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.