I was 16 when I first came across Lolita. I was a bookish adolescent, following a self-imposed curriculum of revolt, of which Lady Chatterley’s Lover had been the latest in a disappointing list of banned, obscene and unsuitable books. Someone must have told me not to read Lolita, because the next thing I knew I was under the spell of a love story that, 50 years after its publication, still causes such controversy that subversive young readers everywhere will, I hope, be drawn in.
At 16, I was initially drawn to the monster narrating the tale. Humbert is the first to accept that he is beneath contempt, and yet, remains dangerously likeable; partly through his willingness to accept that he is a monster, and partly because of the language in which he expresses his doomed love. This novel, so often condemned as obscene, contains not a single explicit phrase, but instead radiates colour and sensuality throughout, spinning the straw of obscenity into the gold of rapture.
Perhaps this is the real reason for the outrage that greeted its publication. Paedophilia is not a subject that should be linked with poetry. It makes for uncomfortable reading, leads the reader to question himself, lifts an uncomfortably accurate mirror to the intricacies of the human heart. And yet I do believe that literature should know how to provoke. Much of our most popular fiction is comfortably soporific, encouraging our belief in the essential qualities of the human spirit whilst chastely drawing a veil over some of the less appealing traits of our modern society.
But the acid test that distinguishes the great literature from the merely good is the capacity to reveal different aspects of itself at different times of a reader’s life. As a sixteen-year-old I was drawn to the danger and drama of Lolita; now, as a parent, I find myself re-reading it from a different perspective. The character of Lolita, especially, stands out much more clearly now. Seen through the filter of Humbert’s obsession she exists in a series of images made poignant by their ordinariness; the instep of a grubby foot; a blurry photograph; a discarded sock under a bed; a magazine left on the floor; a bicycle. Images, not of carnality, but of the transience of youth. As a parent I can understand the overwhelming sense of loss that pervades the entire novel. Now Lolita appears to me less as an object of desire and more as a typical teenager; a mixture of innocence and guile, of furtive sensuality and childlike enthusiasm for trivial things. Nabokov’s portrayal of her challenges our perceptions of childhood and confronts us with the unpalatable truth; that our own children too will one day grow up, be sexualised, be lost to us. Returning to Lolita, the book that taught me that language can illuminate the senses, that monsters can love, that children are not always innocent, the impression that still remains with me is how perfectly this book conveys the passing of time; the sorrow of loss; the way in which our childhood – and later, that of our children – drifts away with such terrifying ease, leaving us, like Adam and Eve at the gates of Eden, with the cold comfort of a knowledge that can only really be conveyed to someone who already has it.