I can't remember when I read Lolita for the first time. I reread it this week in preparation for reading Reading Lolita in Tehran, our reading group's book for December. And it was like reading it for the first time. I realized I was not ready to read it then; I guess I just couldn't get over the disgusting theme of pedophilia to even appreciate the writing.
With a mind now more open to art's jarring function and less insecure about my moral foundations, I discovered an exceedingly well-written book. Something that made my heart ache. It was while reading Milan Kundera's The Unberable Lightness of Being that I first felt this dull ache in my heart. This ache I baptized writer's envy. It comes from sadly realizing that I could never in this lifetime write that exquisitely, that skillfully. I felt the ache again while reading Lolita. Violent envy. Envy of writing so good that it enables the reader to overcome distaste for or indifference about a topic.
Lolita is the fictional autobiography of Humbert Humbert. It is written with such wit and intelligence and tenderness and romance that immediately you get on his side. You hate to admit but you like this sick, old man. You understand why he likes pubescent girls, what childhood deprivation has caused his adult depravity. You see the world from the view of a man who feels cheated by culture and law for their narrow rules against child love, something he considers natural and borne out of a pure desire to have what he was not able to have many years ago.
And then at some point, in between HH's lines, you hear Nabokov's sardonic voice, and you understand that intelligent and gentle as HH may be, he has serious delusions. Delusions about his sincere intentions, about his being attractive, about how Lolita was also in love with him.
The novel has many delicious parts of scaringly beautiful writing. In the text after the novel, Nabokov lists down some of these scenes that he calls "the nerves of the novel... the secret points...the subliminal co-ordinates."
One of my favorite parts is Lolita's and Humber Humbert's road trip around Nabokov's invented America. I can almost hear the soundtrack in this video montage of travels that start with "a series of wiggles and whorls in New England" through highways and motels, countryside, tilled plains, sagebrush patches, mountain ranges, deserts, picnic grounds, and roadside facilities. The travel writer wannabe in me hurts in envy.
One of the first publishers approached by Nabokov rejected the book because it has no good characters in it. It truly doesn't. HH, despite his self characterization, his self justification, is really a sick, filthy, despicable, old man; I was totally revolted by his desire to impregnate Lolita so she could produce a litter of nymphets who shall provide him with a lifetime supply of carnal pleasure. Lolita has her own dysfunctions as well. I can see a younger Juliette Lewis playing her. And I detest Juliette Lewis. Although I would really be interested to read Lolita's side of the story.
I have to say that of the books I've read, this has one of the best endings ever. As HH dwells on the life he lived with Lolita, he shushes his self-defending stream of thought, quiets the humorous narration, and seems to see the pain he has caused his step-daughter. No, he does not turn into a maudlin, death-row-repentant crying-out-for-the-forgiveness-of-his-sins sap, but he sees some of his illusions if not shattered, at least slightly provoked. Very subtly, he acknowledges his shame and despair, his brutality. Ah, when Lolita was crying, she was not just being petulant, she had strong reason to be depressed.
This poignant scene of rumination is juxtaposed with the bizarre, almost-slapstick, comedic account of HH's jousts with Cue. Nabokov does bittersweet funny very well.
I am in complete awe of his writing. I'm glad he learned to write in English so he does not have to share the glory with a translator.
Nabokov says in his notes that he has no objective of moralizing. It's just a story. Borne out of inspiration and combination. So, we should not take it as a defense of a pedophilia as well. It's just a story. A well-written story. If one were to take lessons from this book, it would be to be alert to what goes on in the mind of elderly men, of uncles who touch with too much familiarity, who turn on the charm for little kids a tad too much.