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.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.
During my twenties (1997-2007 R.I.P., my twenties), I was looking for the greatest books ever written and found a few that I would come to cherish.
In 2004, I came to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita with some trepidation. A Russian who wrote a poetic exploration of the soul through the vessel of a story about a pedophile? Hurray! Sign me up. I expected the book to be icky, filled with choppy English and twenty-page long scenes wherein the author described waves crashing upon craggy seashores all while ignoring the dark issue at the center of the book.
Of course, I was wrong.
I bought the annotated edition because I heard that Nabokov wrote allusively like James Joyce or the writers of The Simpsons TV show. In other words, Nabokov had no problem quoting (and remixing!) obscure 17th Century poems while ripping the pop singers and movie idols who were popular with teenagers at the time. This sounded like fun to me because it’s the way my mind works. You mention Nelly the rapper and I might quickly think of Nellee Hooper, the movie Starship Troopers, WWII fascists, and the Greek warriors who died at Thermopylae (those guys in the movie 300) …but I digress.
The annotated edition was a good call because the scholar who added the notes had been a student of Nabokov’s in the 1950s and had complete access to the author. So much access that the annotations and scholarly essays take up about 200 pages. For a geek like me, this is better than free king cake.
But the centerpiece of Lolita for me during that first read was Nabokov’s skill as a writer. The topic was sensational and gut-wrenching, but I was more impressed by Nabokov’s way with words, his ability to create effects that are usually the province of master painters and opera composers. I was so stunned that I finished the book and let out a sigh of relief. The writing was so unquantifiably wicked that I could relax; I had no reason to even hope I could ever write half that well myself.
Also, I was taken by Humbert Humbert. He’s one of the most villainous characters in all of fiction, but by imbuing him with a (usually) honest eye and quick wit Nabokov reminds us that even monsters are human. Humbert’s evolution over the course of the novel is the reason I read fiction in the first place.
My second read certainly felt different. I found myself squirming during the first sections of the book. When Humbert abuses Lolita the way that he does, I was sick to my stomach. I wondered why. The book isn’t graphic. The words haven’t changed. However, I’m nine years older and wiser. I stumbled into the middle section of the book worried that my favorite novel of all time was no longer that. I was angry at Humbert, wanted to take him outside and pummel him. But then something strange happened. I realized that I was more angry at myself because on the first read I had been sucked into Humbert’s way of seeing the world. As such, Lolita was little more than a prop for me back then. But now that I could focus more of my attention on Lolita I saw the full horror of what she was going through. And then another odd thing happened. I forgave myself. With the new ability to see Lolita and Humbert in all their humanity, the novel took on a new dimension of pathos and complexity. And, can I tell you, it was good. In fact, it was better than the first read.
By the time I reached the last page, I was on the edge of tears. I felt a personal loss. I felt Humbert’s loss. Mostly, I felt Lolita’s loss. But even moreso, I felt more human than ever before.
Maurice Carlos Ruffin is a writer living in New Orleans. He most recently published an essay in Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas. Maurice is writing a novel.