The mere word Lolita immediately conjures unsavory images of pedophilia, incest and murder. I was surprised, then, upon reading Nabokov’s classic, to find that it was one of the best books I had ever read, but often for banal reasons.
It’s often the sunlit scenes, not the sordid ones, which stick out most in my memory. Describing her tennis game:
My Lolita had a way of raising her bent left knee at the ample and springy start of the service cycle when there would develop and hang in the sun for a second a vital web of balance between toed foot, pristine armpit, burnished arm and far back-flung racket, as she smiled up with gleaming teeth at the small globe suspended so high in the zenith of the powerful and graceful cosmos she had created for the express purpose of falling upon it with a clean resounding crack of her golden whip.
He describes chess the way only a chess player could.
In my chess sessions with Gaston I saw the board as a square pool of limpid water with rare shells and stratagems rosily visible upon the smooth tessellated bottom, which to my confused adversary was all ooze and squid-cloud.
“I suppose,” he adds, “I am especially susceptible to the magic of games.”
It all sounds so natural, so reasonable. Only when the reader recalls the appalling content of some of the book’s other pages does the cruel flippancy of the author’s testament come into focus. Games? How, at a time like this, could he be talking about games?
Yet this is precisely the nature of Lolita’s delicate genius. It’s not in spite of his misdeeds that Humbert Humbert’s depictions of the trivial ring poignant—rather, it’s because of them. Humbert spends quiet nights working on his definitive piece of scholarship, that manual of French literature for English-speaking students. Dolores and a classmate ride their bikes throughout town, giggling gleefully all the while. These pedestrian moments are brought into all the sharper relief when contrasted with the abhorrent scenes which interpose them.
Even said abhorrent scenes, themselves, are often described with the same odd sort of levity. These scenes, then, present a strange contrast of their own, between the topic they consider and the way they make the reader feel. I would never find myself defending Humbert. And yet I find myself hesitant to condemn him.
And so the mood which colors our tennis scene is not just one of feeling good, but one of feeling good in spite of it all. This reader, at least, feels simultaneously good and surprised that he feels this way. This is the sort of sickly-sweet cognitive dissonance that defines Lolita. This is Nabokov’s achievement, if we should call it that.
Oddly enough, though, it seems that this is precisely what Nabokov set out to achieve. He could have painted Humbert as the incarnation of pure evil. Instead, he’s shy; modest; thoughtful (obsessed with preserving the purity and chastity of Lolita and other nymphets); introspective (deeply regretful of the whole affair); educated; exceptionally handsome; articulate; and unremittingly hilarious. If there were ever a man who could defend the actions of Humbert Humbert, it would be Humbert Humbert. And defend his actions is precisely what the narrator does. It’s no coincidence that the text is, quite literally, Humbert’s attempt at defending himself. It’s addressed to “ladies and gentleman of the jury.” Before writing Lolita, Nabokov chose, almost as an end in and of itself, it seems, the most impossible task he could imagine: making the actions of predator seem defensible. And then he set out to achieve it. Lolita’s precise job is to soften the point of evil.
Contrast with the writing of Dostoevsky, which certainly influenced Nabokov. At Tikhon’s, a chapter of Devils, paints a picture of child rape which is so deeply appalling it almost seems less a representation of evil and more a piece of pure, elemental evil, itself, indistinguishable from the very notion. “I took a book, but threw it away, and began looking at a tiny reddish spider on the leaf of a geranium, and I fell into a trance,” Stavrogin writes, while his readers shudder.
The distinction between Nabokov and Dostoevsky evokes that between the French impressionists and the photorealistic painters which predate them. Dostoevsky is successful in his photorealistic portrayal of evil. Nobokov’s contribution, however, is as much one of intent as it is of outcome. It occurred to Nabokov that he didn’t have to portray black with black paint and white with white paint. Rather, he tries to paint the sunniest portrait of evil possible. Such a task is all the more difficult, and in some strange way, it’s perhaps more commendable.
The distinction I’ve proposed will invariably draw questions about the ethics of Nabokov’s enterprise. Should we welcome into the canon a text which (arguably as its primary purpose) defends a rapist and murderer? I’d like to remain agnostic on this issue, only in part because it has been addressed extensively in the past. There’s no denying, however, the way Lolita makes its reader feel. Lolita ought to be remembered as a book which blurred, with a broad brush, all the careful lines which had been drawn before it, and which emerges as a deeply rewarding, albeit challenging product. The outcome is indeed difficult, but it shines with all of the complexities of real life, which all too often are painted in gray.
- Lolita by Nabokov
- At Tikhon’s original manuscript
- Style Is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov by Leland de la Durantaye. Cornell University Press