Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita readalong 1 I postponed reading Lolita for quite some time. I wanted to, yet something kept me back. Finally, when Vishy said he got the book from a friend (what a coincidence, so did I) and wanted to read it, we decided to do a read-along. His review can be found here.

I started reading Lolita with more than my usual curiosity. It was, after all, a classic. It was, after all, my first Nabokov, and it was, after all, a book about a subject I had heard and read just enough to fan my curiosity even more but not enough to know exactly what was going on. So I began.

Minor spoilers ahead!

Lolita From the first page Nabokov manages to establish closeness with the reader, like a friend who talks about an event that irreversibly changed his life. For better? For worse? We don’t know yet. The story begins with Humbert talking about his childhood – his distant father, dead mother, and the first girl he fell in love with. It’s a buildup. We are supposed to like Humbert; he is, without a doubt, very adept at portraying his early life in such a way as to make the reader sympathize. Poor Humbert, deprived of a mother’s love, in love with a girl who dies young, living his days dreaming of what could have been. Until he meets Dolores Haze, or Lolita as he likes to call her. Until then, Humbert, admirer of nymphets to such an extent that he goes to the park so he could be near them and see the girls playing, was too shy and possibly too afraid of consequences to approach them. But Lolita, she of the “tender dreamy childishness and a kind of eerie vulgarity, stemming from the snub-nosed cuteness of ads and magazine pictures, from the blurry pinkness of adolescent maidservants in the Old Country (smelling of crushed daisies and sweat); and from very young harlots disguised as children in provincial brothels; and then again, all this gets mixed up with the exquisite stainless tenderness seeping through the musk and the mud, through the dirt and the death, oh God, oh God”, she is not like all the others. From that moment on, Humbert plans his way to her. A boarder in her mother’s house, he warms (or worms, it works just as well) his way into the small family until fate very conveniently delivers the girl right into his waiting, lusty hands.

And Lolita? Well she is not the sweet innocent I thought she was, and her experience in certain matters was an unexpected twist in the story for me, but still, she was 12 years old and Humbert but a few years shy of 40. She flirts, and teases, and seems to want to be near Humbert until he is all she has left. Her mother’s death leaves her an orphan, and Humbert manipulates her into thinking life without him as her guardian could be very difficult. Lolita accepts the situation at first, but after a year of traveling and posing as the dutiful daughter during the day and unwilling mistress at night, Humbert finds things slipping through his fingers. He guards her jealously, and with just the right amount of bribes, promises and threats, manages to keep his nymphet, until she finally gathers the courage and breaks free. It does not end well. Not for Lolita, and not for Humbert, who writes his memoirs in prison, waiting to be tried for murder. Did he kill Dolores Haze, his Lolita? Yes and no. Her demise, tragic, like her life, may be the result of Humbert’s influence. I strongly believe that.

As for Humbert, I started the story liking him, or at least the way he wrote it. He knew what demons haunted him. He tried to stay away from them, or rather to indulge in his fantasy in such a way that no one would come to harm. He even got married.

“It occurred to me that regular hours, home-cooked meals, all the conventions of marriage, the prophylactic routine of its bedroom activities and, who knows, the eventual flowering of certain moral values, of certain spiritual substitutes, might help me, if not to purge myself of my degrading and dangerous desires, at least to keep them under pacific control.”

It didn’t work out. That was the moment I began to dislike him and it just went downhill from there.
I was shocked to discover how much I liked the writing, for in admitting such a thing I would have to admit I liked at least an aspect of the book. I hated the very idea the book was based on, because for me it’s just a story of abuse, of a life torn out of its way. On the one hand I admire the way the words slide down the page so magically until they remind me what they are saying and then a shudder of repulsion replaces that admiration. Is it possible to love the writing and hate the story? Perhaps this is after all, the ultimate allure of Lolita, this combination of style and story that can leave the reader fascinated and somehow feeling dirty at the same time.

These are some of my favorite passages. The first one I read over and over again, as I imagined it, not as the simple act it really is, but as something beyond that, the ordinary transformed by extraordinary words.

“I set out two glasses (to St. Algebra? To Lo?) and opened the refrigerator. It roared at me viciously while I removed the ice from its heart.”

“There and elsewhere. Hundreds of gray hummingbirds in the dusk, probing the throats of dim flowers.”

“And presently I was shaking hands with both of them in the street, the sloping street, and everything was whirling and flying before the approaching white deluge, and a truck with a mattress from Philadelphia was confidently rolling down to an empty house, and dust was running and writhing over the exact slab of stone where Charlotte, when they lifted the laprobe for me, had been revealed, curled up, her eyes intact, their black lashes still wet, matted, like yours, Lolita.”

My rating 4/5 stars
Read in December 2014

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5 Responses to Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

  1. Brian Joseph says:

    Outstanding commentary on this one Delia.

    I agree that this is the story of terrible abuse. Of course as a book it is a lot more then that. Though I also agree that somethings about Humbert are likable I do not think that in any way Nabakov is advocating the things that he does. In fact I think that these things are condemned. With that in mind I do believe that art needs to show the ugly things in life, at least some of the time. I think that this book does that brilliantly.

    • Delia says:

      Hi Brian,
      I’ve read a commentary about Lolita which rephrased it as “old Europe debauching young America”. I thought that was well said. The book is more than a story of abuse, I agree, and Nabokov doesn’t make Humbert appear innocent, on the contrary. Still, it was a cruel book to read. I remember a particular scene that stayed with me, where Humbert catches a glimpse of Lolita looking at herself in the mirror and there’s such hopelessness in that look, and that’s when I saw him as infinitely cruel.
      Art is not always about lovely or positive things, that’s for sure, and what Nabokov managed to do with his writing made me realize it’s not about what you write, is how you write it.

  2. Pingback: Book Review – Readalong – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov | Vishy's Blog

  3. Vishy says:

    Wonderful review, Delia! It is interesting that both of us read the exact same edition and both of us got it from a friend – what an amazing coincidence! I loved what you said about how Humbert takes our hand and leads us into the story like a friend, trying to make us like him. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t work. I also loved what you said about the contradiction between the beautiful prose and the main character’s unpleasant activities. I felt sad when I read that Lolita died during childbirth. I thought she might have been able to find domestic happiness with her rustic husband Richard Schiller. I loved that first sentence you have quoted, about taking the ice from the refrigerator – very beautiful, poetic and deep.

    Thanks for hosting this readalong and reading this book with me, Delia.

    • Delia says:

      I wonder if my friend knows your friend. Maybe it was a conspiracy. 🙂
      It looks like we have similar thoughts about this book. I was sad, too, when reading about Lolita, but in a way I guess it was somehow understood this wasn’t a book with a happy ending.
      The writing is amazing but I’m not sure this is the kind of book I’d like to re-read. But something else by Nabokov, definitely.
      Thanks for joining me, Vishy, I hope we can do another read-along this year as well.

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