Well I suppose it had to happen one day that a book would completely defeat me. I finished Lolita yesterday and was aware of only two things: that it was brilliant, one of the most extraordinary books I had ever read, and that I was incapable of writing about it. Lolita for me was narrative overload. It was a bilious attack of significance and meaning. I also suspect it of being about four or five books rolled into one, and each a deformation of its own genre. There’s a travesty of a poignant love story in there, a horrific farce of a dysfunctional family saga, the oddest buddy road trip narrative ever written as Lolita and Humbert crisscross America, and a distorted Bildungsroman, in which the coming of age of our hero is a black, monstrous one, an impotent recognition of a man’s inability to change despite the horror and the grief that he knows with lucid retrospect that he has caused. Oh and while we’re at it, we could probably discern, too, the outlines of a portrait of the poet as pervert, the tale of a criminal who is almost-but-not-quite redeemed by beautiful verbosity. But given that all these stories come from the voice of a narrator who is often hallucinatory, often misguided, often misleading – how can we be sure of any of what we are told? Maybe if I had 10,000 words with which to do it, or 20,000, I might manage some sort of analysis, but even one of my long posts here would only be enough to offer a distortion of my own. It’s too much for me to take on.
Lolita was not a book that I really wanted to read. I wanted to know what all the fuss was about, and I wanted to read Nabokov, who seemed to be rated so highly by many discerning friends. But I started off reading Lolita as if I were squaring up to a rather tedious qualifying match, something I had to get through if I were to prove myself a professional, a bread-and-butter sort of fight that might have marginal interest if I engaged myself properly. The first few chapters did little to change that opinion. Initially I found the writing overblown and sickly, full of the febrile excitement of an invalid who is feeling better that day, but silently aware that tomorrow will bring a relapse. And whilst the book surprised me by being funnier than I expected, it was laughter born of discomforting emotions – cruelty, disgust, gallow’s humour. It made me think of that adage: how to stay young and beautiful? Hang out with old and ugly people. Humbert Humbert is so awful, the only way the narrator can redeem him is by making those around him even worse. But the writing was amazing, and once accustomed to its richness, I could begin to see its baffling depths.
I actually regret having written on this book before having finished it. There are three stages to Humbert’s development, and in truth you need to see them all before you can write anything that is better than partially accurate. For me, Lolita begged the question of when reading happens. This is a question that I’d heard discussed theoretically, but I’d never experienced it quite to this level before. For instance, when we read a detective novel, we have a different experience of the story before and after the denouement is reached. When we finally find out whodunit, we are obliged to retrace our steps through the narrative, reading it in a different light. So the conclusion of the story involves a rapid act of rereading what has gone before. I found Lolita to be even more complicated in this respect. I had heard so much about Lolita as a legendary narrative that I had almost read it before I’d even picked it up. I had to shed those expectations in the early sections of the novel before I was reading what was in front of my eyes. By the time I had finished, my appreciation of the characters had passed through a number of transformations that were quite strikingly different. And then, it was only reading Nabokov’s essay on Lolita and the rather good introduction by Martin Amis that made me realize how little I had ‘read’ Lolita, how very much had passed me by in the thick current of its prose. Nabokov wrote of certain scenes that he considered to be the ‘nerves’ running through the book, and commented that most readers would have missed them. I gulped, reading this. Of a list of six or so, I could only recall two or three. Then Amis pointed out that some of the most important information about the story is given in the preface, which the reader reads for the first time in no position at all to understand its significance. In truth I ought to read the book again, but then I would be rereading it in a different way, and that shock of the first encounter would be replaced by a much more knowing appreciation. The book would keep changing over and over, under my gaze; we would never have a stable relationship.
As to what Lolita means, I couldn’t begin to tell you. It means so many different things, and all of them ambiguously. It’s interesting to note that even in the space of those two essays top and tailing the text by Nabokov and Amis, a disagreement arises over interpretation. Nabokov complains of ‘an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part [and] described Lolita as “Old Europe debauching young America,” while another flipper saw in it “Young America debauching old Europe.”’ But Martin Amis defends and supports the argument of a transatlantic clash. I tend to agree with him: Humbert is so European and so world-weary, Lolita so American and so youthful, the landscape and the culture of both continents is so intrinsic to their relationship. But to tie the book down to this allegory is to do it a reductive injustice. Any line of argument you care to take about the book become complicated by other strands of the narrative, other twists and turns, other vistas that open up in Humbert’s tricky, deceptive storytelling. As I said, I don’t think it would be wise for me to try. But I will say that by the time I had finished it, I was quite bowled over by Nabokov’s linguistic virtuosity, by the sheer brilliance and audacity of the tale he sets before the reader. There are some fights in which it is an honour to lose, and this for me, was one of them.