Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down on the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo.Lee.Ta. (p1)
I am confounded, confused and very curious. How is it possible that a self-confessed feminist like me could appreciate a novel like Lolita, a book that is confronting and deeply disturbing in its subject matter, yet masterful in its execution? It is a story I have avoided for many years, ever since starting to watch the 1990s movie of the same name. (Why did you agree to act in this film, Jeremy Irons, why?)
So what is all the fuss about? What is Lolita?
For those who haven’t, or couldn’t, read Lolita, it is a novel about love, obsession and control. Narrated in the first person, it charts the life of one Humbert Humbert, a European-born academic with a sexual predilection for girls (or nymphets, as he refers to them), and his obsessive love of one girl: Lolita.
Humbert H meets and falls ‘in love’ with Delores Haze, or Lolita (aged 12) after moving into her mother’s house as a boarder. So begins his obsession with ‘plain Lo’; Humbert believes himself to be in love with Lolita and will do anything to be with her. He even goes so far as to marry her mother, Charlotte, in order to remain under the same roof. During this time, he begins secretly abusing Lolita, fueling his desire and obsession.
Then, an unfortunate accident ensures that Humbert gains complete control over Lolita as her sole surviving ‘parent’. He takes Lolita on a journey that leads them from state to state; a journey that was, at the beginning, something that excited to Lolita. Yet it becomes clear that young Lolita (at 12, still a child) is an unwilling participant in this adventure, with her very limited choices forcing her to remain with Humbert. As Humbert famously acknowledges: “You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.”
That is, until she meets Carol Quilty, a [male] screen writer and film maker with limited morals, who offers her a new, but not really better, existence. This heralds the next stage in Humbert H’s story – revenge and his quest to find (and reclaim) his ‘Lo’.
Lolita is a novel of rare brilliance. It is part love story, part road story, part fictional memoir. It is also incredibly upsetting, violent and disturbing.
Nabokov’s mastery of English language is particularly evident in Lolita, despite English being his second or third language. His word plays are very clever and quiet funny. Humbert’s gun is affectionately called Chum. The actual road Humbert drives down to a major plot point is called Grimm. Humbert and Lolita drive through a town, Soda, Pop 1001. Even the characters names have hidden (or not so hidden) meanings, for example Clare Quilty rhymes with guilty; the choice Nabokov makes in spelling Lolita’s last name (Haze, not Hayes) leaves us with no doubt about the character of the Haze family.
Nabokov also deftly weaves threads of absurdity throughout the novel, lending a surreal quality to the narrative. This device, along with his word plays, provides at least some relief from the subject matter, making the novel more of a ‘story’, reminding us that we are inhabiting a fictional place and a fictional mind, no matter how believable Humbert and his narrative seem.
The main characters in Lolita are incredibly sophisticated. Lolita, far from being perfect or sexually advanced (or a little seductress), is actually a typical bratty twelve year old: shallow, keen on popular culture, manipulative and a wee bit bit unhygienic. Initially Humbert offers her something exciting – a true love interest, an escape from her mother. She is interested in him, that is clear. Yet I think Nabokov never intended her to be seen as the instigator of the relationship (although some critics and commentators do view Lolita in that way).
The character of Humbert too is intensely complex, written so skillfully that we the reader can almost (only almost) pity him. After all, what a miserable situation he finds himself in: an unwell man, unable to form proper relationships, is perhaps delusional, and clearly believes he can be in love with a child. And yet…for me, I can’t have pity for a man that takes advantage of young girls, that knows what is he doing is wrong (at some level) but persists, and persists.
I admit, there are passages in this book that I could not bring myself to read. And yet…I came away really admiring this novel for specific elements, and can see why it is considered a classic. But that makes me conflicted. Can I recommend this one or not? Well, yes, but read it with caution and don’t expect to really like it, or feel good about it.
As Margaret Atwood noted:
‘We love to watch bad people do awful things in fictions, though we would not like it if they did those things to us in real life. The energy that drives any fictional plot comes from the darker forces…’ Source: The New Yorker Book Blog, 16 May 2013 ‘Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert?’
In writing Lolita, Nabokov created something deeply moving that is still relevant and controversial nearly sixty years on.
Maybe I’ll revisit Lolita for a more detailed analysis someday. But as of next week I am back at work (seeya later maternity leave, it was fun), so not anytime soon. ;) I do hope to keep posting reviews and updates weekly. Thanks everyone for reading! It’s been fun.
ISBN 9780141182537 (50th anniversary edition, Kindle). First published in 1955. First published in the US in 1958.