Caveat: if you haven’t read Lolita, you might want to just skim this post, because I’m going to talk about it in a fair bit of detail. Of course, if you haven’t read Lolita, you probably think you know what it’s about, anyway, because it’s a big, distorted cultural icon. Trust me. You should read it.
From the very beginning, when we discover that our monstrous, and monstrously suave, narrator has called himself Humbert Humbert, Lolita has an odd doubling effect. There are at least two and sometimes three of everything in this novel. Two nymphets: the first, long-ago girl, Annabel Leigh Cooper (and yes, the references to Poe come thick and fast), and of course Dolly, Lo, L, Lo-lee-ta herself. Two wives, both hastily dispensed with. (The scene in which Humbert’s first wife leaves him for a gallant Russian colonel is both extremely funny and darkly revealing.) Two pederasts. The Enchanted Hunters as a hotel and as a play, and then of course as the enchanted hunter looking for his missing prey. Listen to the description of the hotel room in The Enchanted Hunters:
There was a double bed, a mirror, a bathroom door ditto, a blue-dark window, a reflected bed there, the same in the closet mirror, two chairs, a glass-topped table, two bedtables, a double bed: a big panel bed, to be exact, with a Tuscan rose chenille spread, and two frilled, pink-shaded nightlamps, left and right.
Because this book is dizzying. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, says Humbert, and we read, lips parted, passionate, astonished at what Humbert (Nabokov?) is doing with the language, and at the “gagging, bursting beast” just below the beauty of the prose. Humbert is a villain; of that there’s no doubt. He says he has “striking if somewhat brutal good looks,” and is “an exceptionally handsome male.” (But he also has “agate claws.” Shudder.) He must not be too attentive to women lest they come “toppling, bloodripe, into my cold lap.” Poor Humbert, the victim of all these women! Is it his fault if he’s handsome?
And he’s so careful, so gentle with lovely Lolita. The first time he’s alone with her, he molests her surreptitiously. (There are signs that she knows what he’s doing, but he ignores them.) He’s thrilled with his perfect crime:
I felt proud of myself. I had stolen the honey of a spasm without impairing the morals of a minor…. What I had madly possessed was not she, but my own creation, another, fanciful Lolita — perhaps, more real than Lolita; overlapping, encasing her; floating between me and her, and having no will, no consciousness — indeed, no life of her own.
The child knew nothing. I had done nothing to her. And nothing prevented me from repeating a performance that affected her as little as if she were a photographic image rippling upon a screen and I a humble hunchback abusing myself in the dark.
Well, there are worse monsters in the world. At least he didn’t rape her. She knew nothing about it! And —
You see. What this book demands is constant vigilance, constant engagement, constant pushing back against a monstrously sympathetic narrator who is desperately in love. Humbert wants to erase the real Lolita — her past, her parents, her candy bars and comic books, her real self, her very life — and replace it with “another, fanciful Lolita.” In this way he can excuse himself, pretend he has never harmed his darling. But who is being abused in the dark?
Haze is her last name, and even Humbert reminds us of umbra, shadow: we are always fighting against a fog that is dangerously rich and neurotically dark. At times, Humbert reminds us of this himself: “The reader will regret to learn that soon after my return to civilization I had another bout of insanity (if to melancholia and a sense of insufferable oppression that cruel term must be applied).” But most of the time, we are on our own.
The title of the book is Lolita. Who is Lolita, the real one? We are given so little: most of what we see is through Humbert’s obsessive ramblings about Lo, the nymphet, the daemon who is not a real child. But every now and then we see a glimpse of the damage, obliquely: “There would have been a fire opal dissolving within a ripple-ringed pool, a last throb, a last dab of color, stinging red, smarting pink, a sigh, a wincing child.” Her sobs in the night. Her behavior at school. Her longing for a family: parents, a “small, chubby brother,” grinning dogs — because, of course, Lolita once had a baby brother, too. And of course, her final disappearance and transformation. This is no love-nest, and no family, but a prison to be escaped at any cost. When she escapes, she becomes herself once and for all: Dolly, not Lo.
In the end, Aubrey McFate, who has been lurking here and there throughout the book, finds all the characters. We know from “John Ray’s” somber foreword what happens, and now we know to whom. John Ray says there is a moral: protect the children. Nabokov, in his afterword, says there isn’t. Instead:
For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.
Well, V.N., I’d call that a moral. Humbert Humbert is criminally incurious. He is not just irritated but enraged by anything that falls outside his twin (!) obsessions of self and fanciful nymphet. Tenderness and kindness are artificial means to an end. And when I am caught up in the murderer’s trademark fancy prose style, I find myself complicit in this violation, incurious about Lolita, incurious about the barber in Kasbeam, incurious about anything but the next sentence. The moral may not be “keep your hands off little girls.” It may simply be “listen to the suffering” — the sobs in the night. In that way, we can understand why Nabokov makes Grey Star the capital city of the novel.
I can’t sum up how I felt about this book. I feel… educated by it. Reading it, I wanted at once to read it as fast as I could and to slow down, way down, and read each word one at a time. I wanted to ease into it like a hot bath and to push against it, hard, like ice skating. I will read it again and again. It’s a masterpiece.