I chose this book based on its thunderous reputation, despite the loathsome logline. Let’s say straight off the bat that this is a book about a man who spends two years raping a child.
One’s opinion of this book is bound to be different depending on how close you are to the target reader. I imagine that Nabokov wrote this for an educated, literary, heterosexual, probably white, middle or upper-class man alive in the 1950s. I tried to keep that in mind, as it made some of Nabokov’s choices clear.
One aspect of the book that I hadn’t heard much about, but which I found fascinating, is how much it was a portrait of a world at change, teetering away from the old world into the new. Humbert-Humbert is a stodgy, extremely entitled Swiss intellectual who presents the world of 1950s America through old world eyes. He seems to despise everything about America and all of its inhabitants, with the exception of the scenery, which he finds quite beautiful. I include Lolita in the category of things he despises, which I’ll get into later.
Humbert-Humbert is very proud of his background, as you can tell by how disdainful of those who do not share his tastes and sensibilities. They drink pop instead of port. How gauche. He dislikes their accents, the words they use. Humbert-Humbert/Nabokov themselves use as superfluous and melodious a prose as they can muster within the curtailed confines of the English language, and when these paltry offerings no longer suffice, il nous donne les mots Francaise. The language was beautiful and amazing; people don’t write like that anymore. I’ve seen imitations of this, and it comes across as purple prose, tawdry and unreadable pastiches of an old-fashioned style. But since it’s novel, I enjoyed it for Nabokov’s masterful vocabulary. It was like listening to opera when you’re used to pop ballads, and being blown away by the sheer raw skill of the performer. He used in this novel perhaps eight thousand words, but Nabokov dusted off all the little-used vocabulary and brought it out for the guests. The range was impressive, as the range of an opera singer blows me away. But, like opera, there’s a reason it’s not as popular a style as, well, pop.
And let’s talk about the French. I had the audiobook, and while Jeremy Irons has an amazing voice with a good French accent, the fact remains that my French has atrophied to the point where I got maybe 75% of it, and the Latin phrases even less. I understood this as an affect of the character. Humbert-Humbert uses French to demonstrate his superior culture. He disdains people who don’t have good French, Lolita points out he brings it out more when he wants to be standoffish. At the beginning of the book, he acts like a generous soul bringing a touch of class to these poor, benighted peasants. But as the book goes on, it becomes clear that these people don’t much care for him. They prefer their movies and their teen magazines and their roller rinks. He’s like the grandpa who is just begging for the grandkids to ask his advice and beg for stories, but the kids couldn’t care less. Their lives are different from his, and they see little value in his experience. Humbert-Humbert’s culture doesn’t amount to much. Murderer and child-rapist notwithstanding, I didn’t much care for the man simply because he was a snobbish and useless man.
So let’s talk about the main point of the book, this so-called great love. Nabokov introduces Lolita a few chapters in, and in good Russian author fashion, tells us her name is the rather-apt Dolores (meaning sorrowful one), and then calls her everything else: Lo, Dolly, Lolly, Lola, and Lolita. By the time Humbert meets her, it’s already been established that he’s keen on diddling the pre-teen set and will do so whenever the opportunity presents itself. He is consumed by his first love for Anna-Marie, see, who was only 12 when they parted. And she died, oh how tragic. In the 50s, mental health was the hot topic, so Humbert drops hints about him having been institutionalized for depression or nerves or whatever. I think this is meant to explain his peccadillo, though I cry bullshit. I kissed a boy when I was 13 and have been depressed now and again, and have had zero desire to diddle the pre-teen set.
I understand that some people are just born or made pedophiles, and they have to struggle with that desire their whole lives. I find that sad and tragic, but the alternative (as many of these people themselves realize) is too horrible, and so they practice self restraint. I’m reminded of this great book called I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER in which the main character knows he has evil urges, and he fights against them constantly. The reader learns that if the protagonist’s control lapses, bad things will happen, and the protagonist is good enough to not want those bad things to happen. He has a hard time seeing other people as real people (perhaps because his part-time job involves sucking out the organs of the dead with a trochar), but he knows that they are, and he knows that killing is wrong.
Humbert-Humbert doesn’t love Lolita like you or I might love a spouse, or a parent, or even a dog. Humbert loves Lolita like an alcoholic loves booze. The fact that Lolita is his favorite single-malt Scotch doesn’t negate the fact that he’d chug Keystone if he had to. This old-world entitlement is one of the main causes of his crime. He treats everyone with contempt, and never shows the slightest care or concern for anyone else’s desires but his own. He was willing to murder Lolita’s mother just to get unfettered access to her child. At one point he tries to buy a child-whore, and when the child is found for him, he doesn’t think “wow, how tragic it must be that these people are poor or desperate or evil enough to sell their own child into prostitution” but “eh, she’s not pretty enough.” He literally does not see the children he wants to fuck as human. They are not human, they are demons, they are “nymphets.” They stir desire in him, so clearly they are at fault when he acts on that desire, he can’t control himself. (I write this with bitter sarcasm.)
Lolita does not have a voice in this. When she does speak, it’s merely to demonstrate how icky her words are, how much Humbert hates the language she uses. Gee, golly, swell, dad. We can only see her desires by her actions. “Reader, she seduced me,” he says, and by this the unreliable narrator seeks to absolve himself of everything that followed. She wasn’t a virgin, he says, so that makes it okay. I was desperate to know more of Lolita’s sad story, how she felt about losing her father, about being hated by her mother. Did she really seduce him, as a way of getting back at her mother, or as a way of seeking male approval, or was that whole thing a lie? Lolita falls into sour moods, and Humbert keeps her spirts up by always having a destination ahead of them, as if by driving and driving he can chase away the spirits of what must have been her profound grief. But Humbert doesn’t want to dwell on how this child must have felt to lose her mother, to be the plaything of a man she barely knew, he only wants to keep her sweet so she’ll perform various sexual acts.
Later on Lolita starts charging him money to perform some of these acts, and he mentions that it’s cruel of her. This is the only power she has over him, and even this tiny power he resents. He goes and searches her room afterward to find her stash and take it back, lest she accumulate enough money to escape. Until the end of the book, when he has his too little, too late regret, this is as close as he comes to acknowledging that she might not want to be there. At one point on their long road trip she begs and pleads to stop off at the town she was born in, but he refuses, perhaps fearing she might find some piece of a life outside him. As the book goes on, he is more and more terrified that someone will steal her from him. That she might have thoughts enough of her own to escape, and not to another man but just to escape, does not occur to him. He wants to own her totally and completely, to have utter power over her. He fantasizes about siring daughters and granddaughters to be his future concubines. If you find yourself nodding in agreement that a man having complete and utter control over his lover is an idea that has merit, please go drink some cyanide.
Lolita eventually does escape, and when Humbert finds out and tracks her down, it’s not her he despises, but the man she first went to. It’s as if he is utterly incapable of conceiving of the idea that she might have come up with the idea of leaving him on her own. This is the heart of what makes him so contemptible. To him, she is not a person. She is a thing. He goes on and on and on about his overwhelming love for her, but I say this: he did not love her. Lust is not love. Desire is not love. I may “love” ice cream, but if the ice cream doesn’t love me back, it’s not real love. If you had a pet dog and you loved it, you wouldn’t lock it in a cage and refuse to let it see other people out of fear it might like another person better than you. If a man refused to let his wife out of his sight for two years because he was terrified she would run off with the first likely man would find his wife gone for good as soon as she managed to spirit herself off to a domestic violence shelter. This isn’t the action of a passionate lover, this is the act of a slaveowner.
At the end of the book, when he realizes with sad pangs that their affair meant nothing to him, I almost laughed. It was like someone eating a fish sandwich and then being shocked that the fish didn’t enjoy it as much as he did. He used her mother, he used her, and he had no qualms about destroying lives in order to get his dick waxed by someone who was too powerless to say no. It was written half a century ago, when many men weren’t smart enough to realize that if you’re terrified of your loved one escaping, that’s a good sign that she doesn’t love you back and you should just let her go. I think back in the 1950s, it was more accepted to think of women as objects you own rather than people who might have the right to live their own life. Now, I think most men are kinder and smarter.
I suspect when it was first written, a lot of the readers felt it hit right in the middle of moral ambivalence “Gee, she’s a child, but it’s true love, so that makes it okay? Gosh, what a pickle!” But I came to this as someone who was once a 12-year-old girl, who has been the mother of a 12-year-old girl, and I saw this as a beautifully written story about a remorseless, disgusting monster whose broken heart was only a fraction of the suffering he deserved. This isn’t a love story, it’s merely a tragedy.