Saturday, January 15, 2011

Vladimir Nabokov/LOLITA

Back in the fall, when the American Library Association sponsored its annual "Banned Books Month," I told The Missus that I planned to participate by reading a banned book.

"Which one?"

"I'm not sure yet. But I think it's gonna be Lolita."

"That figures," she said, smirking.

A while later, I mentioned on my blog that I was well into the book. One commenter -- a woman -- said:
I don’t like to admit to many that I liked [Lolita's protagonist] Humbert in that weird and terrible way. I mean, I know he’s awful and everything. I know he is wrong, and I don’t exactly want him to win, but…

Let's pretend we've never heard of Lolita. So then what was going on here? Why might anyone have banned Lolita in the first place? Why would my wife say that it "figured" I'd select it, from among all the banned books which I hadn't read? Why would my correspondent hate to admit that she liked a fictional character, even an awful one, and why the "weird and terrible" disclaimer, and especially, what, oh what could she have meant by that "exactly"?

Enough pretending. Even if we haven't read it ourselves, and don't know the details, I think many -- most? -- reasonably well-read readers will know of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel. In brief (and please skip the following paragraph if you want no spoilers at all):

Late 1940s. Middle-aged Englishman who calls himself "Humbert Humbert" narrates the story. Humbert has a thing for young girls, between the ages of 9 and 14 and of a certain type: slightly built, most often blonde, flirtatious -- perhaps without knowing it -- but virginal (not necessarily in fact). He calls them "nymphets" (a term which Nabokov apparently invented himself, just for this book). Humbert moves to a suburb in the northeastern United States, taking a room with a young widow, Charlotte Haze. Discovers that Charlotte has an unconsciously seductive 12-year-old blonde daughter, Dolores -- "Dolly" to her mother, but dubbed by Humbert "Lolita." Humbert eventually marries Charlotte, expressly for the opportunities it may provide him to be alone with his stepdaughter. Charlotte is struck by a car and killed. Humbert takes off in his battered car, with Lolita, on a cross-continental odyssey during which he gets what he thinks he wants. Things turn out to be not so rosy, especially (although not exclusively) for the person whom Humbert ends up killing. The end.

Right off the bat, then, we have the ingredients to answer all those "why" questions -- the principal ingredient being: Humbert Humbert is a manipulative pedophile. In the mid-1950s, when Lolita was published, just saying the word "pedophile" in a non-clinical context was probably enough to make people recoil; placing one at the center of a first-person narrative back then probably guaranteed opposition to the book.

Nowadays, while we live in a nominally more "liberal" culture, "Think of the children!" may be a phrase which invites satire but pedophilia remains maybe even more firmly on the list of taboo subjects for conversation and even private reading. The Ick Factor is off the charts for everyone but its disturbed practitioners, regardless of our positions on the yardsticks of morality or politics; we simply know too much about the long-term consequences of the sexual abuse of innocents to find thinking about it at all "entertaining."

So how on earth could my friend claim that she -- she! -- liked such a monster, even in a weird and terrible way? Was it really necessary for her to qualify I don't want him to win with that exactly?

Um, well... yeah.

Because the thing about Lolita, especially because of its (theoretically more disturbing) first-person point of view, is the extent to which it summons empathy for the narrator. Almost none of us will share his particular lust; nearly all of us will know the experience of lusting, unhealthily, for something which is unhealthy in the first place. Humbert can no more resist his obsession for nymphets in general (or, of course, for Lolita in specific) than he can resist the urge to show off, verbally, bursting pretentiously and reflexively (for example) into weird esoteric words or untranslated passages of French whenever he feels the normal range of English doesn't suffice. In that range of yielding to uncontrollable impulse -- whether trivial or monstrous -- lie the rest of us.

And I think that's why we respond to Humbert. We don't want him to "win," to commit the sin or to get away with it, but we recognize the tug of the forbidden something. We don't him to win... but...

A note on the language: Nabokov, a native Russian speaker, sometimes complained about the relative clumsiness of English. But ye gods, could the man construct some beautiful sentences. I can't remember reading a book recently in which I highlighted so much. Here's one brief passage, chosen at random from midway through the book (it wasn't even one of my highlights):
She had entered my world, umber and black Humberland, with rash curiosity; she surveyed it with a shrug of amused distaste; and it seemed to me now that she was ready to turn away from it with something akin to plain repulsion.

The wordplay, the rhythms, the progression of meaning and tension from start to finish: if I could regularly construct sentences which so perfectly balanced all those elements, I think I could go to my grave a happy man. (As I said: we all have our unreasoning lusts.)

So do I recommend Lolita?

I never insist that people should read a book just because it's regarded (by critics or the public or, well, by me) as a "classic." With Lolita, maybe more than with most books, I'd think carefully before diving in. What's the threshold of behavior which you'll accept in your characters? Can you get past the nominal subject of a novel like Lolita? Are you after a quick read, or a book which will equally compel reading for a half-hour burst and then being put aside for an hours-long inner Hmmmm...?

Depend on how you'd answer those questions: that's the best advice I can give. I didn't find Lolita an easy book to read, and I'll probably never read it cover-to-cover again. But I'm very very happy, yes, happy that I have read it. And I can easily imagine dipping from time to time back into its (weirdly, terribly) bracing waters.


Jane Steen said...

I have never read Lolita but your review has convinced me I should. Partly because of what you said about Nabokov's use of language, but also because one of the important roles of good fiction is to allow us to experience being something or someone we can never or would never be. It's the Aristotelean idea of purging negative emotions by experiencing them secondhand.

I think it's really interesting for a writer to explore a dark place through writing that s/he would never enter in real life. I guess Lolita is famous (and this is a book that has always impinged on my consciousness as famous rather than notorious) because Nabokov was successful in doing so. I want to see how that's done.

fg said...

An excellent review JES. You make the reader walk the line while you explain the falls on either side.

I read the book years ago, a read that I wanted to find time for even before then. From what I remember, and for me with a bad memory, I remember how it felt to read vividly, the book walks a tight line. I recall I was thrilled to read the book, on the edge of my seat, appalled and fascinated. It was terrible and compelling to read. And strangely enough even though the protagonists voice is so strong I felt it clever because Nabokov confronts you, the reader, and not Humbert who prevails and just IS. I watched frightened over his shoulder as he contemplates,his abuse and manipulation.

JES said...

Jane: I like that famous/notorious distinction -- thank you! Lolita's certainly more famous and less notorious now than it was 50 years ago; wish I'd thought to make that point in the review.

About the language, one qualification: the last time I read anything by Nabokov was maybe 30 years ago. When I discussed Humbert's pretensions above -- the casual French, the unfamiliar English diction -- well, for the life of me I can't remember if those are typically Nabokovian flourishes, or if he really was using them to paint Humbert in a particular way.

(I read the Kindle edition. The device has a feature which lets you move a cursor to a word and instantly see its definition, and that feature saw a lot of use as I read Lolita. Yet for maybe half the words whose I definitions I wanted drew a vacant stare from the Kindle's embedded dictionary.)

If you do get around to reading it, I'd love to know what you think, either in a follow-up comment or in a subsequent review here!

JES said...

fg: "appalled and fascinated" pretty much sums it up for me as well.

I can think of some other books and certainly movies which have been told from the point of view of a charming but evil main character (and some which don't bother much with the charm). But Humbert Humbert, thanks to Nabokov's oh-so-careful, tightrope-walking depiction, seems to me one of a kind. When Humbert speaks of his own monstrousness, using terms like "monstrous," it felt as convincing to me as when he relishes the carnal memories. It didn't feel (in other words) like he was faking -- making a pro forma confession just to make the reader think better of him. It felt honestly, well, schizoid.

(And, not incidentally, it mirrored my own views of him.)

Lydia Sharp said...

Love this review. :)

JES said...

Thanks, Lydia!

(Truth be told, I was very nervous about reviewing it. I'll add: for a reader sometimes self-conscious about publicly displaying what he's reading, a Kindle provides perfect cover. Not that I *cough* know anyone like that.)

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

I remember when I was reading LOLITA a couple years ago (for the first and only time)--I mentioned it to my mother, and she said, "Ick." I asked her if she'd read it, and she said, "No, and I don't need to--I know what it's about. A teenage girl who goes around seducing married men."

So--knowing she'd heard the premise from trickle-down, not first person exposure, combined perhaps with impressions of the famous stills from the movie--I think her take is REALLY interesting from an anthropological point of view. It emerged later that she thought the Lolita character was "seventeen or eighteen," which rather changes the timbre of the comment, but lay that aside and imagine that there are other people with the same idea of the book(movie). From my experience, at least, a lot of people could subscribe to this take. The idea that a child could be capable of seducing anyone--exactly the claim manipulative, lying Humbert makes re: "nymphets"--is now kind of pervasive in society. What Nabakov was making monstrous in the 1950s--the sexualization of young girls--is now something that happens on a commercial level every day: make-up and high heels for little kids, extreme youth-oriented beauty standards, etc. Anyway, I'll get off the soap box. But your review gave me a forum to tell this story (again).

I really like this book. I like it because I think it's a good book. (Cf your comment about Nabakov's writing--he's amazing. The way he plays with language is just so, uh, stimulating. I wonder if that think-outside-the-box language versatility is in some way a product of not being a native speaker?)

I also don't think the book is morally reprehensible (I know, I know, I'm not supposed to assign labels, but I do believe intentionally harmful media is wrong/bad). For me, LOLITA doesn't fall into the "harmful" category. I find Humbert an amazingly well-drawn character, I his compelling and immersing point of view is one you can get lost in, but it's so obvious to me that Nabakov is deliberately drawing a monster. Even when you're sympathizing and relating to him, you DON'T want to be him. I think another one of Nabakov's gifts is that he somehow manages a spellbinding first-person narrator but also lets the reader loath him.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...


i just left a long and incredibly well thought-through comment and BLOGGER DELETED IT!!! ARGH!!!!

i want to enter into discussion about this book but i'm too frustrated, haha. i'll have to come back when i cool down in a couple hours.

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

oh, nm. it posted it. PHEW. i was going to cry for a minute there.

JES said...

whaddayamean: What an incredibly well thought-through comment. Long, too. :)

Everything about Lolita makes it a good book. Far from being morally reprehensible, as you put it, it might even be a morally good book. But its handling by the forces of marketing is almost bound to make people wince when they hear about it second- and third-hand, without reading it. I don't think Blogger will let me embed an image in a comment, but the poster for the Kubrick movie is a case in point and may have even gotten the "Lolita is sexy!" ball rolling. Imagine Sue Lyon's lollipop-sucking face there replaced with James Mason's -- maybe wearing sunglasses, in which is reflected the vague figure of a girl in a bathing suit, on the other side of a pool. A little more sinister, hmm?

(The tagline on that poster underlines the nudge-nudge wink-wink angle: "How did they ever make a movie of LOLITA?")

On the other hand... It's tempting to say (even though I assume it's something like the truth) that the marketing is done this way because the marketers are mostly men, pitching to what are (or were) mostly male critics -- like a shared dirty joke. In which case, I do wonder how the marketing (and the book's success) might have been different had it been done by women, for women?

whaddayameandoihaveroomfordessert said...

JES--you left a comment, and then must have deleted it. Anyway I'm responding to it regardless.

It's interesting to draw a gender line here--male marketers v female marketers, etc. If we extend that to male v female readers: I won't try to speak across the board here, but maybe in many cases it's easier for a woman to read this book, since we won't feel personally indicted by it. For men, the story must rub closer to the bone--"could this ever be me?!" etc. I can't help but imagine a rather different reading experience.

JES said...

whaddayamean: Grrrr, no, didn't delete it myself. Stupid Bl*gger commenting gremlins...

I do wonder about the different responses of men vs. women to the book (assuming of course that they ARE different). As I said in the review, I didn't find it an easy book to read; it wasn't difficult in the sense of dense or overly complex or not being able to keep the characters' names straight -- none of the usual sort of difficulties. It was difficult because it made me feel vaguely creepy. I almost felt guilty reading it.

But the same sort of questions arise even with something trivial, like watching TV at the moment a Victoria's Secret ad comes on. Sort of fascinating and ghastly at the same time. You know the experiments where they measure the diameter of the subject's pupils at the time they're exposed to a photograph of something appealing -- an attractive member of whatever sex the subject prefers, or some kind of nom-nom-nom food, etc.? The pupil sort of bounces open a little, involuntarily. I imagine my own pupils bouncing open when a VS ad comes on, but at the same time I'm consciously fighting the attraction because I'm appalled by it.

That's what reading Lolita was like for me.

JES said...

whaddayamean: Now that everybody's moved on to other books, I just happened to blow through this blog's comments + spam dashboard. Found my missing comment (1/18/11, 6:22pm) in the spam filter... but who's keeping score?!? :)