Timothy, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Tim-o-thy: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to lisp, at three, against the teeth. Tim. O. Thee. He was Tim, plain Tim, in the morning, standing six-feet-two in one slipper. He was Timmy in joggers. He was Lil’ Tim at the karaoke bar. He was Timberland, Esq., on the dotted line of his divorce papers. But in my arms he was always Timothy. Did he have a precursor? He did, indeed he did. In point of fact, there might have been no Timothy at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial man-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About six years before Timothy was promoted to assistant manager (shipping and receiving).
How conflicting it is to love Lolita.
You are a good person with sound ethics and a distaste for, you know, child abuse—and yet. You love a book about a pederast. You love, even, maybe, said pederast. Or if not “love,” exactly, then might we say he’s a figure of intrigue? One who kindles your curiosity or riles your ire? Or perhaps you simply pity him a little. Regardless, it’s not like you want him to get the girl. That would be wrong. You are merely interested, with one eye on the quivering north of your moral compass, to see if he might. Not that you condone, of course, a grown man’s sick lust for kids—it’s just fiction, right?
Right. But, see, somewhere along the way (the middle of chapter 27, or thereabouts), things go south. Sure, the pervert drugs his “nymphet” captive—but out of integrity, per his “policy of sparing her purity by operating only in the stealth of night, only upon a completely anesthetized little nude.” You read on, your horror transitioning into something like suspense . . . And then a twist! And from here on out, all bets are off: you get lost in the story, and lose yourself too, and when at last you swim out breathlessly from its pages, the real world confronts you, as it has Professor Humbert, with the blinding glare of your own indecency.
Dear god! You were in it. You were fairly cheering for the murderer, the monster, the creep. Hideous, hideous. What a dirty trick. You feel sullied. You need a shower. Or a benediction, something ceremonial, a transplant of the soul. Fucking Nabokov!
But what if.
What if all those sumptuous sentences could remain, all that passion and ardour, all that sly irony and all those nifty kinks of plot, and every single, solitary, last and final adjective, not to mention every exquisitely exuberantly extraneously addended adverb? What if all the book needed was an ever-so-subtle shift to make it okay?
Consider Timothy. Forty-something, strong as a mule, jawline like a cinderblock with an intellect to match. Where Dolores Haze pranced about in pinafores, Old Tim stands and waits in dungarees, thumbs in his suspenders, rocking (tantalizingly) on the heels of his workboots. Gristle of a three-day beard. Gristle of last night’s lamb shank between two back molars. And a gristly grizzly voice to match, something growlingly peptic, like a vomit of stones.
Tim and Humbert are peers. They met at a bar or something. About the same age, same height, same weight, same innate sense that the world is theirs for the taking, or watching. Equals, at any rate. And here’s the thing: guys who are more or less physical replicas of himself are just what turn HH’s crank.
Goodbye, icky power dynamics and statutory debates! No need for a court case here, unless it’s one to solidify their right to marry. Who might claim anything wrong with a couple of middle-aged guys out for a good time, a love affair between kindred spirits and forms, sex like a pair of walruses in the throes of some roaring, tusky battle? Only the politically intolerant, the morally backward and bankrupt.
Reading Timothy, you can even congratulate yourself for being on the right side of history. As opposed to that other, much more ethically dubious and shiftier version, which made you feel like there might, in fact, be something deeply wrong with you and Mr. Nabokov both.
Pasha Malla is the author of five books. Fugue States, a new novel, will be published in May 2017