Brian Cox does a perfect Humbert

If asked to name my favourite book, I regularly answer, ‘Lolita’. A part of me likes to see the effect of this notoriously contentious title on impact – but mainly it gets my vote because by those who haven’t read Nabokov’s masterpiece, it is the most misunderstood and misrepresented work, and I find myself an unofficial promoter.

Admittedly, it’s not an easy sell. It’s very hard to explain to the unconvinced how, exactly, a novel that is essentially the confessions a 40 year old man carnally in love with a pre-pubescent girl could be charming. Or funny. But it is. What a brilliant trick to pull off, and the secret is in the unparalleled quality of the writing, which is why I love it.

I’m deliberately avoiding the P-word. To categorise it so does Nabokov a disservice. And the moral argument is not the point with this book – in fact Lolita is a work without moral, or agenda: ‘an aesthetic experiment’, as Nabokov said himself. Lolita is a work in English by a Russian who used the English language more skilfully than many a mother-tongue author. It is deliciously written, a series of perfectly and sensuously captured moments, strung together by the persistence of poor Humbert Humbert’s obsession. One such example:

‘…she had painted her lips and was holding in  her  hollowed  hands  a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. She was not shod, however, for church. And her white Sunday purse lay discarded near the phonograph.
My heart beat like a drum as she sat down, cool skirt ballooning, subsiding, on the sofa next to me, and played with  her  glossy  fruit.  She tossed it up into the sun-dusted air, and caught it – it made a cupped polished ‘plop’.

Humbert Humbert intercepted the apple.
“Give it back,” – she pleaded, showing the marbled flush of her palms.’

Humbert’s ultra-self-awareness and critique of his own pathetic fixation is entertaining, verges on endearing. He knows he’s a monster but can’t help himself, and his clever manipulation of those in his orbit is dubiously admirable. But crucially, the prose is frequently so visceral, and so descriptively imbued with his own feeling, that his yearning for the girl doesn’t seem unnatural. This, surely, is a triumph of writing.

So it is disappointing that the two film adaptations – in spite of their potential to be richly, indulgently visual – have never matched the experience of reading the text. And I have finally understood why.

Last month I went to see a one-off one-man staging of Lolita at the National Theatre. In an adaptation by Richard Nelson, Brian Cox was the curious protagonist, alone on the stage for almost two hours, complete with rumpled prison garb and indefinable pan-European accent. This was a nigh-perfect piece for two reasons.

Firstly, Cox himself was a treat. Utterly absorbing, the man whose excellent turn as Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter (another chillingly evil yet captivating individual) was eclipsed by the later tour de force from Anthony Hopkins is evidently adept at portraying the complicatedly disturbed. In fact I like the parallel of Manhunter – not simply a gruesome crime thriller as the later Silence of the Lambs – but an aesthetic and layered treatment of what could otherwise be a trashy story.

Secondly, the play was the most faithful interpretation of the book I have yet seen. It worked precisely because Lolita wasn’t there, just as she isn’t there in the book. Crucially, the girl doesn’t exist independently of Humbert’s narration, is only observed through Humbert’s lust-tinted spectacles. If we did see her ‘for ourselves’, we’d see a grubby twelve year old, unbearably precocious and spoilt, and the spectre of unattainable allure weaved by Humbert’s persuasive words would be shattered. Turning the lens back on Humbert, his wretchedness and the sad reality of his compulsion would be fully, clearly and depressingly revealed.

In converting the book for the screen, the real problem is casting Lolita herself, and one that neither Stanley Kubrick, nor Adrian Lyne, quite solved. In Kubrick’s notoriously censored and cut 1962 version, she is a developed teenager, even appearing with a boyfriend at one point. In any case Peter Sellers steals the show. In Lyne’s version, made under fewer disapproving eyes in 1997, she is admittedly portrayed as much younger (even though Dominique Swain was apparently 16 when she accepted the role), but her attraction is inappropriately plausible, as that of the alarmingly young models that go undetected in much high-end fashion advertising now.

So putting Lolita into direct view of the audience is something of a conundrum. In Nelson’s play, the audience, like the reader, is swept along solely by Humbert’s skilful and voluptuous description, relatively undistracted by the sordid reality.

Perhaps deliberately conjuring such an illusion is irresponsible of Nabokov. But although he famously rejected any moral interpretation, ultimately the characters reap their fatal rewards. Death, like sex, is weaved through the story, ominously omnipresent, hanging over the characters. Even Lolita isn’t spared. Which reinforces the suspicion that Nabokov does not consider this ‘nymphet’, nor any of the players, to be innocent. All are tainted with frailty and guilt in some way. In the play we are brought to the resolution as Humbert, reading aloud from old journals in his prison cell, explains in a final, almost bittersweet, touch, that his memoirs are only to be published after all the characters are dead.

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