Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside)'s Reviews > Lolita

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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In spite of all the reading I do, this one continues to reign supreme as my favorite book of all time. I've noticed that I have a tendency to love books that sharply divide readers, and Lolita is certainly no exception, as evidenced by its 3.7 average rating here on Goodreads. People either love this one or hate it. There are very few who feel ambivalent toward it -- and that's exactly the kind of book I adore.

Those who love it usually love it for its incredible prose -- maybe the best I've ever read anywhere, so intricate and luscious that I find new surprises there every time I re-read, and I have read this book now more times than I can count.

Those who hate it usually hate it for its subject matter. If you have been living in an underground bunker built of school buses since the 1950s, you may not be aware of what the rest of the world is aware of, even the portions of the world that don't read American fiction, or don't read at all: Lolita is a novel about a pedophile victimizing a child.

Understandably, it's hard for good people to find much to like in a book with such disturbing matter. Or at least, it's hard for good people to allow their appreciation for Lolita's various strengths to overcome its inherent disturbing nature. And I am not at all suggesting that those who give this book five stars (such as myself) are bad people for not allowing Lolita's subject to cloud their opinion. Everybody approaches art in different ways; that's what makes art so fascinating to our species, and so vital to our social health. Art makes us confront uncomfortable situations, such as society's dark secrets, and the question of whether the worst people in the world can ever be said to have redeeming qualities.

Lolita, I believe, should be taken as more than just a novel. It is a deliberately conflicted work of art. It is a complexity of emotion and technique, perhaps one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human race -- and the harsh juxtaposition of its intense beauty and depth of emotion against the sordidness at its core is part of what makes it so great.

Nabokov, being the sly, self-assured bastard he was, realized that he was writing one of the loveliest works of art of all time -- in fact, he praises his own writing shamelessly in the rarely-read foreword to the novel, which is not a true foreword at all but rather a commentary on the book's content and technique by the fictional John Ray, Jr. -- Nabokov wearing a mask, as so many characters in Lolita do. He knew how beautiful this book was, and he could have set such beauty against a tale of love between two adults, or any number of other, less horrible subjects. Instead, he recycled the basic premise (and some of the scenes and prose) from a short story written many years before, when he was still living in Europe. The story is called The Enchanter, and if you read and enjoy Lolita (enjoy it for whatever it is to you), I recommend you find the story and give it a read as well. The story is a fascinating look at the core ideas that became one of the world's most meaningful works of art -- but it, too, is about a pedophile victimizing a child. (Un-fans of Lolita will be glad to know, though, that in The Enchanter the predator gets his well-earned punishment.)

Many literary critics and readers and students have proclaimed Lolita to be all kinds of things -- satire, travesty, social commentary on the debauchment of old Europe by young America, social commentary on the debauchment of young America by old Europe. Lolita has been many things to many people, showing to each reader a different viewpoint on the world. In interviews Nabokov always vehemently resisted the idea that he had written Lolita with any particular theme in mind, that he was trying to say anything about the world at all. He always forcibly stated that Lolita was exactly what it appeared to be -- a story about a man with a disturbing obsession.

The closest Nabokov ever came to admitting that Lolita had a hidden artistic agenda was stating that he first developed the idea for the story, long ago before he'd written even The Enchanter, after reading a news article about a captive ape who had produced the first drawing by an animal -- the image of the bars of its own cage. Certainly that micro-theme can be detected in Lolita, as Humbert Humbert's intoxicating narration is an artistic depiction of his own prison -- his lust for Lolita.

But I think Nabokov wrote Lolita with something very definite in mind, and only insisted that he did not to allow readers and critics the room to freely interpret his work as they would -- which is a rather noble and generous thing for any author to do, since, as I already stated, art must be approached personally and individually; when its themes and purposes are dictated to the audience it loses all its significance and all its immortality.

Lolita is, I believe, a very intentional picaresque -- the best picaresque of America I have ever read. It has all the earmarks of a picaresque -- the narrator who is uninitiated into the culture through which he moves (Humbert is from Europe); the often humorous or ridiculous interpretation of the observed culture's habits and characteristics; the importance of travel through a foreign landscape.

If Lolita was an intentional picaresque, then I can only assume its disturbing subject matter was dredged up from The Enchanter in order to cast the traveler/observer of this American picaresque in an intentionally awful light -- to make him as horrible as horrible could be, so that his humorously negative opinions of America could never quite be fully trusted, even as his charisma and artfulness made the reader feel irresistibly drawn to him.

In that respect, I believe Humbert Humbert is a reflection of Nabokov himself -- not to suggest that Nabokov had any sexual interest whatsoever in children, but that Nabokov was conflicted by a great love and appreciation for America, his adopted homeland, while also being extremely critical of its culture. After all, he grew up with a Russian baron for a father. Emigrating to America and making a new life there as a simple professor and butterfly-catcher must have been a change fraught with some very deep conflicts.

Take Lolita for what it is: a malleable work whose unparalleled prose can be approached in so many ways; however you like -- and a work whose intentional inclusion of humanity's most vile aspects only underscores the impact of its many beautiful aspects.

Aside from the disgusting nature of the subject itself, there is nothing "dirty" in the book -- there is no vulgar language, no outright descriptions of any sexual activity. It is not a book meant for titillation, as so many people have claimed. It is a book meant for serious artistic appreciation, crafted with the greatest skill and thought the world of literature has ever known.

Nabokov was a giant, an absolute master of his art -- and Lolita is his finest work.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

I often feared that Nabokov was a reflection of Humbert. Thanks for putting it in black and white. To me this is a book about the greatest crime.

message 2: by Ed (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Morawski I'm halfway and so far I find it one of most humorous books I've ever read - Humbert is constantly thwarted in his attempts to seduce (hardly the right word) Lolita.

I do take exception to your phrasing: Lolita is a novel about a pedophile victimizing a child.

First, Dolores/Lolita was not a virgin.
Second, as late as the 1800's girls of 12-13 were considered good marriage material. As I have stated in other groups: does a hundred years suddenly make girls of this age somehow forbidden fruit?
Nabokov does mention his definition of nymphets is 9-12 and sex with children younger than 12 I would agree is child abuse, but 12 going on 13? I don't know.
In any case you're right: the prose is wonderful.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) It is a very funny book.

However, just because a girl or woman isn't a virgin doesn't mean somebody can't rape her. Or psychologically abuse her.

By the end of the book you'll be wondering whether Humbert's account of the "seduction" that finally does happen is trustworthy, as Humbert is considered the archetypal unreliable narrator in literature. However, I have no doubt that *you* will not question it, as you seem to look for justifications of adult-on-child sexual abuse everywhere in literature, and comment on it frequently on Goodreads. You'll see in this novel what you wish to see, instead of what Nabokov wrote.

message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Only sick men think a girl of 12-13 is good marriage material and its sad how many men are like that still these days. That is certainly thinking from the Dark Ages.

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) ~☆ Alice♥♥ wrote: "Only sick men think a girl of 12-13 is good marriage material and its sad how many men are like that still these days. That is certainly thinking from the Dark Ages."

I agree.

message 6: by Ed (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ed Morawski Nonetheless girls were married young (10-12) as late as 1880 and all the way back through history.

While I personally prefer a more mature experienced wife/partner, people back then did not consider it sick in any manner.

Even today it amuses me that laws in Maine for instance, say it's okay to have sex with a girl of 14 as long as her partner is no more than 19!

What kind of sense does that make?

Libbie Hawker (L.M. Ironside) The genius of Lolita (and Vladimir Nabokov) lies in its theme. The theme is not what most people believe it to be, which in itself is part of its theme. Most people think Lolita is simply what it seems on the surface -- and indeed, that's what Nabokov always told everybody it was, that tricky old devil. Others, especially the academic set, believe it to be an allegory of "young" America seducing and corrupting "old" Europe. It's most definitely not that.

The theme of Lolita is masks. If you look closely, you see it everywhere. Everywhere. But you may have to read it a few times for it to really click.

The book is about the futility of disguise -- it's about how we try to hide truth from our own selves by donning particular masks, such as the narrative mask Humbert wears, using his charm and his intoxicating wit to fool himself and others into thinking he's something other than what he knows he truly is: a horrible, selfish, abusive monster.

We can hide our own natures from ourselves about as well as we can hide it from everybody else, which is to say, not at all.

All you need to know about Lolita and about its surface subject -- a pedophile abusing his victim -- is summed up in this elegant bit of prose:

We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

Even Humbert doesn't believe in his own mask, though he'll do everything he can to convince the rest of the world that he does, and that they should, too, and that there's really nothing wrong with what he's doing, for every reason and every excuse one can imagine -- all of which are presented within the slick, smooth-flowing, lulling beauty of the narrative. That beauty only disguises something ugly beneath.

It's genius.*

*No, I did not study literature in college. I didn't go to college. I don't even hold a high school diploma. I figured this out by reading Lolita more times than I could count, and by thinking about human nature.

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