2. Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style” (chap 1, para 3).

The synopsis on the back of my copy calls the novel, “Nabokov’s most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humber’s obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze.” Isn’t that beautiful? Sounds like a quintessential Romance novel. It manages not to use the terms phedophilia, rape, abduction, and “creep in the park who is rubbing himself on your daughter”… and other contemporary terms we use when this type of “love affair” happens in reality.

Apparently, according to the back cover of the same book, a Time magazine reviewer called it, “Intensely lyrical and wildly funny.” I think I missed the wildly funny part. Where was that? Okay, I did chuckle at some of his prickly observations of American culture. But what else is funny about it?

But I love the book. I suppose I have to admit my grimacing interest in (concern for?) the despicable pursuit, and my outrage at the abuse. I certainly enjoyed the scraps of triumph as the growing, petulant Dolores drives the sleazebag to madness. How many times did I wish the bastard hit by a car, kicked in the groin, walked in on by a hotel employee. Alas, the pedophile has his way again and again, knowingly destroying that whom he professes to love.

I suppose I object to all the reviewers, academics and publishers of this novel who call it a love affair, or love of any type but the grossest kind of solipsistic self-love. And I think Nabokov would agree that too many readers have fallen for Humbert’s greasy charms. It should be no surprise, though, as we have all heard someone argue the “she seduced me!” defense (hopefully in reference to someone of a compatible age!). See, so many of us are already prone to accepting this rationalization from men. We are half way to believing Humbert before he speaks. Lionel Trilling says that we then, “find ourselves the more shocked when we realize that, in the course of reading the novel, we have come virtually to condone the violation it presents … we have been seduced into conniving the violation, because we have permitted our fantasies to accept what we know to be revolting.” As readers, we are implicated in the crime.

But I love the book. I love it. As a reader I am captivated; as a writer I am humbled. It contains some of the richest, emphatic language I’ve read to date. Nabokov said it is, in part, about his “love affair with the English language” (Nabokov’s essay, “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” which is appended to my edition). I can’t say enough about his incredible lyrical style. It amazes me to think the Russian is his first language. English wasn’t even his second. There is a poetry to his writing that is moving, powerful. I will certainly read other Nabokov works in search of it. Partly with the hope that it doesn’t only reside in the voice of a pedophile!

Great book. I recommend it to anyone who 1) is old enough to understand that Dolores is not to blame for Humbert’s sickness (the narrator is quite slick with word play: puns, double entendre, and the outright lie) and 2) is not a victim of the Humberts of the world.

8 comments:

Olman Feelyus said...

Whoah! Moral indignation! He's a bit of a perv and obsessed loser, but your condemnation of his actions seem strongly driven by our own western, protestant values. In Latin America, these kind of age differences between men and women are considered normal.

Unfortunately, I'm not so sure if Nabokov was as removed and critiquing of the situation as he makes it seem in Lolita. My sister studied him and told me that he wrote another book which was much more disturbingly straightforward about his love for the young ladies.

beemused said...

I read this when I was a fairly naive university student, and I don't recall feeling any outrage, just a kind of 'ew' at HH's constant fawning over Lolita.

I got a clear impression that HH was a 'perv and obsessed loser' (to quote Olman) and that he clearly destroyed Lolita's chance at having a 'normal' life.

I think that people generally feel some sympathy for HH is because of Nabakov's exceptional writing, and that yes, HH is in many ways an externalization of the author.

Crumbolst said...

Western protestant values? If so, is that worse that 45 year old Latin American men taking advantage of newly orphaned, destitute 12 year olds? Do they have the power and influence of a step-father. Do the children have absolutely no options but to have sex with the men? Even if that is common, is it good?

Come on, it's a great book but we have got to call this what it really is. Imagine your own 12 year old daughter manipulated by this guy.

Dan said...

solipsistic: extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one's feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.

I learned something from reading a blog!

I think I will read this book this year. I have seen it and always passed it by because of the Amy Fisher (Long Island Lolita)reference that pops into my mind and that porn movies like to use the word in too many titles.

I have a feeling I will react similarly.

Olman Feelyus said...

The chick in Lolita is not 12.

And your examples are killing the exluded middle. A lot of these old guy/young girl relationships go on between members of the same class. There is certainly an element of power imbalance there, but "newly-orphaned, destitute 12-year old" is not what I'm talking about.

When I was in Cuba, for instance, I encountered a couple on the side of the road which I assumed was grandfather and daughter. The man was poor and rural looking, she poor and sort of dressed up. Turned out they were boyfriend and girlfriend and acted that way. I only chatted with them for a few moments, so I can't say what the power dynamics but they seemed pretty equal in their external, public personas. He was in his 40s easily and she in her mid-teens. They certainly weren't shunned by the community either, as they were on a public street, holding hands and our guide knew of them.

Olman Feelyus said...

Oh wait, Dolores was 12!

Well I guess I'd better read the book. I thought she was more like 15. She looks like it in the movie.

That is a bit much. I still oppose your righteous and moralistic tone, but I'll step back from my "cultural relativism" stance a bit knowing she was only 12.

I really need to read the book before getting into discussions about it.

Crumbolst said...

Just to clarify something: I'm not making a generalization about older men and younger women (or girls). I am railing on the character Humbert Humbert, the self proclaimed horrible wretch of a man.

Crumbolst said...

Dan, I do highly recommend the book. It's among the best.