I have no idea why this novel was written. It is the most beautiful book; the language, the word-play, the finely-tuned emotional resonance, but, like a mouldy orange, it's written around a rotting core...
“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 the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
The central theme of this book is deliberately shocking. A man - our narrator, Humbert Humbert - is obsessed with girls, nymphets as he terms them, under the age of 14. He lodges in a house, and becomes infatuated with the landlord’s 12 year old child, Lolita. He then marries the mother who promptly discovers his shameful secret and, by coincidence, dies immediately afterwards. Humbert takes off on a two year ’joy-ride' with the Lolita (now his step-daughter). Soon, they notice they are being followed; creepy events start to occur with increasing regularity, and their sick but stable world begins to unravel.
Reading Lolita is, quite profoundly, a disturbing experience. Our narrator describes his deviant interactions with a child as though the two of them were in a (consummated) adult relationship. He tells us that Lolita is playing games with him, leading him on, teasing him, flirting with him. As a reader, I had to constantly force myself to remember that the object of his affections is twelve, and that the narrator - monstrously - is not reliable.
Reading this novel, I sometimes felt like throwing the book down and yelling ‘why was this written?’.This is not a question with which Nabokov had much sympathy. Sardonically, he writes:
‘Besides the lambs who read [Lolita].. in a spirit of ‘why did he have to write it?’ or ‘why should I read about maniacs, there has been a number of wise [people]’
I think ‘Why’ is an important question to ask though. And the more I think about Lolita, the more I consider it donut shaped. There is a lot there, but nothing in the centre; no morals to bind it all together, no deeper purpose, no crusade, no point even. It just is. And that's quite difficult to accept.
Nabokov's genius was writing a horned-melon of a book. One that is so breathtakingly good that it must be read, and yet the reading of it will torture you. It will give you glimpses of true beauty, and yet - wantonly - prickle and probe with no desire to leave you a better person.
And that barbed, spiny, nettlesome nature runs down deep into the book’s veins. Because it’s impossible to be shocked continuously for 400 pages. The gritty reality of what is being described leaves you anesthetised and numb. As a reader - just by reading - you tacitly accept Humbert’s behaviour. Worse, we’re all complicit in it, by, as Anthony Burgess termed it ‘nodding scandalised assent’ to Humbert’s crimes.
Lolita almost seems to use the propaganda technique of the Big Lie. By repeatedly framing the the interaction between a 40 year old man and his 12 year stepdaughter as a relationship - when it isn’t that at all - the reader cannot help but think inside that frame. And that’s a scary commentary on the human capacity for acceptance. But also a reason for questioning the author’s motivations.
Because again and again, my mind returns to why. Nabokov felt strongly that he didn’t have to justify why he wrote Lolita, and he claimed that ‘Lolita has no moral in tow’. I disagree. Nabokov doesn’t just touch on taboo behaviour, he has written a book which - on the surface - provides a justification, an excuse even, for horrendous crimes. I think it is obvious that the book does not attempt to provide that justification, but that doesn’t relieve the pressing and unanswered question. Why?.
Lolita opened my mind to the beauty of language. Nabokov’s writing is quite simply stunning. Not only did I learn lots of new words reading it (crepitate, for example), but I’ve also never seen writing like it. Nabokov makes the words on the page bend precisely to his will. If you want to write, I don’t think you can afford to miss seeing what this author can do. It is almost like a super-power.
I think I took away something about real life too. Humbert's main characteristic is his lack of accountability. Throughout the whole novel, he’s happy to take responsibility for his actions - calling himself a monster etc. - but he sees these actions as inevitable and uncontrollable. He commits the gravest sins without any attempt to stifle his inner demons. We never see him wrestle with himself, still less manage to exercise self-control.
Humbert acts as if a poet’s mind was taped to a robot body. The poet watches and soliloquizes, and writes beautiful expressive words about the actions of this robot. A robot that is programmed to act like a monster and, Humbert feels, completely outside the sphere of his control. In this sense, he is a caricature, most of us don’t abandon our free will so freely, and most don’t have urges so dark. But part of the reason reading Lolita causes us such pangs, is because that same faculty is in us all. We all spend most of the time looking down, watching ourselves acting out our lives. Perhaps we need to wake up.
In fewer words
Prickly, disturbing and energetically amoral, Lolita is a wild trip, a great read, a vibrant splash of colour, and a fizzling fire-work of great writing. One thing’s for sure, as soon as you open the front page, Lolita will reach into your guts and pull you on a madcap rush to places that you don’t want to go. It’s a mouldering orange, a horned melon, an exploration of beauty, and a declaration of perpetual decay. It simply aches to be read; after all, the rest is rust and stardust.
You can get Lolita here.