Reading Lolita

Art or perversion: The story of 12-year-old Lolita’s contentious relationship with her stepfather was also the subject of a 1962 Stanley Kubrick film

On August 18, 1955, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita was published in the US. Notes from a reader on how the book’s perception changes with age

Lolita and Lady Chatterley stood side by side for years, behind rows of characters from different parts of the world. Their corner of the bookshelf rarely saw light. Apart from each other, they had particles of dust and batches of silverfish as company. And the only outing they had was once a year — when every occupant of the teakwood shelf was taken to the balcony for a generous sprinkling of a powder that sought to keep insects at bay.

On one such day, the fate of Lolita and Lady Chatterley’s Lover was changed forever. A pair of young and inquisitive eyes fell on the heap the two books were lying in. Within minutes, they were transported to the privacy of a storage room on the terrace of our three-storey house. Lady Chatterley’s bare back — with a gown loosely draped around her slender waist — easily attracted more attention and eyerolls than Lolita’s pale, pursed lips. But good readers judge a book by the blurb on the back cover. That’s where Lolita trumped the nude visual appeal of her alliterative companion.

A clandestine ritual in a family with a healthy appetite for reading, the story of Lolita and her contentious relationship with her stepfather was used to welcome teenage cousins and siblings to our circle of forbidden literature. While the elders reminisced about life in pre-Partition Dhaka over bridge and lager on muggy Sunday afternoons, we huddled over books our parents wouldn’t utter the names of. How and when these books made it to the family collection is a mystery we are yet to crack.

To avoid friction, we kept Lolita safe in a shoebox, away from the overbearing presence of the Tolstoys, Lord Bacons and Bankim Chandras. But the stinging censure for the story of the young American girl — Russian-American author Vladimir Nabokov’s most controversial creation — left us speechless when an aunt refused to have a daughter-in-law by the same name and spelling (instead of the more widely accepted and respectable Lalita). When a relative’s proposal for watching director Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 film adaptation of the novel was vetoed in favour of a visit to the zoo, we knew we were flirting with danger.

It took Nabokov five years to complete the manuscript, which was then turned down by a string of American publishers between 1953 and 1955. Though the book was first published by a French publisher in September 1955, it was plagued by obscurity, scorn and bans from France and the UK. Sixty-one years ago — on August 18, 1958 — Nabokov’s Lolita entered the literary fray through the US-based publisher GP Putnam’s Sons.

Narrated by a man awaiting trial for murder, Lolita could have easily veered into being a diary of penitence. Far from it, Humbert Humbert — the middle-aged protagonist — jumps straight into his lifelong obsession with “nymphets” (girls between the ages of 9 and 14, in Humbert’s view). This bent of mind brings him societal censure as well as detention in mental asylums in Europe and the US. He loses 25 years of his life before he sets eyes on Dolores Haze. She is called Lo by her mother, a well-to-do widow who falls in love with Humbert. Bowled over by the 12-year-old daughter (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta... She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita”), Humbert proceeds to marry the mother, solely to have access to his love interest.

After the death of the mother, there’s no stopping Humbert from pursuing Lolita. The girl, on her part, reciprocates his advances with both eagerness and confidence. Together, they embark on a road trip across the US, hopping from one motel to the other, seemingly unable to keep their hands off each other. The heady romance, in which Humbert tries to keep pace with Lolita’s insatiable appetite for thrills, ends with murder.

What doesn’t quite end is the dilemma that Lolita saddles you with. It’s been 26 years and I am yet to figure out if Humbert and his nymphet are the most imaginative or destructive couple.

As a teenager, I admired Lolita’s choice of a lover way beyond her years, taking the lead in seducing him on their first night together. As a sceptical 41-year-old, I have begun to separate the mastery of prose and clever wordplay from the unabashed normalisation of what I would now berate as paedophilia. A candid reference by Humbert recalls the shocking abduction of Florence Sally Horner (also 12 years old) by a 50-year-old Frank Salle in 1948. The mechanic spent 21 months travelling across the US with the girl, before his arrest and imprisonment. Horner never quite returned to a life away from the Salle episode while Nabokov, despite the open display of sexual perversion, is still remembered for being an accomplished writer.

This makes Lolita a tricky book to revisit. I approach it with trepidation, almost embarrassed to acknowledge the sense of adventure I once derived from Humbert and Lolita’s escapades.

Nabokov has contributed significantly to this uncomfortable gap between my younger and older (also, judgemental) selves. Unlike Humbert’s little girl, who graduated to having more affairs, I don’t know which self to leave behind. I still have a shoebox in the house. And Lolita still deserves her privacy.

Published on August 15, 2019

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