‘Lolita’ is not an easy book to review. Perhaps more than any other novel that I have reviewed on this blog thus far, ‘Lolita’ comes with a burden of critical responses that make it hard to see the novel for itself. It is an elusive text at the best of times, with its classically flawed narrator, constantly challenging the reader to ask whether Humbert’s words can be taken at face value, as they rarely can. ‘Lolita’ has lost none of its power to shock, even after the passage of more than fifty years since it was published, possibly gaining even more potency as our awareness of child sexual abuse has increased.
So I think I ought to start on safe ground, with a summary of the events and characters of the novel itself. The narrative is told as a recollection of events by the narrator, Humbert Humbert. An introductory chapter purporting to be by the book’s editor, but in fact forming part of the narrative, sets the scene – this is Humbert’s jail-cell confession, written shortly before his death. As with Nabokov’s earlier work, ‘Pale Fire’ there is a significant and palpable gap between the narrator’s view of events, and that of the reader’s, and it is navigating that gap that makes reading ‘Lolita’ both challenging and rewarding.
Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who after a period of grooming establishes a sexual relationship with his orphaned step-daughter, Dolores. It is significant that her name is not Lolita – this is a label given her by Humbert, as part of his attempt to erase her individuality and to control her. It is representative, if you will, of his abuse.
Nabokov set himself a huge challenge here – how to portray a monster through his own eyes, without utterly repulsing the reader. And make no mistake, Humbert is repellent. His abuse of Dolores is charted with euphemisms which do little to disguise the nature of the abuse. Some reviewers and critics (and to be clear, this is not an academic work, so I am not going to provide references to support this claim – assume when I write things like this I simply mean “stuff I have read on the Internet”) fall for Humbert’s version of events, and portray Dolores as the under-age predator, sexually precocious beyond her years, and responsible for seducing poor, vulnerable Humbert. The term ‘Lolita’ has over the years been used generically in this manner, which is a pity, because it should mean “victim”. Indeed, in most popular culture representations of Lolita she is portrayed in Humbert’s terms – sexually precocious, mature, even provocative. I even read one review online which suggested that ultimately the great achievement of this novel is that it makes the reader “fall in love” with Humbert, and that it is a love story. I recognise I am taking a very moral tone here, but part of the reason for keeping this blog in the first place was to chart my authentic reactions to what I read.
What might be interesting would be to give Lolita back her voice. Not as an imaginative exercise, but simply to look at what she says, as recorded by Humbert, but without his commentary. In the first part of the novel Lolita is only glimpsed, and is almost completely silent. When she is collected from camp by Humbert following her mother’s death, she has a few lines, but these are mainly every day observances. Of her thoughts on her abuse we have scarcely half a dozen lines, including (and to be clear, this is not an exhaustive list of her comments, but I think quite representative):
Before Humbert begins to rape her:
“Don’t drool on me. You dirty man” (130)
“Look, let’s cut out the kissing game”
“Lay off , will you”
And after the attacks begin:
“You revolting creature. I was a daisy-fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me? I ought to call the police and tell that you raped me. Oh you dirty, dirty old man.” (159)
“Can you remember, you know….the hotel where you raped me”.
“An ominous hysterical note rang through her silly words. Presently, making a sizzling sound with her lips, she started complaining of pains, said she could not sit, said I had torn something inside her” (159)
While you could expect Humbert to do everything possible to avoid this self implication, Nabokov has him implicate himself time and again. He is fully aware that he has no defence to his actions, and that Lolita is far from a willing accomplice, nor partially responsible for the crimes, as some commentators (see above) would have it. Apart from her age, and the significant age gap between them, he is a twice married man, and her step-parent, in loco parentis. He bribes her with clothes and treats, and finally pays her per sexual transaction. He threatens her with entry into the care system if she reports his attacks. He attempts to render her unconscious with sleeping pills in order to facilitate his attacks. None of this is consensual, even were consent to be possible.
“Eventually she lived up to her I.Q. by finding a safer hiding place, which I never discovered, but by that time I had brought prices down drastically by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school’s theatrical programme. (209) With this clear illustration that even delusional Humbert realises his attacks are nauseating, can critics still describe this as a love affair? (I have found one reference to the magazine ‘vanity Fair’ describing ‘Lolita’ as “the only convincing love story of our century”.)
“She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion. Never did she vibrate under my touch, and a strident ‘what d’you think you are doing?’ was all I got for my pains. To wonderland I had to offer, my fool preferred the corniest movies, the most cloying fudge. To think that between a Hamburger and a Humburger, she would – invariably, with icy precision – plump for the former” (Nabokov, 166).
Some kind of normality settles on their existence as Humbert and Dolores restlessly criss-cross the country, always on the move to prevent her from making any friends or appealing to anyone for help. But Humbert lets slip that Dolores never comes to terms with the tragedy of her situation, her captivity:
“I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep”. (199) Is this the behaviour of a young women enjoying the company of her older lover, (as Humbert would love it to be, but cannot persuade himself it is) or that of a deeply traumatised hostage?
‘Lolita’ is an extraordinary novel, written in a complex, allusive and elusive style which almost demands a re-reading. Its subject matter makes it hard to read at points, and I found myself immune to the charms of the monster that is Humbert Humbert. You have to admire Nabokov’s bravery in tackling what remains a taboo subject, and doing so by rejecting an easy stereotypes. In looking for a key to understanding this novel, a fruitless search I know, I keep coming back to the author’s post-script, where he describes the germ of the novel. A newspaper story told of an experiment where a chimpanzee was taught to draw, and eventually drew the bars of its cage. We can ignore the reality of the chimp’s life, but when given the ability to communicate it is the thing it draws. Lolita was caged, imprisoned by Humbert, and deprived of a voice, and we can catch glimpses of the horror of her situation all the more vividly because we see them through the soft-tinted lens of Humbert’s perspective.