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That Famous Book by Nabokov

By Yossarian | Books | February 27, 2010 |

By Yossarian | Books | February 27, 2010 |

The real focus here should be on the discussion, and so I will just provide some brief sketches of central issues from my reading and from the blogs and comments other readers have shared. I’m as curious as anyone to see where this goes …

One of the primary topics of discussion has to be the character of Humbert Humbert. We experience almost the entire novel through his highly subjective, stylized, and unreliable narration. Nabokov seems to have taken up the challenge of trying to see how far he could push the horribleness of HH and still get us to identify with the character. Was he successful? Did you find yourself seduced into sympathizing with Humbert? Did you catch yourself almost rooting for him at times? That is not to say you would ever excuse or condone his actions — the book is not about defending pedophilia — but it does try to get inside of you and manipulate your ability to form an opinion about this character.

What were your feelings and impressions of Humbert Humbert?

The idea of sympathy for Humbert naturally leads us to wonder and speculate about where Nabokov’s sympathies lie, and what he is trying to say in this novel. Of course he bats us away in the afterward “On a Book Entitled Lolita” and at various points in the novel tries to anticipate our desire to pin down the author’s position and makes every effort to thwart and ridicule the idea that any morality or deeper meaning can be obtained. Even the fictional Forward by John Ray, Jr. which you might consider to be Nabokov’s apologia is committed to poking fun at people who want to explain and diagnose the events of the book. This novel is constantly raising ethical questions and then avoiding answering them, holding them off by parody and preemptive strike. But we can’t let Nabokov off that easily. Where is the author among the novel’s many layers?

In addition to obscuring the authorial presence, Humbert’s narration also makes it difficult to really know anything about the character of Lolita. He is clearly unreliable and she is the subject he is most unreliable about. Lolita is the first word and the last word in the novel as well as the title, yet we are given very little insight to her thoughts and feelings. Most of what we do discover comes by way of clumsy observations by Humbert from which we have to infer what she is going through. At times her feelings seem almost forgotten, an afterthought. Humbert doesn’t seem to really care about her as an individual, only as she relates to him (recall a scene where she plays with a dog and he laments ‘if only she would play with me like that’). As the novel progresses we glimpse more and more of the horrible toll these events take on Lolita. Even Humbert acknowledges that he “broke her life” and has essentially destroyed her childhood and maimed her future for his own selfish indulgences. Still, we hear very little of this in her own words since everything must pass through the filter of HH. What, then, do you make of the character of Lolita?

Several readers pointed out and took exception to the Vanity Fair blurb that Lolita is “the only convincing love story of our century,” and with good reason. This is not a love story. It is about obsession, fixation, and passion but there is no real love, no reciprocal or giving or transformative love. Humbert only covets Lolita as an object. Some of the confusion may arise from how the novel draws heavily — and to a point approaching parody — on Romanticism and that lyrical, poetic writing style. I would say that it articulates obsession better than almost any other novel I can recall but that still does not excuse Vanity Fair getting it so wrong, or the publishers and publicists who continually use quotes like that to describe the book.

Depending on which edition you read you might also have had a close up of pouty young lips or a pair of schoolgirl legs coming out from under the shadowy folds of a short skirt on the cover. It’s worth asking: Why is the novel marketed this way, with sexually suggestive imagery of young girls as a selling point? Someone posted a link to fan-created alternate cover art for Lolita on Flicker and this, too, frequently featured sexualized and titillating imagery as a way to convey what Lolita is about. It might make for a good digression to address the public perception of Lolita and the way it has been perverted from what the novel really is. The portrayals of Lolita in popular culture is a whole discussion topic to itself.

Finally, we have to address the writing. The very purposeful, imaginative, layered prose colors the fictional world of Lolita. What are your thoughts about the writing and, taking a step back, what do you think this style says about the character of Humbert Humbert, since these are supposed to be his words? The novel is riddled with puns (and so is this review — the spirit of Nabokov inspires me), alliteration, neologisms, literary allusions, interjections of foreign languages, and other disruptive and attention-getting rhetorical flairs. Names of people and places are especially subject to this since the novel evokes the ‘names have been changed to protect the innocent’ excuse to take some pretty extreme liberties here. What do you think Nabokov is trying to accomplish by writing in this very self-conscious style? Did you pick up on any particularly pleasurable or meaningful examples?

There are other things I want to get to, like the fascinating and beautiful descriptions of the American landscape in the cross-country road trips, or the use of doubles and doppelgangers as narrative devices, or the extensive allusions to fairy tale imagery and themes — but this is just the opening salvo in a conversation. Time to get to the comments: What did you think of Lolita?

Special thanks to all the Cannonball participants who got their reviews up in advance. I encourage everyone to check them out, a lot of the ideas above are touched on in more detail here.







Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.