I wanted to read Lolita because it’s a book we all think we know, it’s found a place in our cultural shorthand and Sting even references it in a pop song, but when I heard that cultural knowledge was misinformed I knew I had to read the book myself.
It’s generally assumed because of the movies of Lolita that the title character is a teenager who seduces her stepdad, runs his life into the ground, and then moves on. It feeds our hebophilia and our assumption that women are evil temptresses ruining otherwise good men. The reality though is in the original text Lolita is twelve. When I heard that it changed my opinion of our opinion.
At first, frankly, I was surprised the book isn’t banned. Humbert is an avid pedophile from the start. There’s a line in the beginning about not aspiring to be lewd and Nabokov’s writes which such flourish and poetry I imagine censors just missed what he was saying half the time and later in the book Humbert does feel remorse and that probably helped the book’s release too. Still, 1952 America, really?
The book is written from Humbert’s point of view and he’s utterly self-absorbed. In the first part of the book, before the descent, he assumes everyone is attracted to him (though he underestimates the feelings Lolita’s mother has) and excuses any wrong he does or nearly does with complete flippancy. He mentions in passing while he’s talking about guns that the first time he thought about using one was when he planned on raping a friend’s daughter and killing himself with that friend’s gun he kept in the house. He acknowledges that he’s a monster but he’s says it in a jovial matter-of-fact way. For the reader there’s no other way to build empathy for him than to be put directly behind his eyes and it’s important empathize with Humbert for A) the moments of suspense to work; and B) to under the changes he goes through in the descent portion of the story.
As for Lo, the reader is constantly left wondering what she’s thinking because that’s mostly what Humbert does. He assumes he knows everything about everyone except this little girl, especially when his control over her starts to slip. She has her first sexual encounter with a boy at summer camp and after that she realizes Humbert’s attraction to her. She’s still too young to have sexual feelings of her own but she sees, childishly, the power it gives her to be desired. I say childishly because at first she just uses it to get ice cream and money. The relationship is still an adult-child dynamic and he is still an authority figure when he decides they’re running away together and drive around America for a year.
A great writer can convey tedium without being tedious. Don’t let anyone tell you Nabokov is great, the book has a lot of tedious parts and pointless diversions.
They cruise around until Lo gets a little older and starts to test boundaries. And she finds there aren’t any. Humbert is in love with her and afraid of her. She becomes demanding and incessant trying to fill the growing darkness in her that comes from having your childhood stolen. At this point they both know what’s happening but neither has anyone else or anywhere to go. He keeps poisoning her soul with isolation and sexual abuse while she poisons him by feeding his growing paranoia and withholding the thing he really wants, her affection.
Humbert starts drinking a lot and Nabokov writes first-person-drunks pretty well, it’s not easy. Don’t let anyone tell you Nabokov is a bad writer. Humbert’s paranoia becomes extreme but ultimately valid because Lita does escape. With another, richer, hipper pedophile.
And this was the most surprising part of the book. She escapes for five years. Seven years in which Humbert does a whole lot of characteristic things we already knew about him and the story doesn’t move forward at all. From the writers point of view I know something had to go there, because finding her again has to feel like we’d really been away from her for five years but damn, that was some pointless tedious shit.
He gets a letter from her that she needs money. And she’s married, pregnant, in California, and really needs that money. She tries not to let him know where she is but where he can send the funds so she’ll get it and he’s able to track her down through that and other clues in the letter. Postcard actually. And it’s on this trip to California, nursing a gun and calling it pal all the way, that he, in his words, broke her life. The thing he loved about her he had taken all of and consumed it. He had taken so much of her that she doesn’t even have enough left to hate him.
After the violent conclusion I mentally trimmed away all the inefficiencies and wondered exactly what the point was. I could tell a few things it wasn’t; that taboo relationships are hot, or that women are evil, and I certainly didn’t learn anything about love – all of which pop culture had taught me the book was supposedly about. Luckily the edition I bought has a post script where Naby himself addresses the point, mentioning that he’s read every bizarre interpretation from allegorical capitalist exploitation to anti-American/pro-European subliminal propaganda and all the reasons above. And he says that nope, he just had an idea for a story and wrote it as he went along. In this case I don’t know if a cigar just being a cigar is a good thing or not.
Overall I do recommend giving it a read for the writing itself if not the story because Vlad writes gloriously with poetic metaphors, similes, and turns of phrase. And the self-aware perspective of Humbert is a great character study other writers could learn from.