Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov


Well, there's one more classic knocked off the miles-long To Read list. When I finished Lolita, I wrote about it on Facebook and was surprised to find that it's a book everyone wants to talk about. Cool, double the reason for sticking it out.

I confess, Lolita was both a fabulous read and a miserable one. I've always been impressed with Nabokov's precision. He was such a careful craftsman, very deliberate about choosing the perfect word and with such an outstanding vocabulary. He kept me hopping -- looking up vocabulary definitions and translations for all the French phrases. I can read a tiny bit of French but clearly not enough. I enjoyed the fact that I had a used copy of Lolita that someone had already written in. Normally, I don't write in books or dog-ear. It horrifies me if I accidentally bend a cover or dampen a page. So, it was delightfully freeing to realize that since someone had already written in my secondhand copy I could write definitions and translations inside the book, guilt-free.

I presume everyone knows what Lolita is about, but I'll write a brief synopsis. Humbert Humbert is a man who is sexually drawn to pre-pubescent girls, whom he calls "nymphets". He blames his attraction to young, underdeveloped girls on his tragic first love. But, at the same time, it's clear that Humbert's aware that he's not normal and when he attempts to suppress his desires or find a substitute he only succeeds in forcing himself into either violence or psychological breakdown. Humbert marries his landlord hoping to find a way to drug and fondle her daughter but when he's widowed, he is able to take young Dolores (or "Lo" or "Lolita") on a lengthy road trip, during which he justifies using her sexually on the fact that she already lost her virginity at camp. While Lolita clearly shows signs of being very unhappy, Humbert is so clouded by desire that he doesn't realize he is destroying her.

The most difficult thing about the reading of Lolita, I thought, was reading through the eyes of such a warped human being. No matter how low he sinks, he has some sort of explanation or defense. I think in the hands of anyone else, Lolita would have been awful but, oh, Nabokov. What a brilliant writer. I have to tell you it was such a relief to read the Afterword by the author, in which he talked about how the story came to him and then haunted him, the changes he made after writing a complete first draft and destroying it, the reaction of various publishers (one of whom said, "If I publish this, we'll both go to prison,") and the understanding of how deplorable his main character was. It was nice to know the author found his protagonist as creepy as readers do.

When I rated Lolita at Goodreads, I was torn between taking off points for the icky factor or rating it on its merits alone. In the end, I couldn't bear to give Lolita less than 5 stars because you have to admit that the reason Humbert is so appalling is that he's so believable. At one point, I wanted to take an interior picture of the book and realized that every single page had some nasty thought or quote by the protagonist. No wonder I had to take a break from it about halfway. Lolita is anything but easily palatable.

Highly recommended with a cringe - Challenging to read because of both its warped protagonist and the author's stellar vocabulary, but worth reading as a lesson in crafstmanship and certainly a book worth talking about.


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12 comments:

  1. Oh, yes, I fully identify with your verdict on Lolita. I circled it for the longest time, picked it up twice and abandoned it, before eventually settling down to read it. My daughter was around the character's age when I was attempting to get through the book, which is probably why I had so much trouble. Once I got past the premise, though, NABOKOV! Yes, it's a masterpiece but one that's uncomfortable, putting it very mildly!

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    1. I have boys but I still had trouble with it. If he'd told the story in 3rd person rather than having Humbert tell his own story, it might have been more tolerable. But, I think it probably has greater impact because of that choice, tough as it is to get through. I can imagine that it's doubly hard to read if you have girls. I think I set it aside for about a week, maybe a bit less, just to have some time off. Amazing how such he managed to make the book both a miserable and impressive read. Nabokov blows my mind.

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  2. This is one of my very favorite books even though it is creepy as hell. Just so, so wonderfully written.

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    1. It is indeed. I wouldn't rank it a favorite because I dislike being creeped out, but I wouldn't mind rereading the annotated version, some day. I think any writer could learn a great deal from studying Lolita.

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  3. Great review. It's a tough book but a rewarding one. I haven't read it in a long time but its language is so beautiful, and so horrifying, that it's impossible to ignore.

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    1. Thanks, Marie. I agree on all counts. Clearly, it's a book that leaves strong impressions.

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  4. Same boat, me and you. I've never read a book with such mixed amounts of brilliance and ickiness. Great review, Nancy!

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    1. It must be that combination of beautiful/repellent writing that makes everyone want to talk about it, you think? Thanks, Andiloo!

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  5. It is so hard to judge a literary work on its merits when the subject is difficult and makes one feel all the yucky 'feels'. And sometimes we don't notice we are on that balancing act. I say that someday I would like to read the annotated version of Lolita or even try the audiobook, but I wonder if I ever will for more reasons than the fact that I hardly reread the ones I really love. I did watch the movie right after reading it, though. And what's weird is that I only remember Shelley Winters.

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    1. Yes, I think it really is difficult to shut off the discomfort and just analyze the writing, itself. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's typical *not* to. We tend to want to relate to characters, not be repelled by them, so we downgrade a reading experience with yucky characters. That's what makes Lolita so worthy of attention: it's such an unusual combination of horrifying and brilliant. I haven't seen the movie and I'm pretty sure I don't want to, but I am an occasional rereader so I can visualize myself someday reading the annotated version.

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  6. Well said, Nancy. I loved this book on one hand. The writing is gorgeous. And I hated it on the other. Humbert Humbert is such a despicable and disgusting character. I ended up listening to the audio version because I really wanted to read it and wasn't sure I would get through the written version. I may read it yet, but I do feel Jeremy Irons did a wonderful job as narrator. I have yet to see any of the movie versions. I don't know if I want to.

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    1. Yep, I love-hated it, too. I think if it hadn't been so beautifully written, I would have whacked off a couple of points for the creepy factor. HH is the kind of character you know you'll never forget because he's such a nightmare. Jeremy Irons has a wonderful voice. I'm not surprised he was a good narrator. I'm pretty sure I'll never watch the movie, now that I've read the book.

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