Antonomasia's Reviews > The Annotated Lolita

The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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Jan 13, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: cult-books, divine-comedy-booklovers, 2013, 1001-books, american, decade-1950s, russia, central-eastern-europe
Read from October 06 to 10, 2013 , read count: 1

Oct 2013
The novel itself was superb, and is even better in remembering it nearly four months later - whilst reading, it was almost too intense and too rich. However I thought Alfred Appel's annotated edition very overrated, with its embarrassing and unscholarly fawning over Nabokov in the intro, dull and pointless level of detail in some notes (better reserved for a separate critical work), contrasting lack of notes and discussion on points that could have done with it, and inability to acknowledge where allusion etc may still be relevant in the eye of the reader even if Nabokov didn't consciously work something in. Give me a standard Penguin or Oxford annotated version any day over this sort of thing.

Oct 2015
Pasting some of my own comments from here to flesh out (urrgh) the review:
"That his use of language is wonderful goes without saying, but I find a lot of darker unreliable narrators exhausting (most contemporary ones are influenced by Humbert, so he, being their fountainhead certainly was a draining read). If there was a third-person narrative by Nabokov - and suspect there isn't - that would be what I'd go for if I read him again."
"Had a look at his author page on here since commenting above, & was reminded of Speak Memory which has to be one - also that title was on bookshelves at home when I was a kid and therefore feels like part of an ancient backlog."
"I don't have a great deal of hope of Nabokov acknowledging subjectivity & and that others might see the same things differently - given the impression of his arrogance. But one never knows. It might be a surprise. "
"In arrogance (deliberate choice of a commonplace word) I also meant the business of 'bit of a narcissist deliberately exaggerating same tendencies in his characters', and the severity of his publicly proclaimed opinions - he did not have the same warmth of playfulness and beneath the mirrors, an underlying kindness and concern for some social issues as did, say, Oscar Wilde. His games never seem anything but cold."
I feel like wearing surgical gloves to read him.

And more, Nov-Dec. 2015
I'm going to quote a friend here, who once put it with more nuance than I was about to: "Nabokov? You read one book of his about someone into underage girls, and sure, it's a character. But when the theme keeps on cropping up, you do start to wonder..."
I think a fair few literary unreliable narrators have a template of an author's suppressed dark side, acted out and exaggerated by the character (with various features tacked on from elsewhere: news reports, celebrities, acquaintances or whatever); the character is often ultimately punished for enacting these desires. Nabokov was also a huge snob, and obviously had great skill with language. So in that context I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that someone who had a sexual interest in pre-teen girls might also have those other opinions and interests. (Meanwhile, the lack of self-awareness and other-awareness and the way his own wants make it impossible for him to see Dolores' behaviour and reactions differently are generalisable to all sorts of dodgy and abusive types. Sorry for patronising tone there, not awake enough to work out a better way of phrasing.)

I'd agree with those who consider it great art, but I also found it bloody hard work - had to put it down for a couple of days and then finish it as quickly as poss - and couldn't imagine classing it under favourites as so many do, or wanting to re-read it. I wished I'd read other Nabokovs first so I could appreciate his writing more for the language itself, as many do, rather than associating him with a sense of 'urgh'.

"the knowing nod to his unreliability as a narrator"
Whilst the person in question wasn't interested in kids, the character, including this knowingness and playing with the idea of one's own unreliability, and the wordplay, reminds me a lot of someone I used to know. He wasn't exactly a common type, I'd never met anyone else like him then - and only once or twice since, people with some similarities only less twisted.

I think it's a useful one to *have read* because there are so many unreliable narrators in litfic who are obviously influenced by him. Even if they aren't paedophiles specifically he's become a type. I read it within a few weeks of Martin Amis' Money which only emphasised that.

And here:

I still think that - whilst we agree the book may not be likeable - it's exactly this sort of reaction which shows that it is successful (as in effective, by demonstrating this sort of personality and the revulsion he evokes).
- Humbert's showing off with his vocabulary can grate. He is pompous.
- His persona can seduce the reader in various ways, showing how he had the effect he had on other characters who were taken in (including the grown woman Charlotte Haze, or his colleagues and other locals, not just children). I hope this does not annoy you but one example of that could be feeling his narrative is relatively reliable.
- Humbert is painting himself in a sympathetic light, because, well, he would. He doesn't have a full perception of the damage he would have caused.
- We only hear about Lolita through Humbert, we can't see much of how she managed day to day. If she'd had an undisrupted childhood, she might have had a better life at 17, been at college etc - even though she is not a homeless addict, say. OTOH a lot of people put up a facade for years and only start to unravel later.

At any rate, I think we both agree that neither of us would like to re-read this!

I shouldn't read Rebecca Solnit; she infuriates me because she always places women only on one side of an equation, and makes personality traits gendered in a very unhelpful way. (The character of Rachel in Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World has some excellent stuff to say about this tendency.) But that recent article of Solnit's on Lolita made me want to say the thing I was busy not saying all along. If one knows what it is to try and seduce, to try and blend in, to try and sound playfully clever, there is also the unpleasantness of finding oneself in Humbert, (even whilst being physically more like Charlotte Haze - she is also pretty controlling in her way, and keen on snaring a catch, something which nearly all analyses of the book omit). The matter of its being about him preying on children became almost irrelevant as I read, it was about him as an unpleasant personality who could have been interested in some entirely different type of person or scheme; what was overwhelming was the confrontation with certain dark sides of myself and of the person mentioned in the paragraph above, and slightly a few others, all whisked together and amplified and becoming suffocating in a dynamic where everyone is used and using, and needing to come up for air into normal life and remember that it's just a component, a rather rusty one, frankly, and that I am, and that most people are, actually rather more decent than that.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Cecily So the 4* is for Nabakov, rather than Appel?

Lolita is such a fascinating and troubling book. I'm sure I'll reread it one day, and when I do, an annotated version may be the way to go - even (or especially?) if I don't like or agree with all the annotations.

Antonomasia The missing star is intentionally ambiguous. But Appel's contribution made it an embarrassment-free decision.

Cecily Aha. ;)

Antonomasia Came back to this and just noticed your spelling of 'Nabakov'. I've noticed this from a couple of other sources that presumably wouldn't make mistakes, including an online lit journal and someone on GR who's a big fan of his - is this a legit alternative? Different transliterateration from Russian?

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