Book #33: Lolita
After reading 33 books in 16 months, it finally happened: I don’t know what to say.
What I mean is that I have so much to say that I don’t know how to say anything. I’m speechless…well, except for the fact that this is probably my longest review.
You see, I don’t know how to review this book. I’m baffled.
Here’s why: On one hand, I can’t ignore the disgusting nature of the subject matter in this book. If you’ve read any of my previous posts about Lolita, you are well aware of this, so I won’t linger on it.
But on the other hand, I recognize the significance of the novel, the beauty of Nabokov’s writing—a man who was born Russian and mastered the English language—and the skill in which he uses words to bring these emotions out of me.
It’s not like all of the book critics who have praised Lolita for more than five decades are idiots. It’s not by chance that Lolita was chosen for the Time list and is ranked 4th on the Modern Library’s list of top 100 novels of the 20th century.
You don’t have to be a pedophile or a weirdo to like this book. Many of you who read this blog love Lolita, and that’s fine by me. But, for me, I ultimately couldn’t navigate through the subject matter.
I couldn’t walk the tightrope that Nabokov asked of me, to detach myself from what the book was about and to appreciate Lolita as a work of art. And that’s what it is. The writing is beautiful and the story—as sadistic as it is—is captivating, which caused me to read through the novel much quicker than I expected.
And, if I’m honest with you, the second part of the book is much more readable–in terms of subject matter–than the first part of the book. While the narrator, Humbert, is still lusting after young Dolores, the frequency and intensity of his lust is much less in this section–mainly because he now has her in his possession. He’s kidnapped her.
I read through the book quickly for two reasons. 1) Because Nabokov is an incredible storyteller. The entire book flows so together so well. And 2) The subject matter of Lolita caused me to read quickly, just to get the book over with, or maybe to finally see what happens to the creepiest character of all-time, Humbert Humbert.
So, yes, I’ve read all of the praise heaped upon this book. Presumably, those people—including many of you—were able to jump the pedophilia hurdle and see the forest for the trees.
I couldn’t. Whether you want to admit it or not, I think it’s a high hurdle to jump.
Never has a book made me nauseous quite like Lolita. Even in the first 33 novels, the violence of A Clockwork Orange and Blood Meridian, the dark thematic nature of Revolutionary Road and Rabbit Run, the graphic drug use in Infinite Jest, nothing has made me want to lunge for the toilet (metaphorically, of course) quite like Lolita.
Want an example? Here’s how the novel opens:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
You know you’re in for trouble when a book opens with the phrase “fire in my loins.” Is there a more disgusting word than “loins?” And fire in the loins of some pedophiliac old guy? That’s nasty, man.
That’s the vibe you get from Humbert throughout the entire novel, though. Honestly, and fortunately, there’s not any graphic sex in the novel, like you might expect. Nabokov leaves you at the doorstep. A lot of that is alluded to or happens “off screen.” But the reader is constantly reminded of Humbert’s passionate lust for this young girl.
So, oh yeah, do you want a quick plot description?
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert—a high-brow, well-educated writer and widower—and his obsession with Dolores Haze, his twelve-year-old stepdaughter. When Humbert was twelve, he had a sexual encounter with a young girl that basically left him lusting after 12-year-old girls the rest of his life.
After his first marriage fails, Humbert finds himself in need of a place to stay. With some help from a friend, Mr. Humbert ends up lodging at the house of Charlotte Haze, whom he eventually marries so as to stay close to her young daughter Dolores—whom Humbert refers to as “Lo” and “Lolita.”
After a few freak events, Humbert has Lolita all to himself, and they head out on a trip all over the country, as he does his best to skirt the law, take advantage of the girl, and bide time until he can legally marry her. As you can imagine, it doesn’t end well for anyone.
The story is told from Humbert’s first-person point of view in the form of a memoir he wrote from jail. How did he get to jail? Oh, you must read to find out.
Is it weird to say that I hated this book, but I still recognize it as a “good” book? All of the key elements of a classic novel are there: amazing writing, strong story, powerful characters, questions of morality, and so on. I “get” Lolita and what Vladimir Nabokov was trying to do with this novel.
It’s a classic tale of captor and captive, not unlike the Elizabeth Smart or Jaycee Dugard stories in real life. At times, it even appears that Dolores has a case of the Stockholm Syndrome–or at least from the way our unreliable narrator remembers the story.
It’s a twisted, manipulated story told from the point of view of a highly unreliable narrator who is lying to you—the reader—and even to himself. I understand all of that.
That said, I would rather jump off a cliff than have to read it again. I would rather go to Mrs. Dalloway’s party every day for a year than have to read it again. I would rather dive headfirst into a swimming pool filled with rabid piranhas than have to read it again. Okay, maybe that one is a stretch.
If this novel did anything, it proved to me that I have a limit, that no matter how wonderful a story is told and highly acclaimed it is in the world of literature, that there are some topics I would just as soon not read about.
I mentioned this in my preview of the book, and it still holds true: Of all the places I want to be, inside the mind of a pedophile is probably last on the list.
In Nabokov’s defense, I don’t believe he was trying to glorify pedophilia, though some critics might tell you that. What was his point, though? In the afterword, Nabokov pretty much admits he didn’t have one:
Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as “What is the author’s purpose?” or still worse “What is the guy trying to say?” Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origins and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination–which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another.
I find it odd that a novel about this topic is just a book the author feels like he needs to get off his chest, especially if that’s the only purpose for writing the story.
Even as a highly skeptical reader of this novel, though, it’s easy to see Humbert’s desperation and insanity increase as the story moves forward. In the end, he even embraces the reality of his wickedness after he is rejected one final time by Dolores:
It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.
Humbert is admittedly aware of his pathetic nature, and I think that shows a redeeming quality to the book. In the beginning, he’s filled with justifications and half-lies to explain away his sickness. In the end, he slowly accepts reality: He’s a creepy pervert.
But, still, for all its literary merits and high praise, I could never get over the fact that, at its core, Lolita is a book about a grown man who sexually abuses a 12-year-old girl for two years. That’s just not something I want to read about–regardless of the author’s intentions.
The Opening Line: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
The Meaning: Just like Joseph Heller created the term Catch 22, Nabokov coined the word “lolita,” which generally refers to a promiscuous young girl. The main character in the novel, Humbert Humbert, refers to 12-year-old Dolores as his “Lolita.”
Highlights: Nabokov could probably make a book about the nighttime habits of crickets seem interesting. He’s one of the best writers I’ve read.
Lowlights: This is where it gets difficult. I’ve never read a book that made me more uncomfortable than Lolita. More nauseous. More willing to jump through the pages of the novel and punch this creepy narrator, Humbert Humbert. But, again, is that really a lowlight, or does that just mean Nabokov was an incredibly gifted writer who crafted well-thought-out characters? Oh, literature, how you frustrate me!
Memorable Line: “It had become gradually clear to my conventional Lolita during our singular and bestial cohabitation that even the most miserable of family lives was better than the parody of incest, which, in the long run, was the best I could offer the waif.” -Humbert Humbert
Final Thoughts: I have no idea how to rank this book. I truly never want to read it again, but it’s one of those books that sits with you, not unlike Never Let Me Go. I hated the topic but really appreciated the way Nabokov crafted the story. If you choose to read this book, you need to approach it seriously. If you’re just reading it “to see what the fuss is all about,” you’ll never get through it.