CHENNAI: One of the most popular novels of the 20th century, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, is often an emotionally difficult read for many readers. This is because of the story and its narration by a villainous man named Humbert. Humbert, who, after the death of his wife in a car accident, enters into an illicit relationship with his step-daughter Dolores, all of twelve years old. Lolita is the name Humbert gives Dolores.
Like in the case of any sex offender, Humbert grants a stupefying power to Lolita: in his telling (which is all we have), she is painted as an unwitting seductress who ‘enchants’ Humbert such that his reasonable faculties dissolve and all he is left with is the desire to possess her.
All that is bogus, of course. Yet to a common reader, ensconced in the text written by Humbert, the objective perspective is scantly available. Which is why reading Lolita often feels like being trapped in the mind of a pedophile and being forced to somewhat agree with him.
The revulsion one feels at one’s own gullibility is often transferred to the book, which explains why many people find it difficult to finish it. This gullibility is in big part a product of the exquisiteness of the prose. Thewriting in Lolita is so rarefied and lyrical and illumined that it is itself a thing of beauty. The reader faces a conundrum: how can a tale so hideous be so beautifully told? Humbert mischievously says in the beginning of the story that: ‘You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.’
Did Nabokov want the readers to fall into the trap of sympathising somewhat with Humbert Humbert? Did he, too, sympathise with his character? The answer is a loud ‘NO.’ Nabokov never doubted the hideous criminality of his creation. In an introduction to another novel, Despair, Nabokov mentions that Humbert has a special place in Hell reserved for him. Yet what Nabokov does with the novel Lolita is to emphasise the difference between the aesthetic sphere and the ethical sphere, and how easy it is to mix the two.
Humbert’s telling of the story is beautiful, perhaps the most beautiful prose we have ever read, and the biggest risk is that that beauty might be allowed to come to his rescue. In other words, the aesthetic pinnacle that Humbert achieves may tend to mitigate the ethical horrors that he commits in exploiting a minor for sexual gratification. We, the readers, have to disallow that mitigation. Nabokov’s play is in making it difficult for us; his intention is to make us conscious of that difficulty.
In other words, the beauty of Nabokov’s Lolita is precisely what makes it a difficult book. There aren’t many novels about which this can be said.
Aside: April is the Child Sexual Abuse awareness month. If Dolores’ mother had talked to her about safe touch and unsafe touch, Humbert wouldn’t have much to write about.
(The writer is publishing his first novel in October 2016)