A few months back, I did Google search and was presented with a warning reminding me that child pornography is illegal. You might be asking what the hell I was searching for that brought me face-to-face with this. It was simple “Lolita as a love story”. I’d seen an article on Twitter a few days before but couldn’t find it when I went back to read it. I couldn’t remember where I’d seen it, who wrote it, or what the title was. So I used a vague search term in the hope of finding it. Clearly, Google thought I was up to no good. After all, Lolita isn’t a love story. It’s the story of a predator who uses romantic language to justify grooming of his stepdaughter. It’s part of the genius of the novel and the genius of Vladimir Nabokov. It’s also one of the main reasons that Lolita is one of my all-time favourite books. But I understand that saying this to certain people can bring about the same warning signs as my earlier search did with Google. Even after all this time, there is still such a mystique about the novel because it deals with such a distasteful subject. But I find all the arguments citing the story as immature. What is the point of literature if not to tackle some of the worst aspects of humanity? And anyway, I bet the majority of the people who whine about Lolita are the same people who buy countless psychological thrillers about serial killers.
Now, the reason that I’m banging on about this today is that I’m currently reading My Dark Vanessa. I started it on Monday so I knew there was never any chance that I’d finish it to review today but it did get me thinking. The novel, for those few who haven’t heard about one of the most hyped books of 2020, is about a woman who has to confront her past when the teacher she had an affair with is publicly accused of abusing another young girl. Last night I was reading the part of the book where the 15-year-old girl has sex with her 40-something-year-old American Literature teacher. It’s such an uncomfortable scene to read. She is besotted with him and believes that he will let her take things slowly. But this is only for show. It is obvious to the reader what we’re watching but Vanessa can’t help but make excuses for him.
The scene in question is vivid but clearly not played out for its eroticism. Instead, sex is used to highlight the gulf that exists between these two people. It is intended to make you uncomfortable rather than promoting paedophilia. It’s an important scene because it makes it clearer how a young girl could be manipulated into these types of situations. How they can completely misread a relationship and ignore the obvious warning signs. How they can be so desperate to please an older man that they can be pressured into doing things they don’t want to do. My Dark Vanessa is a novel that aims to present two sides of the same story. It sits in the same category as Lolita but, unlike Lolita, it isn’t presented from the perspective of the predator.
And I think this fact is the thing that gives people the wrong idea about Nabokov’s most well-known novel. People hear that it is narrated by a paedophile and, after reading the opening lines, believe that we’re about to be subjected to a sympathetic look at the life of a man who is sexually attracted to underage girls. But this shows a deep misunderstanding of both the book itself and the writer. Nabokov is certainly the kind of person who likes introducing us to an unreliable narrator. He loves nothing more than presenting us with a narrator who will bend the truth to his liking. We saw it in Pale Fire befoe Humbert Humbert came along and we saw it in Pnin afterwards. There is nothing to suggest that anything we are reading is correct. That it hasn’t been manipulated to suit his needs and make him seem more sympathetic. This is Humbert’s memoir, so why should we automatically assume that he’s telling the truth?
This also explains why the language is so romantic. Humber has to make people believe that his feelings for Lolita are real and true. That they the stuff of fairy tales instead of something immoral and illegal. This is also why the portrayal of Lolita herself is so demeaning. She has to be seen as the kind of girl who led him on and reeled him in with her sultry behaviour. Nabokov is a brilliant writer and manages to write some absolutely beautiful prose. But you need to read beyond this to see the truth of the novel. It’s about everything. It’s about what Humbert doesn’t say. This is not a book that champions a pervert. This is a novel that shows the human need to present themselves as the hero of their own narrative. Many people who don’t see a book beyond its story are limiting themselves in literary terms. They are no doubt missing out on a lot of great books.
And anyway. Who came up with the idea that books should only be about good things? Human beings aren’t wholly good. There are plenty of examples of people being absolutely horrible in every society. Why shouldn’t that be a suitable topic for fiction? On the one hand, fiction acts as an escape from our own lives but, on the other, it is a way for readers to come to terms with difficult ideas. Traditional fairy tales are horrible things. There is death, murder, revenge, and evil in so many childhood stories because children need to learn that life isn’t perfect. Does it need to be handled carefully? Yes, of course. But literature has always been a good way to explore the darker side of the human psyche. After all, evil people are often the most interesting people to write about.
It just needs to be handled carefully. Lolita takes paedophilia and gives it a literary twist. It is not only an exploration of an abusive relationship but it is a literary experiment in how that can be presented. It is a sublime novel. Sublime thanks to its sheer beauty and the writer’s skill. Sublime in the Burkean sense. It is perfect. And I find that so many people who give it a chance, despite their resignation, come away loving the book too. It is such a childish response to just shut your eyes to things that you don’t like. And I know that there are plenty of books out there that don’t get it right. I read Tampa because it was described as a modern Lolita. It wasn’t. It was a badly written and lewd attempt to make waves. It wasn’t written to explore but to shock. It was about provoking a reaction rather than adding to the conversation. It is books like Tampa that give ones like Lolita a bad name.