What to say about a novel whose reputation has eclipsed it?
I have avoided this book like the plague up until this year, my twenty-eighth trip around the sun, ignorantly and incorrectly assuming (due to the infamous and controversial subject matter) that it normalises pedophilia. “Lolita is a book for Lana Del Ray fans and infantilised women who seek out destructive love affairs with men thirty years older, viewing very obvious power imbalances through their rose-tinted heart-shaped glasses” I would say. No, no, no! I was WRONG! (This doesn’t happen very often so I’m more than happy to suck it up. I haven’t felt like such a fool since I watched a Tarantino movie for the first time – aged twenty-five – after deliberately shunning his filmography throughout the first half of my twenties because all the worst people I knew would wax poetic about Tarantino — pretentious students sat beneath the framed Pulp Fiction poster in their living rooms. “These people suck, so must his movies.” God, I played myself there.)
And here, too, it seems.
There is a temptation to conceal this book when reading it in public. Can’t bring it up in conversation—can of worms—who wants to discuss a book about a pedo, much less actually read one? But here’s the thing: Lolita does not romanticise pedophilia. It is a viscerally tragic story about a reprehensible sex abuser and his victim. A book can both describe abhorrent things whilst writing them beautifully. It reminded me of Fowles’ The Collector and, to a lesser extent, Süskind’s Perfume. Sardonic, witty; a black comedy. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is one of the most pathetic men I’ve ever come across, fictitious or otherwise; despicable, pitiful, loathesome — laughable. He isn’t written as a sympathetic character (at all) which I emphatically argue is not and was never Nabokov’s objective. Humbert is portrayed as calculating and manipulative; delusional, coercive, jealous, possessive, his cruelty masked by his superficial concern – for himself more than anyone else. Granted, Humbert lacks social and self awareness: he grapples with moral reasoning and points out the ancient historical practices of incest and pederasty, implementing cognitive dissonance to convince himself that what he’s doing (grooming and abusing a twelve year old child) is fine — permissible. He is, in his own disturbed mind, if not innocent, then justified; being sole protector and guardian to his poor, poor orphan waif, after all. She is watered, fed (just enough to not gain weight lest she lose her lithe, spindly boy legs and flat torso, mind you), there is a roof over her head, she is positively spoilt with treats in the form of candies and toys (in exchange for sexual favours, of course). I mean, consider the alternatives for a destitute orphan in working class America — and he does consider this, and forces his poor Lolita to, as well, regularly making thinly veiled threats of reformatories and orphanages. What more could she want?
At no point is Lolita a “romance” or a “tragic love story” (and anyone I come across describing it as such will be assigned to the category of walking red flag). The subject matter is obviously very distressing (Martin Amis, in his essay on Stalinism, Koba the Dread, proposes very convincingly that Lolita is “a study in tyranny”) and yet, all of this bleakness contrasts with the genius of Nabokov’s writing: the masterful use of the language, the intricate prose, the satirical double entendres, the cunning subtext… I was left juxtaposed somewhere between anguish and incredulity.
Reading Lolita, though, has only reaffirmed my understanding that, in cases of child abuse (sexual, physical, emotional), the gravity of the tragedy is not merely culminated by the child possessed (controlled, harmed, abused etc) but the child preserved – in time, in motion, in circumstance. “Childhood innocence” is a quaint term: what is really robbed in these cases is the once seemingly boundless possibilities of life; of a future, of a wholly benevolent outside world, of naivety and promise and hope. One’s potential in this way is immediately and inexplicably limited, restricted, hindered; the effect this has on a child’s psyche is probably the cruelest and most sinister thing about abuse — the still-developing juvenile brain responding to and attempting to process what is happening to and around them; goodbye to trivial and trifling matters such as schoolwork and play: neuroplasticity ensures the brain’s alteration, adjustment — (in order to function, to endure, to survive) — and it is never the same again.
The novel lapses in time to three years later and we are confronted by the catastrophic reality that — once a smart, obstinate child with “the IQ of 120” and a gifted tennis player — Dolores Haze (aka Lo aka Dolly aka Lolita) has found herself in the suburbs, pregnant and a housewife at the weathered old age of seventeen. “He broke my heart, you merely broke my life” Dolores tells Humbert, straightforwardly and not unkindly, as they discuss her “cheating” (running away) (see also: kidnapping) at the hands of another pedophile, an associate of Humbert’s no less. What of Dolores Haze’s potential? University? Professional tennis? Hollywood billboards? A string of passionate (and – check this – consensual) love affairs? A satisfying family life that doesn’t feel like mere acquiescence to circumstance? We’ll never know, all because a creep masquerading as her mother’s boyfriend couldn’t control his depraved impulses when she was a child. Humbert’s only fractionally redeeming moment? He gifts Dolores the inheritance she is rightfully due from the sale of her dead mother’s house. What a guy.
There’s a poignant moment towards the end of the novel where Humbert finally reflects on (note: reflects on, not realises — I think he knew all along) the damage he has caused, inflicted; the life he has stolen:
The good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding […] Alas, I was never unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithopathic eternities might be provided for me, 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 named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can then life is a joke), then I see nothing for the treatment of my misery.Nabokov, Lolita, pp.257–258
How many people are walking this earth knowingly lesser-than because their emotional and spiritual development was fatally arrested by adults who were meant to protect, care for, nurture? How many amongst us – broken, battered, and bruised – have been robbed of our potential, living a life we know could have been so much more, if only, if only. To stay alive whilst waking up every day and confronting that knowledge; to mourn a life that never was, that never will be: is a bonafide superpower.
Dolores isn’t one for the luxury of self pity, however, when Humbert shows up at her doorstep after tracking her down she refuses to dwell on the particulars of the past, only hoping she can give her unborn child what she never had — a chance. She ends up dying due to childbirth complications on Christmas Day, 1952.
Dolores Haze deserved better.