I decided this year that I would try to read 52 books. Although I’ve always read a lot and — not too economically — often buy more books than I read, I’ve never set a goal for the year. Although it wasn’t news to me that reading challenges exist on the internet (after all, when I first started this blog back in the dark ages, all I did was write about books) I have never participated in such. But, I signed up for this challenge, and hope to link up for at least some of the books that I read this year. Already, however, I’m a bit behind as I just completed my first book of the year. Although there are other books in progress, the first book I completed was Nabokov’s Lolita.
What can I say about a book that has been called “the filthiest thing ever read” and yet one of the best novels of all time? (It’s on both Time Magazine & The Modern Library’s List of 100 Best Novels.) Lolita is a book that I’ve been aware of for years, but didn’t really know much about it. I knew that it was about a pedophile. I knew that some criticize it because it seems to glorify that. I knew that others criticize it because it seems to blame the victim. I knew that some praise it because of its witty, well-written wordplay. Things to both recommend and to dissuade a potential reader. Why did I read it? Because I wanted to see for myself why over 50 years since it’s publication people still talk about it, praise it, condemn it.
Nabokov wrote in an afterwards to the book (added after the initial publication) that there were three taboos in literature: the topic of his book, a book about a happy interracial marriage, and a book about an atheistic humanist who lived a long, happy, productive life and died in his sleep at 106. I’m not sure that the other two “taboos” would be shocking to an audience today, but his book is still as shocking now as it must have been in the 1950’s. That the character, Humbert Humbert, is so unremorseful about his attraction, that he is so manipulative, that he is so cunning and deceitful, only makes him more repulsive to the reader. And yet, as repugnant as Humbert is, I had to read the book to its tragic end.
I don’t think that it is tragic that Humbert is found out. I don’t think that it is tragic that he kills another man who had helped Lolita escape from Humbert. (Quilty’s motives are not to rescue Lolita; his character, like most in the book, is not admirable in any way.) It’s not even that Lolita leads a dismal horrible life after her escape from Humbert’s clutches, living and eventually dying in poverty. The tragedy is that it even happens.
I did not find this book “pornographic” as some have labeled it. I didn’t even find the descriptions of sex in the book to be particularly lascivious or even shocking. What shocks is that the narrator even thinks about the ways in which he can manipulate things so that he can have sex with a 13-year-old girl. It is shocking because all but the most naive reader will realize that things like this happen. All but the most amoral person will know that this behavior is wrong. But the reader — like so many of the people surrounding Lolita in her life who fall for the charms of Humbert — is charmed by Nabokov’s writing. Humbert calls himself charming and attractive; as a reader I didn’t believe that and the mental image I had of him was ugly. The reader doesn’t cheer for Humbert; the reader doesn’t expect him to find the escaped Lolita or to treat her any differently if he does. Yet, the reader keeps reading to see what Nabokov has in store on the next page. There are parts of the book that are funny, but you don’t want to laugh. There are parts of the book where Humbert’s human side is revealed and you see how he can feel love and pity, but you don’t pity him. Knowing what he is confessing in his story, you cannot get beyond his despicable crimes. And yet, you keep on reading.
I don’t think that Lolita makes Humbert’s character in any way a likeable, acceptable person. Nor do I think that a close reading of the work makes Humbert a victim of his circumstances, though I know that there have been commentaries of how Lolita was responsible for seducing him. Oh come on: that is just wrong, wrong, wrong! That just doesn’t happen except in the liar Humbert’s mind and is never an acceptable stance when a child has been sexually abused. Nor do I think that Nabokov was suggesting that. Humbert is an unreliable narrator. He is a liar. How can one believe what he says? I don’t know how anyone could read this book and find that it does anything but condemn Humbert and his distasteful sexual predilections. It is shocking to me that because of this novel, labelling a young girl a “Lolita” implies that she is sexually precocious, a flirty child who manipulates to get what she wants. How did that happen? I think it says more about our society’s view of sex, rape and power than it does about Nabokov’s book. Lolita was not sexually precocious. She did not seduce Humbert. She was groomed by Humbert, seduced, raped, and manipulated for his own desires. She was trapped, until she found a way out using the only thing that she had learned would help her: sex. Imagine how different this book would be if it had been Lolita’s narration.
I know that there is a bunch of criticism about how the book is a metaphor for old Europe vs post-war America. Bahhhh! I could care less. Nabokov himself disagreed with that criticism saying that he didn’t like stories with a meaning. As humans, though, we make meaning all the time. If there is a lesson to learn from this story, it may be that we all rubber-neck at scenes of a tragedy, sometimes not even realizing nor caring what the tragedy is. Are we better than Humbert? Well, who would say that they were not? But it doesn’t mean that we/society aren’t in some ways complicit.
Lolita is a difficult book to say that you “like”. It is one that I will think about for a long time and won’t easily forget. I’m not sure what will be the second book I read in 2014, but I hope it isn’t one that makes me feel that no amount of showering can remove the grime from the inside of my eyeballs.