BOOKS / Low Hum & Little Lo: Humbert Humbert, narrator of 'Lolita', is a sadist, narcissist and sexual deviant: so why should we think Nabokov's novel morally acceptable?

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LIKE the sweat of lust and guilt, the sweat of death trickles through Lolita. I wonder how many readers survive the novel without realising that its heroine is, so to speak, dead on arrival, like her child. Her brief obituary is tucked away, with others, in the 'editor's' foreword, in nonchalant, school-newsletter form:

'Mona Dahl' is a student in Paris. 'Rita' has recently married the proprietor of a hotel in Florida. Mrs 'Richard F. Schiller' died in childbed, giving birth to a stillborn girl, on Christmas Day 1952, in Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest. 'Vivian Darkbloom' has written a biography . . .

Then, once the book begins, Humbert's childhood love Annabel dies, at 13 (typhus), and his first wife Valeria dies (also in childbirth), and his second wife Charlotte dies ('a bad accident'), and Charlotte's friend Jean Farlow dies at 33 (cancer), and Lolita's young seducer Charlie Holmes dies (Korea), and her old seducer Quilty dies (murder). And then Humbert dies (coronary thrombosis). And then Lolita dies. And her daughter dies. In a sense Lolita is too great for its own good. It rushes up on the reader like a recreational drug more powerful than any yet discovered or devised. In common with its narrator, it is both irresistible and unforgivable, and very unreassuring. Nevertheless, this is how it works.

Without apeing the explicatory style of Nabokov's famous lectures (without producing height-charts, road maps, motel matchbooks, and so on), it might still be as well to establish what actually happens in Lolita: morally. How bad is all this - on paper, anyway? Although he distances himself with customary hauteur from the world of 'coal sheds and alleyways', of panting maniacs and howling policemen, Humbert Humbert is without question an honest-to-God, open-and-shut sexual deviant, displaying classic ruthlessness, guile and (above all) attention to detail. He parks the car at the gates of schoolyards, for instance, and obliges Lo to caress him as the children emerge. Sixty-five cents secures a similar caress in her classroom, while Humbert admires a platinum classmate. Fellatio prices peak at four dollars a session before Humbert brings rates down 'drastically by having her earn the hard and nauseous way permission to participate in the school's theatrical programme'. On the other hand he performs complimentary cunnilingus when his step-daughter is laid low by fever: 'I could not resist the exquisite caloricity of unexpected delights - Venus febriculosa - though it was a very languid Lolita that moaned and coughed and shivered in my embrace.'

Our narrator was evidently something of a bourgeois sadist with his first wife, Valeria. He fantasised about 'slapping her breasts out of alignment' or 'putting on (his) mountain boots and taking a running kick at her rump', but in reality confined himself to 'twisting fat Valechka's brittle wrist (the one she had fallen upon from a bicycle)'. The weakened wrist is good: sadists know all about weak spots. He strikes Lolita only once ('a tremendous backhand cut'), during a jealous rage, otherwise making do with bribes, bullying, and three main threats - the rural fastness, the orphanage, the reformatory.

Humbert goes on to commit murder: he kills his rival, Clare Quilty. Quilty's death is not tragic. Nor is Humbert's fate. Nor is Lolita. But Lolita is tragic, in her compacted span. If tragedy explores thwarted energy and possibility, then Lolita is tragic - is flatly tragic. And the mystery remains. How did Nabokov accommodate her story to this 300-page blue streak - to something so embarrassingly funny, so unstoppably inspired, so impossibly racy? Literature, as has been pointed out, is not life; it is certainly not public life; there is no 'character issue'. It may be a nice bonus to know that Nabokov was a kind man. Everything he wrote tells us as much. Lolita tells us as much. But this is not a straightforward matter. Lolita is a cruel book about cruelty. It is kind in the sense that your enemy's enemy is your friend, no matter how daunting his aspect. As a critic Nabokov was more than averagely sensitive to literary cruelty. In his Lectures on Don Quixote he can barely bring himself to contemplate the automatic 'thumbscrew' enormities of this 'cruel and crude old book':

The author seems to plan it thus: Come with me, ungentle reader, who enjoys seeing a live dog inflated and kicked around like a soccer football; reader, who likes, of a Sunday morning, on his way to or from church, to poke his stick or direct his spittle at a poor rogue in the stocks; come . . . I hope you will be amused at what I have to offer.

Nevertheless, Nabokov is the laureate of cruelty. Cruelty hardly exists elsewhere; all the Lovelaces and Osmonds turn out to be mere hooligans and tyrants when compared to Humbert Humbert, to Hermann Karlovich (his significant precursor) in Despair, to Rex and Margot in Laughter in the Dark, to Martha in King, Queen, Knave. Nabokov understood cruelty; he was wise to it; he knew its special intonations.

Now Humbert is of course very cruel to Lolita, not just in the ruthless sine qua non of her subjugation, nor yet in his sighing intention of 'somehow' getting rid of her when her brief optimum has elapsed, nor yet in his fastidious observation of signs of wear in his 'frigid' and 'ageing mistress'. Humbert is surpassingly cruel in using Lolita for the play of his wit and the play of his prose - his prose, which sometimes resembles the 'sweat-drenched finery' that 'a brute of 40' may casually and legally shed before thrusting 'himself up to the hilt into his youthful bride'. Morally the novel is all ricochet or rebound. However cruel Humbert is to Lolita, Nabokov is crueller to Humbert - finessingly cruel. We all share the narrator's smirk when he begins the sexual- bribes chapter with the following sentence: 'I am now faced with the distasteful task of recording a definite drop in Lolita's morals.' But when the smirk congeals we are left staring at the moral heap that Humbert has become, underneath his arched eyebrow.

Lolita herself is such an anthology piece by now that even non-readers of the novel can close their eyes and see her on the tennis court or in the swimming pool or curled up in the motel twin bed with her 'ridiculous' comics. We tend to forget that this blinding creation remains just that: a creation, and a creation of Humbert Humbert's. We have only Humbert's word for her. Lolita, I believe, has been partly isolated and distorted by its celebrity. Haven't we been conditioned to feel that Lolita is sui generis, a black sheep, a bit of tasteful indeed 'beautiful' erotica, and that Nabokov himself somehow got 'carried away'? Great writers, however, never get carried away. Even pretty average writers never get carried away. People who write one novel and then go back to journalism or accountancy ('Louder, bitch]') - they get carried away. Lolita is more austere than rapturous, as all writing is; and I have come to see it, with increasing awe, as exactly the kind of novel that its predecessors are pointing towards. It constructs a mind in the way that a prose Browning might have gone about it, through rigorous dramatic monologue.

Humbert is a narcissist. One hesitates to explore the psychological connections, if any, between narcissism and classical paedophilia (and Freud must have been some good, one suspects, to have bedevilled the great Nabokov so), yet both conditions are clearly regressive or anorexic, showing a reluctance to abandon the sentimentally scaled- down perfection of youth. 'Rope-skipping, hopscotch . . . Ah, leave me alone,' moans Humbert, 'in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me for ever. Never grow up.' The path of self- love is always a rocky one. But the love shared by Humbert and Humbert, for all its rough and smooth, is unquestionably the real thing.

No narrator in literature, I think, goes on about his physical splendour as passionately and comically as the narrator of Lolita. With his 'striking if somewhat brutal good looks', the younger, Paris-based Humbert knows all too well that he could obtain, at the snap of his fingers, his choice of 'the many crazed beauties' who lash his 'grim rock': 'Let me repeat with quiet force: I was, and still am, despite mes malheurs, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanour.' When he first encounters Lolita, Humbert cruises past her in what he feels to be his 'adult disguise (a great big handsome hunk of movieland manhood)'. Later, we learn, 'Pubescent Lo swooned to Humbert's charm as she did to hiccuppy music . . .' 'Hiccuppy' more than adequately summons the tonsil-swallowing vocalists of the period, those 'throb-and-sob' idols of a teen's 'dream male' pantheon, where, as Humbert later reminds Lolita, he was once privileged to stroll. Humbert, with his 'pleasantly arched thick black ad-eyebrows', has picked his prey well, for Lo 'it was to whom ads were dedicated'. No doubt the Lo-Hum story would have worked out wonderfully, in Hollywood, in dreamworld or ad-land. But this is only America, car-tool and lawn-sprinkler America, and Hum is Lo's stepfather, and three times her age, and for two years he rapes her at least twice a day.

Indeed Humbert's situation is fantastically contorted and extreme. It is the central miracle of the novel that the tiny madman in his tiny cell becomes, artistically, by a series of radical shifts in context, a lord of infinite space. In bald structure, Lolita is a tale of chronic molestation - not the most liberating of narrative schemes. One can see why certain publishers wanted Nabokov to refit the novel to a setting of appropriate grimness and deracination. From the author's afterword: '. . . one reader suggested that his firm might consider publication if I turned my Lolita into a 12-year-old lad and had him seduced by Humbert, a farmer, in a barn, amidst gaunt and arid surroundings, all this set forth in short, strong 'realistic' sentences ('He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy', etc.)'. As it happens, Nabokov finds an uncovenanted freedom in Humbert's dark confinement, and writes with the freshness of discovery about parenthood, marriage, jealousy, America, art and love.

The angle is a tortured squint but the vistas are large. Parents and guardians of 12-year-old girls will have noticed that their wards have a tendency to be difficult. They may take Humbert's word for it that things are much more difficult - are in fact entirely impossible - when your 12-year-old girl is also your 12- year-old girlfriend. (The next time you go out with your daughter, imagine you are going out with your daughter.) We know that 'limits and rules' apply in the matter of parental caresses, that 'girlish games are fluid, or at least too childishly fluid for the senior partner to grasp'; but the ambitious molester had better learn the ropes, and quick, if his charge is not 'to start back in revulsion and terror'. All but the childless will nod in quiet sympathy when Humbert talks of Lo's 'fits of disorganized boredom, intense and vehement griping, her sprawling, droopy, dopey-eyed style, and what is called goofing off'. Similarly, every father feels a pang when his daughter begins to take a healthy interest in the opposite sex. But how much more incandescent the pain (this is Freud made real) when the daughter's suitors are the father's rivals.

Again there is great comic veracity in the horror and fastidiousness with which Humbert views the repulsive galere of Lolita's admirers: 'goons in luxurious cars, maroon morons near blued pools', 'golden-haired high school uglies, all muscles and gonorrhoea', 'odious visions of stinking high school boys in sweatshirts and an ember-red cheek pressing against hers'. When the rival is Quilty, an adult, and when the admiration is requited by the 'vile and beloved slut', then the prose congests with a lyrical disgust: 'There he stood . . . , his tight wet black bathing trunks bloated and bursting with vigour where his great fat bullybag was pulled up and back like a padded shield over his reversed beasthood'.

It has often been suggested that the 'morality' of Lolita is not inherent but something tacked on at the end, like the last scene of Hitchcock's Psycho, in which a swarthy psychiatrist is produced to explain in neat jargon the very different depravities in a very different motel. As if, after a 260-page debauch (Nabokov having been 'carried away'), the author sobered up, gave his phallus a brisk downward chop with the side of his hand, and started tricking out his denouement with a few face-saving spiritual mottos. Humbert on the hillside begging forgiveness of Lolita and the American landscape, Humbert paying his last call on the plain and pregnant Mrs Richard F Schiller, Humbert's last memories of Lolita as the entirely ordinary little girl she kept on being, throughout everything: these scenes are justly famous (they can still make the present reader shed tears as hot as Humbert's), and even the dissenting critic will allow them a certain emotional power. But we are not moved by artful editorials. We are moved by the ending of Lolita, by its finality and justice, because - perhaps only subliminally - we have seen it coming. Even today, after two of Lolita's lifespans, people are still wandering up to Dmitri Nabokov and asking him what it was like, having a dirty old man for a father. Even sophisticated readers still think that Nabokov had something to feel guilty about. Great novels are shocking; and then, after the shock dies down, you get aftershocks.

The presiding image of Lolita, so often missed by the first-time reader (I know I missed it, years ago), is adumbrated in its foreword: Lolita in childbed, dead, with her dead daughter. Images of deformity, of half- aliveness, of cruel displacements in mortal time, give Lolita a glow no less numb and waxy than its heroine's corpse. The novel is shot through with images of bald dolls and wizened mannequins - the old made young and the young made old. As he prepares to leave the hotel after seducing Lolita, Humbert is 'forced to devote a dangerous amount of time . . . to arranging the bed in such a way as to suggest the abandoned nest of a restless father and his tomboy daughter, instead of an ex-convict's saturnalia with a couple of fat old whores.' On the next page Lolita is both an 'immortal daemon disguised as a female child' and 'the small ghost of somebody I had just killed'. All these pathetic fragments and transpositions will be hideously jumbled, under an Alp- weight of pain, in the dreams Humbert has when Lo is gone:

she did haunt my sleep but she appeared there in strange and ludicrous disguises as Valeria or Charlotte, or a cross between them. That complex ghost would come to me, shedding shift after shift, in an atmosphere of great melancholy and disgust, and would recline in dull invitation on some narrow board or hard settee, with flesh ajar like the rubber valve of a soccer ball's bladder. I would find myself, dentures fractured or hopelessly mislaid, in horrible chambres garnies where I would be entertained at tedious vivisecting parties that generally ended with Charlotte or Valeria weeping in my bleeding arms and being tenderly kissed by my brotherly lips in a dream disorder of auctioneered Viennese bric-a-brac, pity, impotence and the brown wigs of tragic old women who had just been gassed.

In his afterword Nabokov explains that the first 'shiver' of Lolita was inspired by a newspaper story about an ape 'who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature's cage'. Inspiration needn't be very apposite; but the appositeness of this 'first little throb' has perhaps been misemphasised. It's not so much that Lolita has been encaged and enslaved, though she has been. Humbert's crime is to force her out of nature - to force a child through the hoops of womanhood, insulting and degrading her childish essence.

I shudder to think how Humbert's ghost would round on me for calling him a vulgarian and a philistine. Actually he is of a more dangerous and rarer breed (though one very fully represented in Nabokov's corpus): such people, because they cannot make art out of life, make their lives into art. Humbert is the artist manque. To see the magic of nymphets 'you have to be an artist and a madman', he claims early on ('oh, how you have to cringe and hide]'). The weeping Humbert sheds above-average teardrops, 'hot, opalescent, thick tears that poets and lovers shed'. He is 'her Catullus', he is 'poor Catullus'. This is all blasphemous flannel, naturally. Who but Humbert could refer to the gauged postponement of his orgasm (on the sofa, with a still innocent Lo) as 'a nicety of physiological equipoise comparable to certain techniques in the arts'? 'Emphatically, no killers are we,' Humbert pleads: 'Poets never kill.' But this one does. Before he pulls the trigger he recites a poem: a parody - under the circumstances, a travesty - of Ash Wednesday. And Nabokov never had much time for Eliot.

In art, in a sense, nothing really matters; no one gets hurt; it is only a game. But an artistic reckoning must be completed, and, in Nabokov, art itself provides the reproach and the punishment. Humbert's sin is biological, a sin against the ordinary. He has made ordinary biology impossible: marriage, childbirth, a daughter, ordinary happiness, ordinary health, in 'Gray Star, a settlement in the remotest Northwest' and 'the capital town of the book', as Nabokov notes. It may or may not surprise Humbert to learn that the 'shining record' he has composed is not a love story but a travesty.

What makes human beings laugh? Not just gaiety or irony. That laughter banishes seriousness is a misconception often made by the humourless - and by that far greater multitude, the hard of laughing, the humorously impaired or undergifted. Human beings laugh, if you notice, to express relief, exasperation, stoicism, hysteria, embarrassment, disgust and cruelty. Lolita is perhaps the funniest novel in the language because it allows laughter its full complexity and range. We hear its characteristic edge when Humbert uses his 'pet' for the play of his wit and his prose: this is the laughter we hear (not too often, I hope) when we recognise the outright perfection of our moral sordor.

A longer version of this article appears as the introduction to the new Everyman edition of 'Lolita', published next month at pounds 8.99.

(Photographs omitted)

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