Week 68: Lolita – the erotic novel that isn’t

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Lolita book cover

Lolita book review

In his otherwise self-serving piece in Harper’s, the disgraced American broadcaster John Hockenberry says one thing I agree with entirely: “I feel absolutely certain that Lolita would never be published today”.

No, it probably wouldn’t. This is, after all, a book about a middle-aged man raping an adolescent girl. Several times a day, for more than two years. I can’t imagine anyone, even a writer as respected as Vladimir Nabokov, successfully pitching such a story today. Can you?

Martin Amis calls it a “cruel book about cruelty”. It is that. While waiting in jail on a charge of murder, a professor of mixed European extraction – whose pseudonym is Humbert Humbert – writes his memoir, The Confession of a White Widowed Male. In a (fictional) foreword written by one John Ray, PhD, we learn that Humbert died before the trial got underway, and the object of his obsession, Lolita, died in childbirth the same year. So right off the bat we know that this is a book about sex and death . . . the two things that Woody Allen said come once in a lifetime.

As a protagonist, Humbert is not particularly loveable – or even likeable. In the hands of another writer, he would be just what he is: a disgusting, perverted creep. Also in the hands of anyone else, Lolita would be pornographic. It’s not. There isn’t a four-letter-word in the entire narrative, and not a single actual full-on description of any of the many disgusting things Humbert proudly crows about doing to his little sex slave. Your maiden aunt could read Lolita without blushing; she might, however, wish to throw up.

The story is this: after losing his mother at a young age, Humbert is raised by his wealthy father and enjoys a perfectly happy childhood. At the age of 13 he falls in love with Annabel, a lovely young girl who dies of typhus, leaving him with a lifelong preference for adolescent girls. As a young man, he frequents prostitutes, preferring those who at least look as if they might be below the age of consent. Sick of his obsession, and worried about his sanity, he marries a Polish woman of his own age. The marriage falls apart, he has a mental breakdown, is incarcerated for a time in a psychiatric hospital, and, on his release, migrates to America. There he finds himself in the fictional New England town of Ramsdale, lodging with Charlotte McCoo and her daughter, Delores. Charlotte calls her daughter Lo, and Humbert privately adjusts this to Lolita.

Delores/Lolita is a 12-year-old “nymphet”, an adolescent girl who, in his mind, oozes sexuality. He fantasizes about her in his diary, flirts with her,surreptitiously fondles her now and then. Lolita likes him, even flirts back at times, and uses him as a sounding board about her antagonistic relationship with her mother. Charlotte, for her part, has fallen in love with Humbert – he is, after all, “a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood” (his own description of himself). After sending Lolita off to summer camp Charlotte writes him a letter confessing her feelings and begging him to leave the house if he doesn’t feel the same. Perceiving a way to stay close to Lolita, Humbert responds by proposing marriage. Charlotte agrees, but tells him that when Lo comes home from camp, she plans to send her away to boarding school.

At this point, you can almost hear Humbert grinding his teeth in frustration. He contemplates murdering Charlotte but settles for buying sleeping pills with which to sedate her and her daughter so he can fondle Lolita in the night. Before the summer ends, however, Charlotte is dead: having found his diary, she becomes enraged, tells him he’ll never see her daughter again, and scribbles several letters to friends describing him as a monster. Rushing out of the house to mail them, she’s hit by a car. Now there’s no one to stand in his way. Humbert picks Lolita up from camp, and tells her her mother’s been hospitalized. Together they set off on an extended excursion, criss-crossing the country in Charlotte’s old beater, driving by day and spending night after night in endless dreary motels.

To be fair to the old pervert, while planning to have his wicked way with the girl he doesn’t want to actually traumatize her. His plan is to knock her out with sleeping pills so she remains unconscious of his predations. Happily for him, this doesn’t prove necessary: Lolita has already lost her virginity at camp and is, at least in the beginning, a willing sexual partner. She makes him pay for it, though. Every kiss, every caress, every fuck (my word, not his) comes at a price. Humbert doles out dresses, shoes, ice-cream sundaes, movie tickets. Nothing is too good for his darling.

As for Lolita, we learn almost nothing about her. We never really know her, because Humbert doesn’t know her. And we live in Humbert’s head. This is the brilliant, awful, unbearable thing about reading this book: Nabokov drags us – kicking and screaming, perhaps – into Humbert’s head, Humbert’s world view. We know he’s a monster – he frequently describes himself as such. He fetishizes her . . . drools over her . . . maybe even loves her. But he knows her less well than those campers who spent a month with her that summer when she was still, to all intents and purposes, a child.

He loses her eventually, as we knew he must. Another middle-aged man, a well-known playwright named Clare Quilty, has stolen her heart and in the end she runs away with him. When we next hear from Lolita, two years later, she is 17, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. She’s also married, although not to Quilty, who kicked her out when she refused to take part in his pornographic films. Seeking vengeance, Humbert tracks Quilty down at his mansion in Ramsdale, where he’s living the life of a drug-addled sybarite. In a manic, ridiculous scene, Humbert shoots Quilty, several times, then allows himself to be arrested.

Readers may ask why, considering her loathing for the man, Lolita didn’t run away from Humbert earlier. Some have speculated that she may have loved him. I doubt it. To me, Lolita is suffering from “Stockholm syndrome”, the psychological alliance a hostage develops with her captor. With her mother gone, Humbert is all she has. He tells her repeatedly that if she leaves, if she goes to the police, she’ll end up a ward of the state – in an abusive foster home, most likely. Or worse, in a reformatory. She stays, and goes along with it all, until her White Knight carries her off. By this time, however, her ideas of love and manhood are so distorted she fails to recognize him as just another pervert.

Near the end, when Humbert, a sick, broken man, languishing in jail for murdering the other sick man who stole his Lolita, thinks back on all of this, he feels the judge should sentence him to at least 35 years, not for murdering a man who was as corrupt as he, but for rape. Self-awareness has dawned on Humbert Humbert . .  . finally. Too late for the childhood he destroyed.

 

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By | 2018-10-02T15:21:31+00:00 October 2nd, 2018|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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