Humbert Humbert, literature’s best-known paedophile, calls it his “joy-ride”. For a year he tours the back-roads of rural America, with Lolita, who is 12, as his coerced companion and his regular victim. Together they cover thousands of miles in Humbert’s sedan, gliding down the “glossy” black-top from New England to the Rockies via the Midwestern corn prairies. They become connoisseurs of motel America—“the stucco court”, “the adobe unit”, “the log cabin”—always checking in as father and daughter, and never staying longer than a couple of nights. Milk bars and diners are their mealtime haunts; tiny tourist traps (“a lighthouse in Virginia…a granite obelisk commemorating the Battle of Blue Licks”) their daylight destinations.
Vladimir Nabokov’s account of this loathsome road-trip occupies less than a tenth of his notorious novel. To me these are the most brilliantly unsettling pages he ever wrote: a Baedeker of perversion that—in Humbert’s phrase—“put[s] the geography of the United States in motion”, as he and poor Lo career across the “crazy quilt of forty-eight states”.
If you’ve read “Lolita” (1955), you’ll know the disturbing dissonance it incites. For Humbert is a narrator of astonishing guile, his voice so slyly supple that it distracts from the black vileness of his deeds. Style serves as his alibi and amnesty. You feel uneasily complicit at each jolt of pleasure his prose delivers, each arch allusion you pursue, each double-entendre you decode. Yes, his language is foully fallen—and it pulls the reader down with it.
Little in “Lolita” remains unmolested by Humbert’s lubricious gaze. He is unable to look with an innocent eye even upon landscapes. The pink hoodoos of Bryce Canyon are “Pharaonic, phallic”. The mountains of the Rockies are “snow-veined gray colossi”. In Kansas, a low sun shines through “distant amorous mist”. The route Humbert plots on the road atlas is carnalised: “a series of wiggles” in New England, then “dip[ping] deep into Dixieland”. Of the visit he and Lolita make to “the world’s largest stalagmite in a cave where three south-eastern states have a family reunion”, no more need be said.
In the same years that Nabokov was writing “Lolita”, Edward Hopper was painting aspects of the same mid-century America. You might know “Gas”, his canvas of a rural station forecourt at dusk, with three red illuminated petrol-pumps dwarfing the man who attends them. Or his series of hotel-lobby and motel-room paintings: light falling through windows in slabs, furniture shiny from overuse, pictureless walls. Hopper caught the luminous loneliness of these transit zones, these places of no fixed abode.
Hopper painted loneliness, but Nabokov wrote despair. Humbert calls each motel room he rents a “prison cell of paradise”, and in that quick phrase he captures both his joy and Lolita’s misery. When he describes lying sleepless on a twin bed, listening to distant freight trains making their “desperate screams” in the “monstrously hot and humid night”, we hear an echo of Lolita’s own cries during her “monstrous” nights.
Very occasionally, Humbert lets slip a detail of Lolita’s plight: his need to rest after “a particularly violent morning in bed”, or the “sobs” she releases when she thinks he cannot hear. The effect of these details is piercing. You reel back, sickened and struck. Can no one rescue Lolita? Why do the motel-owners not see what’s going on? But away they drive and on you read, appalled and compelled, unable to intervene. “She had entered my world,” reflects Humbert—as if Lolita had had a choice in the matter—“umber and black Humberland”. So this atrocious, glittering book rolls forwards, carrying us across motel America and down towards hell.