Every day I take the same journey home. I travel from Mornington Crescent to Tottenham Court Road where I switch from the Northern Line to the Central Line. I am fairly content on this journey, for I know that just after Oxford Circus the carriage will empty somewhat and, if I am patient and stand near the centre, I will eventually get a seat.
Lo and behold, a seat usually appears, and I take my bottle of water from my bag, place my bag between my knees and begin reading. All alone, fully captivated by my book, with one eye on the tube map and one ear listening to the occasional announcement, I am as comfortable as one can be on London's Underground during that foreboding rush hour.
In the last few weeks, however, I haven't been quite so comfortable. I have been reading Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
It's not the stigma that surrounds the book that causes me discomfort, nor is it the front-cover - although my Penguin edition displays an arguably inappropriate picture of a young girl - but rather it's the book's content. There I am, sitting on the train, surrounded by bored, lonely and judgemental strangers, reading the words that grace those infamous pages... 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.'
Many of these strangers have no idea, of course, that I am reading the story of Humbert Humbert's paedophilic obsession with a 13-year-old 'nymph'. They don't know, for example, that at one particular moment, somewhere near Marble Arch, Nabokov is describing Humbert's hand running up little Lolita's thighs. They certainly don't know that I'm quite enjoying the whole wretched and perverse affair. To them, I am just another tired man, at the end of another tiring day, reading another tired old book.
There is something exciting about the quiet discomfort caused by the book. Of course, one would imagine that Nabokov had this in mind. Humbert Humbert is, in many respects, a likeable character. This isn't to say that the reader doesn't detest his grotesque habits and his manipulative ways, but rather that Humbert's graceful voice enchants the reader to the point that this wanton behaviour is somehow overlooked. You find yourself smiling and regaling in the poetic chorus of a scheming middle-aged paedophile. On the tube, I found myself laughing with Humbert and then looked in the opposite window and shuddered at my reflection. One becomes incredibly self-conscious reading Lolita in Public.
At the end of the whole sordid affair, you are perfectly aware that Humbert is a monster. Yet he still appears in the readers mind as an attractive, cultured and charming monster, like your own personal, fictionalized Ted Bundy. You loathe him and hate him yet still sympathize with him. You want harm to come his way but don't want his voice to cease. This all might seem quite tendentious and, as mentioned, I doubt this was far from Nabokov's mind. Humbert Humbert is one of the most profound voices in modern literature precisely because of the confliction that arises when the reader comes to sympathize with a monster. When you are in public, this personal confliction is all the more apparent. Perhaps Lolita is best read at home, tucked up in a warm bed. Perhaps not.