Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Reading Lolita in 2009

Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for the first time this year was an appalling, yet fascinating experience. Beautifully and suspensefully written, it is a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent man who reasons away his desire for underage pre-pubescent girls as simply being against the law in this age, where centuries before it was considered normal. Humbert Humbert wishes he had lived during the era when he could freely love and marry a child, recounting that Dante fell in love with Beatrice when she was nine. (Unreliable narrator that he is, HH fails to mention that Dante himself was only a year older than Beatrice when they met. And he got Beatrice’s age wrong – she was eight.) It is still considered normal in parts of the world to marry a young girl to a man many decades older than she, without her consent. Although it is accepted in many countries, it appears that many of these young girls object to the arrangement as evidenced by ten year-old Nujood Ali’s campaign for divorce.

As I read the beginning chapters of Lolita, I could not help but remember a line from Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone, when “she reached the interesting age of nine. . .” one of the sisters is betrothed and quickly married against her will to a monarch of Europe. At nine! As I recall the girl tried her best not to appear attractive to the man sent to decide if she would make a suitable bride for his master. It didn’t work.

But it is easy to be appalled by Humbert. It is easy to lose sight of the girl-child who herself is not truly seen in so much in this novel amid the “fancy prose style” of our madman narrator. Lolita is a creation of Humbert’s imagination, denied a true voice and only glimpsed at in the small details: crying at night when she thinks HH is sleeping, an overheard exchange with friends, and the occasional comments she makes to Humbert. Most of the time she is spoken of and described by others: her mother, her camp counselors, her teachers, her husband and, of course, by Humbert himself. None of these persons truly know Lolita and only the comments on the school report come closest to revealing how Lolita is handling the abuse of her situation. Even her name is his creation for her. Her real name, Dolores, means sorrow. Her true name gives us a sense of her reaction to the fate she endures at such a tender age. After all, this novel is Humbert’s account, written from his jail cell, of his life with Lolita and his depiction of her can not be trusted to be accurate.