Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

by Vladimir Nabokov

So allergic to ‘classics’ was I as a younger reader, that my main introduction to the name Lolita came from Beavis and Butthead, with the big-haired bar-chicks who would introduce themselves by saying, “Hi, I’m Lolita, and this here’s Tanka Rae.”

By high school and the years after, if I wasn’t required to read them for some class, classics fell to the ‘Should Read’ list, in the same way a person ‘should’ eat fish for the Omega-3s. I’d get around to them at some point, after I finished going through the entire back catalogue of my favorites. So when Pajiba decided on Lolita as the first official Book Club selection, I chose to join in as though it were a class assignment. Deadlines have a wonderful way of getting items off the ‘someday’ list.

For those unfamiliar: Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a French ex-pat living in suburban East Coast America in the late 1940s. Taken in as a lodger by Charlotte Haze, he develops an all-consuming passion and desire for her twelve-year-old daughter, Dolores — sometimes referred to as Dolly, and by himself, the pet names Lo and Lolita. At first, he does all that he can to mask his feelings, so as not to spoil her or the convenient living situation in which he has found himself. Lo is a petulant, dramatic creature, especially towards her mother, but she takes a liking to Humbert, at first in an innocent, child-like way. The remainder of the book tracks the evolution of their relationship, written from Humbert’s point of view in the style of a memoir.

If the basic premise of the story seems creepy, it is. The beginning of the book contains plenty of leering and enough comments about young girls — “nymphettes” — that made my skin crawl a bit, especially since I have a daughter. One has to plow through all the ogling preamble before the story really takes off, and once it does, it’s less creepy. Or maybe after the first 100 pages, I just became used to it, acclimatized in the same way one gets used to Victorian language.

The edition I read was the 50th Anniversary paperback, which included some notes on the book by Nabokov at the end, written in 1956. He says:

Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

It’s helpful to think of Lolita as a foreign environment and the readers should try to be impartial observers. If the object of Humbert’s desire were not a child, it would still be a tale of obsessive love that leads to a sort of madness, and it would still be the story of a woman who didn’t know what she wanted, other than attention. Nobody is all that sympathetic of a character, but they’re interesting, so I wanted to know what happened to them — the official mark of effective literature.

And despite the subject matter, the writing really is something else — big, beautiful sentences that don’t feel like something I had to digest. To make another food comparison — the novel was more like one of those chocolate Fiber One bars than eating plain bran flakes. Some people like a novel to feel like work, a big project to conquer; I am not one of them. I require only an interesting story, interesting people and writing that doesn’t try to call attention to itself. Within those standards, Lolita succeeded.

On February 25th, Pajiba will have an open discussion on the novel. You do not have to be an official Cannonball Read participant to join in, so if you’ve read the novel and would like to share your thoughts, do take peek.

Book #14/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.


  1. Oh man, I just read Lolita as well. Finished in Phoenix a few weeks ago and it is still with me. For me the mark of a great book is that I can see and understand every point of view. I might be sickened by H.H. in real life if I read about him in a newspaper, but I can actually empathize with him in Lolita. He transforms from the villian into something else entirely. He's obviously not the good's so hard to explain.

    Anyway, I finally picked it up after I read "Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi. She gives Lolita a different perspective by comparing the story to that of Iranian Revolution. It's a great read as well.

  2. It IS hard to explain, isn't it? The last quarter of the book was a bit outside of what I expected, and it does become easier to empathize with him. I'm sure it will cause some interesting discussion on the 25th.