on 22 June 2015
This is the only book I have ever loved and bitterly hated at the exact same time.
Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian writer born at the close of the 19th century, undoubtedly penned one of the most beautifully written English language novels of all time. Reading Lolita is like tasting the seductive dark chocolate of Knipschildt’s La Madeline au Truffe with a Balthazar bottle of 2009 Bordeaux from Chateau Margaux while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean. Your senses are utterly overloaded. His magical turn of phrase, synesthetic detail and masterful imagery work to completely capture the heart of the reader. It is bewitching. Indeed, he plays with language like a game of chess, flirting with the intricacies and complexities, weaving patterns through our minds and forcing us to entangle our own emotions within the story. Nabokov was actually an acclaimed chess composer, and Humbert Humbert, his tortured protagonist, finds some solace in the elegant game.
First and foremost, Lolita is a work of art, a poignant celebration of language. Though there may be no obvious moral, as Nabokov himself insists in the afterword, the novel is so emotionally powerful because it forces us to make a connection between the romantic, primeval force of love and the dark territory of pedophilia. It is a sensuous exploration of human desire and the human heart.
A masterful foreword penned by the inspired invention of Dr John Ray sets up the premise of the story by introducing it as the memoirs of the disturbed academic, Humbert Humbert, who recently died in jail. By doing this we can continue reading with the comforting knowledge that he is eventually caught. We really have two Humbert Humberts to deal with, the one living out the events and the one recounting them to us years later. This lends a reserved and thoughtful tone to the narrative, so that some of the most shocking moments are delivered so matter-of-factly they seem, well, clinical. Humbert is obsessed with his disturbing concept of “nymphets”, young girls with a certain innocence, grace and vulnerability. He even fantasizes about ruling over a sort of Lord of the Flies type island of nymphets he can presumably exploit to his heart’s content.
But, ay, there’s the rub.
The thing about Humbert is that he is a man of fantasies. He is not a lunatic, a criminal, or a psychopath, but a troubled academic tortured by his poetic dreams. These dreams suddenly and fortuitously come true when chance sees him become the tenant of glamorous and desperate widow, Charlotte Haze. She just happens to have a daughter . . . Lolita.
Through almost no effort on his part Charlotte falls for him and they are married before you can say, “hang on a wee minute.” He now has the opportunity to get to her little girl. The most shocking moment of the novel, and one of any novel I have ever read, is when Charlotte finds his diary and discovers his secret. She rushes out the house to deliver a handful of urgent letters in such a state of hysteria and despair that she doesn’t notice the car hurtling towards her. She is killed instantly, and Humbert becomes Lolita’s guardian. The rapidity and cold delivery of this event makes it all the more frightening. This is a tragedy related in a monotone.
Humbert continually references Dante’s eternal love for Beatrice in the triumph, The Divine Comedy, which began when the latter was only eight years old, younger even than Lolita, but he seems to forget that Dante was the same age as Beatrice, not three decades her senior. After their first encounter he famously wrote, “La Vita Nuova: Ecce Deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi: Behold, a deity stronger than I; who coming, shall rule over me.” Perhaps this is the comparison, because this is precisely what happens to Humbert. Lolita is an utterly omnipotent deity in total control of his heart, the thing is, she just couldn’t care less. Even so, a more fitting comparison would be Sade’s Justine, the notorious twelve-year old pauper who is subjected to a horrific decade of sexual abuse. Written by the even more notorious Marquis de Sade, the book has been banned and censored countless times, and its author spent half his life behind bars as well as his name becoming the origin of ‘sadism’. Some legacy. After Charlotte’s death in Lolita, it is here that Humbert moves into the realm of crime, tearing the helpless and now utterly vulnerable girl from her old life and embarking on a nomadic road trip across the US as he fulfills his fantasies . . .
This gives rise to some truly beautiful exploration of the American countryside, of the raw majesty of the land. It seems to contrast so poignantly with Humbert’s worshipful idolisation of his Lolita, who submits to his sexual fantasies but remains utterly unengaged emotionally. Her cold and childlike indifference, stubbornness and desire to rebel just makes it all so much more horrific. She is like a shell. And it is utterly heartbreaking.
What we must remember is that he is not being driven by lust or sadism or rage or greed or any other immoral and dangerous desire, but by something even more destructive . . . love.
Naturally, Lolita became notorious as soon it was published in 1959, and Nabokov was fully aware it would be, “I have to tread carefully. I have to speak in a whisper.” However, this book could hardly be further from the trashy genre of erotica or the debasing allure of pornography. No, it is a story about a man in love. The oldest most well-known story there is. Humbert is not simply a sadistic pervert, indeed he urges the reader throughout the novel to hear him out, to see beyond social convention and the sanctimonious laws of society. At one point when I was beginning to grimace in discomfort and revulsion, the episode in which he first considers fully taking advantage of Lolita, he writes, “Oh, do not scowl at me, reader.” Then comes the pleading insistence that we do not cast the book aside. It is surreal. Nabokov, as much as his complex poet-pervert creation, is reaching through the decades and speaking directly to us. It is a powerful feat of persuasion and I for one was wholly persuaded.
The prose is truly beautiful. “Cold spiders of panic crawled down my back” . . . What is it about Nabokov’s writing? I have asked myself this many times and keep coming back to the elegance and grace of chess . . . Humbert’s arrival in the US is perhaps the first pawn being moved, Charlotte’s death the first check, his arrest, the final checkmate, and the opponents, well, the opponents can only be his heart and his head. Throughout the entire novel a ferocious internal battle rages within him between his insatiable desire and his cold, academic reason. Who wins? In a way, neither. Desire triumphs in the sense that he essentially kidnaps Lolita and she is utterly at his mercy, but his morality, something that he undoubtedly does possess, battles him every step of the way. The guilt, the crippling remorse, not once is his conscience at peace.
The whole concept of Lolita is so horrific, so immoral, so naturally repulsive to us, it can cloud a simple truth. The truth is, this is a masterpiece. The sheer beauty of the artwork is in the details, in the small scenes and snapshots of such intensity, the very nerves of the book, each delivering a sharp spike of feeling, whether it is horror, mirth, revulsion or shock. Yes, this is the most sensuous and powerful exploration of human desire I have ever read.
"I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita."