Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow fell through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
For the longest time, I didn’t want to read Lolita. And not for any of the reasons you’d expect. I am pretty hard to rattle, and I never considered a tale about a middle-age man’s sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl something I couldn’t handle. It was something else. Something about isolated snippets from the book I had come across by way of a Graduate school lesson on slacks and stresses in prose, or a writer friend reciting for me one of its many eloquent passages. The writing style always struck me as upper crust, elite, ultra-intelligent, private school educated…in short, the essence of everything that makes me truly insecure. Approaching this book was akin to approaching a middle school lunch table where I knew I wasn’t wanted. Give me tales from the good old working class, or junkies even. I could delve into the reasons for this, but I’ll spare you the details of what I really should be paying a therapist to suffer though. Suffice to say, this is the honest reason it has taken me this long to read Lolita, silly as it may be.
At least I know my spidey-sense is on target. Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita smacks of elite schools, tennis courts, and all things old money. There are times when the poetic language which permeates the entire novel feels smug and overblown, but also times when it feels truly original and pleasurable to read. What is interesting though, and perhaps may be lost on someone less wary of diamond-studded language, is how the protagonist Humbert Humbert seems to exist in a world of thought in lieu of reality. In this way, intellectualism is seen as a very integral part of his sickness. A very good example of this is his own explanation for his fascination with ‘nymphettes’ (girls in the early stages of puberty). He claims the root of his sickness is a romance he had with a girl named Annabel when they were both 12 (I could be wrong on the exact age. I suck at marking important passages). Her unexpected death stopped the two of them from ever consummating their love, and this left him wanting for a barely pubescent girl. In other words, he is still in love with a ghost, a memory, a thought. His behavior throughout the book shows a clear pattern of favoring ideas over reality. He justifies his relationship with Lolita by referencing things he read about other cultures who take child brides, and intellectuals he admires who had sexual relationships with very young girls. He calls Lolita’s beauty “blurred” and compares her to Boticelli’s Venus. I found this aspect of the novel to be quite unexpected. On the surface, Humbert Humbert is sophisticated, intelligent, and eloquent, but under the surface he is brutish and a slave to his impulses. And it isn’t as if these two sides of him are at war, he uses his intellect to justify and propel his brutishness. It’s an unusual characterization, yet totally believable.
Fantasy and reality are both equally important parts of Lolita. The reader gets to know both Lolita and Dolores Haze as if they are different people, although Lolita is simply a pet name given to her by Humbert Humbert. Lolita is the fantasy, the object of desire. Nabakov is able to make us understand that this is Humber Humbert’s perspective as he shows us the real Dolores Haze who is simply a kid. She likes trendy music and soda pop. She speaks crassly and only reads comics and fashion magazines. Although we are aware that Humbert Humbert is having intercourse with Dolores, we also see him assume the role of her parent after her mother dies, giving the relationship an extra creepy incestuous undertone.
Many will say that the message of Lolita is “love is madness.” But that’s not quite how I understood it. I don’t know much about love, but I have learned through my many failings that punch-drunk and possessive passion isn’t really how it’s supposed to work. At the end of the novel, I do feel there is a hint that Humbert Humbert finally understands this as well. For me, the message of Lolita is that nobody has the right to screw up reality with his fantasy.
Lolita is all it’s cracked up to be. If for no other reason, because it could have gone so, so wrong. It could have been a sleazy child porn book about misunderstood, star-crossed lovers. But it isn’t that at all. It’s among the most tragic books I have ever read. I am glad I finally took the plunge into Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita. Have you read it? If so, what did you think?