Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Until a week ago, I defined Lolita to be a sexually aware teenager with a penchant for older men. Indeed, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Lolita as a ‘precociously seductive young girl’. You must forgive me this warped understanding, for I had not read the book or watched the movie (I am unsure if having watched Nishabd counts). This novel is either a tale of unrequited love recounted by an academic, or a story of sexual abuse inflicted upon a pubescent girl by a deranged middle aged man.

Humbert Humbert, a European intellectual, is attracted to girls he names ‘nymphets’. They are usually between the ages of nine and fourteen, they have certain qualities that H.H. finds irresistible. He analyzes himself and explains to us the possible beginnings of his obsession – his first love, Annabel, to whom he lost his heart when they were both children, and whom he later lost forever. His subsequent infatuations have all been centered around girl children of similar age and countenance. Not all girl children are nymphets, he hastens to clarify. In America, he meets the love of his life. He christens her Lolita, the light of his life and fire of his loins. He marries her mother, who dies in a freak accident – lucky for him – he thus begins his journey with Lolita across America, and into the depths of depravity (but only according to modern law, he may want to interject).

Humbert’s love for Lolita is a thing of unimaginable magnitude. He is devoted to her, he cherishes her. But she is a child who had her innocence snatched away, who was raped repeatedly by her stepfather. Though the language doesn’t let you think that at all. It is poetry in prose, rich in its lyrical complexity. It tricks you into siding with H.H. (almost, almost). It lets you marvel at the sympathy you expressed for a paedophile. It goads you into justifying his actions (can he really stop himself, you want to know). As you read Humbert’s confession, you are struck by just how ridiculous he is, but you can’t help taking him seriously.

What did I just read, I kept asking myself. Of course this is a shocking book, made more shocking because of the reactions it elicits in the reader. Can beautiful writing mask the monstrosity taking place? Lolita is the story of a man who does unspeakable things in the name of love, looking at his object of affection as merely a receptacle for his adoration, and not a person in her own right. Reading Lolita is like being in a fever dream, and as everyone knows, fever dreams are terrifyingly real.

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