Lolita is one of those famous books that one can’t help hearing about. Years ago I even came across a not-very-erotic excerpt from it in an anthology of erotic fiction. I didn’t actually get around to reading Lolita, however, until earlier this summer.
To my surprise, the book lived up to and indeed surpassed my expectations. Nabokov was an astonishingly good prose stylist, and his writing shimmers with wit, eloquence and innovative turns of phrase. Like George MacDonald Fraser’s equally (but differently) brilliant Flashman novels, about a Victorian cavalryman of highly dubious morals, Lolita demands from the reader a certain detachment – one has to be able to suspend one’s ethical judgement to the point of enjoying the company of a narrator who is indubitably knavish but also indubitably interesting. Lolita is written as a first person memoir, and one of the best parts is a mocked-up foreword by a fictional editor who notes that the narrator, Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym said to resemble a “mask- through which two hypnotic eyes seem to glow”) is “a shining example of moral leprosy” and “not a gentleman”, among other things. If phrases like that make you prick up your ears, rather than shudder in disgust, then Lolita is probably up your alley.
Humbert Humbert, of course, is a grown man who is sexually attracted to certain pubescent and pre-pubescent girls, straddling the boundary between paedophilia and hebephilia.
Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.
The criteria for identifying a nymphet are a bit vague, and as someone naturally “bewitched” by maturity, imagination and practised decadence in the opposite sex I really can’t hope to enter into the perspective of a “nympholept” like the fictional Humbert. However, I can thoroughly enjoy his urbane, erudite, irreverent and backhandedly perceptive account of his own adventures. The book revolves around his relationship with Lolita, a sexually experienced nymphet whom he cunningly pursues until, in a surprising twist, she throws herself at him:
“You mean,” she persisted, now kneeling above me, “you never did it when you were a kid?”
“Never,” I answered quite truthfully.
“Okay,” said Lolita, “here is where we start.”
The descriptions of the actual sex between Humbert and Lolita are glancing and euphemistic. With a different narrator that might come across as something of a cop out or a contrived attempt to avoid controversy, but Nabokov constructs Humbert as just the type of person – perhaps “not a gentleman”, but gentlemanly in a threadbare and bankrupt sort of way – who might indeed talk about sex using stilted phrases like “the stark act of love”. On the other hand, Humbert is disarmingly, hilariously and rather horrifically frank and unashamed about the sheer intensity of his desire to perform the stark act with Lolita and other nymphets, and about the high level of priority he attaches to this desire. At one point he entertains a hazy fantasy about keeping himself perennially supplied with nymphets by having a daughter with Lolita, and then a (grand)daughter with the daughter. Later on, he enrolls Lolita (also known as Dolly) in a particular school partly because he has a line of sight to the place from his house and looks forward to seeing “by means of powerful binoculars, the statistically inevitable percentage of nymphets among the other girl-children playing around Dolly during recess”. Later still, Lolita gets sick:
She was shaking from head to toe. She complained of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae – and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her up in a laprobe and carried her into the car.
My emphasis, of course. The man is simply obsessed, and is probably one of the most selfish characters in all literature. At first he seems completely oblivious to whatever effect his nympholepsy and the arrangements surrounding it might be having on Lolita, but eventually he alludes to “her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep”. At some level Humbert understands the harmfulness of what he’s doing, but he does it anyway.
Humbert glides through most of his story without discussing the subject of faith, implicitly irreligious but not explicitly atheistic. Towards the end of the book, however, he recalls a characteristically self-absorbed brush with the problem of evil, and it even has a Canadian twist:
A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding… Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that… nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me… that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child… had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art.
Old-fashioned popish cures rarely do much good, as Humbert Humbert seems to have discovered. His reasoning here seems a bit dubious, though, and dangerously dependent on the subjective notion of mattering a jot. Mattering to whom? It certainly mattered to Lolita herself, and one would hope it mattered at least a little to Humbert Humbert. Anything more cosmic is a fond hope, as we atheists know.
Nabokov has a bit more to say about both art and atheism in a wry and reflective afterword that appears, at least, in my copy of Lolita. He issues a firm rebuff to anyone looking for a clear message in the book:
I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and… Lolita has no moral in tow. 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.
In my experience the realm of art has room for darker emotions than the ones Nabokov mentions here, but I agree entirely with his preference for an aesthetic rather than a “didactic” approach to art. In an age that sometimes seems practically obsessed with the political subtexts of books, and especially of movies, Nabokov’s willingness to let a good, well-told story be a good, well-told story is refreshing. Another passage in the afterword, though, left me feeling less sanguine. Discussing his difficulty in finding a publisher for Lolita, Nabokov says:
Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.
Nabokov wrote those words in 1956. In the years since, I’m confident that it has become easier in both America and Canada to publish books that deal with successful mixed marriages and happy atheists, but I’m not so sure about books that deal with the perceived charms of nymphets (or faunlets, the equivalent male term that Humbert Humbert mentions at one point). By the time I die in my sleep at the age of 106, perhaps that taboo will have faded as well.