It took me—like most people—two times ’round the bend to glean a healthy dosage of insight into Lolita. No matter how much you prepare for it, reading Lolita for the first time is all a bit too surreal.
When it needs to be, Lolita has a way of making its mostly simple plot feel elaborate and incomprehensible. Humbert’s lavishly decorated monologues give the impression of a winding epic, one where every manoeuvre he makes is taken with the utmost care and precision. In reality we are being treated to the increasingly panicked mind of a delusional madman. These absurd mental escapades can easily trip up a first time reader.
The never-ending depths of Lolita‘s tragedy will leave the virgin reader overwhelmed just trying to comprehend Humbert’s life of manic violence, misogyny, and terrible paedophiliac pleasures. However, none of those terrible vices are essential to understand, or even the point of Lolita. For returning (deflowered) veterans, Lolita rises to become an entirely new genre; it is far more compelling when experienced with the terrible fate of poor Lo set in stone from the outset. Then, Humbert’s nightmarish celebration of the sinful sacraments makes way for a masterwork of devious ironies and Nabokov’s limitless sense of humour.
Those who have not read the novel will in the first case have been spoiled significantly by the first few paragraphs of this review, but in the second case may be surprised to hear it described in terms not unlike a comedy. Lolita is sometimes mentioned in passing for its light word play and reference humour, but that is not why you’ve heard of it. More often, Lolita is spoken of in hushed, scandalous breathes for its prophetic recreation of Polanski-esque crimes. But it is even there, in the most shocking and obscene of Lolita‘s imagery, where the comedy of a kind begins. Any synopsis of Lolita is incomplete if it simply describes it as the story of Humbert’s repeated rapes—it is better understood as the story of Humbert’s repeated rapes which he recounts as a tender, poetic romance. Is there a more vibrantly ironic situation in all of fiction?
Scenes which were all a slightly monochrome blend of same-y, but tense, horror were entertaining enough when consumed in the raw surprise of a first read, but if allowed to age and ferment they take on a whole new life with a rich, fermented texture. I was shocked to find myself chuckling at how, after each awkward shift Humbert took towards the sleeping Dolores at the Enchanted Hunter, he paused to feign sleep, as though he was innocently worried about being caught in the mundane activity of tossing in bed, when he was in due course about to rape the sleeping Dolores in his full naked beastliness. Or how he described this messy conspiracy to rape her as navigating the “exact science” of “nympholepsy.”
How could anyone not see the humour inherent in Humbert’s idea of a date with dear Dolly? He, ever the upper class European intellectual, takes her down to the local school so she can masturbate him while he plays peeping tom to the local schoolgirls; and then later, for a double dose of absurdity, Humbert beats her after becoming convinced that she—his rape victim—was “cheating” on him with another man. These laughable situations have all the bafflement and irony of an absurd comedy skit, but with a crucial difference: all the humour in Lolita comes laced with the assailing sense of latent realism, and a sense of suffering that can transform amusement to skin-crawling nausea at the slightest shift in perspective. It is frightening how readily the pathos and irony of Lolita becomes sickening—rather than amusing—when one is forced to imagine Dolores, fighting back tears, indulging her father in his voyeurism and paedophilia targeted at other children, under the futile hope that when they get home he won’t proceed to violate her in her own bed.
Even on the first read, remarkably comical prose can suddenly jump out at you in graceful, easy to digest eruptions of wit. This often comes in the form of Nabokov’s darkest twist: Humbert Humbert—the awkward violeur de son petit amant—is able to constantly swindle the reader with his sympathetic guise of the mistreated yet deviant intellectual. Humbert has a biting and intelligent sense of humour that always runs the risk of smuggling him into our good graces if we don’t keep our wits about us. In the novel’s quieter moments, such Humbert and Lo’s brief falsification of family life at Beardsley, Humbert gives far too convincing a performance as the pathetic and misunderstood European, trapped in a world of American crudeness. Humbert also takes on a thorough visage of fatherhood over Dolores, and as a result her occasional immature outbursts and rebellions make the reader feel disgustingly real pangs of sympathy for the awkward and earnest attempts at parenting undertaken by Humbert. That is, at least until we remember just how many of these outbursts are deeply justified protests against Humbert’s continued rapes—which have been nearly nightly for well over a year at this point. It is easy to lose track of whether Humbert is overprotective of his dear Dolly because of earnest fatherly love or because he is a jealous brute, fearful of the lustful gaze of a second Humbert stealing away his coveted Lolita.
Lolita is the rare kind of read where its dense emotional weight and twisting vagaries overwhelm even the most attentive reader. There are questions whose composition and answer change each and every time you revisit this salacious tome: Was Dolores, inherently innocent as she may be, far too complicit and eager in bringing about her own destruction? Was Humbert always doomed to disaster due to his fascination with nymphets, or is this the tragic tale of a civilised man falling prey to his beastly instincts? Is Lolita in all its crudeness and malevolence still a story about some form of real love between a man and his muse? Is Lolita a tragedy, a comedy, or something altogether different that transcends either genre?
There is at least one question that Lolita is more than willing to answer: is it worth reading even the corrupt and pathological descent of a pervert and madman? Nabokov has proven for the ages that the answer is absolutely a forceful yes.