Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

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6 Comments

  1. Lolita is one of my favourite books and this is a really great review and an accurate synopsis! Thanks for writing.

  2. Joad

     /  August 8, 2012

    Oh yes, Nabokov is such a brilliant writer, isn’t he? I agree, though, that Lolita is in many ways a hard read, for the reasons you give, and indeed I didn’t reread it for years.
    But I found in my clinical work, with abuses and their targets, that he had given the most extraordinary grounding in how child abusers think. The internal logic of the book and the way Nabokov lays out human rationalising and vulnerabilities is extraordinary. I’ve always tried to get trainees to read it – partly also because i have such a bee in my bonnet that psychology people generally should read more human stories rather than textbooks!
    But I tend to twin it for human relief with Pnin – where Nabokov is still, as ever, thinking about how people bully and use others (one of the most horrible ex-wives in fiction, although tellingly, still loved) but this time with such charm and humour… It’s like a bijoux version of Don Quixote.
    Just in writing this and looking back at his books I seem to see – more than I noticed at the time – how he demonstrates that its always better to be the bumbling or frightened or lonely person than the vile bully, the confident strident brute… I think he builds this on the capacity to either have just a single world-view – which you then want to inflict on others – or be able to see that different views have their validity – which means you then never can be a dictator!
    And I realise also I had this quite lazy simplistic understanding that this was based on his life, expelled from soviet russia, hatred of totalitarianism, but now I see it more as an ethical undertaking, elaborating how admirable the path of the tentative and the hesitant is, compared to the definite and determined.
    Also – and this is I think a really really good thing for stories to prepare us for – he lets us know, really painfully, that bad things do happen in life, the bad guys do win, but that still doesn’t mean they are admirable. Look at Bend Sinister – the very worst often does happen, excessively so, harm to innocents, but i’d bet nobody reads it and thinks ‘oh I want to be powerful, rather than a clumsy grieving academic’… quite unlike Boys Own fiction or the Bond stories, say.
    Which brings me seamlessly to the Olympics and the brilliant Danny Boyle show – that clever trick with the Queen, confirming she is actually a figure in an outmoded fictional form – brilliant!
    Thanks for taking me back to Nabokov, Stephanie – time to see if I can manage a re-read of Lolita now…

    • And thank you for such a thoughtful dissection. You’ve clarified one of the things that struck me as I read, which is how well his description of the abused-abuser relationship, the opportunism and vulnerabilities of it, corresponded with the (pop?)-cultural perception of such situations that I already had; I wondered to what degree the way we think about grooming and child abuse is as a result of the cultural permeation of Lolita, or if Nabokov was simply prescient in his understanding. I must read more of him – Pnin sounds like a good next volume.

      Delighted to see you stopping by my WordPress manor! Have I persuaded you to set up camp in the next field? We’d all be better for it.

      Ladies and gentlemen, my friend Joad, who as you can already tell is brilliant. She has promised a website archive of her many years of accumulated wisdom, which I shall be linking to as soon as it’s available.

  3. ny

     /  October 26, 2012

    If you re-re-read it, you will start to see the real girl. HH doesn’t see it, but the author does, and it is all inside the book. That’s the beauty of this book. HH doesn’t see the real Dolores, but thorough his narration we can see the real-her.

  • Stephanie Saulter

    I love stories.
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