Jason's Reviews > Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Aug 16, 10

Read from August 04 to 10, 2010

Nymph. Nymphet. Nymphetiquette. Nymphology. Nymphism. I will never think of 12 year old girls the same way. There’s a stain on my brain. The power of this book is that it’s creepy and taboo, but the pedophilia and incest is so damn plausible. There’s a criminal, upsetting proclivity of the subject matter, but the whole thing is oiled with reason--SAY IT AINT SO. It’s deviant, queer, puerile, and yet ever so human, darkly human, perverted in the corner.

Lolita lingers in my mind, like an accidental glance at the mid-day sun. I believe this book will have a permanent effect on me. I’m thankful, but cautious. It’s a book that I experienced, not so much as read. There are 2 components to this book that radically affected me, the writing and the subject matter.

The Writing
I have never read another book written quite like Lolita. The writing has depth, layer upon layer, strata against strata, texture among texture. It’s a palimpsest of clues and anagrams and reference. The author has absolute command of the English and French and Latin language. And yet, among the $4 dollar words and bourgeoisie lit crit, Nabakov plays with the language. He invents words. He hyphenates them. He nymphorizes them. It’s a gamboling and frolicking story in the rarefied air of an unrestrained, unapologetic and unadulterated polyhistoric writer. It’s subtle and raw at the same time; it’s pure. Pure, like what happens in your neighborhood behind closed doors, just before an arrest. He incorporates a dry, brittle sense of humor--even a bit of sass. He taunts the reader to follow. He dares the reader to like and enjoy Humbert Humbert. He pokes you in the eye. He scandalizes you, but with a pen that is at once brutal and sensitive, but always careful. There are echoes of Joyce and Poe.

The story is a retrospective from...from...from where? What? Prison. Ostensibly. And yet, there hasn’t been a trial yet--no judgement. Nabakov tantalizes you, “ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” to pass judgement on Humbert Humbert yourself. Are you willing? Or will you just turn your head, wincing?

The writing is breathless, eloquent, exacting, alluring, inventive, sexy, pleading, conceited, lurid, savory, languid, and slyly self-deprecating. The author is flagrant, unapologetic, a dandy even. He whiffles the writing in so many little stylistic flourishes. He writes sentences and paragraphs in ways that I would never have guessed to try. It’s insanely periodic writing; I grab my head akimbo in pure awe of the sentences. I peeked at an annotated version for 20 pages at a local big-box book store. Wow, there’s so many levels to this writing, of so much I was ignorant. Did you know that under the shocking story of pedophilia, Nabakov is carrying on a paper chase with clues on almost every page? Yes, there’s a whole other plane of conversation hidden below the written words--grammatically, semantically, nymphatically. They’re buried in the french words, the double entendres, the onomatopoeia, the puns, the metonymy, the symbols, the rhyming, the nymphventions. Palimpsest “ladies and gentlemen.”

The Subject Matter
We all know Lolita is supposed to be shocking, revolting even, many people not able to finish it. Titillating, serious fiction about pedophilia is the clear edge of the literary envelope, something banned in many different communities, even today. At this particular time in our democracy, as one of the freest countries in the world, and the most progressive, we champion human rights and place a huge penalty on crimes against minors. In this spirit, we are supposed to decry and detest the subject matter in this book, and lambast the author. People are arrested and put on community rosters for crimes against minors. This 300+ page book chronicles a crime against a minor. Nabakov makes this an even more difficult sexual arrangement for his readers to contemplate, because the 12 year old is an eager, compliant and willing partner to the crime.

In Lolita the protagonist is a criminal and his actions unforgivable. BUT, if there was any method to his madness, it would have to be this:

Humans share a cephalization process in common with most vertebrates. We developed cerebral hemispheres several million years ago (progressing beyond our closest ancestors), and more recently than that, humans learned how to use the cerebral cortex to reason, judge, cognate, and intuit. But, hundreds of millions of years ago, way down the taxonomic branch, we shared with other vertebrates a common mesencephalon and rhombencephalon, the midbrain and hindbrain. Tucked up under our marvelous, modern cortex, the midbrain and hindbrain, called the brain stem, are comprised of the pons, cerebellum, and yes, the MEDULLA OBLONGATA! These are ancient, compact organs. They are the most ‘animal’ part of our brains. They are in control of the lower order mental functions, the basic mechanistic functions upon which everything else depends. You can lose part of your cortex and still function as a human. You cannot, however, lose any of your brain stem without losing basic animal function. The brain stem is innately integral to life.

It’s from this midbrain we get reflex, instinct, coordinated movement, sex drive, fight-or-flight, and a whole range of metabolic regulation for all organs in the rest of the body. The impulses (the input, the direction, the priority) originating in these Mesozoic Era brain organs are powerful. The cerebral cortex would be remiss to block an impulse from this deep, ancient brain--even if it could stop the impulse in time. It’s difficult for our human cortex to constrain an electrical input from the animal brain stem. What comes from the stem is automatically life-sustaining, life-preserving, and high priority. The cortex usually plays catch-up to brain stem messaging.

But humans do it all the time. It’s called reason, judgement, cognition, and conscience. It’s called being civilized. It’s keeping in check our vertebrate impulses.

Enter Humbert Humbert. He suffers an atavistic urge to procreate with young nymphets. This is a social problem driven and turbocharged by the midbrain. He understands (his cortex understands) that the culture of the late 1940s and early 1950s find this taboo and perverse, definitely criminal. But our poor Humberto doesn’t care. He reasons with his midbrain, and pleads to us, "the jury." In the not too distant past within our own Western culture, and certainly in modern cultures of tribal peoples, 12 year old girls are ready to mate. Lolita has already menstruated and had sex with a boy her age. In many cultures of the world, Lolita would be given up as a wife in exchange for dowries of cattle, land, political favor. The whole story, then, brings this American taboo to a moral question. And its a question that you--modern citizen--find uncomfortable, like I do.

Even more disturbing, Nabakov makes Humby Humberty a caring, loving, protective paternal figure that wishes Lolita the best in life. There is no direct, lewd reference to the act of sex; nothing salacious; nothing pornographic. No, that would be too easy to damn Humbo to the devil. Instead, Nabakov explores the possibility that real love may exist betwain the tween.

I’m not too happy to report a phenomenon that happens to men of sexual capacity, always and forever. It’s an impulse from the midbrain, and it pushes through all that civilization-ing. It’s happened to all men (I know because it’s been a topic of conversation in many different social settings to which I was eye-witness). Take for example a young woman of 16 or 17 years. From afar I see a body in bikini, I see a tight, athletic form, I see a bronzed body wearing clothes much too revealing, and immediately the midbrain excites the male sex drive. Upon closer approach, I’m horrified to see that this nubile figure is much too young for me. Am I perverted? Criminal thoughts? I don’t think so. The midbrain wants to ensure successful mating, and for hundreds of millions of years, sexual mating, to be maximally effective, and to outlast environmental exigencies, was driven down to the earliest age that could conceive offspring. So that dastardly urge men experience around cheerleaders, or girls at the beach that look as healthy and trim as fresh gazelles--it’s not right dammit, and most of us keep it in check, but there it is and it’s nagging, and I wish it away. But no, I think it will remain and haunt me at times like it haunts all men--your men--your brothers and your fathers and your lovers. I look away in disgust of myself, call myself a ‘dirty old man,’ whatever it takes to recalibrate my thoughts. It happens occasionally--that oogling--but I keep it in check. But if you think society has civilized itself away from this midbrain urge, type into google the words: “list of sexual predators in my area.” You will see a Mesozoic characteristic come alive. {note to self, this paragraph may need to be reworded...a very good chance most people will misconstrue it...as if I was pardoning the midbrain urge...or worse, that I pardon Humbert Humbert...not the case at all}

So that’s why at the beginning I said this story was so damn plausible and upsetting and ‘oiled with reason,’ and darkly human. Pedophilia and incest has occurred, is occurring, and will always occur. That beast of a midbrain!

A very important read for 20th century literature.

New words: incondite, contretemps, swain, alembic, tombal, purblind, dulcet, treacle, edusively, viatic, selenian
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Reading Progress

08/05/2010 page 101
32.0% "Breathless, rich."

Comments (showing 1-50 of 86) (86 new)

message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

oh, fun. maybe i will reread with you! i have been meaning to reread this for years.

Jason I'll probably start this Wednesday. I'm looking forward to it. I'm trying to catch up on all those classics that I should have been assigned to read for English class along the way.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

fabulous. i should be done with Await Your Reply by then so i'm game, as long as i don't suddenly have to read something for work.

Jason It's a date, Ariel.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

hi! i'm here with excuses. i started it this morning, but just got back from B&N, and have decided i want my second read to be of the annotated edition. so, i am going to get my hands on that and then read. but i'm so pleased you are enjoying.

Jason I am really enjoying it. There's 2 things to this book that outweigh everything else, imho--the writing itself, and the subject matter. It will be difficult to write a review that will give this book justice.

Didn't know there was an annotated version...might find myself in B&N after I finish to see what that's all about.

message 7: by [deleted user] (new)

It's not hard to read Lolita and enjoy Nabokov's gorgeous writing, but I personally had trouble gleaning his actual intentions in some of his references and instances of double meaning. It is such a rich book that I think the annotated version will add a lot.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Go jason GO! WRITE A REVIEW!!! I love love love love love love love this book and the movie and Nabokov and Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick and basically anything that has ever been associated with this book...aside from that shitty 90's remake. YUCK.

Paquita Maria Sanchez SYNCHRONICITY.

Jason Kristi, check out the annotated version (if you haven't already you ardent fan, you). It's a whole 'nuther level.

Paquita Maria Sanchez Good to know...I most certainly will, then.

Ellen This is great, Jason, but I'm running out the door. One of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors - I may just forgive you for disliking The Idiot.


Jason Ellen, I KNEW you were holding that against me, that's why I haven't seen you around campus lately.

I don't know how people are going to respond to my last paragraph. Men looking at women, and then realizing that they're a little younger than we thought at 100 yards. It happens...that's the best way I could explain it.

message 14: by Eric (new)

Eric It’s subtle and raw at the same time; it’s pure. Yesiree!

Jason Eric, neat thumbnail. Distant relative? What's the uniform?

message 16: by Eric (new)

Eric Uniform is Her Majesty's Irish Guards, circa 1914. Not a relative, just a face cast up sharply from the waves, I mean from the pages, of some recent Great War reading. A subaltern killed at 1st Ypres.

Ellen Jason wrote: "Ellen, I KNEW you were holding that against me, that's why I haven't seen you around campus lately.

I don't know how people are going to respond to my last paragraph. Men looking at women, and t..."

I really wasn't harboring a grudge even though only an i**** would dislike The Idiot - completely joking. ...I've just been too busy to be here as much as I'd like.

When I read this book for a class when I was an undergraduate (a few thousand years ago), I think I was the only female not bitching about it. Humbert Humbert is not Nabokov. Really nice review, Jason.

message 18: by [deleted user] (new)

Jason wrote: "I don't know how people are going to respond to my last paragraph. Men looking at women, and t..."But that's reality. Will some people judge you for your honesty? We'll have to see... but it is appreciated nonetheless.

Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. It's so musical. So beautiful. And yet.

Great review. Thanks.

message 19: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Determinist.

Jason Obscurantist.

Caris Shit, man. That's a fine review.

message 22: by Esteban (new)

Esteban del Mal Scatologist.

message 23: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Great review, Jason. Some of your later comments reflect a suspicion I have had that many people object to this book out of guilt rather than shock. That is, everyone would like to think that men who lust after pubescent girls are a rare class of perverts, and we do not want to be reminded that we probably know people who have such thoughts, even if they never act on them. Nabokov makes Humbert seem all too normal and plausible.

Jason Miriam, ~] ~] ~] That's me touching my nose.

Exactly right. People that are ashamed of a certain inclination will sometimes overcompensate their denial of same inclination. I've looked directly into the eyes of guys who are vociferously, abusively anti-gay, and I've thought, "is he really this repulsed by homosexuals, or is he trying to put A LOT of distance between his outward persona and his own internal homosexual tendencies?" Or more likely, is he running from a single experience that terrorized him as a boy, and he's protecting that stain by putting his manhood beyond reproach?

I would call a man a liar, he who hasn't been duped at 100 yards by the form of a fully-figured 16 year old girl.

Also, when written in 1955, 16 year old girls were legal in all US states. So a story about adult love with a girl between 12-14 years old was out of the question, but not to the degree it is today, 55 years later. Hell, I had 2 great-great grandmothers pregnant at 14, rurual Kentucky, and happily married by 15. So, yes, Nabokov was stretching a taboo, but by just enough to be appropriately scandalous for his literary purposes. Today I think an author would achieve the same sense of shock by matriculating a relationship between a grown man and a 14-16 year old. For me, today, a 12 year old girl is an automatic trip to the hoosegow for 20 years--no literary criticism required.

I see you there Caris. Thanks bro.

message 25: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul New words for me : mesencephalon, rhombencephalon, pons.

But new word for you - treacle! What? Did you never have a treacle pudding as a young lad? Or a treacle sandwich - disgustingly sweet but Humbertesquely irresistible? Anyway, fine review. I think you took the bull by its horn very well. You also may have mentioned the life expectncy of our ancestors. If you're old at 40 you better get going at 12... made sense then. Not so much now.

message 26: by Miriam (last edited Aug 18, 2010 09:42AM) (new)

Miriam Paul, my dear, Americans do not eat treacle. I know what it is from books but have never encountered it. However, I am given to understand that dark treacle is fairly close to the lightest molasses, although less dark.

message 27: by Paul (last edited Aug 18, 2010 11:58AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Treacle is like molten gold, like edible sunshine.... how have you Americans deprived yourselves of this treat? Isn't there something in the constitution about your right to the pursuit of happiness? Treacle is surely implied in this.

message 28: by Miriam (new)

Miriam We have sorghum. I mean, not me personally, but it is there.

Caris Ha. Funny thing. When I started reading Harry Potter, I thought treacle was a fictional food. True story.

message 30: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Once upon a time there were three little sisters,' the Dormouse began in a great hurry; `and their names were Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie; and they lived at the bottom of a well--'

`What did they live on?' said Alice, who always took a great interest in questions of eating and drinking.

`They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse, after thinking a minute or two.

`They couldn't have done that, you know,' Alice gently remarked; `they'd have been ill.'

`So they were,' said the Dormouse; `VERY ill.'

Alice tried to fancy to herself what such an extraordinary ways of living would be like, but it puzzled her too much, so she went on: `But why did they live at the bottom of a well?'

`Take some more tea,' the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

`I've had nothing yet,' Alice replied in an offended tone, `so I can't take more.'

`You mean you can't take LESS,' said the Hatter: `it's very easy to take MORE than nothing.'

`Nobody asked YOUR opinion,' said Alice.

`Who's making personal remarks now?' the Hatter asked triumphantly.

Alice did not quite know what to say to this: so she helped herself to some tea and bread-and-butter, and then turned to the Dormouse, and repeated her question. `Why did they live at the bottom of a well?'

The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, `It was a treacle-well.'

`There's no such thing!' Alice was beginning very angrily, but the Hatter and the March Hare went `Sh! sh!' and the Dormouse sulkily remarked, `If you can't be civil, you'd better finish the story for yourself.'

`No, please go on!' Alice said very humbly; `I won't interrupt again. I dare say there may be ONE.'

`One, indeed!' said the Dormouse indignantly. However, he consented to go on. `And so these three little sisters--they were learning to draw, you know--'

`What did they draw?' said Alice, quite forgetting her promise.

`Treacle,' said the Dormouse, without considering at all this time.

message 31: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Turkish Delight is disgusting, it's the work of the devil. Marmite, on the other hand, has its adherents and its detractors.

message 32: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I like Turkish Delight if it is flavored with rose or pistachio or whatever and not just sugar.

Jason I will never, ever forget the definition of treacle. Thanks all. In fact I just read the word treacle in Howard's End, and you'll be happy to know that I didn't dogear the page.

Paul, I deployed to RAF Mildenhall about 8 times with the Air Force. I may have eaten treacle, but I enjoyed the beers much better. Also Paul, I would like to officially review #30 as a novella :)

I also deployed to Incirlik, Turkey, and they have smashing good food.

message 34: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker Yay for Turkish delight! I love the stuff. But it must be the good stuff from Turkey. There's some vile version in that used to be in the Cadbury's box of chocolate assortments. Even covered in chocolate, it tasted more like sweetened soap and paste.

message 35: by Dolly (new) - added it

Dolly Jason,
Great review. I would like to read this book, but I might need to wait until our girls are grown. I'm afraid if I read it now I might want to keep them locked up until they are 25. As it is, I am cherishing them at this age, while they are so young and unblemished.

Jason Dolly, thanks, yeah, one of the more disturbing facets of this book is that the 12-14 year old Lolita is complicit in the affair. It's the spread in ages that's so uncofortable. If Humbert were, say, 16-17, then this story would have no power. It would simply be a 'coming of age story.'

message 37: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul That's a point I can't quite remember - since all of the book is filtered through Humbert, do we have any indication that she was complicit other than him saying or hinting so?

I remember a quote from a book on cops I read (it was called "Cops") - this is from memory - "there's some guys who if they point a gun at a woman and she takes off her clothes they call that consent".

Jason Paul, it would be impossible and wrong to defend a belief that a young girl could cause this, so let me say that from several scenes in the book, Nabakov shows Lolita as being very precocious in the ways of flirting and teasing. She runs to Humbert to kiss him, she uses her consent to derive favors, she refers to him as her lover, etc. Could all this have been 'filtered through Humbert,' since this is his retrospective? Hadn't thought of that, but yes.

Her fault? No--Humbert is the adult; the crime is his alone. But, it does introduce a very disturbing component. Stockholm syndrome? Maybe. Emotional hijack? Maybe. Nabokov set the relatioship like this on purpose, just to make the story more difficult for adults like you and me.

Like Dolly #35, I think I'll keep my daughter in the attic until she's 25. Isn't your daughter 12 or so?

message 39: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul She's 14 in one month - I can't believe it! She's on goodreads but we're not friends here!

message 40: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I wonder if Nabokov is deliberately drawing the reader into Humbert's mind in such a way that we begin to be complicit in his belief that the relationship is mutual. Even if Lolita is later cooperative (really, what else could she be once he is her sole guardian?) that wouldn't tell us whether she was initially trying to flirt with him. Many little girls kiss grown-ups without thinking about the act in any sexual or manipulative way.

Kelly Dammit. I never get jealous...and well...now I am uber jealous. This was a very fine review Mr. Binks!

And as many bats as 'Humberty' has got in his belfry, I think we can find some small things about him that are familiar. Like lust. Can't go on through life without that. :D

Used your advice to look up the predators, and shouldn't. There are two in my neighborhood. *Looks over shoulder expectantly*

Jason Miriam, I'll have to read Lolita more closely next time, but you've got a good point about 'drawing the reader into Humbert's mind.' I returned the book to the library, but I'm pretty sure that Lolita was rather aggressive. The kiss I'm referring to is when she ran back into the house, ran upstairs, and then gave Humbert a full, open-mouthed kiss, just before she left with her mom, teasing him and calling him 'lover.'

Kel, just think: now you know where they live; do you know where they're at, right now? Chances that if you pass 100 strangers today--shopping or whatever--you'll probably pass 8 that are molesters. I've got 3 kids under six. I hold their hands a lot.

message 43: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul "The kiss I'm referring to is when she ran back into the house, ran upstairs, and then gave Humbert a full, open-mouthed kiss, just before she left with her mom, teasing him and calling him 'lover.'"

Yeah, but how can we believe what a shitbag like Humbert tells us? In Lolita we have to do a lot of between the lines reading. HH is the last word in unreliable.

message 44: by Philip (new)

Philip Sheesh, what a conversation. The book scares me. The review scares me. Don't reveal the dark recesses of mans mind and the horrors we've all lived through so acutely next time please. I may have to unfriend you.

By the way, I'm about as fundamentalist Christian as you can go without going off the deep end, but it's always bothered me that Mary was so young and God was so old. I think of that every time I think of this book, and then I feel dirty.

message 45: by Miriam (new)

Miriam But I suppose everyone is so young compared with God.

message 46: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul Oh Philip, I perceive you are pulling our legs.

Kelly Yes indeed Jason! Thanks for the feedback...and I don't have kids of my own, but my siblings are still young enough to where I can tie them to my cart.

Jason wrote: "Miriam, I'll have to read Lolita more closely next time, but you've got a good point about 'drawing the reader into Humbert's mind.' I returned the book to the library, but I'm pretty sure that Lo..."

message 48: by Paul (new) - rated it 5 stars

Paul With Lolita's brain pretty well closed to us, we do not get any understanding of her perception of the relationship. To me, that would be much more interesting. There is a lot of discussion of why he wants her, but not why she stays with him when she has other choices.

It seems some of your criticism here is because nabokov did not write a different novel entirely. He keeps us frustrated throughout the novel very deliberately, and only lets us surmise what Lolita herself may be thinking. So the novel is a portrayal of HH's delusional thinking. Like any paedophile he desperately wants to convince himself (and the members of the jury) that Lola was complicit, that they were in it together. He hates to think that all the sex was non-consensual, no no, that would make him a child rapist, whereas it wasn't like that at all, ladies and gentlemen, it was a love affair, a doomed love affair. I can't remember how many opportunities Lola has to flee from HH on their mad road trip but she was only 12/13 and what resources did she have? So I dispute that she really had any chance of leaving him until she actually did. For a lurid example of Stockholm Syndrome, see this true crime book :


Jason Glen, I agree with all of your comments about sociology, culture, and sexuality. I would like to think that sexuality among youth is a pendulum that swings too far each way, but I have no data to back that up. Instead, I think the hyper-sexualization of capitalistic, Western markets has created an environment that supports maturity at a younger and younger age.

As for the book, yes there is a glaring lack of backstory narrative for Lola. But, in this case, for many reasons, I didn't need her backstory, as I saw this as a focused first person perspective. In fact, the strictly first person narrative made the story even more creepy for me because I couldn't judge Humbert's actions and statements objectively (it left me frustrated, like Paul said). Lola was a prisoner to Humbert's story, like she was a prisoner to his guardianship.

This writing technique is unique and very apparent. You either like it a lot, or you can't get past 3 stars.

message 50: by Miriam (new)

Miriam To go home all she had to do was telephone or walk to any local authority. The hotal manager or even a clerk could contact local authorities for her. She could phone home collect.

Home? But wasn't HH her legal guardian?

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