Wednesday, March 16, 2011

#29 - "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

I think everybody knows what Lolita is about, or at least has a vague idea.  The term 'Lolita' has entered the modern lexicon to refer to 'sexually procarious' young girls, so it's no surprise to learn this novel is the story of a man and his affair with his 12-year old step daughter.

Self-named 'Humbert Humbert' narrates his story from prison, where he awaits trial for murder, the story of his life as a pedophile and his courtship of the 12 year old Dolores Haze, whom he refers to as Lolita.  Humbert first marries the girl's mother, in an effort to remain close to his true love, and it isn't until her untimely (or for Humbert, timely) death that the 'dirty old man' is able to make his move and prey on his Lolita. The two travel across the country, going from motel room to motel room, taking part in acts indescribable even by the narrator, the man who committed them.

As you can well imagine, the book caused a bit of a stir when it was first published in France in 1955.  It was ordered to be seized and destroyed in the UK until 1957, and wasn't published in America until 1958 (it is interesting to note that an American firm offered to publish it in 1955 if Nabokov changed the Lolita character into a young boy).  Of course that isn't much of a surprise, the subject matter remains controversial even today.

While the subject is so controversial and continues to be morally wrong in our society, Nabokov is able to weave it into a story without attempting to condemn or even comment on it.  The author states in the afterword that "there is no moral to the story" and never at any point was he trying to deliver a message.  He was simply telling a good story.  And this is exactly why I enjoyed this book so much.  It wasn't the controversial subject matter, or the shock value of the it, but rather the excellent writing, the wit, and the characters.

Lolita is very well written, almost like poetry, with the words flowing from one page to another so beautifully, the reader gets lost in the descriptions and the narrator's inner-monologue, instead of the dark underbelly of pedophilia.  Looking back, I find it difficult to describe the feelings I experienced while reading Lolita.  When Humbert's wife, Lolita's mother, discovers his true feelings by reading his diary, she runs out of the house with the intention of telling the world what kind of monster he really is.  At this point, I found myself worried he would be exposed, instead of being relieved at the prospect.  When she runs into the street and is struck by a bus moments later, Nabokov creates a sense of ease, leaving me relieved at Humbert's sudden liberation.  It is hard to explain why I would feel relief that a pedophile's accuser has been killed, leaving him free to rape a 12-year old girl, but oddly, that is what I felt.

But this isn't to say Nabokov handles this subject as light-hearted or funny, nor do his descriptions ever suggest what Humbert is doing isn't wrong.  Quite the opposite in fact, even Humbert realizes what he is doing and why it is wrong, he simply feels that he can't help himself.  But despite the nature of the subject, Nabokov is able to inject a lot of humour into the story; often from Humbert's descriptions of the things around him, like his distaste for Lolita's obsessions with American pop culture and his distaste for what he sees as short comings of that society.  And the inner battle Humbert often has with himself was also quite funny, but become less and less so as he slowly comes to grips with what a monster he had become.

It is Humbert's descent into this realization, his descent into his own personal hell, that the books takes a more serious turn.  In the beginning I was curious as to what was going to happen, wondering how an affair would ever begin between a 12 year old and a grown man.  In the end I had to keep reading to see how that affair would reach it's inevitable end and who would be left standing when it did.

You can read Time magazine's original review from September 1, 1958 right here.

Next up I plan on reading The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder.  I haven't read a book from the 20's for a while, To the Lighthouse was the last, and it doesn't look too lengthy.  Again I find myself worried about the length of the books I read.  In an effort to make up for time lost to Infinite Jest, I want to read some shorter books, but at the same time don't want to leave myself with only the really long ones at the end.

Notes: I returned Lolita three days late, and incurred $1.40 in fines.  That puts my total at around twenty bucks.

1 comment:

  1. "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..."
    This is a gem of a book.
    I read it once, and I am reading it again. Somehow the book has managed to become even more beautiful and entertaining.
    An absolute must-read to anyone who loves reading.
    Despite the controversial subject matter of the novel, Lolita is a comedy, and simply, a joy to read.