“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.”
Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899, in Saint Petersburg, and died 1977 in Montreux, Switzerland. Born into an old aristocratic family, his father was a high-ranking Russian leftist military official, which forced the family out of Russia into exile in 1919. Nabokov studied French and Russian literature at Cambridge and graduated with a first class degree. His father was assassinated in Berlin in 1922. In 1925, Nabokov married his wife Vera, with whom he had one son, Dimitri. In the period between 1922-1940, Nabokov moved around between Germany and France and made his living giving tennis lessons and constructing crossword puzzles while selling a number of works to Russian language newspapers and publishers. In 1940, Nabokov and his family moved to the United States, where he began to teach at universities all over the nation. In 1949 Nabokov was appointed a professor of Russian and European literature at Cornell University in New York, where he taught until 1959. In 1955, Lolita was published in Paris, and then in the United States in 1958, where it was banned from a number of libraries, contributing greatly to its commercial success. In 1962, Nabokov took on the screenplay for the film adaptation of Lolita, which was directed by Stanley Kubrick. The film was successful enough that Nabokov was able to retire from teaching and focus solely on his writing. He moved back to Europe in the 1960’s, where he remained in Switzerland until his death in the late 1970s.
Lolita has largely overshadowed all of the other works Nabokov produced in his life. The public’s fascination with it does not seem to fade as the years go on, and it so it has endured. Lolita, or the Confession of a White Widowed Male tells the story of Humbert Humbert (it is worth noting that this is a manuscript being presented to the reader by a third party- in other words, what follows in the novel was written by Humbert while he awaited trial in prison, where he died). Humbert Humbert, apparently sparked by his first unconsummated romance as a young teenager, is obsessed with sexually desirable/sexually aware young girls. He moves to the United States from Europe to take on a professorship, where he finds board with Charlotte Haze in New England. He falls in love with her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores, who is the epitome of the “nymphet” and marries Charlotte, who he is repulsed by, in order to be close to his true love. Charlotte eventually finds the pedophilic journal Humbert keeps and threatens to tell Dolores, who has been away at a summer camp, everything when she is promptly struck by a car.
“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.
Humbert picks up Lolita from camp, and the two engage in sexual relations before he tells her that her mother has died. The two of them drive around the country for almost a year, avoiding detection or suspicion by moving constantly. Humbert’s obsession with Lolita increases, and at the same time Lolita becomes more aware of the power she has over Humbert and begins to manipulate him. Humbert becomes paranoid that a man is following them in a car, and eventually decides to settle down in the Northeast again, and sends Lolita to school. When Lolita begins to act suspicious, Humbert takes her away from school once again, back onto the road. Humbert is increasingly sure that they are being stalked, and that Lolita is helping the stalker, but Lolita denies it. Lolita becomes ill and Humbert must take her to a hospital; he returns one evening to find her gone, apparently released into the custody of an “uncle”.
“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”
Humbert searches for Lolita for the next two years, and eventually receives a letter from her telling him she is married, pregnant, and desperately poor. Humbert goes to Lolita, expecting her stalker to be her husband, but it turns out he is wrong. Lolita admits that a man by the name of Quilty, a playwright, was the one who took her from the hospital. Lolita says she loved Quilty, but they he scorned her when she refused to participate in a child orgy he had wanted to conduct. Humber begs Lolita to return to him, but she refuses: he gives her money and then leaves to track down Quilty. He finds and kills Quilty, and then is arrested, where he writes his memoir from jail. Lolita dies in childbirth, and Humbert dies of heart failure in prison, at which point the memoir is sent to the third party.
“I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.”
Above all, I would argue, Lolita is governed by the problematic nature of the unreliable narrator. The morality and our sympathies in the story rely upon the way in which the story is presented to us, which allows us to digest it emotionally and rationally. Humbert lives in a world of his own construction, so how can the reader trust the world and scenarios he presents to us? Lolita becomes not a question of the seducer and the seduced, or the abuser and the abused, but rather seems to force us to question the very construction of these subjective notions themselves.
Lolita is one of my favourite novels: Nabokov’s writing is beautifully and thoughtfully crafted, and his ambition renders the novel one of the most revolutionary novels of the modernist era. You can purchase my favourite edition of Lolita here. If you are interested in any other works by Nabokov, I would highly recommend Pale Fire and Invitation to a Beheading.