Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of my all-time favourite books. And no, not because I long for a “love story” like Lo and Humbert’s because oddly enough child abuse is not what I would call romantic. I love Lolita because it is devious, dark, hilarious and a little bit terrifying all at once. It uses notoriously “hard to pull off” literary tools such as the unreliable narrator, unreliable characters and at times an overly descriptive language. There are a lot of powerful themes at play in this book: A European disdain for the Americana, alienation, psychiatric scepticism and mind games – romance, I’m afraid, isn’t one of them.
I feel like the message of this novel is getting hopelessly lost in the Lolita subculture that stemmed from it which is a damn shame considering what a wickedly clever bit of literature it is. There are a lot of girls who aspire to be like Dolores, who dress like her and who long for that Lola and Hum romance – this frightens me. Make no mistake, role playing is a completely healthy sexual behaviour and as long as you and your partner(s) aren’t hurting each other (…much) or anybody else – you are allowed to enjoy whatever you like sexually. But I think you have to understand the place where the “Lolita” fantasy has come from in order to wear it with pride as so many aspiring “Lolas” do.
People see Lolita as a romantic book, a love story that knew no bounds, they saw themselves in Dolly and wanted to be obsessed over. It’s not so much Humbert’s insatiable need for Dolores that I find unsettling – we all know that paedophiles exist and that they can’t necessarily help who they are attracted to – it’s the way Humbert refers to his victim that is the tricky part for me. Lolita is depicted as a sexually mature tease who manipulates him into chasing after her only to dump him at the first chance she gets. She’s painted as devious and a heartbreaker, even as a promiscuous idiot at times. Instead of noting that this view has come from a sociopath, girls have identified with this minx character more and have decided that that is in fact who Lolita is simply because the saucy, girlish ingénue is who they wish to be. Dolores is 12, she is a child, she has a budding sexual curiosity as most pubescent girls do and this was taken advantage of by a middle aged man. I don’t see anything romantic in that.
People read Lolita and they take it at face value, they choose to ignore that Humbert is a sociopath and a liar, they choose to believe him when he unconvincingly tells us that Dolores played an equal part in their “affair”. The power of this book lies in Nabokov’s ability to make you like Humbert, to make you pity him and to make you forget that Dolores has been kidnapped and repeatedly raped under the guise of a “relationship”. That is the whole point of the book, it’s a headfuck and an enjoyable one at that. To truly believe that Dolores was in some way “playing” Humbert is to dismiss Nabokov’s genius and to play into the victim blaming culture that allows the very real Humberts of the world to continue hurting people.