I don’t consider myself particularly well-read. I’ve never read Faulkner. Only read The Great Gatsby last year (or the year before, I don’t remember). I’ve read Hemingway once, and didn’t particularly like The Old Man and the Sea. I’ve never read Austen, or Waugh, or Virginia Woolf, or Pynchon, or countless other important literary figures. But I’ve long flirted with the idea of being comfortable with books enjoyed by well-educated people with posh British accents who casually insert French into everyday conversation.
(For the record, I don’t know anyone who does this.)
I first bought my copy of Lolita in high school, assuming every well read and intelligent person read this book. For what it’s worth, I also bought Finnegan’s Wake on the same trip. No, I haven’t read that, either. Lolita was supposed to be one of the greatest works written in English, and was super controversial for depicting a romance between an adult and a child. Though, I never really understood how someone was allowed to write a book that, on its face, seemed so utterly reprehensible. And I was even more confused as to why so many people could like such a thing. It felt a little dangerous owning a copy of it, and I felt older and sophisticated because I was going to read it.
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”
Jesus Christ. Thus began the book that would occupy an unpleasant, confusing, and largely untouched spot on my bookshelf for 20 years.
I’ve only ever tried reading this book three times. Each time, my dead end was the description of prepubescent nymphets at the beginning of the book. It’s just so….gross.
But the book itself remained a puzzle. How could a book about a subject so electrically charged that it should be the third rail of 20th century literature be so widely read and appreciated? On the cover of my edition, Vanity Fair is quoted as saying Lolita was “[t]he only convincing love story of our century.” I have always grappled with this confusing perceived disconnect. There’s always been a part of me that has felt my failure to bridge the gap between what I understood this novel to be and what I actually experienced while reading it. I was missing something.
And then, I came across a podcast by a comedian named Jamie Loftus called, fittingly, “The Lolita Podcast“. It’s a 10-part series that breaks the book down as thoroughly as possible – exploring Nabokov’s life, why he wrote it, what he intended, what he wrote, its impact, how it’s been misunderstood…..At the end of it, you’ll think there’s nothing left to say about the book.
Well, I then decided to give the book another try and then write a review that, currently, is coming up on 500 words without even covering the book or what I think about it.
I made it. I’ve completed my task. Twenty years of self-recrimination later, I finally read Lolita. Was it worth it?
Well, yes. I think so. I’m glad I read it – though doing so didn’t turn me into some erudite and potentially pretentious speaker of French (I didn’t understand any of the French in the novel, and was too lazy to Google translate). Unlike Nabokov, I am not a polyglot.
I don’t know that I could’ve read this book without listening to Loftus’s podcast, and I’m fairly certain that – even if I did read it – I don’t think I would’ve been as well-equipped to keep my focus on what Nabokov is saying here amidst the lurid and languorous descriptions of pedophilic adoration. Humbert Humbert is not a consistent or reliable narrator. That is unquestionable. He simply cannot be trusted.
The opening of this book, to reveal a lie I gave earlier, is not, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.” This book begins with a Forward, written by the fictitious John Jay, Jr., Ph.D., describing how he came into possession of the presented manuscript and his task of editing it. It’s a metafictional narrative describing how “Humbert Humbert”, a pseudonym, was able to get this memoir, of a sort, published. Namely, he is dead, and his lawyer passed it on to Dr. Jay for editing. It is made explicit, here, that HH is not some grand romantic figure to be admired.
“I have no intention to glorify ‘H.H.’ No doubt, he is horrible, he is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness. He is ponderously capricious. Many of his casual opinions on the people and scenery of this country are ludicrous. A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman.”
He goes on to write how the following book not only warrants artistic consideration, but that it has psychological and scientific merit, as well. And there is some truth to this, as Nabokov researched pedophilia in writing this, so as to give HH a tinge of authenticity. Littered throughout the book are references, by HH, to his psychological struggles and times of being in sanatoriums.
One thing that got me interested in approaching this book again was Loftus’s focus on finding the “Dolores Haze” mentioned in the book. Dolores Haze, of course, is the “real name” (“Haze” is described as “rhyming with the girl’s actual name, making it a pseudonym within a pseudonym) given to “Lolita”. We never meet Dolores Haze in the novel. “Lolita” is a construct invented by HH to justify his pedophilia. He’s not a “child rapist”, because he isn’t in love with “Dolores”. He’s in love with “Lolita”. And she’s not a “child”, she’s a “nymphet”.
The book is told from HH’s perspective, and he is a deranged predator twisting everything to make himself seem more reasonable. There are hints, however, of the “real” 12 year old girl. Jamie Loftus – among many others – spent a great deal of time piecing this out and trying to see the girl for who she “was” (understanding, of course, that this is a work of fiction). That was a thought I had running throughout the book. She cries herself to sleep at night when she finds out her mother is dead (perhaps giving the lie to HH’s descriptions of her mother’s coldness and indifference to her own daughter). She frequently tells HH that he hates him, and that he’s raped her, and that he’s a monster. She is always hiding money from him, and eventually escapes from him. And, of course, at the end she not only emphatically rejects his offer to come back to him, but practically laughs in his pathetic face.
This isn’t a love story. It doesn’t really even pretend to be, despite the blurb on the front cover.
What Lolita is, however, is a superbly florid and beautifully written book that is also nauseating. For this, I’m extremely conflicted. It’s everything I thought it’d be in terms of it’s mastery of language and depth of writing. It’s full of puns, literary pastiches, double entendres , allusions, and all sorts of word play that I’m sure mostly eluded my untrained and benighted eye – but there is so much skill on display here that I can begin to grasp why so many have talked about this book for so long. It truly is a work of magnificence.
All of which, it must be said, can be comfortably tossed out the window when it comes to whether this book should be recommended to another person. At the end of it all, this book is unmistakably about a child predator repeatedly raping a child. It’s not that it is necessarily described in excruciating detail – but it permeates the entire work, and the sentences drip with an oily and distasteful blackness of thought and intention. HH is possibly the most detestable figure ever described in the literature that I am familiar with, but his voice is alluring and captivating – which only serves to make the whole novel even more unsettling.
Read this book. Don’t read this book. It must be left to the reader to decide whether their life would be improved by opening these pages – because I can’t possibly have an informed opinion on whether it would be worth your time. I did tell me wife that I didn’t think she would benefit from it, though, if that means anything to you (not sure why it would).
One note on the covers for the various editions. Loftus’s podcast covered this topic beautiful (as she did everything, honestly), but it’s something I had never really thought much about. Nabokov desired that no girls would grace the covers of this book. Yet, interestingly, most editions of this book have a girl on the cover. Often, a seductive one. My edition’s cover (pictured in this review) was designed by Megan Wilson.
My immediate take on the cover is that Nabokov wouldn’t have approved of it, and having the disembodied legs of a girl on the cover of a book about pedophilia and child abduction is gross. Loftus makes the point in her podcast (and quotes someone else, whose name escapes me), that the image may be darker than it appears at first blush. Instead of her legs evoking a coquettish appeal, they may be intended to induce a sense of fear and unease. Her knees are together as a sign of for the viewer to “stay away”, and the darkness that enshrouds her is menacing, not alluring. This isn’t a cover designed to draw the viewer in, it’s meant to be an evocation of fear.
I can’t unsee this interpretation now. And though I still think Nabokov wouldn’t approve, it’s hard to argue that this interpretation, unsettling as it is, is infinitely more preferable than the depiction of a seductive girl
The blurb on the front cover of my edition reads, “the only convincing love story of our century”, and is quoted from Vanity Fair. This quote is mentioned in the Lolita Podcast, and if you Google the phrase, you’ll see some think pieces talking about how ridiculous a statement that is. On its face, this is indefatigably the case.
When you actually track down the quote, how, the context paints it in a slightly better light. It comes from Gregor von Rizzori. He is talking about interpreting the story as “a grandiose metaphor of the classic European’s hopeless love for young, seductive, barbaric America”, which, it should be noted, Nabokov himself mentions in the afterword to Lolita as a naive theory proposed by a publisher that rejected the book. Rizzori says Nabokov absolutely did not intend to limit the book to that interpretation, he then proceeds to write an entire article where he basically does that. He precedes his article by saying, “[it] became obvious when one drew the line between Lolita as a delightfully frivolous story on the verge of pornography and Lolita as a literary masterpiece, the only convincing love story of our century. If one accepted it as the latter, there was no longer a question of whether to read it as ‘old Europe debauching young America’ or as ‘young America debauching old Europe’.” He goes on to say, “[e]very passionate love can find its image in Humbert Humbert’s boundless love for Lolita, I said; why should it not also reflect the longing of us Europeans for the fulfillment of our childhood dreams about America?”
So, basically, Rizzori wanted to travel across the United States in search of the boundless childhood fantasies that led to him falling in love with the country, and use HH’s year long journey across America as a literary framework for his article.
Fine. A little weird, and I fundamentally don’t agree that Lolita is the “only convincing love story” of any century, but I think I see what he’s trying to say with that quote. I don’t know that it’s any less gross with this context, but I do think it’s kind of being taken out of context. Maybe it’s a distinction without a difference, though.