Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov: A review

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had my Nabokov period in my twenties. I was mesmerized by the man's writing and read everything of his that I could get my hands on. One of those things was, of course, Lolita.

I can no longer be sure (because it was such a long time ago in the dim mists of my personal history) whether my memories of the book are truly memories of the book or of the old movie starring James Mason as Humbert Humbert and directed by Stanley Kubrick. I saw enough of that movie on television that it made a lasting impression on me. Either way, each (the movie and the book) in its own way was a tour de force.

I can remember finding parts of the book/movie laugh-out-loud funny when I first read/watched. Funny how time and life experiences change one's perspectives. Having children certainly changes one's perspectives. Having two daughters changes one's perspectives. I can no longer find anything about Humbert Humbert funny. He is a monster, a sick pedophile whose chosen prey is prepubescent girls.

This book was published in the U.S. sixty years ago this year. It was a very different world into which Nabokov birthed his creation. It's hard to even imagine today the kind of reaction it must have evoked at the time.

It was excoriated in some quarters as pornography and those critics were not far off the mark. On one level, it is a disgusting book on a disgusting subject that could only appeal to some very sick readers. Today, we live in a world where it is known that many priests, coaches, teachers, not to mention parents and step-parents, and others in positions of authority over defenseless children have taken advantage of and abused them to satisfy their own twisted lust. Humbert Humbert would be right at home in that crowd, although he would protest vociferously, with erudite language, against his inclusion.

And that is the other level on which this book can be read. Nabokov was such a master of language(s). The word play, the literary allusions, the wit with which the narrator Humbert expresses himself are all of the things that were so appealing to me about Nabokov's writing. They are the things that drew me to his books in the first place.

He was always a challenge to my understanding. He widened my horizons. He presented a test to my two years of French study because often long passages of his books were written in French. I loved that. It was like a secret puzzle to which I had the key.

But Lolita as erotica? There is nothing erotic about child rape unless you are truly sick, and let's not beat about bush, that is the subject of this novel. Twelve-year-old Lolita comes under the control of Humbert Humbert, the gentleman lodger in her mother's house who, in fact, married the mother so that he would have access to the daughter. When the mother meets an untimely death under the wheels of a neighbor's car, Humbert does not at first inform the daughter, who is away at camp.

Finally, after the funeral, he goes to pick up his step-daughter and sets out on a cross-country trip with her, still not informing her of her mother's death. He tells her instead that her mother is sick and in hospital. Along the way, when he is angry with her one day, he does tell her that her mother is dead. This twelve-year-old child is now completely in his power and has nowhere to turn.

This is Humbert's narration, of course, and he takes great pains to convince us that he was the one seduced and manipulated, that Lolita had already lost her virginity to a schoolmate, Charlie. He portrays himself as a man in love and as a dedicated and caring lover. Nabokov allows him this self-delusion, but occasionally we can see behind this veil of smoke that he blows in our face. We catch a glimpse when Lolita wistfully watches the interaction of one of her friends with the friend's loving father. We can see it in her resigned accessing to Humbert's sexual demands on her; her bargaining for pocket money and gifts and for permission to participate in a school play in payment for her sexual favors. We can hear it when Humbert lets slip in his narration that every night after he feigns sleep, he can hear the child sobbing beside him in bed.

No, a sick piece of work he may be, but I can't work up any sympathy for Humbert Humbert. His sob stories of all his suffering do not soften my heart in the least. It has been irrevocably hardened by Lolita's nightly tears.

And so, even though this is an amazing accomplishment simply on the level of language and story-telling, I just can't bring myself to give it five stars. The subject matter is so distasteful to me that it interferes with my enjoyment of the artistic accomplishment.

Vladimir Nabokov was quite a writer. There are few who could touch him in skill, and he was known for writing about difficult and often unsavory subjects. Ada, another book of his that features incest, comes to mind. One has to wonder where the mild-mannered scholar and lepidopterist gained his curiosity about or his knowledge of such subject matter. Perhaps it takes a master writer to even make such subjects readable.


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