Sunday Brunch Review: Lolita
The Human Machine
If a computer mainframe could write literature, it would write like Vladimir Nabokov. Lightning-quick and dizzyingly erudite, yet also tirelessly systematic and focused, deeply concerned about the meaning of being human, without getting exactly angst-ridden about it. A writer from known experiences who does not reveal himself. In short, as great as a writer can be without being personally fascinating.
In “Lolita,” however, Nabokov took on a voice more anguished, and more fascinating, than any of his more directly autobiographical personas. In this case, we forgive Nabokov’s own chilly remove, because it leaves more room for his self-professed child-corrupting “monster” to speak. And speak his narrator does, about life and love and loss, about girls and women and the too-enticing in-between, about the modern intelligentsia and the dreariness of suburbia snobs and traffic laws, about his every fixation, gripe, and sorrow. “Lolita” is more than a great book, set respectfully aside on a prominent (and dusty) shelf; it is a good read, deeply moving and howlingly funny, often both at once.
As everyone knows, it’s about a middle-aged man getting it on with an underage girl. But it is also about a sensitive, cultured, intelligent man’s helpless shame at being unable to live the arid, respectability expected of him. Rather than acquiesce to modernity’s hopeless plebeian tedium, the cultured man chooses his own exotic, equally hopeless perversion.
In loving Lolita, sensitive, cultured, intelligent Humbert Humbert finds a perversion to end all perversions. Besides being twelve years-old (in case that were not enough), she is also a selfish, vulgar, manipulative little goblin — and Humbert knows it. But he cannot help himself, cannot bear to live without her, cannot resign himself to a lifetime of Stepford Wife-d normalcy, cannot accept the “little given” that he knows must follow life’s “great promised.”
Therein lies his shame and horror, towards himself and the universe. Because, for all the shabbiness and dirtiness he sees around him and within him, Humbert the thinker (and he thinks a lot) is an idealist. Thus when Lolita deserts Humbert for an even worse, very adult corrupter, Humbert the Overage Romeo becomes Humbert the Avenging Angel.
It is a magnificent book about two forlorn, failed journeys, both in the wastelands between the is and the impossible. Humbert and his child-bride, searching for something that will satisfy the willful little brat; Humbert and Chum (the increasingly deranged Humbert’s very phallically loaded gun) seeking a vengeance that will redeem the life he ruined.
Cool and controlling, Nabokov dissected the aesthete’s indolence and despair, outcomes he escaped through writing about those who didn’t. Before and after “Lolita,” Nabokov explored the theme elsewhere, notably in “The Defense” (where the object of obsession switches from underage girls to chess, with equal — but less engrossing — unsuccess). Always half felt and half observed, at times a certain effete nostalgia or icy detachment mar Nabokov’s other works (such was his mastery of language, that his style could tip either way). But immersion in Humbert’s raw torment, even if it was not his own, freed Nabokov to milk human frailty for all the tragedy (and laughs) that was worth. “Lolita” was Nabokov’s melancholy and mind at their broadest and most visceral, revealing the humanity roiling beneath all intellectualized discontent, even his own.