As a father, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is difficult to read. With Banned Book Week upon us, however, and with my wife suggesting I read Reading Lolita in Tehran, I figured I’d better read Lolita in New Jersey first. It’s not the kind of book you want to be seen reading on the bus. As is well known, the novel is written from the sympathetic point of view of a pedophile. It is distinctly creepy and yet also strangely sincere. Effacing the distinctions between love and lust and healthy and ill psyches, the story draws you into the life of a single-minded Humbert Humbert and his twelve-year-old obsession. I had been prepared for the end of the story, having seen Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version some years ago, still, this tale distresses. Banned books take us to places we’d rather not be, and cause us to linger there. This is part of their secret appeal. These authors are honest enough to make us question assumptions. You have floated out of sight of land.
Lolita, through euphony, if not something more, reminds me of “Lola.” The Kink’s hit. I first heard “Lola” while I was in seminary, although it had been released a decade and a half earlier (I tend to run a little behind the times). When I listen to songs I pay attention to the lyrics, and I was disturbed to find that “Lola” was a catchy tune with a (to me, at the time) disturbing message. I confessed to a friend that I liked the song, but wasn’t sure that I should. We ban songs just as we ban books, because they bring us to a place where we question what we thought we knew. In my case, it often doesn’t take much. My friend Dave gave sage advice not to overthink the whole thing. If you like a song, you like a song. Let the music play on.
“You say you’re afraid for children,” Ellen Hopkins’s second stanza of “Manifesto” begins. (I confess to following a different scansion of the poem, call it poetic license.) I believe, however, our fear is for ourselves. We know that we could have a monster lurking inside. Lolita does not encourage pedophilia. Like many social crimes, pedophilia is the manifestation of an illness that some people, like sociopaths, unfortunately suffer. The lack of empathy for others is a frightening thing indeed. It makes for some of the scariest movies, and headlines, that I have ever seen. We do ourselves no favors, however, by pretending it doesn’t exist. I know little of the life of Nabokov, but I know that he died in Montreux. I know that he could afford to live there at least in part because of the royalties from Lolita, a novel whose manuscript he had once attempted to burn. And I know that in Montreux “some stupid with a flare gun,” well, you know the rest.