Humbert Humbert had a sly, insidious lechery and a sneaky, winking humor. He would never let us fully resolve the question of Lolita's complicity in her own debauching. He would never let us get close enough to Lo's sad, wanting mother to comprehend her role in the miserable affair.
But what if Humbert weren't sad, sick Humbert, but instead a well-meaning gay man living a mildly glamorous yet utterly respectable life in a small, romantic French village? Haven't we all wanted to ask that question at some point? Aren't we glad that someone now has?
Helen E. Mundler's Homesickness is the latest in a long line of companion volumes to Nabokov's Lolita and the latest to recast the love triangle and explore the allure of a girl's early pubescence. As Humbert, she casts Daniel--not sad, not sick, not even straight--who is grieving the loss of his lover David, killed on a photography expedition in Asia. Daniel was the object of the unwavering affection of his college friend Hestia, who becomes this novel's Charlotte Haze.
So acutely does Hestia fear the loss of her own childhood innocence--though it seems she had a less-than-happy childhood--that she never loses her virginity. Her fear of penetration, in fact, becomes a positively unshakeable trope. By novel's end it seems we've seen every possible variation on this theme, including a farcical failed hymenectomy. Ultimately, her daughter, Ilona, is conceived in a brutal rape, a malicious and anger-fueled penetration described in painful detail.
When Hestia dies of some hazy terminal illness, she names Daniel as Ilona's guardian, essentially bequeathing her, body and soul, to him in her stead. Daniel, tricked and guilted into fatherhood, has few parenting skills to calm the distraught, regressing 11-year-old girl, but he does have the skills of a lover. And, well, it's off we go down the road to Humbert-dom.
To Humbert, the slim straight hips, innocent laugh and wide-open possibilities of a young girl were all titillation. In Homesickness, they represent comfort: a comfort Hestia, the mother, is unwilling to leave behind, a comfort the grieving Daniel seeks out in young Ilona, and a comfort Ilona seems to need to share to experience feeling, herself. But then, that description suggests a presence of feeling and emotion, which is largely not the case. This is a sad, cold book, with no humanity to warm it up. Its characters are faceless abstractions, muddling through a series of literary themes. They barely breathe, jacketed in the too-tight crafting of Mundler's sentences.
But the spaces between them are interesting: It is in describing the characters' relationships that the writing takes hold, finds some meaningful ground. The black hole here is Ilona and Hestia's relationship. We never see them interact. The effect is that they blend together, the daughter becoming a continuation of the mother after her death.
There is surely a reason that writers keep returning us to the realm of Humbert, something he and Nabokov weren't telling us about the pleasures of childhood. Homesickness may not be satisfying on its own, but as another brief musing on what the old lech may have known, it's not without value.