Melissa Rudder's Reviews > The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated

The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Jun 07, 2011

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Read from May 15 to June 06, 2011

Humbert Humbert might only have words to play with, but one of the many differences between me and the narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is that words fail me here.

I read Lolita because it was one of Those Books--the kind that lovers of literature, even those who pretend to disdain the creaky and elitist canon, hear reverberated whispers of until somehow the title is there, right there, on the top of their book list: Lolita, my Lolita. I approached the book with trepidation. Not because of the allegations of pornography or indecency, but because of the frequent mentions of "James Joyce" on the cover and in the introduction of my edition, thoroughly annotated and introduced by Alfred Appel, Jr. I've introduced myself to James Joyce numerous times, and he keeps insisting on talking over my head as if I'm not there. Sometimes without punctuation.

As such, I was surprised when Nabokov's lyrical and (dare I say?) alluring prose enticed me in to the story. Humbert Humbert didn't talk over my head. No. He stared right as me as he frankly and vividly told me his sexual history. (It made me uncomfortable. Particularly reading at my in-laws' house.)

About fifty pages in I was worried that the only literary, cultural, and philosophical insight I'd get from the book would be, "Yeah... that book was weird." That still might be all I got. That and the additional paranoia about pedophiles.

If my review seems like unfocused rambling, then it is an accurate portrayal of my reaction to Lolita.

My book's annotator--who sometimes supplied as many as eight pages of notes for two paragraphs of text--really wanted me to get the comic elements of the narration, the elements of parody, the subtle and tantalizing clues about H.H.'s antagonist (Is Nabokov's self-awareness about the obscurity of his "clues" what makes the fact that his "clues" are ridiculously obscure good writing?), the punning, the use of doubles (and undermining and parody of doubling), the mockery of Freud, the allusions and/or fairy tale elements, the purposeful destruction of verisimilitude, and something about butterflies. He seemed to think those were the point and traditional readers looking for a thematic point were missing the whole story. Sorry, Alfred Appel. The final chapters, when H.H. lowers his mask and ends his comic dissembling, when he suggests that there was a thematic point are what made the novel for me. I finally cared. I finally appreciated Nabokov's character development. I finally enjoyed the doubling. I finally saw Lolita.

Or maybe I missed the whole thing and Nabokov is like Joyce.

"'Reality' is neither the subject nor the object of true art which creates its own special reality having nothing to do with the average 'reality' perceived by the communal eye." (This is actually from a different Nabokov novel, Pale Fire, but it was quoted in Appel's introduction.)

"A change of environment is the traditional fallacy upon which doomed loves, and lungs, rely."

"Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts." (Again, this isn't from Lolita. It's from an interview Appel did with Nabokov. But it's hilarious.)

"Great novels are above all great fairy tales... Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up. It is said that literature was born with the fable of the boy crying, 'Wolf! Wolf!' as he was being chased by the animal. This was not the birth of literature; it happened instead the day the lad cried 'Wolf!' and the tricked hunters saw no wolf... the magic of art is manifested in the dream about the world, in the shadow of the invented wolf." (Apparently this is how Nabokov would begin his classes at Cornell.)
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