I haven’t ever seen this book cover in stores. Usually it’s the one with the black-and-white picture of saddle shoes, or the one that just has a half-nose and a mouth–right? And thank goodness, because the only way Lolita is physically tolerable is to think of it in parts. Pedophilia can be artsied up considerably, and Nabokov elevates it as high as it will ever go, but a cover like this reminds you that Lolita as a potential real-life girl is a quite upsetting thought. We’ve gotten so comfortable with this book as an established part of literature that we’ve forgotten the importance of the last word in the phrase, “a classic Russian novel about a young girl and a pedophile.”
Of course, it deserves to be a classic. The writing is unforgettable; Nabokov is able to unleash the English language into some sort of brilliant directional arrow that winds its way through the mazes of the human psyche, to the point where you can understand the spiraling, generous, profound depths of a desirous person’s inner life. To get a character who enables you to explore this, you have to have fairly extraordinary circumstances; the Russian novels that do it–Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, etc–are all filled with pain and scummy people and uncomfortable, sad situations. But it’s a long way between regular sad and the sad of a twelve-year-old girl who’s so fucked up that she seduces a pedophile. There is a lot that is nauseating about Lolita. I read the book when I was twelve myself, which is probably the reason I’m still so uncomfortable about it–but still.
This excerpt should clear things right up.
“She was musical and apple-sweet. Her legs twitched a little as they lay across my live lap; I stroked them; there she lolled on in the right-hand corner, almost asprawl, Lola, the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice, losing her slipper, rubbing the heel of her slipperless foot in its sloppy anklet, against the pile of old magazines heaped on my left on the sofa—and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty—between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.”