The text, a Masterpiece.
Read for the audiobook by Jeremy Irons, who, in the very different land of audio, or what used to be called radio-theater
, understands the medium very well indeed.
Of Nabokov's book, no longer as shock-loaded as it was in 1955, only good things can be said:
· Even supporting role characters glow off the page --or out of the speakers-- with spark and conviction (and nicely rendered here in voice caricature by the narrator)
· The central cast -- Lolita, her mother Charlotte, Quilty the villain -- are the solid, rocky, often stormy shores against which is cast the destiny of the unfortunate ...
· Narrator. Humbert Humbert, civilized and outwardly graceful Swiss kiddie-fancier, is dazzlingly rendered here by Mr Irons. It feels a little as if he's a conductor of a complex orchestra that undertakes one very elaborate symphony courtesy Composer Nabokov. By turns perplexed, chagrined, sardonic & bitter, tender & lost, angry, sleepy, drunk, enthralled, this is a beautifully done performance by an artist who knows his score, tempo and structure internally.
· The unsung character, explored every bit as much in depth as Lolita herself, and quite possibly meant to be twinned in the reader's mind with her : resurgent America, postwar enfant terrible
on the world stage. Recall how much of the book is spent in picaresque wanderings, through mountain, park, desert, forest, highway, diner, gas, motel environs-- Nabokov very much meant this to be more than just atmosphere.
For those who may know Kubrick's brilliant movie version inside out, this is a stunning return to the text, the heart of the work, and the little nymphet-goddess who launched a thousand ships. Interestingly, though, this is not her story.
This is the story of Humbert, a definite Anti-hero if ever there was one, a case of the torch-song being a bit more intersting than the torch. (And yet another First Person Voice-over in the empathy-turns-distasteful school of interior monologues, like friend Alex in Burgess Clockwork Orange
with whom we keep having to slap ourselves to remember his sociopath & criminal nature. Humbert is only a gentler, earlier era's monster, one who prefers Baudelaire to Alex's Ludwig Van. And both, of course, prompting Mr Kubrick to heights of colorful moral dilemma...)
Nabokov's prose really doesn't need me to say that his written fiction is leagues better than most native-english speaker's best moments. Something intriguing in this 'radio' version-- think of it as a kind of half-movie -- is that Irons keeps the narrative flying along at very high speed for most of the (10+ hours) proceedings. Which goes a long way toward rendering a set of unified effects for the listener, compacting a little--- only by pacing, not by omission-- the (necessary) exasperating or elongated passages, and successfully so.
Hard to let this go without mentioning a couple parallel tracks (of the many) found laced throughout Lolita
. First is the Edgar Allen Poe reference, larger than life in the first-love memory of 'Annabel Leigh', giving us the wrenching emotional tenor for the rest of the work, right off the top. If you start with Annabel Lee, you will finish with Annabel Lee, it's safe to say, and that means sadly...
Another that I find compelling is the comparison to the book of The Americans
by Robert Frank, like Humbert another Swiss emigre on a strange road-trip, except Frank's famous monograph is in photographs. Put the Road Trip chapters from Nabokov side-by-side with the photographs, also from a cross-country odyssey in 1955, and you have the world outside the windshield of Humbert & Lo's journey in the book.
(If you're interested in the road-trip aspect, someone has actually assembled an itinerary of Humbert & Lolita's travels, here : "Lolita USA"
along with photos & a timeline.)