by Vladimir Nabokov
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.
Are there three more provocative syllables? Just typing the word Lolita is enough to set off the decency filters on most search engines and give you a bit of a shock if they're turned off. Nabokov struggled to find an American publisher for his taboo breaking novel until the European sensibilities of Olympia Press in Paris brought it to the public's attention in 1955. Since then it has never failed to be controversial, spawning two film adaptations, several spin-off books and ideas and a unique memoir a few years ago, Reading Lolita in Tehran, where the book formed a central role in the social and cultural awakening fo a group of femal students living under Ayatollah Khomeini's regime.
For the reader today, fifty years after its publication (and indeed nearer the time when its narrator expected it to be read - 'In its literary form, this book is being read, I assume, in the first years of A.D. 2000' - after the death of its subject) it is questionable whether it still has the same shock value. We live in a society filled with media stories about paedophiles and it was only a few years ago that the News of The World's 'name and shame' campaign led to angry mobs marching the streets and one poor paediatrician coming home to find 'paedo' spray-painted on her front door (no one has yet suggested that far from being ignorant the graffittist had read Lolita, where Humbert calls himself a paediatrician, and simply failed to note the ironic tone). The hysteria which attends the reporting of these stories might lead you to believe that paedophilia has spread through the internet with the virulence of a computer virus, all of which allowed Chris Morris to make such an impact with his Brass Eye special (Paedogeddon!). The power of a work of art of course is to cut through all the nonce-sense (thank you Chris) and provide an insight into forbidden desire.
Writing anything in response has been far from easy though, I've stumbled over it for days, for what can one possibly bring to the discussion of a book so well known, so notorious, its strengths so well known and written about and its weaknesses far better analysed by others I'm sure? Well, we'll see.
Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets'.
And so another word is coined and the cool explanations of Humbert begin; uncomfortable to read for so many reasons. Having questioned the shock value I think it's fair to say that Humbert remains one of the most extraordinary narrators in literature. Not only expressing abhorrent views but completely unapologetic with them, he is also one of the smartest, wittiest men you could hope to meet, causing a small moral dilemma. Or perhaps not, because whatever he may be, I never found Humbert likeable for a single moment. In fact the witticisms, the puns, the plays with words in many languages became increasingly annoying, especially when combined with his wicked scheming.
When Humbert goes to the home of Charlotte Haze as a potential lodger he has his first encounter with her daughter Dolores. Spotting her as she reads magazines in the garden he is struck by her image (well captured on the front of the film tie-in cover above), bringing back his memories of Annabel, the girl he loved passionately as a child before she died prematurely of Typhus (this unfulfilled love and trauma providing the psychological explanation for his growing fascination with nymphets). He is plotting almost immediately, imagining how to capitalise on the attentions of Charlotte to get access to the real object of his desire. Very quickly he is fantasising of marriage and drugging both of them to enjoy nights of fondling 'with perfect impunity'. Later he addresses the gentlewomen of the jury to defend his reasoning, his policy of stealth is there to spare 'her purity'. Even worse is when he considers the possibility of having a child with Lolita so that when she grows out of her nymphet stage he will have something of that preserved for his future as a pederast, even going as far as to imagine a granddaughter too. And a cold shiver works its way down your spine.
We do get to understand the driving forces in their relationship, or at least from Humbert's point of view. Frank about his mental instability, his stays in mental institutions, we can observe his slow breakdown as the pressures of jealousy ('Wildly, I pursued the shadow of her infidelity; but the scent I travelled upon was so slight as to be practically indistinguishable from a madman's fancy') and the fear of losing her or being caught take their toll ('I often felt that we lived in a lighted house of glass, and that at any moment some thin-lipped parchment face would peer through a carelessly unshaded window to obtain a free glimpse of things that the moset jaded voyeur would have paid a small fortune to watch'). What we don't get enough of for me is a real insight into the title character. This may be a book about Lolita but she is treated so much as the object rather than the subject of the book that Humbert himself realises later how little he really knows about her.
... I simply did not know a thing about my darling's mind and that quite possibly, behind the awful juvenile clichés, there was in her a garden and a twilight, and a palace gate - dim and adorable regions which happened to be lucidly and absolutely forbidden to me, in my polluted rags and miserable convulsions.
But it's all about the language. In his afterword Nabokov corrects the suggestion that Lolita is a record of his 'love affair with the romantic novel' to one with the 'English language'. Every sentence is a joyful expression of that love, each word well chosen and expressive, each image replete with colour and meaning even if it is to show how Humbert through his actions is sullying the great country that he travels through with Dolores. Part two in particular begins with florid descriptions of the American countryside, long sentences filled with commas so that they extend like the mountain terrain he describes, which by the end of their journey they 'had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime'. He is not interested in moral instruction or metaphor or of explaining why he had to write this particular book. It stands as it is, our reaction to it the interesting thing and there is something intriguing about going somewhere uncomfortable, like playing with a scab. If you've read it and want to push yourself a bit further then A.M Homes caused a similar stir with her novel The End of Alice which details the correspondence between a woman fascinated by a young boy and a convicted paedophile in prison. How's that for taboo?
My reason for reading this book was as preparation for another novel, which I hope will fill in those spaces. To give an idea of how it feels to be an adolescent girl dimly aware of her growing power to allure, to tantalise, to provoke.