"I'm not sure yet. But I think it's gonna be Lolita."
"That figures," she said, smirking.
A while later, I mentioned on my blog that I was well into the book. One commenter -- a woman -- said:
I don’t like to admit to many that I liked [Lolita's protagonist] Humbert in that weird and terrible way. I mean, I know he’s awful and everything. I know he is wrong, and I don’t exactly want him to win, but…
Let's pretend we've never heard of Lolita. So then what was going on here? Why might anyone have banned Lolita in the first place? Why would my wife say that it "figured" I'd select it, from among all the banned books which I hadn't read? Why would my correspondent hate to admit that she liked a fictional character, even an awful one, and why the "weird and terrible" disclaimer, and especially, what, oh what could she have meant by that "exactly"?
Enough pretending. Even if we haven't read it ourselves, and don't know the details, I think many -- most? -- reasonably well-read readers will know of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel. In brief (and please skip the following paragraph if you want no spoilers at all):
Late 1940s. Middle-aged Englishman who calls himself "Humbert Humbert" narrates the story. Humbert has a thing for young girls, between the ages of 9 and 14 and of a certain type: slightly built, most often blonde, flirtatious -- perhaps without knowing it -- but virginal (not necessarily in fact). He calls them "nymphets" (a term which Nabokov apparently invented himself, just for this book). Humbert moves to a suburb in the northeastern United States, taking a room with a young widow, Charlotte Haze. Discovers that Charlotte has an unconsciously seductive 12-year-old blonde daughter, Dolores -- "Dolly" to her mother, but dubbed by Humbert "Lolita." Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, expressly for the opportunities it may provide him to be alone with his stepdaughter. Charlotte is struck by a car and killed. Humbert takes off in his battered car, with Lolita, on a cross-continental odyssey during which he gets what he thinks he wants. Things turn out to be not so rosy, especially (although not exclusively) for the person whom Humbert ends up killing. The end.
Right off the bat, then, we have the ingredients to answer all those "why" questions -- the principal ingredient being: Humbert Humbert is a manipulative pedophile. In the mid-1950s, when Lolita was published, just saying the word "pedophile" in a non-clinical context was probably enough to make people recoil; placing one at the center of a first-person narrative back then probably guaranteed opposition to the book.
Nowadays, while we live in a nominally more "liberal" culture, "Think of the children!" may be a phrase which invites satire but pedophilia remains maybe even more firmly on the list of taboo subjects for conversation and even private reading. The Ick Factor is off the charts for everyone but its disturbed practitioners, regardless of our positions on the yardsticks of morality or politics; we simply know too much about the long-term consequences of the sexual abuse of innocents to find thinking about it at all "entertaining."
So how on earth could my friend claim that she -- she! -- liked such a monster, even in a weird and terrible way? Was it really necessary for her to qualify I don't want him to win with that exactly?
Um, well... yeah.
Because the thing about Lolita, especially because of its (theoretically more disturbing) first-person point of view, is the extent to which it summons empathy for the narrator. Almost none of us will share his particular lust; nearly all of us will know the experience of lusting, unhealthily, for something which is unhealthy in the first place. Humbert can no more resist his obsession for nymphets in general (or, of course, for Lolita in specific) than he can resist the urge to show off, verbally, bursting pretentiously and reflexively (for example) into weird esoteric words or untranslated passages of French whenever he feels the normal range of English doesn't suffice. In that range of yielding to uncontrollable impulse -- whether trivial or monstrous -- lie the rest of us.
And I think that's why we respond to Humbert. We don't want him to "win," to commit the sin or to get away with it, but we recognize the tug of the forbidden something. We don't him to win... but...
A note on the language: Nabokov, a native Russian speaker, sometimes complained about the relative clumsiness of English. But ye gods, could the man construct some beautiful sentences. I can't remember reading a book recently in which I highlighted so much. Here's one brief passage, chosen at random from midway through the book (it wasn't even one of my highlights):
She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.
The wordplay, the rhythms, the progression of meaning and tension from start to finish: if I could regularly construct sentences which so perfectly balanced all those elements, I think I could go to my grave a happy man. (As I said: we all have our unreasoning lusts.)
So do I recommend Lolita?
I never insist that people should read a book just because it's regarded (by critics or the public or, well, by me) as a "classic." With Lolita, maybe more than with most books, I'd think carefully before diving in. What's the threshold of behavior which you'll accept in your characters? Can you get past the nominal subject of a novel like Lolita? Are you after a quick read, or a book which will equally compel reading for a half-hour burst and then being put aside for an hours-long inner Hmmmm...?
Depend on how you'd answer those questions: that's the best advice I can give. I didn't find Lolita an easy book to read, and I'll probably never read it cover-to-cover again. But I'm very very happy, yes, happy that I have read it. And I can easily imagine dipping from time to time back into its (weirdly, terribly) bracing waters.