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A Great American Novel? Er...don't think so!
on December 5, 2015
Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.
Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I've read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say 'freckles' instead of consulting his thesaurus and coming up with 'lentigo' instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn't writing in his first language.” Aha! If only I'd paid more attention – 'cos in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one's time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword...
Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn't have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn't find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say...
“...how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”
Hmm! Well... anyway...
Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it's a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story - for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night - I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn't sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita's strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita's character was a deliberate effect of Humbert's unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn't convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.
Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword...
“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray's assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”
I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn't find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita's golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.
“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”
My feelings exactly. So, it's very well written, considering English isn't his first language. And that's pretty much the best I can find to say about it.