On most people’s bookshelves is a series of works large or small that are unread. Oh we flicked through them at the bookstore, or had them on an ambitious reading list we managed only the first two or three titles of. They are the books that we feel good for possessing. At any time we may take one down and consume it like an exotic food, but if not it furneshes our homes with the badge of higher education. That is one underrated reason why the printed book will weather the erosive power of ebooks and digital media. A thousand books on your ipad is as nourishing to the eye as ice is to the stomach. It cannot compete with a creaking shelf of books–some loved, many neglected–or an intentionally disordered stack on the desk.
The point I am labouring towards with all the speed of a fossil, is that I finished reading one of these books last week. Weary though I am from the effort (I was up till 3.30am on a fecking work night), I cannot resist making an attempt at some rough analysis of the work. It was the best novel by Vladamir Nobokov, and as the more cultured among you will have by now guessed, it was Lolita. Martin Amis wrote that Lolita leaves the reader feeling scandalised, and in awe. I certainly agree with his assessment, and regard with awe the fact that Lolita was published in the 1950s to much controversy, and is still controversial today. It is the story of a heterosexual paedophile who falls in love with a twelve year old girl. People say with bitter contempt (towards other people I will describe in a moment) that it is not a love story. I respectfully disagree. It is a love story AND many other things as well. It is heavy with lust and rape, and the hideous disregard of anyone else’s point of view. But Humbert Humbert (the pseudonym of the main character whose writings from prison forms the basis of the novel (it is from his point of view)) desperately loves Dolly Haze, his stepdaughter, his Lolita.
So we enter the mind of the paedophile. Described in detail are his attractions, obsessions, anxieties, and plans. It is uncomfortable and hypnotic, the way the book demands you to read on and on while it quietly erodes your ignorance of the darkest affairs. For example, the point is made clearly that Dolores Haze at twelve years old has a precocious knowledge about sexual matters. She has experiences and desires, quite independent of Humbert, which is more than parents want to believe of their children. As much as adults want to enforce a stark line between the age of consent, and therefore the age at which it is seemly to objectify people and grant them sexual connotations, the condition before that age is supposed to be one of wholesome, unadulterated fun. Innocent childhood insulated from the odious winds of depraved adulthood. But we know that there is no such stark line. It’s screaming absence makes it’s illusion more potent and desirable. It is also the mark of a persons independence. When they have the right to administrate their pleasure they are across a bridge that collapses behind them. On the other side are parents, forever now removed from certain power.
Humbert is a tyrant. He denies Dolly her right to make decisions, and at the same time traps her with the knowledge that he’s all she has. Her mother is gone (not directly his doing, but he considered it a gift from fate) and she is dependant. He abuses her in the worst way, and he knows it. He is ashamed of it. He even goes as far to say that if he were a judge he would sentence himself to thirty-five years in prison for rape. But he never pretends to be other than what he is, and strives for all his raping and abusing to be a good father. He tries to get Dolores an adequate education, knowing that she is highly intelligent. He attempts to craft a world where she can live as normally and happily as possible, while his pleasure is indulged and maintained.
Where did this come from? The book has a curiously contemporary view of nature verses nurture. Humbert falls in love with a girl when he was a child. She loved him too, and they sole glances and caresses behind the backs of their respective families. This childhood romance fused with the girl dying soon after and thereby remaining forever a child, calibrated the sordid machine which produced the paedophile Humbert. Freudian to its core, all the neurosis and patterns of behaviour have their root in childhood experience. I have never found a comparable work (note that I haven’t looked) which lays bare the mind of a paedophile in such a detailed and arresting way.
This is a love story (as well as an abuse story) because Humbert is hopelessly in love with Lolita. He tries to convince her to be with him after her nymphet qualities have expired (nymphet being a girl 8-14 with a certain graceful and immature body, it is Humbert’s preferred term for the objects who obsess him), because it is love rather than lust that is his ultimate motivator. At first Lolita has her own desires for him too. This is not a strictly active-passive relationship, and throughout their time together Lolita manipulates Humbert, and uses it finally to terminate their torrid relationship. She escapes through an intermediary, and thus does not take power for herself. The vintage of the 1950s sticks heavily to this point, as Lolita is last shown heavily pregnant, drawing on the disgraceful, dispirited Humbert for money. Sex, childbearing, and annoyance. That is the condition of women in Lolita.So on the one hand it is radical in its portrayal of children being sexually active on their own (as well as with Humbert), and on the other hand is locked in the chauvinism and sexism of the middle twentieth century. The hands meet in applause for a book thoroughly worth reading, as well as having on the shelf.
Nabokov was not a native English speaker, and regarded this as a limitation on his work in English. In my experience brilliant writing spills from the pens of those not born with that particular vernacular uttered around their cot. Salman Rushdie is often lauded for his writing (he is from Mumbai), although I find his books overwritten and heavily pregnant with pretence. He had a tough time getting his finest work to print, and movie adaptations have made alterations to avoid the more shocking aspects (increasing Lolita’s age for example, which seems to defeat the whole idea of the book). But no matter what people say in hostility about it, Lolita is a fine work of fiction. Well worth staying up to half-past three in the morning to finish it.