Classics Spin: ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov

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‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta’.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, Pg.9

The Classics Club Spin No. 4 resulted in me having to read one of the books I dreaded – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. After finally making it through the novel, I can truthfully say I don’t think I will ever re-read it again, not that I didn’t think it was good. In fact, it was because I found it so beautifully written (particularly for someone whose second language is English, yet Nabokov is such a master of the language) that I found it extremely disturbing.

Lolita was first published in 1955 and, as the author noted, Nabokov had difficulty in finding someone who would publish it for a number of reasons: it was viewed as immoral, anti-American and worthy of a jail-sentence. For the taboo subjects it depicts, Lolita has stood out as one of the most controversial books of the twentieth century yet, at the same time, remains a lasting and concrete classic. As Nabokov states in the afterword, one American critic (after the book was published by Olympia Press in Paris) suggested that Lolita ‘was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel. The substitution “English language” for “romantic novel” would make this elegant formula more correct’ (pg.316). Nabokov is exactly right; I don’t think I have ever read such a beautifully written book before.

As everyone probably already knows (either by reading the book itself or hearing about the reputation that proceeds it) Lolita is a story narrated by Humbert Humbert, a very unreliable protagonist, who is awaiting trial for murder. He narrates the whole tale of his woe, starting from his first love affair at a very tender age to a young girl who died in her prime, through to his hasty marriage in France to an adulterer and eventually his first glimpse of ‘Lolita’ – his nickname for the American Dolores Haze, who soon becomes his adopted daughter. The narrative of this middle-aged English Literature professor, who has a disturbing fixation for young girls, is, at first, very reasoned and self-critical:

‘I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity? When I try to analyse my own cravings, motives, actions and so forth, I surrender to a sort of retrospective imagination which feeds the analytic faculty with boundless alternatives and which causes each visualised route to fork and re-fork without end in the maddeningly complex prospect of my past’.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, Pg.13

Humbert Humbert is so aware and so calm in recollecting the events leading up to the reason he is standing trial that I increasingly found myself questioning his reliability. He comes across as such a clever and intelligent individual that I can’t help but feel like I am being tricked – like I am deliberately being led down the wrong path. It seems as if Humbert knows that our first reaction to his standing trial would be to conclude that he has killed Lolita, however, he doesn’t try to dissuade us of this notion until the very end. I guess that is the point of the first person narrative. It forces us to question whether what we are being told is the truth because the truth – as we all know – is subjective.

For example, I found it difficult to believe that Lolita seduces Humbert rather than the other way round. Likewise, I found it difficult to believe that she remained completely unaffected by what happened to her. The dialogue we hear, second-hand, from Humbert’s recollections show a young girl who is familiar with and not phased by using the terms ‘incest’ and ‘rape’. She uses them frequently and humorously. But how much of this can we believe? Perhaps Humbert is not just a manipulator of young girls but a manipulator of his readers. Nabokov is skilfully careful in not creating a black-and-white, good vs. evil, story of an innocent young girl and a nasty, despicable paedophile. But I am amazed at how he does this. Although I find Humbert a repulsive and pathetic character and Lolita a victim to his whims, the story isn’t as simple as that.

In the Afterword by Craig Raine, he states that the ending could be read as Humbert murdering the vile, highly-sexualised part of himself and what remains is the ‘normal’, rational side of him. He also points out that it is difficult to sympathise with Lolita as a victim because she doesn’t see herself as one. Maybe this is the difficulty I have with the novel. I am unsure whether or not I should feel sorry for Lolita. She was only young when she was violated by Humbert, yet, as we learn, she wasn’t completely innocent in the ways of sexual encounters. But it still seems as if she was robbed of her childhood innocence and that she never knew any better than what she endured throughout her informative teenage years. Her tale is definitely a sad one, yet the fact that she cannot see it and refuses to be a victim is incredible in a way.

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Although I don’t think I will re-read Lolita any time soon, it has sparked my interest in Nabokov’s works. He is such a talented and beautiful writer, how can I not!

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7 Replies to “Classics Spin: ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov”

  1. Very thoughtful review, Yasmine. It *is* a difficult book to read, and Nabokov is notorious for his unreliable narrators. But I guess we are always seduced by his language, which is quite unique. I *would* recommend reading more of his work – I loved “Pnin” a lot, and also “Despair”.

      1. He has, and personally I think it’s wrong to judge him by Lolita alone – certainly the other works of his I’ve read have been excellent!

  2. “For example, I found it difficult to believe that Lolita seduces Humbert rather than the other way round. Likewise, I found it difficult to believe that she remained completely unaffected by what happened to her.” and this is the reason I don’t want to read this book. Unreliable narrator or otherwise, I feel I would just get angry that a girl is victimised and we’re fussing over how the man is feeling about it.

    1. Yeah I have read a couple of reviews on the book where people have been able to sympathise with Humbert. Although Nabokov is a tremendously skilful writer I don’t think he could ever persuade me to feel sorry for Humbert.

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