The Rear-View Mirror: Lolita (1955)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It took me ages to read Lolita. No, that’s not quite correct: it took me ages to get around to reading Lolita. I avoided the book for a long time because it sounded offputting: an older guy lusting after a young girl. You don’t need to read literature, you see that everywhere, every day already. In the end, my first encounter with Lolita was, well, not even the 1962 adaptation by Stanley Kubrick but the glossy, shallow film version by Adrian Lyne. It’s a miracle I ever did get around to reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel after that.

Boy, am I glad I did, though. This will sound weird, since I’m talking about a novel dedicated in its entirety to repeat acts of statutory rape, but there are few books I’ve read that I’ve found as enjoyable as Lolita. I’ve read the occasional other Nabokov, but none of them are as devilishly funny and sharp as his 1955 classic. At the same time, Lolita can make you queasy, and the greatness of the prose is no small reason for this. Written in first-person narration by the failed intellectual and creep for the ages Humbert Humbert, the novel is an extended attempt by the narrator to justify his inclinations and actions, in particular his manipulation and seduction of the young teenager Lolita, whose stepfather he becomes as part of his plan to become the girl’s lover.

While Humbert’s self-serving attempts at rationalisation are written in compelling language, Nabokov’s greatest trick is that he makes his narrator-protagonist reveal himself and his character more than Humbert is aware of. There are few characters, and even fewer first-person narrators, as deluded, and whose delusions are as deftly presented. As great as Lolita reads, this does not have the effect of excusing Humbert: in trying to justify himself and his actions, he puts his head in a noose of his own making. The character ends up being both villainous and pathetic, yet his story remains eminently readable.

Though, in this day and age of #metoo, Jeffrey Epstein and too many other scandals and tragedies of men using their power to use women and girls as objects of sexual gratification, would I recommend Lolita? Not without hesitation, and doubly so because Lolita herself remains something of a cypher in the novel. All we get is Humbert’s version of her, and while Nabokov is more than up to the task of using Humbert’s own words to show his construction of the nymphet he wishes to see as exactly that, a construct, we’re still left with a novel that is not about the girl, even if she gives the book its title, than about the man who uses and abuses her. As writer and critic Eric Lemay writes, “Humbert sings a song of himself, to himself, and titles that self and that song Lolita‘… to seal this sad adolescent within his musky self, Humbert must deny her her humanity.”

Arguably, we need more stories that reinstate the voices of the Lolitas, the Dolores Hayeses, of the world, not let the Humbert Humberts tell their side of the story, even if they end up damning themselves in the process. But I hope that Lolita’s existence doesn’t have to mean that those stories and voices are silenced. If future readers take ages to get around to reading Lolita, I hope it is because they have listened to those other stories first.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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