That Nabokov isn’t particularly interested in our first encounter with Lolita may be deduced in part from the fact that the novel’s thematisation of second encounters is hidden from us on our first reading. The opening address to: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins …’ reads like the invocation of a first love, and it’s only in the third paragraph that we understand Lolita to be Humbert’s second love, following ‘a certain initial girl-child’ called Annabel. The irony by which our first encounter with the love of Humbert’s life in the first line, is his second encounter with her – albeit in another form – is lost on us until our second reading. Both in our reading of the novel and in the story Humbert tells, it’s second encounters that really matter. The naivety of the first-time reader is of little use in interpreting Nabokov’s palimpsest of echoes, and the book is called ‘Lolita’ rather than ‘Annabel’, because it’s Lolita who is irreplaceable: there’s no third love.
What might be the value, then, of our first encounter with the novel? One answer might be that the second encounter isn’t possible without the first. As Humbert puts it: ‘there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child.’ Our second Lolita requires a predecessor: both we and Humbert need an Annabel. This is true partly because superiority is relative; Humbert is only able to know that he prefers Lolita to Annabel because Annabel exists as a point of comparison, and we as readers are only able to appreciate the full irony of the first line if we first mistake Lolita for Humbert’s first love – in a kind of inverse déjà vu that makes us aware of our ignorance rather than knowledge of an echo. The recognition of a preferable love and a richer novel is a product of experience.
We not only need experience in order to notice how our understanding changes but to bring our naivety into focus. Humbert realises with time that the Annabel phase of his love life was immature, and while he fetishises physical immaturity (slim thighs, ‘juvenile breasts’ etc), his vantage point is that of the connoisseur – someone who grows wise about preferences by making them over and again. To the extent that the novel is about Humbert’s perspective, it’s about the maturity that equips him to think about his own and Lolita’s immaturity in detail – though, of course, without understanding everything, or even taking everything into account. It’s about contemplating immaturity from a relatively knowing distance, which is also what we do when we read for the second time.
When Humbert sees Lolita for the first time he imagines himself to be seeing Annabel for the second time; he reflects: ‘It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair.’ For Humbert, to fall in love at first sight is to fall in love at second sight; the feeling of spontaneous attachment is only possible as an act of memory, because it needs to seem knowing. On the other hand, his love at second sight is as unsuspicious of itself as love at first sight. There’s an innocence to his faith in the authenticity of his response that pulls against the cynicism that our growing familiarity with the text prompts us to apply to everything he says he feels. We learn to be more and more critical of Humbert, whereas his lack of self-criticism permits him to behave as he does. Paradoxically, his criminal abuse of his position of power is the index of a kind of innocence of the implications of his actions. The ability to understand his affair with Lolita as a romance that she controls (‘My life was handled by little Lo …’) depends on a naivety that clashes with his characteristic wisdom in defining beauty and love. Humbert’s psychopathy consists in this persistence of naivety in the midst of knowledge.
In reading the novel for the first time, we compare to Humbert in our capacity to trust his perspective. We’re romantic in this sense. In returning to the novel, we compare to him in recognising the echoes that carry between his experiences. In moving from naivety in our first reading to knowingness in later readings, we identify with him on one level and then on another level, but never on both levels at the same time, so that the empathy that allows us to feel we inhabit his thoughts isn’t incriminating. Our first impressions matter partly because they offer an insight into what it means for Humbert to feel he is in love, while they simultaneously distance us from the form of love he feels, which depends for its authenticity on the sense of returning to something known.