Book 15 in Cannonball Read 2
Read for the Pajiba Book Club, but not finished in time.
Nabokov’s Lolita is one of the most famous novels in Western literature - so famous that the conversation surrounding the work can obscure the actual book. The term ‘Lolita’ is broadly used in society to denote some sort of under 18 vixen, a sexually aware seductress who looks like a younger version of a grown woman. Lolita the character is quite different - pre-pubescent, unaware, sexually curious but not sexually precocious. The fact that a 12-year-old character that hasn’t entered puberty is routinely cast in movies as a honry 17-year-old is more problematic than anything Nabokov writes.
Some background: Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a Frenchman living on the East coast of the U.S. Humbert narrates, and it is clear that he has a sexual obsession with young girls; specifically, girls who have not yet hit puberty. He is repulsed by grown women, and the only adults he finds attractive are those who remind him of the ‘nymphets’ he loves. Humbert is taken on as a lodger by a widowed woman with a 12-year-old daughter.
Lolita is not a love story. It’s a story of obsession and self-deception. Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but also painfully honest. He makes it clear that his attraction to Lo is, first of all, part of a pattern of pedophilic attraction to pre-teen girls, and also, that it will not last once she develops an adult body. I don’t know that many people could read Lolita and walk away thinking that the book either condones his behavior, or does not consider much of what is done to Lolita to be coercive and damaging. However, Nabokov does not provide easy answers, and almost traps the reader into sympathizing with Humbert.
The famous Vanity Fair review stating that Lolita is “the only convincing love story of our century” seems like a complete misread of the book, and a misunderstanding of the very concept of love as something shared, something that both parties can learn from and work towards. The divide between a loving relationship and the relationship Nabokov details is the whole point of the book. In the end, Lolita doesn’t tell us much of anything about the character of Lolita; she’s a cipher. It doesn’t matter to Humbert what goes on in her head, and it doesn’t matter much to Nabokov, either; he’s exploring Humbert’s obsession and jealousy, not an equal relationship.
Reading Lolita with an open mind is a fascinating experience, not just because of the book itself, but because of the cultural significance it has taken on, sometimes in opposition to what is actually contained in its pages.