by Smita Ganguli
Aimlessly flipping through a copy that belonged to my mother, in search of some ‘dirty’ snippets in literature back in the day when I wasn’t permitted to read it. That was then and this is now, and after a brief hiatus, I have finally managed to read this down.
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita will leave you baffled, let you hope you land up on a meagreness of words to comprehend first, and explain later as to what you feel about this postmodernist text. It is however, very tough to critically write about literature, let alone postmodern literature for that matter. Therefore, mine will be a rather simplistic take on this novel, placing more emphasis on how the characters appeal to me.
Here, I will also place tactfully, my gracious acceptance of the fact that I am an incompetent reader, yet I like to review things if it is out there to be appreciated or criticized. So, keeping that in mind the theme and the language lead me to all sorts of confusions regarding how unreal it seemed to me at first.
A plot synopsis is what you’re expecting by now, and here it is - a man of unfulfilled and differentiated sexual interests, Humbert Humbert (an alias) and his fondness for a 12 year old girl. A fairly believable and sympathy worthy childhood of this man along with the untimely death of his mother, Nabokov here tricked his readers into offering sympathy to this man without even letting us read any further. His love interest at the age of 12, named Annabel and her death due to typhus is yet another strategically placed turn in this character’s life.
If not sympathy, then what have you to offer to Humbert’s forlorn childhood?
His attempts at coping with an incomplete married life wherein his wife leaves him for another man is nothing but the continuation of accumulating sympathy points for this man. He then lands up in the company of Charlotte Haze, who is looking to rent a room. Not wasting any more time and quickly pacing up the plot influenced by this man getting distracted because of Haze’s 12 year old daughter, Dolores, or as we have read on the covers Lolita.
To completely understand Lolita is an unfulfilled dream, and trust me, I am still trying. To have to watch every character from this man’s perspective does get a little monotonous and you might even think that this is a patriarchal story, after all. But, worry not. All things thought and said, I found myself asking questions – is Lolita a vulgar and frowned upon 12 year old? Does she fulfill her promiscuous desires as a nymphet?
As a 20 year old reader of this book, yes, I was uncomfortable. More so because I wasn’t 12. After you’re halfway done exploring the pedophilic theme, you will also start to scrutinize how uncomfortable we are about children and their sexuality, and sexuality in general.
As mentioned earlier, Humbert is notorious, dark, funny and seductive. And now you can finally forget whether or not he deserves your sympathy as a reader or not. Nabokov here, succeeds in the portrayal of actions that will disgust you to the point until you are amazed and not repulsed by them anymore.
Whether or not Humbert was capable of love is a question that remains unanswered and now, if at all you’re wondering if Kubrick’s adaptation of this book can help you out, be rest assured, THERE’S NO HELP THERE. To be able to faithfully adapt and then romanticize something as unusual as Humbert’s affection for Lolita is not easy.
What’s to love in Lolita? The book or the character or both. Humbert’s opening lines should help with that --
"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns."
I also found myself guilty-giggling to the parts where Humbert tries to casually and condescendingly get rid of Charlotte Haze so that he could spend some time with Little Lolita.
I am not aware of the kind of reader you are and whether or not one can be comfortable with Nabokov’s praise-worthy writing in English with a theme, questionable to some and acceptable to some. There still remain parts of the novel that I don’t completely comprehend, but the parts that I do have certainly led me to read it over and over again.
It is a grade A1 novel. That means it must be read.