Thursday, August 16, 2012

Lolita ~ Vladimir Nabokov

I may have mentioned this here before, but Lolita and I go way back.  I purchased a new copy of the book probably close to ten years ago now.  I started reading, got to the part where he licks her eyeball, and - stopped.  I tried picking it up again a few years later and didn't even get that far.  It wasn't so much the eyeball-licking that stopped me but something about the writing, the narrator...  I can't be sure what stopped me back then.  And it wasn't just Lolita.  Within the last couple of years I started reading another of Nabokov's novels, Pale Fire, and again found myself inexplicably brought up short - I wasn't compelled, I wasn't interested, I didn't get it.  And then along comes a book club that barely exists and a friend with inscrutable reading tastes and suddenly I find myself agreeing to read Lolita.  Why not?  It's still on my to-read shelf and I can't bring myself to give it away (Why?  Pride?  Literary obligation?  A sense that this moment might come and I don't want to have to hunt down another copy?).  And so I agree and am committed.

People talk about Nabokov's writing, how great it is, how much of a genius he is, blah blah blah.  Maybe it's true.  I wouldn't know.  Don't get me wrong - I read it, as obligation said I much and trust me, obligation is what got me through - but I had such a visceral reaction to it that it's hard for me to say much about the actual writing.  I so wanted to vomit and throw the book against the wall and generally just hurt Humbert Humbert that it was hard to see through that red haze.  I checked Lolita's GoodReads page again - is it really possible that that many people gave it five stars?  What was their justification for such a rating?  I couldn't understand it.


Maybe I was set up to fail.  On the cover of my copy there is a Vanity Fair quote about the book reading, "The only convincing love story of our century."  Perhaps if it had read, "The most repulsive rape story of our century," I would have been better prepared and better able to appreciate the book for what it is.  Because there is no love story here, at least not the one that is implied.  Particularly in Part One, Humbert Humbert is cold and calculating.  He feels nothing for Dolores, his "Lolita," but lust.  His thoughts are consumed by subtle ways in which he can manipulate their bodies to be touching in such a way that she won't notice but he will receive intense pleasure, and also by adoring thoughts of himself.  Lolita he names for his own reasons, but himself he nicknames - Hum, Humby, Humbird - which I find to be more indicative of affection than replacing a person's identity with the one you of your own choosing.  He reflects fondly on his silly antics and his erudition and of how much he would like to violate the child he is trusted to be around.  He is disgusting, so completely perverted, that I could find no empathy at all for him.  (Personal disclosure: I have considered working with sexual offenders professionally and in my recent internship did work with, and find empathy for, at least one known sexual offender.  H.H. does not invite such feelings.)

So the calculations go on, things work out far better than H.H. could ever have hoped for, and we find him suddenly in a bed with Lolita as she climbs astride him and performs the act herself.  WHAT?!  Yes, she is a forward child, and yes, she may have had such experiences at camp, but this is utterly incomprehensible.  Not in a, "Lolita, what have you done, you naughty girl?" kind of way but in a "Nabokov, do you understand people at all?" way.  Of course, H.H. is an unreliable narrator (arguably, just about any first-person narrator is unreliable) and there is no reason to believe this turn of events (not that H.H.'s actions are justifiable even if it is true) but this is a HUGE PROBLEM socially (and here I am getting into risky territory and so let me just say up front that I do not support book banning, but this book does have some terrible implications for the society in which we live).

See, a lot of readers don't think about unreliable narrators.  And even if they do, it's hard to escape (and escape believing) that image of Lolita coming onto Humbert, Lolita being the instigator and temptress, Lolita bringing those next two horrifying years onto herself.  As much as readers are, or at least should be disgusted by H.H., many can't help but blame Lolita, at least a little bit.  Lolita, young Dolores, should not have been so sexy, so forward, such a nymphet.  This thought is no real surprise in a society that blames the woman, always the woman - she would not have been raped if her skirt had not been so short, her neckline so low, her heels so high - while constantly showing women that they should be sexy, that their value is in their sexuality.  So Lolita is blamed and we have something new - now we want young girls to be sexy too, want them to do themselves up live the woman around them, so that we can be free to sexualize them and blame them for it.  We get things like this*:
A seventeen-year old chosen for how much younger she looks, made up to look even younger but, dichotomously, sexy, with a flower growing up from between her legs and an obvious reference to Lolita - "Oh, Lola!", one of the names H.H. called poor Dolores.  Instead of being disgusted by this image that Nabokov has created, whatever his intentions, Marc Jacobs is celebrating the sexualized child.  Even just do a Google image search of "Lolita" - that page is replete with girls trying to be Lolita, as those what happened to that child is something to be emulated rather than abhorred.  Tell me that's not a problem.  In all fairness, that may have been Nabokov's point to begin with - to show the problem of this portrayal, especially as followed by H.H.'s remorse and self-blame; if so, that point seems to have gone horribly wrong.

I mention remorse, for H.H. does seem to experience it later in the novel, though only when he loses Dolores to another pedophile, making me question how genuine he truly is.  He also makes constant reference to how weak he is, suggesting that his weak heart was susceptible to Lolita's manipulations, to his mental illness, which may excuse him from culpability, to his extreme sensitivity which help him captive to the true love he supposedly felt.  The remorse may be genuine, but we can't even be sure of what it is for.  His admission of guilt was only supposed to be read after her - and by extension his own - death, so is this non-religious man really giving himself up to justice?  Or is this endeavor all for himself, as all of his selfish actions, down to killing the other pedophile that Lolita fell victim to, have been?  I think the latter.  And while I found the end of the novel much more readable than the beginning, I could not find it in myself to forgive.  Veil it as he may, Humbert Humbert remains a despicable human and character down to the last, disturbingly sweet, line.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I only discovered this image while googling Lolita - it was connected to an article about the novel on Mommyish, so the connection I am drawing here is not original.


  1. Oh, oh, oh. I LOATHED this book. And Humbert Humbert. And the photo you post is the same version I read, and did you SEE the blurb from Vanity Fair on it? Something ridiculous like, "the only true love story of the 20th century."

    I'm sorry, but when did pedophila + rape = love? Maybe for the same people who say that Mein Kampf is the only true political tract of the 20th century?

    i wrote a long, ranty post on my blog about this book. i don't get why this book is so revered by so many readers AND writers. I really don't. if it were a cult classic, that would be one thing. but it's totally canon.

    1. Yeah, I mentioned that blurb - ridiculous. I don't get it either and I really tried. If my book club ever meets to discuss it, I plan on picking their brains in the hopes of getting it. I know at least one of them loves it, so we'll see.

  2. Not as a defense in any way, but I always thought that "love story" quote referred to Nabokov's love affair with the English language, which is what usually comes up when Lolita is referenced. It's been ages since I read it and it you can get past the content, the writing is amazing and just blew me away. But yeah, H.H. is pretty despicable too.