Before knowing there was a novel, there was Lolita. Since her literary birth in 1955, she’s been part of the collective imagination almost to the point of overshadowing its creator: Vladimir Nabokov.
We all know the story: a middle-aged man conspires to ruin the life of a child, Dolores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita, by lusting for her. But Lolita reached beyond the pages of the novel and was exploited as a figure with whom everybody sympathized or feared. With time, Lolita was pretty much everywhere, especially in pop culture.
For example, I remember when the Lolita look was a popular trend among the Tumblr community — my apologies to the Gen Z population for this prehistoric reference. And don’t get me started with the famous heart-shaped sunglasses, her immediate representation in both book covers and TV, when in fact they were a spontaneous idea of photographer Bert Stern while shooting the promo pictures for Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation of the novel. Anyway, you get the point. I knew who Lolita was way before meeting her, or so I thought.
Being brought up in a Catholic school, Lolita was a horror story. A little girl whose childhood was stolen because of her own careless behavior. That’s why it came as a surprise when a friend recommended this book to me using the term beautiful. I had to read past my schoolgirl prejudices to find out what this meant.
As it turned out, I genuinely fell in love with this novel. No surprise there. Besides being carefully written— every sentence is perfectly composed, every word has an impact—, it also piqued my curiosity by displaying how a story can be aesthetically pleasing and leave you almost drugged out of your senses, like a movie or a song.
In its Epilogue (available in some editions), Nabokov states that the novel was never intended to be limited by its widespread controversy. Instead, he made it clear that he aimed to provide the reader with gracefully carved images of his story. Romanticized road trips throughout the U.S. during the golden era of motels, picture-perfect scenes of New Hampshire’s lakes, 50s glamour, and wholesome American family portraits, and you know, everything that a straight, white middle-class mortal could aspire to get credit for (even Nabokov himself). Irony aside, I like to think of these images as candid postcards, or Polaroids, which I enjoy looking back on every once in a while.
For me a work of fiction exists only in so far as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. — Vladimir Nabokov
I couldn’t help but feel understood by his intentions. When I attempt to write a story — any story — I often find myself trying to do the same for my reader, trying to give them the proper soundtrack, pictures, and pretty much a production design worth of their time and taste. Almost what I expect of every author I read, to the extreme of forgiving any faults just because they fulfilled this unique promise. Nabokov not only validated this secret desire of mine but he also made it a rule for any aspiring novelist.
It was a relief.
And Nabokov proved himself to be a badass.
There were also many places where he took the artistic license of playing with the reader’s expectations, giving away clues about the plot (Mr. Q., for example), and its characters. All of this in a subtle manner, as if you were laughing at a joke someone told at a party without knowing exactly why. Just for the sake of it. Until it’s too late, and you find out that you were being laughed at all along (Humbert deserved nothing less, of course).
I couldn’t help but recognize this dandy man’s brilliance every time I encountered one of his games, e.g. depicting a lesbian couple by having Humbert intentionally refer to them as Ms. Lester and Ms. Fabian — confirming our idea that Humbert was a complete narcissistic jerk.
With word puzzles like that, Nabokov deliberately places a time bomb in our minds, hinting at out-of-the-ordinary situations within the protagonist’s fantasy, even though everything about the circumstances that Humbert has brought upon himself and Dolores is out of the ordinary and uncomfortable to witness.
Nevertheless, it’s necessary to judge and see for ourselves if we’re in danger of falling into this villain’s web, making the moral standards of the time another game for Nabokov to play with — though he makes it clear that he doesn’t care. It feels good to shame Humbert as a cruel character to lift us as higher beings for wanting to protect Dolores from him. Especially when Humbert admits his guilt to himself and faces his downfall. Catharsis is unmistakably a drug.
On the other hand, Lolita as a character is nothing but tragic — and this has been more than pointed out —, especially in how she was a victim of everyone who didn’t bother to look twice at her situation. And contrary to this literary devil that we’re implicitly warned against, I realized that Lolita herself didn’t even exist in the novel. It was a persona stripped off Dolores’ character without her knowledge, and that was exploited in the media for decades as a cautionary tale — for girls, and not for creepy old men.
In a way, you could say that Nabokov wrote many versions of Lolita, his Lolita (which fully developed after many years and editions), Humbert’s Lolita, the media’s Lolita (who, like the book, deserved better), and every reader’s Lolita. It’s your choice to pick which one — if any — you want to keep in your imagination. Having said this, I realize that I have a long way to go as a storyteller. Thank you, Vladimir.