Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta…She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning. Standing 4’10” in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
– ‘Humbert Humbert’, “Lolita”
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is, to me, a tragic horror story. I have just finished reading it; its fresh, stagnant haze (!) fills my mind and I almost cannot write about it. There have been books which have haunted me for weeks and months after I read them, such as Gone With the Wind which I read when I was 16.
What follow are my observations as I read Lolita, my thoughts, my opinions (needless to say, you are free to disagree with them). Some run-on sentences below are my thoughts getting away from me. A lack of flow through my writing, disjointed paragraphs, some at 90 degree angles to others are because I sat and thought of the book and how it made me feel and what it sucked out of me is what my fingertips typed. It wasn’t in any particular order; my thoughts went back and forth in the story, almost saying, “And remember when all that happened before this?” And I must get rid of these thoughts by putting them out there, in your midst, before they consume me and give me nightmares. (I slept on the couch the night I finished reading it for I knew my dreams would be unpleasant and haunting.)
I was led to Nabokov by a dream that I recorded here, a strange dream. Reading this book became imperative.
To those who haven’t read the book: Plenty of spoilers follow. (Or do you already know the story?)
When I read the introduction (written in 1992 by Martin Amis) at the beginning of the book I obtained I glanced upon the words “And then Lolita dies. And her daughter dies.” I was shocked. I did not want to know that! How dare the writer of the intro give away such a crucial part of the story! I skipped the rest of the introduction. I did not figure out until I finished the book that it is in the actual “Foreword” which is part of the story that these deaths are mentioned. In fact, as Amis points out, every character connected with the tragedy dies. I finally read the introduction after I finished the novel and I’m glad I did it in that order, for it quotes some passages that are much more impactful when read for the first time in the flow of the terrible tale.
Upon re-reading certain passages now I notice the clues strewn all over the book, painting a picture of H.H.’s double, his moral (and somewhat physical) twin, the man who takes Lolita “from her wax-browed and dignified protector” (from the poem H.H. makes him read). I shall pick up each clue upon the next reading. (“Ne manque pas de dire à ton amant, Chimène, comme le lac est beau, car il faut qu’il t’y mène. Lucky beau! Qu’il t’y — what a tongue twister!” –in Mona Dahl’s letter to Lolita.) There are also coincidences spattered throughout the book, much like it is in real life. 342 is the number of the Haze residence, the number of the first hotel room they stay in, and the number of hotels/motels H.H uses during their road-trip. (I once had a dream that I go to a hotel and the front desk clerk tells me my room number is “two-uh one-uh zero” and repeats it. A strange way to say a room number, I thought upon waking and supposed it had to do with my apartment number which is 210. When I visited Rome, some time after this dream, the hotel room assigned to me was 110. Two ones and a zero.)
Reading Lolita is like being locked out of your home in wet clothes on a dark, chilly, lonely night.
H.H., the narrator, married Lolita’s mother so he could carry out his wicked plan for Lolita; he became, in the eyes of the world, her father. She called him “Dad” and, when she was being sarcastic, “deah fahther” and “fahther deah”. And was he not supposed to be her guardian? Is that not the role everyone trusted him to take on?
It was love at first sight, at last sight, at ever and ever sight.
When I was on page 178 of the book, of 335, on Thursday, May 24, as I waited to meet a friend in a café, I noted:
It’s a book I read with an involuntary expression of disgust displayed on my face. (I would frequently catch my lips slightly parted in a mild expression of horror, the brow furrowed in despair.) It’s a book that makes me want to scream, to protect her, to do something about it.
“You see, she had nowhere else to go.” These are the dreadful words with which Part 1 of the book ends. Indeed, the world he had created for her, his “love”, the object of his obsession, was one in which she was left with no choice. Those words convey the hopelessness of her situation.
It makes me want to cry for her lost innocence, for her stolen childhood, for her wrecked life. For while she had stepped into Hell out of curiosity (or so the narrator says! How much of that should we believe?) it was he who kept her there. He did not love her. He was only concerned with his own obsession, with sating his maniacal desire for her. She is imprisoned by H.H. in a world that is not hers and shouldn’t be. Her life post 12 years and 7 months (Strangely enough, it was at that exact age that I was molested.) is not a child’s life and neither is it an adult’s.
My friend arrived and the trance broke. I went back to real life while, in the background, H.H. continued to drown Lolita in his wretched caresses.
“A definite drop in Lolita’s morals” he speaks of when it is he who has imprisoned her in the underworld, corrupting her girlish wiles, reducing to meaningless ashes the child’s beauty, raping her soul. Cross-country driving for a year, sleeping in motels, inns, and, rarely, hotels, her life’s milestones during that time are denoted by rest-stops with little rest to offer her. He writes later of—actually, just mentions “her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.” And it is clear—and isn’t it shocking?—that the sound of the little girl’s tears do nothing to melt his heart, to stop him using her for his own pleasures, to make him take her back to the life of a prepubescent girl.
Reading Lolita is like being unable to look away from a gruesome, bloody car crash.
After the aforementioned “drop in Lolita’s morals” he steals back, to prevent her from escaping, money she had (earned for performing her “duties”) hidden away. At that point he writes, “I believe the poor fierce-eyed child had figured out that with a mere fifty dollars in her purse she might somehow reach Broadway or Hollywood – or the foul kitchen of a diner…in a dismal ex-prairie state, with the wind blowing, and the stars blinking, and the cars, and the bars, and the barmen, and everything soiled, torn, dead.” Soiled, torn, dead…wasn’t that also the description of her present world?
For the year that they are on the road, she is not allowed to speak with anyone without him around; it makes him nervous because he is afraid she will spill the beans. He is to be her father, her mother, her friends, her lovers, her boyfriends, her husband, and she is to be loyal to him and happy with it. She is made to live next to the monster who devours a piece of her everyday and will not stop until all that remains is a hollow shell that looks, feels, and sounds like his oh-so-precious Lolita.
He takes us along with him to dreary rooms and occasionally gives us hints of Lolita’s reactions to the acts he has degraded her to (“her trick of sighing ‘oh dear!’ in humorous wistful submission to fate, or emitting a long ‘no-o’ in a deep almost growling undertone when the blow of fate had actually fallen”; “‘Oh no, not again…Pulease, leave me alone will you…for Christ’s sake leave me alone.'”), simply narrating incidents as if they only involved her emotionless body, rarely telling us of her mind, her views, her feelings.
It was disturbing, to say the least, to find that at some points (and, undoubtedly, every space between them) his treatment of Lolita, his methods of making her comply, reminded me of a pet (I would say “dog” but cannot bring myself to read the sentence with that) who, if one follows certain pieces of advice in certain helpful books, will have to perform tricks for every single morsel of food it requires. She is forced out of her character, out of the life of a 12-year old girl.
What I heard was but the melody of children at play…The hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.
Oh how I wished it was a detective and not another lover whom Lolita had following them. How I wished he would be caught in the act one day and be taken away. How I wished that the night the fabled “Purpill” did not work as expected he would be frightened off. H.H. wishes his readers to know that the girl he knew was a nymphet seduced him that night, but every mention of that incident thereafter, in his own words, has her calling it “rape”. He does contradict himself too, does he not, when he says on the very first page, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” and later goes on to say, “Emphatically, no killers are we. Poets never kill.”?
Reading Lolita is pain and despair and helplessness and hopelessness.
I read the book disgusted, anxious, worried, sickened, all throughout it, but (as predicted by Martin Amis in the introduction I did not read until after the end) it was with H.H.’s last words that every word before it sunk in, and I wept.
Here are two verses from “something [Humbert Humbert] composed in retreat”:
Where are you hiding, Dolores Haze?
Why are you hiding, darling?
(I talk in a daze, I walk in a maze,
I cannot get out, said the starling.)
Happy, happy is gnarled McFate
Touring the States with a child wife,
Plowing his Molly in every State
Among the protected wild life.