Reading Lolita


In a strange way, reading Lolita can feel a little like watching a elderly relative take their glass eye out- fear and fascination grapple with each other and it becomes near impossible to turn away, however much you may want to. The novel's reputation precedes it to the point where I was a little frightened to pick it up when I first saw it in my school library aged fourteen- I didn't think I could read what I assumed to be the boasts of a pervert as he defiled a child so close to my own age. It was only three years on that curiosity got the better of me and, after reading the book and several reviews, I discovered that the most disturbing thing about Lolita(which is saying something) seems to be the reaction it generates, for example one comment that Lolita was "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child."- in other words, she was asking for it, a suggestion made all the more frightening by the fact that a 2010 study in Britain showed that 24% of young people asked felt that wearing a short skirt, accepting a drink or having a conversation with the rapist made victims partly responsible(.#ixzz1fsdSM0QX).

In his typical intricate manner, Nabokov begins to give glimpses of the word play. "Humbert Humbert" roughly translates to "dark warrior" and John Ray, Jr's first two initials spell "Jr". Such wordplay is typical of Nabokov and gives the prose an almost whimsical quality- how much of this is truth? The detailed epilogue gives the reader a little bit of reassurance, and there are certain clues to what will happen later on. Humbert is stated to have died of "coronary thrombrosis" in prison, a condition which could be called a broken heart. Lolita's pseudo-surname "Haze" refers to a mist or cloud, creating the idea of mystery already suggested by Humbert's arrest. What is his crime? The matter-of-fact tone of the letter, e.g. "Viewed simply as a novel" combined with the use of pseudonyms forbids the reader, thus provoking their curiosity- we been told we shouldn't read ahead, and therefore we have to.

Given the victim blame already mentioned and the novel's persuasive prose, it seems logical that Nabokov would predict the possible reaction that certain readers might miss the point and consequently begin the novel with a warning from someone the reader can trust: John Ray, Jr, a doctor whose view is marred by neither ignorance nor experience. His extensive notes on the futures of the characters involved, combined with his references to various studies relaxes the reader before alerting them to the danger ahead. Nabokov contrasts the comment that the book lacks foul language by noting the "aphrodisiac" nature of certain scenes, which would have been quite shocking to a contemporary audience as the fifties are typically seen as a more "innocent" time when sex was ignored and shut away- it was unthinkable for sexuality to be implied in the media even by the sharing of a bed by a married couple. Given this demonization of sex at the time of publication, the suggestion of the novel being "pornography" scenes signals something sinister about the narrator and gives an insight to the sort of narrator we are dealing with- educated, eloquent, but certainly not "good".

To frighten the reader further, Nabokov suggests that the narrator's character is not all that uncommon, "asserting that 'H.H.''s impassioned confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12% of American adult males... enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience 'H.H.' describes", suggesting that perhaps the innocence of the fifties was really wishful thinking and that below the clean, white surface lay monsters of the worst sort.

Nabokov makes very clear his contempt for his creation, calling Humbert Humbert "horrible" and "a shining example of moral leprosy" and reminding the reader that "A desperate honesty... does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning." The metaphor of "leprosy" is a final warning to the reader, suggesting our narrator is contagious. Unfortunately, the book has been sited by paedophiles to attempt to romanticise their perverted desires, ironically exactly what the Foreword attempts to prevent, so in hindsight it seems just as well that Nabokov included such warnings about the narrator's "demented" personality and his bewitching prose, a warning that readers would do well to take heed of as Humbert reels them in.