Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. This is the opening paragraph of one of the most famous books of the twentieth century, a book that gave a new word to the English language (and others), a book hailed by Graham Greene soon after publication and by many others later but a book condemned as pornography and banned for some time. Of course, you can take it how you like – old Europe versus new USA, a tragedy, a tragicomedy, even an attack on totalitarianism or just plain obscenity. But the fact remains that it is a superb book about obsession and imagination (and lack thereof).
The story is well known. The splendidly named Humbert Humbert, a Swiss citizen born in Paris, is in the US to teach. He stays with Charlotte Haze, widow and mother of the teenage Dolores. He soon takes a fancy to the pubescent Dolores – nicknamed Lolita – but obviously cannot let on. He marries Charlotte to remain near to Lolita but Charlotte finds his diary, in which he has revealed his lust for Lolita and his contempt for Charlotte. She hurriedly writes some letters, before leaving with Lolita but, in her haste to mail them, is knocked down by a car and killed, leaving Lolita to her stepfather. Humbert starts a sexual relationship with Lolita and they travel together round the country, staying at motels. Humbert is sure that they are being followed and, sure enough, Clare Quilty, a playwright whom she had met at her school, takes her away from him, though Humbert is unaware of Quilty’s identity. Some years later, Lolita, now married and pregnant, contacts him for money. He gives her some in return for the name of his rival and she tells him that it was Quilty. He takes his revenge on Quilty.
Nabokov has left us with a masterpiece. The clever word play, the literary allusions, the references to (and often condemnations of) popular American culture, even the hide and seek with Quilty, are all fun but what makes this book worthwhile is that it is, on the one hand, a romantic novel, a love affair, while on the other hand it disturbs our sensibilities as it is between an older man with a young girl, below the age of consent. The fact that she has sex both with Humbert as well as with boys her own age does not alter this feeling of disgust we feel, mixed, of course, with prurient interest, particularly for men. Nabokov plays with our emotions throughout the book. It’s wrong but he loves her (as is shown at the end). He is obsessed, which is wrong, but we can understand obsession, as we have seen other obsessions in literature, even though we, of course, would never, never fall prey to any obsession.
First published 1955 by Olympia Press