I first read Lolita about a decade ago. It was my first experience was Vladimir Nabokov, and what made me fall in love with him. I decided to revisit this novel on audio, a second read. Here, I’m going to concentrate on what I got out of this novel the second time through, and thus this review will contain minor spoilers. If you haven’t read Lolita and plan to some day, I suggest skipping this post.
Most people know the basic premise of Lolita. Humbert Humbert, the narrator, is a pedophile, and Lolita is his pre-pubescent prey. Of course, many people hear this and automatically turn away from the book, thinking that any book about a pedophile is inherently bad or distasteful. There’s no question why this has remained on frequently banned books lists since it was first published. People don’t want to read about a pedophile, especially one who, when you begin reading, attempts to seduce you into taking his side.
Humbert Humbert is the epitome of villain. He is not only evil, but he believes he isn’t, and he attempts to convince the reader that he is nothing more than a victim of fate and a thwarted childhood. His arguments are extremely eloquent, and there are times that it’s easy to forget momentarily that the person talking is a 30-something year old man who lusts after twelve year olds (of course you then feel terrible when you catch yourself forgetting). HH is intelligent, articulate, witty, and persuasive. I think this is the real reason that people find Lolita a distasteful novel. They don’t like how the narrator attempts to win them over. They don’t like how sane and rational he can sound, or how convincing, or how human. Often they don’t read far enough into the novel to hit the point where narrator and reader break off and go their separate directions, when his arguments are no longer in the least bit convincing (though M. Humbert still believes they are), when you start to raise your eyebrows, when you begin to hate instead of dislike-but-also-pity. By presenting Humbert Humbert as (somewhat) sympathetic in the beginning, Nabokov creates a far more powerful feeling anti-Humbert, anti-pedophile, than a reader would have had if Humbert had been portrayed as the enemy from page 1.
Of course I know that not every reader has the same reactions. I don’t pretend that all people who dislike this book do so for the same reasons. But this is the overwhelming pattern I’ve seen from readers, especially those who start Lolita but never make it to the halfway point, who never get to the moment when Humbert Humbert loses hold of his readers and begins to spin madly off into the distance. Though still telling his story, HH is nothing more than a disgusting, perverted madman, less than human, even lower than he would be if he’d just been labeled “pedophile,” which of course is already bad enough.
The most interesting thing to me in comparing my two reads of this novel was how differently I saw the character of Lolita. I believe she is the other reason why people react so violently against this novel, because the way Humbert presents the story, she is partially (if not mostly) responsible for what happens between them. The reader knows, of course, that this is complete bilge. Most of what HH says about her can be dismissed outright. By that point in the novel, he has already lost some of his eloquence, and the reader can see how he is trying to absolve himself from the responsibility that is most definitely his. But where the grey area comes in is with Lolita herself. She is a very sexually precocious pre-teen. At twelve, she’s already having sex with her peers, both lesbian and straight sex. She flirts and shows off her body and tries to act far older than she is. This is a truth that comes through Humbert’s narrative, apart from what he says. Of course, her sexual nature does not absolve his violating her, not by any stretch of the imagination. But adults don’t want to read about a sexually active little twelve year old. They don’t want to think about the idea of their own children doing these sorts of things.
When I first read Lolita, I was much closer to Lolita’s age than I was to Humbert’s. I grew up in an area where sex-by-age-ten was fairly common, where people had babies at age twelve, where I was an embarrassed outcast because I’d never even held a boy’s hand at thirteen. Lolita’s sexual precociousness was nothing new to me. I didn’t see her as a little girl at all, because in my world, childhood was lost by that age. Once again, I’ll state that that does not give anyone the right to violate children of that age, but Lolita’s innocence – apart from her relations with Humbert – was completely lost on me. Reading the book now as a much-older adult, I could see how much of a child she was outside her attempts to act like an adult. Little things – picking her nose, absently scratching at dry skin, wearing mismatching socks – all these little things stood out to me, so that Lolita became a contrast between childhood and adulthood, transitioning naturally from one to the next as most pre-teens do. I could see the picture of what she would have become had HH never entered the picture. It made for a very different reading.
The other big change between my first and second reading was how much my own vocabulary and knowledge base has widened since a decade ago. The first time I read Lolita, I’m sure 90% of the book went completely over my head. I found it difficult to read, keeping a dictionary by me, trying to figure out all the little jokes and turns of phrase. I meant it when I said Humbert Humbert was intelligent and witty! On this read, I actually had a really easy time understanding the prose! I can’t decide if that’s because I know a lot more now or if it’s because I listened to the book over four weeks and thus didn’t read too fast and get myself muddled. Either way, I got more out of this read and appreciated it even more.
I can’t express just how beautiful this book is. The subject of the book is horrific, but very, very poignant. Nabokov is very anti-pedophile. He creates the most disgusting villain I’ve ever read, forming him into the semblance of a person until, layer by layer, his monstrosity is laid bare and undisguised. The book is moving and painful and uncomfortable and very disturbing to read, but at the same time lyrical, poetic, and beautifully written. The contrast between monster and beauty is a fantastic juxtaposition. I loved Lolita every bit as much, if not more, on second read.
Performance: My audiobook was read by Jeremy Irons. He did a fantastic job. I’ve listened to a lot of audiobooks recently where the narrator was fine, but they were just reading the book aloud. Jeremy Irons didn’t read this book; he performed it. He became Humbert Humbert. And with his gorgeous voice, he was perfect to read as HH, who said the most horrible things in the most beautiful prose possible. Adding the seductive voice was just one more layer for HH to try to draw the reader in against his/her will. It was amazing.
Note: Originally read in ~2001.