My recent review of Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi left me not only with a better understanding of the Iranian experience, but also with a fairly extensive reading list. After tackling Flaubert’s controversial Madame Bovary, I felt that it was time to work through Nafisi’s primary novel of focus – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Undoubtedly one of the most controversial novels ever produced, Lolita has a history embroiled in censorship battles and impassioned arguments on both sides of the obscenity debate. Unlike the issues of adultery depicted in Madame Bovary, society has not (and, I hope, will not) evolved to moral acceptance of the actions and arguments posited by Lolita‘s central character – Humbert Humbert. Before introducing the novel and my opinion of it, this is a point that must be understood. That this novel is controversial remains undisputed. But, for the reasons that I will lay out, I believe this to be one of the most important and aesthetically beautiful books ever written. In my discussions about the novel, I have had people comment to me that this is a book written by a paedophile and/or that it presents a romanticised view of paedophilia. That is absolutely not the case and these perceptions only reinforce the degree to which Lolita, and Nabokov’s intentions in writing the novel, are widely misunderstood.
Lolita is narrated in first person by middle-aged, European Humbert Humbert. From the outset, it is made clear that the novel takes the form of a final confession – Humbert’s relation of events to his readers, while he stands charged with murder. Humbert identifies himself as a “nympholet” – an individual with an all-encompassing desire for girl-children, who he designates “nymphets.” These girls are, according to Humbert, typically between the ages of nine and fourteen and in possession of “certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers…” Upon moving to America, Humbert takes up residence with Charlotte Haze and falls immediately in love with her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores. After Charlotte’s timely death (taking place shortly after her marriage to Humbert), Humbert takes off with Dolores (to whom he gives the name Lolita) on a road-trip without destination. Posing as her father, he forces the girl into a sexual relationship. Despite attempts to settle down with Lolita, Humbert’s outrageous love and growing psychopathy force the pair into a dangerous spiral of confrontation. While the reader already knows the end result, it is the unforeseen consequences of destructive obsession that become the central question.
Nabokov asserted that the sole objective of literature should be to afford the reader “aesthetic bliss.” With Lolita, he executes this goal in the context of the greatest possible challenge – a narrative told through the confession of a self-proclaimed paedophile. The great literary critic, Lionel Trilling, identified this novel as “the greatest love story of our time,” and in many senses it is. But, in order to reach such an acknowledgement, the reader is required to relinquish control and acknowledge the mastery of Nabokov’s prose.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
In this, the book’s opening passage, you can begin to understand the sensuality in which Lolita is steeped. Words are used in a way that is as much about feeling, as reading. There is a central preoccupation with the fairy-tale nature of the narrative – that it is written, as Trilling posits, as a love story. For many readers (certainly most of those that I have spoken to), this is their central problem. They reject the manner in which Lolita superficially romanticises and trivialises Humbert’s perversions. But, as I have said above, I think that this fundamentally misunderstands Nabokov’s intentions. Nabokov once stated that he viewed the role of fiction as presenting a clash between the author and the world – Lolita is presenting this clash by taking up the challenge of forcing the reader to identify with (and empathise with) a paedophile. Reading Lolita is, without a doubt, a self-consciously uncomfortable experience. But it is uncomfortable precisely because Nabokov achieves his aim, mobilising the romance of a love-story to present us with this clash between author and world.
“I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of the durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
I can recognise why this novel would be problematic for so many readers. The subject matter is undoubtedly troubling. But to forgo or dismiss Lolita on this basis is to miss out on a masterpiece. Reading demands of us empathy – it is about seeing the world through another’s eyes. And great works of literature consistently invoke this as their central challenge, by forcing the reader to empathise with the unnatural or uncomfortable. To love Lolita is not to forgive paedophilia. Rather, it is to understand the role of literature in our lives and in the world at large. This is truly one of the greatest works ever written. It is a love story and a scandal, it paints a blurred picture of innocence and criminality, and it blends poetry with psychopathy. It is literature at its most effective and remarkable – to be read, reflected upon, and remembered.