Tonight I told one of my best friends that I stayed up late finishing Lolita last night. It's actually really funny, I told her. She asked if that was the novel with the guy who has sex with a child. Yes. Lolita (Delores Haze) is 12.
I loved Lolita even while I was disgusted. I am angry that I need to qualify my love--"I was disgusted"--of a book, as if the mere act of reading it all the way through makes me a pervert like the narrator, Humbert Humbert. As if stomaching it means I am sick and demented. As if liking it means I need to throw out my feminist card. Before I finished Lolita last night, I'd only ever made it to around page 50. This is too much, I'd think, this misogynist novel, this rape novel. I'd abandon it and say maybe later, maybe someday I'd see why Lolita is so great.
When I approached Lolita as something other than a rape apologetic--because Nabokov makes it clear that he does not share his narrator's love for nymphets, both in the way the fake memoir is written and in the afterword--I was able to see how funny it is. Humbert is continually mocking himself, especially in the beginning, when he can see he's in jail. Humbert knows he's pathetic, Nabokov knows he's pathetic, and the reader knows he's pathetic; this is woven into every page. It is only really when Humbert loses himself in remembering Lolita as he had her, in the middle, that we lose some of this humor. I once read somewhere that when we remember things, our neural pathways are lighted up the same as the first time we experienced those things. So to remember is almost actually to relive, at least in our brains. Lolita treats memory this way, for Humbert seems to lose sight of who he really is in his memories. The middle parts where Humbert consumes Lolita are indeed harder to stomach, but it's interesting that Nabokov is never explicit in his descriptions of sex. He doesn't need to be; he's not defending Humbert's rape and he's not setting out to write erotica. And anyway, most of us know what sex is like, for the mechanics are the same. So I would actually argue the novel isn't erotic unless that's your worldview. Nabokov is just a very sensual writer in that he calls attention to the senses. This is lush prose. And we must remember that Humbert himself refers to Lolita as a sex slave, and Lolita calls him a "perv" and a rapist. This is clearly not a rape apologetic.
Instead, Lolita is a funny and sad and pathetic retelling of a life from an unreliable narrator who descends into madness throughout the book. It is as if he can't bear to lose Lolita again in retelling his story. Humbert is just as insane as any of Poe's murdering characters, including the unreliable narrators in "A Tell-Tale Heart" and "The Cask of Amontillado," and this descent into madness and paranoia is entertaining. I'm sure many have written about Poe's influence in Lolita, especially as Humbert alludes to Poe's child bride and parodies Poe's analytic detective stories. I also love Nabokov's pitch-perfect mockery of Freudian psychoanalysis and dreams; it's so subtle you might almost miss it, especially because Freudian psychoanalysis has become so ubiquitous that we often don't know that's what we're doing when we're doing it. ("Sexual repression," anyone? Dream diagnoses?) Lolita is like an easter hunt for the well-read, or those who are willing to read it again. It's also full of heavy foreshadowing, though we often ignore the foreshadowing or keep reading anyway, to find out how it happened. We know from the very beginning that Humbert is in jail and we know early on that Lolita has "betrayed" him, but we don't know how. We also keep reading for the many metafictional references to the act of writing here, because Humbert breaks the fourth wall over and over again, as an actual memoirist would do. He often calls out to the reader or discusses why he's writing. All of this lends an air of credibility and believability to Humbert's story, which is perhaps why the novel is so hard to read, so "disgusting."
My biggest interest in Lolita, as someone who's gearing up for comps, is how it works within the postmodern landscape. Lolita is a much more postmodern novel than I'd previously thought, when I didn't read far enough. There are references to concentration camps and Hitler, but there's something more, a postmodern malaise that refers to questioning reality. We see this in Humbert's questioning of what happened as he becomes mad, but we also see this in the way we the readers question the value of institutions and whether or not they protect us. Nothing protects Lolita; she falls through the gaps. Nabokov himself questions reality in the afterword, as he writes about "average 'reality' (one of the few words which mean nothing without quotes)." Reality means nothing, he says. Azar Nafisi writes of Nabokov in Reading Lolita in Tehran, "His novels are shaped around invisible trapdoors, sudden gaps that constantly pull the carpet from under the reader's feet. They are filled with mistrust of what we call everyday reality, an acute sense of that reality's fickleness and frailty." Since World War II, we have come to question reality and the solid ground upon which we stand. That's postmodernism.
When we have nothing left, no ground to stand upon, that's when we must rely on art. Nabokov relies on his words to make art, on beautiful words for ugly people and ugly deeds. That's Lolita.