“And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
The last sentence of Lolita made me very sad,- how Humbert Humbert the desperate, Humbert Humbert the lunatic, Humbert Humbert the criminal, wrote this story and requested that it be published after both he and Lolita are dead; how he pinned his last bit of hope, of having his love remembered, on his future readers, a group of people he would never know.
Somehow it struck up in me a very deep and murky understanding. Okay, let’s try to word it (what else do you do on a blog?).- He wrote the story in prison, selfishly as a memoir of his love, yet at the same time selflessly as one last burning kiss made of paper for Lolita; he did not want Lolita to ever read it, because he did not want to wreck her life any further, but he could not help but tremblingly rejoice in thinking how at least when they are both dead, he and Lolita would be remembered together, because of this book. People may jest them, people may lament them, but Humbert Humbert’s one last scheme will be fulfilled,- people will remember them. Because of this book.
O, this book. O, Lolita.
It was a tough read for me, because of Nabokov’s thick and ecstatic prose, and because of the story. When I started, I was actually fast, eager to see Humbert and Lolita fall in love. As I moved further along, however, I finally realized that this book is not about a romance to fangirl over.
“My only grudge against nature was that I could not turn my Lolita inside out and apply voracious lips to her young matrix, her unknown heart, her nacreous liver, the sea-grapes of her lungs, her comely twin kidneys.”
I started telling people that the book was slightly grossing me out, but still I was somewhat thrilled to read something this weird… After that everything got dark. It felt similar to when I was in the middle of reading Tender Is the Night, it was all dreamy and I had to frequently go to Sparknote to find out what was going on in the chapter I just read. And as much as I tried to stay unbiased and appreciative, I couldn’t help but find Humber repulsive,- how he still would not let Lolita go even though he knew how miserable Lolita was.
When I got closer to the ending, however, the desperation in the text has reach such a height that I began to easily grasp every chapter, and it is not until then that I came to understand Lolita,- when I started reading it was just a thrilling grotesque adventure.
I hate using rhetorical questions, but this is a question that I was really asking throughout my course of reading Lolita. What is this book?
For me it kind of felt like F. Scott Fitzgerald with a darker flavour. I mentioned Tender Is the Night, which I find Lolita is somewhat similar to,- both are about the demise of two men in infatuation, except that Lolita ended with a murder, which really surprised me, and which shows what I mean by its “dark flavour”.
But this “dark flavour” does not just come out of nowhere and loom around the story for no reason. Another big difference between Tender Is the Night and Lolita is that the love chronicled in Lolita actually feels more eternal.
Both romances in the two books are conspicuously doomed right from the start, and ephemeral and tragic, but unlike the Jazz Age sea of change, Humbert’s love for Lolita is determined, desperate and somehow burns through the pages and etches into time. He groped around and would hold onto whatever way he and his Lolita might be remembered,- including begging his invisible reader to imagine them. He just wanted their love to exist, in some way.
Of course,the incestuous relationship in the story made me oftentimes uncomfortable, but I have always felt sad for Humbert. Now this is not just simply because he could not make Lolita love him, but because his love is a suicide, a squandering of self that he is fully aware of. It is starting to sound all mushy and cheesy, but what I am trying to describe is how Humbert knew, all the time, that his love is lopsided, messy and wreaks havoc on Lolita. But he just could not stop. He later confessed that he did notice how helpless and broken Lolita looked sometimes, and he did feel guilty, he did feel like a fugitive, yet he just could not stop holding onto Lolita.
I’m not saying that this justifies whatever he did. He did have a relationship with his stepdaughter, he did shoot a person dead, he did do all the stupid terrible things he did. But I think what gave the book the bouncy, spongy vibrancy is the sympathy that Nabokov has for all his characters,- Humbert, Lolita, Mrs Haze, Cue and everyone else.
The whole book is written from the first person perspective of Humbert, but Nabokov managed to soak everything with his sympathy, even the ugliest, most repulsive parts. He bestowed Humbert with the narcissism, the love, and the furtive schemes that every human being has. And he let Humbert lay himself naked on the pages for everyone to judge, not shunning because that is the only way Humbert can have his love remembered.
Furthermore, one special thing is that the whole book is written in a constantly calm yet ecstatic flow. And I feel that (could be just because I read the book before bed all the time) that’s exactly how we human beings function,- When you stumble into a horrible blunder, when you take a horrible step, you don’t really think, oh, this is it, you do not suddenly make a twist and write a tense, sad and choppy paragraph (as many YA novels do), you don’t even realize it. Everything is just foggy and you sort of float along, until at one point, before you know, you are at the precipice.
By saying the book is not trying to teach morals, Nabokov was not implying that he does not see incest as a crime, but that this is just an experiment of trying to write a prisoner’s record of his love, like any other person’s. He acknowledges the inhumane crime, and the very human agony behind it.
There is the same sort of sympathy in the Chinese classic novel Dream in the Red Chamber, which I have been reading back and forth for so many years but never finished. Jia Rui, a youngster, develops an impossible infatuation for his sister-in-law Xi Feng, and cheekily tries to woo her. And my my, it was really worth the pain,- Xi Feng pretended to agree, and then not only stood him up for three times in a row, but plotted all sorts of things to humiliate him… including pouring a whole bucket of human feces on him. The author Cao Xueqin never expressed any opinion, but there was a general sympathy, a pity for all individuals drowning in lust and infatuation.
And Cao gave Jia Rui a very philosophical ending,- Jia Rui fell ill, torn by the love and hate he bore for Xi Feng. Then a Toaist gave him a magic mirror that could cure him, and told him to only look at one side of the mirror and never, never turn to the front. Jia Rui looked into the looking glass and saw a skeleton, and of course hated it. So he flipped to the front, where Xi Feng was calling him into the mirror. After his soul entered the the mirror and had sex with Xi Feng multiple times, he was dragged away in iron chains to die.
So was Humbert, another person floundering in his forbidden infatuation, and dragged in iron chains to his demise. But the authors both pitied their poor inflicted creations, and the books abound with the authors’ deep love for human nature.
So here it is. I’m finally done reading Lolita. And it was a rich read. I’m glad that I trudged all the way through to the end. The book is an aching success, at depicting love and making the readers imagine, and almost forcing them to try to understand people we think we would never even bother listening to.
“I need you, the reader, to imagine us, for we don’t really exist if you don’t.”