Lolita was written by Vladimir Nabokov and published in Paris in 1955. It’s narrated by a middle-aged man and tells the story of how he fell in love with a young girl, Dolores Haze, otherwise known as Lolita. He’s obsessed with what he calls ‘nymphets’, pubescent girls aged between 9 and 14, ‘demoniac’ things caught between the phases of childhood and womanhood. It all started with his first love, Annabel Leigh, and their clumsy, pseudo-sexual encounters that haunt him the rest of his life.
Nabokov named her after the Edgar Allan Poe poem ‘Annabel Lee’.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this Kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love –
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
It’s a pretty poem. Annabel dies, and he stays by the sea all his life and dreams of her. In Lolita, young Humbert meets his Annabel on the French Riviera, where they fall madly in love. Unfortunately their love is never consummated. As Humbert says,
But that mimosa grove – the haze of stars, the the tingle, the flame, the honey-dew, and the ache remained with me, and that little girl with her seaside limbs and ardent tongue haunted me ever since – until at last, twenty-four years later, I broke her spell by incarnating her in another. (p.17)
‘Haze’ is an odd word choice, could it be a reference to Lolita? Annabel trails sand through her fingers, perhaps this is a hint at Poe’s ‘A dream within a dream’? And what is it with dreams and sand? Love and sand? Time. Loss. Memory.
Humbert eventually ends up in love with a twelve year old girl. He marries her mother to stay close to her, and when the mother dies he picks her up from camp and drives off. They travel around America and stay in motels as Father and Daughter. Lolita is petulant and annoying most of the time. To keep her in line Humbert bribes her with magazines, treats, movies and money.
When the physical boundary is crossed it is she who sleeps with him. He feigns innocence, and Lolita, it turns out, is anything but.
Oh you can cry obscenity! pornography! depravity! You can focus on how wrong it is. You can condemn it for discussing sex and obsession. Pedophilia. Murder. Lust.
I can understand why it’s had a history of censorship.
But at it’s core Lolita is a love story, one-sided as it is. And it’s written so well, in this tragic, self-aware, melodramatic prose that lifts it from the level of obscene.
No one in literature has loved as Humbert loves his Lolita.
That’s what makes it beautiful.