“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.”
Queue seven consecutive hours of sobbing coupled with a dark, melodramatic deportment in the days following. Of course, it is in my histrionic nature to become entirely consumed by whatever mode is most present in my field of awareness. My proper mania over this work might not reflect the attitude of all readers. However, I will make one assertion. Put plainly, Lolita is like any great work of art in this commonality: if you let it, it will do something to you.
If I am attempting to do this work justice simply by briefing and offering some sort of deconstructive analysis probing the author’s intent, fixinging on stylization, I should stop now. No summary will do this exceedingly multifaceted and stunning piece the honor it deserves. The artist that I attempt to exhort is eloquent, profound, exacting, and thorough. It is with utmost humility that I approach this “review” in my paucity and slackness. The position of authority from which I may speak with complete sovereignty is that of my own spirits. It is from this posture that I honor Nabokov’s virtuosity. I am going to tell you what this book caused me to feel, and what it means to me as work of art.
An abbreviated summary of the book is as such: Set in early 1950’s American suburbia, Lolita is the story of the sophistic, brooding middle aged professor from Europe, aptly named, Humbert Humbert, or H.H.. Humbert becomes improperly infatuated with his landlady’s daughter, Dolores “Lolita”, and marries his lessor in order to be nearer said daughter. When his wife dies in a tragic car accident, H.H. takes Lolita on a cross-country road trip where a salacious and gloomy love affair ensues and eventually consumes. To the rigid mind, that is the full story. It will never be anything more than a tale of pedantic, semi-pedophilias lust occupied by clever puns and disgustingly brilliant imagery. However, for those who let it trace their hearts; for as many who have known and cherished the work, Lolita will always be a love story of both prose and essence. It is a dreadful tale of a love that should never have been, but a love story all the same.
The book is written from the first person perspective of Humbert as a series of current and recollected journal entries with a fitting psychoanalytic preface from his therapist. Having Humbert’s first person narration throughout the book means that we never gain accurate insight into the mind and desires of Lolita, very powerful. This point of view emphasizes Lolita’s continuous experience of subjection. What we see of her is through the lens of H.H.’s plea. We prevue a projection of longing and obsession onto the young “nymphet.” In his mania, he describes her as a sort of mystical creature; some timeless deity entombed in the body of a child. What is remarkably effective is the abrupt contrast between the lusting description of Humbert’s feelings for his Amorettin goddess, with the objective, physical description of Lolita’s real prepubescent appearance, “pigtails and bobby-soxing.”
Another fascinating contrast that appears is that between the incidental narrative and Humbert’s inward psychic reflection of Dolores. In everyday conversing, he addresses her by an abbreviation of her name, “Lo”, but in his inner dialogue, he always refers to her as his “Lolita.” The later, a fabricated title, evokes a feeling of veneration and sacredness toward the child that exists only in the mind of H.H. It is the clash of hero-villain that makes our narrator so tempting. Our anti-hero's wry whit charms us. H.H.’s exhaustive self-analysis of continued longing for his childhood lost love incongruously implores us to empathize.
Nabokov wages a war of riddles, allowing his audience the option of either thinking without feeling or feeling without thinking. It is this dichotomy between cerebral linguistic lust and just emotional turmoil that causes us to reexamine the beauty paradigm. We marvel that an act so hideous can be re-counted with such phonological splendor. His ability to imagine a certain predisposition in a given circumstance and then describe the happening with such exactness brands his pen as a conduit for the sins of the world. The untellable story unfolds before us with such grace, such fluency. As we encounter Humbert’s internal dialogue of dreadful lust, we stop to marvel at how we’ve been mortified and whole-heartedly raptured in an instant.
Possibly the most striking facet of Nabokov’s writing is the poetic imagery. He sculpts these seamlessly stylized images eliciting all the senses to wholly intake a scene’s delights. There is a pulsation to the page as you read, urging you forward. You smell the musk of middle-aged sweat as you heed the pitch of bicycle bell in the backdrop. His punned laced yarn weaves though anecdotes as a poised internal stream of consciousness in a way that makes us panic with delight.
Our novelist's exacted phraseology is born out of a disdain for second-rate expression. The detail, oh the detail… the painstaking measures that must have been taken to make certain that he did not desecrate this story of desecration. It is such a tenderly obscene subject that it must be handled with the utmost care and devotion. The story is prose, and prose is the story. One without the other would be pornography. It seems that devil and God correspondingly occupy the details here.
The Russian author has revealed in several interviews that he wrote the book during his love affair with the English language, and this couldn’t be more apparent. He has a subtle way of introducing various themes into his books to aid in both style and symbolism. Amongst butterflies and references to classic literature, many have put forth that one the numerous themes present in the work is that of the contrasting relationship between cultured, sardonic, debauched Europe to the relatively fresh, naive and hopeful America. Consider the time, 1955, when Lolita was originally published. We see evidence of this gently prodding humor in Humbert’s description of one of the odd couples road stops during their year-long cross-country tour when they stop, "to patronize those restaurants where the holy spirit of Huncan Dines had descended upon the cute paper napkins and cottage-cheese-crusted salads."
A thought that occurred to me whilst reading; in synthesizing Hubert’s neurotic perversion through our lens of morality, beautiful homage is paid to this quite ordinary child with her extraordinary suffering. This was especially important as a female reader. I was able to see my girl-child self on the pages. I remember being Lo’s age. I desperately desired love. You might say that I have always been one of the amorous: concentrated, deep, and passionate. I sought the affection and attention of the opposite sex at a young age. When I failed to receive the affection I required from classmates and peers, I turned my fantasies elsewhere. That may have been to the handsome new art teacher or the prematurely grey young youth pastor. Perhaps an artful eye was even turned toward the actor who portrayed Jesus in the church passion play; a Tennessee taboo of sorts, I suppose. A pre-teen girl in her formative state of tempting and trying finds certain giddiness in the idea of arresting a grown man’s fancy. How fortunate that none of these men dared return warmth with the same nature. What Humbert ponders of Lolita is a schoolgirl’s dream. What he does to her is every schoolgirl’s nightmare.
I have highlighted the intrigue of Humbert’s depravity, and praised Nabokov’s linguistic aerobics. I must enlighten as to why Lolita is a love story. It is a love story because it isn’t simply the wantonness of H.H. that keeps his heart bent toward Lo, but the most sincere love for what she represents. In his fraught attempt to gain a morsel of youth’s limpidness, he defiles it. He attempts to catch water by gripping it. She embodies the archetype of clarity and hope that is forever to be looked upon with delicate adoration, but will never be seized by he who clinches. The end of the book (spoiler alert) shows our Lolita as a grown woman, worn and pregnant. She is no longer the pre-pubescent musing idol we are probed to worship before; merely, “a shadow of her former self.” Humbert’s feelings are unchanged; he still owns the same passion and reverence for her. Our story concludes with a dear saccharine revelation of his long awaited contrition, and when we see her through those eyes, we completely glimpse the splendor of her truest essence.
The first and last paragraphs of this book are quite possibly two of the most remarkable pieces of verse in modern literature, enough to vibrate the fiber of the self at their utterance. They are, as a whole, the best admission and summary of a book I have ever read. In two paragraphs, Nabokov sheds light on the enigma and concludes with poignant melancholic release. No hints. You must read it yourself. Let us not blaspheme by asking this book to spell out its moral conclusion, leading us to some “bigger meaning.” The lyrical is meaning enough in itself. Beauty is truth; poetry paramount.
So, here in lies the hypocrisy. I attempt to explain why I love Lolita, offering a glimpse of its splendor, but this book cannot be relayed in clichés and bits from one reader to another. For anyone who is serious about writing and language, Lolita is a must. Lolita must be experienced. You must taste it, hear it, and smell it to know that it is good. I hope that I could be the prodding voice on your shoulder that will edge you nearer its pages. Lolita is immaculateness of prose. As Nabokov put himself, “You should feel it as a tingle in your spine.”