LOLITA BY VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Na-bo-kov. Light of my life, fire of my loi…ok, maybe not.

Let me count the ways: 1, 2, 3…times I’ve read this novel with rapt attention and, some would claim, inappropriate enthusiasm and glee. Lolita is a book that makes people nervous, perhaps understandably, but not me. On each occasion I have gambolled through it. This is one of the premier masterpieces of world literature; it has very few equals and even fewer betters. It is, however, according to a leading literary expert [me, that is], largely misunderstood.

Whenever I have been asked to discuss Nabokov’s novel the first thing I have asserted, most vehemently, is that it isn’t a book about child abuse, which is not to say that it doesn’t feature child abuse. Humbert Humbert is, of course, even by his own admission, a pedophile, and Lolita is abused by him [and others], but that doesn’t mean that Lolita, the novel, is about pedophilia or child abuse, that these vile acts are the author’s intellectual focus. You must remember that Lolita is [amongst other things] a comedy, or satire, and satires often feature exaggerated characters and situations. And aspects of Lolita are exaggerated, are absurd. Seriously, does anyone think Humbert is a convincing human being? Look at the sniggersome name, the ludicrously luscious prose, the tache-twisting dastardly [and very funny] asides. Come on, people; Nabokov could only have made him more cartoonish if he had dropped an anvil on him from a great height. So, yeah, to my mind, it’s a satire, and one of the features of satire is that there is an underlying theme[s] or idea[s], below the surface action of the story; there is an element of authorial two-facedness, and an atmosphere of ridicule.

In any case, even if one was to read the novel without a smirk; even if one was to treat it as a novel of the utmost seriousness, I would still maintain that it isn’t about child abuse. You have to wonder, what would have been the point of writing it at all if the only thing Nabokov had to say was there is abuse in the world, and this is how it works. No, he’s far cleverer than that, far more tricksy and subtle. I would also say, with equal vehemence, that it is not about love either. That seems to be one of the most popular interpretations, but I would suggest that this indicates two things: that the people who think this haven’t read the text closely enough and that they have never been in love. Part of my resistance to this idea is based on my opinion that unrequited love doesn’t exist, because while one could make a claim that Humbert is in love with Lolita [although I don’t believe this either] one could not say the reverse. Love cannot be unrequited because it is, by definition, by my definition, a shared experience [a sharing of time, affection, etc]; it is, I strongly believe, a mutual feeling; one cannot love someone who doesn’t know you, or doesn’t like you, or doesn’t treat you with respect and affection. I remember when I was about 18 I broke up with a girl and I was pretty cut-up about it. After moping [I don’t cry] for weeks, my best friend one day said to me:

“Do you really love her?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Of course!”

“But what did you love about her? You’ve just spent the last four hours telling me what an awful bitch she is.”

“Oh, she’s beautiful, and…um…she’s…ah…”

“Thing is, your love has to be based on something, at the very least upon the way she makes you feel.”

“She makes me feel like shit.”

“You don’t love her then.”

You see, my best friend was right. I’ve been in love since then, and I can say categorically that I didn’t love that girl. I thought I did, but that means absolutely nothing. Some people think they’re Jesus, but that don’t make it so. Lolita does not love Humbert, and so, for me, Humbert cannot love Lolita, even if he thinks he does [because this feeling of his can only be, and is, based purely on superficial desires, such as a physical attraction]. Indeed, I’m not even convinced that Humbert himself believes that what he feels for Lolita is love. For example, at one stage he floats the possibility of getting her pregnant, so as to have another nymphet in the future, who would then, in time, also have a child, who could also become his nymphet. Presumably he would, in this succession, discard the former love interest. Does that sound like love to you!? I’d be surprised if even Humbert thought so. Moreover, our narrator spends a significant proportion of the text making it clear that he will only be interested in Lo for a specific period of time [whilst she remains a nymphet] and at no point stops being interested in other young girls. Most tellingly, he admits, towards the end of the novel, that he never really knew the child, that they were never intimate in any way other than physically. I would say that love is about having a deep connection with another human being, a mutual connection, and this is not how one would describe the novel’s central relationship.

Another popular take on what is happening in the novel is that Lolita is the aggressor, that she takes advantage of Hum. Whew, really? That this is even discussed at all, let alone by supposedly intelligent people, makes my skin crawl, pisses me off both morally and intellectually. Let’s just put aside for a while the fact that there is absolutely no evidence for this theory in the text, that at no point is she anything other than a brassy, and, yes, sometimes manipulative, kid, and consider something for a moment: she’s twelve, people. Twelve! I’d say that anyone who wants to lay the blame at Lolita’s door, who thinks that she is some sort of vile temptress really needs to take a long hard look at themselves and their attitudes towards women. I’m not spending any more time on this; it’s ludicrous, insulting, and repugnant thinking.

[Speaking of ludicrous, Martin Amis said that he thinks that the book is an allegory for Russian totalitarianism, or something of that sort. My response: keep swinging, Marty, one day you might hit the ball.]

Having covered what I don’t think Lolita is, it is necessary to spend some time exploring what I think are some of the central concerns and themes. I believe that a case can be made for Lolita being about infatuation. Infatuation looks an awful lot like love, to the untrained eye, just like the wolf in sheep’s clothing might look like a sheep…from a distance…to an idiot. What defines infatuation, for me, what differentiates it from real love, is that it is not mutual, it exists only on one side of the fence, so to speak. One can be infatuated with someone without really knowing them, in fact without ever having met them; it is a feeling that most often causes great anguish, but the object of the infatuation is unaware of it, or is indifferent to it, or angered by it. Furthermore, the object of the infatuation is idealized, is an idea, is, yes, an object, rather than a real human being in the mind of the infatuated, and quite often any sign of this person being a real human being, with real human flaws, leads to disillusionment. This is far closer to what is happening vis-a-vis Humbert and Lolita; our loquacious pervert is infatuated with her, in the same way that Mark Chapman was infatuated with John Lennon, or Valerie Solanas was infatuated with Andy Warhol, and so on. But this doesn’t explain why Nabokov chose to make his titular heroine a girl rather than an adult woman, other than it makes the infatuation, which is inherently ridiculous, even more so.

So, while I think that the book is about infatuation, I also think that it is, to a certain extent, about male attitudes towards women and irrational male expectations in relation to women, which is something that has long been a large and particularly aggressive bee in my bonnet. What I mean by this is that there is something peculiar about male psychology [I’m generalising, so keep your knickers on those who this does not apply to], that the things that we demand from women are not only contradictory but impossible or unattainable. It is a feature of many men’s psychology that they desire a woman to be at once sensual and yet demure, sexually proficient and yet chaste, wild and yet homely and so on. Some of you may be eager to scoff at these ideas, will want to label them old-fashioned. Aye, they are that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in my claim. Indeed, I see and hear it all the time, among friends, acquaintances, and via discreet observation of strangers. I have, for example, regularly heard men moaning about their partner’s past [clue: she may have put it around] and then in the next breath extol her virtues in the sack; likewise the opposite.

I feel that what men, or a certain type of man, want in a woman is unreasonable, that she can’t, obviously, possibly combine within her person all the random, and opposing, characteristics that they require. You can see this kind of attitude in Humbert, in that he wants Lo to be sexually responsive to him, and yet he also wants her to be virginal; he wants her to be compliant, and yet praises her, and nymphets in general, for being cheeky and bold. Furthermore, I think Nab’s novel has something to say about another aspect of male psychology, which is how certain men infantilise their partners. They want a dolly [Dolly? Lolly? Is this a coincidence?], a doll-like partner who they can dominate [in bed and in the home], educate, spoil, who is dependent upon them financially, who is indebted to them, who is essentially malleable. Again, this is something that isn’t rare, that isn’t an old-fashioned idea that has been consigned to the landfill of history, it is something that I see all the time. Why, if you accept this interpretation, does Nabokov make Lolita a child? Because the closest possible match for these expectations would be just that: a child. What these kind of men want, what is closest to their ideal, is a child.

Hermann Broch, in his great novel The Sleepwalkers, explored the nature of morality, in particular the periods between eras, moral eras, which involved a move from one type of moral thinking to another. The book is in three parts, each relating a different story, and a different period of time, a different moral era that is coming to an end to be replaced by another, and Lolita could easily have made up a fourth part. Lolita, as well as the ideas outlined above, is also, to my mind, about changing moral ideas, about humanity being on the cusp of a new moral identity. Humbert is at pains to remind the reader that once children were seen as not only acceptable but possibly ideal sexual partners. He mentions this regularly, providing examples. And he is right, of course; the idea that childhood is meant to be paradisiacal, that it is precious, that is ought to remain untouched is a relatively new one. Not so long ago, and it is still the case in some cultures, children were put to work as soon as they were able. There is, these days, a notion of the wonder of childhood, the necessity that it is respected and solemnly observed, accompanied by a near hysterical child worship, so much so that as soon as there is a disaster people want to know how many children perished, as though somehow their lives are more important than anyone else’s. Now, I am not refuting this notion of the wonder of childhood, nor am I saying that we should be sending kids up chimneys a couple of years after they exit the womb, and I am certainly not advocating the sexual abuse of children; I’m merely making the point that our ideas about childhood haven’t always been the same. It was around the time that Lolita was written that this new idea, this new way of thinking about children, was taking hold. It hadn’t, not absolutely, become an accepted, universal, truth by that stage, but it was on the road to becoming just that, it was on the cusp.

Recently in the UK there has been a high profile case of an entertainer, now dead, who has been accused, in retrospect, of child molestation dating back to the 1960’s. Hundreds of witnesses have come forward, hundreds of victims, and yet one asks oneself ‘why did no one do anything at the time, why was this not discovered earlier?’ The simple fact of the matter is that he got away with it for so long, not because he kept it well-hidden, not through threats and fear, but because the people of the time didn’t consider it to be that much of an issue; indeed he was quite open about it, and although some witnesses may have felt some discomfort, none saw fit to report it or, as far as I know, raised any significant objections. It was, literally, and morally, a different time. Lolita explores this shift towards the absolute belief in the preciousness of childhood and children; Humbert Humbert himself actually epitomises this journey, this development, as by the end of the novel he is fully contrite for having denied Lo a proper childhood. And, in this way, Lolita is a deeply moral book, and Nabokov, far from being a pervert or dubious man, is shown to be a most humane and forward thinking writer.

NB: I chose not to explore the idea that Lolita is about a futile attempt to recapture the past, that Humbert tries to use the girl as a kind of Proustian madeleine that will transport him back to his own childhood. To some extent the book is about nostalgia, or the pitfalls of nostalgia, about trying to get back something you can never get back. However, i feel like that idea has been covered elsewhere numerous times already and, like with any truly great novel, there are other, equally interesting, themes/ideas present in the book, and some of these  have not, as far as i know, been explored before. That was the purpose of this review.

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3 comments

  1. “Lolita is a book that makes people nervous, perhaps understandably, but not me”.
    That’s my point of view, as well. I love Lolita.

    Lolita generates quarrells, moral discussions, uneasyness, and verbal violence. It is true, Nabokov cunningly decided to cause disturbance. He divided the book into two parts putting the difficult bite in the first one. If the reader cannot swallow the first part, he surely won’t reach the second. Nabokov forces us to empathize with a character who’s doing awful deeds and many readers simply don’t accept to read a book under this premise. Because they are “good people”, they know where good and evil are.

    But in the second part of the book the roles change and melt in a whilrwind of suffering and cruelty on both parts. Generally, who hasn’t beared the first section won’t reach the violent relationship “owner – slave – owner” that takes place in the second section.

    However, Lolita is one of the most beautiful books ever written. It is the description of a disturbing but true, tangible, and unavoidable reality. It is not the story of the relationship between a pedophile and a young girl – or better, it is not only this. Conversely, the relationship itself – so extreme, unique, and untolerable – represents much more. This is Nabokov’s genius. He understood where the MYTH was and described it vividly.

    Some say Lolita is America. Some others say she is only Lolita. What is certain is that Nabokov described the essence of every tyrannical realationship (as Azar Nafisi writes in her wonderful “Reading Lolita in Tehran”). He described every tyrannical relationship you may consider. Family, love, or an entire state governed by tyrants.

    Nabokov descibed tyranny exactly as it is, and that’s disturbing. It is a part of the human soul and a relationship in which the victimes are destined to become complicit and the tyrant chooses to die from the beginning. The readers are disturbed by reality, not by Humbert’s love for Lolita.

    In Lolita, this genius of literature described the human soul with pages of great poetry. The book is wonderfully written and perhaps the fact that a solipsistic delirium can be so poetic… is disturbing. However, who cannot understand the torturer won’t understand the victim… and vice versa.

    1. I find the reaction from a significant number of people towards Lolita absurd in many ways. I get that child abuse is an emotive issue, but it’s no more so, or ought to be no more so, than rape or murder etc and no one completely loses their shit when those feature in a movie or book. But, yeah, I think Nabokov was aware of what he was doing. It has to be said though, that he was clearly simply interested in the subject, because it features in a number of his novels; it is only in this one, actually, that i think a case can be made for it being necessary. You’re right that the humbert-lolita relationship mirrors all violent abusive relationships, although i would also argue that it mirrors many non-abusive relationships, because all relationships are to an extent about power. Again, I think you are correct, i think what freaks people out about the book is not the subject matter per se, but how beautifully it is presented.

      1. I attended a writing workshop last year and I read Lolita’s incipit. The teacher – who was a publisher – was disturbed. She couldn’t say why, but she couldn’t bear Lolita. It was morally unacceptable. I thought of myself and my personal refusal of several books. We sometimes decide what is morally unacceptable but cannot understand that the refusal to deal with certain realities could be considered morally unacceptable as well.

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