What makes somebody want to tackle such a classic as Lolita? A stoic novel that unwittingly explores the darker, more abrasive side of humanity, whilst unwaveringly remaining a pillar of literature, despite all of the critical analysis and commentary proceeding it? This is a question that I should be able to answer, having recently read both Ulysses and Jude. My decision to read this great novel was based on a quote I came across: and the rest is rust and stardust. The line rounds off one of the many verses that flows through the book.
Lolita is one of the saddest novels I have ever read. It doesn’t come with a stigma of melancholy in the way that any Hardy masterpiece does; rather it creeps upon the reader slowly. When the book begins, the heroine has already died in childbirth. Humbert himself becomes deceased shortly after he finishes the manuscript, and many other deaths follow suit throughout the novel.
The story unfolds with a death – the death of Humbert Humbert’s childhood sweetheart Annabel, who succumbed to typhus. In a chilling passage where Humbert explains his attraction to what he calls ‘nymphets’ – otherwise known as underage girls (there must be an age gap of at least ten years between he and his lover), he partly excuses himself by blaming the web of young love and death that his past self was tangled in. Other deaths follow – almost like a deck of cards toppling down one after the other: first, Humbert’s wife Valeria, in childbirth, then his second wife, Charlotte, from a ‘bad accident’, which appears to have been intentional, then Lolita’s old seducer and rival of Humbert dies, from murder. From the outset, Lolita could be considered an obituary, as everyone, including Humbert himself, from coronary thrombosis, is dead on arrival.
Yet what Martin Amis dubbed ‘Nabokov’s Grand Slam’ is much more than this. Even those that have not read the novel know it to be a story of twisted paedophilia – it is one of the most talked about books in History. And yet, for those who have read it, as previously mentioned, Lolita is not only sick in its entirety, but dreadfully sad. The narcissistic, psychologically damaged Humbert is caught in the web of a disease. For that is what we all suspect paedophilia to be: a disease, because who would choose to be that way? As a lodger in the Haze household, Humbert first casts an eye upon Lolita, and comes to accept gradually, as the reader reaches the sickening dawn of realisation, that it is incumbent to him that he must be with her sexually, and that he will do whatever it takes to be in that position. This involves marrying Lolita’s Mother, Charlotte Haze, who must know that he has no interest in her, but pushes for the wedding anyway. She soon discovers Humbert’s writings about her daughter – for he is a linguist and author combined – and realises whom she has married, and what a dangerous position her daughter is in. This is a particularly gut wrenching passage, and like many others in the novel, you will want to look away, as if it were a film with an unpleasant scene, but you can’t. Nabokov reminds us how paedophilia can affect others, but also leaves the reader wondering. How does Lolita cope with the loss of innocence thrust upon her at the age of twelve? Does it usurp her psychological state? She seems coolly aware of Humbert’s intentions towards her, and although young, she is from the outset unwilling to indulge him. In any case, this is not her story. It is his.
There are parallels drawn to the feeling of a Father when his daughter first finds love, but as Nabokov will have been aware, something feels so desperately wrong about casting Humbert in a paternal role. The Freudian despair he feels as he sees Lolita with people that he considers his rivals is painful for the reader, because despite coming to loathe Humbert for all he has done, he is still the lonely protagonist who cannot become the master of his own fate, or escape the clutches of his desires. When Lolita finally settles down with a boy her age and becomes pregnant, Humbert declares himself free of his desires after all, and embarks on an affair with a woman his own age named Rita. Is it ever that easy to escape being a paedophile? Can rejection prevent it? We will never know, in Humbert’s case, because he finishes the manuscript as Nabokov finishes the tale.
Lolita, in the end, is a tragedy. It becomes a tragedy for everyone: for lonely Humbert, who dies of coronary thrombosis after finishing the manuscript; for Lolita, who dies in childbirth; for Charlotte and Valeria, for Lolita’s suitors and Charlotte’s friend, who dies of cancer. Some may argue, through all that he has done, such as murder, and attempting to seduce a twelve year old girl, that death was too good for Humbert. But Nabokov never sought to punish his creation, just to display to everyone his torturous existence.
Why do we all come and read this novel, although it disgusts us, time and time again? The feeling will never vanish. We will never cease to be sickened by the prose. It is because of the writing, Nabokov’s wonderful elegance, comparable to none. If I could describe it, I would use the author’s own quote: it is like rust and stardust. The rust is found in the elements where you wish to look away because the words burn too strongly. The stardust is everywhere else: threaded through every sentence and chapter.