By any reasonable standards, reading Nabokov’s Lolita should be a harrowing and rather disgusting experience. There’s nothing outright likeable about Humbert Humbert, the 38-year-old pedophile-narrator who marries a middle-aged woman to get to her daughter, drives the woman to a gruesome death, and then proceeds to rape the twelve-year-old daughter repeatedly.
And he’s also sickeningly charming. Language is twisted and manipulated so deftly by Humbert that the reader has little choice but to keep reading. Alliterations, double entendre’s, puns, allusions. These devices hypnotize the reader and, for brief moments, distract us from the utter moral depravity of the speaker. It’s a complete mind-trip and a testament to Nabokov’s genius.
Consider the following paragraph from the end of Chapter 30.
There would have been a lake. There would have been an arbor flame-flower. There would have been nature studies – a tiger pursuing a bird of paradise, a choking snake sheathing whole the flayed trunk of a shoat. There would have been a sultan, his face expressing great agony (belied, as it were, by his molding caress), helping a callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx. There would have been those luminous globules of gonadal glow that travel up the sides of juke boxes…
Humbert is describing his twisted imagination’s rendering of a children’s summer camp. The imagery is positively revolting in its sexual undertones. Yet, how these passages flow! “…A callypygean slave child to climb a column of onyx” “…Luminous globules of gonadal glow…” One doesn’t even need to know what words like ‘callypygean’ mean (I had to look it up) to appreciate these sentences. In fact, it’s better if one doesn’t know. Callypygean means to have shapely buttocks, not a phrase that any person should be attributing to a child. The sound and shape of the language is seductive, while the meaning is repulsive.
I’m through the first part of the book. I’m dying to continue and I’m a bit disgusted that I’m dying to continue. I suppose that’s part of the genius of Lolita.
If the reader might need any reminder of how much of a monster Humbert really is, they only need to read the final two sentences of Part One.
At the hotel, we had separate rooms but in the middle of the night, she came sobbing into mine, and we made it up very gently. You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go.