“I am trying to describe these things not to relive them in my present boundless misery, but to sort out the portion of hell and the portion of heaven in that strange, awful, maddening world–nymphet love” (135).
Not too long ago, I finished Vladimir Nabokov’s infamous novel Lolita, and I’m still sorting through my reactions to it. Perhaps more than any other book I’ve read, Lolita made a sharp divide between my moral self and my aesthetic self; the former aspect of the book is revolting, while the latter is beautiful. The novel brought the old literary argument back to the forefront of my mind: do books need to be moral to be worthwhile? This question is at the heart of my conflicted feelings toward Lolita.
In case you don’t know, Lolita is a novel about Humbert Humbert’s amorous relationship with the underage title character. Humbert is attracted to girls between the ages of 9 and 14 who have a certain je ne sais quois, whom he calls “nymphets.” He falls hard for Lolita and through a certain set of circumstances finds himself with sole guardianship over the girl. You can guess what happens next, and they go on a year-long trip around the country. Later on, the plot improves when Lolita escapes from Humbert’s grasp, and the reader tries to assemble the clues as to who her second abductor is. It’s almost a mystery story for that section.
Naturally, the ongoing statutory rape in the novel is repugnant, and several passages are enough to make me nauseous. Nabokov doesn’t write pornography (thankfully), but he is willing to push the boundaries. This puts him in the avant-garde category, but it also tests my willingness to tolerate the book. Sure, I’ve read dozens of books that feature immorality in them—in fact, just about all novels do. We’re human. We make big mistakes. Indeed, literature would be much the worse if sordid material did not exist in it. We need to understand our world, even its seamier side.
That said, Lolita is a lot to stomach. There is something especially heinous about raping an underage, helpless girl. Humbert’s sporadic descriptions of the events make it much worse. I will point out here that the bulk of the text is about what happens surrounding the relationship between Lo and Humbert, so one shouldn’t get the impression that sex is all the novel consists of. However, there are enough passages to make me consider dropping the book altogether, which I never do. It is exceedingly difficult to enjoy a book wherein the narrator is a person like Humbert.
In the midst of this darkness, though, the reader sees dazzling light from time to time. Nabokov provides relief through occasional moments of regret and self-loathing from Humbert. He is aware that this attraction to nymphets is a psychological illness, and that mitigates matters slightly. Of course, he should have fled, which he knows. The main source of enjoyment in the novel is Nabokov’s marvelous style. My back cover quotes Updike describing Nabokov’s writing as ecstatic, and I think that is well-put. In the mind of this twisted narrator, we soar to heights of grandeur and poetry and plummet into darkness and void. Perhaps my favorite passage comes on the penultimate page where Humbert is standing on a precipice hearing the voices of children rising up from the vale: “I stood there listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord” (308). Beautiful.
Now it’s time for some random thoughts. 1) This is yet another novel wherein I wished I knew French. Humbert is always tossing in random sentences en Francais. 2) The back of my edition quotes somebody from Vanity Fair (the magazine, not the book) as saying Lolita is “the only convincing love story of our century.” I’d like to find that person and punch squi in the teeth. That person is either entirely twisted or hasn’t read much. 3) It is important to read the foreword in this novel; it’s part of the story. As usual, I skipped it and read it at the end. That works too, but it isn’t ideal. 4) Don’t worry when Humbert says the reader should have guessed who Lo’s second “kidnapper” is; he hasn’t actually given you enough clues to know yet, but he thinks he has.
I’m not sure I recommend Lolita. It certainly is fascinating and had me pondering it days after I finished it. If that’s the mark of a great work, then Lolita is one. It’s certainly written masterfully. As I said, the child rape aspect of the book is at times unbearable. Decide for yourself whether it’s something you want to imbibe. If I had a daughter (especially in her early teens), this book would be much worse; I’d stay away.