This is regularly touted as one of the most beautifully written books of the 20th century, so it’s always been on my to-read list, but it wasn’t until recently that I actually read the synopsis and knew what I was getting myself into. The novel follows a literature professor in his late 30’s, Humbert Humbert (an alias), as he becomes obsessed with, and pursues, 12-year-old Lolita.
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.
That is one of my favourite openings of any novel and a good example of why this is still in such high regard despite its difficult subject matter. His language just pulls you in, and you keep reading with the sickened intrigue of a crowd at a car crash. The more I read the more I needed to know how it all panned out. You hope for the best (whatever that may be in this case) but assume the worst.
I’ve seen a few reviews state that Nabakov was so masterful a writer that he could make you feel compassion for a pedophile. I wouldn’t say that’s the case at all. In fact, Nabakov’s genius is how he framed this story to make it actually palatable. In the forward, we’re made aware that Humbert wrote this, from memory and journal writings, while incarcerated and is now dead. We don’t know how he came to be imprisoned at that point, or precisely on what charge, but we do know that life doesn’t turn out well for him. This is also narrated from his point of view, an unreliable point of view, so there’s no objectivity in his opinions. This lets you disassociate yourself from them, as you know they aren’t stated as truth in the world of this novel but just in the head of this ill man. You may be in his head, but at no point is he painted as a sympathetic character.
I had a hard time seeing Lolita as a young girl, actually. The way she talked and acted seemed older than 12 to me. I’m not sure if this was a case of the unreliable narrator remembering deeper, more mature, interactions than what actually happened or if it was just an emotional defense I had with what I was reading.
Humbert is the sort of awful character I typically do love to read about – a misanthropic outsider with the ability to express his deep disdain for the people around him. As his character unravels, he falls into this more and more. In a great scene at the end of the novel, he’s gone so far outside the boundary of human law and decency that while feeling particularly unbound by societal constraints he starts driving down the wrong side of the road. It’s as if he’s no longer part of humanity and its laws.
This is a bit long, but the way he describes his night in a hotel is perfect, as anyone who has trouble falling asleep can attest:
There is nothing louder than an American hotel; and, mind you, this was supposed to be a quiet, cozy, old-fashioned, homey place–“gracious living” and all that stuff. The clatter of the elevator’s gate–some twenty yards northeast of my head but as clearly perceived as if it were inside my left temple–alternated with the banging and booming of the machine’s various evolutions and lasted well beyond midnight. Every now and then, immediately east of my left ear (always assuming I lay on my back, not daring to direct my viler side toward the nebulous haunch of my bed-mate), the corridor would brim with cheerful, resonant and inept exclamations ending in a volley of good-nights. When that stopped, a toilet immediately north of my cerebellum took over. It was a manly, energetic, deep-throated toilet, and it was used many times. Its gurgle and gush and long afterflow shook the wall behind me. Then someone in a southern direction was extravagantly sick, almost coughing out his life with his liquor, and his toilet descended like a veritable Niagara, immediately beyond our bathroom. And when finally all the waterfalls had stopped, and the enchanted hunters were sound asleep, the avenue under the window of my insomnia, to the west of my wake–a staid, eminently residential, dignified alley of huge trees–degenerated into the despicable haunt of gigantic trucks roaring through the wet and windy night.
Sometimes I read novels that have caused an uproar of controversy, and I just can’t understand what the issue is. I’m a liberal-minded person and not someone who is easily offended, and I would personally never try to ban any work of fiction no matter the content, but sometimes I can’t even understand what would motivate people to try with certain books. With this it’s very easy to understand how people could have a knee-jerk reaction – adult men with young girls is bad, therefore book is bad. I feel like the way the story is told makes this an interesting read, but not everyone will have the same opinion, so take that into consideration before picking this up. I have to admit, I listened to part of this audiobook in public and was definitely starting to feel like everyone around was secretly judging me.
I really enjoyed this. I’ve heard great things about Pale Fire, so that will likely be the next book of his I’ll read. I couldn’t bring myself to skip Jeremy Irons’ narration of this, but for Pale Fire I’ll probably go with the dead tree version to get a better feel for his writing and wordplay.