My encounter with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita began innocently, as I wandered the shelves of a bookstore within walking distance from my grandmother’s childhood home in Decatur, GA. There is something sacred about perusing aisles lined with the spines of unread books. Finding myself at a place in the mundanities of life at which I could devote time to a novel, I set about finding the proper vessel for my journey. I like to amuse myself in bookstores by letting the spirit guide me rather than looking for a specific title. Picking an aisle at random, I walk slowly, letting certain words catch my eye and lead me further on my search. There is the perusal of first chapters, of picking up and putting down, of finding and not finding. I am lead by an unseen force from science fiction shelves to psychology, from vegan cook books to Egyptian travel guides. Eventually, the literary current lets me go, and I discover my next favorite novel–or rather, it discovers me. On this particular August day in Georgia, I was engulfed by a tractor beam, one that has captured many a writer before me; another unassuming soul lost to the magnetic draw of Lolita.
Shrouded in rumor and forbidden mystery, Nabokov’s masterpiece is as misjudged today as it was at its time of publication in 1955. It’s easy to slap a label on Lolita, or The Confession of a White Widowed Male, whose plot follows a pedophile’s incestuous relations with his twelve year old pseudo-step daughter. But, reader, I ask you this: is it better to live in the dark about the horrible truths that exist in the world? Does it benefit you at all to turn away and decide not to concern yourself with such things? I, for one, have always been fascinated by loves stories of a flawed and unfixable nature–and Lolita is a love story–one that Vanity Fair calls “the only convincing love story of our time.”
True, Lolita is not for the faint of heart. If you prefer love stories with two good people whose relationship is fair and equal, with no hamartia or fatal flaw that condemns them in some way, then you can add Lolita to your list of undesirables along with Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Anna Karenina, Hamlet, and even Homer’s Odyssey. Each is imperfect, and yet no one hesitates to praise them for their unfaltering truths about the nature of love.
I am not trying to say that Humbert’s actions were acceptable in any way–he remains immortalized a monster. Looming as a tyrant over a single captor, he abuses his authority over a young girl who, as seen through Humbert’s watchful gaze, floats through her days without consequence, let alone full comprehension of what is happening to her, in the wake of her mother’s death. Humbert Humbert is a manipulative beast–but a beast who is aware of his wrongdoings, who loathes himself just as the reader often must, and who tries to stop himself, wrestling daily with an insatiable addiction.
There would be far less criticism of Lolita if Humbert was regarded as a human being struggling with mental illness rather than a faceless villain. To argue that Humbert is not inherently evil is nearly impossible without the carefully measured words of the author, his only true advocate. I can only encourage you to read this book, which possesses the secret ingredient that draws me like delicious poison into the depths of the darkly romantic. There is an unfathomable sadness, a yearning that comes with the unquenchable thirst that Humbert grapples with throughout the daily torture of his existence. When a person’s only solace and joy in life is a cardinal sin, there is not much hope for happiness–there is only the hope that somewhere out in the infinite world, someone is listening.