I finished Lolita last week. I enjoyed it a lot. Not, rather obviously, the subject matter. It’s dark, disturbing, unnerving. There are no characters to like or love. The protagonist – Humbert Humbert – who develops an obsessive love for Dolores Haze (aka ‘Lolita’), is an odious man and a parody of the worst kind of old school European. Decadent, pretentious, indulgent and deeply affected. Littered with allusions and lots of French, Lolita is written in the first person (by Humbert) – like a memoir. For a more detailed synopsis of the plot you might read the item I wrote on Adrian Lyne’s film adaptation which gives a fairly comprehensive overview.
With regard to the distasteful subject matter – Humbert knows that he is a monster but infers that his acknowledgement alone somehow makes it alright. It’s not alright, and he knows it’s not alright, and that knowing sort of cancels out the culpability – in his eyes. I do strongly believe, though, that Nabokov is playing with the reader. This is not a ‘love story’ but neither is it a child abuse story. It’s much more complex than both of those. For me it is a tale of obsession, of all-consuming self-delusion and of merciless uninhibitedness leading to shattered lives and violent deviations from the status quo (with respect to Lolita and the life she should be living). For further thoughts on style and interpretation, you could do worse than consult wikipedia. In short, there is not (and nor should there be) a definitive ‘explanation’ of what Lolita is trying to convey. It can be enjoyed in totality without academia-inspired over analysis.
Lolita herself I found rather mangy. Of course, her coquettish charms are lost on me anyway. But I felt little sympathy for her. Yes, she sort of lost her childhood, and she was – in effect – abused, but she isn’t a character that one warms to. Sort of sensual but quite lifeless and two-dimensional, in my eyes.
So why is the book so good? Nabokov’s incredible writing style of course. He writes with… such power. With such control of the English language. He brings the characters and the landscape to life. And the novel has a macro as well as micro context, playing out against a background that is strongly redolent of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans‘. A kind of amorphous yet real America, behind the silver screen façade. If it were art I might think of Edward Hopper – loneliness and isolation. And as mentioned – Robert Frank’s images of America also seem highly appropriate. A lack of humanity. Dead, suburban landscapes. Endless cheap motels. Reality beyond the rhetoric.
It’s quite hard to describe the wonderful prose contained in Lolita but consider some of the quotes I have posted here, here and here. You have to read it for yourself. And don’t just take my word for it. It was named the fourth greatest novel in the English language by the Modern Library (part of Random House publishing).
And Lolita is very readable. It’s not like reading, say, a Salman Rushdie – who I find knowingly self-indulgent and pretentious (a bit like Humbert!). Lolita is quite accessible and even having had the annotated edition, I didn’t feel the need to read through the annotations at the back.
Finally, the thing that got me into Lolita (the film adaptations and the book itself) was seeing the BBC4 documentary How do you solve a problem like Lolita? Which was very good. Having recorded it I plan to watch it again now that I’ve read the book and seen one of the adaptations.
So in closing – put your current newfangled reading down and try the classic masterpiece that is Lolita. I think you’d like it.
All of my blog entries on Lolita: