Literary Corner Cafe

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book Review - The Classics - Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is a book like no other. It is truly original and highly inventive. Although two films have been adapted from the book, both fail to capture the book’s essence, something that is a tribute to the skill possessed by Nabokov.

Lolita is the memoir of Humbert Humbert, a thirtysomething widowed man of mixed European origins, born in Paris in 1910, who falls obsessively and desperately in love with an American girl of twelve, Dolores Haze. We are told, in the first paragraph of the Forward, that Humbert Humbert died of a coronary thrombosis on November 16, 1952, just prior to the start of his trial for murder. His memoir, "Lolita," or “The Confessions of a White Widowed Male” are actually being presented to us by John Ray, Jr., something that might seem incidental, but something that is actually quite important to know. The words we read in the sixty-nine chapters, comprising two parts, that follow, however, are Humbert’s. Although, at first glance, Lolita may seem to be the account of a pedophile, it is really a love story and a tragic one at that.

An English professor, Humbert Humbert comes to New England after his second emotional breakdown and subsequent release from a sanitarium, seeking peace and refuge for his weary soul. He’d been married to the daughter of a Polish doctor, but she eventually left him for a Russian taxi driver and Humbert, distraught and sick with jealousy, had wanted to kill them both. Nabokov often ties love to the desire to kill, for he thought the two, in many cases, went hand in hand.

Arriving in Ramsdale, a smallish New England village, Humbert Humbert follows up on a lead for an available room in a middle class house owned by a very bourgeois widow, Charlotte Haze. Fearing Charlotte will wish to seduce him, Humbert decides not to rent the room…until he sees Charlotte’s daughter, Dolores, sunbathing in the garden. Sporting huge sunglasses and wearing a swimsuit, Dolores reminds Humbert of his first love, a young girl named Annabel (in case you’re wondering, yes, this is a nod to Poe’s poem of tragic, lost love, Annabel Leigh). Annabel and Humbert are interrupted by her mother just as they are about to make love and Annabel later dies of typhus, something that forever cements Humbert’s desire for young girls, or as he calls them, “nymphets.” Seeing Dolores, of course, causes Humbert to change his mind immediately, and he rents the room from Charlotte.

From this point on, Humbert Humbert’s life will disintegrate into obsession and madness of a most delicate sort as he falls more and more deeply in love with Dolores, who Charlotte calls Lo and Humbert dubs Lolita, until everything and everyone around him, himself included, is forever changed. How? I wouldn’t dream of telling you. (And though it may seem as though this review contains spoilers, it does not.) The plot of Lolita is rather convoluted, but the plot, while definitely inventive and brilliant, doesn’t constitute this novel’s real genius.

Nabokov, who wrote Lolita in English, believed that every story should, in some way, resemble a fairy tale. He thus imbues the narrative of Lolita with so many magical, fairy tale like elements that even though Humbert Humbert is a pedophile and a murderer, we actually come to like him and care what happens to him. In fact, I would venture to guess that more readers are going to like Humbert and sympathize with his plight than will like the far less refined Lolita.

One fairy tale element in Lolita is Humbert’s constant use of the term, “nymphet” to describe the young Lolita. Nabokov, himself, coined this word and it is, of course, derived from the word, “nymph,” giving Lolita more than a passing nod to classical mythology. And, although Humbert knows why he loves nymphets, he also acknowledges that it isn’t the norm:

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot passion in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your supple order to discern at once, by ineffable signs...the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

Lolita is a novel filled with word play, something Nabokov loved. While it isn’t necessary to understand all of this word play in order to enjoy the book, I do think readers who know something about it will get more out of Lolita and will be better able to appreciate its genius. For example, the numbers fifty-two and 342 recur again and again in the book. Dogs often foreshadow major events. Vivian Darkbloom, a character in the book, is but an anagram of Valdimir Nabokov.

There is one scene in the book, during which Lolita sits on Humbert’s lap in the Haze home, eating a Red Delicious apple that parodies, in gorgeous prose, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. While the paragraph is far too long to quote in its entirety here, I think an excerpt would help you to understand the genius with which Nabokov wrote and the immense attraction of this book:

Under my glancing finger tips I felt the minute hairs bristle ever so slightly along her shins. I lost myself in the pungent but healthy heat which like summer haze hung about little Haze. Let her stay, let her stay.... As she strained to chuck the core of her polished apple into the fender, her young weight, her shameless innocent shanks and round bottom, shifted in my tense, tortured, surreptitiously laboring lap; and all of a sudden a mysterious change came over my senses.... The implied sun pulsated in the supplied poplars; we were fantastically and divinely alone; I watched her, rosy, gold-dusted, beyond the veil of my controlled delight, unaware of it, alien to it, and the sun was on her lips, and her lips were apparently still forming the words of the Carmenbarmen ditty that no longer reached my consciousness…and she wiggled and squirmed, and threw her head back, and her teeth rested on her glistening underlip as she half-turned away, and my moaning mouth, gentleman of the jury, almost reached her bare neck, while I crushed out against her left buttock the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known.

The above excerpt shows us one of the reasons Lolita has become a novel that is, and forever will be, timeless: its prose. English was Nabokov’s third language, after Russian and French, but I don’t think many authors have ever manipulated English so brilliantly. And in Lolita, Nabokov manipulates brilliantly for a reason.

The charming, enchanting, incandescent way Humbert Humbert writes moves us to care about him. It casts a spell over us, as in the fairy tales of yore; it weaves a web of gorgeousness that causes us to see him, not as a coarse pedophile, but as a broken man, a man whose dreams will be forever interrupted, by time and by his own inescapable madness. Humbert Humbert is, indeed, a tragic figure, and one of the most tragic things about him is that he truly believes that Lolita is, in fact, as pure and undefiled in fact as she is in his love-clouded eyes. Although, the novel shows us otherwise, Humbert, in his delirium of obsessive love, is never able to accept the fact that Lolita, the reincarnation of his Annabel, is, even at the tender age of twelve, a coarse and vulgar girl.

Nabokov hated the myth of the Doppelgaenger; in fact, he called it a “frightful bore,” and he has a lot of fun parodying this myth in Lolita. Of course, it’s quite obvious that certain names in the book act as doubles, chief among them, of course, is Humbert Humbert. But there’s also John Ray, Jr., the narrator of the Foreward, whose initials, “JR” comprise the “Jr.” of his name, as well as the above mentioned Vivian Darkbloom, whose name is an anagram of Nabokov’s.

The real doubling in the book, however, is that of Humbert Humbert with his counterpart, a mysterious children’s playwright named Clare Quilty. Clare Quilty, while not Humbert Humbert’s “other side,” is more a version of Humbert, himself, for Clare Quilty also desires Lolita, though not in the same way as does Humbert and perhaps for reasons even more base. And, like Humbert’s shadow, Quilty will flit in and out of the narrative of Lolita like a butterfly, helping to shape it, until the book’s extended climactic scene. Quilty’s “flitting” like a butterfly is interesting since Nabokov, himself, was an obsessive lepidopterist.

Timelessness, fate and coincidence are also major themes in Lolita, and this isn’t unusual given that these themes play a large part in most fairy tales. Humbert, against all logic, wishes Lolita to remain forever as she is at age twelve. In fact, he ends one chapter of his memoir with the words, “Never grow up.” He often refers to Lolita as his “eternal Lolita,” and he believes that Lolita is connected to his lost Annabel by some mysterious and providential quirk of fate. The fact that Humbert believes so firmly in fate and coincidence, at least in the first part of the novel, goes far, in his own mind, to absolve him of blame regarding his lustful feelings for, and designs on, Lolita.

Nabokov didn’t write books with a “message.” He wasn’t given to moralizing but to enchanting, instead. He therefore sets his readers up to be the judge of Humbert Humbert and his actions.

Although many people avoid Lolita because they fear it will be a sexually explicit novel, it is anything but. This is a story of tragic obsession; of deep and tender, though misplaced, love. Humbert Humbert, for all his pedophiliac desires, is the very soul of refinement and Old World courtly manners. In his memoirs, he refuses to describe some of Lolita’s more vulgar actions because, quite frankly, they offend him and his delicate sensibilities.

Nabokov’s obsession with butterflies hasn’t escaped inclusion in Lolita, either. Lolita, herself, is, in many ways, a butterfly. She is, at least as far as Humbert is concerned, elusive, flitting first here and then there, needing to be pinned down, much as a butterfly hunter pins down his prey. She undergoes a metamorphosis from nymphet to butterfly, but this is a metamorphosis that Humbert Humbert would rather not have seen, for Humbert Humbert, though a butterfly catcher, is a sad and tragic one and one who would rather his “catch” never grow, never evolve, never change.

Lolita is, above all else, an incandescent novel. It is, at times, hysterically funny, wildly inventive, and deeply sad. It shows us that obsessive love is deep, tragic, hallucinatory, intense, funny, thrilling, and heart-rending. Lolita, despite its title, is the tale of Humbert Humbert, a sad and forever lonely man; a man who, in the end, could do no more than tell his tale of the tragic butterfly catcher.


Recommended: Definitely, but if even the thought of pedophilia upsets you, this might not be the book for you, even though it is fiction.

Today in Literary History - Vladimir Nabokov Publishes Lolita

On August 18, 1958, Vladimir Nabokov’s controversial novel, Lolita was published in the US. Rejected by four publishers, Lolita finally found a home at G.P. Putnam’s Sons. It became a bestseller and an almost instant classic. In fact, Lolita was the book that allowed Nabokov to retire from teaching and write fulltime.

Lolita, as most of us know, revolves around Humbert Humbert, an erudite (and sometimes charming) European of uncertain origins, who is adrift in the US and mourning the loss of his adolescent love. When he takes a room in the home of Charlotte Haze, he becomes obsessed with Charlotte’s twelve-year-old daughter, Delores Haze, a girl Humbert calls “Lolita.” Much black comedy ensues as Humbert schemes to rid himself of the cumbersome Charlotte and make Lolita his own. Lolita, however, has plans that don’t necessarily include Humbert – at least not in the way Humbert wants to be included.

Although Lolita still retains some of its controversial reputation today, the book is, by no means, another Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Filled with amazing, incandescent prose (Nabokov coined the word “nymphet”), Lolita is a book for those who truly appreciate the very best that literature has to offer. Yes, it’s erotic, but Lolita’s eroticism stems more from the quality of its prose than anything explicit. The following passage is just one example:

She was musical and apple-sweet…. Lola the bobby-soxer, devouring her immemorial fruit, singing through its juice…and every movement she made, every shuffle and ripple, helped me to conceal and to improve the secret system of tactile correspondence between beast and beauty – between my gagged, bursting beast and the beauty of her dimpled body in its innocent cotton frock.

Vladimir Nabokov was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia. His family was a wealthy one, and they split their time between a house in St. Petersburg and a country estate, where Nabokov learned boxing, tennis, and chess. He grew up speaking both English and Russian, went off to college at Cambridge, and eventually inherited two million dollars from one of his uncles. Then came the Russian Revolution and Nabokov and his family were forced to flee to Germany. Although they took with them what they could, most of their wealth was lost. Young Vladimir did earn money teaching boxing and tennis and creating Russian crossword puzzles. And, he was writing. Nabokov often spent his nights, after work, writing in the family’s tiny apartment. Many times he wrote in the bathroom so the light wouldn’t wake his sleeping family.

In 1939, life changed for Vladimir Nabokov when he was invited to Stanford to lecture on Slavic languages. He stayed for twenty years, teaching at Wellesley and Cornell, writing and literally chasing butterflies with his wife, Vera. All his life, Nabokov retained a keen interest in butterfly collecting and even discovered several new species and subspecies. Nabokov and Vera would spend their summers driving around the US, staying in one motel after the other, and looking for butterflies.

Nabokov’s first novel in English was The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, though his most successful books have always remained his most controversial – Lolita and Ada, which was published in 1969.

In 1959, Nabokov and Vera returned to Europe, and he died in Switzerland in 1977.

If you’ve been thinking of reading Lolita but just haven’t gotten around to it, today, the 52nd anniversary of its publication, might be a good day to begin this incredibly written and original book.