Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

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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?

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6 thoughts on “Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

  1. I want and don’t want to read this book. The idea of it disgusts me, for the reasons you mention. But I want to know what it contains that makes people think of it as an important book. Is it projection? Is it voyeurism? Is it a wish to be disgusted and then feel better about themselves for being disgusted? I don’t own it, so it stands a good chance of never being read by me, and your review will in all probability help me resist it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I started out saying I don’t regret reading it, though the experience was profoundly unpleasant . . . and I suddenly realize that’s not true. A part of me does regret it, because now I feel like I’ve participated in something I don’t want to be part of.

      I’ve thought often about the same questions you raised, and I truly don’t know. Many people think it’s an allegory of totalitarianism, or a satire of literary techniques in general. Nabokov said those things were not true, and it seems strange to me to insist otherwise. Anyone can choose to read it as those things, of course, that’s half the point of any kind of art, but then doesn’t that say at least as much about the reader as the book itself?

      Have you read Rebecca Solnit’s piece about this? It’s excellent. I guess hyperlinks don’t show up well in the comments here, but I linked her name.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The link showed up. What a great article. I take her point that books like Lolita can act as indicators of the institutionalised denigration of women, but I don’t think I need to read it to know that.

        Liked by 1 person

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