Lolita was listed by the following authors in their top ten lists:
Melissa Bank, John Banville, Michael Cunningham, Jonathan Franzen, Mary Gaitskill, Arthur Golden, Michael Griffith, Donald Harington, A.M. Homes, Walter Kirn, Margot Livesey, Valerie Martin, Bobbie Ann Mason, Susan Minot, Ann Patchett, Jim Shepard and Scott Spencer.
I came to Lolita, already knowing -about- Lolita. I’ve heard about Lolita all my life (or so it feels). I’ve heard that it’s smut. I’ve heard that it’s amazing. I’ve heard that it’s disturbing. I’ve heard that it’s about old men f**king young girls. I’ve heard that it’s actually a love story, not about pedophilia.
Nabokov tells a tale, one prefaced by a fictional character as the “memoir” or confession of the narrator of the story. The narrator is one “Humbert Humbert”, a made up name he created for himself. He does this, as well as change the names of many of the characters to protect Lolita. Though, he has stipulated that the memoir not be published until after she dies, so though he never states it, it might be to protect her memory and also to protect his self-image as her “protector” and to clean a spot or two off of his love for her.
That’s the thing about Lolita. The narrator is complex. He’s a middle European man in his 30s who has come to the United States to live. All of his life, starting with a peer at 13, he has been attracted to what he calls “nymphets”, which he defines as girls who are between the ages of 9 and 14(I think those are the right ages, I didn’t mark the page where he defined it). But not just -any- girls, some of them are just, well normal girls. But some of them, Humbert tells the readers, have that extra “sauce”, a sexuality that is out of character but yet so in character for their age. Humbert has a hard time with sexual attractions to actual women, or even girls beyond the magic boundary age of 14. He finds them too fleshy. (And, I was right about the ages, I found the page. Here’s Humbert’s definition of “nymphet” which is better than mine.
“Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain betwitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets”.”
“Between those age limits are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes.”
H.H. talks about himself in the first half of the book, alternating between third person narration about himself and first person narration. He falls in love with the 12 year old daughter of the woman whose house he rents a room from. He then marries that woman, who then dies in a freak accident, leaving H.H. in sole custody of the “nymphet” Lolita. In keeping with his defining of “nymphet” above and my statements about him finding adult women, or women above 14 kind of gross, here he is talking about Lolita.
“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl” and then, into a “college girl”–that horror of horrors. The word “forever” referred only to my own passion, to the eternal Lolita as reflected in my blood. The Lolita whose iliac crests had not yet flared, the Lolita that today I could touch and smell and hear and see, the Lolita of the strident voice and the rich brown hair-of the bangs and the swirls at the sides and the curls at the back, and the sticky hot neck, and the vulgar vocabulary—“revolting,” “super,” “luscious” “goon” “drip”–that Lolita, my Lolita, poor Catullus would lose forever.”
While Lolita is away at summer camp, her mother dies. H.H. takes care of affairs, in a growing state of excitement to get Lolita, then drives to the camp after requesting they not tell Lolita that her mother has died. He originally tells Lolita she is very ill and they are driving to see her mother. Then begins the “great American road trip”, but unlike stories like On The Road or the goofy Road Trip movie, this is a road trip of pedophilia. H.H. spends pages upon pages talking about historical and societal constructs and how he’s not -really- doing wrong. The first night they are on the road, he plans for them to stay at a hotel. He has planned a whole thing out about giving some sleeping pills to Lolita so he can fondle her safely. Yes. It’s disturbing. The more disturbing thing is how he had originally worked out the plan with mother and daughter both in mind, knocking out the mother so he could enjoy the daughter. He constantly says he was never planning to do more than fondle and caress. However, considering that when the sleeping pills didn’t work and Lolita makes a confession to him and they end up having sex, I think H.H. was lying just a wee bit to himself.
“Frigid gentlewomen of the jury! I had thought that months, perhaps years, would elapse before I dared to reveal myself to Dolores Haze; but by six she was wide awake, and by six fifteen we were technically lovers. I am going to tell you something very strange: it was she who seduced me”.
The cross country trip has begun. The trip starts with H.H. controlling Lolita through threats. When she wouldn’t seem conducive to his trysts and romantic gropings, he would threaten her with a farm she had hated to be at, he would threaten her with lurid tales of what happened to girls who went into foster care if she was to tell what was happening to her. Later it becomes money that is bartered.
“she proved to be a cruel negotiator whenever it was in her power to deny me certain life-wrecking, strange, slow paradisal philters without which I could not live more than a few days in a row, and which, because of the very nature of love’s languor, I could not obtain by force. Knowing the magic and might of her own soft mouth, she managed–during one school year!–to raise the bonus price of a fancy embrace to three, and even four bucks, O Reader! Laugh not, as you imagine me, on the very rack of joy noisily emitting dimes and quarters, and great big silver dollars like some sonorous, jingly and wholly demented machine vomiting riches; and in the margin of that leaping epilepsy she would firmly clutch a handful of coins in her little fist, which, anyway, I used to pry open afterwards unless she gave me the slip”.
I just realized, you might be thinking that Lolita is the instigator in these things with the quotes I gave, about how she seduced him and the whole money exchange. But there are plenty of instances where H.H. talks about times she is crying or yelling at him or just ways he describes her that you can see the pain she carries because of it. When she’s not trying to be tough and doing what anyone might do in a situation in which you feel out of control, which would be to gain any type of control you can.
The relationship H.H. describes between himself and Lolita will sometimes make you (or it did me at least, maybe you have a stronger stomach ha!) feel ill. You will also hate and revile H.H. during parts of the book (or at least I did). You will find Lolita charming and fun. You will also find her pitiful. You will find her irritating you. You will ache for her.
Nabokov takes you into the heart and soul of a pedophile. He creates a character who is a bad guy, but unlike most novels, the bad guy is the main character and for much of the book does not believe himself to be that bad. He has a little bit of moral absolution at the end, in regards to his molesting Lolita, but still calls what he felt for her, “love”, even though he said the following about her at one point;
“Mentally, I found her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl. sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth–these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things”.
I was having a hard time articulating what I felt about Lolita, even what to say, and asked Dave. He compared it to American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (the movie with Christian Bale came after) and how a book can put you in the head of someone that you would never want to be in. Reading Lolita was like the psychological concept of cognitive dissonance (or at least how I like to think cognitive dissonance is), my brain would struggle with the disgust I felt about H.H. and his urges and his actions, at the same time that Nabokov’s writing was making me feel sympathetic at times towards him. It was the same experience reading American Psycho.
Dave also suggested another book that is similar for the above reason. Tampa, by Alissa Nutting.