Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955) Vintage (1997) 317 pp
This is an interesting project to take on. Many people believe that Lolita is a book somehow sympathetic to pedophiles. Sure, they may say, it probably is written well, but does that excuse the content? Can you get around all the filth just because it is poetic? Doesn’t that, in fact, just make it worse? Well, I’m not necessarily embarassed to read such books, but I was curious about what I would walk away with. Is it famous just because it is scandalous? How does Mr. Nabokov present such a topic?
The first lines are poetic — and disturbing:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps dodwn the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
Se was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Several important points of interest are brought to light in these lines. The narrator loves a certain Lolita, a young girl-child. He has done this before. He is a murderer. And a poet. I found it very interesting that Nabakov starts this work in a way remarkably similar to great Romantic poems (some of which probably were written about such sordid love affairs, anyway). Indeed, if Nabokov meant to threaten the reader’s sensibilities (and it seems he did) then he succeeds right out of the gate!
It is understandable why this book gets such a bad rap. Here we have the story of a blissful love affair between a young girl and an older man, a man who goes to disgusting lengths to win her affections. Interestingly, it does read fine on that straightforward level. Lolita practically begs for Humbert Humbert to make love to her. And of course, Humbert Humbert complies. But this is Humbert’s telling: it is his confession to the police. As far as unreliable narrators go, here’s a great study. Lolita has no way of telling her side of the story. Humbert has monopolized it, and what’s worse, because he is so eloquent, it sounds real. One looks for the layers in his language, not for layers in the story.
I think it’s interesting that on the cover of my edition, Vanity Fair called it “The only convincing love story of our century.” I’d love to read that article to find out it that was said tongue-in-cheek. Whatever the case, pulling that quote certainly leads a browsing book-buyer to assume that this book is in fact a genuine love story. And maybe it is. That’s part of what makes it so interesting.
Enough of that, how was my experience? Excellent. This is a book at once funny and disturbing. Humbert Humbert is an engaging narrator. He begins by explaining his past desires and experiences, and somehow I came to be interested in his humanity despite my disgust at his character. Throughout the story, he engages in layer upon layer of wordplay, some of which, I’m sure, blew right over my head. However, the pieces I caught — like the time when he hides the name of his victim in a french sentence — were fascinatingly well done. It was, I cannot hide, an exhausting read because I was obliged (happily) to read every word carefully. Even in seemingly mundane passages between himself and another mundane character Humbert loads on the dramatic irony. I’m thinking, in particular, of the lengthy passage where Humbert is speaking with headmistress Pratt about Lolita’s
entering an age group where dates, dating, date dress, date book, date etiquette, means as much to her as, say, business, business, business connections, business success, mean to your, or much as [smiling] the happiness of my girls means to me. Dorothy Humbird is already involved in a whole system of social life which consists, whether we like it or not, of hot-dog stands, corner drugstores, malts and cokes, movies, square-dancing, blanket parties on beaches, and even hair-fixing parties.
The humor is on almost every page, mixed with sadness, darkness, tragedy, and wretchedness. Here is the famous passage from near the beginning of the book:
My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning) when I was three, and, save for a pocket of warmth in the darkest past, nothing of her subsists within the hollows and dells of memory, over which, if you can still stand my style (I am writing under observation), the sun of my infancy has set: surely, you all know those redolent remnants of day suspended, with the midges, about some hedge in bloom or suddenly entered and traversed by the rambler, at hte bottom of a hill, in the summer dusk; a furry warmth, golden midges.
But, as I said above, that’s only part of the fun. The deeper aspect, the hidden aspect, is the true character of Dolores Haze. She has witnessed Humbert Humbert’s obsessions and knows what he’s capable of. She’s the title character, and yet she says nothing, even if Humbert Humbert puts words in her mouth. Reading with this in mind hightens the tension between the reader and this confessional manuscript.