by Kathleen Valentine
Recently I got into a bit of a kerfuffle on another web site where my novel Each Angel Burns was reviewed and the reviewer took exception to some of the themes in the book. She was perfectly within her right to do so and I have no issue with her review, but it made me start thinking about novels that genuinely shook me up, novels that contained something that, well, frankly, shocked me. I wrote a post on my blog about it called Controversial Subject Matter in Religiously-themed Books. After it was posted I began thinking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It is not a religiously-themed book, of course, but it certainly shocked the world. I went in search of my copy and began re-reading.
I can understand why it is a great novel if only for the beauty of Nabokov’s language. He loves words and plays with them beautifully, musically, carrying you along through some truly revolting ideas with mellifluous language.
I am about two-thirds of the way through, and will finish if only to assure myself (again) that Humbert does indeed die, but I don’t ever recall disliking a character more than I do Humbert Humbert. Which begs the question, how does one handle reading a beautifully written and constructed book filled with revolting and unsympathetic characters? I guess I’m sticking with it to find out.
On my blog I have often complained about the very popular miz-lit books — those sad, depressing books about how awful someone’s life was — but this book does not fall into that category – I think. The redeeming value, apart from the beauty of the writing, is still eluding me but I’m willing to trust that a novel that has withstood the amount of time this one has, did so for a reason. I have yet to find any of the characters to be sympathetic but am also aware that, because Humbert is the narrator, it may be his inherently detestable nature that makes them seem so. His descriptions of women – other than his adored and salivated-over nymphets – are scathing and he doesn’t have any more tolerance of men. I have to give Nabokov credit, he has gotten inside the head of a thoroughly revolting human being and brought him vividly to life. I admire Nabokov for that though do not envy him. I doubt I’d have that amount of courage.
The central issue of Humbert’s character, of course, is his overwhelming erotic obsession with “girl-children”, his nymphets over which he rhapsodizes endlessly, and his possession of Lolita, the 12 year old daughter of a woman he married who was conveniently run over by a truck a month later — leaving him with this child. Now, the thing is, Charlotte, the mother, as seen through Humbert’s eyes, was a really nasty piece of work and his observations on her may not be entirely unfair. Her treatment of Lolita is disturbing and her scheming to snare the single Humbert when he comes to board with them is embarrassing. So she’s no prize. And, apart from her physical allure for him, Humbert doesn’t much like Lolita either. She’s a spoiled, whiney brat and one gets the sense that he would be much happier if she were entirely stupid and completely lacking in a will of her own.
In one paragraph Humbert muses over the fact that he only has a couple of years in which to “enjoy” her before she turns into a teenager, a “detestable creature”, and then a “revolting, heavy-bottomed co-ed”. He muses about how he will dispose of her when that day comes but then does entertain the notion that it might be worthwhile to keep her until marriageable age so that he can legally marry her, get her with child and begin breeding himself a second Lolita, a daughter/granddaughter, with his “own blood running in her lovely veins”, who might become old enough for him to use for his pleasure while he is still virile enough to do so. He even goes so far as to fantasize about maintaining his masculinity long enough for the violation of a third generation – a Lolita III.
Clearly, I am still having problems with this book. I don’t think I’m alone in that and, to a certain extent, I think it is an important book for the inside-the-head look at a pedophile it provides. I know there are Humberts in this world, though I wish there weren’t, and I think Nabokov, in some strange, subtle way, is illuminating something else, something more than the eroticization of girl-children in many segments of society. Humbert is an arrogant, self-absorbed man who sees no reason why he should not have what he desires. Maybe it is that alone, more than his sexual obsession, that differentiates him from too many others. That is the truly frightening part.