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Book Review: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

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Lolita. It’s been on my to read pile for a while now. It is a novel that, with reputation and all, stands as one of the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century. Not that I appeal to authority, but given the book’s literary presence, in no way do I think Lolita qualifies as one of the 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century. It’s a good book certainly, but much of its reputation, I have to believe, is due to the controversial subject matter for its day, as well as critics cribbing from one another their overpraise for the book.

First of all, putting the story aside, Lolita begins with one of the absolute worst openings in literary history. It’s right up there with “It was a dark and stormy night.” Don’t believe me? Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. Barf. Two clichés and we’re not even done with the first sentence. Yet, after this burp, the prose is quite eloquent and well written. In fact, Lolita is a very good novel, yet what keeps it from being great is that the lead character, Humbert, is a dull and dirty old man with minimal complexity. So he likes young girls. And? Likewise, Lolita is a rather petulant brat, so it becomes clear that character complexity is not really Nabokov’s strength, as it is with someone like Chekhov, for example.

Yet what is his strength is the eloquence of the prose itself, as well as his pleasant description:

    And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defined with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

One can clearly see that the speaker (in this case, Humbert) has a natural way with words, and this only assists in conveying his erudite and pompous manner (he sounds like a typical, annoying college professor – you know, the type who enjoys quoting obscure passages in order to sound intelligent). And Lolita is nothing more than an object suited for his own pleasure, referring to her as a “nymphet.” Yet I have to give Humbert credit – at least he’s not misleading the readers into thinking that he actually cares for her.

So here’s some of what happens: Humbert, who is at a personal loss after having his first love die years earlier, ends up renting from a woman who happens to have this really attractive child daughter, Dolores (Lolita). Dolores’ mother is annoying yet Humbert marries her anyway so he can be close to her daughter. His infatuation with Lolita begins immediately, and so he keeps a diary recording all the lust he feels for her until Charlotte (Dolores’ mother) finds it. Eventually, Charlotte dies and Humbert goes to retrieve Lolita, telling her that her mother is alive but ill. They go on a cross-country trip, fornicate, etc., till the young girl learns he lied to her about her mother. She in turn resents him, but has nowhere to go, and ultimately has to depend on him. Eventually, through some turn of events, Lolita ends up married and pregnant by another man at the age of 17 (and without a doubt, much less attractive in Humbert’s eyes).

Of course, while all these events are taking place, Humbert is contemplating Lolita’s beauty and how she will lose it once she is no longer a nymphet. His thoughts towards her are no doubt repulsive, yet Nabokov does an excellent job normalizing it all. After a while, readers become used to Humbert’s childish fantasies, since Humbert spends such a great deal of time rationalizing it. In Humbert’s world, it all makes sense.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects to the story are the multiple names Lolita has, thereby illuminating the point that she is viewed as a different person by different people. She is Lolita to Humbert, Lo to her mother, her friends call her Dolly at school, and when she marries she takes on her birth name: Dolores.

    She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

It’s never really about Lolita the individual per se, but about how she is viewed by others. Having said that, Lolita herself is nothing more than a narrative tool, used to propel the desires within Humbert’s mind. This becomes the crux of the book, since the entire story is his memoir.

The only flaw I can offer is that the narrative does tend to plod on a bit towards the end, and such is what makes Lolita a very good book rather than a great one. Also, my mention that Humbert is really nothing more than a dirty, pathetic old man — albeit more insightful than average — makes for shortcomings that limit the deeper resonance his character can have. Though that’s not to say there aren’t moments of greater depth. Here’s a good moment that shows off his insight:

    There are two kinds of visual memory: one when you skillfully recreate an image in the laboratory of your mind, with your eyes open … and the other when you instantly evoke, with shut eyes, on the dark innerside of your eyelids, the objective, absolutely optical replica of a beloved face, a little ghost in natural colors (and this is how I see Lolita).

Yet even despite his eloquence and education, Humbert is shallow and unlikable. Of course, one does not need to “like” a lead character in order for a book to succeed, but since this tale is only told from Humbert’s point of view, we are not given multiple viewing angles the way Dreiser does in Sister Carrie (a book also about shallow characters, yet the narrative steps away from this). Although emotion holds no place in criticism, I admire Lolita for its strengths, yet it is not a book I particularly enjoyed reading.

Also, the chapters did not use their brevity to their advantage. The short sections reminded me of the style used in Evan S. Connell’s Mr. & Mrs. Bridge. Yet, Connell is better at distilling his scenes than Nabokov, he is better at character development, and really getting into the root of a person. I am inclined to guess that Connell might have been influenced by Lolita’s structure, yet Connell went beyond Nabokov. Mrs. Bridge is no literary scholar, and far from being the deepest person on the planet, yet Connell is able to convey a depth to her that Nabokov could not.

So I leave you, readers, with Lolita – a book worth the exploration, but given such lofty reputation, it is likely to leave one disappointed, even if only slightly.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • Joe A

    I would disagree with much if not most of this review. Certainly what drives Humbert’s lust at one level is shallow, but Humbert, like most men, never realizes this about himself. And Lolita was a lot more than a mere “tool” or a device for Nabokov’s purple plush. She was a young woman who, behind the back of Humbert’s prose, turned out to be her own person, with her own dreams and desires, tough and extraordinarily resilient under the circumstances, especially the tragic one not mentioned in the review; Lolita’s witty, heartbreaking, and absolutely one of my favorite all time characters. The first line may be a barfalicious cliche to this critic, but it represents a complex stylistic narrative strategy for N.–the book walks a remarkable line between a kind of sincere passionate romance and a freaked out, hopped up satirical parody of it. Numerous readers in the past, unlike this critic, have found Humbert criminal, certainly, but extremely amusing and charismatic as well, not least of which because of the smart and ruthless way he funs the shallowness of American culture, its manner of canning all truth and genuine value into commercials, musicals, and good personal hygiene–in fact this critic seems not to have noticed any of the book’s savage black humor, the way it toys with a reader’s expectations and says and does what most writers simply refuse to let themselves say. One of the great surprises of the book is that Humbert’s perversion turns out to connect with readers on so many levels that I couldn’t even begin to count them here, and which makes him a thousand times more real than the thin creatures of most books, certainly any of the turgid melodramatic flaccidly written ones in Sister Carrie! The idea of trying to flog Nabokov’s great novel with that brick of mediocrity is simply absurd.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “Certainly what drives Humbert’s lust at one level is shallow, but Humbert, like most men, never realizes this about himself.”

    Joe, all lust on all levels is shallow. That’s why it is called lust and not love.

    “And Lolita was a lot more than a mere “tool” or a device for Nabokov’s purple plush. She was a young woman who, behind the back of Humbert’s prose, turned out to be her own person, with her own dreams and desires, tough and extraordinarily resilient under the circumstances, especially the tragic one not mentioned in the review;”

    I never claimed the prose to be “purple plush”–you did. Also, the point is that all of Lolita’s “dreams” are only told through Humbert’s eyes. This is about Humbert, not Lolita. She is not a that well developed a character, though that’s not my criticism. The flaw lies within Humbert’s lack of complexity. Try reading the Bridge Books and you’ll see what I mean.

    “The first line may be a barfalicious cliche to this critic, but it represents a complex stylistic narrative strategy for N.–the book walks a remarkable line between a kind of sincere passionate romance and a freaked out, hopped up satirical parody of it.”

    It’s amazing what one will do to defend a bad line. Joe, it’s not a matter of being a cliche to me, the line is bad and has 2 cliches period. I don’t care who writes it. A cliche is a cliche and you’re defending the author’s intent because you like the book. Fair enough to like it, but a cliche is still a cliche.

    “Lolita’s witty, heartbreaking, and absolutely one of my favorite all time characters. ”

    So what? She’s still a petulant brat. Again, you like her, but should I or anyone care that you like her?

    And I never said that I didn’t find Humbert charismatic.

    “One of the great surprises of the book is that Humbert’s perversion turns out to connect with readers on so many levels that I couldn’t even begin to count them here, and which makes him a thousand times more real than the thin creatures of most books,”

    And here’s what I said: “His thoughts towards her are no doubt repulsive, yet Nabokov does an excellent job normalizing it all. After a while, readers become used to Humbert’s childish fantasies, since Humbert spends such a great deal of time rationalizing it. In Humbert’s world, it all makes sense.”

    Show me where I disagree with you on this point.

    “certainly any of the turgid melodramatic flaccidly written ones in Sister Carrie! ”

    And here’s what I said:

    “we are not given multiple viewing angles the way Dreiser does in Sister Carrie (a book also about shallow characters, yet the narrative steps away from this).”

    My point is that the book fails to be great because Humbert is simply not that interesting nor complex a character, and while Sister Carrie is shallow in the Dreiser novel, we are given a narrative that removes itself from it by Dreiser switching the story and making it about Hurstwood and the values he learns instead. He grows but by then it is too late. That you would call Sister Carrie a mediocrity is absurd in itself, because nowhere in Sister Carrie are there such bad lines as that of the one that opens this book. If you actually read my review, you’d see that I am not claiming Lolita to be in any way a bad book (though the story line, I am sorry to inform you, is trite, albeit better written) I’m just saying it’s not the masterpiece that its reputation claims it to be. And by your arguments, it still isn’t.

  • Andrew B.

    The aesthetics of the prose suffices to make it a masterpiece.

  • Lisa Solod Warren

    Oh, dear. Nabokov wrote the damned cliche. He made it. Lolita remains one of the most amazing books written. The prose, indeed, makes it a masterpiece.

  • Rodney Welch

    Jessica, you missed the boat.

    This fact becomes obvious as soon as you say that Humbert lacks complexity. Oh, he’s complex alright; you just have to open your eyes, read between the lines, re-read and re-think. It’s dangerous business saying Nabokov isn’t complex about, oh, anything, because he out-thinks you in ways you’ve never thought of, and his books always seem so much more simple than they really are.

    First, you have the opening lines wrong. Please, please, please tell me you read the introduction by the so-called John Ray, Ph.D., in which Nabokov very subtly tells us that our heroine will wind up dead?

    As to the book proper, so to speak — how can the opening sentence be cliched when no one has ever said it before? Sure, somewhere alone the line someone wrote “light of my life” and I guess someone said “fire of my loins” (any idea who?) but this line put light and fire, spirit and flesh, together, then echoed it with the next sentence: “My sin, my soul.” And then the rest, a marvelous depiction of sound: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

    Lush and ornate, yes, but cliched? No, sorry — Nabokov’s protagonists may be evil, insensitive and stupid, but they always have a compelling writing style.

    One paragraph and you have Humbert commenting on both the dual nature of his own obsession — that he lusts for her beauty and her life — as well as revealing it: even the pronunciation of her name does not escape his meticulous notice.

    It’s one of the great opening paragraphs in literary history and one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century: a book so intricate that, like Lolita itself, it becomes a matter of obsession with one reader after another.

    “Lolita” is one of those books which, the more you read it, only seems to get stranger and more complex. For me, personally, I’ve often found myself wondering just on which stage of reality the book exists: is there really a Humbert, really a Lolita? From the beginning, we learn that Humbert is an assumed name, and the chronicle he spins has all the earmarks of an unreliable narrator — such as the inclusion of a reconstructed diary that has long since been literally flushed away — but there’s something else going on, too, which is that he seems to be caught in a web, that he’s at the mercy of a cruel authorial god who seems to be making him jump through hoops and occasionally leaves his signature inside the book (Vivian Darkbloom, a.k.a. Vladimir Nabokov.)

    I find myself wondering, repeatedly, what the “real” story behind the story is: is Humbert actually also Quilty? (“He looks like you, Dad,” as Lo says at one point.) Is there an Ur-story — about a man who killed the thing he loved — merely dressed it up in novel form?

    Nabokov’s stories and novels are often about people who aren’t aware of why they do what they do, of how their lives seem controlled, predestined, moved by forces beyond their control, like the professor in “The Vane Sisters” who discovers his very story has been infected by ghosts, or Charles Kinbote, in “Pale Fire,” whose own insane commentary may actually be the result of huge posthumous joke by his famous poet friend.

    You may not like this book well enough to pursue it further, but if you do, consider Alfred Appel’s “The Annotated Lolita,” which maps out all of Nabokov’s jokes, puns, obscure references, and structural linkages.

    It’s one of the most complex novels ever.

    P.S. I visited your blog and am happy to report that you are not the befuddled dunderhead that this silly and shallow review suggests.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “he out-thinks you in ways you’ve never thought of,”

    Ha, I seriously doubt this.

    “First, you have the opening lines wrong. Please, please, please tell me you read the introduction by the so-called John Ray, Ph.D., in which Nabokov very subtly tells us that our heroine will wind up dead?”

    I quoted the lines as they appear in my edition, and didn’t rely on the critical cribbing from some academic. And they are both cliches. The reason they are cliches is because they have been overused throughout the centuries. If you can’t recognize this you need to read more. You have better arguments for the book than the others have but your ‘silly and shallow’ claim here undercuts that you’re not a dunderhead yourself:

    “Sure, somewhere alone the line someone wrote “light of my life” and I guess someone said “fire of my loins” (any idea who?) but this line put light and fire, spirit and flesh, together, then echoed it with the next sentence: “My sin, my soul.”

    I count on readers being smart enough to recognize that “Light of my life fire of my loins” are melodramatic cliches. Your reasons for justifying them are merely a defense of the author’s intent. What matters is what is on the page and the opening is atrocious. The line, however, about the pronouncing of her name is good–and he should have opened with that.

    “It’s one of the great opening paragraphs in literary history”

    No it does not. See reason above.

    It is true that Humbert is an unreliable narrator, but perhaps I’ve been spoiled by great writing. The Remains of the Day is a better book than this. The Bridge Books are both better books than this. If you want lush prose, try Loren Eiseley or Thomas Wolfe. Lolita is not as complex as anything I’ve read from Chekhov.

    “that he’s at the mercy of a cruel authorial god who seems to be making him jump through hoops and occasionally leaves his signature inside the book (Vivian Darkbloom, a.k.a. Vladimir Nabokov.)”

    This sounds like critical cribbing (speaking of cliches) and the old flaw of relying on author’s biography for meaning in an artistic work.

    “”The Annotated Lolita,” which maps out all of Nabokov’s jokes, puns, obscure references, and structural linkages.”

    Again, so what about obscure references? None of this will make the work any better.

    “It’s one of the most complex novels ever.”

    With one of the tritest story lines ever.

    “I visited your blog and am happy to report that you are not the befuddled dunderhead that this silly and shallow review suggests.”

    That at least shows that not all of your mind has been rotted by academia.

  • Rodney Welch

    “Ha, I seriously doubt this,” you say, and immediately go on to prove the opposite by saying: “I quoted the lines as they appear in my edition, and didn’t rely on the critical cribbing from some academic.”

    This indicates to me you are completely unaware that the book has a famously false introduction by a fake individual named John Ray, Ph.D., whom you have apparently mistaken as “some academic.” So … you’ve basically just skipped the first “real” chapter, right?

    Nabokov always outs the superficial readers in his audience — the ones who don’t know the difference between a cliche and a cliche turned on its head, or between lushness and adolescent whimpering, or who are deeply suspicious of something called “academic cribbing” when faced with what they don’t understand, or who fail to see that not only are Nabokov’s labyrinth of cross-references a matter of great intellectual fun, but yield additional layers of interpretation, or that a fine stylist like Ishiguro is simply not quite the same league as a genius like Nabokov. Indeed, Ishiguro — who no longer thinks that highly of “Remains of the Day” — would, I suspect, be horribly embarrassed by your comment. Flattered, but embarrassed.

    In short, you are not a good reader of Nabokov, and no one who has read Nabokov, or who will, has anything to learn from you.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Rodney, you sound like an obsessed fan. Artifice or not, the notation of “Ph.D” indicates academic. Again, intention means nothing. The book begins with Part One followed by chapter 1. Even if you can argue your point about the intro crap, that doesn’t change the fact that “Light of my life, fire of my loins” is a cliche that you defend. You are not a good reader. Period.

    “the ones who don’t know the difference between a cliche and a cliche turned on its head,”

    That was not a cliche turned on its head. You wouldn’t even know one if you saw it. Try reading “Sonnet for a Writer” by James Emanuel for an example of that.

    “or who are deeply suspicious of something called “academic cribbing” when faced with what they don’t understand,”

    You were the one bringing up obscure references and non-relevant topics like this: “that he’s at the mercy of a cruel authorial god who seems to be making him jump through hoops and occasionally leaves his signature inside the book (Vivian Darkbloom, a.k.a. Vladimir Nabokov.)”

    This means nothing when dealing with the work itself.

    Your obsession is made even more clear here:

    “or that a fine stylist like Ishiguro is simply not quite the same league as a genius like Nabokov”

    The fact that you throw around words like ‘genius’ shows you don’t understand a thing about creativity. It’s about greatness, not genius.

    “Indeed, Ishiguro — who no longer thinks that highly of “Remains of the Day”

    Even if this were true, so what. He’d be wrong to dismiss it. That, an Artist of the Floating World are his 2 best works, if he can’t see that, that’s his problem. Many a great writers were not known for understanding their own stuff or being good critics themselves. Bergman is known for dismissing Orson Welles. So what? He’s wrong. A great artist, but bad critic.

    “In short, you are not a good reader of Nabokov, and no one who has read Nabokov, or who will, has anything to learn from you.”

    And no one will learn a thing listening to your own babble about ‘genius’ and ‘masterpiece’ and obscure references and dismissing the ‘real’ readers with brains who question things and don’t rely on intent from the obsessed sycophants like yourself.

  • Rodney Welch

    *”intention means nothing”

    *”the intro crap”

    *”non-relevant topics like this: “that he’s at the mercy of a cruel authorial god who seems to be making him jump through hoops and occasionally leaves his signature inside the book”…This means nothing.

    I’m afraid this discussion has met its end, as I am faced with a child who insistently genuflects before the priesthood of her own limited judgement, and has drifted too far in the delusion of being a “‘real’ reader with brains” to hear my shouts from the shore.

    I can argue Nabokov, but there’s no arguing with a Nabokov character.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “I can argue Nabokov, but there’s no arguing with a Nabokov character.”

    But I thought they were so complex.

    “I’m afraid this discussion has met its end”

    Thank God for that. I don’t see the point arguing with someone who defends cliches and obsesses over every wrinkle and fart a writer makes, declaring it ‘genius’.

    Intent in art is meaningless. The bios are irrelevant. All that matters is what’s on the page, Rod. Maya Angelou might have great intention but when doggerel is the result, who cares?

    But save these arguments for the 5 befuddled dunderheads per month who might read your blog. Nearing 600 profile reads since 2002. That’s quite a feat.

  • Leslie Bohn

    Ms. Schnieder:

    The commenters above have tried to explain to you that you haven’t actually read the book you’ve tried to review here.

    The book starts with a “foreword” by a FAKE academic. Get it? Nabokov HIMSELF wrote this introduction; it’s the actual first chapter of the book, not just “some cribbing from an academic.” THERE IS NO JOHN RAY, JR.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Ms. Bohn:

    Your “insights” do not add anything to this discussion, now over. Does it not occur to you that I have argued with Rodney types before and I knew exactly where he would lead next? I am very well aware that Nabokov wrote the into. Yet in light of the argument, that point holds no heft against the cliche that Rodney defends.

  • Leslie Bohn

    Ms Schneider:

    Anyone who can read can see that you did not know that Nabokov wrote the intro:
    Comment 8:
    Artifice or not, the notation of “Ph.D” indicates academic. Again, intention means nothing. The book begins with Part One followed by chapter 1.

    This statement is wrong.

    You seem like a very unpleasant person, and now are exposed as untruthful.

    Thanks for getting back to me in a really big hurry, though — 13 minutes. You must have been checking in quite diligently for comments. Wonder why you would do that when the discussion is “now over.”

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Sweet thang,

    “Artifice or not, the notation of “Ph.D” indicates academic. Again, intention means nothing. The book begins with Part One followed by chapter 1.”

    what is the first word in that sentence? What does artifice mean? Again, following the thread of Rodney’s earlier claim, how does this negate the point about the cliches that begin chapter 1?

    “This statement is wrong.”

    This statement is correct.

    “You seem like a very unpleasant person, and now are exposed as untruthful.”

    Then what does that mean for a supplicant to one?

    “Thanks for getting back to me in a really big hurry, though — 13 minutes. You must have been checking in quite diligently for comments. Wonder why you would do that when the discussion is “now over.””

    Again, sweet thang, in case you don’t already realize, these comments get emailed to me in my inbox. And likewise, you responded in 11. Again, I’ll ask, what does this mean for you?

  • Leslie Bohn

    Ms. Schneider:

    I guess you are attempting a Nabokovian “unreliable narrator” character here, some sort of overtly hostile doppelganger or something, so I’ll bow out. Been done.

  • Joe A

    I cannot believe you thought Leslie Bohn’s comments were better than mine! Although she certainly caught you out on the fact you didn’t realize the intro was actually part of the novel. In response to your response to me, though, I would ask: how can Lolita be a mere “tool” as you said, and then also a “petulant brat”. I mean super willful brats are not usually all that maleable, by definition. Also, since you’re not saying it’s an artistic flaw that we only get to know Lolita through a first person confession, I’m not sure what your problem is. Did you read the afterward? What did you think of N’s ideas about the ape in its cage drawing the bars of its own confinement? Why again, exactly, do you think Humbert is lacking in complexity as a character? I thought you were referring simply to his sexual obssessions, but throughout the comments it looks like what you’re saying is that he’s simply flat, which is a weird thing to think about someone who’s so so freaky, and who ranges over quite a plethora of subjects, immortality, love, betrayal, law, parenthood, shakespeare, murder etc. What did you think of Joyce’s Bloom or Deadalus? And as I understand it, you concede Humbert’s charisma, just that he’s not very complex, kind of like the Charisma Carpenter character on TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel? As for the “light of my life” sentence as cliche, I don’t think I was arguing about mere “authorial intent”, which for some reason you’re allergic to, but the dramatic context of the language. I’m sure you would agree that no sentence’s meaning in a novel exists without the other sentences surrounding it–in which case no sentence in a novel could therefore be a cliche pure and simple. True, you didn’t claim it was purple plush; but neither did I–that was my interpretation of what you meant when you called it a dreadful cliche, which it’s not–and as another commentator pointed out, and you demonstrated, you can’t quote another version of that opening, even from all your vast reading in nineteenth century literature. I would agree with you that it’s certainly romantic and over-dramatic, but I thought this, to put things differently, was a part of the character’s apparently non-existent complexity, his self-dramatization ironically spoiled over and over again by his hypocrisy and his own sociopathy. I like that you use words like fart and barf in your criticism, I just wish you knew what crap really was, like say, Sister Carrie. Talk about dusty melodramatic Cliches! Please talk about them. P.S. I read your review twice before responding to it the first time, fully absorbing its “ideas”, and would only add that the quotes you marshalled to stave off my objectively correct arguments had nothing to do with what I was trying to suggest. When I said that Humbert’s obsession connects with readers on all kinds of levels, for instance, I was not referring to the normalizing of the situation through the context (note that word) of the character’s justifications and various descriptions, but was talking mainly about something higher, the frustrated dreams of transcending life’s limitations all of us feel, themes dominant from Quixote to Bovary to Gatsby, and which are ruined by niggling realities and contingencies none could foresee, save the fact of their coming into being is always foreseeable. This is fun.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Joe:

    “Although she certainly caught you out on the fact you didn’t realize the intro was actually part of the novel.”

    Leslie could not locate the snot in her own nose. A simple Google search reveals the identity behind the Forward and the “tricks” Nabokov uses. Though the novel we speak of is Humbert’s memoir, and that begins with chapter 1. The Forward is just flourish, likely written to give critics something to yank themselves over as Rodney loves doing so well.

    “Why again, exactly, do you think Humbert is lacking in complexity as a character?”

    I explained this already. You’re better off explaining what makes him so complex. Write your own essay on it.

    “I’m sure you would agree that no sentence’s meaning in a novel exists without the other sentences surrounding it–in which case no sentence in a novel could therefore be a cliche pure and simple.”

    Yes a cliche is a cliche because of how something is used in context. If someone has a “bleeding heart” because they’ve been shot, it’s not a cliche because you’re dealing with the literal, matter of fact. But use that in a love poem and it’s crap. The way the “light of my life, fire of my loins” is used in this novel is very trite because it’s taken seriously by the speaker. It’s the introductory “moment” and it sucks. You wouldn’t know this was a trash romance, going by that opening sentence.

    “True, you didn’t claim it was purple plush; but neither did I–that was my interpretation of what you meant”

    Wow, you willfully admitting to distorting what I’m saying? No way! Next you’ll bring up the damn forward again. Yawn.

    “he Charisma Carpenter character on TV’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel?”

    I wouldn’t know, I don’t watch Sesame Street either.

    “the frustrated dreams of transcending life’s limitations all of us feel, themes dominant from Quixote to Bovary to Gatsby, and which are ruined by niggling realities and contingencies none could foresee, save the fact of their coming into being is always foreseeable”

    And all this is great intention, but it’s the execution that matters. Of those names you mentioned, each are expressed at different levels of quality. The crap film “Crash” has similar motivations, but it sucks ass. As does “The Hours” or any Hollywood Hemorrhoid put out in the last decade.

    “Sister Carrie. Talk about dusty melodramatic Cliches!”

    You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Dreiser is exceptionally fresh but I’m not going to be the one to teach you what cliche means.

    “This is fun.”

    YAWN. You people bore me.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    I will make one observation that I think is worth noting. Today, young women go on various sites and practically masturbate for the camera. But many years ago, when “Lolita” came out, it was the kind of book one did not leave out on the coffee table. And while there has always been pornography of one variety or another available, it was not so easily available when Lolita was published, and at the time, “Lolita” itself was regarded by many as pornography.

    This has been missed entirely by all those commenting on Nabokov’s novel, including, especially including, the reviewer, who should know something of the book he or she reviews. Its subject matter – holding a young girl hostage and fornicating with her – was considered salacious once. It is a comment on American society’s low moral standards that it is so banal today. Wonder why there are so many kids missing whose pictures are on milk cartons today, eh?

    I read this book many years ago because of its salacious reputation. I didn’t enjoy it all. I was looking for something in it that was not there – raw sex. Nabokov did not write a work of pornography, but the standards of the day made it seem so to this reader when he read it.

    I do not have the luxury of time to read this book today and possibly enjoy what there is to enjoy in it – the black humor and the prose.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Joe, Of all the many approaches to the novel, what you aptly call the “frustrated dreams of transcending life’s limitations” is one that continues to make the book burn in the memory, particularly as a person ages.

    I forget who the critic was who said that Lolita represents for Humbert an island of youth — something from which he’s been cut off and to which he can never return. Humbert can possess Lolita physically, but he can’t make her love him, and can’t be part of her world, at least not in the way he wants. What he wants is a rerun of his own belated Annabel Lee episode, without the interruption — and, of course, it can’t be done.

    Another theme, closely related: death. Martin Amis has pointed out that death runs throughout the book. Humbert, as he is writing, dreams of the past even as he drifts into the abyss of the future (he himself will die, not long after finishing the book, of course, as John Ray tells us early on.)

    Part of Lolita’s appeal for Humbert is that she’s at an age where she will not remain, somewhere between child and woman, in that brief space of time before adulthood, where Humbert is haplessly mired forever. Lolita has the essential quality of true beauty: impermanence. Like a rose, Lolita’s great appeal for Humbert is that her beauty won’t last. I think this is what Wallace Stevens meant when he wrote that “Death is the mother of beauty.”

    Nabokov alludes to this distance between Lolita and Humbert throughout the book, such as that passage quoted in Jessica’s review — “her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad’s,” which of course refers to the last lines of Housman’s “To An Athlete Dying Young”: “find unwithered on its curls/The garland briefer than a girl’s.” The only way for Lolita to stay young forever is to die, like Housman’s athlete — before age, rot and remorse take their inevitable toll.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Ruvy:

    I state this in my review, opening paragraph:

    “It’s a good book certainly, but much of its reputation, I have to believe, is due to the controversial subject matter for its day, as well as critics cribbing from one another their overpraise for the book.”

    Rodney, you’re back. It’s been awhile. Housman was a mediocre poet.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Ruvy, A lot of people still regard it as pornography, and think that it’s had a baneful effect on society because it somehow normalized an illicit relationship — although anyone who reads the book will quickly realize Humbert is not normal.

    Keep in mind, also, though, that there were a variety of provocative, trail-blazing books and movies in the 1950s, but it takes more than controversy to give something lasting merit. No one would ever list “And God Created Woman,” “Baby Doll” or “The Outlaw” on a list of the greatest movies ever made, for example, and “Tobacco Road” or “Fanny Hill” won’t appear on many lists of great novels, I wouldn’t think.

    “Lolita” still raises eyebrows, but beneath the salacious surface is a novel of desire, entrapment, death, and art — “the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    P.S. Just glanced at the Modern Library List of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century. “Tobacco Road” made the cut at 91. Anyway, you get my point.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    That list is lame. There are also many mediocre and bad titles on there as well. Where is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Thomas Wolfe? Yet they have Finnegans Wake among other disasters.

    But what do you know, Sister Carrie made it!

  • zingzing

    finnegans wake, a disaster? how would you know? read it?

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I think “Look Homeward, Angel” is fighting for first place with “Of Human Bondage” on the list for Most Unreadable 100 Novels of the 20th Century. But, what ho, look, here’s “Sophie’s Choice” nipping at their heels…

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “finnegans wake, a disaster? how would you know? read it?”

    Yup. Though I wouldn’t exactly call that “readable text”. And if Joyce hadn’t written it, where would it be then?

  • zingzing

    it would probably be on a bookshelf with another author’s name on it. it’s a remarkable work, if, as you say, not exactly readable in any sort of common way.

    it’s a nearly unfathomable work, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? i’m not going to say that i’ve read every bit of it, and i tend to doubt those who say they have–but someone must have, i guess. still, it is beautiful in small doses.

    with a lifetime of study, it might even be understandable. of course, once one breaks down one meaning, another possible interpretation arises, and you’re back to square one (or you’re on square two, but there’s another square at the end).

    that’s not what i call “a disaster.” it’s writing as music, and language as art.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “it’s writing as music, and language as art.”

    If this is what you’re looking for, I’d suggest Wallace Stevens or any great poet. Hell, even Dubliners.

    Though it would be quite funny if Oprah picked FW for her book club. Imagine trying to balance that with Suze Orman.

  • zingzing

    while i agree that stevens certainly fits that description (as does dubliners, at times), i’d still have to say that finnegans wake does it in a different way, and with more obvious intent.

    it’s not even supposed to be READ in a traditional manner– he doesn’t ask you to begin on the first page, as it all circles around anyway. you can pick up it anywhere in its course, but it won’t matter, because it’s like trying to hold water.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    so characters are not allowed to speak in cliches?

    You are certainly entitled to think the book isn’t great, but that might say more about you then the book, which would explain your overly defensive and nasty attitude in the comments.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “so characters are not allowed to speak in cliches?”

    Why in the world would you want characters who speak in cliches? Yet for someone supposedly as learned as Humbert, I don’t recommend it.

    “which would explain your overly defensive and nasty attitude in the comments.”

    Wiggle your finger around in a tiger’s cage and watch what happens.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    zingzing — “Writing as music” definitely applies to Joyce, whose writing has an enormous melodic sense to it, where words become notes and sentences become chords. You can definitely see that in the last page of “The Dead” and in the last section of “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

    The last time I read the novel I noticed something, that the book’s famous penultimate sentence had been introduced, piecemeal, in the pages leading up to it. You start seeing certain select words and the ideas they represent gradually over several pages: forging, soul, recreate, consciousness, race, O life, before he pulls them altogether in a kind of grand symphonic chorus on the last page: O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

  • zingzing

    oi. don’t get me started on joyce. he was my favorite writer when i was in college (still is one of my favorites, of course), but i could never write about him as well as i wanted to. he’s overwhelming at times.

    that sentence you posted was enough to give me chills. i really need to read portrait again. i’ve got dubliners sitting in my living room right now, and plan on re-reading it… well, it was soon, but now it’s next. it’s such a shame he didn’t put out more.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    But who can exhaust — I mean really exhaust — the four major works he left behind, especially the last one, which defeats me every time I pick it up?

  • Jake

    Finnegan’s Wake also defeated me. I put it down after about 40 or 60 pages.

  • Phillip

    Let’s say that someone – someone who cares a lot about books, and therefore has strong opinions (they usually go together) – thinks a book is great. If they read criticism of this book, they take it personally (they shouldn’t, but they do). It’s as if their judgement, their perceptions, their intelligence are being criticized. This raises their hackles, and off we go.
    Long, long ago, when I first opened the pages of Lolita, in a Grove mass market paperback, I began reading with a fairly clean slate. Its reputation, at that time, was primarily of being a dirty book, but I very soon knew it wasn’t.
    Jessica, on the other hand, began reading it when it was heavy with extravagant praise. This elevated status can effect one’s mind set in different ways. Two extremes: one person can slavishly see greatness in every word; another will start out with a hyper-critical attitude. I think Jessica leaned toward the latter – had a “Show me” attitude. There’s nothing wrong with that, if you truly do allow the author to show you. Mr. Nabokov didn’t show Jessica greatness. And I believe she could have been won over (she is won over, to a degree). She’s not the only person who didn’t care all that much for Lolita; another was the preeminent critic of his time, Edmund Wilson.
    But, back to my first pristine reading. The nine grandiose words that begin Humbert’s narrative didn’t slow me down a bit. Now I’ve looked at them more closely. Are they cliches? I guess they are, but I don’t have a problem with cliches, not if they’re used for a purpose. Humbert is throwing it all at you, and that includes words commonly used to describe an outsized emotion. The context matters. Jessica says that what follows is “quite eloquent.” She even gives us an excerpt from that opening, ending with “But in my arms she was always Lolita.” But even that sentence doesn’t stand out; you need to start at the beginning of the paragraph for those words to take on weight: “She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock.” (Etc. – read it all; it’s a wonderful paragraph, as are all the excerpts Jessica uses.)
    As a young man, finishing Lolita, I thought I had read a truly great novel. When I reread it, maybe twenty years later, it was still alive, exhilarating; it was still fascinating to occupy the complex, warped interstices of Humbert Humbert’s mind. It had lost nothing. After Lolita I read eight books by Nabokov (two others I started but didn’t like). I think I know the man.
    He’s not a writer one can love; he doesn’t try for the reader’s love; in fact, I think he sets out to do the opposite – to alienate, to repulse. There is not a likeable character in Lolita. Why does Nabokov take this oppositional approach? I think it has to do with his very dark view of human nature, of life. The characters and their situations in his novels are often unpleasant, sometimes nightmarish.
    He’s a cruel writer (Charlotte’s death, the murder of Quilty; even the name Humbert Humbert is degrading); the book is often very funny, but it’s a cruel humor.
    I believe Humbert Humbert is a study in self-loathing (he and Lolita make their way across the country leaving a “sinuous trail of slime”). The book is about sexual obsession. It is not about love, as some have claimed. Humbert is not capable of love. His redeeming quality is, actually, his self-loathing, for he is aware of the wrong he does (“her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment I feigned sleep.”). In the introduction to another novel, Nabokov (the god-like creator) writes that “there is a green lane in paradise where Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year.” But the rest of his time must be spent in hell.
    So – how can one love the unlovable, the repellent? Some can’t; they remain outside the character. But when Nabokov writes, “Look at this tangle of thorns,” I not only looked, but I went into the tangle.

  • duane

    That’s a hell of a comment, Phillip. Very nicely done.

    And, of course, you’re quite right about people taking these things personally. It’s a more intellectual version of having your musical tastes impugned.

    My suspicion is that Nabokov is far too clever and complicated to be fully revealed by any one critic. He is mischievous and manipulative. I have read one professional critic claiming that Lo represents ‘new’ America and that Humbert represents ‘old’ Europe, and the whole thing is a drawn out allegory about his own evolving relationship with the ‘New World.’ Well, sure, why not? Nabokov would be, no doubt, amused.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Good response, but I disagree on several points.

    First, as I pointed out and Jessica was helpless to prove otherwise, “fire of my loins” seems to be a phrase that originated with Nabokov, so it’s hard to make the case it’s a cliche. Can someone prove it was used by 1958, let alone overused? Otherwise her argument lamely rests on four words — “light of my life” — the supposed triteness of which, as I also noted, was effectively diffused by its surroundings.

    Second, you are dead wrong that Nabokov cannot be loved — I love his novels and so do a LOT of others I read or talk with on a regular basis. They would all own up to being Nabokophiles. No doubt he created some disturbing characters, but his view of life and art is anything but dark. It’s rich and generous and inspiring.

    Third — how can you say there are no likable characters in the book when the title character is so immensely likeable? She certainly has appeal, evokes sympathy and interest.

    Fourth — It’s a love story. The man who sees Lolita at the end, when she is no longer a nymphet, when she’s pregnant and married and has no use for him or his money, that man does feel love for the person whose youth he destroyed. Humbert is not a character who redeems himself, but he is clearly not not incapable of shame or of love.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    “First, as I pointed out and Jessica was helpless to prove otherwise, “fire of my loins” seems to be a phrase that originated with Nabokov, so it’s hard to make the case it’s a cliche. Can someone prove it was used by 1958, let alone overused? Otherwise her argument lamely rests on four words — “light of my life” — the supposed triteness of which, as I also noted, was effectively diffused by its surroundings.”

    Rodney, in all your arguments you didn’t point out one unique idea of your own, only reinforce the obvious boner you have for this book. The use of “fire” to evoke passion or lust has been used for thousands of years. This should be obvious to someone claiming to be as “well read” as you do. (Perhaps you should read more and read better).

    Had he said “Fire of my heart” it still would have sucked. The line opens the book, this is supposed to be A SERIOUS MOMENT and what does the character do? He farts. The only way that phrase could be excused based upon its surroundings is if the character acknowledged that he was being trite, or chuckled to himself and started again, or was admitting to being tongue and cheek. But the character is not any of those things. “Fire of my loins” is a very bad and obvious cliche and Nabokov did not “invent” it. He has shown in later passages that he is capable of much better writing than that. The fact that you think he “invented” such nonsense shows you don’t know good writing from bad. What a surprise.

    “I love his novels”

    This is basically the core of your arguments thus far.

    “how can you say there are no likable characters in the book when the title character is so immensely likeable? She certainly has appeal, evokes sympathy and interest.”

    Phillip is 100% correct about this. Again, I cannot help the fact that you have a boner for Lolita. But she’s an annoying brat, Humbert is an annoying stiff, and Charlotte is just annoying period.

    Lolita is not a love story. It is no more of a love story than Romeo and Juliet–2 immature, impetuous teenagers. You really think that’s love? Humbert lives in his childish fantasies, he is selfish, Lolita is immature, demanding, manipulative, selfish and bratty. Again, not a good recipe for love.

    No one can argue with your “likes” but your defenses esp. about the opening line is absolutely wrong and shows you are clearly “helpless to prove otherwise” that you really understand anything regarding the creative process.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Jessica,

    As you no doubt can’t tell, my response was intended for a far less crude mind than yours. However, I’ll indulge you.

    “`Fire of my loins’ is a very bad and obvious cliche and Nabokov did not `invent’ it.”

    You keep saying this but you don’t prove it. If it’s so obvious, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to prove a) that he didn’t invent it or b) that it was a cliche by the time he did use it.

    “The use of “fire” to evoke passion or lust has been used for thousands of years.”

    No doubt, but merely referring to fire to connote lust does not necessarily make it a cliche; it’s the way you use it, and here he uses it in a particularly pointed, ornate, even comic sort of way, as becomes a comic novel.

    Alas, you cannot tell this is a comic novel; you think it is a high-caps serious one, and it’s easy to see why: Nabokov failed to resort to Picayune Rules for Writing Fiction So Plain Even Jessica Schneider Can Understand It, which apparently comes with an enclosed bullhorn, through which the author can announce intent so as not to escape a girl with the attention span of a gnat.

    According to Jessica’s edict, characters must acknowledge triteness, chuckle to himself and start again, or admit to being tongue and cheek.

    “But the character is not any of those things,” Jessica writes with characteristic petulance.

    Ah, the upstart behavior of fictional characters — always painful for self-professed experts on love and the creative process.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Wow, so I guess you’re back now for good?

    Rodney, I do not need to prove a cliche to you. If you are not well read enough to know that “light of my life” or “bleeding heart” or “walk into the light” or “fire of my loins/heart/crotch” is a cliche then you don’t understand poetry or writing at all. You’ve missed the boat and will never get it. That’s why you resort to pontificating on blogs b/c you have no ideas or insights of your own. Maybe in your little universe you can babble about Stevens or Ozu and people will be impressed, but not me. I see through your poseur tendencies.

    Yes one can return to classical ideas if they are phrased well in a fresh and new way. Nabokov does not do this. For a return to the classical, see Edna St. Vincent Millay. Yet what makes her poems good and Maya Angelou doggerel? Though “Fire of my loins” is not phrased well. Period. Get over it. Your ‘genius’ is flawed.

    “it’s the way you use it, and here he uses it in a particularly pointed, ornate, even comic sort of way, as becomes a comic novel.”

    There is nothing funny about that opening line. Not one iota of humor, Rodney. It is the introduction to the character, a serious moment, meant to be taken seriously. He is marveling over her. He is reminiscing. You can think all you want that Shakespeare’s comedies are funny. They’re not. Oscar Wilde is funny. Shakespeare is not. Nabokov is not.

    “Picayune Rules for Writing Fiction So Plain Even Jessica Schneider Can Understand It, which apparently comes with an enclosed bullhorn, through which the author can announce intent so as not to escape a girl with the attention span of a gnat.”

    But what about pontificating old men poseurs with no creative ability? Ah yes, I see why Nabokov has a fan in you. Buzz buzz Rodney boy.

    “According to Jessica’s edict, characters must acknowledge triteness, chuckle to himself and start again, or admit to being tongue and cheek.”

    These were just some examples, but nice straw man.

    “always painful for self-professed experts on love and the creative process.”

    Clearly your idea of love relationships have been more successful than any attempt at creative writing would ever be.

    *Shiver*

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    So you admit defeat?

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    No. I win. You admit your boner?

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    No evidence, no cliche, no win.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Evidence, cliche, win. But nice try.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Where?

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    In your loins.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Where is your evidence that “fire of my loins” is a cliche? You keep saying it’s one merely because you say it is, and not because you can prove it is. Then when I ask you to prove it, you say you don’t have to, which suggests to me that you simply can’t. Right? I mean, you can’t, can you?

  • Mike

    Jessica,
    It seems to me, regarding the whole cliche argument going on, that you have simply chosen the wrong word and are now forced to defend an argument which, as Rodney points out, you have not been able to. Perhaps it would be more precise of you to say that the opening line is kitsch?

    “It is the introduction to the character, a serious moment, meant to be taken seriously.”
    Why? Who says it has to be a serious moment? I think this type of thinking is what has led you astray with Nabokov to begin with. He was not an author who played by the rules; in fact he clearly enjoyed bending and breaking the rules just to prove how useless they are. If you glean anything from these criticisms of your criticism it should be that, as a reader, it would do you well to read without such preconceived notions.

  • Brunelleschi

    I just watched the Kubric movie, it was awesome.

    The woman who played Lolita in the film had a sad time afterward. :(

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Mike,

    Here is the online definition of kitsch:

    1 : something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality
    2 : a tacky or lowbrow quality or condition

    Cliches fall into this category. They appeal to the Lowest Common Denominator, are overused and are therefore cliches. Any book, Hollywood movie, phrase that one thinks of as kitsch is so because it is cliched. The words are not mutually opposing.

    Why? Who says it has to be a serious moment?

    If you rape women or torture animals, maybe Ted Bundy would find this funny but most sane people would not. The scene is not funny, it’s not meant to be funny, it’s not “black humor” either. There is no humor. He is trying to be poetic.

    I have no preconceived notions. Hence why I was able to find flaws–I took the work for what it was, and I do not parrot what other critics have said before me, nor rely on author intent.

    Any great writer has broken rules, that is not something unique to Nabokov. What matters is if he breaks them well.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    I’d also like to add that kitsch can be a good, fun romp–be it a Godzilla movie, a vaudeville act, or bad American Idol auditions. Something can also be so bad it is good, like Plan 9–the difference lies in the level of seriousness or rather, pretension. Lest you end up with a “fire in your loins.”

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Which remains an original phrase.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Rodney, why do you insist on humiliating yourself? Here is a quick Google search of the phrases “fire, loins” and “poetry”. Look how often loins is paired with fire and heat. The last line is taken from a Dylan Thomas poem and he’s the only one who even remotely tries to alter the cliche in some way.

    And this doesn’t even cover all the crap on poetry dot com, all the bad prose, and the myriad of crap that is not online. Do you really think these little teenagers have been influenced by Nabokov?

    Again, I have proven you are wrong. Just admit you like the opening. Simply, you just like it. You have no intellectual defense. I can’t argue with your likes. But that opening line is not only a bad line, it is a HORRIBLE one. Your ‘genius’ fucked up. Anyone with a brain knows this is a cliche that has been used thousands upon thousands of times and that it was nothing new to Nabokov.

    You have shown to not only be a poor reader, you also show you don’t understand a funny scene from a serious one, a cliche from a well crafted phrase, lust from love and your ignorance is just stunning. Hence why you get 2 readers to your blog a month. But don’t think I don’t know you’re reading my sites obsessively.

    I WIN.

    fire in the words I’m
    writing I hope
    fire in my belly,
    fire in my loins,

    The fire that burns in your loins is the blood of life.

    But Warriors yearn it with vigor intact
    With fire in our loins
    Till that last stroke

    Molten lava in his loins steady on his big black feet

    Her loins were now a blazing fire

    With massive appetites and burning loins

    You have sparked my fire
    It is roaring hot
    My loins are burning
    I will forget you not.

    I will engulf her with the fire of my loins

    In their loins sow madness and fever
    That my fame may endure forever.

    Fire runs through her loins,
    Only his touch can soothe.

    bleeding
    more warmly than any issue of their loins

    unaware of where we’re headed, or the fire
    burning in his loins.

    “Ballad Of The Long-Legged Bait”

    When his long-legged flesh was a wind on fire
    And his loin was a hunting flame

    Coil

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Interesting, though, that Mike brings up the issue of kitsch. Personally, as stated, I find the opening lines, like all the descriptions of Lolita in the novel, to be appealingly lush.

    You can definitely find deliberate elements of kitsch, though, in the novel; Nabokov famously said there is nothing as “exhilarating as philistine vulgarity,” and the book freely spoofs low-brow taste, whether in regard to Lo’s mother or in the many seedy motels on Lo and Hum’s crosscountry journey.

    Trash, high and low, had a certain appeal to Nabokov; of particular interest was anything that smacked of poshlost, an untranslatable Russian word which applies to trash that masquerades as high art. Comic books, for example, aren’t poshlost because they don’t pretend to be art, while the sentimental paintings of Norman Rockwell or a novel like Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, both of which he hated, are another.

    For me, a good recent example of poshlost is either American Beauty or Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover.

    One wonders what Nabokov would have made of graphic novels.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Remember, Jessica, I said a) prove that he didn’t invent it or b) that it was a cliche by the time he did use it, that is, 1958.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    Dylan Thomas died in ’53 and is playing off the cliche. At least he tries to invert it. Nabokov does not. Good phrases hold up over time, the best of Shakespeare, Whitman are fresh can be read as though they were written yesterday. Yet stale phrases as that one do not transcend. If you didn’t know that opening line to the book you could insert it within all those doggerel lines and would not be able to tell who wrote what.

    “Personally, as stated, I find the opening lines, like all the descriptions of Lolita in the novel, to be appealingly lush.”

    You can like the book. I’m not disagreeing with you. But it is clear that you’ve not gone to enough writing groups where bad writers have written the same old crap again and again.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I’m not convinced, Jessica, although that is interesting about Dylan Thomas.

    I think it may be that what you are responding to is the possibility that the phrase has been borrowed many times since then, which wouldn’t surprise me, since “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” is one the most memorable opening lines of any novel in 20th Century American literature; it’s swift and poetic — there’s a kind of assonance in that i sound that makes it stick in the memory — and structurally it’s perfect. It ignites the novel.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    I don’t have to convince you. I can claim that trolls live under bridges, but reality is what it is and it goes on regardless if you choose to accept it or not.

    The idea of “firey loins” is goes back to the Greeks, to any classic love poetry and to the Bible. It is in no way fresh, new, inventive or original. It’s a generic and poorly written line and likely the worst I’ve ever seen open a classic literary novel.

    Then I beheld, and, lo, a form that had the appearance of a man; below what appeared to be his loins it was fire, and above his loins it was like the appearance of brightness, like gleaming bronze.

    Ezekiel 8:2 >>

    Your loins will shine like a golden fire Luke 12:31-48

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    So you’re saying it’s a classical allusion? That wouldn’t surprise me; the book is full of them.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    So you’re saying it’s a classical allusion?

    Allude: : to make indirect reference.

    There is nothing indirect about “fire and loins” when one states “fire and loins.”

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Actually, no one literally says “fire and loins.”. But I’m not sure Nabokov was, in this case, drawing from the Bible, of if he was drawing on anyone at all, just that it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.

  • No Oprah Zone

    Face it, Rodney, Nabokov did not originate the phrase “Fire of my loins,” it’s a plain fact that the phrase he wrote was a stale, worn out cliche long before 1959. (Dylan Thomas died in 1953, so he couldn’t have borrowed it from Nabokov: also, Thomas’ reputation doesn’t derive from that poem, he’s allowed to write bad poems like anyone else, Wordsworth wrote reams of terrible poetry, as well as reams of excellent poetry, but the terrible, cliche-filled stuff is not what his reputation is based on. Whereas Nabokov’s rep DOES depend primarily on LOLITA. That’s the difference.)

    I think Nabokov is wildly overrated: his writing is mannered and self-conscious. Nabokov was a sometimes interesting but overrated, ornate stylist. Somebody once did a parody of Nabokov’s style online that was almost indistinguishable from the real thing. (Several Nabokov fans were fooled.) Truly great writers can use the simplest, plainest language in marvelous ways: “To be or not to be… I stop somewhere waiting for you… She’s a monster, without being a myth, which is rather unfair…” Nabokov never does that. He’s always showing off, strutting around like Liberace in a fur coat, with diamond rings on every finger, never ever using the plain, ordinary word when an obscure, latinate synonym will do. This is why he can only create one type of character convincingly: pompous, arrogant narcissists like Humbert Humbert (whose personality is indistinguishable from Hermann Hermann, or the protagonist of LAUGHTER IN THE DARK, whatever his name was, or countless other Nabokov protagonists. He changes the name but it’s the same guy each time.)

    Nabokov only has one “character type” – long-winded, snobbish, self-enamored bores. Probably because he himself was one. Every other type of human being in his novels or stories is a cardboard cutout, and that includes Lolita.

    Finally, I find it odd that Jessica is being attacked for dissenting from the fashion of the moment, when Nabokov himself was notorious for trashing countless “great” writers he himself considered not to be truly great. From Dostoyevsky to Saul Bellow to Henry James to Thomas Mann (the writer he most resembles and derived the most from, but who was far more talented), Nabokov breezily dismissed them all as boring second-raters. Why shouldn’t he receive a taste of his own freely administered medicine?

  • http://www.rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I wondered how long it would be before Jessica picked up a supporter [Personal attack deleted by Comments Editor].

    Anyway, No Oprah Zone, I contend that the only case that has been made is that it might possibly be a classical allusion, but it simply strains credulity to say the phrase is trite because fire and loins once appeared somewhere else. I’m not sure much else can be said.

    What’s not original are your criticisms. Nice try with the Mann thing, though.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Make that two supporters, as the “Comments Editor” somehow thinks my suspicions of Jessica throwing her shrill voice through another amounts to a personal attack. Petty, petty…

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Rodney, as well as your unfounded suspicion, you also threw a variety of insults her way that crossed the line into personal attack as opposed to debating the issue, so your remarks merited editing.

    As to supporting either one of you, you must be joking, the book ain’t worth it.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    No Oprah Zone:

    I did a Google search online and these are just some of the phrases using fire and loins (or a play off that) from OLD writers. Rodney seems to think that literature begins and ends with Nabokov. And this is only skimming online–there are thousands from old poets that are not necessarily going to be found on Google. So other than Dylan Thomas…

    John Keats:

    many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt
    In blood from stinging whip;-

    Whitman:
    My limbs and the quivering fire that ever plays through them

    John Gower (1330-1408)
    “Money did not touch their pockets, nor wine their palates, and no carnal flame burned in their loins.”

    Helena Petrovna Blavatsky
    Isis Unveiled: (1877)

    “When he sits on the throne he blazes with fire up to the loins.”

    Charles Baudelaire:

    And loins once supple in their tempered fire,

    William Blake:

    free are the wrists of fire;
    Round the terrific loins

    Horace:

    When your loins swell with fire,

    And here is Rodney’s argument:

    “Which remains an original phrase.”

    Laughable.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Jessica, You have at long last managed to back up a case you have not made before, and I have to concede you have a point — as those quotations do indicate that the quote did not, as I said, originate with Nabokov. It may even be that, given the wealth of classical quotes you gather here, that the word cliche is not completely unfair, at least from your viewpoint. As a previous commentator noted, you viewed the book with very much of a chip on your shoulder, and for all your well-noted blindness throughout the book, I have to concede that your eyes were not wide shut on the first line of the narrative proper.

    To me, however, as I’ve said before, the word choice is not only melodic, but seems to suggest Nabokov was making a reflective pattern — light, fire, sin, soul, that suggests the struggle between flesh and conscience that will dominate Humbert’s narrative — and absorbing a classical allusion in the process.

  • http://jaschneider.blogspot.com/ JSchneider

    OK, fair enough. Let us leave it at that. Though I didn’t read the book with any chip on my shoulder–my review was positive and I noted many of its merits.

    I am already onto reading another book for review and must admit I am Lolita’d out.

  • No Oprah Zone

    “What’s not original are your criticisms. Nice try with the Mann thing, though.”

    They don’t have to be original. They simply have to be true. George Steiner, John Simon, John Leonard, and many other critics have made the case against Nabokov well, but their arguments have been dismissed by his fawning fans, who overlook his numerous flaws and limitations in their bid to make this talented but ultimately minor novelist into some sort of Shakespearian genius. His prolix, mannered prose style is there to disguise the triteness of his perceptions. And it is HIS style, not Humbert Humbert’s, because he writes the exact same way even in other novels, even when he’s writing in the third person instead of the first person. So it can’t simply be claimed that he is satirizing Humbert Humbert’s pretensions by writing this way, since he ALWAYS writes this way.

    And yes, he was a second-rank epigone of Thomas Mann (although with several plots stolen from Dostoyevsky). That’s why he singled out Mann’s DEATH IN VENICE for especial scorn, out of Mann’s vast oeuvre, because he was envious of the German’s achievement in far more hauntingly and beautifully portraying the madness and desolation of a middle-aged man’s sexual obsession with a child. Nabokov simply heterosexualized a situation Mann had dramatized with greater power and urgency.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    Well, in a sense, I think, you may be right, that it is his style, not Humbert Humbert’s — but not because his characters are all the same, because they aren’t; I see little of Humbert in the mild-mannered Timofey Pnin or Cincinnatus or Krug or Paduk. No question, a number of his characters are certainly deluded, but the delusions themselves are different, usually to an elaborate degree. Humbert is suave, vampiric and sophisticated; I don’t think he’d be caught dead in the company of an obnoxious boor like Charles Kinbote, although I suspect he’d understand him.

    Humbert’s style is, however, an echo of Nabokov’s, but that’s part of what makes Lolita such a rewarding read when for so many re-readers, because beyond the fact that it’s about a man who wants to possess a young girl, it is also about a man possessed by an artist, who is directing his path, forcing him into a variety of troubles. We get a hint of this early on, in the false forward by John Ray, Ph.D., in which we learn not only that “Humbert Humbert” is simply an assumed name, but that a number of the characters and places in the manuscript before us — “Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male” — have presumably been changed to protect identities, so already we’ve been served warning that Humbert’s account isn’t exactly true; elsewhere we learn that this brilliantly composed and highly structured book is but a first draft thrown together over the course of 50-some days in hopes of helping Humbert with his court case, and as you read the book there’s a sense both that Humbert either isn’t playing entirely straight with us or that he’s the author’s puppet. This idea, of this dim awareness that you are a character in someone’s story, is one Nabokov frequently returned to.

    Does Nabokov write the exact same way, novel for novel? Well, at some level, I suppose most writers do, more or less, once they find a style that works for them. All of Dickens books sound the same; so do all of Austen’s and Ishiguro’s and Roth’s. I don’t consider that a defect, unless it’s boring and repetitious.

    So far as I can tell, the last paragraph is just vengeful thinking on your part, so we can skip that unless you have some actual proof. But do feel free to tell me about these trite perceptions. I’d like to hear them.

  • No Oprah Zone

    But Rodney, when you bring up “John Ray Jr.,” that confirms my point. The voice of John Ray Jr. is the same (or very similar) supercilious voice as the rest of the novel. Yes, I know it’s not “the same” character, because Nabokov tells me it isn’t, but I hear the same archly avuncular tone throughout….

    ‘For the benefit of old-fashioned readers who wish to follow the destinies of the “real” people beyond the “true” story, a few details may be given …. so that “the long shadow of this sorry and sordid business”: should not reach…” Click. My eyes glaze over. The same flourishy locuations, the same alliterative wordplay (“bizarre cognomen,” “two hypnotic eyes,” “wearer’s wish,” “interwound with the inmost,” “sorry and sordid,” “etiolated by platitudinous evasions,” etc. etc.) as the rest of the novel, or LAUGHTER IN THE DARK, or in various short stories, or various essays, or his memoir. It’s basically the same voice each time.

    Or how about this exchange, from LAUGHTER:

    “Tell me, have you read Tolstoy?”
    “Doll’s Toy?” queried Dorianna Karenina [an actress]. “No, I’m afraid not, why?”

    I mean, come on. This is not effective satire.
    DOLL’S TOY?! NO, WHO’S DOLL’S TOY? The stereotype that actors are all idiotic philistines with no brain and no knowledge is just that: a superficial stereotype. Around the time Nabokov wrote this novel, Greta Garbo starred in a movie version of ANNA KARENINA. Christ, Oprah Winfrey put ANNA KARENINA on her book club list, because it was one of those books she’d always wanted to read and never had. This sort of satire is a fourteen-year-old’s notion of cleverness – but the joke is on Nabokov, who merely revealed, yet again, how little he actually knows about ordinary people. It reminds me of Shelley Winters calling Van Gogh “Van GAWG” in the movie version of LOLITA. It’s a snob’s idea of what the uncultured masses are like. But it is Nabokov himself who stands revealed as the philistine. Contrast his dumb satire with Dreiser’s treatment of the illusions of would-be stars in SISTER CARRIE. He really gets at the tawdry pathos of Carrie’s shallow yearnings. (Whoever derided Dreiser upthread merely revealed his own cluelessness in matters of artistry, for Dreiser really is profound on the illusions of the bourgeois, unlike the supercilious Nabokov.)

    Now he has the right to his voice, but I also have the right not to like it. And I also continue to maintain that he is wildly overrated, because whereas most Hemingway fans, for instance, acknowledge the constancy of his voice, the Hemingway style, and acknowledge that Papa has his limits as an artist, Nabokov fans in my experience do not. They pretend to an enormous variation of style that isn’t there. I don’t have the same objection to the praise of Hemingway because I’ve never seen Hemingway praised for a Shakespearian or Jamesian plenitude. His admirers generally acknowledge his limits, Nabokov’s do not. (Also, you are wrong that other writers don’t evolve. That’s why people speak of early or late Shakespeare, or early, middle, and late period Henry James – because they do employ a wide variety of styles, they have variety, Nabokov does not.)

    I believe it was Kingsley Amis who said Nabokov could never write a sentence without SEEING himself write. That seems to me the truth. He never just writes a sentence, he seems to be congratulating himself on his stylist flourishes in the very moment of inditing the sentence.

    I also found this, right now, looking up Kingsley Amis on Nabokov:

    “No extract, however, could do justice to the sustained din of pun, allusion, neologism, alliteration, cynghanedd, apostrophe, parenthesis, rhetorical question, French, Latin, ‘anent’, ‘perchance’, ‘would fain’, ‘for the nonce,’ – here is style and no mistake. One will be told, of course, that this is the ‘whole point’, that this is the hero, Humbert Humbert, talking in his own person, not the author, and that what we are getting is ‘characterization’. All right; but it seems ill-advised to characterize logomania by making it talk 120,000 words at us, and a glance at Nabokov’s last novel, Pnin, which is not written in the first person, establishes that this is Nabokov talking. . . . The development of this emigre’s euphemism is a likely consequence of Nabokov’s having had to abandon his natural idiom, as he puts it, his ‘untrammelled, rich and infinitely docile Russian tongue’. This, which enacts the problem with characteristic tricksy indirection, also implies its solution as the laborious confection of equivalent apparatuses in the adoptive language: the whole farrago of imagery, archaism, etc, which cannot strike even the most finely tuned foreign ear as it strikes that of the native English-speaker. The end product sadly invokes a Charles Atlas muscle-man of language as opposed to the healthy and useful adult.”

    That Charles Atlas reference, in my view, is exactly right.

    Sometimes he comes up with memorable and compelling word combinations (the phrase “simian vegetation” from his memoir, I believe, has stuck in my head forever). But by and large, I find his constant wordplay, together with his snobbish sense of aristocratic superiority to 90 percent of the human race, tiresome and unrewarding.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    In short, you find his use of language showy. Fair enough. You see Charles Atlas, bodybuilder for his own sake. I see Muhammad Ali, heavyweight champion, leader of his field. You have the right not to like it, I have the right to gush.

    I find Nabokov’s prose generous, and not just generous but interesting in the best sense of the word, because I don’t think he’s using strange or obscure or odd words to show that he can, but because he’s trying to paint the richest, liveliest, most intricate picture, not unlike Proust. For me, as a reader, he demands a lot, demands you open your eyes to see those small “divine details” that create a work of art, a work that not only demands close attention, but repays it.

    Now, I used the word gush above, and it’s correct, but when I read his books there’s more going on than admiration. I feel he as a writer is giving me a lot on which to feed, the same way I feel with every great artist. The books make me appreciate his deep sense of life, and they make me want to know more, to dig deeper, not just into his works but in other books and other subjects, because he looked at everything that way, the way every writer should, with a deep sense of interest. He’s a great writer and a great teacher.

    As to whether he’s a snob where ordinary people are concerned — well, there are plenty of ordinary folks in his ouevre, and they come off pretty well compared to the people who think they know a lot more than they do. Do you recall the passage in Lolita regarding Avis Bird? She’s a friend of Lolita’s, and she and Humbert stop by for a visit. Avis is no Lolita — “heavy, unattractive, affectionate,” as that arch-snob Humbert puts it — but she has something Lolita lacks and, thanks to Humbert, will always lack.

    We read how “fat Avis sidled up to her papa,” how she “clung to her father’s neck and ear,” how the father embraced her in return, and “enveloped his large and lumpy offspring.” Seeing this, Lolita’s smile loses “all its light and becomes a frozen little shadow of itself.” She leaves the room crying, “to be followed at once and consoled in the kitchen by Avis who had such a wonderful fat pink dad and a small chubby brother, and a brand-new baby sister, and a home, and two grinning dogs, and Lolita had nothing.”

    Now for the interesting part, to get to the meat of your post: is it possible for Nabokov fans to spot his limitations as an artist? Well, as expressed above, I obviously don’t find reading him as painful as you do. I read him with joy, and while it would no doubt be wonderfully fair-minded and tremendously objective to say yes, yes, Nabokov is thoroughly fallible, the fact of the matter is that I tend to give Nabokov the benefit of the doubt, that even when I think he’s off his mark with certain novels — Glory; Laughter in the Dark; King, Queen, Knave; Look at the Harlequins!; perhaps Ada — I still enjoy those books, and find that they fail only when judged against his best work, and look pretty good compared to everything else.

    John Updike, one of Nabokov’s greatest fans, confessed that he didn’t get Ada. I didn’t either. But there are so many people who not only do get it but become obsessed with it that I find myself thinking, based on my own past experience, that it may just deserve another and much closer look.

    Lest you think that I’m just an uncritical, raving fan — as I frankly tend to be on subjects ranging from Nabokov to Bob Dylan to Luis Bunuel to Pavement — let me say in conclusion that I do understand your dislike of this community of fans, high and low, of which I am no doubt a part. There’s something extremely seductive about Nabokov’s style — that’s why so many people, ranging from Martin Amis to Amy Tan to Jeffrey Eugenides to Salman Rushdie to Mary Gaitskill keep going back to him. I think more than any other book Lolita is the one novel they all wish they’d written.

    The same goes for his mind, his life, his outlook — so many people who fall under his spell want to be just like him and they mimic his every opinion, and they come across sounding, as I no doubt occasionally do, sounding as if they have no other frame of reference.

    But, it’s weird — sometimes seeing something his way makes it hard to unsee it.

    Personally, I don’t agree with all of his literary opinions, but it’s a healthy disagreement. I don’t know if I would have read Dostoevsky as much as I have if Nabokov hadn’t insistently told me not to, and I read Faulkner with a great deal more interest and enthusiasm than Nabokov ever did. I know almost nothing of Thomas Mann, but Nabokov will not keep me from reading him in the future.

    Can I ever completely un-Nabokovize myself? You’re certainly free to try!

  • No Oprah Zone

    Fair enough, but you didn’t write any of this. The initial posts, yours included, were a string of insults flung the reviewer’s way (bad enough that the editor of the website had to censor your comments).

    I was simply pointing out that by dissenting from the fashion of hailing LOLITA as a masterpiece, she wasn’t doing anything Nabokov himself didn’t do all throughout his life, from his youth to his old age. I happen to think it’s ridiculous to excoriate a reviewer for doing what the NOVELIST IN QUESTION liked to do INCESSANTLY: thumb his nose at conventional wisdom in matters literary.

    Frankly, I found her argument against Nabokov far more convincing than Nabokov’s argument against Dostoyevsky, for example. The lines she criticized as rephrasings of age-old cliches are exactly that. Yet for pointing this out, she was slammed. Even if you think he played wittily upon old stock phrases, they’re still stock phrases, and she had the right, and the obligation, as a reviewer to point that out.

    As I said, some of Nabokov’s writing is good, but I don’t agree with your interpretation of those lines about Avis Bird. I do not hear sympathy or affection in “fat Avis sidled up to papa”. This seems to me a passage written by someone who knows he probably should feel something for Avis, but doesn’t actually feel it, but he knows he ought to feign a certain common humanity. Of course, the POV is Humbert’s, so you could still attribute that lack to the character as opposed to the author.

    This is one of my biggest problems with the cult of Nabokov. I think Nabokov’s readers are hearing resonances that aren’t there, and missing some very unpleasant qualities that ARE there. They miss his haughtiness, his sourness, his superciliousness. Of course a writer can be a misanthrope and still be an important artist, but it seems to me admirers of Celine or William S. Burroughs, for instance, have a pretty acute sense of what it is they’re praising, whereas Nabokov’s make him out to have a richness and fullness of feeling that isn’t truly there.

    There used to be an essay by John Simon about Nabokov in the New Criterion’s archives that unfortunately no longer seems to be available. But Simon in my view gets Nabokov exactly right. He’s especially insightful, I think, on why Nabokov hated Freud so much (despite the fact that the explanation he provides for H.H.’s obsession with Lolita is very Freudian in tone).

    It’s a shame the essay seems to be no longer online (I checked: it’s a 1991 review of NABOKOV: THE RUSSIAN YEARS by Brian Boyd – but the text is no longer freely available), because it’s a brilliant analysis of Nabokov’s work. John Simon’s conclusion was: A genuine talent, yes. A literary titan? By no means. I agree with his assessment. I won’t say anything more, because as far as I’m concerned, Simon says all that needs to be said against Nabokov perfectly.

  • http://rodneywelch.blogspot.com/ Rodney Welch

    I do not wish to uncrumple the much-crumpled thing with Jessica.

    You seem to be saying, however, that it’s okay for Jessica to criticize Nabokov but wrong for me to criticize Jessica. It’s also beginning to look as if you cannot tell the difference between good criticism from poor, only the difference between what you agree with and what you don’t.

    Good criticism reveals a work, whereas bad criticism simply reveals a reviewer and his or in this case her (or your) limitations.

    People may not agree with Nabokov on Dostoevsky, but he does reveal aspects of Crime and Punishment that you won’t find elsewhere.

    People may not agree with John Simon on Brian Boyd’s biography of Nabokov, but he states the case for the opposition intelligently and interestingly.

    Intelligent readers of Lolita, on the other hand, may find the book sullied by Jessica’s heavy hands, and comments such as “I found her argument against Nabokov far more convincing than Nabokov’s argument against Dostoyevsky” will likely look at you with little more than embarrassment.

    You write “This seems to me a passage written by someone who knows he probably should feel something for Avis, but doesn’t actually feel it, but he knows he ought to feign a certain common humanity.” You actually can’t see a genuine, deeply sympathetic mini-portrait as presented by a character who feels very little sympathy?

    That chip on your shoulder regarding Nabokov has swollen into a tumor. The news that you have nothing else to say is welcome indeed.

  • No Oprah Zone

    “Good criticism reveals a work, whereas bad criticism simply reveals a reviewer and his or in this case her (or your) limitations.”

    If that is so, all of the hostile comments her review received fall firmly into the “bad” camp, since none of them made any case for Nabokov’s artistry, they simply reiterated the dogma that he was some master artist. I know YOU didn’t write this, but look again at Andrew B.’s comment:

    “The aesthetics of the prose suffices to make it a masterpiece.”

    That’s it. That’s the rebuttal. The prose is brilliant, period, so shut up. Never mind that her fucking review never CLAIMED the prose is ALL bad, only that SOME celebrated parts of it are – which they are!! Some “refutation” by Andrew B. If anyone produced “bad” criticism here, it’s Andrew, not Jessica.

    And then there’s this tripe, from “Lisa”:

    “Oh, dear. Nabokov wrote the damned cliche. He made it. Lolita remains one of the most amazing books written. The prose, indeed, makes it a masterpiece.”

    Note the snide little air of condescension. “Oh dear…. oh dear…” I recognize that academic, ivory tower tone. “Nabokov WROTE the damned cliche. He MADE it.” Um, oh dear, oh dear, no SORRY Lisa, sorry to burst your bubble, but he bloody well DIDNT. As Jessica proved beyond doubt, it was a cliche going back millennia. Both you and Lisa claimed Nabokov invented a phrase and mode of expression he CLEARLY did NOT invent. But I don’t blame you, because I’ve heard that sort of claim made numerous times, that Nabokov invented this or that phrase, this or that famous expression, when in reality all he did was restate an age-old stock phrase. This is what I mean about his wildly inflated rep. People assume he invented phrases and modes of expression he was merely spoofing.

    I didn’t claim her review was flawless, only that she DID defend her arguments with specific textual evidence. She didn’t just throw out opinions, she quoted exactly what aspects she was objecting to. And like I said, Simon’s critique does go into more elaborate detail.

    Fashions in the arts change, the reputations are written in water, and the day will come when Nabokov is looked on as the George Meredith of his day, an overpraised, glossy stylist with little engagement with or understanding of life. George Steiner, for one, has already made the case well. What does Nabokov reveal about life comparable to what Dostoevsky, Dreiser, Mann, Henry James have to say? Nothing. They are great artists, Nabokov isn’t. Style alone isn’t enough (as the posthumous fate of Meredith shows), particularly when the style itself is too often surface flash and parodic excess masking paucity of thought and pettiness of feeling.

    “Intelligent readers of Lolita, on the other hand, may find the book sullied by Jessica’s heavy hands, and comments such as “I found her argument against Nabokov far more convincing than Nabokov’s argument against Dostoyevsky” will likely look at you with little more than embarrassment.”

    Maybe you should take a closer look at the counter-arguments. Pevear and Volokhonsky, the Dostoevsky translators, argue (correctly) that Nabokov was envious of old Fyodor’s superior artistry, and point out how many times he stole plots from him and simply reworked them (to much lesser effect). They also demonstrate convincingly that Dostoevsky was, in his own way, a major stylist who DID take great care with his language (however, since he often ON PURPOSE feigned the “crude” style of an amateur writer, unobservant readers often fail to note that the crudities, the prolixity, the repetitions are often introduced DELIBERATELY, CONSCIOUSLY, and to specific ARTISTIC effect. This is the sort of thing only a master can do, and is lightyears beyond the ability of a flamboyant wordspinner like Nabokov.)

    Jessica successfully demonstrates tired old cliches employed by Nabokov, Nabokov makes claims against Dostoyevsky that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Whether you like it or not, and can admit it or not, “I am a sick man, I am a wicked man…. I think my liver is diseased” sounds a new note in literature, and opens up new territory. “Light of my life, fire of my loins,” is a two-millennium old stock phrase, and even if Nabokov knew it was a cliche, given how much unwarranted and rhapsodic praise has been heaped on that opening paragraph, she was right to point out how stale it is, even IF Nabokov DID intend it to be funny. Of course he has the right to write whatever he wants, but that’s the first time I’ve seen anyone point out the obvious: the opener is a compendium of cliches that are NOT all that wittily transposed. Normally all one hears is what a genius Nabokov is for that supposedly extraordinary, but in actuality somewhat pedestrian, opener.

    And make no mistake, many admirers of the book DO take that opener straight, and NOT as spoof of corny romance cliches. And yet, if you DONT take it as comedy, it’s syrupy dreck. The cover of the paperbacks all reprint the same reviewer’s blurb: “The only convincing love story of our century.” What!? It’s not a “love” story at all in any normal sense of the word “love.” Lolita is scarcely even a plausible depiction of a human being.

    It also reveals where Nabokov’s real talent lay: in parody, spoof, lampoon. Insofar as Nabokov demonstrates skill in that famously celebrated paragraph, it’s for playing linguistic games with cliched expressions. That is a talent of a sort, but not of an enormously high order. One can only parody and lampoon the kitsch accretions of centuries so many times before one falls into the same abyss of kitsch oneself. He has nothing like Dreiser’s or Dostoevsky’s or Joyce’s deeper understanding of the deforming power of kitsch on the human mind. Perhaps his real peer is someone like S.J. Perelman or Kurt Vonnegut. Or Thomas Pynchon (who apparently took a class taught by Nabokov in college) in an early good-but-not-great novel like V.

  • No Oprah Zone

    One other comment: there was ONE enthusiastic interpretation of the novel here that was well-argued, and that was Phillip’s. Insofar as Nabokov’s artistry can be defended, Phillip defends it. He’s a “cruel writer” with “cruel humor” – yes. Phillip finds him rewarding despite that fact; I don’t. But if there is one person on the page who made a convincing case for Nabokov, he’s the one.

    Rodney, Lisa, Leslie, and Andrew, on the other hand, don’t make any kind of case at all. They simply parrot the received wisdom about this eloquent sadist.

  • http://www.austinwallace.net Austin Wallace

    Can’t we just enjoy the book? This is why I dislike both critics and criticism. Ok, so the intro is a meta-fictional device. Ok, so the opening line is an egregious cliche. Neither of these is a new phenomenon. It’s a good but flawed book. Finis.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Can’t we just enjoy the book? This is why I dislike both critics and criticism.

    Enjoying books/films/music/art is what fair and accurate criticism is all about.

  • LMcDonald

    I completely agree with you. I had to read this book for a class, and while many books start out slow, in the end you are rewarded with good plot and character development, not so with this one. This book is just vulgar and that’s the only reason people like it. There is no prose, or art or anything else. I guess I’m small minded I simply could not enjoy a book where someone molests a child. The fact that so many enjoy reading this filth, is beyond disturbing. Who will protect the children????

  • NOMOS

    Lolita is OK.Yet it has been receiving too many praises,way too many.The novel has many cliches,and despite the fact that its topic revolves around child abuse,the story and the descriptions didn’t shock me,they just bored me.I know a writer can’t write a memorable book about something “normal”,but the topic of child abuse is a bit too delicate to be “normalized”,even if it’s just fiction.I’m not saying this book should be banned,neither am I saying that it’s pornography.The problem is that the readers and the critics who keep praising the novel forget the fact that some people are bothered by child abuse,for me at least child abuse means much more than a literary motive and it’s impossible to read it and not correlate it with real cases of child abuse,I just can’t.Some readers experience things differently.Child abuse,for me at least is a bad thing and I don’t want to have anything to do with it.I should like to point out again that in no way do I think that reading and talking about this book is bad,it’s even desirable to mention Lolita when talking about literary techniques,but the only reason this novel is receiving so many praises is because of its scandalous nature.Although I do enjoy Nabokov’s style of “normalizing” denaturated things,which in some cases can be really funny,this book fails to impress me.When I was talking with my colleagues about it,some were praising it as if it were the best book of all times!They kept saying that the fact that you can read the explicit descriptions without being offended is the best thing the novel has to offer.If I remember correctly,the only reason I wasn’t deeply offended by the dirty descriptions is not due to Nabokov’s God-given talent (which in my humble opinion is a moderated one,at least when talking about “Lolita”),but because they were too poor.It was like watching a naked stripper dance in the dark;you can’t be offended by her nudity and the sexual nature of her dance because you just can’t see her.The dirty scences from the novel were just too blurred and poorly constructed that they failed to shock me.One of the lamest moments in the novel is when H.H. talks about Lolita’s name,and syllabifies it :Lo-lee-tah … I have only one thing to say about it: pa-the-tik

    This is what I think about Lolita.A good novel,yes.An exceptional novel?No.A novel worth praising and shoving down students’ throats? HELL NO!

    I think I speak for everyone (and if I don’t then I kindly ask you to forgive me) when I say that there are plenty of other novels out there,much much better than Lolita,whose writers don’t even get half the credit Nabokov does.
    And if there are people who think I’m just too much of a puritan to enjoy novels like Lolita,I’d like to point out that one of my favorite books is “Coños”,a Spanish post-modernist masterpiece in which the personality of different women is described by analyzing their genitals (coño in Spanish is the vulgar word depicting the female sexual organs,yeah,the P word).

  • Pablo

    Though this is belaboring the point since it’s obvious many people have articulated their good two cents on this matter, when I read this particular critique of Lolita, I had some inkling that the critic who wrote it had some other ulterior motive for not liking this book, and it had nothing to do with the artistry of the language or the complexity of the plot. Her defenders more or less prove my suspicion. The critic J. Schneider and commenters like “No Oprah Zone” and “LMcDonald” are just extremely uncomfortable with the subject matter explored in this novel in ludicrous detail–pedophilia and guiltless lust and children involved in sexual acts. It may also be the vulgar and flippant aspect of the language, which is not the staid, subtle and proper writing of the classic nineteenth century tome but is instead very blunt, cynical and at times insulting. The same can be said of the episodic and impressionistic modernist language employed in Finnegan’s Wake (which the critic also disliked deeply). What this critique more or less points to is to a rather unsuccessful and, at times, simplistic attempt at making it seem like the style and artistic merit of the book is what is at issue, not the prurient content. And because in mainstream literary criticism one must be an “objective” observer, the content is not fair game in negative commentary, or at least it can’t be main theme of criticism, so this critic grasped at stylistic straws to say that which she just can’t bring herself to say: the book deals with nasty subjects she finds morally repugnant. Of course, if she were to concentrate on this issue, she would have a far stronger case, but it would also make her seem small-minded and provincial, which as a critic striving to be seen as “cosmopolitan” is simply not the impression that needs to be made. And I’m no academic, so there is no bias on my part in supporting the novel’s reputation’s “status-quo”.

    As for me personally, the book works on so many levels. It is one of the best comedies I have ever read because, to be honest, I love blunt language that skewers and degrades people and situations that deserve such treatment. I have literally giggled and gafawed through a good portion of the novel. And the thematic slyness and manipulation is like nothing I’ve experienced in literature–I began to actually like Humbert, and this took me by utter surprise, since he’s definitely not a relatable character for his debasement, solipsism and vileness is extremely repulsive. But to get a reader as cynical as me to sympathize with him is just extraordinary co-optation, making the reader complicit in the lewdness of it all. The effect is one of a kind.

  • F.McLafferty

    Jessica, I find in both your attempted review and your frantic defense of it the clues which lead me to believe that you may in fact be a Nabokovian mediocrity yourself.
    Could the cliches which so scandalise you ever be such if they had not formed the opening lines of this book?

  • Chris Petterson

    This review is outrageously terrible and the reviewers comments honestly makes me wanna die, why the fuck was this #5 on my google for lolita opening paragraph?

  • Casual Passerby

    I had no idea that Lolita was so often raved about when I was assigned to read it in Introduction to Fiction, a course I chose to take and so the book was not “shoved down my throat”. I expected nothing more than my professor presented me with, a book hanging over a moral cliff tethered very loosely by the “foreward” which explains why it is not pornography.

    In short, I rather enjoyed the book. I was thankful for the lack of vulgar words and for the artful, humorous, yet still quite disturbing descriptions of Humbert’s exploits and fantasies. Although I find actual child abuse (mental, emotional, physical, and sexual) quite disgusting, I keep in mind the author’s intent to test himself and the morals of many people at the time. Although it might have gotten high praise for the artful way that Nabokov displayed such a vulgar subject matter, I do not believe that it reached such high acclaim by this alone. I myself don’t recognize every minute allusion (I did not read it annotated editions) but I could see that there were many and to squeeze so much information into 309 (my edition’s) pages astounded me. I hope I have time to go back and analyze it someday.

    I can’t say I love the author. I can’t say I love his other works (which I’ve never read). But at the moment I am writing a seven page essay on it.

    I came upon this review by chance and only read the first page before the fiery argument in comments caught my eye. I read them all, and then finished the review. I am glad to see that it is not as bad as some of the protest against it makes it out to be.

    Although, it is hopeless to argue about the opening lines being cliche` or not. I do want to say that I cannot consider Lolita a “brat” entirely. She begins that way, but proves herself in her escape, marriage, and civil response to Humbert’s final proposal, not to be. She changes, in the eyes of Humbert in the least, in the eyes of certain readers at the most.

    In short, the critic should not be too harshly critiqued in this case. Although she did miss the foreword (I would have too had the Professor not explicitly instructed us to read it), she did read it plain and was disappointed with it.

    I’m not sticking around after this. I have a paper to write now. But I do wish the critique a better venture the next time she reads and reviews a book.

  • Casual Passerby

    Also, the “shoved down my throat” reference was not an insult to whoever posted it first, jusr an acknowledgment that I was not forced to read it. ;) Bye now.

  • Ms Kindall :)

    In my opinion Lolita was not an underdeveloped character, she was a deliberately unexplored character and *that* was her intended tradgedy. The only way we are introduced to Lolita is through Humbert, who doesn’t love her, but embezzles her and makes her into something malleable, something symmetrical to the impossible fantasy that will eventually eclipse her as an individual. It is not that her development was shallow by any means (Nabokov is much too complex, each novel is pretty much a labyrinth somebody can get lost in for days) , it’s just that we, the reader, never actually met Dolores, just the distorted version created by the (very) unreliable narrator, this stairstep “Lolita” that was fashioned and always present on the tip of Humbert’s tongue. As for the begining quote, Nabokov is a brilliant writer, and I interpreted his bombastic language as just a reflection of the character speaking, who ironically is not at all like the poet he boasts, but an appalling sociopath. He tries to coax and charm the reader with his romantic circumlocution whenever really, the foundation of his argument is based on a salacious relationship with a scared little girl who, as he said, had “nowhere else to go.” And the very little we do know of Lolita can only be distinguished by the broad, seemingly unrelated actions that Humbert mistakenly relays to us without bias. Despite everything she went through, Lolita still turned out to be a good person. She ran away from Quilty, and ended up a better woman than circumstances should have allowed. However, Humbert’s actions still managed to blur her, making her somewhat absent, a quality that Humbert (as he the artist and she the canvas) found endearing in her youth but tragic in her maturity. The reader must not fall for the trap that Humbert lays out for him/her, the entire novel is a sick parody of love, paralleling a totalitarian reign more than an actual relationship. And by the way, this is supposed to be a literary discussion, not an attack. Keep it civilized… I personally dislike Hemmingway’s banal style of writing, everyone has their own preference and hearing out everybody’s opinions expands ideas and makes us all better readers. And I’ve never heard of Sister Carrie…which I guess sounds like a good thing from the above comments.

  • Heather

    You deserve to be removed from the gene pool for the “critical cribbing of some academic” comment. Jesus Christ. No wonder you thought the book was shit…you didn’t read it! How could you possibly write a review without the knowledge that both Humbert Humbert and Lolita die? Oh my god.

  • Robert Benjamin

    If you reuse a cliche in a totally different way, is it really a cleche?

  • Veronika

    I much rather read Rodney’s observations than yours, JSchneider.
    From what you write it is clear you did not understand this book at all.
    I know such people , that are frightened of words such as masterpiece and genius.

  • Katie

    Just wondering, JSchneider, are you a writer? Have you ever tried writing anything?

  • Apple Heart

    I’m too lazy to write all my thoughts out at the moment; suffice to say I am re-reading Lolita. I found it tedious as a young teen and wondered if I’d think differently as an adult. It is slow-going and I’m trying to understand why others love it so much.

    HH is a loathsome specimen of human being. I truly cannot identify with him at all. He insults others for their grating use of French while he employs it ad nauseum, as it to prove his own intelligence. “Oh, look at me being bilingual! Don’t I sound awfully romantic?” No wonder Lo tells him to cut it out.

    What’s up with all the insults here, by the way? Can’t we be a bit more civilised?

  • chelsey crowder

    Chelsey Crowder

    Pedophile, not many people feel comfortable with the word or the subject. However, one author, Vladimir Nabokov, delves head first into this topic and manages to come out with a book that not only astounds the reader, but also makes the reader feel sympathy for the pedophilic character. The power of language and how, with the right words, any type of subject can be turned into elegant art; which is the recurring theme we see as the book goes on. In analyzing the plot, we will see various aspects and major points shown. The main characters are a middle aged professor named Humbert Humbert, and the pre-teenage girl Dolores, AKA Lolita. Throughout the book I not only notice the refined and elegant way the author writes but how easily it is to understand. Even though Lolita is about a pedophile and the girl who he comes to lust and love, it still has qualities that make it an excellent read for a more mature audience. To truly get a feel for the book, it is best to first look at the details of the plot and what it is about.

    The basic plot of Lolita is how the main character, Humbert, starts to obsess and lust for a prepubescent girl we come to know as Lolita. “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” (Nabokov, pg. 9). Humbert’s obsession leads him to travel with Lolita on a cross country trip around the United States. While on the trip, Humbert delves into his pedophilic urges, which include taking Lolita’s innocence; a despicable act on the part of Humbert is easily visible. The reader needs to look past the part of Humbert that is seen as a monster by societies standards. They will see that as the story progresses, Lolita is not the innocent untouched child as first assumed. Before getting to Lolita’s analysis, we must first look at Humbert, to understand who he is and what may have drove him to lust after girls just entering the stages of physical sexual maturity.

    Humbert recounts that he had a normal childhood, nothing out of the ordinary to predict his future sexual preferences. When Humbert reached the age of puberty, his father went away on a business trip to Italy, leaving him with no one to confide in and ask about topics relating to sex. His father’s absence left Humbert alone to try and figure out how to express his sexual feelings in an appropriate and healthy way. He also tells of a girl, slightly younger than himself, that because of their young age, they struggled with sexual encounters. Through these encounters, he starts to obtain feelings for this girl, Annabel Leigh. However, she is snatched from him by an early death from illness, never to be seen again. After Annabel’s death, he goes on to tell of other younger females he started to take a sexual interest in. It seems that Humbert is trying to relive the experiences and love he grew to have towards Annabel. Later in the story, we encounter his final love, Lolita.

    When Lolita is first described, she seems like any other regular pre-teen girl. She starts to take an interest in Humbert because he looks like her favorite male movie star which is on a poster in her room. The first physical encounter Humbert has with Lolita is minor and not sexual in nature, a simple brush on the shoulder from when she looked over his shoulder. Although she is not afraid or intimidated by his sexual advances, Lolita seems excited at the attention Humbert gives to her. Humbert seems to have Lolita under his thumb, willing to do whatever he tells her to do . We see her actions toward him grow more bold as the story goes on. “…and she struck him quite painfully with one of the late Mr. Haze’s shoetrees.” Her actions are the beginning of the descent of power Humbert holds over Lolita. Lolita starts to demand bribes and Humbert resorts to threatening her before she will do what he wants. Just like Humbert manipulated Lolita, she is not afraid to do what she has to in order to get what she wants from him. Through Nabokov’s style of writing, even the manipulation of a prepubescent girl does not seem as bad as it actually is.

    He explains why Lolita has motivation for asking for bribes, having the reader start to feel less sorry for her as she starts to lose her morals. I feel like even though Lolita is still a young girl, she is turning towards less immoral actions. I do not completely condemn what Lolita is doing, because her actions are what benefits her the most in this. Even through all this, I start to feel sorry for Humbert. It appears he does not enjoy being mean to Lolita. There are times when he wants to help her by giving her money to help support her and her husband, even after she left him. He is simply afraid of losing her, since she is starting to grow up, he feels the need to be mean to her in order to make her stay with him. This type of writing style questions the reader; is it possible to feel sympathy for the villain?

    Even though Lolita is about Humbert and his pedophiliac tendencys, it is possible to feel sorry for him. Given his background, is it that surprising? He was not given the chance to properly develop his sexuality. Lolita, matures both physically and mentally while her morals start to decline. Through his writing style, Nabokov shows how it is possible to feel sorry for both the supposed villain and the victim.

  • Vela

    It’s so silly how all these Lolita-heads’ first insult to the people not in love with the book is: “Have you ever tried writing anything? (you ignorant plebian)” or dismissively “You obviously didn’t read the book,” or like a true elitist in denial “You did not understand this book (idiot). Only people like me who are wise and intelligent see that it is a masterpiece.”

    Don’t these critics of the critics see their own stubborn close-mindedness? First of all, why would anyone bother to write a critique of a book that is so blindly loved unless they had read it themselves and their mind was blown as to why so many people like this crap?

    I read it in high school and didn’t think much of it. Recently I got attacked as above in a forum similar to this one. All I said was the book is “becoming irrelevant” in regards to the modern usage of the word Lolita and I thought it was overrated. I decided to read it again CAREFULLY to make note of the so-called excellently written prose. And you can be assured I wanted to believe it was well written since my partner whom I respect said it was well written.

    So I read it again, consciously noting the way the author uses words sometimes, other times concentrating on the sound of the words, other times just taking it in unconsciously. In my opinion only about 10% of the writing satisfactorily conveyed anything in an artistic way. The rest was just like another commenter here described – like watching something going on in the dark. Before I had that phrase to relate it to, my own summary of the flow of consciousness writing was like listening to a bum on the street babbling about anything and everything and may be under the influence of some drug or mental illness. Though I can imagine a large number of people still gathering around such a bum thinking all paradoxical speech somehow hides a great truth.

    That tendency, plus the controversy from subject matter and luck (which Jessica notes) propelled the book to fame. Finally we’re stuck with the perpetuation that Lolita is a “top 100 novel” by the same sheeplish thought that if they dare speak against such a self-promoted novel they could be proving themselves an idiot who can’t understand literature!

    It might do Lolita fans a benefit if they instead read and understood the moral in The Emperor’s New Clothes and stop drinking the classic literature kool-aid.

    (ugh, sorry my writing style is more pretentious and long winded than usual. I just finished reading that book and Nabokov’s egotistical voice from the afterward …so similar to “Humbert’s”… is still stuck in my head!)