Despite the now gargantuan pile of books that is building up around me everyday, I keep looking back to the books on my shelves and thinking to myself, “I need to read that one again.” Part of it is the fact that I always find something new in the books that I’ve read before; it’s either a sentence that excels in aesthetic merit, or else a passage that seems to capture where I am intellectually or emotionally at that time. The other reason is because of Goodreads. I observed after a while that my friend Aleya would make regular posts on Facebook that were made through Goodreads. They were always the cover of a book and said either, “Aleya has begun [TITLE X]” or else “Aleya has finished [TITLE X].” This intrigued me and when I asked her about it she mentioned that you could link your Goodreads account to your Facebook page. I set up my account, and after only a month I discovered that you could see a years’ worth of books that you read as one large picture. The image of all the different titles was illuminating because each book was a different experience, a different memory, and showed me exactly what I was doing, reading, and thinking about at the time. Because of this I’ve been looking back over the books I’ve read and been thinking, “that really needs to be in the log.” As such my copy of Lolita (distinct with its picture of a little girl’s pink lips) made its way into my path again, and I saw an opportunity to add another book to the log.
I really wish I could remember when I first read Lolita. My earliest memory of actually reading the book was one summer during a binge of the Harry Potter series. I’d just finished The Goblet of Fire and was about to move onto the Order of the Phoenix when a strange thought entered my head: “I should read Lolita.” The context of a pedophile controlling and raping a fourteen-year-old girl in between the magical adventures of Harry and his friends in the castle of Hogwarts probably would be enough to kill most people’s so-called “innocence,” but the book was illuminating.
Childhood that was being poisoned by corrupt adults seemed to make sense in its context for the arrival of Voldemort seemed a perfect segway into the whiny gasbag that is Humbert Humbert.
Reading the book again I’ve had time to read other Nabokov works such as Pnin, Invitation to a Beheading, and several of his short stories and so the most beautiful part of reading Lolita is the prose. I often compliment Nabokov for his writing, and this isn’t just literary kiss-assing on my part. Nabokov truly is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, proseists of the twenty-first century. Every sentence is a careful construction and the man has a linguistic skill that many writers could only aspire to. Part of it is a careful attention to puns that litter throughout the work, but more than anything is Nabokov’s ability to seduce with linguistics.
The opening lines of Lolita remain the most beautiful opening passage of any novel I have read, so much so that I’ve stored it in memory and can recite it at will:
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.
It’s impossible to read this out loud and not feel uplifted and simultaneously repulsed, and if that isn’t a demonstration of Nabokov’s ability nothing is. The content of this opening is enough to make one squirm but the constant use of “l’s” and “t’s” creates an auditory balm that just settles over the reader wooing them to Humbert Humbert who continues his “invitation” to the reader with a veiled order:
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Delores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor.? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (9).
This opening remains troublesome because if the reader was paying attention it’s clear that what is taking place is not a seduction, but a veiled order to listen to his story and so from the start the tone of Lolita is clear. Humbert Humbert is not interested in defending himself, he’s interested in seducing his reader so that he can exert his will over them and, more importantly, his interpretation of the events of Lolita.
Numerous critics and readers have observed the conflict of Lolita for Nabokov’s prose is beautiful, so much so that my creative writing teacher could recite this opening at will and just pause and reflect on the beauty of it. Humbert Humbert is a man gifted with a “fancy prose style” and because of this he’s able to try and sway the reader who should really be far more concerned with the fact that he’s regularly raping a twelve-year-old girl, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
If the reader has never read Lolita before, some background of the plot is necessary. Humbert Humbert is a man who, when he was young, had a failed sexual liaison with a family Friend’s daughter on the beach. Because of this failure his sexuality become stunted and he begins a lifelong pursuit of “Nymphets” his term for young girls about the age of twelve. He has a failed marriage and then hops place to place in Europe before coming to America where, in the home of a woman named Charlotte Haze, he meets a young woman named Delores Haze who becomes the center of his erotic and psychological being. He marries Charlotte, who dies not long after the marriage starts, and this gives Humbert the chance to abscond with Lolita across the territory of the United States. Humbert spends the next two years traveling with Lolita and raping her while keeping her locked tight within his grasp. Eventually Delores escapes with the help of a writer named Quilty who Humbert Murders at the end of the novel.
The duplicitous nature of Humbert is established early in the novel, for while Humbert is presented as a kind young man who had an unfulfilled erotic experience with a girl his own age, over time he becomes a crafty pervert whose chief talent is duplicity. Later in the novel after he has suffered a failed marriage he enters a sanitarium where his favorite hobby is tricking the doctors on staff. Humbert describes this activity gaily:
I discovered there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style […] teasing them with fake “primal scenes”; and never allowing them the slightest glimpse of one’s real sexual prediction. (34).
It’s this quality of Humbert, his need to constantly reveal and conceal his true self, that can make reading Lolita somewhat exasperating. In fact, I’ll be completely honest, there isn’t a page in this novel where I didn’t want to slap Humbert just for being a self-righteous and duplicitous jackass.
There’s nothing so obnoxious as someone who is constantly the victim of some past or ever occurring offense, but when one is the agent of one’s own destruction it makes it doubly annoying. Humbert is constantly calling himself the victim of a real affliction, and the later passages of the novel reveal him writing at length about how he is the subject of Lolita’s cruelty because she doesn’t return his amorous feelings. And perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the novel is that there are times when his prose is so thick with ornate arrangements of words that the reader is almost compelled to believe him.
If the reader is careful however, and remains diligent, Humbert often reveals himself in small instances. During one passage in which he’s recalling a diary he kept while living with Delores and Charlotte he describes his true nature:
My white pajamas have a lilac design on the back. I am like one of those inflated pale spiders you see in old gardens. Sitting in the middle of a luminous web and giving little jerks to this or that strand. My web is spread all over the house as I listen from my chair where I sit like a wily wizard. Is Lo in her room? Gently I tug on the silk. She is not. (49).
Later in the novel when he contemplates killing Lolita’s mother Charlotte he elaborates a long, thought-out plan and reveals himself once again:
Simple, was it not? But what d’ye know, folks—I just could not make myself do it! (87).
Though perhaps the most revealing is a passage that occurs not just but a few paragraphs later:
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them. We are not sex fiends! We do not rape as good soldiers do. We are unhappy, mild, dog-eyed gentlemen, sufficiently well integrated to control our urge in the presence of adults, but ready to give years and years of life for one chance to touch a nymphet. Empirically, no killers are we. Poets never kill. (87-8).
If the reader is absolutely repulsed by this passage they shouldn’t feel bad at all for that is my exact reaction. Humbert is often defending his desire for “nymphets,” a term that was introduced into the general lexicon after the novel was published, and reading this passage which can border on the erotic is disturbing. It’s a sane reaction to be bothered or repulsed by Lolita, but it’s when the reader turns away and decides to stop listening out of disgust that a real problem occurs.
The surface matters. It matters because it’s a topic many would prefer not to talk about.
Within the last decade, I’ve become more and more aware of the reality of rape-culture, at least as far as the culture of the United States is concerned (I can only ever speak for my own culture), and while this has temporarily hurt some of my comfort, the knowledge is worth more than my ease. One particular story stands out. My wife would often, while we were just dating, read me stories about women who were victims of rape and ignored or else victim-blamed. The most pernicious story was one of a twelve-year-old girl in the Houston area who was gang-raped by a group of teen-age boys. None of them served any jail-time because the defense argued she had “dressed provocatively.”
Now my first reaction wasn’t to cry, but to often scream at the top of my lungs, “How the fuckity fuck does a twelve-year-old “dress provocatively?”
Yet this the world and society I’m living in. The victim being denied a voice isn’t a new development, for in fact Nabokov uses this as a strategy of writing Lolita. The reader should note that the little girl who is the center of Humbert’s desire isn’t actually named Lolita, that’s his name for her when he speaks about his desire. In fact her name is Delores Haze, yet the reader might completely miss this during their reading because they are always being narrated to by Humbert. The victim’s story is silenced because Humbert presents himself often as the victim, the victim of a form of rational love. There’s no possible way he could possibly be a murderer or rapist because his feelings for Lolita are pure.
I’ve thrown quite a lot at my reader who may be wondering at this point where to begin with their criticism. Why should they bother reading a book about pedophilia in the first place? It’s revolting and by the sounds of it Nabokov was just a pervert who was hiding behind his character to express gross feelings and sentiments? Why should I pick up a book that, by the sounds of it, is just going to repulse me and make me sick?
My reader has more or less summed up the standing argument against Lolita, and the various criticisms laid against it. A few years back one of my friends in graduate school was teaching an American Literature course and he had the fortune (or misfortune) to teach the novel Lolita and the general charge against the novel was exactly the points made before. Most students shut down and refused to listen to the analysis or look past the rape to see the deeper literary and rhetorical goals of the novel. All they could see was the rape of Delores Haze.
This isn’t my place to hop up and say they were wrong to do so. Reading the novel again I’m finding it easier and easier to cut through Humbert’s fluff and observe every level of his sexual corruption and manipulations. This doesn’t always lead to a comfortable read, in fact often reading the book I feel repulsed. My reader may object then that I have proven them right, but in point of fact I’ve proven them wrong. It’s for the very reason I feel repulsed that this book matters.
Rape is an act of violence that has been allowed to have more and more exposure in contemporary media. Whether it was the fifth season of Game of Thrones which seemed to have a rape in every other episode, to the fact that Law & Order SVU has somehow managed to outlast the original series, to the fact that Bill Cosby has now become a national headline. These are just some examples, and not even the most potent illustrations of how rape-culture is infecting the society. But they do serve as a reminder that most people are aware of the crime of rape and the damage it has upon people who have to live and try to exist after becoming a victim of rape.
Lolita as a novel is more relevant than ever because the culture, as it exists now, is open to discussing the contents of the novel and reminding people that sexual assault isn’t just an abstract idea, it’s a concrete reality that affects people in the real world.
But I’ll end this first discussion of the book with an important observation. Humbert Humbert was a stranger who entered the home of Charlotte Haze and eventually managed to capture her daughter, but the idea of someone within the home as the attacker is perhaps the strongest argument for the reading of Lolita because most instances of pedophilia are not random strangers, but instead family friends or members who rape their children or siblings. It’s this last fact that perhaps makes most people so uncomfortable because many would prefer not to think about that. The idea of the home is that it is a safe space from the chaotic mess of the outside world. The corruption of rape isn’t supposed to exist, or at least nor originate from this safe space and many would prefer to hold onto that surface reality rather than acknowledge that the home isn’t always safe. Sometimes people get hurt by the ones who are supposed to love them.
I intend to write more about Lolita in a few more essays, but in this first approach I just wanted to address this surface issue because it’s the element that creates the most controversy around the novel. But where most readers focus on the element of Humbert’s sexual manipulations, the far more important element is that Nabokov succeeded in demonstrating that parents worrying about their children being prey to sexual deviants didn’t need to look outside their living rooms, because unfortunately the spider had already set up shop and might have been sitting next to them on the couch.
I probably need to give my reader more credit. If you weren’t reading my essay then I wouldn’t be speaking with them directly.
If the reader is at all interested, I’ve found a few website which have compiled some statistics about the rate of sexual assault, what are the ages of attackers, and their types of relationships with the victims.
While researching this essay, I managed to find a link to an article published on Slate. I’ve provided it here below:
I apologize to the reader who brought up the idea that Nabokov might be expressing personal desires through Lolita; I never got around to debunking this idea. This is a common charge against Nabokov’s Lolita, but unfortunately it is the most misinformed criticism and therefore the easiest to combat. Just because an author writes about a topic does not means that he or she validates or believes in such a moral system. Edgar Allen Poe often wrote in first person personas that were often mad lunatics or sexual deviants but that does not mean Poe supported premature burials or animal abuse. There is a divide between the writer, the author, and the creative persona. tHe writer is merely the person who writes the text, the author is the original manager of the inspiration, and the creative persona is the person what is being written by the author. This system exists to give the writer distance from his or her creation, allowing a freedom to express and explore ideas that they may find repulsive, frightening, or else simply evil. Nabokov was not a pedophile, he was merely a writer who wrote a character who was. If readers intend to hold authors responsible for the actions of their characters, or worse, assume that their characters are the extensions of their creator’s personality then artists will not be free to tackle difficult subjects like rape, murder, pedophilia, and torture in which case life will be nothing but Family Circus Cartoons and I will not live in that world.
Unless it’s Nietzsche’s Family Circus, that shit’s hilarious.
Several of the watercolor images in this article are from an illustrated copy of Lolita. The artist’s name is Frederico Infante and if the reader is curious about how he handled, what would be for many potential career suicide, they can read about it in an article published on The independent by following the link below: