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Next Up: Lolita

Cringe.

The things I do for this blog.

Last week, I posted this about Lolita on my Twitter account: “Lolita is just creeping me out. I want to punch this narrator. Like getting into the mind of Jerry Sandusky. Make. It. Stop.”

I’ll be honest with you guys. I don’t want to read this book. At all. From my tweet, you can tell I’ve already started Lolita, and it’s taking everything within me not to put this book down. This “classic” by Vladimir Nabokov will truly put to test my thoughts on appreciating the beauty of depressing and dark stories.

You know, of all the people on earth I don’t want to get into the mind of—a pedophile rapist tops the list. At the very least, I’m reading along in hopes that some misguided satellite falls down out of the sky at thousands of miles per hour and strikes this narrator, Mr. Humbert Humbert, in his fat, creepy head.

Is that too harsh?

So, reluctantly, I present to you a few quick facts about Lolita:

  • Lolita was first published in Paris in 1955, followed by New York in 1958.
  • Since published, Lolita has sold more than 50 million copies.
  • The book is one of two novels by Vladamir Nabakov on the Time list–the other being Pale Fire.
  • In addition to being on the Time list, Lolita is 4th on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.
  • Stanley Kubrik (shocking!) adapted the novel into a film in 1962.
  • The 1999 film American Beauty was heavily inspired by Lolita. In fact, the protagonist in the film (Lester Burnham) is an anagram of “Humbert learns.”
  • The novel is, obviously, one of the most controversial books, like, ever and has been banned left and right and up and down everywhere.

Someone, one of you who have read this novel, tell me it gets better. Tell me I’m not reading a hopeless, sick, twisted tale of a delusional, dysfunctional, perverted underage child rapist.

I’ve said all along that I don’t mind reading creepy, depressing stories—Revolutionary Road, Rabbit Run, and Clockwork Orange are just a few that fit that category—as long as they are written well and have some type of greater purpose, something from which I can learn.

But is there a line somewhere? And, if so, does Lolita cross that line?

You tell me. I feel like I might need a mental cleanse after reading this book.

(Affiliate link included in this post.)

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28 Comments Post a comment
  1. I used to always finish a book. But I wouldn’t now after a recent bored out disaster with An Instance of the Fingerpost.

    If you do go ahead with Lolita – and why not have one book you just throw out – maybe you will be lucky and forget the whole sorry, dumb story ASAP. Actually I’ve often wondered why Jeremy Irons was willing to play the part in the film (and no doubt he gave interviews on this line). Acting something out is a lot wierder than reading a book.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
  2. I was not able to finish it. Wish I could be more helpful. I thought Shelly Winters was brilliant in the 1962 film. As the above comment suggests, I read Jeremy Irons acted it out to a tee and I once heard a few minutes of him reading the audio version and was totally creeped out.

    I am counting on you.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
  3. I hate to say this, but I suspect it won’t get better for you. Humbert remains a disgusting lech throughout the entire story. He is also intelligent, handsome, charming, and wickedly funny. Truly he is evil at its more pure and seductive.

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    December 14, 2011
  4. Yikes, it looks like I’ve set myself up with the Trifecta of Creeps: Revolutionary Road, Rabbit Run, and Lolita next. What was I thinking? Oh yeah, I wasn’t.

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    December 14, 2011
  5. Try reading through the pedophilia and focus on those other issues that (at least for me) the book is about: lust, guilt, resentment… Hope this helps.

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    December 14, 2011
    • I’m trying. But the whole context of the book is pedophilia. It’s rough!

      Like

      December 14, 2011
  6. Finish it, I cannot assure you it gets better, but it is a book you’ll never regret having read. It is well worth it. My immediate reaction while reading “Lolita” was not unlike your own; only with retrospect did I realize Nabokov’s brilliance. In fact, when I went back to it the second time, I just immersed myself in the language and prose and it helped to detach me from Humbert.

    PS. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen “American Beauty”, but that film is amazing, and the main character, Lester is nothing like Humbert.

    Beverly Penn

    Like

    December 14, 2011
    • Detachment from Humbert is the key, I bet. I’m not there yet. I think that would be much easier to do if it wasn’t a first-person narrator story.

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      December 14, 2011
  7. Patti #

    I feel your pain – when I felt compelled to give Lolita a try, I went for the audiobook. I’m not sure why I thought it would be easier if Jeremy Irons, with his resonant and seductive voice, was confiding directly in my ear about his lust for a girl who could be my daughter’s classmate. I didn’t make it 15 minutes before I pulled out my earpiece and deleted the files. I’m thinking this will have you yearning for the good old Mrs. Dalloway days.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
    • I can’t imagine how graphic the movie must be if Kubrick made it.

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      December 14, 2011
      • The Kubrick film was made in the early 1960s and starred James Mason. It received a rating such that Sue Lyon (Lolita) was not allowed to attend the premiere of her own movie. As far as how graphic the movie was? … not graphic at all, very tame, probably GP by today’s rating scheme. I assure you that most television commercials, all soap operas, and three-quarters of the advertisements in magazines and on billboards are a hundred times more graphic and suggestive than the Kubrick Lolita.

        I suspect that the 1997 remake with Jeremy Irons was more graphic, but that is in line with the development of film. Remember that when Kubrick made Lolita, the censors still didn’t allow married couples to be shown in the same bed on television or if on the bed (never in the bed) they had to have one foot remaining on the floor.

        I think it was around this time that the regulators, who to this day are still juveniles when it comes to sex, began to notice that while they were making sure that Ward wasn’t too frisky with June, over on the other channels several hundred people were being gunned down by the Sheriff of Cochise and Matt Dillon. Then it wasn’t too long before they noticed that women were always presented as subservient to men and there were no successful, hard-working black people on television. The movies were just as suspect.

        Yes, things started to change and today we have even survived David Caruso’s naked buttocks. At least they didn’t break out in a song!

        http://mdparker46.com

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        December 14, 2011
  8. Ugh! I hated the movie American Beauty and being the mother of a young teenage daughter I doubt I could make it through this book. Kudos to you for making the literary effort. I’ve only ever thrown one book away in my life. Books are precious to me. I’m still convinced that book needed to go and I did the right thing – for me anyway. Good luck!! (In hindsight this comment was not very helpful to you – so sorry!)

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    December 14, 2011
  9. Finish the book – you will not regret it. Nabokov perfectly captured the psyche of a child predator in this masterpiece. I’ve always wondered if he had a little Humbert in him. The book does get better – Lolita actually is an interesting character as she grows up.The psychology of what drives these characters is so fascinating and real. Nabokov really drew an ugly, truthful picture of a sexual predator and his prey.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
    • I too wonder if he has a little Humbert in him…more to come on that Friday.

      I guess the question I keep asking myself while reading this…why should I want to get into the psyche of a child predator?

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      December 14, 2011
      • Ack! It drives me nuts when people make this sort of link between author and subject – that Nabokov was able to capture H.H. as well as he did doesn’t mean there was “a little Humbert in him.” How does this even seem a reasonable topic to address in relation to the novel?

        Keep reading. And as…well, maybe not a couple others, but at least one other person said, focus on the prose and on the other elements of the book. The way you can watch Humbert forming the narrative, and his obsession with time and the way that plays in both the structure of the narrative and in the story itself – it’s stunning.

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        December 14, 2011
      • I’ll keep reading, but at this point I have that question. It’s not just a story about a guy who molests little girls. It’s a psychological profile of sexual predator. I haven’t read about how Nabokov researched this book, but I’m very interested in that.

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        December 14, 2011
  10. I haven’t attempted this one yet… I’m really curious to read your thoughts at the end of it (if you make it there). I am like you in that I can read some pretty horrid things as long as there is a greater purpose or lesson. I hope there is one waiting for you at the end.

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    December 14, 2011
  11. It has been too many years since I last read Lolita but I can suggest that you are reacting to a myth and not realizing the skill with which the author has constructed his novel.

    First, a pronouncement so you can understand from better (perhaps): Lolita is one of the greatest works of fiction written in the 20th century and Lolita is not an erotic novel. It might even be fair to say that Lolita is only tangentially concerned with pedophilia: after all, Dolores had had sexual relations with at least one boy and one other girl before Humbert came around. Humbert may have had lurid thoughts but who was actually using sexuality to get their way?

    But the entire pedophilia, sexuality, Lolita experience is not the central value of the novel and Nabokov skillfully undercuts any silly queasiness by structuring his metafiction in such a way that the entire narrative is highly suspect. First, the narrator is offering the reader a story which Humbert Humbert reportedly wrote, not to be exposed until after the death of himself and Dolores. How much of the retelling is affected by the narrator’s responses to Humbert’s account? Is the narrator embellishing the story? Is Humbert real (in a fictional sense) or a character created by the narrator?

    We, of course, know that the entire artifact which we call the novel Lolita was in fact written by Vladimir Nabokov.

    Then we look at the pusillanimous English teacher who is writing this narrative about his life and obsession with his Lolita; how reliable is he? In many books like this it is valid to ask if there is, in fact, any evidence that any of this stuff actually happened (again, in the fictional world) or if it is possibly a fabrication or fantasy?

    Most readers are aware that Nabokov’s Pale Fire is an ingenious nesting of fabrications but many readers don’t make the connection that Lolita may be just as devious.

    I know you are still reading Lolita and probably convinced that it is a dark piece of pornography of the worst kind but you must read on. First, there is a lot of word play and other funny stuff in the novel. Second, you have to watch the narration and decide for yourself how reliable it is. And third, when you are at the end of the novel looking back, you have to evaluate how erotic the novel was and in a fuller sense, how the novel compared to your initial responses and pre-reading mythologies.

    After all, if I hold up the fingers of just one hand to represent the great novels of the century, one of those fingers is Lolita.

    http://mdparker46.com

    Like

    December 14, 2011
  12. Kim #

    I wouldn’t hold it against you if you put this book down now and tried to come back to it later in the project, or even if you ultimately decide not to finish it. Just because a book is rated one of the best novels of the century doesn’t mean it will be beneficial to read it. If it crosses the line in your opinion, then no one can (or should) argue with you on that.

    Alternatively, if you want to keep reading, maybe go ahead and read the last chapter or otherwise find out what happens to Humbert? I don’t know what happens, but if by chance he does get killed by a satellite falling out of the sky you can remind yourself of that during the worst parts and get through it that way.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
    • Read the last chapter…interesting. Maybe I should.

      Like

      December 14, 2011
  13. DON’T READ THE LAST CHAPTER. That is not how you read a book. I also replied to your tweet… I’m a 17 year old girl (a few years too old to be a nymphet) and I definitely understand the difficulty into getting into the mind of Humbert. But I almost wonder if you should switch the order and come back to it. Because coming into a book with these heavy preconceived notions and the idea that you won’t like it really makes it hard to appreciate the book. I understand that you want to stick to the project, but it sounds like you’ve already decided you don’t like the book. Obviously, Humbert is despicable, but that’s the point. Nabokov knows that Humbert is an awful person, and in no way advocates his actions. The whole point of the book is that Humbert is the ultimate unreliable narrator; you hate him morally, but there are times when you have to concede that he has said something witty. Part of the story is learning that Humbert is more in love with the ideal of Lolita than her actuality, and even more in love with himself than the ideal of Lo. If you don’t think you can keep an open mind in liking the book, you shouldn’t read it right now. Maybe give it some time? I don’t know, but the point is that you don’t have to like Humbert to like the book. But you can’t focus on how much you hate him AND catch all of the brilliance that Nabokov packs into that book.

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    December 14, 2011
    • As I read the book, I’m beginning to see the underlying meaning. And Nabokov is obviously an incredible writer and storyteller. But I guess what I’m struggling with is this: At what point does the subject matter drown out everything else.

      For instance, what if Lolita was a two year old? The story was told in the same way–unreliable, manipulative narrator, wonderfully written, etc–but it was about this guy’s obsession with little, little kids, not 12 year olds….would it still be a comfortable read to you?

      I guess, for me, the subject matter is tough to overcome, and that won’t help with time no matter what.

      Like

      December 14, 2011
    • I’d agree almost totally with Alison.

      When I read Lolita, I thought of it as the opposite of a page-turner – whereas in other hardboiled/adventure stories, I wanted to get back to reading, to see what happened next, I specifically didn’t want to go back each time I put the book down, out of fear of what he’d do next.
      I think the best way to think about the character is similar to Dexter Morgan in Dexter – it’s essentially giving us an insight into the mind of a monster, who can justify his monstrous indulgences to himself, and, to an extent, to those around him.
      There’s also a lot of wondering – how far is this man a deviant but essentially decent, and, by comparison, how harmless are my harmless secrets, how dark is my darkness….
      There’s not too much I’d consider overly horrific, but it is a very interesting look at the nature of evil.

      Like

      January 1, 2012
  14. I think the reader should focus more on the words than the plot. That’s where the beauty lies. I find it a heartbreaking tale.

    And you have to give credit for the “strangeness” of the love affair. And please don’t focus on the what-ifs. A two year old Lolita is not the story that Nabokov is telling.

    Maybe it could help if you read the annotated version, if you are not easily distracted with the, uhm, annotations.

    Like

    December 14, 2011
  15. Clara #

    Remember it’s just a story and you as the reader are bringing meaning to it when you read it!! You can interpret and imagine as little or as much as you want. The novel’s characters are incredibly fascinating and Nabokov wants you to critique and assess them – you as a reader are very much a part of the story.

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    December 15, 2011
  16. you may not like the story, neither to do i. but the way it was written is just exquisite. wonderfully crafted with well-selected words.

    i read 50 shades of gray right after lolita and i couldn’t finish 50 shades because of how simplistic and inane it was written compared to the rich language of lolita.

    Like

    September 2, 2012

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