Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Loving Lolita

I can't remember the first time I read Vladimir Nabakov's Lolita-- it must have been more than 15 years ago now-- but I can remember with absolute clarity how utterly besotted I was with it. If memory serves, I think the only other books that I've read straight through in one sitting were Les Misérables (which I actually faked sick to stay home from school and read) and King Leopold's Ghost (which I read on a beach vacation after taking my M.A. comprehensive exams). Unlike those books, though, Lolita was a thoroughly guilty pleasure... and for a long time after finishing it, I was self-consciously reluctant to recommend it to friends. For the uninitiated, Lolita is narrated by Humbert Humbert-- a middle-aged, somewhat neurotic, definitely obsessive, European man-- who is in love/lust with the eponymous 12-yr. old American girl, whose stepfather he somewhat slyly becomes. It's been a scandal of a book for many, many years, and it was turned into a scandal of a film in both 1962 and 1997. But like many other (officially and unofficially) blacklisted novels, Lolita has withstood the test of time and found its way into the canon as one of the most-respected pieces of mid-century American literature.

Or so I thought...

I was sitting in the cafe near our campus today and overheard a conversation between what I'm guessing were the visiting parents of one of my college's young charges. The mother was positively irate that her son had told her that the best book he read all year was Lolita, and the father was noticably concerned, too. "What sort of message is it sending that our kids read this garbage?", she said. He sighed. She hrumphed. He shrugged. She stirred her coffee, loudly. He poked at his hash browns with his fork. The pregnant pause in conversation was unbearable.

"Well, I guess that's the way the world is going. Don't really know what to do about it. The boy's gotta read what they tell him to, honey."

I sat in my booth, stirring my own coffee too loudly, a little amused and a little sad. I wondered if either of them had read the book, or if they had only seen the movies, or if they had only heard about it. I remembered my own, much younger, self taking in Nabokov for the first time. Remembered Humbert Humber's opening passage, absolutely unforgettable:

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.

So, to the student who loves Lolita, despite the obvious disappointment of his parents, I say:

Good for you, kid.

1 comment:

Perspectivist said...

It was my sophomore semester of Search with Professor Byrne, the same class for which I read Nietzsche for the first time. Feeling the fervor of Nabokov's prose is probably the best experience I've had with a novel.