Reading Lolita is an interesting experience. It’s supremely uncomfortable for the obvious reasons. A more subtle reason for the discomfort, is that Humbert Humbert is an eloquent, even funny, narrator that is seemingly fully aware of how reprehensible his behavior and thoughts are. He uses beautiful language to slow down moments and twists them into scenes. It’s not the language of a monster. That irony serves a dual purpose– it unwittingly ensnares a reader into sympathizing (possibly more accurately, pitying) or simply engaging with Humbert which then discomfits the reader further when Humbert’s monstrosities come to light.
It’s to Nobokov’s credit that he was able to do this in the voice of the narrator. In an interview with the Paris Review, he dismissed the notion that Humbert “retains a touching and insistent quality,” by saying outright, “Humbert Humbert is a vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear “touching.”
It’s an incredible feat, then, for Nobokov to have written a character in which he despised from the perspective of the despicable who affects an elevated language in order to garner the reader’s sympathy (the whole thing is essentially Humbert pleading not to be put to death).
What you have to remember is that Humbert is the quintessential unreliable narrator. Because he’s very forthcoming with the crimes that he’s committed and of his own repulsive desires, it’s tempting to call Humbert an honest, if not utterly damaged, man. And the objective events of the book I took pretty much at face value. He probably is relating the story the way that it happened.
Kind of. I trust that he reports the objective events of the following: Humbert moved into the house, he married Charlotte, Charlotte died, he kidnapped Dolores, raped her for two years, Dolores escaped, Humbert murdered Quilty.
Where Humbert’s account gets dubious is his own interior thoughts. He takes every opportunity to state how disgusted he is with himself as much as he does to place himself on the moralistic high ground (AKA justification). He takes great pains to discuss what a good father figure he was to Dolores, teaching her tennis and French. He refuses to say the F word, or any curse word higher than “bitch”-caliber. (Don’t trust people who don’t swear, kids.)
Meanwhile he does what he can to slander, ever so subtly, the other characters in the book. He describes a dopey villain of the other pedophile, Quilty, distancing himself from the badder guy (and describes their “final battle” with such lethargic energy and grace that it seems that he’s almost trying to make the whole thing seem mutually dignified). Charlotte’s described as desperate and embarrassingly clingy (which doesn’t quite add up to her refusal to trust Humbert before her death or the fact that her confessional love note was mysteriously ripped to pieces and flushed down the toilet, a flourish in the letter itself that Humbert admits to adding himself in its recreation). And then there’s the infamous through-line of Dolores being a contemptible, promiscuous little brat. All of that is meant to make Humbert seem more like the reasonable, albeit troubled, fellow that he presents himself to be amidst a cast of rather “crazy” characters.
Because his trip is about love, right? He waxes poetic about Dolores and unravels long-winded soliloquies about her beauty and her more benevolent qualities. You might believe him and critics definitely did (it says on the cover of my copy that it is “the only convincing love story of the century.”). But that too might be pure horse shit. Humbert’s interior journey ends when he claims that he is finally capable of loving Dolores now that her good looks have been ruined at the ripe old age of 17. That’s a pretty solid hint that what he sees as redemption is still mired in the psyche of his disease.
His elevated style breaks down when confronted by violence, at which point he becomes what he truly is– crass. As much as he expounds on the quality of the stitching on Dolores’s blouse, he uncharacteristically sums up the scene of Charlotte’s death rather abruptly and crudely: “the top of her head a porridge of bone, brains, bronze hair and blood” (p. 98).
Sidenote: It’s unclear in Humbert’s confession whether or not he killed Charlotte. I’m nearly convinced that he did given that the only other (flimsy) explanation for Charlotte being struck by a car is a mysterious puddle of ice that flung her into traffic, the softer way that Humbert recalls Charlotte’s memory after this point, and the fact that he’s a total fuckin’ liar– this is when he claims that poets cannot be murderers (I believe, apropos of nothing) while later admitting that he is a murderer later in the novel.
The way that he dismisses the scene in such a short, blunt manner indicates that Humbert Humbert cannot extravagantly explore the brutal reality of what he is or the consequences of his actions– but he also can’t deny them. It’s in this moment (and a few others) where Nobokov cuts the flowery bullshit and we see a hint of Humbert’s actual character: a pathetic, insane, murderous pedophile that wishes to delude the audience (as well as himself) as to the severity of his crimes. Humbert’s a man that wears a mask of intelligence to hide his barbarism.
In that Paris Review, Nobokov refers to his non-Humbert characters as “eidolons,” which the nerdier Final Fantasy set of you already understand as “a conjured spirit.” It’s a peculiar, metaliterary phrase for Nobokov to use, but one that distills a proper vision of the whole novel: while Lolita is Nobokov’s brainchild, every character described in the novel is 90% a feature of Humbert’s imagining of the events. Remember, Humbert is a novelist himself. And his story is a coward’s fantasy to appeal to the sympathies of his jury.
This book speaks to the power of voice as a literary instrument. It’s definitely in the Aikido Writing School of thought in which the narrator is able to use his own lyrical flow against the reader and fling them, in this case, into the vulnerable territory of sympathy. And for the investigative reader, distrust and ultimately the very basic shadow story underlying the entire thing. (Perhaps Nobokov is Ninja.)
If nothing else, Lolita endures as a novel that confuses many, angers some, and still stands as a nigh perfect execution of utilizing narrative craft.
It’s also the worst book to read on the bus, bar none.
There’s no good way to pivot to a sales blurb on this one, but I’ve thought a lot about how first-person narrative manipulates the story as it unfolds in The Least of 99 Evils. If you’d like to see my take on the concept, please buy a copy!