To any of my co-workers looking in, I appeared to be obsessed with the worn Penguin classic that went everywhere with me during the 2010 Christmas period at JB Hi-Fi. I managed to trudge through the entirety of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita by the end of my casual employment there. I read it every day, during every break. But I’ll be the first to admit that I did it wrong - I was reading Lolita because I felt like I had to; as though it was some literary landmark I needed to tick off my list. I dragged myself across that finish line like a desperate distance runner who has succumbed to heatstroke and lost their legs to cramp. Every page of Lolita was gruelling. I questioned my sanity for staying with it. When I finally managed to slog my way through Humbert’s final words I threw it down with a frustrated physicality that I’d never bestowed upon any book. For a long time afterwards, I felt bitter about the novel, but never told anyone because it’s Lolita, ya know?
I thought it much too florid; taking five pages to articulate what would have been easily described in one. The subject matter didn’t necessarily gross me out or dispel my enjoyment. In fact, I managed to more or less miss the pivotal and shocking scene in The Enchanted Hunters because it was so shrouded in double entendres. Humbert’s narrative was interspersed with what I deemed to be too much French. I never bothered to look up any of it as I went. As for our dearly brooding narrator, the wry lover of nymphets, I didn’t necessarily find him to be sickening, depraved or loathsome – I just found him to be really very annoying. Wait, who is this Quilty bloke? Isn’t he the dentist? I can’t follow this damn book at all.
To put it simply, the first time around, Lolita brought about no emotion more complex than annoyance.
Years later - I can’t even tell you when, or why - I picked up that tattered book again. Maybe I had taken my hands off of my ears and stopped yelling “lalala I can’t hear you, Lolita lauders” long enough to understand, at least on some preconscious level, that I needed to give Lo and Humbert another go. Maybe it was because by then I had seen both the Kubrick adaptation and ‘the other film’ – the one that need never be addressed again (disappointing on many levels, but especially so because I always heard Humbert’s voice as Jeremy Irons’s reassuring, sensual burr in my head). Both of the movies left me as puzzled as the book - I needed to know what the hell happened, and why I didn’t get it the first time around.
Everything that was beautiful about Lolita struck me so very hard that second time around. It was evocative, so immersive that it felt like I was sitting across from Humbert in a holding cell in New England somewhere, taking down his feverishly dictated memoirs. I was captivated by the language and diligently devoured every single extra adjective, French aside and innuendo that was thrown at me. Rarely did I find myself merely staring blankly while I turned pages and thought of other things; my brain wouldn’t dare let me wander away from the nuanced insanity unfolding in front of me. I wolfed it down with a rapidity and disregard for sleep that I had only previously afforded Harry Potter books and American Psycho. When it finished, and I begrudgingly crossed that final, mournful sentence, I sat in existential-crisis-silence for five or so minutes while the truth of Lolita settled in my bones: that it was the best book I had ever read.
Of the many characterisations, perhaps the idea that Lolita was Nabokov’s love affair with the English language holds up best (and not just because he said so himself). I personally feel as though Lolita was about attempting to turn something hideous and hateful into a thing of beauty; an exercise in cognitive dissonance of the highest order. Not the acts themselves, that is, but the depiction of the acts by the monster behind them. We see this through the rich words of our unreliable narrator, who paints a picture of horror unfolding across the expansive American motorways . Mostly, however, it is reflected by sheer virtue of the fact that the final, mournful words of a paedophile to his victim can make a person cry.
I sat down to Lolita for the fourth time over a long-haul flight from Melbourne to Vancouver in December. The un-put-down-ability of the thing struck me again. I didn’t bother touching any of the sci-fi on my iPad, instead favouring the much-tattered Penguin classic for the whole 23 hours in the air. And on that last page - traversed on a noisy air mattress on the floor of my brother’s apartment in Vancouver - I felt the same dissonant tears well up and spew forth, and spent a good five minutes trying to figure everything out.
Ali Schnabel is a writer from Melbourne whose work has appeared in Voiceworks, Seizure and various publications that live under the Playstation controllers at her dad's house. She tweets @oportomanteau.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.