I first read Lolita as an undergrad—-barely legal myself—- and remember being taken by the breathtaking language and the shock value of the content. Reading it a second time 12 years later, now both an adult and a mother, I found it to be so much more: more breathtaking, more complex, and much more disturbing.
The layers of storytelling alone are enough to make your head spin. Nabokov is using a first person narrator who is writing, and intermittently narrating, about his affair with Lolita—-sometimes jumping another layer deep to read from a journal he kept during the enterprise (summary: the author is writing about someone writing about their writing).
I found the most compelling element of craft to be Humbert’s transformation throughout the text—–the evolution (devolution, perhaps more accurately) of his tone and state of mind over the course of events is remarkably well done.
In the beginning he reveals his audience-awareness in several passages. Additionally, he is quite self-aware, both of his mastery of language and the hypnotizing effect it can create for said audience. In that way Nabokov has truly depicted him as a smooth-talking, manipulative predator. In the introduction he writes, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.”
As he loses himself more to obsession, the visuals provided at times become unnatural, unhinged. After one of his assaults, he writes, “My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys” (165). He has moved beyond a desire for sexual interaction with Lolita, revealing his slavering urge to consume her, to possess her completely.
Toward the end of the novel, Humbert’s sanity begins unraveling; he is paranoid and desperate. As he slips further into his downward spiral, the imagery veers with him. Once he is sure that he’s being followed on the road, he becomes fanatical about every car on it—–is convinced that the pursuer is everywhere, changing vehicles at every turn. To illustrate his unhealthy focus, the descriptions of cars become quite specific and overwhelming in number: “…led me to a profound study of all cars on the road—behind, before, alongside, coming, going, every vehicle under the dancing sun: the quiet vacationist’s automobile with the box of TenderTouch tissues in the back window; the recklessly speeding jalopy full of pale children…”
To this day there are those who would argue that Lolita is not a canonical masterpiece—that it is pornographic smut, as it was claimed upon its initial release. I’m on team Nabokov on this one. The mastery of craft needed to deliver this story with all its complex intricacies in tact, in a way that is both beautiful and disturbing? It’s no small feat.
As I am long past my nymphet expiration date, I was a little nervous (and just…ewwww) about pulling this character off. I approached it with a hope, a dream, and a liberal application of bobby socks.
“You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs―the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limbs, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate―the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.”
So, yeah… How exactly does one segue from the pedophile post?
Oh look, puppies!