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Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

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 – indeed, 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.

(Square-dancing!)

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.

27 thoughts on “Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita

  1. Stewart says:

    It’s certainly a book that requires a reread from me. i remember, having finished it, I read the opening foreword again and you could see how early Nabokov had seeded the book with its conclusions.

    One thing to note: you’ve used three spellings of the author’s surname. Only one is right. ;-)

  2. Thanks for the help editing, Stewart! I wrote this on the fly late last night! I will edit now.

  3. Beth says:

    I like your take on Lolita, Trevor. It caused me to feel that I was trapped in a room with someone enduring a psychotic episode. All the tricksy references, all the cleverness, all the sickness. Ugh, I gave it up, but suspect that I shouldn’t have.

  4. tuesday says:

    I agree with all the things you said; however, I don’t think I’d ever be able to describe my Lolita experience as ‘excellent’. The themes addressed in this book were much too heavy for me to swallow.

    Also, if you’ve read any of Nabokov’s other works – are they like Lolita at all?

  5. Tuesday, I haven’t read anything else by Nabokov – yet. My wife has read Invitation to a Beheading, and she liked it. It sounds much more surreal than Lolita, however. I have Pale Fire sitting ominously on my shelf, but I haven’t mustered the courage to pull it down yet. I’m definitely interested, but other things keep popping up, and I keep using the excuse of saving Nabokov for a rainy day or a drought or something.

  6. Fascinating review Trevor, of a challenging work too.

    On other Nabokov, Pnin is excellent and comes highly recommended (by me, anyway). It’s a novel about a Russian expat academic working at a US university, and while it plays games with how much you can trust the narrative it doesn’t contain anything like the darkness of the material in Lolita.

    I enjoyed Laughter in the Dark, which is in many ways a horribly bleak novel, and which I have to admit I like more than many do – some see it as not up to Nabokov’s best by any means and I think (though I could be wrong) that Nabokov himself thought it not up to the quality of his other work.

    I own but haven’t yet read Glory.

    To be honest, and in answer to tuesday, although Nabokov’s work is often uncomfortable, Lolita is I think slightly unique in his work in the difficulty of its themes. His writing though remains consistently excellent, and he is a writer that I think deserves the praise he receives.

  7. Forgot to say, Laughter in the Dark has one of the finest opening paragraphs in literature, and one which tells you right out the entire plot of the novel. You read to learn how things happened, not to find out what happens.

    “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”

    He loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster. A shiver goes through me when I read that. Absolutely pitiless prose.

  8. On Wednesday I will be posting my review of another writer whose first language is not English but who is excelling anyway: Aleksandar Hemon for The Lazarus Project. I think it is pretty incredible to have such a deep feel for a language that was not your own. Nabakov wrote better books in English than most. I’m anxious to get to know more of his work. Thanks for the suggestions, Max!

  9. Stewart says:

    On Wednesday I will be posting my review of another writer whose first language is not English

    Another? As I understood it, Nabokov was brought up in an anglophile household, being better versed – at a very early age – with English than Russian, much to his father’s disappointment. French came not long after. See, for example, this biography from Zembla, that says:

    Describing himself as “a perfectly normal trilingual child in a family with a large library,” VN first learned English and then French from various governesses; his father, upon realizing that his son could read and write English but not Russian, employed an instructor from a local school to teach VN and his brother Sergei their native tongue. The Nabokov family habitually spoke a melange of French, English, and Russian in their household, and this linguistic diversity would play a prominent role in VN’s development as an artist.

    It’s probably the fact that his first novels, Mary through The Enchanter, were written in Russian before he went on to write in English that the supposed feat of writing in a second language suffers some hyperbole.

  10. Duly noted, Stewart. Thanks for keeping my errant statements in line! And especially thanks for the insights into the author!

  11. John Self says:

    I’ve never read anything by Nabokov that satisfied me quite as much as Lolita. I’m a great fan of playfulness and authorial trickery in fiction, but often Nabokov, in his cool distance as a narrator, just comes across as cold.

    I’ve read a few of his earlier books including King, Queen, Knave and Max’s recommendation Laughter in the Dark, though I liked it less than he does. I think I also tried his first English-language novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, though I can’t remember anything about it (and right now am not even sure I ever did read it.) After this, I decided that clearly post-Lolita stuff was the way to go: obviously he must have got better as he got older, was my thinking.

    The thing is, there isn’t that much post-Lolita. Pale Fire is probably my next favourite, though I can never shake off the feeling that there’s not much more to it than its puzzling cleverness. It’s immensely brilliant, funny and endlessly discussable but lacks the heart that Lolita has (particularly in the closing chapters, where we – at least I – really start to feel empathy for Humbert).

    I then tried Transparent Things, a tiny sliver of a book, but never got very far, as it really seems to be the apotheosis of Nabokov as lordly narrator, looking down with wry amusement at his little fictional people. There’s something about that that leaves me cold.

    I have, and keep meaning to read, Pnin, which I think came between Lolita and Pale Fire, and which is apparently a comedy about an absent-minded professor (Timofey Pnin).

    The other post-Lolita novels are Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle which is apparently very long and dense, and a story which combines elements of incest and science fiction (or at least is set on an alternative history earth called Antiterra). Haven’t dared tackle it. Then there’s Look at the Harlequins!, his last published novel, which is apparently ‘playfully’ based on Nabokov’s life and works.

    His unfinished final novel The Original of Laura was a source of mythic allure for some years, until his family recently decided to go against Nabokov’s wishes – nothing to do with the money, I’m sure – and publish it. I believe it’s out soon.

  12. tuesday says:

    @ Trevor Berrett – in response to the comment you left on my blog, I agree that Humbert is an unreliable narrator, and his portrayal of Lolita is therefore a distorted one. Perhaps I was rather crude in my description of Lolita as a ‘mean slut of a child’; however, in my opinion, she isn’t quite the innocent girl-child either. I recall a passage in which Humbert quite accurately described the behaviour of certain adolescent girls who toy with men’s feelings; it was certainly not the self-justifying rambling of a paedophile. Lolita, to me, is definitely one of those girls.

    @ John Self: oh no! I was planning on reading Ada next year because I thought it would be nice to try a pleasant family history after my gruelling Lolita experience.

  13. John Self says:

    I agree with Tuesday. Although Humbert is a monster (“you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”), Lo is not entirely innocent. At twelve, she is on the edge of puberty, and becoming aware of her sexuality. Having said that, in the 1950s girls of that age were probably less aware of their sexuality than girls of that age are now. A fascinating book on this subject – on the jagged dividing line between adult views of the innocence of childhood and childhood desire to become more adult – is Jill Dawson’s novel Watch Me Disappear.

  14. workingwords100 says:

    I don’t think that I am ready for Lolita.

    However, I am reading Hazard and am finding it authentic. The storm has just started, so I have no comment about that yet.

  15. John and Tuesday, I think that is where this novel excels (or, at least one place where it excels). I can’t say I know exactly where on the spectrum Lolita falls. She could be a mean little slut. Or she could have been much much more innocent, though understandably confused. Because we have no way to corroborate Humbert’s self-indulgent story, she might have been like any other twelve-year-old girl. Humbert confesses he sees something different in nymphettes, and it could be a mistaken impression of untapped but surfacing sexuality. I’m also not sure where Humbert is confessing his flaws and weaknesses genuinely and when he is doing it as a smoke screen, confessing to being this much of a monster so we think he must be reliable with nothing to hide, because who would admit to the things he does in the first few chapters? Then again, he is genuinely heartbroken at the end, I believe.

    Interestingly, Kubrick’s adaptation, which Nabokov helped adapt, seems much more objective in its portrayal of Humbert and Lolita. They are what they are. (I loved it!)

    Also, John, thanks for the summary of what’s good and not so good in Nabokov’s works. At this point, I have no desire to read his complete works, so it’s good to know where else to go. Incidentally, I have some friends who consider Eva or Ardor their favorite book. That might encourage you, Tuesday (though how could you know if my friends are to be trusted ;) ).

    workingwords, I look forward to your thoughts!

  16. I wouldn’t put Laughter in the Dark up with Pnin, as I said upthread I enjoyed Laughter, but it was Pnin that I viewed as being excellent. My comments on Laughter are intended more as discussion of another work than necessarily as a recommendation.

    My personal recommendation for further reading is Pnin, I like Laughter more than many (including John) do but Pnin is definitely the better, and much subtler, novel.

  17. I have picked up Pnin from the bookstore shelf many times, Max. With your recommendation, I’ll probably buy it one of these times, sooner rather than later.

  18. Lee Monks says:

    As brilliant as ‘Lolita’ is (and it is extraordinarily so) I think his ‘Collected Stories’ eclipse any such collection I’ve read. Effulgent, magisterial, gleeful genius.

  19. I don’t know when I would have gotten around to his short stories if not for your recommendation, Lee. Much sooner now!

  20. Lee Monks says:

    I envy you your first read of those, Trevor. I only hope you’re half as impressed as I was. It’s one of those reading occasions where you backtrack FAR too often as you can’t believe what you’ve just read, the sheer bravado of it, and the miraculousness of a totally unique writer of, in my opinion, genius.

  21. Sherry says:

    “Lo is not entirely innocent. At twelve, she is on the edge of puberty, and becoming aware of her sexuality. Having said that, in the 1950s girls of that age were probably less aware of their sexuality than girls of that age are now.”

    I’m going to have to disagree with John here. I don’t believe girls were less aware of their sexuality, but that it was more repressed through society. They were likely more ashamed. To me this gives added tragedy to Lolita’s situation. She’s not just dealing with something (a sexual awakening) that is confusing, but also trying to do so without adequate help. Humbert’s motives are obviously not in her best interest.
    Also, I believe Humdinger seeing something different in Nymphette’s is common-there are similar patterns of children who are targeted. However, I don’t think it suggests Lolita was necessarily more sexual. I think it shows she was an easier target. Can you blame someone because they are less-protected or aware? Humdum tries.

  22. Lee, I hope it lives up to your hype! I’m sure it will.

    Sherry, very interesting points. I agree with your fist one about the sexual repression Lo and others probably dealt with.

    And your second point: I’m not sure I disagree that Humbert targeted Lolita based on how easily he could get her, but I think there is a physical attraction that has less to do with the circumstances and how easily he can attain his goal. It’s not easy, after all: he does have to marry her mother to get to her.

    Then again, maybe that was all part of the challenge!

    (By the way, one of my favorite parts of the book is when Humbert is talking to Lo’s head mistress – excellent play in your post with that section!)

  23. Stewart says:

    I suspect you haven’t seen these clips, Trevor. So here you go: Nabokov discusses Lolita: Part I | Part II

  24. Excellent! Thanks for the links, Stewart.

  25. jane says:

    Lolita isn’t my favorite Nabokov work, but I’ve enjoyed it each time I’ve gone back to it. You’ve written that you understand why the book gets such a bad rap, but I’m not sure I do. Is it the subject matter? Some people seem to think that because Nabokov wrote about pedophilia he must have condoned it or at least been sympathetic towards it, but I don’t agree. As we know, Humbert is an unreliable narrator! I think Lolita is more of a humanization of pedophilia than a defense; it’s really up to the readers to decide how sordid or not they find the Humbert-Dolores relationship. Maybe people dismiss Lolita as a piece of filth because they’re unsettled about their own reactions to the subject matter; they want to know more about Humbert’s obsession but can’t get past their inherent discomfort with pedophilia.

  26. Hi Jane, thanks for your comment. I agree that Lolita shouldn’t get such a bad rap, but I do understand it. It deals with a disturbing topic. That alone makes people wary, and that alone makes its scandalous reputation understandable, even if that perpsective is flawed by ignorance to how the topic is presented. Its reputation is even more understandable when, as you say, Nabokov leaves interpretation of the relationship up to the reader, allowing the reader to say that “this is the most true love story of our time.” While to me those elements make its scandalous reputation understandable, I don’t think that perspective is right either. As you say, underneath the surface much more is going on that subverts the idea that Nabokov put out the book merely to create a sordid effect. A careful reader should be able to see around those elements to a fascinating study of Humbert’s mind and technique – now that’s disturbing, but not scandalous.

    Which Nabokov book, by the way, is your favorite?

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