One cannot simply pick up Lolita from a rack of books in a library or a bookstore at random and start reading. They need to peruse the general opinion of others on the book before finally reading it. In case you do not have the patience for all that, at least go through the synopsis of the story somewhere. If nothing else, I would advice you against skipping the Foreword by the fictional ‘John Ray’. Still, if you decide to ignore all this, the very first sentence of the story will act as the neon warning sign that would hint on what the book has in store for you ~ “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins”.
Long ago, I learnt the impact of a powerful opening line in a novel and an even more powerful last sentence in a short-story. Lolita just goes on to restate this fact for me.
However, if the first line did not give you enough clues, Humbert’s second line might make things clearer in your mind ~ “My sin, my soul.” It now becomes obligatory on my part to introduce Humbert, our protagonist, to you, my readers. Dr. Edgar Humbert Humbert is an erudite scholar from France who moves to the United States of America and soon meets and falls in lust (and later maybe even in love) with his landlord’s 12 year old daughter. However, throughout the narration, I find myself quite incapable of hating Humbert.
At this point, let me clarify a few points. I find paedophilia abominable. In no way do I approve of what Humbert and Lolita got muddled up in. In fact, I cannot even say that I like the Humbert character. However, I cannot bring myself to hate Humbert. I just cannot!
Maybe it is the subtle humour that is interspersed beautifully in his narration. Maybe it is the use of grandiose words (that I stopped checking the meaning of, after the first few chapters!). Maybe French men, who speak in French (that you do not even understand!) intermittently, can make you condone (to some extent) their perversities. Maybe it is the mesmerizing way in which Humbert employs literary instruments like puns, metaphors and irony. Maybe it is all of these things or maybe it is none of these. At some point, I considered that maybe I was in love with Nabokov, for almost convincing me that Humbert’s actions might just be understandable!
When you start out knowing that young Mr. Humbert had lost his first love at the age of 12, you are bound to rationalise that this might have played a huge role in his fixation with ‘nymphets’. Nevertheless, it still disturbs you in the beginning. You close the book and neglect it for a while, sometimes for long durations of time, before you get back to where you had left it. Towards the second part of the story, the reading feels more comfortable; Humbert has now become a familiar character and you are quite acquainted with his vices. You later learn that Nabokov had almost expected you to never reach his final conclusion, and you feel slightly triumphant because throughout all that perversity you persevered and managed to reach that final page!
I do not know about the rest of the readers but I was one of those who found Lolita almost equally guilty in Humbert’s indulgence in paedophilia. In retrospect, was I really expecting a twelve-year-old to really know what was acceptable and what was not, when it comes to sexual intercourse? So, here I am admitting to have been fooled by Humbert and his eloquent words. However, when she left with Quilty, I for one knew that Quilty was somehow the lesser of the two evils; he never made any pretensions about his preference. And although, you grieve a little for Humbert when Lolita leaves, you know deep within that, Lolita chose to go with Quilty; she never really had a choice with Humbert. This was only affirmed when Humbert finally reveals about all those abstract instances that he had conveniently overlooked in his initial narration.
Surely, his diabolic cunning that is revealed towards the very end would prove to be potent enough to have any reader question his views about the diarist? Nevertheless, in my case, it still falls short of making me abhor him!