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Cannonball Read #26: Lolita

02/22/2010

[Let me just say that if you haven’t read Lolita, and plan to, you should go do that and then come back to my review. I can’t discuss it without giving something away, so I’m going to reveal it all. Oh yeah, ** SPOILER ALERT!!**]

I was pretty keen on the idea of the Pajiba book club initially, but I must admit I was hesitant to tackle Lolita. My two daughters are ten and seven, and I definitely noticed a change in my reading tastes after they were born – no stories involving children in danger or worse. Sorry Lovely Bones, you won’t grace my library card! But after reading Jerce’s comment that there wasn’t anything explicit in Lolita, I figured I’d give it a shot. And later when I did read some portions that were explicit (uh, Jerce?) I still felt compelled to continue.

Once I’d gotten to about page 30 or so, I could already see the brilliance. Nabokov made me feel so many things in that brief a time: disgust, amusement, empathy, condemnation, not to mention awe at his language.

Lolita starts off with a Foreward “written” by Prof. John Ray, Jr. that tells us that a man named Humbert Humbert has died in jail just before his trial was to start. From the beginning, we know that Humbert will be incarcerated at some point. We don’t know what crimes he’s alleged to have committed, but Prof. Ray tells us in the very beginning that the reason he was selected to read this manuscript (other than being related to Humbert’s attorney) was because he had received a prize for writing about “…certain morbid states and perversions.” Ray’s the right person to review Humbert’s papers, because Humbert is a pedophile.

Our narrator spends a great deal of time trying to convince us that society’s conventions have him in this terrible predicament where he can not have his desires. He puts the responsibility on the girls, rather than himself, and constantly portrays himself as helpless to resist temptation.

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain bewitched travelers, twice or many times oder 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’.

In addition to extolling the charms of these nymphets, Humbert also writes of his upbringing, his love for a young girl (a peer that time) that he considers the catalyst for his lifelong addiction to young girls. We move on to encounters with prostitutes, and then of his first wife who leaves him for a Russian cabbie.  He gets his “revenge” when he finds out later that his ex-wife dies in childbirth a few years later. No pity for the woman, no pity for the unborn child, no pity for the loss of life – just revenge.

Humbert then emigrates to the US, does some academic writing, and glosses over his two stays in a sanatorium.  He has a later stay in a sanatorium, where he owes his

“complete restoration to a discovery I made while being treated… there was an endless source of robust enjoyment in trifling with psychiatrists: cunningly leading them on; never letting them see that you know all the tricks of the trade; inventing for them elaborate dreams, pure classics in style…”

Are you listening, reader? Nabokov is telling us  not to trust this narrator. If your radar wasn’t already pinging to tell you that this erudite scholar is not what he seems, Humbert tells us himself.

This all within the first 40 pages or so, a quick setup for Humbert to take a room with a family where he can follow academic (and other) pursuits. Lucky for them, the family home has burned down, and Humbert is referred to (the unlucky) “Mrs. Haze of 342 Lawn Street” who offers him a room in her home.  Humbert is on the verge of turning down this offer when he sees her daughter, Dolores. Of course he takes the room.

Humbert revels in Lolita. His eloquent obsession with individual pieces of her body, her as a whole, standing, sitting and more are vividly depicted. He luxuriates in his observations of her. And then, he manages to sneak a secret erotic moment, with Lolita on his lap!! Oh how disgusting. He imagines she has no idea, and revels in the thought of other adventures in this vein when her mother announces she is sending Lolita away to summer camp.

At this point in the novel, I was not particularly surprised by any goings on. I did know the gist of the story… to this point. But then Nabokov takes it further. While Lolita is away, her mother  confesses that she’s in love with  Humbert and so he  marries the mother. An interesting turn of events, but not earth shattering. Of course he would do anything to stay around Lolita, so I’m still taking this in stride.

Humbert’s new wife, Charlotte, then tells him she wants to send Lolita to boarding school after camp so that they can be together in peace. Humbert now starts considering murdering her but is foiled by a friend stopping by their swimming hole. Charlotte gets a reprieve, for a moment. And then, and then… Humbert is found out! He had egotistically been keeping a diary of his love for Lolita, and Charlotte finds it. She writes a couple of letters and leaves. Then the phone rings, and we find out that Charlotte has been hit by a car and killed! I think I truly gasped out loud when I got to this point.  In the space of two pages, pages 101 and 102 to be exact, Humbert is doomed and then saved. And now, Lolita is the doomed one, but she’s away at summer camp and has no idea her mother is dead.

So what to do, what to do? Humbert decides that he’s going to go and retrieve Lolita from camp and tell her that her mother is sick and in the hospital. He’ll move around with her from hotel to hotel, telling her that her mother is getting better. Then suddenly her mother will “die” and he’ll be truly alone with her. Humbert does try to drug Lolita and have his way with her, but it is too mild and she stirs when he comes into the room. Unbelievably he tells us that the next morning, she seduces him herself! He finds out that he’s not Lolita’s first lover, and he also reveals to her that her mother is dead. She must now stay with Humbert, and they travel the US having trysts in hotel after hotel. What a disgusting turn of events!

But the description of the various places in the US is so beautiful, and contrasts so strongly with what is actually happening in the novel.

More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone…

It’s really remarkable how I lost myself in this section, and forgot I was reading about a wicked, wicked man.

Humbert threatens Lolita to keep her sexual favors, and later he must bribe her. They finally settle down in a New England town, where Lolita begs to take part in a school play. After all of her haranguing to take part in the play, they have a huge fight and wind up leaving town for another journey. But this journey is fraught with even more difficulties. Humbert suspects that there is something going on.

I would not swear that there was not at least one occasion, prior to, or at the very beginning of, the Midwest lap of our journey, when she managed to convey some information to, or otherwise get into contact with, a person or persons unknown.

And he’s right. He suspects that someone is following them, but then Lolita falls ill and must go to the hospital. When Humbert goes to see her, he finds that her “uncle” checked her out, and she’s gone.  He searches for her for a long time, but doesn’t find her.

Some time later, he gets a letter from Lolita that she’s married and pregnant, and in desperate need of money. Humbert goes to see her, and asks Lolita to leave her new husband, but she turns him down.   I thought for sure he’d kill Lolita at this point. Instead, she tells him that the playwright of the play she was interested in was the one who helped her get away. It seems that the man, Quilty, entranced Lolita, but when he wanted her to star in a porn film, she escaped from him as well.

Rather than take his anger out on Lolita, Humbert goes to see Quilty, and murders him. Humbert is caught after forgetting which side of the road to drive on, and eventually dies in prison. Lolita dies in childbirth along with her baby. I knew she was going to die, because I’d inadvertently read the real introduction by Martin Amis, and he starts out with telling us that she dies.

This was the most amazing novel. The language is awe-inspiring. The subject matter is both disgusting and suspenseful. Even setting aside sex, if that is even possible, you have a vengeful man, suspicion, travel around the US, an accidental death, a murder and then deaths in the end.   The title character is almost a non-entity, and it’s all about the eloquent narrator and his perspective on everything. And Lolita? She’s the title character, and the object of his obsession, but she is less important than Humbert’s ego. Her death is an aside in the foreward, though her name is the last word in the novel.

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2 comments

  1. For the most part, I didn’t notice any passages that really spoke to me but I loved the page or two towards the end of the novel when Humbert describes Lolita’s tennis playing and how graceful she was. That was one description of her that didn’t seem lecherous for once.
    You know I didn’t even quite realize it until I just read through your review but it is kind of interesting that both of the women in Humbert’s life that leave him for other men end up dying in childbirth. Okay, in one case, woman should really read girl, but still.


    • Good point – I think we can consider Lolita a woman by the time she dies though.



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