on October 5, 1999
If you've only heard of "Lolita" from its reputation as being "pornographic", you are in for a surprise when you read it. Yes, it involves a lecherous, middle aged man chasing after a 12 year old "nymphet". Yes, it is deeply disturbing and makes one queasy at times. It is also a brilliant, funny, witty, literary rollercoaster which will delight you and dazzle you with the beauty of language. Nabakov can make words jump through hoops you never even knew existed, while he explores the dark realms of obsession and longing.
The narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a fascinating construction. As readers, we find ourselves simultaneously repelled by his actions and sympathetic to his yearning. We are utterly charmed by his wit, intelligence and verbal acrobatics, sometimes to the point where we lost sight of what he's doing to his object of desire, Lolita.
I would suggest that all readers reaquaint themselves with the concept of the "unreliable narrator" before they sink into Humbert's hypnotic web of logic. When you find yourself sympathizing with Hum about Lolita's "cruelties", try to remember that you are seeing everything through his twisted and self-serving lens. Humbert has rationalized his behavior so deeply and reports it to us so entertainingly, that we find ourselves accepting his interpretations of people and events at face value. However, we must remember that Hum is capable of the most monsterous of deceptions (note how long it takes him to inform Lolita of her mother's demise), and of self deceptions. Read between the lines. Question his reading of events. Pay attention when his reporting is at odds with his interpretations of them. As one example, Humbert tells us that he was seduced by Lolita, giving us the impression that she was sexually mature and a willing partner. Contrast that with his throwaway mentioning of her "performing" for him in exchange for treats, and watching television as he took his pleasure in her. And don't ignore Lolita sobbing each night, as he seems to do.
Nabokov has created a connundrum for us as readers. He uses the most glorious tricks and delights of the English language to tell his tale of self-deception and rationalization masquerading as "love". Look beyond the circus to the grime beneath it, and appreciate the mastery that gives us both.
I have no real excuse for not reading "Lolita" before this late date. It's certainly a book that crops up in conversation a great deal. I watched the James Mason film version of the book years ago--perhaps that's what put me off. I recently watched the Jeremy Irons version and loved it. I suppose part of me asked why myself why I'd want to read a book that is essentially the ramblings of a middle-aged pervert. Anyway, I decided that I'd procrastinated long enough, and it was time to get serious and find out what all the fuss is about.
The story is narrated by middle-aged Humbert Humbert. He's a pedophile--although he's tried denying it, tried disguising it, and tried channeling his baser instincts, but as luck would have it, Humbert finds himself as the lodger at the home of a buxom, lonely widow, Charlotte Haze and 12-year-old daughter, Lolita. Humbert doesn't particularly even like Lolita--he actually finds her rather dull, but she becomes a vessel for the fantasies left by Humbert's unfulfilled first love affair.
Due to the subject matter, the book was, at times, rather difficult to read, and it is a tribute to Nabokov's skill as a writer that I was gripped by this story. Humbert Humbert is at his most 'human' (introspective) during his pre- and post-Lolita phases. Once Humbert crosses the boundaries of ethical behaviour and begins a physical relationship with Lolita, there is no going back. At times, Humbert congratulates himself for his cleverness and calls himself a "magician," and then at other times, Humbert seems to realize how despicable he truly is. Unfortunately, the occasional flash of insight is too pale and fleeting to release Humbert from his obsession with his "nymphet" and so Humbert accepts his enslavement and ultimate fate. As the novel develops, Humbert relates his seduction of Lolita and his subsequent relationship towards the child. His manipulative behaviour with Lolita was nauseating, and he acknowledges that Lolita has "absolutely nowhere else to go." Humbert keeps it that way--and turns Lolita into his personal prostitute. Vain, selfish Humbert is a despicable character and at no point did I feel one iota of sympathy for the man. His ability to focus solely on his destructive, obsessive needs is chilling. And yet while I despised the character of Humbert, the story was compelling. How did Nabokov manage this? The brilliant ending of the novel is a triumph of literature, and the words gave me goose bumps. "Lolita" is one of the best books I have ever read--displacedhuman.
LOLITA is difficult to approach in part because of its reputation. Upon beginning to read the novel, some find it so highly styled that it is difficult to grasp. Throughout the novel, many wonder if the art involved can justify the nature of the story and the point of view it offers. This is not and never has been a novel for a quick Sunday afternoon read; so many issues swirl around it and through it that the book requires critical thought even as one reads it. As a result many people actively dislike it. Even so, LOLITA has seemed entirely secure in its status as a landmark of western literature since its first publication, an almost inevitable creation that pushes the boundaries of what literature can effectively do in terms of subject, style, and technique.
The story is infamous. Humbert Humbert is of European origin and in his early teenage years developed a passionate attachment to a girl of his own age, an attachment that was never entirely satisfied and over which he has obsessed for many years. Now residing in a small New England town, he becomes equally obsessed with a twelve year old girl named Lolita Haze who recreates for him the magic he felt in that first relationship. In order to be near her, Humbert rents a room from and ultimately marries Lolita's mother Charlotte--but Charlotte uncovers Humbert's motives and in a twist of fate is killed in the street as she runs from the house to expose him. The circumstance places Lolita entirely in Humbert's power. They travel extensively, partly in order that he might continue his molestation undetected, partly in order that he might prevent Lolita from forming other relationships that might offer a means of escape. But Lolita is not a simple victim, and in spite of her years already has a certain sexual expertese. Over time she begins to push the extent of her power over Humbert, trading on her sexual favors to manipulate Humbert much as he initially expected to manipulate her. Determined to escape Humbert, she does so by the shocking manouver of giving herself to another molestor. It is an act that effectively destroys all concerned.
The story was incredibly shocking for 1955 and indeed remains incredibly shocking today. But more shocking than the story is the fact that author Vladimir Nabokov tells it entirely from Humbert's point of view. Humbert is eloquent, clever, witty. One gradually comes to sympathize with him, his desperation, and the extremes to which it drives him. It is here that the novel suddenly suddenly uncoils like a snake and bites the reader with a deadly toxin. Humbert is not a detached observer; he sees what he wishes to see and tells what he wants to tell, and through him Nabokov has lured you into a genuine feeling of sympathy for the devil. You have become complicit in his crime. Quite suddenly the fact that Lolita is only a child is again thrust back upon you and you realize in full that you have smiled upon her rapist. It is among one of the most astonishing and profoundly disturbing literary effects imaginable.
For all its word play and literary stylings, the element about LOLITA which most impresses me is its deep and bitter irony shot through with unexpected and extremely disconcerting humor. The very title of the novel is ironic, for LOLITA is not actually about Lolita; it is about Humbert. He does not really see Lolita as she exists. He sees her as he imagines her to be. He does not love Lolita. He loves the fantasy he projects upon her. He realizes this with an increasing frequency and knows full well that Lolita is not an extraordinary creature of endless delight. She is just a little girl who was not quite as innocent as Humbert thought she was, considerably more intelligent than he expected her to be, and who with a child's logic ultimately becomes equally manipulative of him in self-defense. But just as Humbert deludes the reader for much of the novel, so too does he delude himself, repeatedly setting aside the fundamental and abhorrent facts of the relationship and paving his road to hell with endless self-justification in order to live out the obession.
Many readers have been thoroughly outraged by LOLITA, and the criticism tends to fall into two categories: those who consider the book pornographic and those who consider it a defense of child molestation. No doubt there have been pediophiles who read the book and considered it both; no doubt there have been moralists unable to see the actual drift of the novel due to their horror at the elements from which it is formed. But we cannot judge something by the extreme interpretations of warped minds on either side of the moral fence. LOLITA is not sexually graphic, still less sexually stimulating, and it is hardly an endorsement of sexual abuse. The novel's strange and potent mixture of romanticism and bitterness is too intense to allow for such superficial and commonplace notions, and it seems to consistently defeat whatever expectation a reader brings to it. Difficult, and at times distasteful, unexpectedly funny in a remarkably disconcerting way, love it, hate it, both or something in between--there is no denying that LOLITA has remarkable power. It is a dark masterpiece capable of making you question your own suppositions and hypocrisies in an often frightening way.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer
on November 11, 2000
This is a magnificent book in many ways, most of which have been commented on--often brilliantly--by Amazon reviewers. I would therefore like to restrict my comments to the morality of the book, and to those who to this day view the book with outrage. Even those who admire the book somehow feel compelled to comment that they are "disturbed" by it. Why is this? Let us first examine the novel itself.
As everybody knows, it is the story of Humbert Humbert, a full-grown, adult male--not an old man--who seduces a compliant twelve-year old girl, and then goes on to have a year or so long "affair" with her. I put the term "affair" in quotation marks, because it probably isn't appropriate to describe a sexual relationship between a full grown male and a female child in such terms. Is it safe to say that most rational human beings disapprove of such relationships? It is certainly safe to say that Nabakov--and his narrator--know that such relationships are wrong. This is important. The tale is not only told in the context of a moral universe, it is also told by a character who is in acceptance of a moral universe. Oh, he makes a comment here and there about some medieval king marrying his twelve year old cousin, but clearly, his heart isn't in it. He knows that he is a monster, a "brute."
Indeed, his goal was never to have sex with a conscious Lolita to begin with. His goal initially was only to fondle her after drugging her to induce sleep; she was never to know what he was doing. Of course this is also reprehensible, but clearly it shows a conscience at work. A conscience motivated in part by fear, to be sure, but also a conscience for the welfare--at least early on--of this little girl. Conscience is not normally a factor in purely prurient forms of entertainment.
Following this encounter, he takes Lolita on a journey across, around, and through the United States, living in hotel rooms, and buying clothes and food on the move. Toward the end of this, we find one of the most moving paragraphs in literature: "And so we rolled East . . . We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour-books, old tires, and her sobs in the night--every night, every night--the moment I feigned sleep." The narrator's revelation of such anguish on the part of his victim clearly works against the argument that this novel was merely intended to be pornographic.
Humbert makes it clear that he loves his Lolita. There can be no mistake about this. He loves the way she moves. He loves the down on her arm. He loves her grace on the tennis court. He loves the way she flicks her head at him when looking up from a book. He loves her toes, her shoes, her name. He describes her in beautiful, poignant, poetic language, memorable and moving in every respect. Indeed the English language has rarely been used so wonderfully. But nowhere in this book does he describe in such terms or any other terms her sexual characteristics, or comment at length or in glaring detail his physical relations with her.
Finally, there is no effort to sugar-coat the effect of all of this on Lolita herself. We learn that after she left Humbert, she entered into a series of tawdry sexual escapades--still at too young an age--with a debased playwright. We last see her in her late teens, married to a bumpkin, and living in a clapboard shack surrounded by weeds.
Obviously, to anybody who has bothered to read this book, the presentation of the subject matter is not what is objectionable. Therefore, what apparently disturbs most people is the subject matter itself. But why? Why doesn't the latest grisly serial-killer-of-the-month novel inspire such protest? (Has there ever been a time in the history of the world in which so many novels have been written about serial killers?) Why not the barely-disguised soft-porn trash by Danielle Steele or Jackie Collins? Or the latest Anne Rice gore fest? While Lolita is not really a morality tale, it certainly doesn't glorify its subject matter the way novels such as these do.
So what is it? I think that with Lolita Nabakov has perhaps unconsciously touched a nerve. We, as humans, are rational creatures. We know what is right, and we have set rules for ourselves to follow. Everybody agrees that murder is wrong. But sexual mores have changed and continue to change in our affluent Western societies. Abortion has become legal, which gives women more sexual freedom. Homosexuality has become acceptable, which allows men more sexual freedom. Prostitution and pornography are rampant. Without discussing the morality of any of this, our society is now in rapidly changing and uncharted territory. Perhaps the objection to Lolita is from those who look at the book, and wonder how far we are going to go.
on August 22, 1999
My father and I had gotten into a deep discussion on film, since we both consider ourselves moviegoers or rather open-minded critics to all film genres, and the name Stanley Kubrick had popped up. I was familiar with Kubrick's work- Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, of course, Full Metal Jacket, and The Shining. More of his recent work. Well, Dad's an English and Lit. major and he told me about one of Kubrick's earlier films entitled Lolita. He said it was about a middle aged man who's pathetically infatuated with a young 12 year old girl. Pedaphilia. Very Kubrick, I had thought. But what had interested me most was that the novel upon which the movie was based on, written by Vladimir Nabokov had ranked so high among the top 100 novels of the 20th Century. That was what engaged me into interest with the book.
It's written so poetically, with such fervor that you tend to believe that Mr. Nabokov does in fact have Humbert's tendencies and mannerisms. The novel is quite funny, too. The scenes where Humbert Humbert contemplates a way to get Clarlotte Haze out of the picture are brilliant. The sex in the novel is unrestricted and even shocking if you (and you won't be able to help doing it) really visualize it. The dialogue between Humbert and Lolita is brilliant as are the moments when the shadowed Clare Quilty presents himself.
So it's smut, huh? Well, I wouldn't call it smut. Not at all. Believe it or not, this novel is a 100 percent love story. The old saying: "True love never dies", which I never really acknowledge. Humbert Humbert's desire for her was a result of the permanent damage caused from losing someone he had cherished in the past. Losing her, her youthful beauty, plummeted him into such a state of grief that he could only find escape with another "nymphet", as young as she may be, who could capture the image, that subconscious or maybe strongly conscious image that he adored. And though most can't relate to Humbert Humbert's odd infatuation, many can relate to his ability to feel passion for somebody. He is your average Romeo, ready to die or kill for his love. And though Humbert's actions are condemnable to society, we're witness to the fact that even society, that even strict regulations, can't diminish love if it's strong enough.
on July 13, 2000
"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." --Oscar Wilde
Often banned by those who consider it "immoral," LOLITA is far better than just "well written." Stylistically, there are few novels in English that match Nabokov's masterpiece for the seriously playful love and use of language. And English was at least Nabokov's third tongue! LOLITA is neither a moral nor an immoral book. It is brilliantly written. But Wilde was slightly off: that is NOT all.
French academic Humbert Humbert comes to America to renew his life after stagnation and divorce in Paris. He soon meets the 12-year-old Dolores Haze. Lolita. She who reminds him so powerfully of the young Annabel he so innocently fell in love with on the Riviera when he was thirteen. The trouble is, Humbert was thirteen twenty-five years before and he wants to love Dolores as if he were thirteen again. It's just not so innocent this time around, and the fact that he knows this does not stop him.
That LOLITA is a love story cannot be convincingly denied any more than that it is a twisted tale of illicit, deranged obsession--novels, like life, often revel in ambiguity. Nabokov encourages these multiple shades of gray by employing one of the most enchanting yet unreliable narrators I've ever encountered. We see not only his obsessive, unheathily insatiable lust for the young girl, but also what life with him does to her: how she cries at night despite her brave front during the day, how she learns to manipulate him, how she grows to hate him. How much of what Humbert says can really be believed? Trying to figure that out is part of the enjoyment.
The whole book is a story of decadence and decline, of the beautiful ugliness of corruption. LOLITA is an aesthetic dream gone horribly wrong under the bright hot sun of the highways of middle America. It is also a treasure of twentieth century literature, a work of genius in how it persuades us, from time to time, to sympathize with its charming yet ruthless villain. But to say that Nabokov endorses pedophilia would be like saying that Sophocles endorses patricide and sleeping with one's mother because he wrote OEDIPUS REX. Read LOLITA and be amazed!
on March 19, 2007
As I grow old and older, I ask myself all too often why I bother? Haven't I eaten enough toast? Haven't I bent over to tie enough shoes? Then I come across an author like Vladimir Nabokov and a book like *Lolita,* an author and a book that, although Ive read thousands and thousands of books in my time, I somehow never read before. Maybe it was his name, or fame, or the fact that a movie was made of his most famous novel. There are books that you feel you've already read, even though you havent, just because they are so famous, or infamous. This is one of those books. But if you havent read it and think you know what its all about, youre wrong, utterly and 100% wrong, and youre missing one of the great joys of a reader's life: the prose of Vladimir Nabokov.
This book is fiendishly good. It undermines everything we "ought" to feel, then it makes us feel it; finally it pulls the rug out from under us altogether. Nabokov's narrator, Humbert Humbert, is a child molestor, that's what we'd call him in the bald and unfancy terminology of today. He's a sick, abusive, predatory[...]. Yet it's his voice that entertains us throughout *Lolita,* and entertains us it does. Humbert is urbane, intelligent, self-deprecating, cynical, and laugh-out-loud funny. He's a poet and a romantic. He's the English professor we all wish we had. He knows that what he's doing is wrong. He's the first to admit it. He's the first to admit everything, including that he can't help himself. He is, you see, in love, hopelessly and authentically and obsessively in love. The problem is that she's [....]
Now the truly devilish thing about *Lolita* is that of all the characters in the novel, including even Lolita herself, its Humbert that draws our "sympathy," so to speak. Sympathy for the devil, it is, in spite of ourselves, in the sense that we see the world most vividly from his point-of-view, in the sense that he seems more alive than anyone else in the novel, more perceptive, more uncompromisingly self-honest, more human and, in the end, the most tragic of all the characters. He's a man with an indelible flaw, he's a man in love, no matter how misguided, no matter how criminal, and its Nabokov's "evil" genius to get us to accept Humbert Humbert as our sick hero, man who we might send to prison for fifty years, but who we couldn't help feeling more than a twinge of regret having to do so.
One would be hard-pressed to come up with a prose-stylist whose voice is smoother, more casually erudite, and more post-contemporary than Nabokov...and this in a novel that is already half-a-century old! An amazing text from an author who has after 300 pages of pure reading bliss, shot instantaneously to the top of my favorite author's list, *Lolita* is a book I should have read a hundred years ago, but instead sat wasting my time in graduate literature courses! What are they teaching in schools anyway? I'm ordering up some more Nabokov novels immediately, if not sooner. You should too.
on January 11, 2000
I have read "Lolita" twice and have seen both film versions of the story. The first time I read "Lolita" , I was caught up in the ironic spirit of Nabokov's writing and was humored by the caricature of Humbert Humbert. Essentially, I was fascinated by the contrast of the stogy European and the tacky American cultural and geological landscape.
For some reason, the second time I read the book I was much more attuned to the plight of the young girl, Lolita. I saw her less as a plot device and more as a character in her own right. And of course the moment I viewed her in this context, I really came to see how horribly she suffered at the hands of a powerful, sex-crazed fiend. Nabokov being Nabokov, my moments of realization were subtle. For example, during the terrible bedroom scene in which Humbert informs Lolita that her mother can not come to her rescue because she is dead, Lolita storms away in grief and despair. But eventually she returns to Humbert's bed and Humbert informs us that "you see, she had no place else to go." What chilling words. During the second reading they froze me in my seat. How many kidnappers and child molesters have thrived on such a revelation?
Humbert is part European caricature, part monster, and yet he has many touches of a real human being. At one point he observes Lolita to her friend and inquiring about one of life's mysteries. After hearing her question, Humbert realizes far from merely being his "nymphette" and object of his desires, Lolita is a real human being with her own thoughts and feelings. It is a sad and fascinating revelation for Humbert, who of course fails to act on it in a salutary fashion.
Whether we like it or not, "Lolita" is a love story albeit not a very wholesome one. Humbert says he loves Lolita, and certainly devotes his life to her in more ways than your average middle class husband. But in many ways, Humbert's behavior resembles a compulsive sexual addiction more than love. It is Humbert's recounting of events more than his behavior that makes this a love story.
People have speculated about possible relationship between the doomed protagonist and his creator. Certainly some of the events in "Lolita" are drawn from real life. The story of Humbert's first love, Anabell closely parallels Nabokov's description in "Speak Memory" of a girl he met during a youthful trip to the South of France. Although writers frequently cull material from real life experiences, there is no evidence that Humbert resembles Nabokov in any fashion.
Critics have also attempted to read "Lolita" on a metaphorical level by claiming that it is really a book about the author's love affair with America. Somehow I just don't buy it. For one thing, the description and characterization of the American people and landscape is hardly flattering in "Lolita". And though, I may be wrong, I believe Nabokov's strentgh lies in his literal conveyance of mood, character, and the immediate surroundings, not in symbolic writing.
It is ironic that Nabokov detested Freudian psychoanalytic theory and yet was a gifted psychologist himself. You can not read "Lolita" without being impressed by Nabokov's lucid and accurate characterization of people. With the possible exception of Quilty, his characters are extremely realistic. This is particularly disturbing in Humbert's case because the reader experiences him on two levels. On the one hand, Humbert is the pervert and child molester that most people fear and detest. On the other hand, his mania and craving probably strike a chord in most of us.
Nabokov's use of language is fluid and complex. In the opening narrative, Humbert introduces himself to the reader in a convluted, verbose fashion. But before we can get use to his endless sentences, and limitless vocabulary, Humbert stops himself by saying, "can you stand my style?". Nabokov is telling us, "look, this guy is such a caracature that even HE knows it." In fact, Nabokov reveals the many facets of Humbert's character (maniac, pervert, jilted lover, etc) through dialog, description, and poetry. It is a very complex task that would fail in the hands of a less able writer. Nabokov accomplishes it with amazing ease.
Speaking briefly of the two Lolita films, I loved the earlier version with Peter Sellers and James Mason and found the later one with Jeremy Irons extremely disturbing. The early film version, like my first reading of Lolita captures the superfluous and futile quality of Humbert's character. It also downplays the sexual aspect of the story completely. The latter film version, like my second reading of the book focuses almost exclusively on the criminal and horrible aspects of the story. In many ways, the film is well done, but is also a gratuitous interpretation.
Although in many ways I don't like "Lolita" and certainly don't think it is one of Nabokov's best works, I highly recommend it. Nobokov's prose and particularly his dialogs are superb. The characterization, irony and psychology of the book are probably among the best ever written.
on April 23, 1999
One of the most beautifully-constructed novels of the Twentieth Century, it is also one of the most misunderstood. When published in the 1950s, bluenoses criticized "Lolita" for its allegedly frank sexuality. Today, people look at it askance because of our increased sensitivity to child abuse and molestation. In addition, it was written by a Dead White European Male (not to be confused with White Widowed Male). Unfortunately, conservative and liberal critics scrutinizing the surface of "Lolita," as well as those panting maniacs looking for titillating stuff, demonstrate and appalling ignorance of Vladimir Nabokov's "intentions" (almost as shaky a term in his world as "reality").
We may read "Lolita" through the perspective of nymphet-obsessed Professor Humbert, but Nabokov himself described Humbert as a "vain and cruel wretch who manages to appear 'touching.'" (See "Strong Opinions," Page 94, Vintage International Edition.) Furthermore, anyone familiar with Nabokov's other works knows of his penchant for unreliable narrators, such as Charles Kinbote in "Pale Fire." We can label Humbert as yet another member of that pesky legion. Of course, Humbert commits the crime of pedophilia, but the legal transgression is not the worst thing he does to Dolores Haze, the titular "Lolita." At least initially, there seems a mutual attraction between Humbert and Dolores. (But then, perhaps Dolores simply wanted to find someone to side with her against her mother. And look who's telling the story.) Unfortunately, Humbert carries the relationship too far, robbing Dolores of her freedom and humanity by turning her into a simple, two dimensional sex toy he has labelled "Lolita." Of course, Humbert also abuses Dolores physically, smacking her when she doesn't "behave" and forcing himself sexually on her. Looking at all this, I'm a little surprised that a feminist writer hasn't started work on "Dolores' Diaries......"
Pedophilia and solipsism aren't the only themes covered in "Lolita." Since Nabokov portarays the erotic scenes and sensual images with a modesty based on artistic sensibility (rather than prudery), your standard pedophile seeking simple stimulation would probably end up bored by Nabokov's writing. Unless, of course, there happen to exist pedophiles also titillated by mythical and literary allusions; puns and anagrams that transcend linguistic boundaries; catalogues of quotidian life; parodies of Freudian psychology, popular culture, etc.; arcane and esoteric trivia; the melting pot of "high" and "low" culture; the bizarre coincidences that supplant the standard symbolism of most literature at that time; and so on.
Of course, "Lolita" is very funny, despite its narrator's moral deficiencies. Humbert's comments on certain subjects (such as Freudian psychology, pseudo-intellectual pretentions, pointless scientific studies, etc.) and his sardonic asides are absolutely hysterical. And the final showdown between Humbert and perverted playwright Clare Quilty is a great study in dark humor, almost reminiscent of the cartoon confrontations between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.
Nabokov has given us one of the greatest literary works of the century. In "Lolita," he took American colloquial English and manipulated in far more creative ways than many writers actually born in the United States. And after finishing the book, don't miss Nabokov's own commentary on "Lolita," where one finds the best-argued and most unique (not to mention funniest) argument against pornography.
It was many years ago when Nabokov died. (I was a child.) I wish that Nabokov has lived at least as long as Van Veen in "Ada," commenting on the culture and writing more books on the same par as those from hs late American period. A man who was "hip" while maintaining a bemused detachment from trendiness, what would he have made of shopping malls? Political correctness? Cable television? Alternative music? The Internet? Jerry Springer? Millenialist jitters? Or some of this decades greatest scandals, near-Nabokovian events in themselves, like Joey Buttafuoco (of course), Lorena Bobbitt, O.J. Simpson, Bill and Monica? Wherever he is (Heaven, Hell, Nirvana, Anti-Terra), I would like to thank Nabokov for providing us with a compelling and unique model of how to read, write, and perceive life.
on January 21, 2000
Lolita is both a great and troubling novel. It's difficult to imagine Nabokov writing anything of poor quality. His prose has a natural flow and an effortless sophistication that I have never seen in any other writer of the English language. He writes with grace and maturity that lend his prose a certain amount of authority. Once can hardly question the master, and this may be why I was seduced by "Lolita" the first time I read it.
During the first reading, I was swept away by the caricature of Humbert Humbert. His old world manner, his cool, self-justifying narrative, and his academic contempt for trendy concepts such as Freudian Psychology and Existentialism were humorous and refreshing. I was seduced by the characterization and language in the novel and hardly thought of it in realistic terms. This perspective was only reinforced by seeing the original film with Peter Sellers and James Mason. Like my first reading of the novel, the film had a gentle and irresistible current of humor that made it difficult to imagine the events actually occurring in the lives of real people.
The second time I read "Lolita" I had a far more troubling experience. I still enjoyed the novel's writing and characterization, but this time it struck me on a realistic level. I found myself empathizing with Lolita and imagining what the world must be like from her perspective as she traveled around the country in the company of a foster parent who habitually molested her. I was especially stunned by the scene in which Humbert first informs her that she cannot leave him and return to her mother because her mother is dead. Lolita storms out of the room but eventually returns to Humbert's bed and tearfully wraps her arms around him. When she does this, Humbert chillingly informs the reader that she simply had nowhere else to go. In that moment, I was suddenly immune to the charm of Humbert's narrative and enormously sad for Lolita.
Coincidentally, just after my second reading of Lolita, I saw the film with Jeremy Irons. Unlike the earlier version, the film treated the story in a blunt and realistic manner. The humorous characters and witty dialogs were overshadowed by a constant coldness and brutality throughout the film.
"Lolita" is a great novel, but we should be wary of how and why we appreciate it. Some readers and critics view Lolita as a tragic love story while others consider it a celebration of the open road. Some even argue that "Lolita" is a metaphor for the clash between European and American culture. "Lolita" may well be all these things and more, but it is also a much darker chronicle of the tormentor's mindset. Humbert's narrative is charming and full of old world conceit, but it is also a tool of disguise. Humbert self-consciously uses style to conceal the naked brutality of his craving and the harm it causes Lolita. He disguises himself as the doomed lover and portrays her as the tormenting muse.
We should praise Nabokov for this clever role reversal. It is a wonderful mechanism for employing style in an imaginative manner as Humbert alerts us in his opening monologue ("Can you stand my style!"). But while we can admire Nabokov's skill and imagination, we should not take Humbert at his word for who and what he is.