The first time I turned the pages of Lolita I was fourteen years old. Perhaps this would have been a little late to qualify me as one of Humbert’s nymphets, but it certainly felt like the right age to begin such a novel.
Since then, there has not been one book that has surpassed the passion I felt for Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece. None have come close to Lolita’s rich verbal textures, its word play, its fantastic fusing of the comedic and the tragic. No concluding paragraph has ever made me weep so much for a narrator who surely does not deserve sympathy.
The reader recoils, wrestling with their own psyche…
What is important about Lolita is that it throws us, it baffles us and makes us question ourselves and our beliefs. How can any right-thinking member of society empathise with a man who has stolen a child’s virginity, abused her, proved himself a “pentapod monster” throughout?
But empathy is precisely the feeling of the reader. We do not feel hate for Humbert Humbert, we do not ostracize him, we pity him and, dare I say, we start to understand him? The reader recoils, repulsed, wrestling with their own psyche as to how this can possibly be. But the level of empathy we feel for Humbert is all made possible through the creation of the world of the nymphet.
We are introduced to “the orchards in nymphetland…”
It is this pre-pubescent stage of life, a region endowed with mystery and impending sexuality, which interests the narrator and allows the action of the book to take place. We are introduced to the “enchanted mist” or “the orchards in nymphetland”, where the metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood takes place. It is somewhere that adults are forbidden, obscured from it once they have crossed into maturity.
But this period is transient, and what is constantly at stake in Lolita is the passage of time. Childhood will soon be over and Humbert fears what he knows is inevitable: his lovely Lolita morphing into “a ‘young girl’ and then into a ‘college girl’…horror of horrors”. The urgency of the novel, which gathers speed in the second half, is due in part to Humbert’s awareness that time is running out; soon his darling Lo will be nothing more than a woman, all hips and leg stubble. Once this process begins, it cannot be reversed, and he has to possess her before she is lost entirely.
…a hopeless yearning to extract something from beauty…
What Humbert fails to understand is that beauty, by its very nature, is transient. As the protagonist explains in The Enchanter (the novella that first formed Nabokov’s ideas for Lolita), he has a “hopeless yearning to extract something from beauty, to hold it still for an instant.”
But it is precisely this, I would argue, that allows the reader to understand Humbert, despite our revulsion. Ruinous as it may be to poor Humbert, the idea that you could love something so much you wish you could freeze time to keep it – a memory, a moment, an artefact of beauty – is something that few could deny feeling.
Lolita is published by Penguin Classics and is available for £6.99
Image courtesy of Penguin Books