August 31, 2008


My copy of Lolita has on its cover a blonde girl, reclining in a park, her eyes seductively pointing at the reader. That image of Lolita has persisted down the years- seductive, available, think Britney Spears playing the schoolgirl in her first pop video. That image of Lolita is completely and utterly wrong- it puts the reader into the position of Humphrey Humbert- makes us see him as the tragedy and her as the tempting siren. That image is entirely wrong- this is a book about Lolita, but Lolita as mediated by the gaze of Humphrey Humbert- this is a book about a girl written by a pedophile. Humbert confesses several times throughout the novel that he does not feel sexual excitement about women- that of Lolita's friends, the more physically mature are for him the less sexually attractive- it is the snub nosed, unmade up, chestnut haired, dirty Lolita that he loves and that he eventually rapes (as she says). The novel's artistry is that it presents this picture through Humbert's voice- if you do not read it carefully you can be seduced into being Humbert- and if you do that, you will fall victim to two massive mistakes.

The first of those mistakes concerns Humbert himself. Humbert thinks that he is an artist, he groups himself with Dante, Petrarch and Edgar Allen Poe. He thinks that paedophilia is the prerogative of the poet- the marker of a true distinction of taste. He says that the subtle beauty of what he calls nymphets- girls between the ages of 9 and 14- are available only to those who see the true artistic beauty of the universe. Of course in this he is a satire, a brutal satire and culmination of that romantic tendency to see the existence of art as the construction of an excuse. For Humbert cannot achieve and has not achieved anything- his wealth is a matter of happenstance, an accident of inheritance- he has alternated between the positions of a drone and a madman, running betwixt asylum and attic- and producing nothing in either. He has no books of original ideas out- a couple of translations- poor return for someone who considers himself a poet- only in small town America would he be taken as a cultured individual, with his overt use of French tags and his feckless past, present and future.

The second concerns Lolita. Nabokov allows us to hear once in a while Lolita's own voice- at one point she writes a letter to Humbert and her Mother- and addresses it, as any twelve year old might, to 'Hummy and Mummy'. She is a kid. She is aware of her sexuality- but as a teenager might be- she has kissed another girl, had an experience with a boy and sat on a man's lap and felt excited. But she cannot be a woman- and Humbert wants her to be a woman- he wants her to be a wife. The reason that Humbert is so blind about Lolita is that he completely ignores her. He ignores what she wants, ignores what she is interested in, despises her desires- for films and celebrity magazines- this is not a solid basis for a relationship. Humbert even speculates on the prospect of eventually marrying Lolita, his step daughter, impregnating her and then ten years later molesting his new daughter! Indeed it adds to the idea that whatever emotion Humbert has for Lolita, it cannot be called love- obsession, fascination maybe- but not love for he does not care for Lolita, only for her nymphet (or childish) form. The novel is explicit from Humbert's view- but this is not an erotic novel- rather it is a warning, a fearsome warning.

It is a warning against self absorption. Humbert is phenomenally self absorbed- he desires Lolita because he can control her. Because he can twist her into being the girl he lost when he was thirteen- one of the interesting things about the novel is that Humbert represents all elder women as being not merely unattractive but threatening- their talk threatens his autonomy, his self sovereignty. They threaten with equality! As others have said it is also a formidable warning against tyranny. The tyrant here is the paedophile- forcing the girl to have sex with him for little treats. The tyrant though also writes a history in order to prove that he was what the girl needed- that she was asking for it. It is a worrying sign of the times that we do not read Lolita for what it is- a ferocious counter attack on the tyranny of personal relations and powerful states- but for an account of how Lolita is the guilty party. That pouting girl on the front cover of my volume symbolises the way that we have got this story wrong- the way that we have misunderstood the fact that this dark and brilliant novel is filled with irony, that Humbert here is the great villain and Lolita is the harmless victim. A harmless victim that Nabokov implies can survive- but survives damaged and ultimately of course survives barely longer than her tormentor.

Read this novel, but read it not to be erotically excited, read it to explore the dark sides of the human mind- the ways that paedophilia represents an analogy for the evils of tyranny that Nabokov fled to escape in the West- read it as a terrible warning of how humanity is perverted by power and how our innermost desires can turn into a warped message of self assertion and obsession.


Baht At said...

lolita says an awful lot about what is wrong in the human condition - namely that many have a tendency to prey upon those they can and take pleasure from it.

Personally my pleasure comes in the challenge of a strong personality of which there are very few.

Ario said...

Hmmm.... I think your post has managed to do something I've long thought improbable. It has made me reconsider the merits of this novel.

Despite the deliberate narrative construct I always felt that Nabokov glossed too much over the hideousness of Humbert's crime. I also felt that the novel dodged the central topic of child rape. A braver novel would have been written from the perspective of the child - rather than the perpetrator's.

These were my thoughts while reading it. This post has provided an inroad into understanding on which premise the novel was written. On that score it does achieve what it set out.

As a companion piece I can recommend Caroline Smailes's novel In Search Of Adam. It shows the child's perspective.