Absurd, revolting and unpleasant; it is also submerged in its own mystical allure, possessed of an inescapable beauty, exquisitely expressed. Lolita will glimmer, a glistening diamond droplet within the inky letters of the erstwhile American critic, slavering at the mouth in his eagerness to deride. “Paedophilia”, “pornography”; dangerous words. Open the floodgates, ignite your righteous anger, prepare to denounce. Can we not regard it as an untouchable work of literature in its own right, untarnished by the instantaneous urge to condemn? Of course not, because each of us, however morally upright and comfortable in our own needs and desires, recognizes within Lolita a shred of oneself.
When presenting a valid opinion, it is necessary to locate a scoured, clean expanse of one’s mind in which to formulate such judgements. I, submerged in the comfortable smog of a determinedly disorganized brain, cannot begin to tackle such a Herculean task. Such is Lolita, a classic example of the unreliable narrator that characterises postmodern literature; oh, the joys of a slanted, one-sided viewpoint! Lolita: the novel that cannot be labelled. There are those who dismiss it as simplistic pornography, erotic literature enmeshed amongst esteemed relics. Some praise it as a divine work of refined, polished lexis, to be placed inside a glass case, dusted occasionally, looked upon with fleeting reverence. I could certainly add to the endless pools of homage surrounding Nabokov’s unequivocal, crafted prose. I gloried in his perfection; I yearned for his prowess. Each one of my senses was inverted, so immersed was I, bound tightly in his languorous ropes. Is Humbert a forty year old man with a desire for young girls on the cusp of adolescence? Yes. Very well: Humbert is a villain, a repellent specimen; yet Humbert is in love. Is Lolita the villainess, the scandalous siren, is she the temptation that drives Humbert to distraction? Or is she an innocent, innocuous twelve year old in pastel print frocks? She is neither: she is both at once.
Here is the conundrum: whose part shall we take? Because here we have two damaged human beings, one the victim of another’s hopeless lust, the other grappling with the monstrosities of his incongruous subconscious – a veritable “tangle of thorns”. Both pitiable, both irreparably damaged; however as Humbert himself was unintentionally aware, one could be saved. As the fictional foreword states, this novel should “make us – parents, social workers, educators – apply ourselves with greater vigilance and vision to the task of bringing up a better generation in a safer world”. Such a noble declaration; and yet it is a weak specimen, without sustenance; no amount of determined righteousness can hold it upright. If nothing else, Lolita demonstrates the absolute futility of even beginning the weary trek along the high road. If it was a simple work of base, sexual fervour, one could dismiss it as a didactic publication of morality: “and this, my dear disciples, is the fate the evils of lust condemn you to”. But there it is: “my heart was like snow under thin crimson skin”, “I would shed all my masculine pride—and literally crawl on my knees to your chair, my Lolita!” This mental image remains the constant, most profound creation this novel has to offer: Humbert, a wounded animal, mad with desire, crippled by love. As Krafft-Ebing so aptly affirmed: “The nucleus [of romantic love] is always to be found in an individual fetich which one person exercises over another.” Humbert’s subjugation to Lolita illustrates this to perfection: “you never deigned to believe that I could, without any specific designs, ever crave to bury my face in your plaid skirt.” The nucleus, the sweet kernel that holds within all the delectable nerve points of rapture, Humbert’s ardour, the pure flame of tenderness; when these become discernable for brief, cherished moments within Humbert’s narrative – that is the time to rejoice, to realize the inevitable truth: Humbert is a varied, sordid, mismatched representation of human lust, so insatiable, so determined. The reverence for the human body is illustrated consistently through Humbert’s yearning, convoluted prose: “apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, the sea-grapes of her lungs”. That is the moment to cast away your “mind-forg’d manacles” and fully appreciate the depraved, dogged, devoted nature of the ardent abuser. The simultaneous vulnerability and notoriety of the human spirit is comprehensible within Humbert, and the impartial reader can neither condemn, pity, nor seek to justify his actions. There can be no moral, no lesson learned, no placid sense of satisfaction. Here again, futility rears its hideous head.
Lolita has been branded as “art over morality”; an apt categorisation amongst the others that have floundered like moths, unable to stick to such a sublime work of dexterity. And what art it is, combining the honeyed tones of synaesthesia with hackneyed ones of convention. One must recall Nabokov’s “chess stratagem” (Speak, Memory), each manoeuvre carefully plotted, in order to grasp the full scope of such meticulous skill: “it is only when they are combined in a certain way that a problem is satisfying.” The pure, audacious genius of Nabokov: never was synaesthesia so fastidiously used, particularly, as Wakashima points out, in the case of double exposure: “the treatment of popular culture by means of temporal distortion.” The effect of this tool allows for a slightly distorted, adjusted America encapsulated within Lolita, an America undoubtedly fitting for the decadent nymphet at the centre of it all.
Lolita ceases to exist as an individual entity; she remains within Humbert’s idolatry, part of the endless stream of nymphets, dazzling, suffocating one with their palpable presence. However, Lolita is a stubborn streak of tenacious taupe against the canvas of untouched ivory. This unruly stripe, glittering beneath with elements of dusty rose and gold, consistently holds the fore of Humbert’s mind; a cancerous growth, impossible to extract. One cannot simply remove it with the prying, sterile prod of the inquisitorial psychoanalyst’s fingers; only a softer, feather-light touch would be successful in accomplishing this feat. A merciful critic would ache to clasp Lolita to their bosom, concealed from vultures who intend to gradually pick apart the threads that twine firmly together, maintaining this resplendent, baroque, intricate tapestry. Pick too hard, and the threads will unravel, leaving the stark foundations of Humbert’s reality behind: and the tapestry already has holes – the gaping chasm left by Dolores Haze’s character. Dolores Haze; following chapter ten she slips gently into hazy obscurity, never to surface again until the very end: bespectacled, world-worn, “frankly and hugely pregnant”. Dolly has no substance as a stand-alone character; she is overtaken, as Humbert’s perception dictates, by her corresponding duplicate: a tumultuous, wily, precocious nymphet. Indeed, the only occasions we see a fleeting glimpse of Dolores Haze in fierce Technicolour, cognizant, existing – are during Humbert’s feverish worship of Lolita, “the loveliest nymphet green-red-blue Priap himself could think up”.
And so, we shall condemn Humbert and in doing so, hand Dolores her divine retribution, her keys to inner salvation. Is it poetic justice? Yes. Is it realism? No. Nabokov deliberately denies Lolita her retribution, and Humbert his “redemption”, ruthlessly snatched by Quilty. Both Humbert and Quilty are “men of the world, in everything – sex, free verse, marksmanship”. Both are murderers, delivering the cruel blows: Humbert is softer, lacerating with care, whereas the other distributes the cold, calculating lechery with ease. The nature of Humbert’s abuse – delivered under the guise of love, but such a genuine, hard wearing love – shakes the very foundations of the psychotherapist’s brain. Such a judicious, conclusive brain; devoid of meaning, devoid of life.
One cannot attempt to put a label on desire, or human emotion. The idea in itself is repellent, as is the unceasing determination to categorise, box, label. An object of such intense skill as Nabokov’s is a tribute to all those young scholars entrenched in their heavy volumes of Homer, Joyce and Milton; their fatigued, prematurely aged eyes look up hopefully, in pursuit of something indefinable. Once this undiscovered entity is acquired, those scholars breathe out with relief, knowing they have found the perfect whole jewel, the cause of all frustration, the beautiful reward. This is why we are here, staring dry-eyed into the tremendous, all-encompassing vacuum of life, mad with fear, brimming with self-possession. And life stares back, in all its brutality, and lust, and abuse; the despair of children, their amorous abusers, their negligent mothers. We meet its gaze steadily, aware that we, as humanity, are responsible for the pain, and we remain a tiny clot holding back the onrush of the flood. We are responsible for the despair, therefore we must glory in it, because it is ours; it is self-made, thus irrefutable. The hollowness of morality, persistent hands clinging steadfastly to judgement, is never so clear when reading Lolita. Such work must be looked upon from a plane of pure intelligence, unencumbered by moral stipulations. There is still a part of her that hopes to breathe; so let her breathe.