Reading Lolita is like being possessed by a daemon, where the possessive act is in fact it’s own exorcism. It is, in fact, exactly like having a pervert in your head for 309 pages. I read Lolita in preparation for a Literary Controversies subject I hope to be taking over the next few months, and it’s easy to tell why Lolita would be considered controversial.
‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta…’
I mean, the book is about paedophilia. There is no disgust (initially) in the narrator, no disguise. Only his desire, his “pederosis”, driving the narrative on as he covets, obtains and molests the young Lolita over the course of her pre and post pubescence.
The controversy is obvious, and a student doesn’t have to look too far to figure out why. Written in 1953, in a country that made it illegal to use the word ‘toilet’ on television, a novel, a graphically sexual novel, from the point of view of a manipulative paedophile wasn’t likely to find much comfort in the opinions of the censors. To find a publisher Nabokov was forced to go to Paris, the city in which the novel begins its narrative.
The statement made by critics, that the book was ‘pure pornography’, however, was a bit misleading. While the sex scenes are there they are much less direct in the description of physical acts than even earlier works, such as the also controversial ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’. The descriptions of sex in Lolita, in fact, are often strangely coy, as in this scene from midway through the book, where the Self-aggrandising Humbert Humbert already has the girl Lolita well under his control:
… and all was very quiet and there was another girl with a very naked, porcelain-white neck and wonderful platinum hair, who sat in front reading too, absolutely lost to the world and interminably winding a soft curl around one finger, and I sat beside Dolly just behind that neck and that hair, and unbuttoned my overcoat and for sixty-five cents plus the permission to participate in the school play, had Dolly put her inky, chalky, red-knuckled hand under the desk.
Perhaps ‘coy’ isn’t the right word. But ‘indirect’ certainly applies, and this sequence can be said to represent a pattern of objectification and manipulation that characterises the novel. Humbert Humbert fails to recognise the real humanity of the child he abuses, instead only able to describe her in terms of how she conforms to his own obsessive desires and lusts. He describes her in intricate detail as she plays tennis, solely because her form at the sport arouses him so. He criticises her choices of magazine and music, because they do not conform to the idea of the ideal ‘Nymphet’ that he wants her to be. In fact for all the intimacy he imagines between himself and Lolita, he cannot help revealing this intimacy to be a sham. He cannot hold a normal conversation with her, and at one point remarks to himself how truly ignorant he was/is of the workings inside her mind.
So while the sexual descriptions in the novel are less direct than they might be, their context lends them a terrible power that makes them quite hard to read. Indeed, the true discomfort from reading Lolita (and it is very uncomfortable, at many parts) comes directly from the writer’s point of view. The novel is meant to be the now arrested Humbert Humbert’s confession from prison and as such everything that occurs is couched within his own opinions. The novel is as much about self-deception and self-rationalisation as it is about the crimes themselves.
From the very beginning we are encouraged by the writer to sympathise with his story. He tells us of an early love never truly consummated, frustrated by circumstance and then ended by the death of the girl. When he first encounters Lolita and attempts to enjoy her from afar we are encouraged by the influence of his perspective to see his long-distance lechery as harmless self gratification, un-invasive and almost innocent. At this point the thin film of protection that is Lolita’s mother still separates her from the eager Humbert, and it is not until the mother’s death, and Humbert manages to manipulate himself into possession of the child, that the real efforts towards self justification begin. Young girls, we are told, and habitually married to older men in certain eastern nations. In the bible many of the characters were married at an age even younger than the 12 year old Lolita. Indeed, in the context of a new and sexually radical American youth, the assumption that Lolita is completely innocent may, and indeed did, turn out to be unfounded.
So skilfully, in fact, does Nabokov draw us in to the mind of his protagonist that it’s easy to forget what he is and be carried along on the voyage of his actions and wants. In this way Nabokov plays tricks on his readers. Long passages of self-justification and twisted moral philosophy are suddenly curtailed by a single phrase that snaps the reader out of the author’s mind just enough to encourage a radical re-think of the entire previous experience. For example:
And so we rolled east, more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-lilac garland still as brief as a lads, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night –every night, every night –the moment I feigned sleep.
It gets to a point where the reader tries to hold two narratives in their head simultaneously. The first is the one of the protagonist, where you follow his moods, his desires and point of view as they are presented, and the second is the dual interpretation of everything that is going on from a more reasonable, human perspective. Humbert continually describes Lolita as a wilful, spoilt and vulgar child who is partner to his ‘passions’ and whom he takes pains to care for. It takes a lot of concentration to read this and simultaneously read the truth, which is that Lolita is a victim, practically imprisoned by the lecherous Humbert, and completely manipulated in thought and deed.
It is interesting to note that all the self-conscious regrets or self loathing that snap us back into sympathy with Lolita are a product of the writer’s hind-sight. He never felt these things at the time while he had her under his control, only later and in prison does her start to see the ‘trail of slime’ he left.
Lolita is a very complex book, quite difficult going at times, but ultimately rewarding. There is far too much to discuss properly here. There are plots, and sub-plots that I have not even touched on yet. There is the marriage to Lolita’s mother, and her death. There is Lolita’s escape from Humbert and his many years of searching the hotels of America for some trace of her. There is even, leading up to her escape, and after, a joust with a shadowy other figure across the states of America and at home in Ramsdale that exists entirely within the suggested sub-plots of the story but which eventually becomes its most crucial element. The work is intricate, and so finely structured, that I wouldn’t want to attempt to disassemble it here. I encourage you to read it however, but to be prepared for discomfort when you do.