It’s the penultimate read for the Banging Book Club! Arguably the most well-known of this year’s selections and easily the most controversial from the moment of its release, Lolita is definitely complex and not an easy book to read.
Lolita reminds me of Lullabies for Little Criminals, one of my favourite books and one that I revisited this year in preparation for teaching it to my adult learners (I’ve since taught it twice, to good reception). Both books deal with the sexual abuse of a pubescent girl. Whereas Lolita is abused by her stepfather, Baby, the 13-year-old protagonist of Lullabies for Little Criminals, falls in with a twenty-year-old pimp because her father is negligent, and she has sex with him in addition to prostituting herself for him. Both girls are victims of circumstance and the men who take advantage of that circumstance, although both also seem intrigued by their role in these relationships.
What strikes me as the key difference between the two books, however, is the narration. Baby narrates Lullabies for Little Criminals, so everything we learn is from her perspective. We understand why she finds Alphonse an attractive option, both as a replacement kind of father figure and as a romantic/sexual mentor. Lolita, in contrast, comes to us as the ramblings of Humbert. Reliability of his recall and honesty aside, Humbert doesn’t truly know what Lolita was thinking or feeling. So it’s interesting that Nabokov chooses to tell the story this way, to objectify Lolita so totally. Despite its title, Lolita is not really about Lolita at all. It’s about Humbert, and Humbert’s dark obsession.
I’m glad now that we read Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us back in the summer. Thanks to Jesse Bering, I can use the proper term for Humbert’s attraction to Lolita: hebephilia, rather than pedophilia. It doesn’t make the attraction any better or less squicky, but it’s nice to be accurate here, it helps us better understand how Humbert operates. Humbert isn’t turned on by infants or very young children; he is specifically attracted to pubescent girls, or “nymphets” as he designates them. Vladimir Nabokov does not go into much depth regarding why Humbert might have this attraction, and indeed, despite Humbert’s numerous stays in sanatoriums, little reference is provided for the psychological status of hebephilia in that time. Instead, Nabokov chooses to focus on the depths to which Humbert sinks in pursuit of his perversion.
I started reading this book with a hesitant mindset. Did I want to read this? Was I going to get squicked out and have to stop halfway through? It’s not dirty in the same way that, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is. But it is really creepy. Nabokov is creepy good at writing a creepy character, and while I don’t agree with the people who banned (and even seized at the border, in the UK!) this book when it was first published, I understand why some people are happy to give it a miss forever. If I hadn’t been reading this for the Banging Book Club I’m not sure when, if ever, I would have picked it up.
After Humbert meets Charlotte Haze and begins his relationship with her, first as lodger then as lover, I began to find the book more tolerable. Oh, his descriptions of his attraction to Lolita were still creepy—but there is something fascinating about Humbert as a character. Like any good villain, the act of exposing his thought process gives us a glimpse at the darkness within all of us as human beings. Though not everyone is attracted to pubescent children like Humbert is, we all have some measure of personality that we dislike or find shameful. Humbert, however, has clearly embraced this aspect of his personality even if he acknowledges that society disapproves of it, and he produces endless rationalizations for it.
There is so much more to Humbert’s darkness than his abuse of Lolita, too. He is a narcissistic man whose first reaction to every event is how it could affect him. Long before he engages in the act of murder, he contemplates it in cold blood—and merely as a device for getting someone out of the way so he can get closer to his target. He is misogynistic, as seen in his treatment of his first wife. In general, he’s just not a nice dude. The narrative reads like Humbert attempting to convince us that his lust after nymphets is, if not acceptable, excusable. Yet by his own admission, he does terrible things to secure his dalliance with Lolita. And he knows that what he does is wrong, for he is constantly paranoid that the state is going to find out and put him in jail. I’m not just talking about the sex either—I’m talking about the negligence in his role as Lolita’s de facto guardian.
There is a gulf between action and intent. We can decry the creepiness of hebephilia all we want, but if Humbert had only gawked at Lolita from afar and told us over and over about how attractive he finds pubescent girls, he would not be a monster. It’s his actions that matter in the book, not his desires, which is why it is so telling that he tries to focus the reader on the latter as if they excuse the former. Humbert’s attraction to Lolita is not the issue—it’s the length to which he blows up her life to act on that attraction. (Although Lolita’s untimely expiration is a requirement to have this memoir published so soon after the events it chronicles, I also feel like Lolita dying in childbirth is a huge cop-out on Nabokov’s part. Once again it emphasizes that this book is not about her, and in the end she was simply a loose thread that needed snipping. The book is always about Humbert, and how events affect him.)
It’s also worth examining how the semiotics of Lolita have changed given our culture’s changing attitudes towards sex over the past 50 years. Lolita gained its controversial label for its depiction not just of Humbert’s sexual appetites but of any sexual appetites whatsoever. Nowadays, the depiction of a diversity of sexual appetites is so commonplace that it is literally more accessible to millions of people than, say, healthcare. My, oh my, how things have changed.
I’m reading Trainwreck, by Sady Doyle, at the time of writing this review. In one chapter, Doyle describes Britney Spears’ first magazine cover, Rolling Stone April 1999, when Spears was seventeen:
Inside the magazine, you could find her posing in a cheerleader outfit, coyly pulling the skirt up toward her hips, or posing in that doll-stuffed bedroom in underwear and high heels, or shot from behind, walking a pink tricycle, wearing short-shorts with the word “BABY” emblazoned in rhinestones on one ass-check. Men were supposed to want to sleep with Britney, that was clear enough. But they were supposed to want it specifically because she was a child.
Those last two sentences though. I can’t underscore Doyle’s observation enough: our current society doesn’t just sell sex; it sells an ideal of sex embodied by the titillating appeal of youthful (female) bodies. While it’s reductive to view the 1950s as a less sexually-permissive time than our own, this shift in attitudes towards sex and what the media promote as “sexy” is clear. In the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the latter half of the 20th century, sex has become an endlessly packaged commodity, one sold primarily to (presumed straight) men—or to (presumed straight) women in the form of messaging about how to “get a man”. And entire industries make billions selling ephebophilic visions of barely-legal women hovering on the cusp of adulthood—not quite nymphets, then, strictly speaking in chronological terms, but culturally close enough to offer that hint of forbiddenness without all the messy moralizing.
And it’s not like this is a huge secret. Indeed, to bring this experience full circle, on the next page of Trainwreck Doyle quotes Britney Spears from her 2000 interview with Rolling Stone, where Spears says, “I don’t want to be part of someone’s Lolita thing. It kind of freaks me out.” Just as mainstream culture has regrettably reduced Pride & Prejudice to a mere romance novel, so too has Lolita suffered that ignominious fate of the literary classic and become a synecdoche of itself. But the irony is that in many ways our society is much closer to validating Humbert than it is to rejecting him these days.
Humbert’s lack of appeal, as a character, is both intentional and regrettable. Towards the end of the book, it got harder to read again. The narrative starts to become unhinged as Humbert searches for Lolita in vain, then discovers what has happened to her and decides to exact revenge on Quilty. It was not as tense as it should have been—and not just because we know that he is a murderer, thanks to the prologue and Humbert’s own foreshadowing. But there is also very little drama in Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty. It is too scripted, too stulted, because both men are irredeemable asses. I’m reminded of two hosts in Westworld having the same scripted conversation over and over before shooting each other as the conclusion to their loop.
Nabokov states in his afterword that there is no moral to be found here. I disagree. There are no heroes in Lolita. That’s the moral.
I can see why some people love this book. I can see why others hate it. For me, it just puts the focus too much on the wrong things—on the villain rather than the victim, on the nihilism of the abuse rather than the society that enables it. Some of this I can lay at Nabokov’s feet, and some of it is simply where I’m coming from, in 2016, with my perspective on social justice and gender issues. Lolita is every bit as polarizing and complicated as I thought. It is an interesting look and somewhat thought-provoking. It’s not a must-read classic, though, and I think there are many more recent books written since that tackle these ideas with more relevant approaches.