Lolita is one of the four books that my novel workshopping teacher says all writers should read (the other three are The Old Man And The Sea, A Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich and Anatomy Of A Murder, none of which I’ve read).
The book and its subject of pediphilia are so famous, its hard to read it without any preconceived notions.
Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European who goes to live in the US and who starts by talking about his first love of a young girl, which was never consumated. He attributes this unfulfilled love to his desire for what he calls nymphetes – young girls aged between 9 and 14.
Fate brings him into contact with Dolores Haze, his ‘Lolita’ and her mother Charlotte, who he marries to stay close to her daughter. When Charlotte dies, Humbert grabs the opportunity to make Lolita his own. They travel around American as he continually assaults her and seeks to control her by fear, suggesting that she will end up a ward of the state if she turns him in to the police, and by bribing her with teenage gifts of clothes, sweets and movies.
This book is famous as an example of an unreliable first person narrator, whereby the reader is completely at the mercy of Humbert to understand the relationship between himself and Lolita.
For me, and I’m sure lots of readers, I found it disturbing the fact that I enjoyed reading the story of a character who is essentially a monster perpetrating hideous crimes against a child. That’s a hard thing to admit, and the key is to understand how Nabokov manages to achieve it.
Firstly, the writing is beautiful and its hard not to admire the way he describes Lolita, while simultaneously being repulsed by it. He describes his nymphets as – ‘the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate‘, and its hard not to appreciate such a description, even coming from a monster. Then there’s the vivid descriptions of American life as he and Lolital travel across the country, staying in motels so he can avoid being caught molesting her.
But he is a monster and the first hint of it comes from how he talks about his first wife, who he insists wears a girl’s nightgown on the first night of their marriage and ‘had the idiot in hysterics by sunrise’. He then talks about how he used to twist ‘fat Valechka’s brittle wrist (the one she had fallen upon from a bicycle) so he could ‘make her change her mind instantly‘.
But Humbert can also be a funny narrator and talks to the reader in a complicit way – ‘on second thought, I may as well give those imaginations (the reader) a kick in the pants’. He appeals to the reader to ‘Imagine me: I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, and so the reader is drawn in to his unreliable story.
He does remind the reader of what he is, calling himself a sex offender, and talking about the filthy things he does. And every now and then the narrator tells us what we are actually reading, casually describing their road trip of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires and Lolita’s sobs in the night – every night, every night, so we are left in no doubt about the effect his abuse is having on her. But those mentions are few and far between and we are only allowed to know about Lolita as it relates to Humbert’s wants and desires.
This book is absolutely loaded with symbols and word play that are too detailed to get on first reading, but for me the striking thing is how the beautiful writing can draw the reader into such a gruesome and horrifying story.
Its definitely worth reading, if you can accept the fact that its ultimately a very disturbing and tragic story.