BY ANDREW MOODY
The strangest thing about Nabokov’s classic, notorious novel Lolita is that if you type the title into Google it will be blocked from providing results – press on a few resultant links and you may well enter a criminal database.
I read it first when I was about sixteen, now I couldn’t bear it, and, knowing the narrative (if not all of Humbert Humbert’s poetic flourishes) I made enough notes on the text before the genuine horror of the tale became too much. As the narrator says early on: “You can always count on a Murderer for a fancy prose style.”
In fact the novel is a fictionalised prison memoir. Humbert admits he is refraining from obscenities because “I am writing under observation.”
There have been two movie adaptations of what would have seemed an unfilmable book. The first, directed by Stanley Kubrick, was butchered by the censors and despite some by now iconic imagery, the film is a mess and sometimes makes little sense. Cloistered by the oppressive Hays Code, the film remains an admirable effort but a failure and the worst film he ever made. Adrian Lynne’s later 90s effort is a far superior version, even though Dominique Swain (for decency reasons) was, I believe 20 years old when she played the doomed nymph. In Kubrick’s adaptation, the always sinister and slimy James Mason plays Humbert, and if he had more of the novel in the script to act off, it could have been a masterpiece as opposed to being a confusing mess. Lynne on the other hand had spent the 80s making soft core blockbusters like 9 and a Half Weeks was the perfect director for this most sickening of topics, clearly having an understanding of the ambiguity of human sexuality, like its star Jeremy Irons, stalwart of some incredibly adult films. From the novel, Humbert – consumed with self-pity but a compulsion to understand his own pederasty – writes: “was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?”
Time magazine called the book “more shocking because it is both intensely lyrical and wildly funny… A Medusa’s head with trick paper snakes.”
The age of the nymphette that Humbert lists over is between 9 and 14, a typical age for a paedophilic target. Lolita dies in childbirth on Xmas day 1952 with a still born girl, and the metaphor needs little explaining. Lolita is the still born.
The novel opens with a fictional psychiatric report, ominously claiming “that at least 12 percent of American adult males… enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience H. H describes with such despair.”
To describe Humbert, the psychiatrist writes: “he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy. “
This is true of any child abuser.
As a psychiatric patient, I have seen my fair share of rape and child abuse victims. Typically they are antisocial, self harming, hypersexual and completely suicidal. The medication may block out reality for a while, but most victims can’t bear the pain for too long.
Lolita will always remain a classic work, published around the time that the boundaries of literary censorship were finally collapsing. Neither film quite captures Humbert Humbert’s psychopathy as subtly layered within the book, but it took a brave writer to tackle a subject so abhorrent yet also so important for the safety of our children. The answer to the riddle of Humbert Humbert’s character is this:
He never knows what anybody else is thinking.
Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction