25 October 2011

Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

From the little I knew about Lolita before I picked it up, it was not really a book I ever wanted to read.  But while I'm not above judging a book by its cover, I decided that I shouldn't judge Lolita without at least dipping into it first.  Many people I know love this book.  Writer friends and acquaintances frequently include it on their Top Ten lists.  Plus I've been saying to myself that I need to start reading a little Russian literature.  How can one be well-read without reading any of the Russians?  One day while changing the sheets in our guest bedroom I noticed the Vintage paperback edition of Lolita on the shelf and said to myself, What the hell? It helped that this one was only 300 pages long--compared to looking down the barrel of War & Peace, that's pretty short. I started the book that night and had to force myself several times throughout to finish it. My husband kept teasing me about it: "you must really love that book, the way you're tearing through it."  But he couldn't be more wrong.  I was appalled, almost from start to finish.  What I found inside these pages was actually far worse than what I had imagined.

If, as many people claim, the intention of literature is to disturb, then by golly, this book is literature. But that's a load of codswallop, in my opinion.  I think great literature can be disturbing, but for me, the point of reading is to create empathy. And it's not that I turn away from disturbing fiction.  I have long admired works by Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye and Beloved), Cormac McCarthy (all of 'em) and D. M Thomas (The White Hotel), and they're nothing if not disturbing.  But they're also full of humanity, depth, spirit, and redemption. 

Lolita started off well enough for me, dubious confession from the narrator aside. Humbert Humbert falls in love with a girl at the seaside and has his first sexual encounter with her.  Fine.  Annabel is "a few months my junior," as Humbert recounts.  Annabel's premature death results in what can only be called arrested development, because thereafter Humbert is only sexually attracted to young girls.  So far, it's about what I expected.

But then Humbert receives a peculiar inheritance that stipulates he must live in America to benefit, and shortly thereafter the bile rose in my throat on a regular basis.  He only boards with a certain Mrs. Haze after seeing her daughter sunbathing in the backyard.  From there he keeps a diary of his lustful thoughts about Dolores, whom he calls Lolita.   She, in turn, has a crush on handsome Humbert. One day when they're alone he pulls her onto his lap and masturbates against her.  But it's when he fantasizes about a sleeping pill strong enough that he could rape Lolita without waking either her or her mother that I grew most disgusted.  He goes so far as to experiment with different strengths of pills and is disappointed that they don't seem to work.

Ugh--fast forward through Humbert's marriage to Mrs. Haze and her subsequent death. He is now Lolita's sole guardian, and after that point he molests the girl on a daily basis and threatens her with dark tales of deprivation and group foster care to hold her silence.  And yet Humbert persistently sees himself as the victim in their scenario: "There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child." Yeah, poor guy.

Long story short: they take a year-long road trip, staying in a different motel each night so that nobody will suspect Humbert of raping his step daughter. And so that Lolita will not know anybody well enough to confide what is happening to her.  Eventually they settle down and she goes to an all-girls boarding school.  When she wants to go out with her girlfriends, Humbert requires extra sexual favors from her and he gets upset when she performs desultorily. Huh. Go figure. Then she's in a play at school and then he abducts her and they go on another long road trip.  One night Lolita gets so sick she must be hospitalized and Humbert, in his usual martyred voice says, "giving up all hope of intercourse, I wrapped her in a laprobe." Helluva guy, that Humbert.

When Lolita is abducted/rescued from the hospital by a man claiming to be her uncle, Humbert  spends the rest of his inheritance criss-crossing the US trying to find them. He doesn't.  But one day he gets a note from Lolita asking for money--she's pregnant and she needs money to move to Alaska.  Humbert shows up, with murderous thoughts, and only gives up the money in exchange for the name of the person who liberated her, whom he tracks down and kills. The end.

So, what I want to know is how this book has become such a milestone of American letters, so canonized, so revered? The cover of the book proclaims that Lolita is "the only convincing love story of our century (Vanity Fair)." Um, did they read the same book I did? This is a novel dedicated to the abomination of love.  I wonder if the same reviewer would call Mein Kampf "the only convincing political tract of our century."

Nabokov is frequently regarded as "one of the twentieth century's master prose stylists" (from the back cover), and there were times when I thought the writing was quite good.  And of course the fact that he is so facile with a language beyond his native tongue is a remarkable feat and praiseworthy all on its own. But there are also long passages where the text meanders so much that it's hard to tell up from down.  Here's one such example, where Humbert is describing nymphets, the word he coins to describe those girls on the cusp of reaching sexual maturity, to whom he exclusively attracted:
"Neither are good looks a criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes."

For this reader, at least, the prose does not elevate the subject to the point of literature, and I confess it bothers me still, three weeks after completing this novel, that the sexual abuse and coercion of children is somehow legitimized by this book's canon status.  It's exactly not that I'm upset that books like this are published--I believe in the free market and publishing works uncensored.  It's the fact that important writers, even feminist writers, elevate the pedestal this book stands on that bothers me.  If it were instead a cult classic, maybe something along the lines of Bret Easton Elli's American Psycho, another book that I know would disturb me and thus will never read, I could rest more easily. 

I know that many of my blog's followers must have read this book.  I'd love you to engage me a dialogue about Lolita with your thoughts on the subject, as I feel fairly sure I hold a minority view on this novel.

10 comments:

  1. I've never wanted to read this book and if you say it's far worse than you expected, I definitely won't even give it a chance.

    I've got another pedophile-ish book, The End of Alice by A.M. Homes and I will read it, but only because Homes is one of my favorite writers. But I'm not expecting to like it.

    So, thanks for the review, I now know not to read Lolita! :-)

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  2. I agree with you: absolutely, completely...it's as if you're in my head. I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. Like you, I've read amazing books on horrible topics. This wasn't one of them. I didn't feel any sympathy for H.H. Very difficult read.

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  3. Wow! What a fantastic review!

    I've obviously heard of Lolita, especially lately, but I knew nothing about it until reading your review. And wow. I'm appalled and somewhat intrigued (but probably not enough to ever read it). I'm mostly shocked that it is touted as "the only convincing love story of our century." Disturbing.

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  4. Thanks for sharing this honest review. I've seen this book and wondered. Now I absolutely know it's not for me. We share similar opinions about things.

    As always--I LOVE your blog :)
    -E

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  5. It’s good to know that we both must have read the same edition of Lolita... Your review was wonderfully stated and pretty much summed up my thoughts. If I ever get around to posting about the book (which I don’t think I will) I might just put a link to your review :)

    Sorry I couldn’t engage you in an epic debate....

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  6. I also can't provide debate because I completely agree with your review. An alternative title to the book could be A Pedophile's Guide for Finding Victims.

    Everything outlined in that book is actually how abusers find and keep their victims.

    I have no idea why it is offered up as such a classic/must read.

    (I found your blog through the TA Anguilla forum and am loving your book reviews and recommendations!)

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  7. The whole idea is that something so vulgar and immoral can sound so beautiful. I feel he doesn't know he's doing anything wrong, he really believes that he loves Dolores, and at times, he's really convincing about it. "I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.” I think he excused it with the idea that "you always hurt the ones you love." It's a beautiful book because it puts (at least in most readers) a seed of doubt, making us think without wanting to, did he really love her? And that's what's so haunting about it, the fact that 1. It proves that the idea of love is so different to each person, and that 2. the power of language is so strong enough to strip someone of morality, even if it's just for a second. And to elaborate on the "blinding us of morality" part, I mean that as we sit there reading the book, we think of his poetic confessions as beautiful or romantic, and it's only after we've thought about the fact that he's a pedophile that we realize how repulsive it is. Nabokov was able to trick us just by words! :)

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    1. Thanks for posting a different point of view, anon.

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  8. I'm going to agree with the anonymous commenter above. I think one of the finest things about Lolita is the way it highlights how easily morals can be bipassed with seductive language. We should abhor what Humbert does, it's grotesque (not just the act, but the way he isolates and mentally dismantles Lolita too). In no way does Lolita glorify child abuse. That it's been perverted by critics, etc. is testament to a societal problem. Nabokov is always tricky and opaque - here never more so, but don't buy the idea that Lolita is in anyway complicit in her own abuse; she isn't.

    Incidentally, American Psycho is also a brilliant book, which has been misinterpreted regularly. It doesn't glorify violence, but puts it up in front of the reader and asks if living in a free economy, where the strong survive is really ok. It's a scathing attack of neoliberalism, where the weak are fodder for the rich.

    Both tricky books, hope my counter-argument about Lolita has been of interest :) If you'd like to read my review of Lolita (I also have one of American Psycho it's here: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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  9. I was initially disgusted with the quote "the only convincing love story of our century" as well before I started on the book, considering Lolita is about pedophilia, but I think I understood why such a comment was made after I was done with the book.

    Lolita portrays love as a "merging of reality and fantasy" (a quote I remember from somewhere in the book) - that most people in love, not just HH, all engage themselves in a certaim level of self-delusion, otherwise loce would not be possible. It's "convincing" as a story because it doesn't romanticize love like most romance stories do - instead, through HH's inital (untrue) romanticization of Lolita as a pure, innocent nymphet - when in reality she was supposedly just a crass teenager whi was easily influenced by American commercialism - the story makes a point that love always involves some level of fantasization of the real person, otherwise love is unlikely to occur in the first place.

    I think many people are disgusted by the quote because of how a pedophilie's infatuation with a child can even be considered love, but the quote's meaning is irrelevant of that. It's just referring to how love itself is not in actuality "real", at least not hundred percent - it takes some fantasization and romanticization for it to work.

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Please, sir, may I have some more? (Comments, that is!)