After having been accosted by friends and colleagues for ages about not having read Nabokov’s “Lolita,” I finally picked it up some two weeks ago.
I’d thumbed through the thing on several occasions due to its high praise and high controversy while I worked as a shelver for my first library, but it never stuck. I often found myself put off to it because the subject matter just seemed too, well, perverted. And I’m not prudish by any means (I mean, c’mon, I grew up with some of the most appalling fanfiction), but the thought of reading an entire novel about one man’s obsessive sexual love affair with a preteen made my stomach churn.
I had no idea just what I was missing in rejecting this novel for so long.
In the past, I’ve read it acclaimed as the “only convincing love story of this century” or some such wording, and to a degree I can understand this thought.
But the inherent problem (and what made me wrinkle my nose at this quote at first) is the idea that “love” is always this infallible, beautiful, selfless thing. However, in my own past, I’ve seen “love” as Humbert Humbert sees it with Dolores Haze– not pedophiliac, by any means, but certainly distorted, obsessive, excruciating. That is the love story we see between our manipulative narrator and his prey, Lolita. His Lolita, as we are reminded so many times. We see a relationship sick, selfish, and full of deceit. This is not one for the storybook lovers, for those who desperately desire a happy ending. And in that sense, “Lolita” truly is a very convincing love story– where love and lovers are underhanded and egomaniacal. Desperate to the point of utter immorality.
And that is what disgusted me so much about the book: each character appeared to have been crafted to be as alarmingly loathsome as possible, riding a wave between antagonist and protagonist throughout.
H.H., so darkly humorous, well-spoken and charming, handsome and crafty, was every inch the spider he described himself to be. His exploitation of Lolita and others around him was sometimes the only thing keeping me from falling in love with him, myself. From the moment you understand his affliction and his total grasp of it, you want nothing more than to hate him. But it’s hard, at times. He makes it hard.
Dolores was much the same, in some respects, but it was watching her become a casualty of Humbert’s delusion that became the only thing keeping me from hating her. Her apathetic communications, flirtatious and sardonic interactions with H.H drove me mad. I was as much disappointed, I think, in her desperate plea for money and the roundabout conversation in which she gave Clare Quilty away (and perhaps the entire escape with him) as I was with Humbert Humbert’s initial scheme to remove her from Ramsdale.
But Charlotte’s infantile disdain for her own daughter and the jealousy she felt around H.H. made her the most outrageous villain. Upon learning of her husband’s antipathy towards her and his lust for her very young daughter, she still wanted to send Dolores away to a reform school.
I hated all of the characters to some degree, even auxiliary ones.
And that, friends, is why I loved “Lolita.”
I was manipulated by the same orchestrations as the girl after whom the book is named.
I was forced to love and hate Humbert Humbert as he loves and hates himself. I was forced to struggle to love Lo as he struggled to “love” her. I was forced to view Charlotte through a dirtied, altered lens, making her seem more nefarious than she probably was. And each secondary character left an impression of frustration and exasperation on me, much as they did Humbert.
In this analysis, I’ve come to understand why I had been so wrong in assuming the novel itself was one of illicit lust and nothing more. It was one of struggle and manipulation, and I would even go so far as to say it’s one of sociopathy. We know only of the story through Humbert’s eyes, how he perceived those fateful years, that conglomeration of tiny moments, and nothing more. We have only little details to ground us in the reality of the circumstances. One could even argue that the only struggle is an internal one– beyond his obsession with the girl, there was nothing to keep Humbert Humbert in the situations that drove him so mad. There was nothing to prompt him to transform from a sick man with disturbing appetites to a willing and able pedophile– to a murderer.
Somewhere down the road I would really love to read “Lolita” again, understanding how pliable I was in the author’s hands, so to speak. I wonder if I will find something else in it I had been too blinded by the first telling of the story to see.
For now, five out of five.
✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
If you’ve read “Lolita,” what did you take away from it? If not (and you haven’t minded the spoilers), why not? Share in the comments below!