Review: Lolita

June 12, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Lolita

First of all I have to admit something. The first I ever heard of Lolita was in the context of some article about Middle Eastern women reading it in a book club, over violent controversy in their community. I understood that something was sensational about the book and intended to make a mental note of it, so I must have repeated to myself over and over again as I read the article, Lolita, Lolita, Lolita. Unfortunately, this resulted in my developing the impression that Lolita took place in a conservative Middle Eastern country and had a great deal to do with women’s rights and burqas, at least tangentially. Just in case anyone is wondering, this is not the case. But I do have to stress how wonderful it is to read a book with no idea whatsoever about what it is about…even when what it’s about is upsetting or disturbing. What little I knew about the book was quickly fulfilled and, as I read, shrank to a smaller and smaller fraction of the whole plot. Every turn of the story astonished me. It was fun!

This book is probably the most masterful psychological portrait I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The narrator progresses beautifully over a logical and terrible trajectory: In the beginning he paints himself as the victim of a psychological problem that is not his fault, and the reader is led through a poignant meditation on what it would be like to be afflicted with pedophilia: constantly drawn toward something illegal and immoral according to most of society around you; trying to hold yourself back for reasons you can’t quite define—do you agree with the morals of society? or are you merely afraid of its retribution?—and largely succeeding; never quite deciding whether or not you should despise yourself, which is something that goes against the grain of healthy people. Because what if you despise yourself? Then you’ve reduced yourself to a moist little pile of hate and guilt, and that’s no way to live. Best to try to love yourself, and accept yourself—because possibly no one else will, if they know your shame–and try to stay out of temptation’s way. And Humbert Humbert does choose to love himself, to the point of arrogance. After that he progresses to a determined pomposity with which he is allowed daily to revise his license to behave as he wishes. He uses this to construct a whole reality for himself, and doesn’t seem to register the clues to the contrary, which is fascinating to see. He insists on interpreting his relationship with Lolita as idyllic and two-sided, and keeps making romantic gestures that she of all people is least likely to appreciate. Eventually, like a top at the end of its run, he starts to vacillate between plaintive self-deprecation and vociferous self-righteousness, and finally stumbles and loses his stride entirely.

The psychology is beautiful, not in that it makes you sympathize with a “bad” main character, but rather in that it is stunning in its complexity, perfectly understandable and with baffling results. It’s a wonderfully transparent portrayal of denial and constructed reality, which are two things I’ve always had a hard time understanding, and the discrepancies thus produced give an excellent impression of the narrator slowly losing his mind. Aside from the psychological turmoil, Humbert Humbert is pretentious, controlling, egotistical, and manipulative, in ways that are infuriating but perfectly of a piece with the character. He thinks the reader is curious about or appalled by things that aren’t important, and neglects what she is actually curious about or appalled by, and all this is in keeping with his stodgy old-school European ways.

Now for my absolute favorite part: the writing was amazing. A friend complained that is was too flowery, which I was upset by, because what comes off that way is Nabokov’s ability to precisely articulate metaphors and characteristics, usually using big words. His vocabulary is really impressive—I haven’t had to look up so many words since The Diamond Age—which, I admit, does make him come off as pedantic, but what’s the point of there being wonderful, precise words in the English language if you refuse to use them when they’re apt? I prize this ability and being able to emulate it is one of my highest goals, but I guess it’s good to know that some people read it as flowery and too pompous. Nabokov also clearly adores words themselves, and word-play. The narrator claims to have picked the pseudonym Humbert Humbert  because it “expresses the nastiness best,” and he enjoys making up epithets that rhyme and repeating syllables and parts of words in whimsical ways—it’s the narrator and not Nabokov, but it’s impossible to write a character who likes that kind of thing if you, the author, don’t. It was a lot of fun to read, just to savor the beauty of his phrases. The excerpt that follows is the passage Rachael called too flowery, but every time you find yourself snorting at his language, take a minute to register just how exactly his phrase conveys what he means. It’s a rare gift, and it’s the reason this is a worthwhile read, at least if you love English.


Now I wish to introduce the following idea. Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.”

It will be marked that I substitute time terms for spatial ones. In fact, I would have the reader see “nine” and “fourteen” as the boundaries—the mirrory beaches and rosy rocks—of an enchanted island haunted by those nympets of mine and surrounded by a vast, misty sea. Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not. Otherwise, we who are in the know, we lone voyagers, we nympholepts, would have long gone insane. Neither are good looks any criterion; and vulgarity, or at least what a given community terms so, does not necessarily impair certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes. Within the same age limits the number of true nymphets is strikingly inferior to that of provisionally plain, or just nice, or “cute,” or even “sweet” and “attractive,” ordinary, plumpish, formless, cold-skinned, essentially human little girls, with tummies and pigtails, who may or may not turn into adults of great beauty (look at the ugly dumplings in black stockings and white hats that are metamorphosed into stunning stars of the screen). A normal man given a group photograph of school girls or Girl Scouts and asked to point out the comeliest one will not necessarily choose the nymphet among them. You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with a bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate—the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.

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