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Lolita, 50th Anniversary Edition

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov Fair warning: in this review, I’m going to repeat some things I’ve already said in Ian’s Lolita discussion group. I’m also going to assume the reader is familiar with the book.If you love something, set it free.We’re a long way from that. This book poses a lot of big questions, and the biggest of all is whether Humbert really loved Lolita (aka Dolly, aka Dolores). I can believe that he thought he did, but did he really? He committed statutory rape. He kidnapped her. Lied to her. Intimidated her. Hit her. Prevented her from forming normal friendships with kids her age. Severed her ties to a community that cared about her. He took guardianship over her, without acting the part of a parent. Although he technically didn’t steal her virginity, she still had a lot of innocence left at the onset of their affair, which he consumed with no regard for the effects this would have on her. What it all boiled down to for Humbert was that he wanted his “nymphet“- a depersonalized ideal which existed only in his mind- and he wasn’t going to allow anybody, including Dolly, to prevent him from having her. Selfish. All the while, he professed his love for her. Is this love? Love can make people do strange and selfish things. I know a person who got a scholarship to a prestigious college, but his family wouldn’t “allow” him to attend, because they couldn’t bear the idea of him living so far away. If you love something, set it free.So love and selfishness associate more than we’d like. They co-exist, and limit one another. If there is too much selfishness, over too long a period, love loses its credibility. Somewhere in a gray haze I can’t define, love stops being love and starts being exploitation. I’m not sure where that line is, but Humbert crosses it. He reminds me of the first O.J. Simpson trial: when the prosecution presented photos of Nicole with a giant bruise on her cheek, O.J. explained that he inflicted the injury out of love… an immense love which could not stand that she had asked him for a divorce. Can love really make a man punch his wife in the face? Did love make Humbert threaten Dolly with juvenile detention or abusive foster care, in order to prolong a sexual relationship with her? Only if we to rob the word “love” of all functional meaning. Time and again, with forethought and intent, Humbert subverted Dolly’s happiness and well-being to satiate his base appetites. She lost so he could gain. That is fundamentally selfish, and I see no way of hammering that into the shape of love.This creates a problem for Lolita as a novel, because most readers won’t slog through 300+ pages with a flat, two-dimensional arch-villain for a narrator. Go read some reviews of American Psycho, if you don’t believe me. Nabokov had the good sense as an author to recognize that Humbert needs a bit of complexity and ambiguity to keep things interesting, so he stacked the deck for Humbert, granting him first-person narration, for starters. Giving him a reserved and sophisticated persona, with a dry sense of humor which (I admit) had me chuckling at times, also helped. A few setbacks (e.g. when Dolly escapes), and even a genuine display of emotion all make Humbert more palatable. When a pregnant Dolly turns him away for the last time, Humbert breaks down crying, full of deeply-felt longing and despair. It’s the most valiant attempt I’ve ever seen to make an unsympathetic character sympathetic, but in the end it fails. The best I can manage for him is a tug of sorrow, that Fate has hotwired his brain in such a way that he can only be happy by devastating another. Dead Men Walking, this is not.I suppose I should say something about pedophilia now. It is the proverbial 800 lb gorilla in the room, and the focus of the controversies which plague this book. The thing is, I don’t think the pedophilia is necessary to the story. Dolly’s age isn’t the central crime or tragedy of Lolita; it is only a modifying consideration. Her minor status converts Humbert’s conventional offenses into nuclear ones, but even if she and Humbert were the same age, Lolita would still be the tale of an abusive and dysfunctional relationship. The only way Humbert’s obsession for young girls changes the story, is that it introduces readers to his ideal of the “nymphet”- a sort of abstract, sexualized prepubescent pixie. If Humbert loves anything, it is this idea. He only praises Lolita when she resembles it; otherwise he is downright disparaging of her, and plans to leave her when she turns fifteen... the magic nymphet-disqualifying line, apparently. It would be interesting to know what research Nabokov did to develop the "nyphet". Do all pedophiles carry this idea around with them? Do any? Does this ideal offer real insight into Humbert's psyche, or is it all faux? Is "the nymphet" the symptom, or the disease? These are all unanswerable questions, but they are the only benefit of Nabokov’s having written Dolly as a twelve year old, and Humbert as thirty-eight.If you love something, set it free.That cliché kept intruding into my inner voice as I read Lolita. Clichés are vacuous, and antithetical to serious reflection and consideration. They’re also downright annoying, but never more annoying than the occasions when they’re true and relevant. If Humbert loved Dolores, he would have set her free.But he didn’t. The narration takes the form of a confession which leaves no question that he is guilty of statutory rape, kidnapping and assault. This is not a detective novel, asking "Did he really do it?". He did it. The confessional format casts readers in the role of judge and jury, and implies a request for leniency. So, what about it? Can we view the book's events in some way which transcends legal and moral guidelines, as well as community standards, in order to find some leniency in our hearts for Mr. Humbert? Granted, there are times and places in human history where the characters’ ages would not have been a moral, social or legal problem. Furthermore, I am even open to the possibility that as much as murder might be excused in the service of love! (e.g. assisted suicide, in the event of a dear one's painful and untreatable terminal illness) Is there anywhere in the universe where the reader can stand and look at Humbert at just the right angle, so his actions might be forgiven? He’s a sick man, after all. He suffers a condition which precludes love as we know it. He risked everything for an ideal (the “nymphet“), which he loved as intensely as you or I might love a person. Can he be forgiven? That’s something each reader needs to decide for himself. That is why Lolita, however feared and despised it might be in some circles, is an important and enduring work. If we lived in a more thoughtful, perhaps a more cerebral world, Christian groups in the Bible belt wouldn’t ban Lolita; they'd embrace it as a faith-affirming challenge. I'm not quite up to that challenge. Despite all the head-starts Nabokov gave him, I can't see my way to letting Humbert off the hook. When all the excuses and details are stripped away, Lolita is just a story about how he satisfied himself at the great expense of another.Or maybe I should say "others". Charlotte Haze deserves mention. She, at one time loved, or thought she loved, Humbert. His strategic and unfeeling marriage to her was sociopathic. His recklessness with her heart is offensive enough to be the subject of its own novel, and required selfishness of the highest grade to execute. His blasé disregard of her pain after she discovered his letters reinforces my thesis that egoism and selfishness are the book’s central themes. Then there’s the matter of Clare Quilty- murdered in cold blood for no other purpose than avenging Humbert’s wounded ego. It was a crime of vanity. Does anybody else wonder why Nabokov did this? I wish Quilty would have killed Humbert. Or maybe I wish Dolores would have killed Humbert.Mostly what I wish is that Humbert would have loved Dolly, and set her free.