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.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
I love that parade of hard T’s in the third sentence and the way Nabokov breaks her name into syllables. I speak like that sometimes, when I’m having fun: Na. Bo. Kov. We hear sounds like these all of the time but rarely slow down to appreciate them.
Before I even opened the book, my impression of Lolita was well formed. Probably too well formed. Critics called it erotica, pornography, and trash. I understood it to be primarily about sex and hebephilia. It was banned in the United Kingdom and France for a short time, and banned books emit a particular aura, especially when their topics are taboo.
Thanks to this book the name Lolita is practically synonymous with perversion. Yet it ranked fourth on Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels list and is widely considered a classic of the English language. Speaking to the BBC in 1962, Nabokov said “Lolita is a special favorite of mine. It was my most difficult book—the book that treated of a theme which was so distant, so remote, from my own emotional life that it gave me a special pleasure to use my combinational talent to make it real.”
With that in mind, I went to Youtube this evening looking for an interview with Nabokov about the book and found this two-part video from CBC’s “Close-Up” television program. Vladimir spoils a plot point or two during the conversation, so consider yourself warned, but I think it is worth watching because he goes into some detail about how he views his work.
Sex and destructive obsessions are discussed, and Nabokov does not dispute their presence in the novel, but he spends much more time emphasizing love, passion, and tragedy. Responding to the sexual scandal surrounding the book, he says, “If sex, you see, is the servant maid of art, love is the lady of that tower.” The topic shifts away from perversion and toward our perceptions as he asks us to consider how we define sex and love, and whether we can tell the difference. A lot of remarkable things are said at the end of the interview, so be sure to watch all the way through: