It was a book that had always intrigued me; a book I was always so desperate to experience. It had all begun when my Latin teacher, the late Mr. Braakenburg, had talked of paedophilia in the Roman ages. ‘Oh, it’s quite a normal thing,’ he would guffaw across the table. ‘Totally and utterly normal, like homosexuality. No one battered an eye-lid.’
Of course, at a convent school and still under the innocent veil of Catholic youth, I was shocked at his statements. Similarly, the world of paedophilia attracted my interest ever since Mr. Braakenburg’s remarks. Why was it entirely a ‘normal thing’ to practice back then? Why did its normalcy change?
And so I have always wanted to read Lolita; to get into the mind of a paedophile as closely as is acceptable, through the words and language of an author. Whether Nabakov had paedophilic tendencies is uncertain. As Roland Barthes outlines in his famous criticism, The Death of the Author, it is imperative for us to kill the author from his works; to look at the text as it stands for it is a solitary piece with a living, breathing functionality of its own.
Lolita toyed with my emotions as powerfully as I expected from a Nabakov novel. What is truly remarkable about Nabakov’s writing is his ability to make the reader want Humbert [whose name changes continually throughout the text but is actually named Alan as the epilogue states] to have sex with Lolita. It is disgusting and revolting, and perhaps it is my own subjective take. Yet, I felt myself wanting Alan to succeed. Wanting him to find the love he so ardently desired in the form of the child innocence of Lolita.
The use of the first-person and the fact that the text is supposed to be Alan’s reminiscence of what occurred gives the reader access only to Alan’s world. He is unreliable, as any first narrator is. But Nabakov makes us want to trust him, to believe in his world view.
Alan psychoanalyses himself throughout the text. It is made very clear that his desire for young children stemmed from the loss of his one true love from his own childhood. They shared in romance and sex therefore her death at such a young age had caused him to never ‘grow-up,’ as it were. In a purgatorial hell of Peter Pan-esque wish fulfilment. His fantasy of children is not from evil but from wounds of his own that have entirely scared him and frozen him in time, despite the continuity of our inevitably ageing frame.
We sympathise with Alan but we also hate him for his thoughts. For me, the character of Alan represents the emotions we feel towards many people in our lives; of hating what they do and how they may be but being forced to love them because, ultimately, we are all victims of suffering – we carry our burdens tirelessly on our backs.
The eroticism of the novel, however, is not in what Alan says, his actions nor in his love for Lolita. I would agree the eroticism is the novel. The fact that we are often transported to the moment Alan is alone with Lolita and we think ‘yes, yes, now you can! Now you can gain what you’ve waited on for so long!’ and then he does not carry through with it is the eroticism. The reader is the one experiencing sexual disillusionment
It is, to put it crudely, like masturbating. We are so closely there, so closely ready to unleash all of our sensual frustrations then your mum walks into the room. The frustration lingers, and you can try again, but then your dog enters. It is cyclical of re-starting and re-interruption.
It is the novel that toys with us sexually. In true Nabakovian style we realise more about our own self than the character. After all, she’s the only person we can truly understand.