Art is something that speaks to your soul. It is one of those rare inventions of man which goes beyond all limitations of his mind and heart and challenges the very core of his being. Truly great art does this across time. It transcends everything.
This is exactly what Lolita does, and exactly why Lolita causes strife, even decades after publication. Other books, controversial in their time as too forward, have now become the norm and don’t really shock readers anymore. But the theme which this particular book has employed is no gray area. There is no doubt, even in the minds of the most depraved, that this a black deed, and should be touched by no one, let alone justified.Lolita, in essence, deals with a pedophile. Even worse, it seeks to give the world a pedophile’s perspective and justification for his actions. This, if nothing else, will always remain as controversial as the day it was penned down.
However, the greatness of Lolita does not lie in the theme it seeks to explore. The controversy, the conflict and the subsequent timelessness of the book comes from something deeper…the narrator himself. The conflict comes from the fact that a known black area suddenly starts seeming gray, causing a cognitive and emotional dissonance between what we have internalized all our lives and the sudden, surprisingly lucid and logical rationale and appeal of a man who has freely admitted to being a pedophile and rapist. It is perhaps the author’s greatest achievement that hemake us, righteous souls that we are, give even an iota of sympathy and sometimes empathy, however reluctantly, towards a man who is nothing but the scum of the earth.
Lolita is an extremely focused book, which is why it may even come across as one dimensional sometimes. But the fact is, our dear narrator becomes so obsessed with the object of his desire, that girl who was destined to symbolize nymphets for all of literature, Lolita, that his life indeed becomes one of singular purpose and every action since, however trivial, is designed to finally achieve Lolita. I say achieve Lolita because, for much of the book, Lolita is merely the idea in his mind, much like any other man may visualize and worship a Goddess. The idea is what he wants to achieve and the physical victory is only symbolic of the emotional nirvana he attains when he finally has Lolita in his arms. The book is one dimensional because his life is one dimensional. It begins and ends with Lolita, without a future or a past.
The narrator himself is extremely unreliable and almost certainly manipulates his readers to make his case more convincing. Ultimately, it works to an extent as we come to see him as an intelligent and shrewd person with traits of extreme megalomania. He works his magic on us as completely as he failed to do so on Lolita herself. In the end, however, there is no escaping the fact, even for himself, that he is a rapist. He asserts continuously that he only wishes to hold Lolita and not take her virginity, yet does so on the first opportunity. He states that he holds her in the highest regard of desire, yet cages her and mentally and physically abuses her throughout the years she was with him.
Ultimately, Lolita is a psychological drama and a game of chess played out in the narrator’s mind for the reader’s benefit. He knows what he has done, and he knows he is the devil. But like every devil, he has a God complex of epic proportions. And like every God, he fell. This is a book that explores the depraved mind, and in that, it reminded me of that other great magnum opus, Crime & Punishment.
Lolita is not an easy read at all. Even ignoring the morally difficult topic, the language used in the book is extremely eloquent prose, bordering on poetry at times. This makes it tough, at times, to follow the story and the thoughts as lucidly as you would like to. Over time, I have come to think this has been done purposely by the author. The beautiful language creates an automatic dichotomy in the reader’s mind, as we do not naturally associate a well-educated man with being a monster. As such, the language plays a crucial role in the elaborate defense being built by the narrator. It triggers the bit of doubt and pity that is so crucial to the experience of this book.
This is a book that leads the reader down a path which is treacherous and yet, too alluring and tempting to not go on. Once you are drawn in, there is no turning back. The prose is some of the most beautiful you will come across in literature and exceeds even most poetry in many places. But those beautiful words are merely the soft flowers you are fooled into walking upon, while hiding the bed of thorns beneath.
Lolita is one of the rarest books in that it is unreadable and unputdownable simultaneously. It is what art should be. A challenge to the soul.
Kudos, Mr. Vladimir Nabokov. You have conquered.
Review by: Aniruddha Rege