What is the function of a novel?
Lolita was my first, and might yet be my only book, which upon completion I immediately started rereading. During my first attempt I became increasingly aware of the amount which I wasn’t picking up on. The humour, the literary references, the weighty passages of french; it all rises up like a… raz de marée (who am I kidding?) that threatens to overwhelm you. During my second reading I was wary of every sentence, but this serious pseudo-scholarly approach was surprised by the playfulness and authorial delight which again had not been fully appreciated during my initial contextless reading. Humbert’s arrogant voice is entirely deserved, in the literary sense, because he is Nabokov unloosened. His madness allows Nabokov full expression, and in my mind the author quite clearly relishes his superiority. “None of the townspeople had ever seen such weather.”
Nabokov’s hatred for the cliché is woven throughout the novel. Similarly ‘woven’ is Quilty. I’m not particularly ashamed to say that his existence came as a surprise to me during my first reading, and naturally I also missed the tragic reference to Mrs.Richard F. Schiller at the beginning of the novel, although in both of these cases I did enjoy retracing my ignorance on the second attempt. Everything in this book has a purpose, everything has been precisely lain, and, despite the authors stubborn insistence on style alone, everything really does seem to mean something. But with so much to choose from and so little accomodating brain space, what does one take away from the novel? Lepidoptera?
Humbert Humbert is what I took away from the novel. Humbert is a monster. He is a paedophile who frequently rapes his adopted child. Lolita’s “sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feign sleep” condemns Humbert for what he is, because Humbert is what Humbert does. But does it condemn paedophilia in general? For Humbert is a monster not because of his thoughts but because of his actions (this must allow one brutal exception: the thought of ‘Lolita the Third’, pg.174 for the curious amongst you, an occasion of thought which incidentally serves to put him on par with Fritzel). In today’s society, the distinction between child-molester and paedophile is worse then blurred, rather, it is normally ignored. Until I read a BBC feature on this subject – an article which explored the paedophilic thoughts of a suicidal man who is horrifyingly aware of the moral hideousness of his urges and thus would never act on them – I certainly wasn’t attuned to the importance of the distinction. In conversation, and even in thought, we tend to avoid the subject, so outrageous and perverse do we find it. There is nothing so repugnant as someone who would sadistically harm a child.
Humbert is not a simple character. There are moments where Humbert’s highly-cultured linguistic wall of defence breaks down, such as in the few short chapters where the erudite European seems to struggle in mastering himself. Humbert is never redeemed, but through his final meeting with Lolita it is revealed that he loves her even at the end, even with her “ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her goose flesh white arms, and her shallow ears, and her unkept armpits” he loved her “more then anything I had ever seen or imaged on earth, or hoped for anywhere else.” That Lolita is seventeen now, a crucial age, and is big with another man’s baby, suggests that Humbert’s feelings transcend his paedophilia. Unless you realise this then his actions in his final scene with Lolita are inexplicable (although he would disagree). So maybe Humbert is a simple character after all…
In the final scene before Humbert’s overdue arrest, he stands on a high slope overlooking the mining town below in the valley and listens to the music below. He realises that the “hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from the concord.” Humanise him, this does not, but it does ground his character in emotion, at the expense of the psychiatric (or should that be psychiatrist?) who might wish to analyse and dissect him as nothing more than a monster. Paedophilia, so contrary to our nature, seems impossible to understand, and it might also be said that it should not be understood. Yet Nabokov forces us to empathise, and we can only do that through some level of understanding. Indeed, the author of any good novel allows you to enter into the conscious of another and feel in a way that no digital medium could possibly allow. This is one of the reasons that the novel will never die out, as long as it continues to offer this exclusive experience.
Novels reveal whole other worlds, which before you read them you could not have begun to comprehend. Nabokov’s Lolita proceeded some degree of an ‘understanding’ of paedophilia for me, just as reading Samuel Beckett’s Watt was the closest I came to understanding madness, and the furthest I came from understanding philosophy. Or is it the other way around? For maybe it was the furthest I came to understanding madness, and the closest I came to understanding philosophy, or maybe it was the closet I came to understanding both, or the furthest I came to understanding both, or the furthest I came from understanding neither, or, and most likely, the closest I came to understanding neither.
Barrack Obama recently said that novels taught him the most important things he ever learned about being a good citizen: “It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of greys, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with someone else even though they’re very different from you.” It is testament to Nabokov that we can connect in any way at all to the inhumane monster, but connect we do, because in great fiction empathy can be found in even the most disgusting of places.
What is the function of a novel? Nabokov’s appalled sputum hits the screen at such a question.
How do you love Lolita? You reread it.