“…there is no other bliss on Earth comparable to that of fondling a nymphet.” -Humbert Humbert, Lolita
Right. I need to get some things of my chest. First of all: relationships are really, really difficult much of the time (at least for me). Sometimes they can take up so much mental space that it’s impossible to focus on work or social stuff more generally.When they don’t work out, for whatever reason (breakup, unrequited love etc), they can be all consuming, often dreadful, frequently depressing and in my experience, bloody lonely. I’m sure most people have experienced it once in a while: that feeling of utter and absolute dread, unable to break it, unable to change it, when you know that your deepest most profound desires wont be met. Or have been met, but wont be any more, as when a relationship finally dissipates. These feelings are, I’m led to understand, common to all humans, so you should know what I’m talking about. anyhow, this IS a book review, so I’d had better get on with some reviewing. Vladimir Nabokov’s stupendous 1955 novel, Lolita, is really about having these feelings and the kind of absurd emotions and actions they can engender in us.
Humbert Humbert, the primary antagonist and narrator of Lolita, embodies every human being, albeit taken to an extreme (not really, many of us do go to extreme lengths to achieve some romantic end and fulfill our unfulfillable desires). Like most of us, he feels desire, lust, guilt, anger, loneliness, deep depression and a kind of overweening sense of resoluteness that pervades all he does. And yet he is also a scholar, eminently qualified and stylistically brilliant, (as is Nabokov’s conceit), constantly making references to the French literature that is his (one of his) passion. His other is of course the so called nymphet, a prepubescent girl barely reached the stage of puberty. Apart from this, he is in every way normal: “I grew, a happy, healthy child in a bright world of illustrated books, clean sand, orange trees, friendly dogs, sea vistas and smiling faces”. The connotations are of normality, domesticity, a sense of freedom, childhood innocence and most of all, a lack of strangeness or perversity; a lack of danger, of abuse or any other psychosocial “event” that could be pointed to in indictment. Humbert’s childhood memories are alike to many of our own: carefree and without any emotionally disturbing weight, (of course this is not true of every childhood). Again like one hundred percent of readers, Humbert is faced with having to negotiate the tought road of puberty. “The only definite sexual events that I can remember as having occured before my thirteenth birthday were: a solemn, decorous and purely theoretical talk about pubertal surprises in a rose garden…and some interesting reaction the part of my organism to certain photographs…” Nothing particularly disturbing there, and if we do find it disturbing it is not for Humbert’s character but our own self knowledge: the knowledge that we can and do comprehend Humbert. Even later, when he confesses the beginnings of his strange fantasies, it is merely “excessive desire” that coerces him. Surely “excessive desire”, while at times unpleasant and conducive to all manner of negative emotion, is not unusual. Indeed it is not. It is merely affronting. To acknowledge the reality of our own “excessive desire” would be to acknowledge the frailty, the intimate fragility, of ourselves. Yet Humbert Humbert is usually understood by readers to possess repulsive qualities worthy of criticism. This is the crux of Nabokov’s often confronting novel: a character who is at once completely alike to most readers and yet who we as readers cannot stand. Nabokov’s “point”, if he has any, is to afford readers an awareness of their own hypocrisy. While it is certainly not condoning pedophilia, the novel works to exemplify the reality of our own sexual lives: often emotionally messy, often unfulfilling, and frequently laced with irrational jealousy.
I’m not interested here in expounding on the morality of Humbert; there is plenty that has already been written about the loathsomeness or courteousness of his character depending on your own point of view. Whichever way you look at it, Nabokov’s novel works precisely because Humbert is so morally repulsive (to some) and yet also emotionally familiar.