Lolita is a novel about memory, of a lost past and sense of identity. This is probably not what you would expect to be told in casual remarks about the book. You would hear something more salacious, perhaps. The book has a reputation.
If you only vaguely know the story you may remember the poster for Kubrick’s film, with Sue Lyon as Lolita, flirtatiously peering over the top of a pair of love-heart shaped sunglasses and lubriciously licking a lollypop. But you might not remember, or have known, that Lyon was only fourteen when she played Lolita. Lolita is a love story, right? Juliet is just shy of fourteen in Shakespeare’s play (comparison’s like this are common for Humbert Humbert, Vladimir Nabokov’s protagonist and narrator) but her lover, after all, was only about fourteen, himself. Yet even at fourteen, it could be argued, Lyon was too old for the role. The Lolita of Nabokov’s novel is only twelve when Humbert Humbert meets her. Humbert considers that fourteen is verging on the margins of what he considers desirable in ‘nymphets’, or young girls. Humbert is a paedophile, so if you want to call this a love story, we can agree that it is not in the bounds of what is normal, and after that we might even agree that it is not a love story. Except Humbert Humbert will have you believe it is. In this narrative we are in his mind. Incidentally, he is also a murderer, a fact revealed on the first page, so no spoilers here. He writes his account from his prison cell as he awaits trial. In fact, his manuscript is introduced to us by Dr John Ray, a psychologist. A cursory description of the novel suggests to us that it is the confessions of a deplorable paedophile who wishes to ingratiate himself with us. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the novel has a history of being banned: in France, in England and in New Zealand in the early years of its publication. In fact, as is the way when books are banned, its reception in America probably owes much to its banning. It sold well there.
Of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Florence Green, the protagonist of Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, says, “Some critics say that it is pretentious, dull, florid and repulsive; others call it a masterpiece.” Hoping to boost sales in her shop, she turns to a newly acquired friend, Mr Brundish, the local patriarch, whose opinion she trusts, for advice. “I have read Lolita as you requested,” he later tells her, and he gives her an assurance that, “It is a good book, and therefore you should try to sell it to the inhabitants of Hardborough. They won’t understand it, but that is all to the good. Understanding makes the mind lazy.” That Lolita may be considered either “pretentious, dull, florid and repulsive” or “a masterpiece”, reflects both upon its subject matter and the skill of its execution. Likewise, Brundish’s judgment of the town’s inhabitants implies how easily the novel might be negatively received, just as its quality may be touted as a mere article of faith for the initiated.
Humbert ingratiates himself with Catherine Haze, Delores’ mother, and although he finds little to recommend her, he agrees to marry Catherine, who is drawn to Humbert’s good looks, in order that he might have access to her daughter. When he and Catherine have sex, it is the daughter he pictures in his mind. Humbert is driven by his desire to find ways to position himself near Delores, whose natural rebellion against her mother draws her closer to him. In the course of the novel, Humbert will contrive to sleep with the child: he will drug her, molest her, rape her, form a relationship with her as a father and a lover, and eventually lose her. That we care anything for him – or at least that we are interested in his story – has a lot to do with the first person narrative form, of course, but it is also because the novel is a skilled psychological thriller that is as much about Humbert’s state of mind as it is about his actions. And it is also funny. If you find this difficult to believe, remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega (John Travolta) accidentally shoots Marvin in the back of the head. If you laughed at that, you may know what I mean.
Yet the reputation earned by Lolita in the 1950s due to its banning belies the reality of the novel: Lolita is not lurid in detail. In fact, Dr John Ray, Nabokov’s fictitious psychologist who introduces Humbert’s narrative, written at the behest of his lawyer, tells us:
. . . not a single obscene term is to be found in the whole work; indeed, the robust philistine who is conditioned by modern conventions into accepting without qualms a lavish array of four-letter words in a banal novel, will be quite shocked by their absence here.
Lolita, in fact, is something much different to a rabid piece of porn. Whether we believe Humbert or not, Lolita is meant to be an account of his journey – there are literal journeys all across America in this novel – from lusting after and desiring to possess Lolita, to a more mature appreciation of her older, less attractive self. At the end of his memoir Humbert writes that, “I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive”, and in a final address to her he writes, “. . . this is the only immortality you and I may share . . .” It is a common literary trope, that the artist’s beloved (and the artist) will be immortalised in art, much like Shakespeare’s young man in Sonnet 18:
Traditionally, it is a romantic gesture, if somewhat solipsistic, but the pretence should be unsettling for modern readers of Lolita. Once Lolita is dead, only Humbert’s conception of her and who she was will remain, and that is already a problem for us, since all we know of Lolita comes from this confessional account Humbert writes in prison with the knowledge that he will soon go to trial and may face execution. Humbert is acutely aware of his audience whom, he speculates, will be reading his memoir sometime in the early twenty-first century, after Lolita has died. While he refers constantly to his reader, whom he pictures as part of a jury, it is not likely the jury of his coming trial whom he imagines, but future generations to whom he appeals. So we may assume a degree of fidelity in Humbert’s representation of his own mental state, since he remains candid about his desires and actions. But Lolita remains elusive to us. We are told she is childish and petulant; we are told she is alluring. When Humbert first consummates his desires he insists, “it was she who seduced me”. Lolita reveals a history of sexual experience to Humbert that he has not anticipated. The details, we suspect, are selective and self-serving. For Humbert has orchestrated the situation Lolita finds herself in: he has lied about her mother and he has taken her to a hotel room, and then drugged her with the hope that he might molest her.
Despite his statement that he will immortalise Lolita (and presumably their love), Humbert is obsessed with a more esoteric goal: “to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets.” As a ‘nymphet’, Lolita represents a state of mind, an aesthetic sensibility and atavistic obsession for Humbert, rather than the child she is, or the woman she might become. Humbert never uses the word ‘paedophile’ in his narrative. For him, Lolita is a construct that, while physically enticing, exceeds the physical bounds of her reality. Just before Humbert first meets Lolita he has been fingering a train timetable in his pocket, anxious to leave because he finds Mrs Haze’s house unacceptable. But upon seeing Delores, he changes his mind: “a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses.” His ‘Riviera love’ is not Lolita, but Annabel, a young girl whom he loved when he was a boy. Annabel Leigh and Humbert are only children when they meet, and they share an intense emotional and physical desire which is thwarted by the strictures of their parents, and then by Annabel’s death from typhus. Of course, we could choose to be suspicious of Humbert’s account of his lost love, Annabel, since her existence in Humbert’s past – an innocent romance of children – goes some way towards humanising his desires for Lolita. And given the allusive nature of his writing, the fact that Annabel Leigh’s story is ostensibly the same as Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’, is of note. Poe’s poem tells the story of a man who has lost his young love, “chilled” by a wind that blows from a cloud, and forever after remembers her in Romantic terms. The fact that Humbert is moved by a “blue sea-wave” swelling of his heart recalls the coastal themes of Poe’s poem, too. This is even less celebratory of Lolita, since her connection to Annabel in his mind and Annabel’s literary antecedent reduces Lolita’s physical and psychological reality to allusions.
Humbert feels an intense connection with Annabel that transcends the physical: “Long before we met we had the same dreams. We compared notes. We found strange affinities. The same June of the same year (1919) a stray canary had fluttered into her house and mine, in two widely separated countries.” Physical distance cannot constrain Humbert’s love of Annabel or their spiritual connection, as represented by the canary. Nor, it seems, can the passing of decades: “. . . the vacuum of my soul managed to suck in every detail of her [Lolita’s] bright beauty, and these I checked against the features of my dead bride.” Humbert tells us that Lolita eventually surpasses Annabel, but Annabel, through her death, remains in the stasis of nymphet perfection, while Lolita is subject to time and aging.
‘Nymphet’ is a word Nabokov coined, alluding to the mythical ‘nymphs’ of Greek mythology, usually some kind of river or wood spirit inhabiting the form of a beautiful maiden. The ‘nymphet’, Humbert tells us, is best understood as circumscribed by the ages of nine and fourteen. But it is not just any young girl who might attain this status. The mythological allusion is not accidental. ‘Nymphet’ is a construct, not so much of a physically desirable type, but an archetypal moment or purity and perfection that represents the lost ideal of his Annabel:
It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries – the mirror beaches and rosy rocks – of an enchanted island haunted by those nymphets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea.
This spatial conception of young beauty is represented as an “intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays”. Lolita, therefore, is another iteration of a lost ideal that Humbert has separated from real time, while its physical manifestation, Lolita, paradoxically, is subject to the quickening changes of puberty:
I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. She would be thirteen on January 1. In two years or so she would cease being a nymphet and would turn into a “young girl,” and then, into a “college girl” – that horror of horrors.
As a digression, this is what is interesting about the opening sentences of Humbert’s narrative. I once had a student tell me how good the opening was, but he couldn’t quite articulate why it was good. ‘Lolita’ is what Humbert calls Delores Haze. As ‘Lolita’ she represents his desire (though he also calls her Lo, Lotte and even ‘Dolly’, which is a somewhat disturbing thought when another character assures him, “I had no fun with your Dolly.”) Here is the first paragraph of the novel:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
As he sits in prison and browses through a Who’s Who, Humbert finds an entry for a Delores Quine, his love’s name attached to “some old hag of an actress”. Humbert, in one of his rare moments of conscience, thinks that perhaps Delores Haze, “might have been an actress too”, but then returns to his own situation and laments “Oh, my Lolita, I have only words to play with!” And this is the point: that Humbert, denied access to Lolita or another girl like her, is also denied access to the mythical idyll of his imagination: that connection with Annabel and the ideal of the ‘nymphet’, that represents a lost time from his own youth, rather than merely a physical body. Instead, he is reduced to the physicality of the tongue as it trips across his palate to form Lolita’s name. Words have replaced sensuality, and his conception of Delores Haze as Lolita has formed her into an ideal that the real girl can never maintain.
But the point about the actress is a point that bothers Humbert’s conscience from time to time: what becomes of the young girls he has molested? When he meets Monique, a young prostitute who says she is eighteen (whom he eventually decides must be fifteen), he detects a “nymphic echo”. But Monique, while giving him pleasure, has lost the ideal allure she may have had, “only three years earlier [when] I might have seen her coming home from school!” Humbert meets Monique, “somewhere near the Madeleine”, the river in France. But it is also an allusion to Proust’s famous Madeleine cake which triggers the memory of Marcel’s his early life and, inevitably, his relationship with Odette de Crécy. Humbert makes several allusions to Proust – he refers to his writing as “these Proustian intonations” – which suggest, again, the impulse for the underlying desire he has for Lolita. Like Proust’s Madeleine cake, Lolita is a representation of a lost idyll held in stasis by memory and art, who exists, also, as a real child outside the bounded ideals of Humbert’s imagination.
There is a scene later in the book in which Humbert and Rita, an adult woman of about twenty-eight years old with whom he conducts a relationship for about two years, wake up in a hotel room with an albino man in their bed. They don’t known how he got there and the man has lost his memory. He cannot even remember his own name. They rush him to hospital and give his name as ‘Jack Humbertson’, a clear allusion to Humbert’s own nom de plume in the novel. Later, Humbert is inspired by the incident to write an essay about Memory:
. . . a theory of perceptual time based on the circulation of the blood and conceptually depending . . . on the mind’s being conscious not only of matter but also of its own self, thus creating a continuous spanning of two points (the storable future and the stored past).
He also tries to book a room in the hotel, The Enchanted Hunters, where he first had sex with Lolita. When he fails to do that, he searches through newspaper archives for a photo taken by a photographer covering a local event in the hotel lobby that same night, accidentally capturing Humbert in the background just before the deed. Humbert is fixated on attaining a lost past through physical artefacts. That he distorts the reality of young girls whom he molests as a part of that quest is a concern that he only starts to come to terms with in the second part of the novel.
I would suggest that while readers should find Humbert Humbert a monster, he does have moments of lucid understanding as to his crime and tries, sometimes only momentarily, to struggle with the implications of what he has done to Lolita and children like her. Without going into the particulars of the second half of the book, which should remain a surprise for first time readers, there is a shift in Humbert – despite his attempts to control Lolita and prevent her escape – towards addressing his own guilt. His relationship with Rita is an indication that he has changed somewhat. And his externalisation of his own guilt into the figure of Clare Quilty, Lolita’s drama teacher, suggests his struggle to exorcise the demons of his own mind.
But whatever one’s opinion of men like Humbert Humbert, the novel is a brilliant evocation of his voice, and the seminal experiences that can distort the warp and weft of a mind. As Dr John Ray assures us in his introduction, there is no openly salacious material in Lolita, although much is alluded to. But it is a brilliant psychological study and drama, which builds slowly into a shocking tragedy.