Due to having some time on my hands, for a change, I checked a bunch of fiction books out of the local library. The first was Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel, Lolita. This is a strange book, repeatedly referred to as one of the defining English-language novels of the 20th Century and I’m still not quite sure what to think.
The plot is relatively simple: Humbert Humbert, ephebophile, marries the mother of a twelve year old girl Dolores Haze. Following the death of her mother, Humbert kidnaps Dolores, known as Lolita, and tours the United States while indulging in a sexual relationship with her.
If literature is simply there to tell us something about ourselves, or about our world, then the character of Humbert Humbert certainly does that. His wit is incisive, deadly even; his manipulative nature worthy of any Machiavelli and his ruthlessness total, yet also totally concealed from all but his unfortunate victims.
In everything that Humbert does, he is inescapably human and we can recognise in him many things that feature regularly in our somewhat more banal lives. No one who has ever wondered about where our moral perspectives on any subject come from can fail to be moved by Humbert’s rationalisation for his heinous actions.
What I cannot reconcile for myself is that my perspective on this book boils down to something so monochrome as condemnation for Humbert, disgust at the eloquence and erudition of his perversion and sympathy for the young girl who cried herself to sleep as soon as she believed Humbert to have succumbed to it himself.
Surely there is something more? If anything the beautiful prose and dry sardonicism (e.g. Humbert’s initial, easy dismissal of Charlotte’s advances) further irritated me, as did the conclusion to Martin Amis’ Observer review, ‘You read Lolita sprawling limply in your chair, ravished, overcome, nodding scandalized assent’.
Rubbish. Amis approach to Nabokov’s oeuvre in Koba the Dread, that Lolita is a study in tyranny is much nearer the mark. Perhaps it is the bloody single-mindedness in me that is causing my failure to appreciate a great literary endeavour, but tyranny is to be resisted at all occasions, not to be gloried in, which is what such prose feels like.
What I found intriguing is that Humbert’s use of treats, of permissions withheld or granted, of money to enforce his control…all of these are standard parenting methods. The only thing that Humbert has done differently to a ‘normal’ parent is extend his dominance to the sexual sphere as well as the more traditional areas of behaviour.
With tyranny in mind, Humbert’s self-deception as regards his relationship with Lolita can be read as a metaphor for the relationship of the privileged Party with its subservient people in Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany or the various other totalitarian regimes of the 20th Century. As Humbert justifies his exploitation of Lolita by her supposed corruption (suggested, for example, by her seduction of him, after a prolonged ‘courtship’), so too these privileged elites maintained themes of paternalism and almost-divine election.
Nabokov’s Lolita is comparable to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in some respects. Neither offers the possibility of redemption to its protagonists; tyranny is all-encompassing and either extends onwards to infinity (thus Orwell) or destroys everyone it touches – Humbert, Lolita, Charlotte, Valeria, Quilty and Lolita’s child – even after it has released them from its immediate grip, by distorting the course of their lives. The solipsism of Humbert is the analogue to the ultimate capitulation of Winston Smith, each reflecting the great divides of our time.
Tyrant and tyrannised, or state tyranny and the tyranny of patronage and private property.
It is a thoroughly depressing book. There is no Yossarian escaping on a raft, no Krymov whose victimisation by the state cannot annihilate the forward-looking character of the novel Life and Fate, gazing past the Russian fall into the hands totalitarianism, towards the core of the communist ideal. There’s no Jake Barnes who, despite having been visited in both public and private spheres with disaster, still lives and learns, emerging wiser than when he began. This is where the pathos of the novel emerges; in how people deal with the knowledge of futility.
Even Humbert faces this, though he does so with his incisive, calculating rationality as when he considers Lolita’s inevitable move beyond the ‘prime age’ at which we find her during the story, and at which Humbert takes his greatest pleasure.
In this regard, the novel escapes my monochrome moralising and my utter detestation of Humbert, accentuated by his refusal to repent – a refusal the self-obsessed Humbert finds delectable, as evidenced by his toying with readers as though they are a mock jury – and failure to find his ass slapped in the electric chair for his crimes. Not far enough, however, for me to decide whether or not I enjoyed the novel.