Lolita is a terrible, wonderful book. Apt, I suppose. It’s a book filled with side-by-side complimentary contradictions, living together strangely and naturally, united in both the most subtle and the most outrageous ways.
What jumps out as the most obvious juxtaposition is the jaw-droppingly gorgeous prose of Mr. Humbert with, well, what he’s saying. He is so well-mannered, so eloquent, just a marvelous wordsmith with such delicate turns of phrase. I could sit at the feet of Humbert and listen to him talk all day…or rather, for maybe five or ten minutes. At that point, I assume I would need to leave the room in a fit of disgust. Because these elegant sentences are conveying the most nauseating sentiments and actions. I’m not just saying this as a product of a culture that sees pedophilia as taboo, either–more on that later. I mean, using the most beautiful language you can imagine, he tells you that he is planning to drug a prepubescent girl and her mother so he can have his way with the girl without really stealing her innocence because, you see, she isn’t conscious so it doesn’t count. You’re pretty sure it’s a joke when he says it. Except then he plans it for months, continually goes to the doctor to refine the dose, drugs the mother to observe the potency, and eventually sneaks it to the little girl without having any idea how she will handle the pills. His language and what he is using the language to describe was the first thing that struck me about the book.
Humbert also takes full blame while at the same time justifying his actions and absolving himself of wrongdoing. He self-flagellates, calling himself terrible things, feeling ashamed, confronting thoughts that make him hate himself. But then talks about other societies that have accepted adult/child “love” and throws in many references to how he is helpless in the grip of these seductresses (also more on that later). He believes his attractions are a result of his thwarted childhood romance. (And by thwarted, I mean that he blames it on the fact that, when he was in his mid teens, he didn’t get to seal the deal once when he really wanted to. It was a real tragedy, I understand. Where’s the sarcastic font on the WordPress character dropdown?) He believes he is a child himself trapped in a man’s body, so in his mind he really isn’t doing anything wrong by engaging a twelve-year old. It’s really a romance of two equals. Yet, his power over the child’s situation–one that only an adult can have–is one of the things he seems to enjoy most about the relationship. He acknowledges this in many ways and feels a superficial amount of shame, but never enough to cause him to offer up anything more than platitudes–admissions of self-hatred that seem more like tokens to pay a debt to a society that rejects him.
Another juxtaposition is the way Humbert sees little girls, specifically the ones he is drawn to (“nymphets,” as he calls them.) They are the purest angels and at the same time scarlet demons. They are coy seductresses, even witches, in his mind. As they toss a ball back and forth on a playground, Humbert seems convinced they are showing off for him.
But it is their innocence, the very absence of the seduction he attributes to them, that is so magnetic. He knows the childish demeanor proves they know nothing of adult sexuality. He doesn’t quite ever get there in his narration, but I think that it’s obvious he feels this way–he always seems most attracted to little girls when they are distracted by childish endeavors or thinking about something else. Watching children play games with one another or read books arouses him. Dolores’ tennis playing inflames him. Humbert’s OK Cupid profile would list “girls who aren’t thinking about sex” as his turn ons. Yet he does everything in his power to convince the reader, and himself, that these fourth graders know just what they are doing.
It took until maybe halfway through the book that I fully turned my back on Humbert, but once I did, I realized he is a DESPICABLE, DISGUSTING human being. At first, I felt pretty sorry for him, actually. I could see that he was making excuses. I found his attraction to little girls as inherently problematic, but it wasn’t his fault he was attracted to who he was attracted to. We don’t have a lot of control over that. But then he took action on his desires and demanded years of, ug, carnal servicing from a child who was totally confused and unable to escape him. We had to watch a little girl actually become a virtual sex slave. The descriptions of Dolores having to trade her body for permission to be in a school play or for allowance…it curdles the stomach. Humbert made her struggle for coins during the act, thinking it was an adorable, titillating game (and then later hinting that he thought she was saving so she could run away from him). Then he acts the father, shaking his head at the moral depravity of this young girl insisting on getting paid for sex. Oh, it’s just heartbreaking and sickening.
But, oh, I loved this book. Psychological portraits are my favorites, and this was beautifully done. I know a lot has been said about the unreliable narrator in Lolita, but let me just second it–Nabakov did the unreliable narrator in a way that puts The Great Gatsby to shame. It takes skill and delicacy to write something from the point of view of someone so skewed and twisted and still allow the reader to see exactly what’s going on. And the language was just show stopping. Every sentence was like a work of art. Things got a little weird and surreal at the end, and it didn’t really seem to fit the tone of the rest of the novel, but that’s really my only complaint. I think this will be one of the books I will return to over the years, like Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, and Clive Barker’s (marvelously imaginative, if at times awkwardly gross) Books of the Art.
Can I read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies now? Please? I’ve been waiting forever for life to give me the time…