Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten 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.
~ Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Chapter 1
The reason I bring up the Fifty Shades contrast, by the way, is to emphasize that Lolita is not the apotheosis of forbidden erotica that everyone thinks it is. (And by the way, Fifty Shades is utter trash, so get over it, America.) Delving into Lolita on the beach, in waiting rooms, at home, I received plenty of bewildered looks from scandalized strangers and friends. My own dad gagged in a horrified tone one day, "Why are you reading that awful, disgusting book?" Most of these scandalized persons, I should mention, had never read the novel. But Lolita's controversial sexual themes have made it famous even among non-literature buffs -- and given it a heinous reputation, apparently.
Nearly everyone knows Lolita is about a pedophile enamored by his step-daughter; what bothers me is that this is all that most people know about it, even within the English field. Yes, pedophilia and semi-incest are central to Nabokov's plot, but that should not obscure the miles of literary worth that exceed and, to an extent, redeem the vileness therein. Most of all, what makes Nabokov's book literature instead of trash is that it always remains a critique -- though not the kind we expect. Nabokov, you see, is completely aware of our silly expectations for a sexualized, "scandalous" novel, and toys with those expectations mercilessly. Those looking for a porno trip will be disappointed, because sex scenes are few and stubbornly abstract. Those looking for a clear-cut villainization (or condonation) of the narrator will be disappointed, because H.H. is more frequently a bumbling idiot than a sinister predator. And those looking for any semblance of a love story will be sorely disappointed -- just as grandiloquent, neoclassical, poetry-spewing H.H. is disappointed. What the reader will find instead is a deformed beauty: philosophical depth, dark humor, and hopeless poetry beneath a sickened voice.
|Credit: Lyuba Haleva, via venusfebriculosa.com|
Out of H.H.'s vulgarity, beautiful love wants to emerge, even if it can only do so satirically.
Let us make no mistake: Lolita is not for the faint of heart. While its sexual taboos are really only one, small part of a much deeper story, they are significant enough to be disturbing to the most vulnerable of readers, I imagine. (I would not recommend this book to former victims of sexual abuse, for instance.) For everyone else, I encourage you to give this so-called "filthy" book a chance. You will undoubtedly be surprised by what you discover in the richness of even a perverted, fictional mind -- and consequently, you may discover something about your own frail, imperfect self.
Grace and peace to you.