Like so much of the literature in my life, my father first introduced me to Lolita. Although, perhaps, ‘introduced’ is the wrong word. When I was young, I used to wander through my dad’s library, climbing to the top shelves, in awe of all the books, so foreign to me, unparalleled in their mystique. I assumed therein lay all the world’s knowledge, all the world’s adventure and of course, my father had read them all. Still, when I go back to visit my parent’s, I find myself slipping away to revisit these memories housed in the recessed walls of his library.
Today though, these shelves are no longer filled with abstract titles but rather with old friends, having devoured many of them myself by now. Works by: Cheever, Norman Mailer, Kafka, Coetzee, McCarthy and of course, Nabokov.
Permanently stationed in our main floor bathroom, throughout my adolescence, was a tattered, turquoise copy of Lolita published circa 1974. “Ladies and gentleman of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.” I tried to unwind those thorns in my teens but the prose fell flat on my pre-occupied mind. This is probably for the better. As an adult even, I struggled, counting myself among the misinformed, as I waded through the murky waters of Nabokov’s obsessive mind.
Lolita is, of course, one of the most beautifully written books of the 20th century, only it is poisoned by the subject matter. Line after line brought a flush of red to my face as I read it, glancing over my shoulder in naïve embarrassment. Of course I knew what I was getting into, I knew the subject matter of the book long before I opened the front cover. This did nothing to prepare me.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Nabokov is a gorgeous writer and one cannot help but be in awe of his mastery of the English language, his second (or third?) from his mother tongue. Few among us, those born to the language of the British Empire, have this kind of command or use the techniques of literature so effortlessly. And yet. And yet the beauty of his writing does only so much to hide the horrors you are unearthing as Humbert Humbert’s obsession for the young nymphet, Lolita, grows.
Nabokov, like so many of the authors that have had the privilege of torturing me lately, was born in Russia. It was not until he transitioned his prose to the English language that he began to achieve prominence in the literary world though. In the middle of the 1950’s, it would not be the Anglos who would publish his most famous work, Lolita; for something so risqué he would be forced to look to the French. And it was, while living in Paris, that Nabokov’s infamous novel was published: amidst the cafes, bordellos and legacy of the libertine.
Or so I thought. Of course, I initially though this book was about sex. About a passion so strong it could never be satiated. I thought it was about a crazy man, chasing a fantasy spawned in his youth. I thought this book was about flesh and bone, about abandoning morals, about power, about lust, about obsession.
I was wrong, for the most part, and this is why Nabokov is heralded. By writing on a topic so disturbing, so immoral, he is forcing the reader to digest his words as the author chooses, in the only manner that is acceptable, “Literature was not born the day when a boy crying “wolf, wolf” came running out of the Neanderthal valley with a big gray wolf at his heels; literature was born on the day when a boy came crying “wolf, wolf” and there was no wolf behind him.” Nabokov did not think that literature should teach the reader but that rather the reader should devour the words for their sensory beauty. It is the dissonance between the horror of Humbert’s actions and the beauty of Nabokov’s prose that forces us to face the man in the margins, Nabokov himself who seems to exist in an ephemeral sense, almost laughing from the sidelines.
Lolita is not about a middle-aged man’s obsession with a young nymphet, it is a soliloquy for Nabokov’s love and obsession for language. It cannot be about the love of a person – for with people there are boundaries – but with language, there are no lines to draw in the sand; one cannot go too far in the lust for more. Nabokov’s desire for literature to be appreciated in the realm of the aesthetic is accomplished with ever word that drips off the page.
This allegory may seem a stretch for some but the only other option is to take Nabokov’s writing at face value and forgo some of the most beautiful prose ever written. We all have our church, a pillar we choose to worship at. You decide.