*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*
It is one of the conflicts that Nabokov presents in Lolita that the reader is forced to feel as much desire to continue reading as disgust at the various incidents described; there are no words sufficiently powerful to describe such the unspeakable barbarity of the narrator, and yet, at the same time, he is completely unaware of his own evil. Of course, Humbert Humbert recognises that his proclivities are ‘frowned upon’ by society, but he himself regards his pursuit of “nymphets” –by which he means girls between the ages of nine and fourteen– as completely natural. Each page disgusted me, but I finished the novel because I wanted to watch this vile man be punished; it turns out that even that luxury is removed from the reader, as Humbert Humbert dies before he can be executed. Can you give us nothing, Nabokov?
Humbert Humbert, a French citizen, following the early death of his childhood sweetheart (a term I use in the loosest possibly sense considering for how long they actually knew each other) is sexually attracted to prepubescent girls. After the failure of his first marriage, he moves to America, and there ‘falls in love’ –I cannot call it genuine love– with Dolores Haze, the 12-year-old daughter of his proprietress, whom he marries in order to take advantage of Dolores. She then dies, Humbert becomes the legal guardian of ‘Lolita’ (his pet name for her), and to his great surprise, she seduces him on the first night they are alone. This is where the tables turn somewhat (or do they?)
Horror succeeds horror as they begin a road-trip together, and Humbert eventually ends up paying Lolita to perform various sexual favours for him, while she, now frequenting an all-girls day school, bribes him with sex into allowing her to take part in the school play etc. Finally, Humbert realises that someone is following them, and soon Lolita runs away with this mysterious person: a man of the same age of Humbert, but of whom he knows no more. Having lost track of her for years, she –having got married to someone else, and heavily pregnant– writes him a letter, asking for money; he gives her the money, and having extracted from her the name of the man who ‘stole’ her from him originally, kills him and is arrested.
♥ Apparently any “astute reader” was supposed to have realised, long before Lolita explicitly reveals it, who was following them; I am forced to admit that I was not one of these select few, and actually felt disappointed by the revelation that it was the playwright Clare Quilty. He felt rather irrelevant to me, to be honest, and I was rooting for John Farlow, if only because it would serve Humbert right for unknowingly seducing his wife. Missed a trick there, Vladimir.
♥ I was reluctantly impressed by the verbal appropriation of Dolores signified by her name change; while she is Dolly, Dolores or Lo to everyone else, Humbert persists in calling her Lolita. In a sense, I optimistically thought that it was this which allowed her to escape the experiences of her youth largely ‘unscathed’ (the wrong word here, but I couldn’t think of another); she wasn’t the person that he created and defiled, so her actual self was able to live happily ever after. Until her death. Which reminds me…
♥ …SHE DIES IN CHILDBIRTH. Give us something, anything to cling on to, Vlad. We’re losing hope.
♥ Actually, how astute was the reader expected to be?! Quilty’s various literary appellations gave me a headache (how on earth were we supposed to know them all?) I was inordinately pleased to have understood “A. Person, Porlock, England” and “D. Orgon, Elmira, NY” but the rest escaped me. I don’t think I’m intelligent enough to read this.
The Big Scoop:
I cannot say that I enjoyed this book in any capacity, but I was awed by the way in which the stern black and white of Lolita is being raped and it’s awful gradually morphed into the shameful-to-admit grey of Is she complicit in her rape? The taboo nature of the subject matter just distracted me too much from any potential message therein, however, and Humbert’s smug style of writing –if I had heard him complain one more time about his own physical appeal, I would not have been responsible for my actions– could engender no spark of pity at any point, though it admirably conveyed his systematic deterioration. Why was he allowed to get away with this for so long?
I think that part of the visceral reaction I had to this book was due to its structure as Humbert’s memoirs written in prison. Although I thus knew that he would ultimately be punished, the extremely realistic tone of the entire thing resounded with me too strongly, and this was not aided by the fake ‘introduction’ by a distinguished sounding John Ray at the beginning of the novel.
3 ½ out of 10. I could not allow myself to appreciate this book on principle, and it’s a shame given how well-written it is. All I can say is that I feel slightly sorry for “Véra”, to whom it is dedicated; having been informed that she’d been so inspiring as to have had a book dedicated to her, she must have been overjoyed… and a great deal less so when the subject matter of the book had been discerned.
Suitable perhaps to grace the annals of fame –for it certainly shattered some boundaries!– but not the bookshelf: and I’m sure that Véra would probably have felt the same.