I never thought that I would become tired of sex. In the last twelve months, however, I’ve done it more times, and with more women, than I had in all the previous years of my life combined; and recently I’ve noticed a change, a hint of boredom creeping into my lovemaking, like the shadow of a pot-bellied man crawling up a bedroom wall. I had once been so easy to please, so straightforward in my tastes, but now? If someone were to suggest the missionary position I would be horrified. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms larger, and between his legs dangles a most flaccid and unimpressive cock. I have a preference for certain acts, of course, but I’ve never really had any kinks or fantasies. I’ve always found that sort of thing ridiculous, for it suggests to me a mind gone awry, a defect, a glitch in the system. Sex but not sex. Sex incognito. Yet last week I was talking to an underwear and fetish model. She was fresh off a job in which only her feet were of interest. ‘It’s because they’re forbidden, because they’re not the norm, because they’re kind of ugly and dirty; you’re not meant to sexualise them and so they become sexy,’ she said, and while I still didn’t feel any stirrings myself, for the first time I, in my jaded state, understood.

“Beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary, and there is no question but that every ardent imagination prefers in lubricity, the extraordinary to the commonplace.”

The Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom appears to be one of those works that many people have heard of but know little about in terms of the specifics of the story. I was one of the many. In fact, I was under the impression that there was no narrative at all, that it was simply a catalogue of sexual deviancy. And it is that, but there is a frame around the kinks and perversions, in which four libertines gather together – some by way of abduction – a group of men and women, but mostly boys and girls, in a remote castle. There, they have a number of aged prostitutes recount their experiences, which are progressively more extreme, and which they then re-enact with the other inhabitants. This is, indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, because it makes an audience of the libertines, almost in the same way that you, the reader, are; and just as the power of suggestion works upon them, there is the chance it will work upon you too. Certainly, not everything contained within will appeal to everyone, or I would sincerely hope not, but there is such a range, and it is so imaginative, that I’d be surprised if there wasn’t something. I think there is a misconception about pornography that people only go to it with, and looking for, pre-established ideas about what turns them on. There is some of that, no doubt, but I also think that, for better or worse, it also suggests, it teaches, it moulds.

While 120 days of Sodom is not a character study, the four libertines are sketched in some detail, to the extent that one is informed of both the length and circumference of their dicks. The Duc de Blangis is fifty years old, and ‘may be regarded as the repository of all vices and all crimes.’ His brother is a Bishop, who is, we’re told, ‘treacherous and cunning,’ and a ‘loyal devotee of active and passive sodomy.’ The President de Curval is ‘the walking image of debauchery and libertinage,’ who has a ‘dreadful squalor about his person that he finds sensual.’ This gentleman’s erections ‘are rare and only achieved with difficulty.’ Finally, Durcet, a financier. He has a ‘woman’s build and all of her tastes.’ In considering the four men a number of interesting ideas and similarities emerge, many of which are expanded upon, or given more weight, as the book progresses. First of all, one may have noticed that each of the men are rich or of noble birth. While de Sade doesn’t explicitly discuss the issue of class, it cannot be a coincidence that every anecdote involves people in a position of power and prosperity. One might say that these are the only people who can afford to use prostitutes, but I believe there is more to it than that.

Throughout, the small number of peasants are the only characters shown in a positive, or sympathetic, light. They are pious, good-hearted, downtrodden, or happy-go-lucky, while the rich have peculiar tastes or are simply monstrous. For example, one poor old woman is dragged from her sickbed and abused by a wealthy man; her daughter, who her mother very much loves and who cares for her, is abducted by the man and likely murdered as part of a sexual act. In another anecdote a working man shits, not for his own gratification, but for a rich man who has paid for this service. So what, if anything, is de Sade saying, indirectly at least, about class? The rich are the only people who have the time and the means and the imagination for these kinds of perversions, that in fact the free time and great wealth enables their imaginations. Secondly, if one can buy whatever one wants, if one can (by virtue of one’s power and wealth) have whomever one wants, then one is likely to become jaded very quickly. Therefore, to be a libertine, to be aroused by, to engage in, extreme or unusual sexual acts is, in this instance, an end point, it is arrived at as a way of reinvigorating dulled senses.

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I have already used the term libertine multiple times, and that is because it is insisted upon in the text. Barely a page goes by in which it doesn’t appear more than once. To be a libertine is to indulge oneself, sensually, to excess, without regard to conventional moral principles. This is both the way of life and the philosophy of the four central characters; it is this that bonds them together. Far from having one particular kink, the men are interested in anything that is unconventional, anything that conventional society would deem wrong or disgusting, including rape, torture, incest, and murder. Indeed, anything criminal adds to their enjoyment, by virtue of how shocking, how frowned upon it would be. Perhaps this anti-conventional attitude is the reason why women are so scorned by the four libertines (and by the majority of the men in the book). Make no mistake, they are vehement misogynists, to an almost laughable degree. For example, there are numerous instances where a woman showing her vagina or breasts to a man sends him into a rage. It is, in almost every story, the arse they want! Always the arse! There are, indeed, several rhapsodic speeches on the subject, such as when one of the libertines salutes ‘divine arses! How I reproach myself for the tributes I stole from you! I promise you an expiatory sacrifice – I swear on your alters never to stray again for the rest of my life!’ The arse is of course not uniquely feminine.

“Only the law stands in my way, but I defy it – my gold and my influence place me beyond the reach of those crude scales meant only for the common people.”

As I sat down to write about 120 Days of Sodom there were a large number of themes that I intended to explore. My notes, in fact, totalled over a thousand words, and much of that I still haven’t touched upon, and will not, including the topics of nature and religion. I realise now that it is inadvisable, if not impossible, to discuss everything of note in detail. This review will have to serve as a kind of introduction, if it has any use at all. Bearing in mind the name of the author, one thing that it seems necessary to include is the role of sadism within the book. Surprisingly, sexual torture, and the pleasure gained from it, makes up only a small part of the prostitutes’ stories. However, the main reason for this is because the book is unfinished, and only one whore – she who is tasked with outlining the simpler pleasures – is able to give a fully fleshed account of her experiences. One is left in no doubt – and de Sade’s own notes attest to this – that there were greater horrors to come. Yet there is still, even within the ‘finished’ part of the manuscript, much that is disturbing, certainly when removed from the atmosphere of the text as a whole. For example, the inhabitants of the castle, aside from the four libertines of course, are not allowed to shit unless given permission and are not allowed to wipe or clean themselves. This is because the men have designs upon the shit, but also because they enjoy the power, they enjoy how unhappy it makes the boys and girls.

Throughout the book, de Sade makes it clear that almost none of the young people, nor the men’s wives, are willing participants. They shit in the captives’ mouths, and have them shit in theirs. They fondle, maul, and force them to suck and swallow, they rape and fuck arses and cunts. The disgust and pain their victims feel during these abuses is commented upon, albeit only in passing. It is this, more than the acts themselves, that turns the old lechers on. Within the castle there is a system of punishment, which the reader never has full access to, but which we are informed will be barbaric, potentially fatal. The victims, who are innocent both in terms of their overall situation and often in terms of the ‘crime’ they are charged with, are constantly reminded of the compassionless nature of their judges. The situation within the castle is, therefore, absolutely not the form of sadism that is currently en vogue, it is not a consensual exploration of mutual fantasies involving a master and a slave, a dom and a sub, although there is some of that within the stories the first prostitute tells. In any case, there were occasions when, rather than providing a libertine manual, I felt as though it was de Sade’s aim to torture his reader, to make them his victim; and yet, if so, he failed.

“If it is the dirty element that gives pleasure to the act of lust, then the dirtier it is, the more pleasurable it is bound to be.”

Before I finish, I want to return to a word I used earlier, which may have struck you as strange, or even disconcerting, given the context, which was ‘laughable.’ There is, without question, nothing funny about kidnapping, misogyny and sexual abuse. When I was reading A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet last year I was deeply troubled by its contents and had to quit before the end. 120 days of Sodom is, however, or was for me, extremely amusing in places, because it is ridiculous. There is a marked difference of tone between this book and Robbe-Grillet’s. First of all, one never believes in the characters or the situation. I could not buy into de Sade’s reality. The four libertines are cartoonish, vaudeville, over-the-top; they stop just short of twirling their moustaches and laughing in an exaggeratedly sinister fashion. Moreover, consider again some of what de Sade tells you about them: one of them can’t get an erection, one of them only fucks arses and has his own fucked, and two of them have prodigiously large dicks. It’s terribly hard to take any of them seriously.

These men all have an insatiable sexual appetite, to the extent that they appear to be turned on, to be able to fool around, all day, every day; and most of them come multiple times. They are truly Herculean! Consider, also, some of the acts, the shitting in particular. It is no exaggeration to say that the libertines devour three or four turds a day each, and none of them end up unwell. They even put their captives on a special diet in order to have them produce especially tasty shit. I don’t want to labour over the scat too much, but it dominates the book, and there came a point when, despite having no interest in shit myself, be it sexual or otherwise, I started to gleefully anticipate the ceremony. de Sade had put me into a state of near delirium or hysteria. Every anecdote would end, I knew, with one person shitting in another’s mouth. It was like being locked in a room where someone tells you the same joke over and over again until you’re on the point of insanity and joyously shouting out the punchline in unison with your captor.

In other areas, the repetition was more of a issue. I am aware that de Sade wrote the book in prison, and that it is, at noted previously, unfinished. It is likely, therefore, that even the ‘completed’ part of the text is only a draft of sorts, and so it feels churlish to criticise, but there are frequent passages that are interminable. For example, I do not know how many times one needs to be told that the Duc thigh-fucked Zelmire, but it is certainly less than forty. Nor does one really need to be told, over and over again, who took who into the cupboard, especially as you are never informed as to what happens in there. There are, moreover, other instances of this sort, whereby de Sade will keep things, certain acts or events, from the reader, because, he states, they are too extreme for this particular part of his narrative and would be out of place. Which begs the obvious question: why tell us at all then? In any case, my enjoyment was not spoiled by these flaws. I did not think, even for long periods during which I read it, that I would be able to say that I love 120 days of Sodom; and yet I do. Perhaps I am even more jaded than I thought. The shadow of the pot-bellied man looms ever larger.


Only once have I been considered mad by the world at large. Yet it is, perversely, when I felt most sane. I sought advice from the doctor upon the urging of my intimates; and what did he say? Nothing! He cowered before my tears and my reason. I had stopped being able to laugh at life, to find absurd amusement in what Rene Daumal called ‘this monkey cage frenzy.’ My mind’s eye had been squeegeed clean. I saw clearly that a conventional existence was terrifying, painful…impossible. I could no longer continue in the hapless, mindless manner I had become accustomed to. Work, talk, fuck…and repeat. Impossible! The doctor gave me a prescription. I later found out that it was for the kind of drug they give to patients in mental institutions, the most unruly patients, who were, to quote, ‘literally climbing the walls.’ He wanted to sedate me, to dupe me into again accepting what I had renounced, what I felt as though I had transcended.

When looking back on myself during this period, I feel a sort of kinship with the Czech novelist and philosopher Ladislav Klíma. Certainly, no one could accuse the man of having lived conventionally. His personal philosophy, which naturally filtered into his work, manifested itself as a kind of non-conformism, in the rejection of societal norms, such that, for example, he spent his later years shining shoes, drinking heavily, and eating vermin. Moreover, Klíma is said to have destroyed a number of his manuscripts. One might speculate that he did so not because he doubted the quality of what he had produced but because writing and regularly publishing books could be considered a stable career, and therefore ought to be avoided. Yet some of his manuscripts did, of course, survive, including The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch, which is generally thought to be the most important, and best, of Klíma’s work.

“It is necessary to love – to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruellest, most difficult thing of all.”

The book begins with thirty-three year old Prince Helmut Sternenhoch, wealthy aristocrat, and confidante and favourite of Kaiser ‘Willy’ Wilhelm, taking an interest in Helga, a relatively poor seventeen year old girl. One’s initial impression of the Prince is emphatically a negative one. He calls Helga ‘downright ugly’, for example, and proceeds to enumerate her faults and physical failings: her movements are ‘sluggish’, her hair ‘bulky’, and so on. He was, he states, ‘absolutely ill’ when he first saw her. Indeed, so vicious is some of the criticism that I was concerned at this point that The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch was going to be unpleasantly misogynistic throughout. However, after a few pages one realises that Klíma is poking fun at Helmut, that one is meant to take against him, at least for the time being.

In the first half of the novel, Prince Sternenhoch is portrayed as arrogant and loathsome. He is a man who believes that he is superior by virtue of his position and his wealth, and that, regardless of his own behaviour, he is therefore deserving of the greatest respect. For example, he wishes to marry Helga in order to demonstrate his magnanimity, and, to a lesser extent, to shock and surprise [and amuse] others, including Willy. Making a young girl marry is for him a kind of game, a kind of self-flattery. He even threatens the girl’s father with jail when he does not show him due deference. Klíma further, and most obviously, lampoons the man when it is revealed that he is ‘only 150 centimetres tall’ and ‘toothless, hairless and whiskerless, also a little squint-eyed,’ upon which revelations he opines that ‘even the sun has spots.’

In spite of my initial concerns, Klíma’s novel is refreshingly critical of patriarchy and specifically the abusive treatment of women in relationships. To recap: the Prince is much older than Helga, he is ugly and conceited. Yet he appears to believe that the girl ought to be grateful to him for wanting to marry her. While it is true that he doesn’t himself force her, nor want to force her, there is still an underlying suggestion that Helga does not have any choice in the matter. She must, and she does, become his wife. Indeed, unsurprisingly, she is said to go to the alter ‘like a sacrificial lamb.’ Once married, it becomes clear that Helga finds her husband repulsive. She will not, for example, allow him to have sex with her, going so far as to flee to the stable when he enters her bedroom. This of course causes the Prince some consternation, for he, like many men of his [and perhaps our] time, believes that her body is his by rights of marriage.

If the book were more popular one images that Helga might be held up as a kind of feminist icon. Throughout, she is associated with, and surrounded by, powerful animals, by jaguars and lions and tigers, which of course symbolise her strength. She does not lay down, open her legs, and weakly submit to her husband, but rather she challenges him, ignores him, fights him, and calls him names. Indeed, she could be said to dominate him. Helmut may want to fuck, he may even want a loving relationship, but without her consent, without her approval, he can have neither. There is a chilling scene in the novel that I think best demonstrates the power balance in the relationship, which is when Helga murders the couple’s child [their only fornication took place on their wedding night, when she was still meek] because it looks like the Prince. The young Daemoness demands that the nanny take the blame, and Sternenhoch, who is terrified of her, agrees immediately.


One might have noted the term Daemoness in the preceding paragraph, and it is necessary to explain its significance. For the Prince, Helga is not symbolically a demon, but rather a literal one. She has, it seems, supernatural powers, and they are not, let’s say, God-given. There is, in fact, much in the book that might lead one to describing it as a horror story. Yet, while I found all that a huge amount of fun, I am more interested in what it says about Sternenhoch and subsequently how it relates to one of Klíma’s principle themes, which is the nature of reality. It is clear as one makes one’s way through the book that the Prince is insane, and if it wasn’t then he openly declares it himself numerous times. Therefore, the behaviour of his wife, her demonic or devilish abilities, could be explained as simply a consequence of his madness, as a kind of hallucination.

What Klíma seems to be saying, and it is something that I have said myself many times prior to reading his novel, is that whatever you experience is your reality, that there is no concrete, objective reality, and that trying to convince yourself that there is such a thing is the surest, quickest road to madness. And so, if Sternenhoch sees his wife an an emissary of Satan, then that is what she is. It is no more unbelievable, no more insane, than any other version of ‘reality.’ On this, there is a fascinating discussion between the Prince and his wife, who believes that she is alive, yet dreaming, but who is, as far as he is concerned, quite dead [but haunting him]. Her life after her death is, she states, ‘only my dream, which I have probably been dreaming for only a short time in the forest, although it seems to be lasting an eternity.’ Moreover, to further complicate matters, the Prince wakes in his bed and wonders ‘what if this bed is in heaven? What if I am only dreaming that I have awoken? After all I must be dead, dead…’

There is so much more that I could discuss, specifically Klíma’s ideas about will, and ‘the self as God.’ In the novel, it is Helga – who considers herself all powerful, more powerful than God or the Devil in fact – who embodies this theory, which has much in common with Nietzsche’s Übermensch. As I understand it, the author believed that if you reject conventional moral, societal values, practices, etc, you become your own deity, and this is how he lived his life. However, there are passages in The Sufferings of Prince Sternenhoch that spell all this out, quite clearly, and, convinced that I really have nothing to add to what Klíma himself wrote, I will let you read about it for yourself rather than go over it in detail here.

What I do want to acknowledge before I conclude is just how readable, how relentlessly entertaining, I found all this to be. It is true that the book is somewhat repetitive, especially in the second half, when it revolves around the Prince’s meetings with the dead Helga, but I was never at any time bored or tempted to put the book down. Indeed, I flew through it at a breakneck, one might say mad, pace. Much of my enthusiasm could be put down to how genuinely funny it is. The Prince’s descent into insanity throws up some wonderful scenes, such as when he caresses his slipper in his lap, believing it to be a cat. My favourite, however, involves the gypsy, Esmerelda Carmen Kuhmist, who gives Sternenhoch a magical nut and convinces him that the best way to deal with his fear of his spooky tormentor is to shout ‘Ghost, jump up my ass!’ whenever he sees her. Which of course he does, repeatedly, hilariously. And so too will I, most likely, if I am ever again at the point of finding existence terrifying, painful….impossible. Life, jump up my ass!


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.