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.


Matthew Selwyn said...

Great review - you've picked up all the points I did and then some! Really interesting side points about Nabokov's own life, and his wordplay in the book. Really enjoyed your post as an intelligent, reasoned look at Lolita

Hindi SMS said...

"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..."
This is a gem of a book.
I read it once, and I am reading it again. Somehow the book has managed to become even more beautiful and entertaining.
An absolute must-read to anyone who loves reading.
Despite the controversial subject matter of the novel, Lolita is a comedy, and simply, a joy to read.

Naya Saal said...

It is the one the best books, you will come across which is at the same time poetic,artisitc, have a great story and involving.
If you are thinking about reading this book in a bus or somewhere crowded. Don't. You will kill the book. Read with full involvement and relish each and every word. I enjoyed the book so much that I willingly went slow with the book so that I could read it for more days.
Simply Amazing, Just Don't hand it over to your kid.