(Versión en español aquí)
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
This is the beginning of Lolita, and the quality of the writing does not decline the slightest until the very last sentence of the book, which, exactly as the first one, made my jaw drop. I started the book because two of my friends recommended it to me, although the fact that the theme was the paedophilia made me feel reluctant to start it. Nevtertheless, I suddenly found myself reading a fascinating book, with a writing style that could make an otherwise disgusting situation (like an adult ganking a twelve-years-old girl to touch her leg) sounds like the most beautiful of the poetries. A novel where the way of thinking of a paedophile is so well described that made me look if the writer was one himself, and no, Nabokov was just an spectacular writer.
Lolita is a classic of the twentieth century written as the memoirs of Humbert Humbert (a made-up name) from the jail, where he tells us his story with Lolita, a twelve-years-old girl.
Humbert is a French, middle aged literature professor who moved to the United States. He is manipulative, selfish, self-centred and, before any other trade, a paederast. He is aware of all of these problems and while he tries to justify his behaviour, he usually ends up punishing himself. Nabokov shows us the duality of this character during all the book, and, even if Humbert himself thinks about him as a monster and it is not hidden at any point, the book is written in a way that makes the readers empathize with him.
Lolita, on the other hand, is the daughter of Humbert´s landlady, Charlotte. According to Humbert, Lolita is a nymphet, but not a mere nymphet, the most perfect nymphet alive, and that is why he falls for her since the very first moment they met. Nevertheless, Dolores is but a twelve-years-old girl, a little bit neglected by her mother.
Nymphet is a term made up by Humbert to describe the kind of little girls who attract him:
Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many timesolder than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”
Humbert blames the girls themselves for his attraction to them, as it is their magic and their attitude which make the bewitched travellers to fall for them. According to what he tells us in his memoirs, the root of his weakness for the nymphets is due to his first love relationship with a girl named Annabel, when they were both twelve. This relationship was never consummated, which generated on Humbert this obsession for the nymphets. Nevertheless, as I already mentioned, Humbert is completely aware of how bad it is to feel sexual attraction for little girls, and that is why during a part of his life he tries to stop the monster inside him.
The duality with which Humbert treats his paedophilia is one of the things that took my attention the most. He refers to himself as a monster because of his condition, but at the same time he looks for references of other big men who were also paedophiles, such as Lewis Carol or Dante Alighieri. The book is full of references to other writers, and references to Lewis Carrol stand out among all the others. The first of these references to Lewis Carrol is the pseudonym Humbert Humbert, a name with a sonority very similar to Humpty Dumpty, a popular British character who appears in some of Lewis Carrol’s stories dedicated to his particular nymphet, Alice Lidell. Also, same as Humpty Dumpty, Humbert gets broken.
Humbert sees Lolita for the first time when he goes to her house to rent a room. Before seeing Lolita, Humbert was trying to somehow “control” his predatory instincts, by settling for prostitutes who look childish or by watching nymphets in parks or outside the school. Nevertheless, since he sees Lolita for the first time we see a downward spiral. He is letting his obsession to take control of himself, reaching a point where he is planning to drug both mother and child to be able to abuse Lolita while they are sleeping.
According to Humbert, Lolita´s mother is jealous of her and the attention she gets from Humbert, and that is the reason she sends Lolita to a summer camp. While Lolita is there, Charlotte and Humbert get married, as Humbert thinks this is a way of gaining power over Lolita. As a matter of fact, he starts planning a way to kill Charlotte in order to get Lolita’s custody. Nevertheless, in a becoming twist of fate, Charlotte accidentally dies ran over by a car. Before going on, I have to say that we are reading Humbert’s memoirs and, even if I also took it for granted at the beginning, we really do not know whether what he is telling is true or whether he had something to do with the accident. Either way, the fact that this death is given as an accident is crucial, so the reader can still empathize with Humbert.
After Charlotte’s death, a living hell starts for Lolita. After arranging all the bureaucracy, Humbert picks up Lolita from the summer camp, who still does not know anything about the wedding or the death of her mother. Then they start a road trip across the United States and during most of it, Humbert hides from Lolita her mother’s death, telling her she is in a hospital. During this trip Humbert and Lolita have sex for the first time, again according to Humbert because Lolita wanted, and it was she who seduced him. Since this moment, the manipulative and controller part of Humbert takes control: he buys things to Lolita, at the same time he makes her responsible for what is happening. When Lolita suggests that she might want to finish with the relationship Humbert tells her that the police will consider her guilty too, as she was the one who wanted to start. Also, she will become an orphan and she will get into the U.S.A. foster care, which is not known for being a nice place to be, and even less for a beautiful girl who agreed to had sex with her stepdad. The obsession and manipulation reach a point where the only moment Lolita is allowed to be alone is when she goes to the toilet.
Even if the writing style is wonderful, even if the book is written from Humbert’s perspective in a way that is looking for the empathy of the reader, I do not understand how people can say the theme of the book is the love, not even unrequited love. Humbert is not in love with Lolita, Humbert is obsessed with her. He is an abuser, and, in the words of Lolita, he has destroyed her life. Also, the perversion and decadency of Humbert is so huge that he is dreaming with having a baby girl with Lolita, so he can have another nymphet for his appetite when Lolita becomes too old. He dreams with having a biological baby with a twelve-years-old girl so he can abuse this baby too. Humbert is terribly obsessed with the idea of the nymphets, and he personalises this obsession in Lolita. Nabokov himself never understood how the people could conclude that the theme of the book was love, and even less, how people could conclude that it was Lolita’s fault. Nabokov presented In the 50’s a clear and wonderful critic to the rape culture who always blame the victim, making it clear even from Humbert´s perspective:
Had I come before myself, I would have given Humbert at least thirty-five years for rape, and dismissed the rest of the charges.
Humbert’s relationship with Lolita lasts for years, while she is in her developmental age. Despite the great love Humbert is claiming, sometimes he discovers himself thinking about how disgusting the more feminine shapes of Lolita are and he is constantly measuring her, as if doing that would stop her growth.
When they finally settle down and Lolita starts going to the school, the level of harassment of Humbert increases even more if possible, controlling and manipulating her more and more. Nevertheless, Humbert explains how it was Lolita the one who was controlling him, as, according to him, she used sex to achieve some privileges. Nevertheless, there is once scene that even told from Humbert´s perspective dismantle what he is telling us. In this scene, Lolita is sick, and despite the girl is moaning in pain, Humbert starts getting closer with clear sexual intentions. Even though he actively knows that Lolita has a fever of 104 (Fahrenheit degrees) we have the following scene:
I undressed her. Her breath was bittersweet. Her brown rose tasted of blood. She was shaking from head to toe. She complained of a painful stiffness in the upper vertebrae — and I thought of poliomyelitis as any American parent would. Giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her in a laprobe and carried her into the car.
To reinforce that the relationship is abusive, we also have the end of Lolita. She tries to run away twice, succeeding thanks to the help of a theatre director who promises to take her to Hollywood. He tries to use her to film porn, and when Lolita refuses he kicks her out of his house. Then, Lolita, at that time 14 years old, alone and helpless and without even somewhere to sleep, does not come back to Humbert, she leaves, alone. When Humbert meets her again, she is 17 years old and she is pregnant and about to move to Alaska with her husband.
In the last chapters we discover why Humbert is in jail: he killed the guy who helped Lolita run away. Humbert writes a poem explaining that he is going to kill this guy because thanks to him Humbert lost the years of innocence of Lolita, because it is his fault that Lolita abandoned him. Same as he blames the nymphets for his paedophilia, he externalises the culpability of Lolita running away in the theatre director, showing us again that Humbert is an unstable character unable to assume the responsibility of his own acts.
Lolita is not only a critic to the rape culture, but also a critic to the society as a whole, because of the way people tries to elude responsibilities and the way people turn their face before some situations. During all the novel there are characters that notice there is something wrong with Lolita, and some of them even reach the conclusion that it has to do with her familiar environment. Nevertheless, all of them turn a blind eye, avoiding the subject by saying “it must be the age”.
The book itself was a challenge for the literature because of the main theme and they way it is treated, and it has been a misunderstood book from the beginning. Only one French publisher which was specialised in erotic literature dared to publish it, and it was forbidden during years in UK and France. Also, even though the book gives us all the hints to understand that Nabokov never wanted to romanticize the paedophilia, the book has been understood in that way, and there are even people who want it to be forbidden again. (I shall treat the subject of literary censorship in another entry of the blog, as it is something long…)
I will finish this post with the end of the book, as I think it is as good as the beginning, a perfect end which gives a closure at the same level of the rest of the book:
Thus, neither of us is alive when the reader opens this book. But while the blood still throbs through my writing hand, you are still as much part of blessed matter as I am, and I can still talk to you from here to Alaska. Be true to your Dick. Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant,and pull him apart nerve by nerve. And do not pity C.Q. One had to choose between him and H.H., and one wanted H.H. to exist at least a couple of months longer, so as to have him make you live in the minds of later generations. I am thinking of au-rochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art.And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.