I wept bitterly when I first read Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita." A lady named Carol, who parachuted into my life like a '70s Mary Poppins and quickly became a friend, slipped me the book. In retrospect, I see a warning featured prominently: Be aware. She presented the book by way of proscription -- to alert me to the erotic power of nubiles and the pitfalls of that power, to the magnetism of 12-year-old girls, for some men. It was 1977, I was 12 and so was Brooke Shields. "Pretty Baby" was shedding its soft Penthouse glow in movie houses around the world, and Roman Polanski would soon be on the run, leaving his adolescent lover in disarray. We had our brown limbs, our cut-offs and halter tops; we had our ice cream and lip gloss. Advice was in order, but Carol was too subtle for that. (Others were more direct: "Now everyone will want to screw you," remarked one of the grown-ups bracingly.)
Carol gave me a copy of "Lolita" instead of a sermon. And that is how I came to read it, in two rainy summer afternoons, when I was 12. And when I emerged tearfully from the bedroom, she just nodded and opened her arms, for I was a sensitive kid. "Poor, poor Humbert!" I cried. "Lolita was so mean!"
Carol's thinly plucked eyebrows shot up in surprise. This was not what she had had in mind. But never once had it occurred to me to see myself reflected in Lolita, who struck me as a mercenary and tough little chick. I knew girls like Lolita in school and I dreaded them. No, I identified with Humbert. Humbert the leathery lover, the tragicomedian, the storyteller -- I cast myself as the eloquent, heartbroken Hum. Though time has certainly altered my view of Humbert and his Lo, my tears still trickle with his. My love affair with Lolita is still going strong today.
There in my room, in my bed, behind my book and further still behind the rosy curtains of my eyes, deep new fields of introspection opened up. "Lolita" had all the otherworldly shimmer of "Alice in Wonderland." Like "Alice," it presented a topsy-turvy, kaleidoscopic world, one in which slender reeds of girls billowed to become huge and all-encompassing, and grown men reduced themselves to children. It was a realm where clumsy giants tried embarrassingly to get off with delicate fairies. These telescoping shifts in size and perspective were not unlike puberty itself. I felt nothing but cringing pity for galumphing Humbert, and sex between these two seemed pathetic, unimaginable. What on earth was he thinking? I was completely unpersuaded by Humbert's comparison of himself to some dark, broodingly handsome movie star of the '50s. (Was he Rock Hudson? Gregory Peck? Ridiculous.) This was beside the point anyway, since Hum was so irretrievably old. His re-entry into childhood is exceedingly strained. Even his most visceral image, that of a large hand trying to cram itself into a tiny glove, carries with its brutality the sad picture of a clodhopping oldster trying to be young, of mutton dressed as lamb, so heavy does Humbert's flesh hang on his bones.
I knew Lolita didn't really love him. What 12-year-old could? But through his eyes I fell hard for her, intuiting the long nights and days of unrequited passion that await every adolescent. Just as Lolita is to Humbert a portal onto lost childhood, Lolita was to me the threshold of a new world of emotion. Humbert is the unrequited lover par excellence, since the object of his love is beautiful insofar as it is distant. Even when she's in his arms, she's a lifetime away. Humbert's love is more than unrequited: It is unrequitable, and therein lies the sharp twanging ache of it. Pedophilia presents itself here as a peculiarly virulent, death-dealing strain of nostalgia. And there's no cure for it. We love the past, but it doesn't even know we exist.
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Morally speaking, this baby snatcher is a monster and he knows it. But Humbert is also a monster in the sense that every scorned lover is a monster of ugliness in his own eyes. We have all been that poor shambling creature at one time or another. This is the self that we see reflected in him, when we realize, with varying degrees of alarm, that we identify with Humbert. Nabokov's filigreed description of a universal emotion through a transgressive metaphor -- a shared experience through a freak one -- is one of the things that makes "Lolita" such extraordinary reading. Literature, in fact. As pornography, it is a notorious failure.
Most of the criticism of "Lolita" has come from outside its readership. The novel has lived a curiously shifting life in the realm of popular perception. It was predictably scandalous in the 1950s. People who had never read (nay, heard of) "that book by Nabokov" soon bandied about the name of its heroine, using it to describe any desirable female under 20. This impression was shored up by Sue Lyons' portrayal in the 1962 Stanley Kubrick film. Of course, that fully formed, lush blond teeny-bopper -- a girl any red-blooded man would admire -- had nothing in common with the radiant, coltish, brown-haired child who caught Humbert's eye.
In the wake of the sexual revolution, Lolita suffered another transformation: She was fatuously "liberated" into the reading public. Paperback editions with tedious "erotic" artwork began appearing that purported to release poor Lo from her censorious bonds. It was all about sexual repression now. What was wrong with sexy teens, after all? Lolita was pulled into the current of discourse that flowed through the '70s soft-porn mags, and dragged herself coughing and spluttering onto the bank and into the pedophilia debates of the 1980s, which still rage on today.
It was in this tense cultural climate that I decided to read the novel again, and it was with an anxiously beating heart that I carried it off to bed. The literary love of my life faced challenges from the child-abuse storm, from the dampening theories of English departments where I studied and from time itself. Would I return to this childhood scene to find it dwarfed and faded beyond recognition, like so many other landscapes? Against all literary cynicism I held up the single yardstick of "Lolita," with its tears and shivery pleasures. My love was put to the test, as was Humbert's when he tracked down his girl in Coalmont, "a town in remotest Northwest." Humbert's butterfly had flown, his thin brown girleen disappeared into a pregnant lady in glasses, slippers and a house dress. Mrs. Richard F. Schiller was a nymphet no longer, far from it. Yet he had never wanted her more. Now that I was more of a Charlotte and less of a Lo, it's true that Humbert had changed too. The gap between author and narrator had widened for me. Humbert was more of a brute, less of a true lover. I pitied him, but I pitied the women too. And the story was sadder, and better for all that. It was funnier too.
As Anthony Lane observed of Humbert and his fictional wonderland in the New Yorker, "Lolita" is "more than the sum of his lusts." Lolita flits beyond Humbert's grasp, and her namesake escapes the reductive reach of criticism. The best writing is always more. In the prism of meaning that refracts through the book, this is surely a key point: Nabokov describes child molestation because it is ugly. How much more astounding, then, that "Lolita" is a beautiful book. It is a major display of virtuosity, our ravishment at the hands of Lolita.
Carol's present missed the mark. "Lolita" didn't shield me from the perverts, but neither did it send me leaping into their cars. It had little effect on my relationship with men. Instead, it transformed my relationship with literature. I fell in love with books. Today, as I puff up the pillows and prepare to read it once more, Adrian Lyne's movie version is still unreleased in North American theaters. Endorsed by Dmitri Nabokov, the film is having a mixed reception in England. Filmmaking is an expensive, risky, unwieldy enterprise. But if this movie leads people to one of the most bewitching novels of this century, it will have been money well spent.