be me. I began to mull the idea of a blog.
That is to say, reading Pale Fire in late 2011, and Lolita less than a year before that, led directly to my blog’s creation, as these were some of the last books that I read before I decided to share my thoughts with the world. Nabokov is a unique writer, one that cries out for attention, and I hoped to one day use my blog to provide it.
Lolita is a complicated book, to say the least. On one level, it’s a relatively sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile who lets his wife die so that he has a chance to rape her twelve-year-old daughter. That’s an accurate one sentence description of the book, one that you might be reluctant to give to anyone wondering what you’re reading, but it doesn’t nearly do the book justice. Lolita is about pedophilia, yes, but it’s about much more than that.
The novel records the misadventures of a European man, Humbert Humbert, whose one childhood experience with romance and sex leads to a lifetime of desire for adolescent girls. At least, that’s his own psychoanalytic rationalization of his desire for what he calls “nymphets.” Unable to find happiness in his native Europe, Humbert moves to America, where he continues his academic career, still unsatisfied with his life. Knowing it’s a long shot, he takes a chance by renting a room in a small New England town, hoping and praying that his host’s daughter will be an easy victim. Arriving in Ramsdale, his plans fall through, but things soon perk up for Humbert; he’s invited to board with Charlotte Haze and her twelve year old daughter, Dolores. Humbert immediately develops a crush on Dolores, or Lolita, as he prefers to call her.
Standing in the way of this perfect romantic set-up is Charlotte, who develops her own feelings for Humbert. He treats her with nothing but contempt, but she falls head over her heels, ultimately pressuring him into an unhappy marriage. Fortunately for Humbert, a deadly accident soon befalls Charlotte, leaving the widower as Lolita’s sole guardian. The pair immediately set off on a cross-country road trip. Humbert plans his next moves as Lolita–still a young child, of course–latches on to anything that might distract her from the trauma she’s experiencing and the horror of what Humbert plans for her.
It’s a comedy. Kind of. Navokov is one of my favorite writers, due not just to his amazing linguistic talent–he’s fluent in French and Russian, in addition to being one of the best English-language novelists of the twentieth century–but also for his ability to create humor in absurd and even upsetting situations. Humbert Humbert, the lecherous foreigner, bumbles through his narration, emphasizing his own deficiencies to such an extent that he comes off as pathetic rather than predatory. Telling his story from a prison cell, Humbert’s self-image is that of a tragic hero, and he’s so simultaneously honest and dishonest with his audience that we can’t help but see the humor in the situation, even as we’re repulsed by his lack of empathy.
My rudimentary analysis is that Nabokov uses his protagonist’s perversions to talk about more universal expressions of love and, just as importantly, lust. The latter is actually better reflected in Lolita than the former, I think. Divided in half, the first part of the novel takes us through the origins and early expressions of Humbert’s predilection, and later the development of his insatiable lust for an idealized Lolita. The second half follows the pair on their road trip across the United States, stopping at every roadside attraction and spending their nights in crappy motels. Humbert spends most of his time and energy trying to convince her to grant him the sexual favors he desires, through bribery, threats, and other forms of coercion. Normal methods of seduction are almost out of the question.
When I read Lolita for the first time, over five years ago now, I found the first part to be faster, funnier, more exciting, and more interesting than the second half. I hold by that assessment, but I think Nabokov intentionally structured his novel to mirror the progression of what you might call a crush: the toxic combination of love and lust that doesn’t reveal what it truly is until it’s too late. Humbert’s feelings for Lolita can’t be described as anything but a crush, especially given his admitted lack of experience with real romantic relationships. The book follows his crush, from his introduction to the enigmatic nymphet Lolita, to getting to know her a little bit, to his first quasi-sexual encounter with her, and finally to his conquest, success beyond his wildest dreams. He achieves everything he could have ever wanted.
Then part two starts. Whereas part one is full of possibility, part two is full of dread and foreboding. Humbert got what he wanted, but he finds himself in increasingly desperate and precarious positions, as he tries to hold onto his hard-fought victory. Humbert’s relationship with Lolita–the one that exists in his head–looks exactly like the real relationships that we all experience. At first full of passion, that superficial feeling slowly but inevitably fades, revealing what lies beneath: hopefully love and respect, but possibly resentment, shame, or even hatred. The second half of Lolita represents the passion of a crush withering away and dying.
Of course, there’s more to the book than that; there are entire plot points I haven’t even explained. In the latter half of Lolita, Humbert fears that he and his lover are being followed, possibly by a policeman, or perhaps a family member. Desperate to escape his pursuer, knowing what discovery would mean for him, Humbert becomes more and more erratic in his movement and jealous of Lolita’s activities. I neglected to explain this part of the story earlier because it simply doesn’t interest me. It was hard for me to follow, even experiencing Lolita a second time and having advance knowledge of the mystery, and I honestly find it distracting. I understand that Nabokov needs something to drive Humbert forward, and to drive him mad, but I don’t think the hidden clues and red herrings are meant to be taken seriously. There are so many other things for readers to focus on.
For one thing, there’s Lolita’s feelings, which don’t really play a part in Humbert’s self-centered account. I still find his narration hilarious, so it’s easy to forget that he fucks over every other character in the book, especially the girl he ostensibly loves. I don’t think I noticed it as much the first time I read the book, but if you focus on Lolita’s character, the book morphs from comic to tragic and violent very quickly. Which, of course, it was the whole time.
So people who are repulsed by Lolita‘s premise aren’t wrong. I think there’s value to the novel, but there’s no question that it focuses on its narrator at the expense of his victim. That focus isn’t always positive, and in fact I think it would be hard to read Lolita as anything but critical of Humbert; still, many would likely say that the book glosses over the affects Humbert has on Lolita herself. That’s certainly fair, but to ignore the absurdity of the narration would be to miss the entire appeal of the novel. We’re not supposed to sympathize with Humbert. If we were, it would be a very different novel.
Lolita is a great book, and there’s probably nothing I can say to add or detract from it. The subject matter is polarizing, but if you can get over that, there’s no reason not to check it out.