Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
For as much reading as I try to do, there are so many books I will never read. But, of course, as a reader, there are some books that I (and you) surely mustn't miss. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is one of those books, and I am amazed by how long it has taken me to read it, and how little I knew about how its narrative would unfold.
Now I understand that this book is, oddly, and, suddenly unsurprisingly, about love. Before I read this book, I understood Lolita more as a book about obsession, perversion and longing. I had no idea that their relationship would go so far beyond his faraway lust. And, by no means it is appropriate, this articulation of the fetish-ization of the young, naive 'nymphet', but both Humbert Humbert and Dolores Haze are more complicated characters than I originally imagined.
The book begins with Humbert Humbert recalling, from prison, an adolescent encounter, and his search for that same feeling in adulthood - "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." He attempts to assuage these desires through engagements with prostitutes and, eventually, with a wife. This all does not go so well, as you can imagine.
Some time later, he leaves for America, first to take a job in a family perfume business, but, after a stint in a psychiatric ward, to the countryside where he can reconsider his academic pursuits. It is here that he comes across Lolita, the daughter of the lonely woman hosting him. He loves her right away and his obsession of her only grows, to the degree that, when she leaves for summer camp, he decides to marry her mother in an effort to keep her near. As a father, how could it be inappropriate of him when he reaches out to touch sweet, insouciant Lolita?
It is at this point that I was so surprised with the turn of direction. Mother dies tragically, father becomes provider and lover to young Lolita, as they go from nomadic life to settled life to nomadic life once again. Their relationship is built on manipulations, the exchange of gifts for pleasure, of bribe for obedience. But Lolita, nymphet Lolita, does not stay obedient forever. After a couple of years and thousands of miles of road between them, she leaves with another adult predator, of whom she is both taken advantage and takes advantage. Humbert is abandoned, and spends paranoid, tragic days chasing her, and then numbing his ache for her with other love affairs and more travel.
Finally, a few years later, he hears from her. She has written her father for help. She is pregnant and married. He finds her finally, and loves her still, Lolita. More overpowering than his obsession of her, momentarily, becomes his unstoppable need to destroy the man that ran off with her. His prison sentence becomes clearer.
Again, before reading, I had no idea that type of relationship he would come to have with Lolita - most particularly, his quite real, though still inappropriate, love for her. Even when she aged beyond his desire, pregnant with another man's child, his love for her endured. As enduring is the reader's love for Lolita.