Smashing One’s Face Against a Mirror: Lolita
I did it. I finally read Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov. If you’ve been aware of or following my attempts to read all of the books on the so-called BBC book list, then you know that I said I would read them all with the possible exception of Lolita, because the subject matter is so objectionable to me. However, many of you encouraged me to do it anyway and changed my initial impressions of the book based simply on hearsay, so I gave it a try. Lolita is number 62 on the BBC book list.
I have to admit that I almost didn’t make it past the first section. There is a truly disgusting scene in which the pedophile, Humbert Humbert, molests Lolita, without her knowledge, but the description was so vivid, although carefully implicit, that I felt very uncomfortable. I did not feel uplifted for having read it, but I pushed on and found that the rest of the book has little in the way of sexual descriptions and escapades and more to do with the almost comical complications of trying to have a romantic relationship with a teenage girl while pretending to be her father.
Yes, it was comical. Be careful what you wish for. Humbert Humbert gets what he wants: sole custody of his dead landlady’s daughter. He married the landlady for access to the daughter, then tries to plot her murder in order to have Lolita to himself. Yet fate intervenes before he can carry out the murder, and his wife is accidentally killed by a recklessly driving neighbor. He begins life on the road with Lolita and describes their relationship as mutual. She’s 12.
Yeah, it isn’t mutual. I mean, maybe in his narrating head he believes that and he wants us to believe that Lolita initiated their relationship, but I don’t buy it. He’s an unreliable narrator. I do buy that Lolita was a young, immature, and lonely girl with no real father figure in her life. I do buy that she confused sexual attraction with love. But her so-called compliance doesn’t make the relationship right or okay, as Humbert tries to convince us that it does.
The hilarity of the situation becomes apparent because Lolita is a teenager. She’s moody, difficult, and mean. She would rather hang out with her friends, participate in school plays, and date than be tied to Humbert, her lover/father. He claims to love and adore her, but he must control her in order to keep him to himself. He describes some of her actions as smashing her nose to the mirror, yet his life is a clear example of this sort of behavior.
Interestingly, this image of smashing one’s nose against a mirror was the form of a self-portrait/sculpture that I saw at the Louvre in Paris in 2008. Contemporary artist Jan Fabre’s work was being featured among the work of the old masters. At the entrance to the exhibit was a life-sized wax figure of Fabre with his face smashed against a mirror on the wall, and blood sprayed down as a result. I never before understood this self-portrait. I have often thought of it as strange and that perhaps the artist had some major psychological problems. Now I realize that he may have been alluding to Lolita, or he may have been making the same point that Nabokov was, that our own behavior and justifications for it are our worst enemies and flaws.
Humbert eventually loses Lolita when she runs away at 15 or 16 with another man. He spends some years adrift, hoping to find her. He eventually does. She’s a married woman who is pregnant, ordinary, and happy. He gives her the inheritance money due her from her mother and begs her to run away with him again. It turns out that he still loves her, even though she is older and pregnant. But she refuses. And this is where the lesson of the book comes into play for him.
He realizes his error in stealing her childhood from her. He realizes his own part in taking advantage and in robbing her of youth. He feels some remorse, and in this, I can believe that maybe he really does love her and not just lust after her. He contemplates how it must have actually been for Lolita (his Dolly), and he can see that from her perspective, he was not a lover or an equal, but a thief and an abuser. Most poignantly, he wishes for her baby to be a boy.
What a commentary that is on life, that it would be best for her baby to be a boy. It certainly reflects an entire system of privilege and power for men, and the fact that girls have it harder when it comes to love and being preyed upon by men. I see in Humbert’s reflections a remorse but also a deep reflection on Nabokov’s part of the real problems with pedophilia, and not just an indulgent novel about lusting after children. In this, I see value in having written the novel.
The writing is beautiful, smooth, and enchanting. I am impressed with the prose, and it prompts me to want to read more Nabokov, perhaps without the same disturbing subject matter. There is value in Lolita because Nabokov seemed to have been commenting on the problems with relationships, lust, and taking advantage of another, especially one who is vulnerable.