A cartoon from 1955, Lolita’s publication year, tweeted by Tom Heintjes while I read the novel—and eerily echoing a bit of its content!

With some surprise I last month overheard two friends on Twitter—both women, notably—enthusiastically discussing Nabokov’s Lolita, and furthermore mentioning a recent podcast series about it. With only a baseline cultural notion of the novel’s content, as well as a sweet tooth for book-discussion podcasts, I knew I had to read it right away. I feasted on a public-library ebook edition over the course of two weeks, and as soon as I post this blog entry I shall cue up that podcast and commence a grand dishwashing session.

It will feel good to listen to other people talk about this book at length, because I feel so small having just finished it. An astoundingly lush and gorgeous novel, for the monstrous story it tells, and the truly hateful villain who tells it. I have so much I can say about it, but for today I’ll limit myself to a single, key observation: The tragedy and triumph of Lolita are one and the same.

Humbert Humbert—the book’s autobiographical author, according to its framing device—tries to make the story all about himself. He presents a narcissistic anti-confession where he details all his acts of deceit, rape, and murder in an attempt to fob the blame onto his multiple victims, and in particular the twelve-year-old title character. Certainly he succeeds in charming the reader to some degree, opening with a brilliant bid for our sympathy through the misfortunes that would fry his psycho-sexual circuitry at a young age. He then proceeds to write so beautifully about so many terrible things he does that we stick with his delicious narrative far past the point when any rational reader’s affection for him has drained away.

While Humbert does make himself the book’s protagonist, we can—we must—deny him the role of its subject matter. The book is about Lo. (Dolores. Can I call her Lo? I truly think she would have preferred it.) Humbert tries to make it otherwise, inserting himself between Lo and the reader at every opportunity, just as he never let her be alone with any friend or peer. Even the title is about himself, using a private pet name for Dolores rather than any name she actually answered to.

Sadly for him, Humbert Humbert is not the only writer of Lolita. Its true author masterfully centers the narrative on the true title character, radiant and fully realized despite the protagonist’s best efforts. This astounding feat of indirect characterization is the book’s triumph—and makes the weight of its tragedy all the more profound.

Lo’s light glows through the prison-bars of splendid prose that Humbert lays across every page. Though we see her only through the imperfect and even deceitful filter of the protagonist’s telling, we come to know so much about her: her humor, her intelligence, her heart so large and giving that she can love even leering, lecherous Humbert. And she does, right up until he casts her into the chasm between the novel’s two halves, ending Part One with one of the most heartbreaking single sentences I can recall reading in fiction.

While Humbert keeps the focus on himself all through Part Two, the reader’s attention strains to stay fixed on Dolores, blurred and backgrounded. We cheer desperately for her, squinting past Humbert’s wheedling, excuse-laden bloviation (“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury!” he keeps shouting) to catch glimpses of Lo clawing back shreds of autonomy within her miserable situation. Conversely, every time Humbert casually mentions another of her birthdays going by, it lands like a blow to the gut: a reminder of the narrator’s ongoing destruction of this brilliant child.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I met a fictional character who felt as real as poor Dolores Haze. In stunning irony, Humbert-slash-Nabokov, writing around 1950, specifically and multiply names 2020 as a year that Lo might live to see. She would have turned 85 last year, had she lived. Had she lived! I start to picture her as a little old woman with a sparkling eye living in New York somewhere, and wonder what her life was like in all the years since. But this involves not just making her real, but undoing the defining tragedy of Lolita. My heart swims, and tears well. I can’t do it.

This is one of the worst and best books I have ever read.

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