“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.”
Lolita tells the story of a 37 year old man who falls in love with a 12 year old girl. While such a match only happens in cults these days, it was common enough a hundred years ago that the age of consent in many states was a jaw dropping ten years old. But it was not legal, as Humbert laments, in 1953 or so when Humbert-not his real name-Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip around America blackmailing her for sex by offering such prizes as a movie or a trip to a roller rink.
Lolita herself plays an almost tangential role, she has a number of lines filled with odd sounding slang from the 50s and we are told she has an impressive vocabulary of foul words. Told in the first person by Humbert, he gives himself all the praise and all the blame and he seems to think of himself as a good father. A bit odd since he has sex with Lolita several times a day and killed her mother. The language is stilled and formalized, which makes Lolita’s occasional ‘Swell’ and ‘kiddo’ and ‘you dope’ stand out like shots. In one memorable line Lolita says-You talk like a book, Dad.
If Lolita spends a relatively small amount of time on stage, she spends the entire book in Humbert’s head. He is obsessed with her in the most unhealthy ways possible. He likes to tell us he is at her mercy and how often he falls to the ground and weeps. But he also tells how he routinely injures her by twisting her arm or having rough sex using his 12 inch member. The actual sex is all off screen, but spoken of with the casualness of stopping to pick up a burger. Humbert becomes unhappy when Lolita refers to the first time he raped her and how he murdered her mother. He doesn’t think it as rape or murder, he thinks of how happy they were that first year.
For me, one of the most disturbing bits of business is when Humbert whiles away the hours dreaming of the future. A future where Lolita is no longer the nymphet he so loves, but the mother of a second Lolita who in turn will grow to bear him yet another child to replace that one. He relishes the idea of raping his own daughter and granddaughter and seems to find nothing odd about the idea. One of his last fantasy is to have a whole harem of Lolitas.
I listened to the Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain audiobook and found it to be an amazing experience. Jeremy gives Humbert the full Gravitas of his rich and mournful voice. The writing is compelling and spell binding and Humbert wants very badly to make you see his side of things. He was successful in doing so that many reviewers of the time blamed Lolita for leading poor Humbert astray. Those pesky 12 year old suductresses.
Amazingly, vast stretches of Lolita cover such things as roadside attractions and motels and the conditions of roads around the country. Humbert also rambles on about chess, his cousins in the old country, the books he tries to get Lolita to read and her preference for gossip magazines. All of this mundane business still manages to focus the level of creepiness as Humbert cares more about all these things than he does about the fact that he has turned his step daughter into a sex slave. He admits he was a monster at one point, but if Lolita had agreed to stay with him, he would have kept her forever.
The ending is a rambling affair where Humbert meets an even nastier fellow than himself. It is an odd bit of business, for here is a man that clearly deserves to die, but not for the crime of freeing Lo from the hands of Humbert.
Lolita is a compelling book.