Sunday, 29 June 2014

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Vladimir Nabokov.
First edition published
by Olympia Press
It is difficult to imagine a time when Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 masterpiece Lolita was unheard of, when it's reputation did not proceed it, when the shock and revulsion was not anticipated; when, in short, it wasn't notorious. 

The first paragraph promises a love story; the telling of a passionate, erotic affair:
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.
The second paragraph shatters it, expectations (such as they may have been back in 1955 when this book hadn't been banned in numerous countries) are blown apart:
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
She was a child. Lolita was twelve at the beginning of the novel when Humbert Humbert, the narrator and protagonist, first encounters her. It is written in the first person, entirely from the warped perception of Humbert: Nabokov, in surely what we can agree is a technical masterpiece at the very least, disappears and we lose sight of him: this is Humbert's novel, and he becomes real, free and unguarded, and thus is allowed enough rope to hang himself. This isn't an apology from Humbert (or Nabokov for that matter), and the understanding he, Humbert, wants us to reach does not, cannot, and (on Nabokov's part) is not supposed to lead to sympathy. What we see is a perverted and narcissistic man, an intellectual who is repulsed by American culture, courting sympathy: the constant appeals for understanding as though it were possible to understand. There is nothing likeable about this man, and we discover this through his distorted words. He attempts to normalise his perversions at one point with predictable mutterings of the Greeks in Ancient times, but even he knows that doesn't cut it. And this doesn't stop him.

Jeremy Irons and Dominique Swain
in Adrian Lyne's 1997 adaptation.
From the start he dehumanises those girls he finds so alluring:
Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travellers, twice or many times older than they, revel their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as 'nymphets'.
And yes, he offers an explanation in the early part of the book:
Did she [Lolita] have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was the summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Her precursor: Annabel, his contemporary, a young girl his own age who he loved and lusted over, who died months later of typhus in Corfu. One could almost feel sorry for him were it not for what follows a few chapters later: Charlotte Haze, Lolita's mother, writes to Humbert telling him she loves him. Humbert writes,
What I present here is what I remember of the letter, and what I remember of the letter I remember verbatim (including that awful French). It was at least twice longer. I have left out a lyrical passage which I more or less skipped at the time, concerning Lolita's brother who died at two when she was four, and how much I would have liked him. Let me see what else I can say?
A French edition of Lolita,
Nabokov's favourite cover.
[See here for his comments on this
and other front covers
Lolita (and Charlotte's) own loss is "more or less skipped": their pain is not important to him. What we see in Lolita is what is important to him: Humbert is an unreliable narrator, and this, as the later part of the book will prove, is not the only fact he glosses over.

Is this a beautiful novel? For many (myself included) it is, somehow amongst the occasional self-pity, the self-obsession, the grotesque deeds, the lack of responsibility (these nymphets, after all, "bewitch"), the shocking statements (referring to the fourteen year old Lolita as "my ageing mistress"), and the most disturbing sentence in literature: "You see, she had absolutely nowhere else to go". How could this possibly be beautiful? 

But it is. It's as though Nabokov has turned the novel on it's head: there are books where one looks beyond the mundane, the ugly, or the gross (James Joyce, for example) to see the beauty, whereas with Lolita one must do the opposite. Given the subject matter, this is the ugliest novel ever written: society (or governments) will not come to terms with this and time will not lessen the impact, but such is the power of language this book, somehow, remains beautiful (and if you haven't read it you'll have to read it to fully appreciate how). At the same time, language can obscure, and one must be aware of this. This is a seductive book, and as improbable as it seems to those who have not read it, one can get drawn in by Humbert's games, make excuses for him, even feel a little sorry for him: he (Humbert) reminds us of Dante's Beatrice, asking us if the age of consent isn't arbitrary anyway, and perhaps, as he wants us to believe, it isn't as bad as it seems. It sounds improbable that Humbert could convince us even with the clues peppered throughout the novel, but then why are teenagers referred to as "Lolitas" (even though, as Nabov said in an interview, "Nymphets are girl-children, not starlets and “sex kittens.")? Why did Vanity Fair proclaim this as "The only convincing love story of our century"? Why did Robertson Davies argue that it represented "not the corruption of an innocent child by a cunning adult, but the exploitation of a weak adult by a corrupt child." Like Romeo and Juliet this, for some, is a sort of love story, but we know that that's wrong as well. This book could trick some readers. Easily. But Nabokov manages it, so much so that we can forget about him entirely, even without the fake foreword by John Ray, Jr. (just another character). In that interview I linked, Nabokov concludes, "Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name."

It's one both one of the most beautiful books of the 20th Century as well as one of the trickiest. I am in awe of Nabokov's achievement.

And one final word: Lolita has had a great many different front covers. There's an interesting article about why which you can read here, for now I'll finish with a small selection of my own favourites.

Nabokov's own copy.

Further reading


  1. Another fantastic review! I started reading Lolita but I just couldn't stomach the book. I kept feeling disgusted with myself because I was enjoying the beauty of the novel. I know that I should give it another go. I am impressed by those who have read Lolita.

    1. You shouldn't feel disgusted with yourself - Lolita is a monument to the powers of language :)

      Do have another go, even if you read it simply for the technique of it. It's truly a remarkable work. I'm so in awe of it...

  2. I watched this movie so many times and I love it a lot. I hope I can read the book soon.I want the one with the read lips on its cover.

    1. I haven't seen the movie yet, but I do have it (it's actually on my desk - hoping to watch it this week).

      And yep, that's a cool cover. I particularly like the notepad one, too. This is my edition - don't know why I didn't include it! :)

  3. Amazing review. Almost made me like the book rather than wanting to vomit on it.

  4. Great post, loved this. I just recently read Lolita for the very first time, and it was fantastic. Yes, I have to admit I put it down many times because it was a bit uncomfortable for me, but there is beauty in there I couldn't deny. Also, those covers... thanks for sharing, they are beautiful!

    1. I couldn't believe how many covers there were! Astonishing....

    2. True! The book I read first had this weird cover that I don't like at all:

    3. Hmm... That's not the most attractive cover! It's not the worst, though, there's so many with sultry looking teens on, entirely missing the point of the book!

      I think this cover I found the most freaky (so much so I didn't want the image on my blog!) -

      (Also - just found a picture of Nabokov's own copy, will include it in the post if I can find a place for it!)

  5. I first read Lolita at around 17 and the words have stuck with me ever since (especially the opening ones). Nabokov is a master of language and he uses it so skillfully that it sounds like the most horrible confession and poetry at the same time.After all, he was fluent in Russian, French and English. That is the genius of this book: it is gorgeous and grotesque at the same time. That is why Humbert Humbert is the absolute monster in my opinion. Humbert Humbert is not Caliban, he is an eloquent and sometimes charming sick person as many sick people actually are.It is such a pity that many judge it before reading it if they ever read it (but still criticise the books-most naysayers of banned/controversial books have probably never even read them). I didn't like the ending in particular though. Ada or Ardour is my favorite of his but Lolita has the advantage or notoriety among people.

    1. I do get frustrated with people who judge books, classics particularly, without reading them. It's so wrong!

      Weird you mentioned Caliban - I'm thinking of re-reading The Tempest.

      Not read Ada, but intend to. So far read Invitation to a Beheading and Despair. Want to re-read both while I build up my Nabokov collection :)

  6. Wonderful review! I loved the book too and couldn't help sympathizing with Humbert, even though I hated myself a bit for it. A masterpiece!

    I've read another Nabokov recently, a novel called Luzhin's Defence, and although all the beauty of his writing is still there, it falls a bit short of Lolita.

    1. Thanks, I'll look for that. I have a few books by Nabokov, but I'm really drawn to him after re-reading Lolita, so I'm on the hunt for a lot more :)

  7. As always, your reviews are food for thoughts - when I'll read "Lolita" I'll keep it in mind. I've never read anything by Nabokov, but I surely will, in the future.

    1. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts - Lolita is such a tricky novel!

  8. This cover is my favourite:

  9. I have constantly thought that it was simpler to breakdown the apparently difficult stuff into expounding on it than thinking that its less demanding to putting names to faces. In the accompanying story Frieda I am continually searching for the stem of the hard work in the honest to goodness family. The atomic family maybe. I have to see that there is joining there in that framework. Be that as it may, all I see is the activities of contention, of blame, of presence in a universe of ways of dealing with stress. Nabokov title heroine


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