Lolita is one of those novels which seems, in many ways, to have reached its ‘must-read’ status in part due to the controversy that surrounds it. Much like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, this book was banned from publication in the UK in the 1950s out of concern for the nature of its content, and it still retains its scandalous reputation today.
Now, I usually find that when a book has some kind of reputation for being controversial or shocking in nature, it’s never really as bad as it’s made out to be. It certainly seemed true of Fifty Shades (please note that has not made The List) and, although I can’t speak with my own authority on Lady Chatterly’s Lover, I’ve heard it said about that also. So, I fully expected Lolita to be of the same vein. I knew it was vaguely to do with a man’s obsession with an underage girl, but I didn’t think the story was so fully centred on this illicit desire and its fulfilment by any means possible. Lolita, therefore, did shock me a bit, and much more than I expected it to.
The story is told from the point of view of Humbert Humbert – an amusing name, you might think, but this character is anything but laughable. There is a derisive tone in a large proportion of the narrative, which can bring an element of humour to the book, but I found it more sinister in many ways – as HH mocks anyone who does not fit into his ideal of beauty – the ‘nymphet’. He mentions more than once that he is a charming and not unattractive man, but this side of him is never indulged in the narrative; it is instead dominated by his desire for young girls, and Lolita in particular so it is hard for the reader to see him as anything but devious and deceptive, skilled in adapting his exterior in order to further his ambition of proximity to his nymphets.
Essentially, HH is deeply and exclusively attracted to pre-pubescent girls, and has been for as long as he can recall. The novel follows him in his journey from early realisation of this fetish, his initial attempt to indulge it through prostitutes and proximity to objects of his affection, through to his arrival at the Haze household where he meets the eponymous Lolita, where his great obsession begins. I thought that this would mainly be it – the book would detail, from the point of view of Humbert Humbert, his desire for a twelve year old girl; it would be uncomfortable reading but it would stay on the unconsummated side – appreciation and attraction from afar, imagined interaction and fornication maybe, but that would be it. However, that is not it. In truth, it starts this way, with for me what was already quite uncomfortable lingering descriptions of what makes a girl this age so utterly and completely enticing, but then it builds to a story about an entire sexual relationship between HH and Lolita over the course of several years. Although there are no detailed descriptions of their sexual activity, what there is is enough to generate substantial discomfort in reading it, particularly when HH initially attempts to drug Lolita in order to molest her.
If you can continue to read, Lolita, in its entirety, is a very interesting novel. It raises all sorts of questions about the sexual agency of pre-adolescent girls – Lolita herself would probably not be described as ‘innocent’; much of the initial intimacy between the two is instigated by her, but this gives no excuse for HH’s behaviour (even if he may try at times to claim it). I don’t think there’s any weight to the idea that Nabokov is trying to suggest that this relationship is consensual or indeed is anything other than child abuse, but the characterisation of Lolita as an enticing, flirtatious girl with greater sexual maturity than many other girls her age, is an interesting choice. Part of this, I think, is perhaps down to the fact that Lolita is always viewed through the eyes of Humbert; she has no real characterisation outside of this lens. Therefore, I think both her childish and seductive characteristics are dialled up, as these are the elements of her person that the protagonist finds most enticing. Equally, the flip between her apparent maturity and then immaturity (moodiness, delight in material things etc.) serves to remind the reader at all times of the situation she is in, and her age relative to that, just in case you start thinking that she is mature enough to understand the ‘relationship’ she is (unmistakably) forced to be part of.
It has to be said, that Lolita is certainly not a glamorisation of paedophilia – the story is a profoundly sad one, and HH is a self-confessed shameful character, pleading helplessness against the grips of his unnatural passion. Although Lolita does manage to escape from the life that Humbert has set out for her, this freedom is short-lived. Humbert’s realisation that he loves Lolita even when she is no longer a ‘nymphet’ is touching, but does not alleviate any of the problematic emotions you have towards him.
On the whole, though, Lolita left me feeling… uncomfortable. I felt conflicted because I would feel twinges of sympathy for a man that I generally found to be completely odious, I felt grimy reading about the increasingly seedy story of Humbert and Lolita’s journey around America, and I felt confused because Lolita was at the same time confident, self-assured and manipulative but also vulnerable, abused and frightened. The book didn’t leave me with a great sense of satisfaction, but it did leave me with a lot to think about – particularly about the psychology of children, and how it can be deeply affected by what happens to them when they are young.
It is worth reading, but it won’t necessarily be enjoyable.
Star rating: ♥♥♥♥♥