Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bookish Thoughts: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita. ~ Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov



Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov 

Narrated by Jeremy Irons
Random House, 2005
11 hours and 32 minutes


The Synopsis on the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites, as well as on GoodReads, describe the book in this way: 
Awe and exhilaration—along with heartbreak and mordant wit—abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love—love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.
Now, I am really no good at reviewing the classics.  I am not one to dissect a novel into all its various parts, analyzing every last detail.  Rather, I tend to read a classic as I do any other book, taking in the story, the characters and letting the pieces fall where they may. My reviews are written more from my heart--how a book made me feel and what my general impressions are--how a book affected me.  It is no different with this review.

The above synopsis fits the book, but it wasn't quite the summary of the book I would write.  But then, who would read the book if it was described as being about a man who runs off with his 12 year old stepdaughter after her mother's death, only so he can have his way with her?  There's more to it than that, of course, but that's the bare bones of it.

I nearly gave up on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.  The idea of reading a book about a pedophile, a man who lusts after and rapes a child, was not my idea of pleasure reading.  Still, I wanted to see what the fuss was about. The book is considered a classic and has been quite controversial over the years, appearing on many banned book lists.  I opted for the audio version even though I have a paper copy and am so glad I did.  I think I had a fuller appreciation for the novel as a result.

The book was initially published in Paris in 1955 and three years later in New York. At that time, Orville Prescott of the New York Times wrote of the novel:
"Lolita," then, is undeniably news in the world of books. Unfortunately, it is bad news. There are two equally serious reasons why it isn't worth any adult reader's attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.
I have to agree with Mr. Prescott on some level, although not in the way he likely meant his words.  Told from the first person perspective of Humbert Humbert, a middle aged literature professor, the novel does in fact have a rather "pretentious, florid and archly fatuous" air about it.  Humbert himself is all those things.  And that is what, in part, makes this novel stand out.  I see it less as a flaw, however, and more of what makes this book what it is.  I would not, however, agree that it is dull, at least not in its entirety. There were sections of the book I found my mind wandering as I listened, particularly when Lolita and Humbert were on the road.  Did I find the book repulsive?  Yes.  I'll give Prescott that.

I was quite impressed with the care and attention to detail Vladimir Nabokov put into the book.  It's beautifully written.  Jeremy Irons, as the narrator of the audio version I listened to, was a perfect choice to play the role of Humbert.  It was such a natural reading of the book that I forget at times I was listening to a book.  I understand he starred in a movie version of the book several years ago.  I haven't yet watched it and am still unsure I want to.  Still, I am curious.

Humbert Humbert, ever the unreliable narrator, was an interesting character to say the least. He isn't the kind of character the reader is meant to like.  He thinks he is witty; he is arrogant and egocentric.  While one minute he was fond of embellishment, the next he would honor honesty.  Humbert came across as reasonable at times but then quite mad at other times. He deluded himself much of the time and, I believe, only later was able to reflect on the truth of the situation and see it for what it was.  I appreciated how nuanced his character was.  In his own convoluted and obsessive way, I do believe he came to love Delores.

Was Lolita a victim or a young seductress?  The nickname Lolita has come mean a young seductress. You hear it in the media and see it referenced throughout modern literature.  Humbert Humbert would have us believe Lolita seduced him.  Having worked professionally with pedophiles who have said the same thing about their victims, some as young as six, I was less inclined to take Humbert's version at face value.  It is very telling too when Delores, near the end of the book, makes a statement about Humbert having broken her life.

I do wish, as the reader, I could have known Delores better.  So much of what I learned about her was through Humbert Humbert's eyes.  She was all at once beautiful and flighty and worldly and innocent.  He romanticized her, painting her as he wanted to see her--and as he probably had convinced himself she was.  It wasn't until one of the chapters near the end which I felt I got a more true glimpse of the girl.  My heart broke for her.  Her youth was snatched away from her and she was forced into a life no child, however young or old, should ever have to live.

What I admire most about the novel is the artistry of the writing and of the story.  I can truly see why Nabokov favored this book so much.  It must have been a challenge to write on many different levels.  My hat goes off to him for making me, in the end, like a book I was sure I would hate, even despite a main character who is pathetic and despicable and a story that made me queasy.

Source: I purchased an audio edition of the book for my reading pleasure. 

Have you read Lolita?  If so, what did you think?


© 2012, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved. If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review which was great. I have not read Lolita for the same reasons you were reluctant to read it. I used to work with molested children and the thought of spending time in my reading life with a pedophile has never appealed to me...but now, after reading your review, I'm wondering if I should read this classic after all. Will have to re-think it.

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    1. Wendy - It was a disturbing read. I have read a few books written from the perspective of sociopaths and the like and, while disturbing and horrible in their own right, nothing quite affected me quite the way this book did. Maybe because I've worked with people like Humbert Humbert and Lolita so they are more "real" to me.

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  2. Oh my, this sounds like it could have been snatched from today's headlines. I have a feeling reading it would upset me.

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    1. Kathy - Yes, it very well could! I read somewhere that part of the lure of the book is its commentary of society at the time the book was written--but it still holds relevance today. I guess that's why it's a classic, eh?

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  3. Your review was quite eloquent, and I appreciated it very much! I also haven't touched this one, mainly because I have a teenage daughter, and it makes my stomach turn. But if what you say about it is true, there may be more to parse out of this story than the first impressions that so inflame people. You have made me think. I might have to try this one on audio and see what I think.

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    1. Heather - Thank you! I hate trying to review classics. I nearly did put this one down because it was getting to me, but I am glad I kept with it. I do recommend the audio version, if you decide you want to try it. :-)

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  4. What an awesome review!! I have tossed around the idea of reading this more than once. Now you review has me thinking of listening to it instead!

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    1. Staci - I kept saying I'd read it and even bought the book, but never could bring myself to start it. I think listening to the audiobook made it easier for me--although it did take me a while to get through it all.

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  5. This is the one book on all of the "must-read" lists that means I'll never complete those lists. I just can't do it - I'm not brave enough.

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    1. Carrie - There are quite a few books on that "must-read" list I feel the same way about!

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  6. You know, I've thought about reading this before, but the thought has always made me a little uncomfortable for reasons like you mentioned. But you're quite convincing! I think I should give this a try sometime.

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    1. Amy - I think it's worth giving a try if you can. It wasn't quite what I expected in the end.

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  7. I read Lolita many years ago with a book group and we all loved it. His skill is amazing, right? I have his book Ada, which someone told me was better, but I haven't gotten to it yet.
    I know I watched the movie with Jeremy Irons, but for some reason I don't remember if I liked it.

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    1. Stacy - Yes, Nabokov is quite talented! I will be curious to hear what you think of Ada.

      I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the movie yet.

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