Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Reading List: Lolita


That Book by Nabakov,
or,

Reading Lolita in Portland.


Let's start with the easy part: Lolita is a delightful wonderland of languange, every sentence a playfully intricate jewel. Having finished the book yesterday, I am sure that I could begin reading it again right now and find at least three clever allusions, double entendres, paradoxes, and simple dead-on descriptions to die for that I didn't notice the first time, on every page. And then I could do that a few more times.

It is also a scream. Often, densely crafted text means slow going, but Lolita is a brisk and easy read. Much is lampooned, starting with the mores and landscapes of middle America but also the High European intellectual culture represented, sort of, by Humbert Humbert, the morally bankrupt and self-deceiving protagonist. There is however also a great affection in the novel for those things being lampooned, and the lyrical, impressionistic tours of the Midwest and West are equisite portraits of an America of a certain age. Modern travellers will see much in Nabakov's America that has changed and much that is the same, but also much that has changed in form but remains the same in spirit, or much that is the same in form but has become vestigial in function.

There is no doubt, then, that Lolita is sublime. The question, for me, is: is it also ridiculous? It is, after all, an essentially jolly, upbeat novel about serial child-rape, and as such needs to offer a little more in the way of self-justification than the average bodice ripper. In an afterward that echoes some of the intellectual condescension of his staggeringly unreliable narrator -- intentionally? unintentionally? -- Nabakov lets out a worldly sigh against the unimaginitive louts who will:
think up such problems as 'What is the author's purpose?" or still worse 'What is the guy trying to say?'
Lout that I am, I found these questions very much on my mind, as they are fairly key to moving a novel out of the category of "diversion," as in something that Carl Hiassan might write, or a book of sudoku puzzles.

The best intellectual achievement of Lolita, in my judgement after this first reading, is in its treatment of the first person narrative. Humbert Humbert is a disarming guide to his own tale, and although virtually every move he makes varies from the profoundly neurotic to the eeriely pathological, he speaks in terms of such universal themes -- fear of loss, jealousy, the disappointment of failing to please another -- that we are lulled along, always on the verge of accepting bizarre situations as normal, always torn towards thinking that maybe he's not really so bad, really. When Humbert chronically trips up with throwaway remarks that, as if by accident, reveal the depth of his brutal and cynical abuse of Lolita, Nabakov is showing us how far he has been able to take us with the seductive power of the first person. Everyone's story sounds pretty reasonable in their own telling of it, but that doesn't mean that everyone has a reasonable story.

So, Lolita is not empty calories. There is plenty here to challenge and provoke, and -- to be gravely blunt about the purpose of The Reading List project -- for myself, I feel a little smarter and a little more cultured than I did when I opened the front cover. Still, this is ultimately a book where the style is master of the substance, an in a lovely, lovely way. Lolita is lyrical candy for the very literate. If you've read this review, but have never read Lolita, you really ought to. It's awesome.

Summary: Readers who, like me, know about Lolita mostly from the Police's "Don't Stand So Close to Me" will be surprised to learn that European-born Humbert Humbert is not, in fact, "old." He is 39, which is of course an age of great youth and vigor. (Nor does he "shake and cough" to any noteworthy extent.) He does, however, stand far too close to little girls, particularly young Dolores Haze, 13, whom he calls "Lolita." Through various misadventures he becomes her quasi-legal guardian, and the bulk of the book describes his adventures and hijinks as he tries to preserve their secret, deal with the mysteries of American youth culture, keep her away from boys, and bring her up to share his own cynical and rarified set of ideas and attitudes about the world, all while raping her multiple times every day. It is, to be sure, a book that challenges while it delights.

6 comments:

G said...

I am SO GLAD you enjoyed it (if enjoy it you did). It's definitely worth multiple readings. One of the things I noticed when I picked it up a year or so ago and flipped to a random page is how Humbert Humbert seduces the reader as well, so that his descriptions of what he does don't seem quite so bad if you've been inveigled into complacency by his language... but if you open up the book to a description of his conniving and pillaging, you see the brutality of the actions themselves. Such a shocker, even for worldly little me.

End of the Affair!! End of the Affair!!

Phineas said...

The book - we can talk about it (I'm a fan).

Your review - brilliant in every respect. Well done and thank you.

Michael5000 said...

@g: Well HELL YEAH I enjoyed it!

@phineas: Now, you see, if you say that something I write is "brilliant in every respect," it's going to go straight to my head, and I'm going to be insufferable.

Chance said...

I'm so glad to hear how much you enjoyed it and got out of it. As I mentioned here before, it's my favorite book of all time, probably just for the sheer beauty of the language and the way Nabokov plays with it. The way Nabokov plays with the reader and his expectations are a secondary point of interest for me.

Chance said...

Hey, we posted at the same time! Jinx!

Phineas said...

Well, it may have been the martinis talking last night instead of me, but I did appreciate your entry.

I read Lolita while in high school, in part because it was considered questionable material for a 15-16 year old. However, I had seen the 1962 Kubrick film several years prior which sparked further interest. Only just now learned that Kubric did that film, though probably ran across that fact before and didn't remember (How about Kubrick films on the Thursday quiz!!)

At the time I didn't appreciate Nabokov's power with the language. Mostly, as with the movie, I experienced a constant refrain that sang "Really? People are like that? Wow." Not just the sexual aspect (after all I had seen the movie), but the brutality of the man as a whole.

Through the eyes of a young person, awakening to the perverse diversities of men (and women), it was a moving and unforgettable lesson. Deep down there was a sadness in recognizing the baseness that exists in some people; yet there was a power in the knowledge gained from an in depth view of the same.

For a while (a decade or two!), I viewed Lolita as less than serious literature, due certainly to the early age I read it and the limitations of what I could draw from it at that time. Yet, I've enjoyed seeing it elevated to the level of being one of the great novels of the century. Given it's subject, there's pleasure knowing that to experience and appreciate this work, future readers will have to face the moral discomfort that the novel will present them.