Lolita, Lolita, Lolita

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.

Being born a woman

Being born a woman is my awful tragedy. From the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable feminity. Yes, my consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, bar room regulars–to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording–all is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yet, God, I want to talk to everybody I can as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.

Sylvia Plath, ‘The Unabridged Journals’

We try and try to reclaim centuries of oppression and injustice by subverting social norms, loving our bodies, embracing our vulnerabilities and channelling traumas into powers for good – but there is still a glaring inequality; a paralysing and all-encompassing fear: of being misinterpreted or unheard, underestimated or ridiculed, of finding ourselves a vessel for men’s insecurities and anger: of being demonised, targeted – and yes – physically harmed or killed by a stranger on our way home. We are conditioned from birth to be hyper-vigilant and afraid. You couldn’t possibly begin to understand all of the normalised, ingrained safety behaviours we navigate life with on a daily basis, all because the sex in between our legs makes us targets for persecution, perversion, possession. Being a woman is fucking exhausting.

If you love someone let them go: some thoughts on Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening’

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening has been heralded as a pioneering feminist novel since its publication in 1899. Set in the oppressive environment of the postbellum American South, the plot centres around Edna Pontellier (a respectable young mother and wife) and her struggle to achieve sexual and personal emancipation. Edna is a brilliantly written character, joining the likes of Jane Eyre amongst the heroines of protofeminism. Breaking through the passive role appointed to her by society, Edna not only acknowledges her dreams and desires but also has the strength and courage to act on them. It is, in its most simple form, the story of a woman discovering her own identity independent of her husband and children. It’s also a heart wrenching love story, or almost-love story.

Enter Robert Lebrun.

After a painstaking year of friendship and building sexual tension, Robert and Edna confess their love for each other near the end of the novel. It’s dramatic and passionate and primes the reader for the satisfying resolution of a union. Edna sits on Robert’s porch alone, restless, and decides: to hell with the consequences, she will finally spend the night with him and finally, finally embark on the affair they have both secretly longed for, for so long. She marches into the house ‘with the intoxication of expectancy’ and then—

She finds him gone. The house is empty. Nothing but an eight word note remains: “I love you. Goodbye — because I love you.” (p. 124)

This is so shocking because it occurs at the climax of the novel — right at the moment when Edna and Robert’s romance comes the closest to fulfilment and fruition. The reader feels cheated, the happy ending is snatched away. But why? Initially, I blamed Robert, obviously, him being a man and all. Men! And their flighty non-committal bullshit! And then, oh god, I realised that during the exchange between the two of them confessing their mutual romantic feelings, Edna pretty much tells him flat out that she will never marry him: “I give myself where I choose. If he were to say, ‘Here, Robert, take her and be happy; she is yours.’ I should laugh at you both.” (p.119) Edna admits here that even if Robert is the love of her life, she will never marry him because she does not want to be tied down; she wants to remain a free spirit, untethered by expectations or feelings both from and towards a man. Robert’s decision to leave shortly after hearing this is because he knows that he will never have Edna, at least not in the way he really wants — not only because of societal expectations (her being a married woman and mother), but also because she will never give herself fully (“Edna had once told Madame Ratignolle that she would never sacrifice herself (…) for anyone.”) (p.53).

Edna will never belong to anyone other than herself. Robert ultimately knows this, I think; knows that his dreams of marriage and a family would only serve to limit and restrict her independence, her growing interests, passions, and desires to explore and experience and break free from oppressive social constraints. He can’t bring himself to dim or deaden her dreams, or to deprive her of the kind of life she she wants, so he leaves. At the height of her self-actualisation, he leaves. He loves her in this moment—infinitely—for who she is, for who she wants to be; but he knows all too well: that by not wanting to be anyone’s anything, she will never be his, either.

Ugh. I love this book.

Diderot said (of women) “you all die at 15” …

Thinking about my teenage self. Thinking about the death of dreams and selfhood in adolescence, wherein women become partly conventional and partly legend; when their sense of reality is sapped and they begin to exist, function, perform — not for themselves but for a growing, persistent awareness of everyone else: when autonomy and freedom is given away and set aside at the very brink of its actualisation and allure.

Most women, without access to resources and education, cannot change their lives, so interwoven with their very existence are the systems that oppress them. All they can do past a certain point is to merely wish, hope, dream for change… Reduced to magical thinking, lamenting on lost opportunities and stolen potential — what once was, what might have been — whilst constantly having to face the reality of what they are; of who they’ve become: “fire, tears, wit, taste, and martyred ambition.”

(That last line is from an angry Adrienne Rich poem, ‘Snapshots of a Daughter-in-law’, a tribute to “women whose dreams have been aborted and whose very beings have been thwarted and silenced.”)

I grieve for these women all the time.