Oh, Lolita! One of the most self-contradictory books I’ve ever read. When talking about Lolita, though, contradiction doesn’t come as a surprise. When this book first came out it caused a lot of debates, and they continue even now more than 60 years after it was released. All those debates are usually related to the scandalous topic of the book and different interpretations of the author’s idea.
My confusion was of a different kind. Despite the scandalous theme of the book, I actually believe that the theme was the strongest side of this novel. I had more issues with the magnitude of the book’s praise.
– Included in the list of 100 best English-language novels (Time magazine)
– Included in the list of 100 best novels of 20th century (Modern Library)
– Considered as one of the most celebrated books in history
Of course when I started reading I already had high expectations. The beginning didn’t disappoint me at all. I think, along with the first sentence in Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow”, Lolita has one of the most remarkable and memorable beginnings.
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.
As I read further, though, I became more and more disappointed.
Lolita tells a story about a literature teacher, Humbert-Humbert, who has never had any problems in his life except that he’s attracted to young girls under or just in their puberty. Of course, because desires like that are not welcomed in a modern society, it upsets him immensely and he just has to watch and masturbate to girls playing at a school playground and go to the therapist.
However, life is merciful to poor Humbert-Humbert, and by the end of 10th chapter he meets Lolita. The first 10 chapters (out of 30) tell the story of Humber-Humbert’s life before meeting Lolita, his first love, his first marriage and of course his obsession with nymphets.
Rope-skipping, hopscotch. That old woman in black who sat down next to me on my bench, on my rack of joy (a nymphet was groping under me for a lost marble), and asked if I had stomachache, the insolent hag. Ah, leave me alone in my pubescent park, in my mossy garden. Let them play around me forever. Never grow up.
Because of a lucky incident our loving professor gets full custody over Lolita and takes her on a trip around the states. And here starts the main part of the book—the Part where a grown up man constantly rapes a 12-year old girl, secludes her from society, and is genuinely surprised that she cries almost every night.
- “Most of all, it is a meditation on love–love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.” – Lolita ( 50Th Anniversary Edition )
- “The only convincing love story of our century.” Vanity Fair
I guess some people go too far trying to interpret the book. I personally didn’t see any love story here.
Nabokov himself never said that he sympathized with his character. Following Humbert-Humbert on his trip with Lolita, Nabokov tells more then just a story of obsession. He shows the blindness of the people surrounding Lolita, the depravity of the society, media and the absurdity of some parental laws.
The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States. And fifteen is lawful everywhere. There is nothing wrong, say both hemispheres, when a brute of forty, blessed by the local priest and bloated with drink, sheds his sweat-drenched finery and thrusts himself up to the hilt into his youthful bride. “In such stimulating temperate climates [says an old magazine in this prison library] as St. Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati, girls mature about the end of their twelfth year.”
By being the first one to discuss pedophilia so openly, Nabokov made his name into the history of literature. As a literature professor himself Nabokov knew that nothing makes a book so popular as having a unique topic and a scandal about it. He was fully aware that interest to his book was heated by two simple questions: ‘Why did he write it? What is the main idea?’ He never answered those questions. I assume it was a deliberate decision. Because it raises unanswerable questions, I consider the topic to be the strongest part of the novel. Of course Lolita brought public attention to an issue that no one discussed before, and the world how we know it now would probably be different if that novel was never published.
For example, The novel is full not only of new ideas but also a lot of new words that the author invented himself or gave a new meaning to. The word nymphet has already became something usual. Before Nabokov, no one would use it in the sense we use it now.
Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”
In general, the book’s language perfectly reflects writers’s personality and a personality of Humbert-Humbert as well. Nabokov was fond of butterflies and spent a lot of time watching and studying this creatures. He also is known for creating the most precise and detailed map of butterfly’s wing. Bending over a table, diligently drawing the smallest details, Nabokov worked for hours to make his maps as accurate and perfect as it was possible. He displayed the same attitude towards writing the novel. Nabokov microscopically examines Humbert-Humbert’s mind trying to portray what appears to be the interior experience of an actual pedophile.
Perhaps if the year was 1447 instead of 1947 I might have hoodwinked my gentle nature by administering her some classical poison from a hollow agate, some tender philter of death. But in our middle-class nosy era it would not have come off the way it used to in the brocaded palaces of the past. Nowadays you have to be a scientist if you want to be a killer.
A very important part of this study is the author’s language. A perfectionist, he was stylizing and over-stylizing his scripts until it satisfied his aesthetic. From the most beautiful passages to the most rational and ornate phrases you can trace the pedantry and thoroughness of the author in Lolita. Nabokov never let his language just flow, and he wasn’t a fan of improvisation. He never even gave his interviews without asking for questions in advance and then preparing his answers on small cards. The only improvised interview he gave was at the end of his life when he had already established himself as one of the most popular writers of 20th century.
The language in the novel perfectly matches the main character and resembles his inability to understand the feelings of others and some sort of internal numbness. But sometimes, especially at the second part of the book, the narration is too forced and lifeless even for Humbert-Humbert. My opinion is that this is because the second part focuses mainly on relationship between Lolita and Humbert-Humbert, and despite his thoroughness in studying the topic, Nabokov is not sure himself who his character is. This lack of certainty has a great impact on the plot as it falls apart towards the end of the story.
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, the majority of sex offenders that hanker for some throbbing, sweet-moaning, physical but not necessarily coital, relation with a girl-child, are innocuous, inadequate, passive, timid strangers who merely ask the community to allow them to pursue their practically harmless, so-called aberrant behavior, their little hot wet private acts of sexual deviation without the police and society cracking down upon them.
By the end of the book I felt overwhelmed by how the language and style didn’t match the events. It seemed like logic and main ideas suddenly split and started their own separate lives. Remembering Nabokov’s interview when he said that he wrote only to finish his books as soon as possible, in order to be through with the idea, I feel like this was Lolita’s case.
What started as a passionate story that captivated my attention ended up as a cheap novel with a cliche plot and dull language. It seemed like Nabokov wasn’t interested himself at the end and just wanted to be done with a book. The idea of a man torn between his passion and society’s rules reveals itself more naturally at the beginning of the book, when the desires are just dreams and hopes. It’s easier to write about fantasies. But in the second part when Humbert-Humbert gets what he wants he and the author seem lost. Nabokov fails in describing actual everyday life of his pedophile and instead dives deeper into aesthetics and poetics, which only creates a feeling of unease and excessive hyperbole. Then, as the plot winds down, Nabokov suddenly rushes time and describes events in a hushed and awkward way. Even his character doesn’t seem real anymore.
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.
This may be why so many people focus on the first part of the novel and call it a love story. It’s more genuine and real; it describes the moments of falling in love and the age of Lolita doesn’t matter much there. But in the second part, when the reader is supposed to see the real Humbert-Humbert and his inner conflict, the author hides behind his language, cheap plot tricks and cliches. Unable to create a believable and definite portrait of a pedophile and show his development, Nabokov gives a performance and distracts the reader by adding more drama. That completely shifts focus out of the main topic and scales down its relevance.
So yes, Lolita, it has a promising beginning and a huge disappointment at the end. I’d say that it had a potential to be “one of the 100 best novels of 20th century” but it definitely is not. And I would not put it into the same list with Faulkner, Joyce, Steinbeck, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy.