I finally read “Lolita” and what a surreal reading experience it was. The story is about an adult man marrying an adult woman with the sole purpose of sexually exploiting her teenage daughter, which design he successfully executes through a combination of plain luck, deceit, fear and seduction. The summary itself is quite revolting, but alas every deed has a context and every context complicates our role to pass judgement.
Yet as a story, it is not so much the underlining premise that is disturbing as much as the narrative itself. Not only does the protagonist condemn himself to his less than palatable designs, but infuses a sense of dark humour centered around the hopelessness of the situation. In the result, the reader is often tempted to sympathize with the protagonist and there are brief moments when the genuineness of his love and desires, inspires a hope in the reader that the protagonist should in fact succeed in his efforts to win over and possess Lolita forever. But I must applaud the author, because every time we are fooled by the protagonist into sympathizing with him, the tragedy of Lolita brings us back to reality and reminds us of why the protagonist deserves nothing less than the strictest manifestations of society’s condemnations.
In Lolita’s life, lies the story of millions of girls out there. Both in the United States of America and elsewhere, we have come to terms with a disturbing set of numbers that estimate thousands if not millions of young girls finding themselves entrapped into a life of sexual abuse. While one would hope that these girls are aware of the sheer grotesque nature of the sex inflicted on them, Lolita also reminds us of the more naive of the lot who are yet to come to terms with this evil. When the very innocence that ought to inspire society to abandon its diplomacy and connivance, also inspires the motives towards exploitation among its less desirable members, we owe the Lolita’s of the world a responsibility to help them out of their situation and place them in an environment where they can be children again.
Yet what impressed me about the author, Vladmir Nobokov is the man’s strange yet intuitive understanding of a child sex offender’s personality. The protagonist, albeit being a man of good looks and considerable intelligence boasts of a remarkable incapacity to make any major accomplishments. Where self esteem should be, there is a sense of guilt and deficiency, which constantly provokes our protagonist to seek the sympathies of society. He surmises that his love for Lolita being genuine, requires no act of reciprocation and the same genuineness also creates his case for society to confer some legitimacy to his love for the teenage Lolita. He belongs to a brand of offenders who may not perhaps be violent, but place their own selfish needs over everything else. In the end, we can only conclude that Humbert’s love for Lolita is lesser than his love for himself and his own needs, which only make him more worthy of condemnation.
Yet coming to the complexities of passing judgement on Humbert, I have to say, Nobokov creates a complicated situation. On one hand, when the context is peeled away, Humbert is a scoundrel who deserves nothing short of death. Yet his motive towards revenge on the villain, Claire Quilty is motivated partly by the wrong Quilty inflicted on him, but mostly by the deceit he had imposed on the teenage Lolita. In this premise, we see that Humbert’s hatred for Quilty is as much a hatred of himself for what he did to Lolita. The deviant behaviour towards Lolita apart, Humbert also boasts of a frightful level of honesty and integrity in matters of money, especially concerning Lolita, which also somewhere reveals to us that he shares a strong yet incestuous paternal love for her. But the most compelling case for mercy comes from his guilt and his perceptive recollection of some of the many things that he did wrong in his life. Vladmir Nobokov, you my friend, are a bloody genius for having woven such a complex character and such a dark story which evokes both the lust for vengeance and the need for compassion at the same time. It is truly a story with many shades of grey and that to me was what made the book truly memorable.
Yes, the narrative is slow and the bits and pieces of French thrown in between provokes annoyance. But the novel holds its own and ultimately doesn’t disappoint. One critique of the book held that Lolita wasn’t given a big enough voice in the book. But it is precisely that, among many others that make Lolita such a dark tragedy, the kind of tragedy that evokes the purest of sorrow. I strongly recommend Lolita. It will offend you, it will provoke you and it will ultimately move you. Lolita is not just a child in a novel, but an immortal soul whose tragic life leaves an unmistakable heaviness in our hearts. In that sense, she is more real than fictional and full credit to Nobokov for breathing life into a story of such complexities.