Sunday, December 11, 2016

Revisiting Lolita

Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation
Lolita is tragicomic literary classic, a novel written by Vladimir Nabokov and first published in 1955.

The story is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged British literary scholar who is obsessed with girls aged nine to twelve. He uses the term “nymphets” for them, a term actually coined and made popular by Nabokov himself. 

Humbert suggests that this sexual diversion is rooted in his childhood sweetheart Annabel and her untimely death. In 1947, Humbert moves to Ramsdale, a town in New England, USA, in order to write. He rents a room there from a widow called Charlotte Haze and, almost at once falls for her young daughter Lolita. In order to get her, he marries the widowed mother, who surprises his dark secret but dies before she can reveal it to anyone.

Humbert then fetches Lolita from her summer camp, pretending her mother is unwell but instead of returning to Ramsdale, he takes her away on a journey throughout the USA, during the course of which he also consummates his desire in a hotel room. He is insistently paranoid about people ‘following’ him and he is keen to keep Lolita secreted away from all prying eyes.

Humbert and Lolita travel around the US, staying in motels. Two years later, the two settle in a different New England town and Lolita starts school. Humbert is very suspicious and possessive and seldom allows her to take part in any school activities. Eventually Lolita takes part in the school play, written by Clare Quilty, the man who finally helps Lolita in eventually escaping. After some years of escaping Humbert’s thrall, Lolita, now seventeen, married and pregnant, writes to Humbert asking for her money which Humbert agrees to give her in return for the name of her ‘abductor’. Later on, Humbert visits her and begs her to return but she refuses, causing him to break down.

Nabokov was a celebrated professor and writer already, when he wrote Lolita, a work which was considered considerably risqué back then. Fearing litigation and bans, four publishers declined to publish the book in America, which was finally published in France and banned there too, on the complaint of the British Embassy, which thought its citizens were smuggling the book into Britain. It was however, imported into US from France in due course. An American edition was published by Putnam, later.

Lolita's author, Vladimir Nabakov
The novel is a very complex work, with a very complicated protagonist, Humbert Humbert. His is a dual nature, with its neurotic, lustful side and his vulnerable human self, the guilty, human version that eventually falls for Lolita the person not the “nymphet”. Humbert is pathetic because of his extreme urge to create a different reality for himself. Yet he is pitiful at the same time, because this is his search for a soul, for social acceptance and love in an existence largely devoid of any truly fulfilling adult relationships. He is guilty of violating Lolita and as his guilt consumes him he consistently judges himself, like when he hears children playing outside, he wonders if he has robbed her of her childhood. There is, of course, a huge difference between him and the rest of the world, in the end especially, when he takes a U-turn from a madman to a lost, forlorn lover. He can seduce Lolita but not attain her love.
Nabakov on the road, like Humbert himself.
Lolita too, although seen solely from Humbert’s perspective in the novel, is quite a character. Precocious, materialistic, rowdy and a typical self-centered American, she is too multi-dimensional for a typical dumb ‘nymphet’. Already deflowered when she reaches Humbert, it is she who initially seduces him. A confident, secretive seductress, she keeps Humbert coiled in suspicion, until she finally escapes. In the end, instead of being a victim, she emerges as a contented housewife, big with child, happy

There are also several unresolved mysterious elements in the book. Firstly, as both Humbert and Lolita are unpredictable and dishonest, it is hard to determine if they are lying or telling the truth at any given time. Secondly, Humbert has a mental health history, and initially it seems there is no one chasing him and he is just paranoid. Lolita persistently accuses him of her mother’s murder and one wonders about the strange circumstances Charlotte dies in. More suspense is created by Humberts’ legal constraints. He persistently fears being caught by policemen, neighbors and eyewitnesses. Few readers realize that Lolita is already dead when the memoir is being recorded. In the Foreword:
“Mrs. 'Richard F. Schiller' died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. “

With all its taboo-violating, thought-provoking content Lolita is a modern cult classic. Nabokov plays a game with us. He incorporates important ethical, social and psychological questions in such a scandalous (sometimes disgusting) plot that our vision is blurred. Most people sum up the book as a perverts’ fancy and quit it. Even the movies based on the novel tend to center on the sexuality of the book. The wrongness and the brutality of the circumstances thwarts us from examining Humbert more critically and discover what an interesting character he makes and how, though his tortured and pathetic character, Nabokov himself questions many norms and conventions that, in fact,  create such people.

In the end, we are left to question if Humbert really loved Lolita? Showing empathy for a pedophile is difficult and rare.  Although a story of a pedophile’s recurring abuse of a minor, the book is redolent with an underlying humor which catches hold of us as we read it. Every sentence has a twist of Russian in it, often some poetry and French diction too. There is no obscene word or unaesthetic description, despite the nature of this subject. The book is a lucid and vivid comment on human sexuality and well as nature. 

It also has one of the most brilliant finishing lines. “I wish this memoir to be published only when Lolita is no longer alive ….Do not let other fellows touch you. Do not talk to strangers. I hope you will love your baby. I hope it will be a boy. That husband of yours, I hope, will always treat you well, because otherwise my specter shall come at him, like black smoke, like a demented giant, and pull him apart nerve by nerve…And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

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