Two stars, read in March 2015.
I almost don’t want to try and sort out exactly how I feel about this book, because I don’t want to give it that degree of attention now that I’ve finished. If the book is hard for me to process, the reviews of it are maybe even worse. Yes, of course, the prose is elegant. Yes, the perspective is unique and sickeningly . . . well, interesting, for lack of a better word. No, I do not understand why people call it a love story. I am truly baffled by how many times I’ve seen the word “tender” used to describe it.
Have I ever read a character as self-indulgent and self-pitying as Humbert Humbert? Poor meek, abject, massive, pathetic, desperate clawed Humbert, simultaneously a monster and a hero in his own mind, turned on by the ankles and skin and “stippled armpit” of a twelve-year-old girl who picks her nose while he makes her sit on his naked erection. He fantasizes about having sex with his own future daughter and granddaughter, congratulating himself on how “tender” he is, how great a “father,” how miserable and courageous. He craves Lolita, but that is not the same as love. He hurts her, physically and emotionally, routinely and deliberately. That is not tenderness. It’s abuse.
He may even actually love her—how would I know?—but that does not make this a story about love. It is the story of an intensely troubled adult man who rapes his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, taking her hostage around the entire country, lying in bed listening to her cry as soon as he feigns sleep every night for two years. It’s the story of obsession and total self-absorption. Frankly, looking at the real-world reception of the book, I think it’s the story of everything and everyone that is casually sacrificed to the “art” of the “White Widowed Male.” Because as it says in the pseudonymous foreword of the book (actually just part of the book, written by Nabokov as John Ray, Jr.):
“The learned may . . . [assert] that ‘H.H.’s impassioned confession is a tempest in a test tube; that at least 12 percent of American males—a ‘conservative’ estimate according to Dr. Blanche Schwarzman (verbal communication)—enjoy yearly, in one way or another, the special experience ‘H.H.’ describes with such despair; that had our demented diarist gone, in the fatal summer of 1947, to a competent psychopathologist, there would have been no disaster; but then, neither would there have been this book.”
Equal tragedies, apparently. Because what’s the life of a girl compared to Art?